Whither Classics?

An article in a recent Sunday newspaper reminded me once again of a passionate and well reasoned article by Sheldon Pollock, Crisis in the Classics that was published earlier this year in India’s World, a special issue of Social Research: An International Quarterly.

The paper can be downloaded freely from the above link for those of you who many not have read it yet. The main thesis of the paper- at the risk of condensing an argument that is already forcefully minimal – is that there is a dangerous decline in scholarship in the classics in India, dangerous enough that its extinction is more or less assured.

The fate of the soft subjects in a hard world is a matter that we- at the UoH in particular- should be concerned about, in part because we have at least three Departments that are players in the classics game, Urdu, Telugu and Sanskrit. And a whole Centre that concerns itself with Endangered Languages.

The danger is near. As Pollock puts it: There have been no major Sanskrit projects in India since the completion of the critical edition of the Ramayana at Baroda more than 30 years ago. All the great classical series (such as Anandasrama, Trivandrum, Gaekwad, Madras) have been more or less discontinued, and as a result the manuscripts in those collections are no longer being published. Indeed, there have been few new Indian editions of complex Sanskrit texts at all from among the scores of important manuscripts that lie unpublished in archives. In the area of hermeneutics (Mimamsa), for example, I know of no one in India today capable of editing works like those edited just a generation ago by P. N. Pattabhirama Sastry or S. Subrahmanya Sastry…  I have not encountered a single PhD dissertation on Sanskrit in India—and I have seen many— worthy of publication by a Western university press.

The situation is no different in the other classical languages […] Our core group of colleagues was looking for others to join us who possessed a deep historical understanding of a regional language, conceptual skills, and the capacity to communicate their knowledge effectively. We were able to locate only four qualified scholars in India, and identified no one for a host of languages, including Assamese, Marathi, Newari, Oriya, and Panjabi.

Assamese, Marathi, Panjabi, Oriya- these are hardly languages we think of as being on the brink of extinction, but the lack of scholarship in these could eventually drive them to the brink. Indeed, some of our languages have already vanished, or been relegated to kitchen languages as the linguist Loreto Todd calls them- spoken only in private or in fields, not worthy of a literature.

My erstwhile colleague (at JNU) Anvita Abbi’s efforts to preserve the last traces of the Great Andamanese (GA) have been heroic but futile. She explains that about ten languages form the present Great Andamanese language family, and the number of speakers in some of these such as Bo (one of the last speakers of the GA language is shown in the poster on the left) now number five or so. The language groups are complex- Anvita’s work is on the Koine language, a mix of four varieties of the present GA language. One can only wonder how soon there will be none left, no varieties, no speakers, no GA.  The announcement of a talk she will give in London next month is poignant.   Breathing life into a dying language: Documenting Great Andamanese. The Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal are home to three highly endangered languages: Jarawa, Onge and Great Andamanese. Professor Abbi will share her experiences documenting them and compiling a multilingual multiscriptal interactive dictionary revealing the ecological and archeological signatures of the original communities and their ties with the environment. An ethno-semantic and ornithological account of the local birds and their names in the Great Andamanese language features in the dictionary and in the book Birds of the Great Andamanese co-authored by Professor Abbi and Dr Satish Pande. The talk will include examples of original sound and video recordings of the last native speakers of Great Andamanese.

This may well have been the history of the world since the tower of Babel- one language gives way to another, one evolves into another, some die, new ones are born. So why should we care? To misquote Elizabeth Barett Browning, let me not count the ways, but instead appeal to both art and science. Each time a language dies, something of humanity dies with it, some common collective memory vanishes… Abrams and Strogatz modeled the death of languages mathematically in a paper in the scientific journal Nature a few years ago. They end their letter with the analysis that to prevent the rapid disintegration of our world’s linguistic heritage, some simple steps are possible: The example of Quebec French demonstrates that language decline can be slowed by strategies such as policy-making, education and advertising, in essence increasing an endangered language’s status. Not a particularly deep or lateral conclusion, perhaps, but still, something that we can heed at the University, since we do care deeply about this issue in the context of preserving our heritage.

