Classical philology is dead in India

Sheldon Pollock, one of the most prominent scholars of Sanskrit literature today, has contributed a jeremiad entitled ‘Crisis in the Classics’ to the journal Social Research Vol. 78 No. 1 (Spring 2011) on the decline of classical philology in India. The article is available as a PDF and its 28 pages have so much good material that I can hardly decide what to quote here, but here’s the heart of Pollock’s observations:

Indeed, there have been no successors to any of the pre-independence generation of Sanskrit scholars, the sort who mastered their discipline and thought conceptually about it and wrote for an international audience: S. N. Dasgupta, S. K. De, Mysore Hiriyanna, P. V. Kane, S. Radhakrishnan, Venkata Raghavan, C. Kunhan Raja, V. S. Sukthankar, are the first in a long and distinguished list from across India (I leave aside the loss of the great tradition of pandit learning, which is now virtually extinct). 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been few new Indian editions of complex Sanskrit texts at all from among the scores of important manuscripts that lie unpublished in archives.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. (The same holds for many other areas of classical studies; with the death of A. N. Upadhye in 1975 and H. C. Bhayani in 2000, the editing of Prakrit and Apabhramsha works seems to have died too.) 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, as I learned in the late 1990s when I organized a project on the histories of South Asian literary cultures (Pollock 2003). 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.

I suspected as much when I visited university bookshops in India: almost no publications from the last 30 years, and heaps of decaying old editions that evidently no one wanted to buy. Online language discussions are so often overrun by Hindu fundamentalist claims that Sanskrit is a divine language and India’s literature the oldest and wisest in the world, but for all the prominence of such views on the internet, this heritage is neglected in India.

Memsahib Hindi

In his textbook Teach Yourself Beginner’s Hindi Script Rupert Snell offers the following charming description of “memsahib Hindi”:

Legend has it that in the days of the Raj the British memsahibs, indifferent to real Hindi, would learn simple Hindi commands by assimilating them to English phrases: ‘There was a banker’ was to be interpreted by servants as representing दरवाज़ा बंद कर darvāzā band kar ‘Close the door’, and ‘There was a cold day’ meant दरवाज़ा खोल दे darvāzā khol de, ‘Open the door’. Thankfully, those days are long gone

While a Google search on the first phrase gives no results, a search on the second comes up with numerous references to this phenomenon, but only as an urban myth. If this were really a commonplace among Brits in India, one would expect it to appear in some contemporary written form, perhaps something penned as advice to recent arrivals.