Sunday, January 18, 2009

Quick thoughts and quotes on Sanskrit

I learned Sanskrit for five years, in middle and high school. And yet, at the end of those five years, I had nothing to show for my efforts. All the rote learning and exhausting analyses of sandhis had come to nothing. I couldn’t speak the language except for a few rudimentary, stilted sentences. Others in the class were the same way.

Over the years, I’ve lost touch with Sanskrit, and only recently have I begun to learn of its history and merits – often by Western scholars of the language. The Clay Sanskrit Library (New York University Press) for instance, is a monumental undertaking: many ancient Sanskrit texts, secular and religious, poetry and prose, are being translated; the library has already released several titles. I am currently trying to read Dandin’s Daskumaracarita (I really don’t know how to add the proper accents to the title, but the English translation, by Isabelle Onians, is called What Ten Young Men Did.)

One of the best and most evocative descriptions of Sanskrit I’ve read, though, is in linguist Nicolas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Ostler surveys the world’s greatest languages: if you ever wanted a scholarly yet readable history of languages, this is it. But it is clear he has lavished the most attention upon the 75-page chapter, Charming like a Creeper: The Cultured Career of Sanskrit. This is not surprising: Ostler has a PhD in linguistics and Sanskrit from MIT.

It was in Charming like a Creeper that I first learned how complex the grammar of Sanskrit – which I had much difficulty learning in school – is and how it had been relentlessly analyzed by Indian scholars such as Panini before and in the first millennium AD. As Ostler writes, “the Sanskrit word for grammar, vyakarana, instead of being based, like the Greek grammatike, on some word for word or writing, just means analysis: so language is the subject for analysis par excellence.”

The rules of grammar in Sanskrit as expounded by Panini in his treatise Ashtadhyayi are as rigorous as the transactional format of the Turing machine. This is an amazing connection: between millennia-old ideas of grammar and modern computing. I admit I am still trying to understand what this exactly means; perhaps in a few years I can write about it with more authority. But for now, here is an extract from Ostler’s book:
“…the grammar that the tradition had defined was a vast system of abstract rules, made up of a set of pithy maxims (called sutras, literally threads) written in an artificial jargon. These sutras are like nothing so much as the rules in a computational grammar of a modern language, such as might be used in a machine translation system; without any mystical or ritual element, they apply according to abstract formal principles.”
Ostler also talks about how Sanskrit spread to the far corners of Asia, traveling along with its principal disseminators, Buddhism and Hinduism. Unlike the languages that accompanied monotheisms of the Middle East – Arabic or European languages such as Spanish – the spread of Sanskrit was entirely devoid of conquest. The south-east Asian kingdoms and even places as far away as Japan, took up elements of Sanskrit probably because it was a matter of prestige, arriving with either Hinduism or Buddhism. Evidently, India had a reputation at the time as a place where great ideas and philosophies emanated from.

The case of Japan is particularly interesting. Ostler proposes that
“Japan owes the order of its symbols in its syllabary, the so-called kana, or go-ju-on, ‘fifty sounds’, to the order of letters in Indian alphabets.”


“This thoroughgoing intellectual borrowing at the root of the writing system demonstrates that not just the sound of the Buddhist chants but also elements of traditional analysis of language had spread to Japan with Sanskrit.”
Thus, Sanskrit, traveling with the Indian subcontinent's spiritual exports, influenced the far-flung parts of Asia not only with regard to religious ideas, but also subtler aspects, such as the structure of languages. Japan was not the only case: Tibet, Cambodia, and Thailand were influenced too in this fashion. In fact, these cultures may have become literate only with the coming of Sanskrit and its associated vernaculars, such as Pali.

And finally, a quote from an interview of Ostler, in which he summarizes why he loves Sanskrit so:
Q: Your affection for Sanskrit comes through in your book. What is it about Sanskrit that appeals to you?

A: Well, the Indian background helps: my parents would never have met if they had not both been sent out to India owing to the Second World War. But Sanskrit has many virtues that attract. Its grammar has been rigorously analyzed, but not in a doctrinaire way – there is room for intellectual debate. The classical Indian culture in which Sanskrit first flourished offers an immense variety of material, from romantic comedy and sensual poetry to epic, massive-word play, political science and philosophy. It embodies a contradiction, that a language whose literature is so lithe, should be indigenously analyzed as a sort of architectural structure. And I suppose I like the fact that it is so difficult (coming from English, certainly), yet so familiar in another way (coming at it from Latin, Greek and Russian).