There are many other disciplines that are undersubscribed, but more on those another time.  As also on whether we need a “western” press to validate the scholarly quality of our own work, and why there is not University Press of any standard left in India…

Finally, in case any of you are wondering what that image at the top is, this is the atoll near one of the most remote places on earth (and which cannot actually be seen in the image, its too small a speck), the island of Furudu. Ever since I heard of it on the CBS show 60 Minutes many many years ago, this has always struck me as a metaphor for planned extinction: Exiles are consigned there, and typically, forgotten.


11 thoughts on “Whither Classics?

  1. The sweet smell of money will certainly attract lots of flies.

    The least thing we can do, as the Americans say, “get off my back”. I am afraid of using the modern American Language in the blog, but it is a very rich language and can convey distilled emotions.

    How come social scientists don’t use Abstracts or Summary? I got lost twice and then gave up.

  2. many thanks for this post on a topic close to my concerns.

    apart from the classical language departments at UoH, there is also another positive factor worth highlighting, i think: the fact that SIP has been bringing indology-interested foreign students to indian philosophy courses has on the whole meant a significant increase in the enthusiasm of our own teachers and students in the study of indian philosophy.

    but of course we all know that this is not enough. far too few of us have access to the original languages.

    in the early seventies i studied at sanskrit college, calcutta, where one of the subjects i studied was pali. just the other day i learnt with great sorrow that kolkata based scholars had stopped participating in the dictionary project of the pali text society. the erosion is affecting all the institutions i know.

    however, when i last looked, IIIT next door to UoH was running an ‘exact humanities’ programme that took sanskrit really seriously as a key resource. i do hope they are still as active as they were a few years ago.

    to get back to your blog post — i’m glad to see we are on the same page. speaking of our mutual friend Anvita, she’s a candidate for the presidency of the linguistic society of india, and lots of us are rooting for her.



    probal dasgupta
    formerly of the university of hyderabad
    now based at the indian statistical institute, kolkata

    • Nice to find you here with us (never mind the big bad virtual world!).

      Yes, I also studied near that area. It is a case of strange attractor, I visit that place every time I get a chance. Rotten romanticity, of course is responsible.

      I knew several students and a couple of teachers from Sanskrit College. We used to travel by train and were quite friendly (including the teachers).

      We all had the same “universal” problem: what to do next, will there be a job, do science students really have an advantage in the competitive exams etc etc

      We also had a joke: Vidyasagar closed a couple of windows in the Sanskrit college and as a mark of respect we have not opened them even today!

      Seriously: we have a serious problem of marketability. We are training basic level technicians and even they are unable to get a decent job. The state of the language students, is honestly, very bad. They hardly have any decent study material. And only a couple of classes per day. How do they spend their time? If we cannot do it reasonably well, why should we do it at all?

      The approach followed by the “exact humanities” is interesting and perhaps non-conventional. I do not know much but it is still active!

  3. The issue is indeed serious. For what it is worth, here is a take from a non academic who got into Business School via the liberal arts route rather than the IIT/Engineering/Commerce route.

    Even in very dynamic societies with vibrant academic institutions, Classics have always remained the area for a select few. These elite do not have to depend on the education to make a living post academia. Often, these would end up in the teaching/research positions in Universities. In India, we are yet to reach that level of economic stability and Academia does not offer all that great a career except for some very, shall I say, different temperaments. For instance, I would have dearly loved to proceed with a career in education, but the economics simply did not make sense. I have compromised by proceeding to study on my own for my pleasure as you well know from my eclectic tastes in reading material.

    Here again, our entire approach to education needs a close look and major revamp to make academia an attractive career.

    Interestingly enough there are some enlightened attempts at reviving Liberal studies, one of which has impressed me quite a bit – http://www.flame.edu.in/program/school-of-liberal-education

  4. The point discussed is really serious and I share the concern expressed about the disappearance of the languages and irreparable damage to the oral culture. One particular point raised about India’s inability to raise to a reasonable level of economic stability is very apt. But what should be done in this situation? The government should come forward to take the lead in preserving and promoting these classical languages. Unfortunately, like many other issues influenced by political considerations, decisions in this regard have been taken, where they have been taken, on the basis of the caste, region, race etc. For example,Tamil was declared a classical language well before Sanskrit was declared a classical one. This has happened because you cannot associate Sanskrit with any region or race, especially with the vocally and politically strong Tamilnadu or the so called Dravidian race. Saddest part is that even the intelligensia kept silent at this blatant act of an attempt to appease the vote bank of a particular part of the country.

