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Dominik Wujastyk ucgadkw at ucl.ac.uk
Mon Sep 9 13:07:00 EDT 1996


On Mon, 9 Sep 1996, Girish Beeharry wrote:

> The interesting bit is, of course, the lack of proper treatment of the
> sounds themselves, and the various symbolisms associated with them, in
> Western universities. While I don't know why this is the case, the
> result is that people, educated in the west, tend to think of
> Sanskrit/Vedic as just another language.

This is nonsense, of course, just as it would be nonsense to generalize
about physicists (although this is one of my favourite pastimes!).  People
"educated in the West", especially those doing Indian studies, are all
different, have different points of view, prejudices, and so on.  Also,
the vast majority of those "educated in the West" in Sanskrit and other
indological subjects have spent long periods actually being educated in
India, very often during the highly formative years of undergraduate and
postgraduate studies.

> For instance, if one knows/assumes/believes that, say, the sound 'ra' is
> the biija mantra for the agni tatva, AND one can pronounce its properly,
> one would probably see the raamaayaNa in a different perspective.

Many, many Indian authors of the past disapproved strongly of such ideas
about mantras and mantrasastra generally, viewing them as part of a
sordid, impure, magical worldview.  I am talking now about philosophers,
poets, and many other "establishment"  figures in Sanskrit literature. 

What one tends to get at university -- in India or outside -- if one is
doing a course in Sanskrit, is a selection of texts from the "great" 
tradition of epics, upanisads, and kavya.  The commentators of this
Sanskritic tradition, for example Govindaraja on the Ramayana, Kulluka on
Manu, or Mallinatha on Kalidasa, do not generally use ideas about the
mantric meaning of "ra" or other letters as part of their explanations for
the meanings of the texts.  That is why university students and teachers
don't think primarily in these terms either.  Because they are moulded by
the tradition itself. 

> As a physicist, I am a bit influenced by the primary importance of
> experiments;  however, the establishment in Indology would perhaps think
> that one should stay 'aloof' from the language in order to study it
> 'properly'. I believe some famous Dutch Indologist said something about
> students, showing too much interest in what they were studying, being
> 'lost to scholarship'...

I'm afraid that claiming to be a "physicist" is -- to me personally --
like a red rag to a bull.  To me it is an immediate disqualification for
someone to have any opinion on anything meaningful.  (Okay, so I overstate
the case a teeny weeny bit.  :-)  I went through an education as a
physicist myself, and it was only long after it was over, and I had spent
several years in the humanities, that I consider I actually began to
understand anything about scholarship, history, or rigorous thought.  (You
may notice that in the current statement about the aims of INDOLOGY, I
cite a scientific background as a serious hindrance.) 

Anyone who has spent time studying the humanities seriously knows that the
point of view you refer to is facile in the extreme.  It is precisely
those who have been able to develop a deep sensitivity and empathy for
their subject-matter who are most able to contribute meaningfully to the
subject in their writings.  I think of the writings of Peter Brown, Isaiah
Berlin, Ernst Gombrich, Johan Huizinga, and many, many others.  In
indology, examples of such high scholarship are not very common, but are
nevertheless available.  (This gets ticklish.)  I would say that Hardy's
_The religious culture of India_ is a major achievement in this sense.  --
I'm going to stop now, since I find myself fingering all my favourite
books on the shelf next to me, and to list them was not the aim of this
message, but rather to point out that great scholarship always bears the
stamp of long study, the organized presentation of substantial amounts of
information, and above all an insightfulness borne of the ability to see
below the surface.

Best wishes,
Dominik





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