The book reviewed here has the sub-title ‘Contributions to the History of the Sanskrit Language’. A word about its own history may also be appropriate. It was first published in The Netherlands in 1996, the outcome of a scholarly seminar in that country two years earlier. Its publication in the mother country of Sanskrit only after a further interval of sixteen years is a pointer to the extent of modern Indian interest in the ancient language. So too is the provenance of the experts whose seminar contributions form the bulk of this volume.
Most of the eighteen contributors are western scholars of Sanskrit. Only four are of Indian origin, and of them three are from western universities. The sole Indian contributor from India, Saroja Bhate, gives an interesting account of Sanskrit studies in this country during the last two centuries.
She states that in present times ‘the central government has taken keen interest in the preservation and promotion of Sanskrit’, but also adds that its efforts have been concentrated on traditional learning. Despite them, she says, ‘the standard of traditional Sanskrit education has lowered’, pointing to a ‘gloomy picture about the future of Sanskrit’ in modern India. The political, economic and social factors she details for the above mentioned situation perhaps deserve a separate seminar on that subject. Another could usefully focus on how modern Sanskrit studies are increasingly getting based outside India so that the colonial paradigm of our cultural self-understanding tends to continue. But these require a different place for consideration.
The present book’s scope is of course much wider. It covers the social and socio-linguistic history of Sanskrit from its pre-Vedic origin and subsequent emergence as the language of religion, to its Buddhist and Jain interactions, its growth and spread in and outside India as the language of culture and power, and its progressive verna-cularization while retaining an original status. The overall sweep is also reflected in the book’s main title. Ideology is described as the ‘intellectual and conceptual constituent of culture’ also ‘connected to social power and its legitimation’; and status as the language’s role in society. All this provides absorbing information for readers interested in the historical development of a culture of which Sanskrit remains an important part to this day.
The social perspective adds to the book’s value and interest. ‘Unlike the large majority of language names’, the editor says in his learned introduction, ‘the name “Sanskrit” is not the name of a people, a country or nation’. Literally meaning ‘polished, well-formed,’ it points to the language’s ‘socio-linguistic position throughout the ages: it was the cultured language of the well-educated, of the social and religious elite….access to which was not limited by ethnicity or belief system.’ He then provides a concise social history of the language over the last 3000 years with useful chronological annotations. The totality of the work, he explains, is presented in three sections: origins and creation; transculturation and vernacularization; and present discussions of the Sanskrit tradition.
The second and third sections are perhaps of greater interest for today’s general reader. The second contains Professor Sheldon Pollock’s brilliant essay on ‘The Sanskrit Cosmopolis, 300-1300 CE’, which was later followed up by his book The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (2006). The former recounts in fascinating detail the spread of Sanskrit in India and beyond, and the process of vernacularization in which it remained a ‘gold standard’ of high culture. Illustrative examples of this from Indonesia, Thailand and Tibet are given in separate accounts by other scholars.
The third section features Dr. Saroja Bhate’s essay on Sanskrit in Modern India, to which reference has already been made; and Dr. Van der Burg’s on Sanskrit and Neo-Hindu Ideologies; both worthwhile readings for any present consideration of the subject. The last word on it is perhaps Bhate’s conclusion that Sanskrit ‘will survive as long as there is a quest for knowledge, respect for values, faith in culture and interest and love for…grandeur and beauty in the world.’
A practical aspect apparent from this book is the continued world-wide paucity of such writings. The editor mentions histories of Sanskrit literature by Winternitz (1922), Keith (1928), Dasgupta (1947) and Renou (1956), but adds that ‘there are very few publications dealing comprehensively with the entire subject.’ The last mentioned, he thinks, is perhaps the best. It is time it was translated from the French for Indian students and readers, on the pattern of Winternitz translated from the German and brought out by the present book’s publisher in 1963. Another area in need of further in-vestigation and publication is the substantial Chinese translation of Sanskrit works over the centuries, also covering grammar and other subjects besides Buddhist scriptures and theology.
A.N.D. Haksar. a well known translator of Sanskrit classics, has edited Glimpses of Sanskrit Literature and has also compiled A Treasury Of Sanskrit Poetry for the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.