Monday, December 8, 2014

Pratap Bhanu Mehta Cries for Dead Sanskrit VI

world. This was true even in the extra-literary domain. The struggles against
Christian missionizing, for example, that preoccupied pamphleteers in early-
nineteenth-century Calcutta, took place almost exclusively in Bengali. Sanskrit
intellectuals seemed able to respond, or were interested in responding, only to
a challenge made on their own terrain—that is, in Sanskrit. The case of the pro-
fessor of Sanskrit at the recently-founded Calcutta Sanskrit College (1825), Ish-
warachandra Vidyasagar, is emblematic: When he had something satirical, con-
temporary, critical to say, as in his anti-colonial pamphlets, he said it, not in
Sanskrit, but in Bengali.
Sanskrit literature could hardly be said to be alive if it had ceased to function
as the vehicle for living thought, thought that supplemented and not simply du-
plicated reality. Perhaps those who are not inheritors of a two-thousand-year-
long tradition cannot possibly know its weight—the weight of all the genera-
tions of the dead who remain contemporary and exigent, as they no doubt were
to the nineteenth-century Burdwan schoolmasters surveyed by Adam, who as-
pired to create a literary-cultural realm in which the fourth-century master
̄sa would have found himself perfectly at home. Certainly there is no
point in criticizing such men, as Adam did, for “wasting their learning and their
powers in weaving complicated alliterations, recompounding absurd and vi-
cious fictions, and revolving in perpetual circles of metaphysical abstractions
never ending still beginning.” The love and care of language (“complicated al-
literations”), the vast and enchanting Borgesian library of narratives (“absurd
fictions”), the profound reflections on human destiny (“metaphysical abstrac-
tions”) are central values marking Sanskrit literature from its beginning, and a
source of incomparable pleasure and sustenance to those with the cultural train-
ing to appreciate them. The point is to try to understand when and why this
repertory became a practice of repetition and not renewal; when and why what
had always been another absolutely central value of the tradition—the ability
to make literary newness, or as a tenth-century writer put it, “the capacity con-
tinually to reimagine the world”—was lost to Sanskrit forever.
It is no straightforward matter to configure these four moments of Sanskrit lit-
erary culture into a single, plausible historical narrative; the entire process is
too diverse and complex to be reduced to a unitary plot. There can be no doubt
about the fact that profoundly debilitating changes did take place: in Kashmir
after the thirteen century, Sanskrit literature ceased almost entirely to be pro-
duced; in Vijayanagara, not a single Sanskrit literary work entered into transre-
gional circulation, an achievement that signaled excellence in earlier periods;
in seventeenth-century Delhi, remarkable innovations found no continuation,
leaving nineteenth-century Sanskrit literary culture utterly unable to perpetuate
itself into modernity. If no single storyline can accommodate this diversity of
phenomena, we may still try to think in more general terms about how a great tradition can die. It may be useful to consider briefly how other comparable lit-
erary cultures came to an end, for if all of such cultures are mortal, as Paul
Valéry perceived, there are different ways of dying.
The culture of Old Greek literature, it has been argued, was terminated by a
single political act, the closing of the Academy by Justinian in 529; what fol-
lowed in the Byzantine period was an entirely different cultural formation, one
that in any case was itself destroyed with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
The history of Latin literary culture presents an entirely different case, although
how we are to understand this history remains a very open question. No sys-
tematic and theoretically interesting account exists of Latin’s transregional
demise, and the consequences of this demise for literary and political culture of
the early-modern period. When this period begins, let us say around the second
half of the fifteenth century, Latin literature was actually at its apogee in much
of Humanist Europe, despite some three to four centuries of vernacularization.
Over the next three centuries, while important vernacular poets from Petrarch
to Ronsard to Samuel Johnson continued to write poetry in Latin, they did so
with a dramatically diminishing and ever more nostalgic commitment to the
The cultural status of this literature remains still insufficiently con-
ceptualized by intellectual and cultural historians, and its actual history has not
been sufficiently differentiated from that of scientific discourse. Among schol-
ars, Latin commanded almost total allegiance well into the modern period
Disquisitiones Arithmeticae
appeared in 1801), though again, its sta-
tus over against the emergent vernaculars would be increasingly challenged: in
England, for example, first by Bacon’s
(1605), and in France by
The later history of Latin shows striking commonalities with Sanskrit. Both
died slowly, and earliest as a vehicle of literary expression, while much longer
retaining significance for learned discourse with its universalist claims. Both
were subject to periodic renewals or forced rebirths, sometimes in connec-
tion with a politics of translocal aspiration (Carolingian, Ottonian, Humanist;
fifteenth-century Kashmir under Zain-ul-
̄bid ̄
ın, eighteenth-century Maha-
