Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why do we study Sanskrit (and other "dead" languages)?

Yesterday I was sitting on the train and observed the following scene: a group of teenagers met a Latin teacher. As usual in such occasions, one of the boys stated that it makes no sense to keep on studying Latin and ancient Greek since they are both "dead languages" (Latin and ancient Greek are compulsory in some Italian schools…among them the one of the above mentioned teenagers and that of the teacher). The (usual, once again) answer of the teacher was: "Without any Latin, how could you understand all Latin inscriptions in Rome?" Needless, the boy answered that street signals are in Italian and that he does not care for inscriptions. The teacher's argument, in the case at stake, at least, seemed rather poor to me, too.
What, instead, is the purpose of teaching and studying Sanskrit? I am not referring to one's personal study of Sanskrit (everyone has secret passions and hobbies one does not need to justify), but rather its academic purpose. On the one hand, Sanskrit may be extremely useful for whomsoever will keep on having to do with India. This claim might be disputed, but I will take it now for granted, in order to focus on the next group of students, namely the ones who –in the future– will have nothing to do with India. Is the study of Sanskrit nonetheless useful to them? Yes, in my opinion, since:
  1. unless one faces a different culture, one does not realise what one's background is; hence
  2. confrontation with another culture enhances critical thinking
  3. cultures which are temporally or geographically distant are more likely to be "different" and to, hence, implement point 1
  4. in the global world, geographically distant cultures are often either too "primitive" or too similar to ours (due to what Heidegger called the "Europeization of the Earth")
  5. hence, "dead" languages offer us an almost unique chance to face a theoretically mature culture (one we cannot dismiss as a defeated option, like we would do with, say, tribal cultures) which is at the same time different from ours.


Sófisti said...

The proper-most of antiquarians is the one who through his or her research underlines the invariance of all things, who understands and demonstrates that the human reality and condition is not only largely but exactly the same throughout the recorded ages. Sanskrit as a tool in the archaeology of worldly wisdom.

Besides, as I understand it the purpose of an education in the humanities is to know/study everything. Because this one department is not to produce specialists, although this is what it does mostly in the contemporary university, but to produce humanists. The only department in which we learn not to become learned but to become good.

sfauthor said...
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elisa freschi said...

Thanks, Sophist (nice to read you again, btw). I especially appreciate your comment about humanism. I guess departments of humanities look often unconvincing while begging for funds, etc., because they try to imitate the model of business schools (hence, they try to claim that they also *produce*).

I only disagree with your definition of "antiquarian". A humanist, I would argue, should be more than an antiquarian, insofar as s/he can understand the human dimension of what s/he studies, whereas the antiquarian often only aims at collecting notions as is they were antique chairs.

What is your experience in teaching/studying/dealing with an ancient language?

VS said...

You are the scholar on these topics, so tell me haven't all the main texts been translated into languages that students can understand? Unless students are to have a very scholarly debate, what value would be added by reading a text in its original language? Of course, the subtle nuances can be understood only if you are really comfortable the language, but then in today's world what would be the returns on that?

There is of course a logic of vibrational effects of certain chants. That I think would have to be in the original language.

elisa freschi said...

No, as far as Sanskrit is concerned, many very important texts have either never been translated or their translation is philosophically unusable (that is: it only reflects the Sanskrit syntax with English words and can't be understood by people who do not know Sanskrit). In short, studying Sanskrit is still a conditio sine qua non if one wants a deeper glance into Indian philosophy. It is up to us (I feel it as part of my personal responsibility –adhikāra) to fill the gap.

But, one might ask: why should we care about Sanskrit philosophy? I guess that the answer should be: we do not have to care about *Sanskrit* philosophy, but we must care about critical thinking in general and this is enhanced by confrontation with alien thoughts.

VS said...

If we consider the evolution of human consciousness as a single process, what then is an 'alien thought'? :o)

elisa freschi said...

Well, an alien thought is for instance the idea of the evolution of mankind as a single process… thanks for the stimulating idea!

Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...

The dead languages offer the shortest route to wisdom, since much of what we discover about ourselves is what makes us wise, and this has already been done by many people before and communicated to us in the languages we now consider dead. By not studying Sanskrit (and other significantly productive dead languages), we are re-inventing the wheel as it were.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Brāhmaṇaspati,
I agree with you: possibly everything we look for, has already been written and just awaits to be read (you may want to have a look at these posts:
By contrast, I tend to be skeptical about the usage of the word "wisdom" and "wise"… Do we really need to find answers? Are not challenging questions more thought-provoking? And is not the destruction of our presuppositions able to lead to higher achievements of self-awareness?

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