Monday, December 8, 2014

Pratap Bhanu Mehta Cries for Dead Sanskrit V

by the criticisms it leveled against his teacher; or in his critique of a literary the-
orist, whose sandals he vowed to carry on his head if his refutation failed
; or
in his own literary theory. Although the evidentiary approach of literary analy-
sis since at least the eighth century had required the citation of existing litera-
ture to illustrate one’s argument and not (as formerly) of poems created ad hoc,
̄tha insists on composing his own examples in the
have used for illustrations in this book new poems that I composed myself. I
have taken nothing from anyone else. Does the musk deer, who has the power
to create rare fragrance, even think of bothering with the scent of flowers?”
The most important of Jaganna
̄tha’s literary works to have survived, the
n ̄
appears to be a compendium of the verses written as illustrations for
but collected by Jaganna
̄tha in a separate volume in or-
der to preserve them as his own work. This is how he ends the book:
Compared to the verse of Pan


how sweet are grapes or sugarcane,
milk or honey or the drink
of immortality itself?
He mastered the holy books, and honored the rules of Brahman conduct.
As young man he lived under the care of the emperor of Delhi.
Later he renounced his home and now serves god in Madhupur.
Everything Pan


̄ja did he did like no one else in the world.
Afraid some whoreson bastard
would steal them if he could
I made this little jewel-box
for these, my jewels of poetry.
Sanskrit poets in the past had of course recorded their names, projected dis-
tinctive selves, and spoken in individual voices. But, aside from stretches of ad-
mittedly conventional poetry, there is still something new in what Jaganna
is doing. No one had ever before made literature out of the death of his child:
You didn’t care how much your parents would worry,
you betrayed the affection of your family. My little son,
you were always so good, why did you run away
to the other world?
No one had ever written, as in one of the sections of Jaganna
̄tha’s “Little Jew-
el Box,” a verse-sequence on the death of his wife (

The Ways of
Pity). Again, much is conventional here; most of the tropes are time-tested. But
̄tha speaks
in propria persona,
with a personal sorrow to which no poet
in Sanskrit had ever before given voice:
All pleasures have forgotten me
even the learning I acquired
with so much grief
has turned its back.
The only thing that won’t leave my mind like an immanent god,
is that large-eyed woman.
Your beauty was like the food of gods to me
and in my mind transformed into poetry.
Without it now, most perfect of women,
what kind of poet can I ever be?
Yet, literature is no less complicated than life, and there are complications to
the naive picture of Jaganna
̄tha looking into his heart and writing. For one thing,
these verses may also be appropriating Indo-Persian convention, this time from
tradition of lament (though it is true, the first secular Persian mar-
siya in India comes with Ghalib in the nineteenth century). Less speculative,
and far more perplexing, is the fact that what in the pages of the
̄min ̄
seem to be direct expressions of a husband’s grief—indeed, grief for the woman
he must have sacrificed much to marry, his Lavan

̄—are sometimes analyzed
in the
in an attitude of clinical detachment or, more oddly still,
uncertainty, thus undermining the autobiographical inference and sometimes
our very grasp of the poem’s meaning. When discussing the first poem cited
above, for example, Jaganna
̄tha offers two possible dramatic subtexts: “This
may be spoken by someone absent from home, perhaps a young man who has
fallen in love with the beautiful daughter of his teacher while in school, or some-
one else thinking back on an illicit sexual relationship he has had.” Has he for-
gotten the terrible death of his beloved that prompted him to write the verse in
the first place? On another poem found in the

̄tha leaves
open whether “it is the aesthetic emotion of frustrated love or that of grief. . .
that is suggested in the last instance.” But the latter, he says, is unlikely: “Po-
ets generally do not depict death as a dominant theme, since it is considered to
be inauspicious.”
It is not quite clear what we are to make of such discontinuities between Ja-
̄tha’s poetry and theory. Are we to assume that he has committed the very
inauspicious act of writing not just a few verses but a whole sequence—the cen-
tral section of his one collection of lyrics—on the death of his wife; or that he
is asking us not to think of these poems as expressions of his true self; or that
he has actually forgotten that the verses on the death of his wife are verses on
the death of his wife? None of these solutions is attractive, and we are left with
something of a puzzle. One way out might be brute philology. The
n ̄
like the vast majority of Sanskrit literary texts, has never been criti-
cally edited; we might know better what Jaganna
̄tha meant if we knew just what
he had written. But although it is true that the number of verses in most of the
chapters fluctuates wildly, this is not the case for the

