Amarabharati: Samskrtam and the Resurgence of Indian Civilisation-I
by M D Srinivas on 18 Mar 2016 5 Comments

The Greater India encompassed by Samskrtam

Dandin the great Sanskrit poet and scholar (c.7th century) declared:

Samskrtam nama daivivak anvakhyata maharsibhih

Samskrtam is the divine language as expounded by the ancient sages.


Around the same time, I-tsing the renowned Chinese Buddhist Monk records that:

Even in the Island of Pulo Condore (in the south) and in the country of Suli (in the north), people praise the Sanskrit Sutras [of Panini]; How much more then should people of the Divine Land (China) and the Celestial Store House (India), teach the real rules of the language.

(A Record of the Buddhist Religion as practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago, Tr. By J. Takakasu, Oxford 1896, p.169)


The Island of Pulo Condore is off the Vietnam coast in Southeast Asia and the country of Suli is Sogdiana, the region surrounding Samarqand, in Uzbekistan of Central Asia. It is said that I-tsing stayed in the capital of Srivijaya (present day Palembang in Sumatra of Indonesia) for six months in 671 CE to learn Sanskrit Grammar. He then proceeded to India where he spent fourteen years. On his return journey he spent several years at Palembang so that he could translate the large number of Indian texts that he had collected. He mentions that the Buddhacarita of Asvaghosa was as popular in Southeast Asia as it was in India. He also recommends that other Chinese Buddhists proceeding to India should break journey in Srivijaya, for obtaining the necessary training in Sanskrit and Indian acara as there were more than a thousand monks in Srivijaya who "lived by the same rules as those prevailing in India".


While the Central Asian regions were soon to lose their Indian cultural moorings, the capital of the Sumatran kingdom remained a centre of (Indian) learning for several centuries. We have for instance, "another Chinese source, recording that in 1017 envoys from thence brought bundles of Sanskrit books, folded between boards. The active pursuit of Indian learning is further also shown by the existence of texts dealing with grammar, prosody and lexicography, part of which have, though unfortunately in a more or less corrupted form, been handed down to us." (J. Gonda, Sanskrit in Indonesia, 2nd Ed. New Delhi, 1973, p.181. Gonda is citing the Chinese History of the Sung Dynasty)


This extraordinary phenomenon of "Greater India" or "Further India" encompassing a large part of the Asian continent, where Sanskritic learning and public discourse flourished for several millennia, has baffled most modern scholars. Commenting on this, an American scholar remarks:


The spread of Sanskrit happens not only with extraordinary speed over vast space, but in a way that seems quite without parallel in world history. What is created in the period that covers roughly the millennium between 200 or 300 and 1300 (when Angkor is abandoned) is a globalized cultural formation that seems anomalous in antiquity. It is characterized by a largely homogeneous political language of poetry in Sanskrit along with a range of comparable cultural political practices (temple building, city planning, even geographical nomenclature) throughout it - a common, a Sanskrit culture. (S Pollock, "The Cosmopolitan Vernacular", J. Asian Studies, 57, 1998, p.12)


In many regions of Southeast Asia this culture continued to flourish for several more centuries, and the vestiges of this culture can be seen  all over Southeast Asia even today.


Samskrtam and the Bhasas


Another issue that continues to be an enigma for modern Indological scholarship is the symbiotic relation that has been maintained through Indian history between the so called "cosmopolitan language", Sanskrit, and the "vernaculars" or the regional Indian languages. Around the time when Dandin was extolling Samskrtam as the Daivivak in Tamil Nadu, there was indeed a great efflorescence of Tamil literature. The great Tamil devotional corpus of the Vaisnava Alvars (the Divyaprabandham) and of the Saiva Nayanamars (the Tirumurai), were universally accorded the scriptural status of the Veda. The renowned Vaisnavite Acarya Sri Nathamuni (c.8th century) declares:


Namamyaham dravidavedasagaram

I bow to the great ocean of Tamil Veda


The Alvars themselves sang of Sriman Narayana as being both Vadamoli (Sanskrit) and Tamil-inbappa (Tamil blissful song). The tradition of Ubhayaveda incorporating both the Samskrta-Veda and the Tamil-Veda became a fully established philosophical doctrine from the time of Sri Ramanujacarya (c. 11th century). In Acaryahrdayam, a major philosophical treatise of Sri-Vaishnavism written in the Manipravala style, Sri Alagiya Manavala Perumaë Nayanar (c. 14th century), declares:


Vedam bahuvidham.

Idil Samskritam Dravidam engira pirivu Rigadi bhedam pole

Sentiratta Tamil engaiyal Agastyamum anadi


Vedas are several.

The distinction between Samskrita and Dravida Vedas is like that between RK, Yajus etc.

Since the Alvars have declared Sriman Narayana to be Sentiratta Tamil (expressive Tamil), the language of Agastya (Tamil) is also eternal.


