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Ideology and Status of Sanskrit: Contributions To The History of The Sanskrit Language

Ideology and Status of Sanskrit: Contributions To The History of The Sanskrit Language
Item Code: NAE281
Author: Jan E.M. Houben
Publisher: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9788120835016
Pages: 531
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
weight of the book: 752 gms
About the Book

The present volume is the outcome of a seminar on the Ideology and Status of Sanskrit held in Leiden under the auspices of the International Institute for Asian Studies. The book contains studies of crucial periods and important areas in the history of the Sanskrit language, from the earliest, Vedic and pre-Vedic periods, through the period in which the (restricted) use of Sanskrit spread over practically all of South (including part of Central) and Southeast Asia (Sometimes referred to as the period of ‘Greater India’), up to the recent history of Sanskrit in India.

The contributions of this volume are divided into three sections: Origins and Creation of the ‘Eternal Language’; Transculturation, Vernacularization, Sanskritization; The Sanskrit Tradition: Continuity from the Past or Construction from the Present?

About the Author

JAN EM. HOUBEN obtained his Ph.D. in 1992 for a thesis on Bhartrhari’s philosophy of language (Utrecht University). He edited the volume Ideology Status of Sanskrit in 1996 as Fellow of the International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden.

Books authored and edited by him include the monographs The Pravargya Brãhmana of the Taittiriya Aranyaka: An Ancient Commentary on the Pravaigya Ritual (Delhi, 1991), The Sambandha-Samuddesa (chapter on relation) and Bhartrhari’s Philosophy of Language (Groningen, 1995), and the collective volumes, The Emergence we of Semantics in Four Linguistic Traditions, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek and Arabic (Amsterdam, 1997; together with Van Bekkum, Sluiter and Versteegh) and Violence Denied: Violence, Non-Violence and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History (edited together with Karel van Kooij, 1999).

Since 2003 he is professor at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Sciences Historiques et Philologiques, Paris, as directeur d’edudes in the chair ‘Sources and History of the Sanskrit Tradition.


Unlike the large majority of l3nguage names, the name ‘Sanskrit’ is not the name of a people or country or nation)The name samskara, which literally means ‘polished, well-formed’, points to its sociolinguistic position throughout the ages: it was the cultured language of the well-educated, of the social and religious elite. The term Sanskrit properly applies to the regulated language which developed some centuries after Pãnini’s grammar, and access to which was not limited by ethnicity or belief system (Brahmanism, Buddhism, Jainism, Carvaka, etc.). By extension, however, it refers to closely related earlier forms of the language which are used in the Vedic texts (cf. Whitney 1888: xi-xv; Thieme 1994). Certain attestations of the name samskara with reference to language and usually in opposition to prakrta and apabhramsa appear relatively late, from the first centuries before and after the first millennium Common Era. From its earliest attestations to the present day,5 Sanskrit has been participating in complex, multilinguistic contexts.

Regarding the history of the Sanskrit language, Louis Renou observed that ‘the questions posed by [its development ... and the almost paradoxical conditions of its survival have not yet been tackled in detail’ (1956: l). This is as much true now as it was more than fifty years ago, even if significant contributions have been made to various crucial aspects. We still have to confirm, that ‘... the time has not yet come (if it would ever come) for a definitive work in this area. Too many preparatory studies are missing, too many elements remain unknown’ (Renou, ibid.5).

Jn his review of the volume Ideology and Status of Sanskrit (henceforth: ISS)6, the Spanish linguist Luján remarked that ‘since Renou’s (1956) Histoire langue Sanskrit there has not been any book length study dealing with the history of Sanskrit. Besides, linguistic thought has changed to a great extent since the date of publication of Renou’s book; accordingly, it was high time to undertake a profound revision of the ideas on the history of Sanskrit.’ The contributors to the volume ISS take up for discussion several problematic points pertaining to the early beginnings, the development and stabilization and to the latter days of what we may call the ‘Sanskrit tradition’ — if, for the sake of simplicity, we are ready to use a term that leaves implicit the internal heterogenity and dynamics of what could also be referred to in the plural as ‘Sanskrit traditions.’