  5. It might be a little provocative to say so, but when it comes to the evolution and extinction of species – and languages – we are often irrational.
    While I am fascinated by the evolution of language from the time it was genetically enabled – perhaps some 400,000 years ago with the FOXP2 gene – and feel an emotional loss whenever a language disappears (or a species becomes extinct), I cannot help feeling that the evolution and death of languages is a perfectly natural thing. Just as evolution of new species leads automatically to the demise of less successful species, so does evolution of language lead naturally to the “death” of other less successful languages. In fact it is extinction which provides room for evolution to move a species forward.
    I often wonder whether it is not misguided when some so called conservation effort does not allow some grand species to die out when its time is due, but tries instead to cage specimens for onlookers to gawk at in some zoo, without any shred of dignity “for the sake of conservation” but really just for satisfying some of our emotional needs.
    The need to communicate is what leads to language. It is a tool. What we call the Classics is only because of what they communicated (and still do in translation). But Latin and Greek and Sanskrit were merely superb tools – now obsolete. When a tool is obsolete we can of course keep an example of the tool in a museum but there is no need to continue using that tool when better tools have been developed.
    So also must it be with language. By all means record a language, study it, store it for scholarship or for future generations, but do not keep it on life-support in some artificial way which robs it of the dignity it once may have had.
    So if the issue is the preservation of little used languages for museum purposes then that is a perfectly worthwhile objective.
    But if their time has come – then let them die gracefully. And if some part of humanity dies with them it is only because they must make room for new things to be born.
    I am regretful that slide-rules have become obsolete but even though I grew up with them I would never use one again except as a party trick!!

    • This is an ongoing debate, whether the extinction of Tyrannosaurus rex was in some essential way more natural than
      that of Raphus cucullatus (the dodo bird) or that of Panthera tigris tigris, that we are seeing before our own eyes. In some ways the sorrow one feels is similar to that one experiences when a person “dies before their time”. Death is certain for all, of course, but …

      • Thank you very much for pointing to Pollock’s article ‘Crisis in the
        Classics’. I had read it long back and reading it once again make me
        write down my concerns as a Head of the Department of Sanskrit Studies.

        It is a well known fact that the change in the education system during
        British Era is responsible for the closure of various paathashaalas —
        the schools of traditional learning. But more importantly, it was we who
        started de-recognising the education in these paathashaalas and started
        demanding M.A. So somebody who has gone through extensive learning of
        serious texts such as Mahabhashya has to give another examination ‘the
        so called M.A.’ so that he can be accepted in the regular stream! Else
        he does not have any fate but to look for some other means of livelihood.

        There is a strong need to recognise the studies in these paathashaalas
        rather than demanding another M.A.. The fact is that anybody who has
        some exposure to Sanskrit literature and grammar with just a few days
        (not even weeks) of studies can get an M.A. in Sanskrit through distance
        education mode with distinction.

        Another thing that worries me is:
        Who are the students who study Sanskrit? Sanskrit is the last choice. The
        top players are Engineering, Medicine, Sciences, Social sciences,
        Humanities (with Humanities English, Linguistics, Hindi, …), … ,
        and somewhere at the end Sanskrit. So one can also imagine about the
        scholarship involved.