Apart from the Tamil Divyaprabandham and Tirumurai which were regarded as Veda, there are indeed several great devotional works which have been accorded a similar status in Kannaaa (Vacanas of Virasaiva Saints), Marathi (Jnaneswari of Sant Jnaneswar), Awadhi (Ramacaritamanas of Goswami Sant Tulasidas), etc., apart from Sri Guru Grantha Sahib venerated by the Sikhs.


Some of the great Indian Bhasas such as Tamil and Kannada, developed technical literature in Vyakarana, Alankarasastra, Jyotisa, Ayurveda etc., by c 9th century, and when the regional polities emerged from around 11th century, these, as well as many other regional languages such as Telugu, Marathi etc., also became the languages of inscriptions and political discourse. But at the same time it was widely recognised that Sanskrit was the language of pan-Indian discourse. The Tamil savant Senavaraiyar (c.13th century) in his commentary on the ancient Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam, states:


Vadasol ellatteyattirkum poduvagalanum

Sanskrit indeed is common to all the countries


Modern scholars have not yet comprehended the symbiotic growth of Sanskrit and regional languages in the Indian tradition, as they are generally stuck with the models of raise of "vernacular" in Europe (at the expense of Latin) during the onset of European modernity.  In this context it has been noticed that:


Late medieval Europe and India differ profoundly on the question of language multiplicity. In the former, multilinguality is tainted with the guilt of diversity: Babel marks an original sin, and European cultural politics in early modernity can arguably be interpreted, at the level of language, as a project of purification. India by contrast ... never mythologized the need to purify, let alone sought to purify, original sins of diversity through a program of purification...


Indian vernacular cultures demonstrate little concern of Herderian "uniqueness" over which national cultures of the present obsess. On the contrary, all strive for a kind of equivalence by their approximation to Sanskrit cosmopolitanism. (S. Pollock, Indian in the "Vernacular Millennium: Literary Culture and Polity, 1000-1500", Daedalus, 127.3, 1998, p 1-34)


It has also been noticed that most of the discussion on the growth of regional Indian languages is based on facile and wrong explanations, even though they seem to be universally accepted:


A number of received views about vernacularization of this world [India] are reproduced that have gone uncontested too long. Like every other scholar who has written on the issue, Kaviraj ties the "gradual separation of [the] emerging literatures [of the vernacular languages] from the high Sanskrit tradition" to "religious developments", indeed religious developments hostile to the tradition, against which the vernacular literatures make an "undeclared revolution". "The origin of vernacular languages appears to be intimately linked to an internal conceptual rebellion within classical Brahminical Hinduism."


In fact, there is precious little evidence to support these generalizations, universally accepted though they are. There is of course no denying that some relationship may be found between language choice and religious practice in South Asian history... But by the beginning of the second millennium this relationship is much etiolated. Sanskrit had long ceased to be a Brahmanical preserve, just as Brahmans had long taken to expressing themselves in literary languages other than Sanskrit, such as Apabhramsa or indeed Kannada.

(S. Pollock, "The Cosmopolitan Vernacular", J. Asian Studies, 57, 1998, p.29; on Sudipta Kaviraj, The Imaginary Institution of India, in Partha Chatterjee and Gyanendra Pande, Eds., Subaltern Studies VII, Delhi, 1993, p.1-39)


Sanskrit Knowledge Systems on the eve of colonialism


A third issue confronting the modern Indological scholarship is the growing evidence for a flourishing intellectual tradition in India, which seems to have continued well into the period of colonial rule. The standard Indological view has been that:

1.      The Indian intellectual tradition, embodied in the various Sastras, had died long ago or had become totally outdated by the time of British conquest of India. In any case, the entire tradition is of no relevance for the concerns of modern India.

2.     The stagnation suffered by the Indian intellectual tradition, has nothing really to do with colonial rule and is entirely due to the methodological weaknesses inherent to Indian thought and the decadent Indian social organization which has inhibited growth of knowledge.


Recently the National Endowments for Humanities and the National Foundation of Science of the United States of America have funded a major project to study the Sanskrit Knowledge Systems on the Eve of Colonialism. The project involves about a dozen leading Indologists in the United States and Europe; and envisages extensive collection and analysis of published and unpublished texts written during 1550-1750, mainly in the disciplines of Vyakarana, Mimamsa, Nyaya, Alankarasastra, Dharmasastra, Jyotisa, Ayurveda and Mantrasastra. The proposal also envisages field work around four centres of classical learning in India to understand the dynamics of networking and diffusion of knowledge in the Indian scholarly communities. The details of the proposal, the experts who would participate, the work-plan for the period 2001-2004, and the institutions in India whose cooperation is being sought etc., are available, along with some of the theme papers and reports of ongoing work, on the webpage of the leader of the Project team, Prof. Sheldon  Pollock.,  p.1


The basic presupposition of the project is that:


The two centuries before European colonization established itself decisively on the Indian subcontinent (ca. 1550-1750) constitute one of the most innovative eras in Sanskrit intellectual history. Thinkers began to work across disciplines far more intensively than ever before, to produce new formulations of old problems, to employ a strikingly new discursive idiom and present their ideas in what were often new genres of scholarly writing. Concurrent with the spread of European power in the mid-eighteenth century, however, this dynamism began to diminish. By the end of the century, the tradition of Sanskrit systematic thought - which for two millennia or more constituted one of the most remarkable cultural formations in world history - had more or less vanished as a force in shaping Indian intellectual life, to be replaced by other kinds of knowledge based on different principles of knowing and acting in the world.