The aim of ISS was to contribute especially to the social and sociolinguistic history of Sanskrit. A few updates can be made for the current Indian edition. Three publications are central in these updates. One appeared actually a few years before the publication of 155, in 1989, two appeared recently, in 2006 and in 2009.

A. The volume Dialectes dans Its Literatures Indo-Aryennes (‘Dialects in the Indo-Aryan Literatures,’ ed. C. Caillat 1989) was the outcome of an international Colloquium organized in Paris in 1986. Its subject- matter partly overlapped with that of JSS. Several articles of this volume were referred to in contributions in ISS. A contribution that in the course of the years has turned out to be particularly influential is Michael Witzel’s ‘Tracing the Vedic Dialects,’ which forms a series with other publications by the same author on this subject and in the same line of approach.

Before the publication of ‘Tracing the Vedic Dialects’ the general consensus was that the Vedic texts in general and the Rgveda in particular show a strong presence of linguistic norms and little dialectal variety.8 Michael Witzel, however, summarizing and adding to dispersed research results of preceding decades, simply posited the existence of localized dialects in Vedic, which can be traced through the available Vedic texts. In the domain of Vedic studies, his article contained the promise of a new, fruitful direction of research. Witzel sketched the consensus and his new departure as follows:

It is believed ... that the Vedic language had no dialects. One usually admits that the archaic poetic language of the Rgveda is a mixture of many dialects which had influenced each other, On the other hand, the educated speech of post-Rgvedic times, found in the prose texts, the so called Brahmanas, is regarded as the contemporary, the living language of the priests and other well-educated men, while the rest of the population spoke various degrees of early Middle-Indian, i.e., archaic Prakrts. But this is as far as one will go. My contention will be that even this standard North Indian Koine, ‘Vedic’, which does not seem to have regional variations at all, shows traces of the local dialects if only one looks carefully enough. (Witzel 1989: 99).

The divergent linguistic features, for instance several ways of dealing with euphonic combination (sandhi), can usually be understood from different theoretical perspectives. Those of Middle and Late Vedic texts seem most promising with regard to dialectal differences. However, ‘especially Renou and Caland regarded many of the variations in grammar, to be treated below, as mere variations in the style of Vedic, viz, of the various Vedic schools’ (Witzel 1989: 99 n. 3). Of special interest is the attribution of a quite distinct mode of recitation, with two instead of three basic pitches, to a specific text, the satapatha-brãhmana, of which it is known that it has at least partly an eastern origin: Videha (Videgha), not the larger Punjab area as other ancient Vedic texts. This could have confirmed the existence of different dialects in Middle and Late Vedic. However, the relationship between other Vedic ways of accentuation and the one of the Satapatha-brahmana remains unclear and difficult to analyze B.B. Chaubey (1975, 1978) and George Cardona (1993) devoted important studies to the accentuation of the Satapatha-brahmai3a. Especially the latter detailed proposal is not entirely convincing to Witzel.


I. In early accounts of the development of the diverse hut clearly related languages of Europe it was usual to trace them back to a single people or even a single person speaking a single language. Popular candidates for this role were the Thracians and the Scythians (this would link the European languages with the classical world) and Japhet, the third son of Noah (linking the European languages with the biblical world) (cf. Mallory 1989:9-14). With all the reconstructions and discussions the straight connection between people and language remained usually unquestioned, also when, at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, scholars started to include Sanskrit more and more often as one of the related languages. Thus, the French Jesuit Father Coerdoux, one of the first to make systematic comparisons between the words of the Greek, Latin and Sanskrit (“samscrouta”) language, had stressed in a paper read in 1768 at the Parisian Academic des Inscriptions et Belles-Letters, that one should see the “original relatedness of the Indians, Greeks and Latins” as the cause of the similarity between these languages (Benfey 1869:341; cf. Mansion 1931:18). In this framework, the origin of Sanskrit and its predecessor Vedic in the Indian subcontinent was intimately linked with massive and devastating invasions of ‘Aryans’ (ãryas), more than a millennium B.C.E.

