Sanskrit and the bandwagon fallacy – Oopali Operajita


Sanskrit bashing is one of the visible manifestations of both the bandwagon fallacy and ultracrepidarianism. You have to forgive these villifiers, because it is evident that they do not know Sanskrit. – Oopali Operajita

The hefty diatribes against the exquisite Sanskrit language, lodged mainly by privileged, elite members of the Western academy, of both Western and Indian origin, and by mainstream Western media—and certain sections of the Indian media—epitomise the bandwagon fallacy. India seems to be awash in self-loathing in a substantive wave of the aforementioned fallacy, coupled with a good measure of overt postcolonial cringing. Sanskrit bashing is one of the visible manifestations of both the bandwagon fallacy and ultracrepidarianism. You have to forgive these villifiers, because it is evident that they do not know Sanskrit. If they did, they would feel for the language in the way William Jones did: “The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either….”

Sanskrit is the mother of languages currently spoken by about 900 million people in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. That is where it differs from Latin and Greek. If you did not have Sanskrit, you would not have these vibrant Indian languages. Current Bengali still draws on Sanskrit in order to enrich itself; current Telugu, even if technically a Dravidian language, is delightfully rich in Sanskrit words. India Ink, the retired New York Times blog (you have to be grateful for small mercies), valorised articles by postcolonial cringers who systematically ran down Sanskrit and India.

The writings of the Sanskrit disparagers mostly emanate from ultracrepidarianism. In an embarrassing piece on Sanskrit in The New York Times, the correspondent cited linguists she had spoken to, for making a raft of erroneous statements—I am wondering who they were! No linguists worth their salt would make the ad hominem statements she attributed to them. Here is her description of a visit to a Sanskrit institution in New Delhi, “Unattached electrical wires dangle down its facade, and one of its senior scholars, Ramakant Pandey, greeted a recent visitor in a fluorescent-lighted office under a slowly revolving ceiling fan, his mouth stained bright red with paan, as betel is known in Hindi.”

Too bad for her there is only a fluorescent light, and a slow-moving ceiling fan: we are a developing nation, and if Mr. Pandey is content not guzzling huge amounts of electricity, and destroying the planet with the unnecessary use of an air conditioner, or inhabiting a modest work environment, that is just fine. As for pan, to appreciate its sense of charvana (gustibus, or relish), you need to be possessed of a sensibility as fine as E.M. Forster’s. The question you have to ask here is: How is the value and infinite richness of Sanskrit, the language, connected with a slow-moving ceiling fan or paan? That is an example of the non sequitur fallacy.

I recall the late Barbara Stoller Miller calling often on my parents in Bhubaneswar, Professor Bidhu Bhusan Das and Professor Prabhat Nalini Das, when she was working on her translation into English of the Gitagovinda. She was respectful in her attitude towards her subject—that was an artefact of the times, before Sanskrit-bashing became chic. Miller’s junior colleague, Sheldon Pollock’s claim that Sanskrit is dead is refuted by Dr Jürgen Hanneder, an authority on Sanskrit, from the University of Marburg: “On a more public level, the statement that Sanskrit is a dead language is misleading, for Sanskrit is quite obviously not as dead as other dead languages, and the fact that it is spoken, written and read, will probably convince most people that it cannot be a dead language in the most common usage of the term. Pollock’s notion of the ‘death of Sanskrit’ remains in this unclear realm between academia and public opinion when he says, ‘most observers would agree that, in some crucial way, Sanskrit is dead.’”

Sanskrit is the liturgical language in thousands of temples across India. The Vedas and Upanishads are read and recited by priests and their students in hundreds of temples across India. That is testimony enough to its being alive, in a crucial way (sorry, Sheldon). Recitation—and daily recitation at that—imbues a language with a certain amount of prana. Prana is the antithesis of death. I recall an occasion when two colleagues from Yale University were dinner guests at my country home in Nova Scotia, Canada. After dinner, I recited and explained a couple of stanzas from the Upanishads to them. They were so enchanted with the sound and the meaning of those stanzas that they kept asking for more.

Nowadays, you encounter the hubris-rich “rescuers” of Sanskrit within the elite echelons of Western and Indian academia. From whom do they seek to rescue it? Ironically, they seek to rescue it from the impoverished priests in the thousands of temples in small towns and villages across India. The prevalent discourse on Sanskrit, in both the broadcast and print media, is mostly reductio ad Hitlerum.

Thankfully, an entire new perspective on Sanskrit is opening up, owing to Vikram Chandra’s book: Geek Sublime. Reviewing it in The New York Times, James Gleick writes, “What no one told me was that generative grammar had been invented earlier in India—2,500 years earlier, in fact. … Sometime around 500 B.C., the ancient scholar Panini analysed the Sanskrit language at a level of complexity that has never been matched since, for any language. His grammar, the ‘Ashtadhyayi’, comprises some 4,000 rules meant to generate all the possible sentences of Sanskrit from roots of sound and meaning—phonemes and morpheme (italics mine). The rules include definitions; headings; operational rules, including—‘replacement, affixation, augmentation and compounding;’ and ‘metarules,’ which call other rules recursively. … Panini’s grammar of Sanskrit bears more than a family resemblance to a modern programming language. As Chandra says, the grammar is itself—‘an algorithm, a machine that consumes phonemes and morphemes and produces words and sentences.’ This is not a coincidence. American syntactic theory, Chomsky channelling Panini, formed the soil in which the computer languages grew.”

Enough said. – Firstpost, 9 August 2022

Oopali Operajita is a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University since 1990, where she was appointed by its president, Dr Richard Cyert. She advises world leaders on public policy, communication and international affairs.

A 17th-century birch bark manuscript of Pāṇini's grammar treatise from Kashmir.