Monday, January 26, 2009

Why does India neglect its classical languages?

Asks Sheldon Pollock, in this essay in The Hindu.
At the time of Independence, and for some two millennia before that, India was graced by the presence of scholars whose historical and philological expertise made them the peer of any in the world. They produced editions and literary and historical studies of texts in Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu — and in Apabhramsha, Assamese, Bangla, Brajbhasha, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya, Persian, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Urdu — that we still use today. In fact, in many cases their works have not been replaced. This is not because they are irreplaceable — it is in the nature of scholarship that later knowledge should supersede earlier. They have not been replaced because there is no one to replace them.


Today, in neither of the two great universities in the capital city of India, is anyone conducting research on classical Hindi literature, the great works of Keshavdas and his successors. Imagine — and this is an exact parallel — if there were no one in Paris in 2008 producing scholarship on the works of Corneille, Racine, and Molière. Not coincidentally, a vast number of Brajbhasha texts lie mouldering in archives, unedited to this day.


Nine years ago, H.C. Bhayani, the great scholar of Apabhramsha, passed away. With his death, so far as I am able to judge, the field of Apabhramsha studies itself died in India. To my eyes, the situation with Apabhramsha is symptomatic of a vast cultural ecocide that is underway in this country. And not just language knowledge is disappearing but all the skills associated with it, such as the capacity to read non-modern scripts, from Brahmi to Modi to Shikhasta.


There is another Sanskrit proverb that tells us it is far easier to tear down a house than to build it up (asakto ham grharambhe sakto ham grhabhanjane). The great edifice of Indian literary scholarship has nearly been torn down. Is it possible, at this late hour, to build it up again? [...] Why should India not commit itself to build the same kind of institute to serve the needs of its culture — not just dance and art and music, but its literary culture? Why should it not build an Indian Institute of the Humanities devoted not just to revivifying the study of the classical languages, but to producing world-class scholarship, as a demonstration of what is possible, a model for universities to follow, and a source of new scholars to staff those universities?
Indeed, why not? The state of affairs is best illustrated by my own ignorance of Apabhramsha - I know what it refers to now, but if you had asked me just a few minutes ago, before I encountered it in Pollock's essay, I would have had no clue. So it goes.

Also: a recent post on Sanskrit.

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