Nowadays, however, almost two centuries after the beginning of the intensive Western-style studies of Sanskrit and the Indo-European languages, and after a great amount of archaeological research on the Indian subcontinent, the insight is gaining ground that, neither in the present nor in the past, languages, peoples and cultures can or should be postulated as entities with one-to-one correspondences. Earlier ideas associating the authors of the Rgvedic hymns with hordes of invading ãsyas destroying the earlier Indus-civilisation have become obsolete, and scholars are searching for entirely different models to account for the linguistic shifts which must have taken place in these periods (e.g. Kuiper 1967a, 1991; Renfrew 1987). Rather, the Rgvedic aryas should be seen as “a multitude of ethnic groups subscribing to a newly emerging ideology” (Erdosy 1995:3), for which Alichin proposes to use the teem “acculturated Aryan” (Allchin 1995:43). Although there is still general agreement today about the ‘external origin of Indo-Aryan languages spoken today in South Asia” (Erdosy 1995:3), and about the movement of speakers of Indo-Aryan languages into South Asia in a distant past, “much movement, certainly is unlikely to have constituted an invasion or invasions, and it may not have involved conquest” (Allchin 1995:44). Consequently, in new models of the spread of Indo Aryan languages in South Asia, processes of interactions and shifts in languages in situations of societal bilingualism have become more and more important (cf. Mallory 1989:258-259; Allchin 1995:44).

Linguists of the 19th century preferred to regard processes of language change and maintenance as entirely dependent on ‘exception less’ laws which made the language an organism having its proper nature and direction of evolution, and the social context not more than an important but external condition. What attracted the attention of scholars was, to cite the famous words of Sir William Jones in his paper presented in 1786 to the Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta, “the wonderful structure” of the Sanskrit language, which is “more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisite1y refined than either.” At present, however, the delicate and intimate relations between social conditions and language change and maintenance are both more appreciated and better understood on the basis of elaborate and detailed sociolinguistic studies of modern language situations and developments.

Special mention may here be made of Labov’s theory of the social motivation of linguistic change (Labov 1965, 1972), which has given a new impulse to the formulation of models of linguistic change, and has provided the basis for a great number of well-documented socio-linguistic studies (Hock l99lb:646ff. While in earlier research ‘the past’ was studied in order to explain ‘the present’, Labov has argued and in fact demonstrated how ‘the present’ can be used to explain ‘the past’, i.e. how a better understanding of linguistic processes in present-day communities may help us to understand and reconstruct the past (cf. Labov 1994:9-27). According to Labov (1994:27), “The close examination of the present shows that much of the past is still with us. The study of history benefits from the continuity of the past as well as from analogies with the present”

The main non-linguistic factors taken into account in socio-linguistic studies on the relations and interactions between different languages in certain regions are usually limited to those of socio-economical and political power, vs. solidarity and affect (cf. Gibbons 1992:24). The fact that a language is spoken by an economically and politically powerful group should explain the adoption of that language by a group aspiring a higher status, or the conscious rejection of that language by a group opposing the dominant powerful group. In the work of Pierre Bourdieu, as far as it deals with language and power, the factor power is represented mainly by the state, and his examples usually concern the socio-linguistic conditions in France and Algeria (cf Bourdieu 1991).