        What worries me is something more. As all of us know, just as
        English is the ‘lingua franca’ of today’s academics, at some point in
        time it was Sanskrit in India. So Sanskrit has a lot of literature in
        various other branches of studies ranging from Ayurveda, Astronomy,
        metalurgy, mathematics, physics, plant sciences, ashva vidya, dhanur
        vidya and so on. Unfortunately there are almost no scholars available
        who can even interpret these texts, let alone master. All the current
        departments of Sanskrit all over India are more into teaching Sanskrit
        ‘language and literature’ but none of these universities promote any
        studies in the areas of say mathematics, plant sciences, etc. And for
        this one can not blame the Sanskrit departments either. Because the
        departments of Sanskrit will naturally focus on Sanskrit as a language
        and carrier of literature rather than on ‘Sanskrit Studies’. So there is a
        need to open up ‘Sanskrit Studies’ to the students of modern disciplines
        interested in taking up Sanskrit Studies rather than just limiting it
        to the students of Sanskrit who do not have any exposure or training to
        Scientific literature in Sanskrit.

        To make my point clear let us for a second imagine that there is a
        natural disaster. Thanks to the electronic media, the knowledge stuff
        in English survives. But the people survived know only language ‘L’, and
        do not know English. However, there are some ‘L’ speaking experts who
        had studied the classical English literature — Shakespear, Milton, say.
        The survived people knew about the rich knowledge that exists
        in English. They want to know and understand what is there in it.
        The handful of English knowing people who have survived are good at
        interpreting Shekspear but do not know the modern sciences. They fail
        to interpret the Mathematics texts. Same is the situation with Sanskrit
        knowledge base in India. However, the mathematician knowing ‘L’ with
        a little exposure to English can interpret the mathematics text with
        some effort.

        Another area which bothers me a lot is the following.
        India has thousands of Manuscripts in several parts of the country
        and also outside India. However, these manuscripts are not available
        to the scholars. Only part of it say 70% is made available to the
        scholars. This is ridiculous. Do the authprities not know ‘Half
        knowledge is dangerous’? Under the National Manuscript Mission, all
        these manuscripts were digitised. And they are now available with IGCNA,
        Delhi. But if a scholar wants to access these digital images, they have
        to seek permission from the parent library before obtaining a copy of
        it from IGCNA. Of course, even if one gets a digital image, still it is
        neither searchable, nor editable. One has to put again lot of ‘clerical’
        efforts to make this image available in the text form.

        These are some of the concerns I have stated. Well, I do not want to
        just blame the system, but do also have some concrete suggestions. Here
        they go.

        a) Revival of the Gurukulas
        There are many gurukulas in the country who have still retained the
        traditional educational system. And fortunately there are students
        (though the number is very feeble) who undergo the rigourous studies in
        these centers of education. The positive aspect of the Indian education
        system is the following.

        It cultivates the process of ‘thinking’, process of ‘arguing’ after
        understanding the other’s viewpoint correctly. The whole structure of our
        texts which are ‘Original text – commentary on this text — commentary
        on the commentary — and so on’, where the commentators either try to
        refute the original text, or previous commentators or support them by
        providing the counter examples, examples in support and so on. This
        way of learning sharpens the brain of a student. We lack this kind of
        rigourous training in the modern education system.

        But at the same time, it has some of the following disadvantages:
        The students are completely cut off from the modern education system.
        So even if they have studied vyaakarana well, they can not understand what
        a Linguist is arguing about. A student who has studied Chandashastra,
        though is aware of the Pingala’s suutras for converting a binary to
        decimal number system and vice versa, for example, knows little about
        the binary arithmetic and combinatorics.

        So there is a need to expose these students to the parallel modern
        disciplines as well.

        b) Fostering traditional studies in ‘western’ disciplines
        It is a truth that a Sanskrit scholar will find it difficult to understand
        mathematical texts such as Leelavati or Siddhanta Shiromani. But a
        mathematician on the other hand who has good understanding of Sanskrit
        (not necessarily having an ‘M.A’) should be encouraged to take up
        ‘Sanskrit Studies in Mathematics’. This will fill the gap between the
        two knowledge systems, possibly though building the bridges between the
        two systems.

        c) Making the manuscripts available in text form
        This is an area which will open up good job opportunities for Sanskrit
        scholars may be for a substantial period. Initially one may just think
        of alligning the images with the texts. At a later stage, based on the
        information gathered, one may develop various technologies such as OCRs
        to convert the images to texts semi-automatically.

        Availability of these manuscripts in text formats will foster the studies
        in Sanskrit further.

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