Making the Argument for Sanskrit

Sonam Kachru kachru at UCHICAGO.EDU
Tue Jan 16 15:42:10 UTC 2007

Dear All,

My little e-mail suggesting that we consider connections 
between members in Professor Wujastyk’s list of Sanskrit-
rich intellectuals was insufficiently contextualized. Mea 
Culpa. I had no intention of arguing for Sanskrit in that 
message. At most, the exercise was one of merely widening 
the scope of a premise in a possible argument for Sanskrit, 
and as used thereby by Prof. Wujastyk, I think suitable and 
That list, however, does not offer a sufficient hetu in the 
argument for Sanskrit.  It would have to relate to an 
argument as something of an exemplum for the following 
point: the study of Sanskrit can diversely enrich us. As it 
has in the case of so-and-so, etc. By way of using Western 
figures as aapta-s in the exemplum, the argument achieves 
some measure of what Prof. Hart called ‘narcissism’. Such an 
argument trades on a transitive relation based on Western 
aapta-s: if some person x is considered authoritative for 
knowing something about what enriches us, (or considered 
suitably ‘enriching’ in his or her own right), and person x 
considered subject y to be enriching, then we ought to 
consider y to be similarly enriching. Claim that subject y 
is only possible through education in Sanskrit, and this, 
presumably, yields an argument for not just Sanskrit, but 
also the continuing availability of Sanskrit and its riches. 
It is an argument, but not the only one. I would not wish to 
suggest that some such Western x be considered the exemplary 
aapta for what counts as enriching. We can find other 
exempla I would wish for exempla for the following points: 
that Sanskrit, all that is expressed therein and through it, 
has enriched the lives the peoples of India; that Sanskrit 
continues to so enrich the peoples of India; that we, in a 
non-parochial, non-historical sense, can be enriched by it 
as well. I would wish to argue for something stronger, 
something harder to exemplify in an argument: that in the 
absence of the means to make available that which is 
expressed in Sanskrit, we, in a non-historical and non-
parochial sense of “we,” are intolerably impoverished. 

I use this unspecified sense of ‘enrichment’ because I 
believe that an argument for Sanskrit rides parasitically on 
an argument for the Humanities, in its broadest sense. Two 
premises are required: (a) the value of the humanities, (b) 
the value of a non-parochial humanities. I think both (a) 
and (b). I have no knock-down argument to this effect, but I 
believe a Humanities concentred in any one insular heritage 
to be a Humanities unworthy of the highest ideals of a 
contemporary liberal democracy. I also believe that hobbling 
access to the deeply humane possibilities for enrichment 
(historical and current) afforded through such vehicles as 
Sanskrit is a public disservice. On this level, I agree with 
Professor Hart in lamenting an argument that would 
exclusively go through the Western tradition. (I do not know 
if this can be softened by suggesting that the point of 
appealing to such instances as early Eliot and Babbitt is to 
gesture to cases in which a distinctly non-parochial form of 
the ‘Humanities’ beckoned not only as a possibility, but as 
necessary; one still feels the one-sidedness.)
perhaps the appeal to western aapta-s may function solely to 
shame someone antecedently convinced of the worth of the 
Humanities, but who has an impoverished conception of their 

Let me say in closing, adapting a point from a fellow 
Kashmiri, Mr. Jayanta Bhatta, that I do indeed believe 
that “shabdaiva lokasya prakaashah,” if ‘loka’ is here 
understood as something like lebens-welt, ‘shabdah’ as 
language and all that it enables. I am as convinced of being 
dimmer in the event of Bhartrhari’s absence, as I am in the 
event that of not being able to appreciate such experiments 
as Prof. Aklujkar’s translation of Carroll’s verse into 
Sanskrit. That any one might promote by their actions the 
possibility that such riches—brahmastamba—be eclipsed in the 
future saddens me; but this is no argument. But it is the 
virtue and weakness of a democracy that conviction, when 
supported in numbers, is sufficient to change the course of 
beaurocratic decisions. Let us then sign as many petitions 
as it takes.

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