It can be said, therefore, that recent decades have seen considerable progress in the formulation of theories and concepts concerning processes of language change and processes in (mainly contemporaneous and relatively recent) social contexts, and that at the same time questions regarding linguistic origins and developments in the past have presented themselves much more than before in social and sociolinguistic terms. It is in this situation that the early but also the recent history of Sanskrit acquire special importance, because they present us not only with a series of urgent questions and problems, but also with an enormous amount of data concerning developments of more than 20 centuries and covering areas extending from the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia and the remote corners of East and Southeast Asia. On the one hand, the questions and problems concerning the history of Sanskrit are important in their own right and modem theoretical developments may be expected to contribute to new and more satisfactory answers, on the other hand, attempts to answer them may be expected not only to add an important historical dimension to modem theories on language in social context but also to contribute to their further critical development.

Thus, factors of socio-economical and political power, and factors of solidarity and affect, all have played roles in the history of Sanskrit the importance of which has not yet been fully assessed. As Pollock has convincingly argued, the intimate relation of the factor power with Sanskrit did not arise with the development of Indological studies of India and its languages (something which some of the critics of orient-talism seem to suggest), but has its roots much further back in the pre-colonial past (Pollock 1993).

However, in order to account for the spread of Sanskrit in South Asia and beyond and its tenacity in its role of lingua franca of the cultural and political elite in the first millenium CE., phenomena which transcend the time and space boundaries of states and policies, it may well be necessary to take other factors into account apart from or partly overlapping with the all pervading factors of power and social relations. Whatever the validity of Bourdieu’s theories of state-related power for the situation in France and its colonies and for socio-Linguistic relations in the modern Western nation-states, it may be doubted whether they can be applied directly to the situation in Asian countries, and, especially, whether they can account for the pre-colonial period in this area, when the ‘nation-state’ was not yet ‘invented’.

It is against this background that the International Institute for Asian Studies (Leiden) organized a seminar on the “Ideology and Status of Sanskrit” in November 1994 for which scholars were invited to contribute papers concerning questions such as:

What were the preconditions, and, subsequently, what were the effects of the formulation of a standard grammar of Sanskrit, and of elaborate theories and metaphysical ideologies around this grammar and the language? What was the interaction between grammar as standardized, reproducible knowledge and power? What was the scope and what were the limitations of the role played by Sanskrit in different social and cultural contexts? What was the role played by Buddhism and Jainism, movements which were to a considerable extent anti Brahmanic in orientation, in the spread and standardization of Sanskrit? How did the pre-colonial socio-linguistic factors transform or remain or disappear in the colonial and modern period?


List of contributorsIX
1Introduction: to word a social history of the Sanskrit Language (jan E.M. Houben1
IOrigins and creation of the eternal language
2Pre-rgvedic convergence between indo-Aryan and Dravidian? A survey of the issues and controversies17
3The early history of Sanskrit as supreme language59
4What was Sanskrit for? Metadiscoursive strategies in ancient India87
5Sanskrit and reality: the Buddhist contribution107
6Jain attitude towards the Sanskrit language137
7Socio-linguistic attitudes reflected in the work of bhartrhari and later grammarians157
IITransculturation, Sankritization, Vernacularization
8The Sanskrit Cosmo polis 300-1300 CE: Transculturation, Vernacularization and the question of ideology179
9The use of Sanskrit in south Indian royal inscriptions: Social political and religious implications249
10Speech of the Gurus: Instances of treatment of Sanskrit in tantric literature265
11Tibetan expertise in Sanskrit Grammar Ideology status and other extra-linguistic factor275
12More on the karaka-samgraha a Sanskrit grammatical text from bali289
13The introduction of Indian prosody among the Thaïs307
IIIThe Sanskrit Tradition: Continuity form the past or construction from the present
14Do you speak Sanskrit one a class of Sanskrit texts composed from the present327
15Sanskrit and Hindu national identity in nineteenth century Bengal347
16The place of Sanskrit in neo-Hindu ideologies: from religious reform to national awakening267
17Position of Sanskrit in public education and scientific research in modern India383
18Contextualizing the eternal language: Features of priestly Sanskrit401
Author Index487
General index495
The Sanskrit Cosmo polis and centess of Sanskrit learning501

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