whose sta-
bility suggests something of its special character.
Are we therefore to imag-
ine a different species of “whoreson bastard”—a stupid editor sometime after
̄tha’s death—who abused the poet’s work, not by taking verses away but by putting them in, without bothering to read what the poet had written
about them in the
and acting therefore in the mistaken belief
that they shared certain themes?
Yet, for an account of the fate of Sanskrit literary culture the overriding con-
cern here seems to me this: that in the middle of the seventeenth century, it was
perfectly reasonable, in the eyes of the culture that copied and recopied and cir-
culated Jaganna
̄tha’s texts, for the greatest Sanskrit literary critic and poet of
the age to have composed a sequence of moving verses on the death of his wife,
and for this wife to have been a Muslim. Whether he married her or not, the age
demanded that he should have done so; whether he wrote the verses or not,
someone did, and for the first time in Sanskrit. And from all this, a certain kind
of newness was born—and died. There was to be no second Jaganna
under the shadow of the raj
When the British began to assemble the instruments of colonial control in
earnest, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, education was among
the first areas to which they turned their attention. Important surveys of in-
digenous institutions were conducted in the Bengal and Madras Presidencies,
the former by William Adam in the 1830s (following up on an earlier, prelimi-
nary survey by William Ward), the latter by Sir Thomas Munro in 1822.
themselves these are quite remarkable documents of colonial inquiry and scruti-
ny, but for the historian of Sanskrit culture they have the added value of pro-
viding some measure of the heartbeat of Sanskrit literary learning, at the very
point when a modernity of a very different kind from that represented by Ja-
̄tha was about to work its transformations in South Asian culture.
Sanskrit learning was very much alive, in a sense to be made more precise
below, when Adam conducted his census in Bengal. In his “Third Report,” for
example, which contains figures for five districts in the Bengal Presidency, we
find 353 Sanskrit schools (one teacher per school) enrolling 2555 students. Al-
most without exception these students were Brahmans. By contrast, of the 899
students studying Persian at Muslim schools in Burdwan district, for example,
half were non-Muslim and about a third of these were Brahmans. (Vernacular-
medium schools, in Bengal at least, appear to have focused on the study of ac-
countancy.) The vast majority of Sanskrit students were engaged in the study
of grammar, logic, or law. Other subjects, among them literature, figure far less
The literature curriculum, if we may combine syllabi from the
different schools, was fully classical, containing works from the fourth through
the twelfth centuries, and only one work from more or less contemporary Ben-
This is not to imply that no Sanskrit literature was being written in Bengal in
the 1830s, far from it. Adam provides information on numerous new works. Yet
one is hard-pressed to find a single text ( judging from the descriptions given
by Adam but no doubt supplied by the authors themselves) that situated itself  anywhere close to the world of early colonialism and its radically-transforming
cultural sphere, or marked any kind of departure whatever from the style and
substance of the works taught in the schools. We may contrast this literary at-
rophy with the continuing vitality of the tradition of logic, for example, where
a work like Vis
̄tha Tarkapañca
̄ nana’s
̄val ̄
of Principles) from the mid-seventeenth century could undertake to reorganize
received wisdom (though not overturn it) and quickly find a place in the philo-
sophical syllabus over much of the subcontinent. The distribution of scholarly
works demonstrates unequivocally that as late as the early eighteenth century,
in the disciplines where Sanskrit intellectuals continued to maintain control, old
networks of vast circulation and readership were as yet intact.
That literary
texts were no longer inserted into this distributive network—and they were
not—must be due to the fact they did not merit insertion in the eyes of Sanskrit
readers themselves.
The state of literary culture that may be observed in the syllabi of schools
and in the output of writers in nineteenth-century rural Bengal is no mere func-
tion of changes in the material base of Sanskrit learning, such as occurred with
the dissolution of the great
estates and the interruption of tradition-
al patronage to pandits, though that certainly played some role.
It is some-
thing repeated everywhere throughout the Sanskrit cultural world, in courtly
environments as well as in the countryside. Consider the Maratha court of Tan-
jore in the early eighteenth century. This was an extraordinarily interesting lit-
erary-cultural site, with respect to its growing convergence with a new world
economy and world culture (traders and missionaries from Europe were com-
mon), its vernacular-language literary production (including a new genre of
multilingual operetta, one example of which made its way to Europe and be-
came the “Magic Flute”), and indeed, Sanskrit scholarly accomplishments (it
was here that D


i Vya
̄sa, for example, composed his remarkable treatise on
the moral problems of the
̄lm ̄
ıki Ra

as well as a valuable commentary
on the great Sanskrit drama, the

). But how did the Sanskrit lit-
erary imagination react to all this? It simply did not.
What has been said of the state of Sanskrit literary vitality found at Tanjore
could be said of the Sanskritizing courts—almost of a revivalist sort—of Jai
Singh II in early-eighteenth-century Jaipur, or of Krishnaraja Wodeyar of
Mysore at the beginning of the nineteenth.
In Mysore, Sanskrit literary pro-
duction was voluminous, but, so far as can be determined by such criteria as
circulation or influence, not a single work escaped the confines of the palace.
In Jaipur, no Sanskrit work achieved anything like the success of the vernacu-
lar poetry of Biha
̄l, chief poet at the court of Jai Singh’s father. In the south
as in the north, at dates that vary according to different regions and cultural for-
mations, Sanskrit writers had ceased to make literature that made history.
In terms of both the subjects considered acceptable and the audience it was
prepared to address, Sanskrit had chosen to make itself irrelevant to the new

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