The proposal goes on to highlight that the modern scholarship has been totally silent on how there was an "explosion of intellectual production in Sanskrit in the seventeenth century"; it has also not paid any attention to the "demise of [these knowledge systems] in the latter half of the eighteenth century". The proposal emphasizes the need to collect, collate and study all the relevant Sanskrit source texts in order to address these important issues. It also evokes the need for fresh theorization, as the "interpretations dominant in western historical sociology and intellectual history, little changed from the time of their strongest formulation in Max Weber nearly a century ago, are based more on assumptions than on actual assessment of data." However, the proposal does offer its own perspective on the "comparative intellectual history of Europe and India":


Stressing the historical fact of the victory of western learning indicates the importance this project gives to a comparative intellectual history of Europe and India... In these two worlds, systematic thought had run along a largely parallel course for some two millennia, until the seventeenth century. Even into the eighteenth, points of comparability can be found...


Yet it was at this historical juncture that a great divergence between the two traditions occurred, as a set of important changes in the production and dissemination of knowledge began to manifest themselves in late-Renaissance and early-Enlightenment Europe. This is a long familiar list, which includes new procedures in method (empiricism), new kinds of conceptualization (quantification), new attitudes towards the past (critical rationalism), new communicative codes (the intellectualized vernacular) and last and not the least, a pedagogical revolution. Little that is comparable appears to have occurred in the world of Sanskrit intellectuals. Consider again only the fundamental question of language... Sanskrit remained the sole idiom for most major forms of systematic thought. No Bengali Descartes or Gujarati Bacon was concerned to teach the vernacular to speak philosophically. And like the language of learning, the material and social composition of the Sanskrit intellectual sphere remained largely unchanged.




Although we may as yet be unable to specify exactly when or where or how, it is likely to have been such innovations in the European knowledge systems that, once colonialism made them the systems of India, more than anything else spelled defeat for the Indian forms.


The "death of Indian knowledge systems" is not in any sense a new theme for Indological scholarship. The reason that the issue is surfacing again in the above proposal is because it makes a somewhat radical departure from the conventional view that the Indian knowledge systems died long ago. This departure had become necessary, in fact overdue, because of the mounting evidence that in almost every scholarly discipline, the Indian tradition suffered a setback only after the onset of colonialism, or much later. However, the present project proposal is just an updated version of the conventional viewpoint that the decline in Indian intellectual tradition was entirely due to its own internal inadequacies.


Further, the proposal seeks to introduce a new twist to the historiography of Indian knowledge systems by singling out the period 1550-1750, as having witnessed a new resurgence in scholarship. Many of the theme papers prepared in association with the project also follow suit in identifying this period as one of the most creative periods of Indian history. The proposal itself makes the usual qualification that these "chronological boundaries... are themselves subject to revision". It notes that 1550 is chosen in recognition of the work of Raghunatha Siromani the renowned Naiyayika of Navadvipa in Bengal and Appayya Diksita the great Vedantin of South India, who was also an expert in several sastras. The date 1750 is related to the demise of the great Vaiyakarana Nagesa Bhatta, who died in Varanasi in 1755.


The date 1550 is of particular political significance in Indian history as it corresponds to the consolidation of the Mughal rule under Akbar. One has to indulge in extraordinary sophistry to discover this as the point of departure for ushering in a period of great creativity in Indian intellectual tradition. Raghunatha Siromani the great Naiyayika was carrying forward the tradition of Navyanyaya initiated by Gangesa Upadhyaya in early 14th century. The Prakriya tradition in Vyakarana was initiated by Ramacandra in his Prakriyasarvasva (c.14th century). New trends in Jyotisa emerged in the works of Madhava (14th century), Paramesvara (1380-1460) and Nilakantha (1450-1550) in Kerala. Sayana's monumental commentaries on the Vedas and several major works on Vedanta, Mimamsa and Dharmasastras were produced in the Vijayanagar Empire in the 14th century.


It would indeed be strange to pick up mid-sixteenth century as a starting point of a new resurgence in Indian intellectual tradition unless one is exclusively looking for those innovative elements which could have resulted by the efforts of the Mughal court.  Perhaps the investigations under this project are supposed to do that only.


(To be concluded…)

The author is Chairman, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai, and member of the Indian Council for Historical Research

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