rashtra under the Peshwas; the Wodeyar court of early-nineteenth-century
At the same time, paradoxically (this is certainly true for India, at
least), both came to be ever more exclusively associated with narrow forms of
religion and priestcraft, despite centuries of a secular aesthetic. Yet the differ-
ences between the two are equally instructive.
For one thing, Sanskrit literary culture was never affected by communicative
incompetence, which began to enfeeble Latin from at least the ninth century.
The process of vernacularization in India, in so many ways comparable to the
European case, was nowhere a consequence of growing Sanskrit ignorance; the
intellectuals who promoted the transformation, certainly in its most conse-
quential phases, were themselves learned in Sanskrit. The demographics and
sociology of the new literacy that promoted vernacularization in Europe (a new middle class ignorant of Latin and demanding a demotic literature) have no par-
allel in India, where those who could read vernacular poetry could always read
Sanskrit. More important, although there was in fact a politics to the process in
India, too, nowhere do we find, as in early modern France, an overt state pro-
ject to make the vernacular national.
The specific conditions for the death of Sanskrit have therefore to be locat-
ed in South Asian historical experience, and they are certain to be multifarious
and sometimes elusive. One causal account, however, for all the currency it en-
joys in the contemporary climate, can be dismissed at once: that which traces
the decline of Sanskrit culture to the coming of Muslim power. The evidence
adduced here shows this to be historically untenable. It was not “alien rule un-
sympathetic to
” and a “desperate struggle with barbarous invaders” that
sapped the strength of Sanskrit literature. In fact, it was often the barbarous in-
vader who sought to revive Sanskrit.
As the Gujarati poet Dalpatra
̄m per-
ceived in 1857, what destroyed Sanskrit literary culture was a set of much
longer-term cultural, social, and political changes.
One of these was the internal debilitation of the political institutions that had
previously underwritten Sanskrit, pre-eminently the court. Another was height-
ened competition among a new range of languages seeking literary-cultural dig-
nity. These factors did not work everywhere with the same force. A precipitous
decline in Sanskrit creativity occurred in Kashmir, where vernacular literary
production in Kashmiri—the popularity of mystical poets like Lalla
̄dev ̄
ı (fl.
1400) notwithstanding—never produced the intense competition with the lit-
erary vernacular that Sanskrit encountered elsewhere (in Kannada country, for
instance, and later, in the Hindi heartland). Instead, what had eroded dramati-
cally was what I called the
civic ethos
embodied in the court. This ethos, while
periodically assaulted in earlier periods (with concomitant interruptions in lit-
erary production), had more or less fully succumbed by the thirteenth century,
long before the consolidation of Turkish power in the Valley. In Vijayanagara,
by contrast, while the courtly structure of Sanskrit literary culture remained ful-
ly intact, its content became increasingly subservient to imperial projects, and
so predictable and hollow. Those at court who had anything literarily important
to say said it in Telugu or (outside the court) in Kannada or Tamil; those who
did not, continued to write in Sanskrit, and remain unread.
In the north, too, where political change had been most pronounced, compe-
tence in Sanskrit remained undiminished during the late-medieval/early mod-
ern period. There, scholarly families reproduced themselves without disconti-
nuity—until, that is, writers made the decision to abandon Sanskrit in favor of
the increasingly attractive vernacular. Among the latter were writers such as
̄s, who, unlike his father and brother, self-consciously chose to become
a vernacular poet. And it is Kes
̄s, Biha
̄l, and others like them whom we
recall from this place and time, and not a single Sanskrit writer. For reasons that
in each case demand careful historical analysis, it had everywhere become more important—aesthetically, socially, and even politically more urgent—to speak
locally rather than globally. During the course of this vernacular millennium,
as I have called it, Sanskrit, the idiom of a cosmopolitan literature, gradually
died, in part because cosmopolitan talk made less and less sense in an increas-
ingly regionalized world.
In addition to the weakening of the political framework that had traditional-
ly sustained Sanskrit, and the growing dominance of vernacular cultural con-
sciousness, the failure of what appear to be new forms of sociality to achieve
institutional embodiment or to attain clear conceptualization may have played
a role.
Whether the institutions necessary to sustain a potentially modern San-
skrit culture did not exist, or whether such a culture failed to arise and consol-
idate the social forms available is a question needing far more systematic re-
search; no doubt the two are dialectically related phenomena. Certain modest
gestures toward collective action may be significant. The production of the
commemoration volume for Kav ̄
̄rya around 1650 points toward net-
works among traditional literati across north India and their apparently grow-
ing recognition of shared interests. The same holds true, a century later, of the
collective Sanskrit petitions to Warren Hastings protesting abuses of pilgrims
by the


of Varanasi, and two generations later, the petitions on the part
of eight hundred pandits in the Bombay Presidency to colonial officials ad-
ministering the patronage fund continued from the Peshwas.
The structures
for collective action these initiatives presuppose, however, were never institu-
tionalized, and they prompted the enunciation of no larger cultural or intellec-
tual enterprise. They were activated, it seems, only for narrow and transitory
The project and significance of the self-described “new intellectuals” in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also await detailed analysis, but some first
impressions are likely to be sustained by further research.
What these schol-
ars produced was a newness of style without a newness of substance. The for-
mer is not meaningless and needs careful assessment and appreciation. But, re-
markably, the new and widespread sense of discontinuity never stimulated its
own self-analysis. No idiom was developed in which to articulate a new rela-
tionship to the past, let alone a critique; no new forms of knowledge—no new
theory of religious identity, for example, let alone of the political—were pro-
duced in which the changed conditions of political and religious life could be
conceptualized. And with very few exceptions (which suggest what was in fact
possible), there was no sustained creation of new literature—no Sanskrit nov-
els, personal poetry, essays—giving voice to the new subjectivity. Instead, what
the data from early nineteenth-century Bengal—which are paralleled every-
where—demonstrate is that the mental and social spheres of Sanskrit literary
production grew ever more constricted, and the personal and this-worldly, and
eventually even the presentist-political, evaporated, until only the dry sediment
of religious hymnology remained. No doubt, additional factors conditioned this profound transformation,
something more difficult to characterize having to do with the peculiar status
of Sanskrit intellectuals in a world growing increasingly unfamiliar to them. As
I have argued elsewhere, they may have been led to reaffirm the old cos-
mopolitanism, by way of ever more sophisticated refinements in ever smaller
domains of knowledge, in a much-changed cultural order where no other op-
tion made sense: neither that of the vernacular intellectual, which was a possi-
ble choice (as Kabir and others had earlier shown), nor that of the national in-
tellectual, which as of yet was not. At all events, the fact remains that well
before the consolidation of colonialism, before even the establishment of the
Islamicate political order, the mastery of tradition had become an end in itself
for Sanskrit literary culture, and reproduction, rather than revitalization, the
overriding concern. As the realm of the literary narrowed to the smallest com-
pass of life-concerns, so Sanskrit literature seemed to seek the smallest possi-
ble audience. However complex the social processes at work may have been,
the field of Sanskrit literary production increasingly seemed to belong to those
who had an “interest in disinterestedness,” as Bourdieu might put it; the moves
they made seem the familiar moves in the game of elite distinction that inverts
the normal principles of cultural economies and social orders: the game where
to lose is to win. In the field of power of the time, the production of Sanskrit
literature had become a paradoxical form of life where prestige and exclusivi-
ty were both vital and terminal.
1. The VHP assessment is cited in Bhattacharji 1990; see also Goldman 1996 and Ra-
maswamy 1999. A recent review of Hindutva fantasy (and fraud) about indigenous San-
skrit is found in Witzel and Farmer 2000. The “Year of Sanskrit” runs for “Yuga
5101,” the year of the Kaliyuga dating system now apparently in use by the Ministry of
Human Resource Development (“Times of India,” Bombay ed., December 10, 1999).
2. Fracchia and Lewontin 1999.
3. See Pollock 2000 and 2001. These questions form the substance of an international
research project now being organized at the University of Chicago.
4. I explore the relationship between literary culture and polity both in the Sanskrit
and vernacular worlds in Pollock 1996 and 1998b, and in my book in progress,
The Lan-
guage of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit and Power, 300 –1500.
5. From “Farbas Vila
̄sa” (recounting a literary gathering organized by Alexander
Kinlok-Forbes in 1852), published in
(1857). I thank Sitanshu Yashas-
chandra for bringing this poem to my attention.
r ̄


25.26 – 30; 78 – 80; 65; 71–72; 73 –75; 46. “Tuta
̄tita” is Kuma
the seventh-century philosopher, to whom literary works (not extant) are ascribed. His
system of thought is one of the “two streams”; the other is that of Prabha
7. The generation after Man
kha produced the last two courtly epics: Jaya

thv ̄
(on Pr

thv ̄
̄ja III; cf. Pollock 1993), written probably in Ajmer ca.
1190; and the
of Jayaratha (ca. 1200), which more closely resem-
bles a
The one work in the next 150 years is the
of Jagad-
dhara (principally known as a grammarian,
p. 34); it dates to 1350 –

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