Inspiring Thoughts, Powerful Words|Oct 3, 2006 1:25 PM| by:

Evaluating Sanskrit

There are two forms of knowledge of which those who know Brahman have spoken: the higher and the lower – what in modern terms can be called knowledge and wisdom. It seems to me that the dilemma of man in this nuclear age is the growing gap between knowledge and wisdom. Although there has been a tremendous explosion of knowledge, there has been no corresponding growth in wisdom. And Sanskrit, the greatest living classical language in the world today which has through the centuries been the vehicle for some of the most profound flights of human mind and imagination, provides a key both to the lower and higher knowledge and also a bridge between these two which modern man can use to tremendous advantage.

… if India today is independent, if it stands proudly among the comity of nations, it is very largely because of the contribution that Sanskrit has made to the culture and history of this nation. It has provided the living link with the dawn of our civilization that continues down till the present day. Whenever in our long and tortuous history dark clouds have gathered over India, it was largely through Sanskrit that a new light, faith and hope has been given to us. Just as the Ganga has been a source of life to millions, Sanskrit also has arisen at the dawn of our civilization and is flowing eternally towards the ocean, in the process giving life and vigour to our nation.

I would submit, however, that Sanskrit has never been confined to India alone. Sanskrit has always accepted the best from every direction: ‘Let noble thoughts come to us from every side ‘. Sanskrit has overflowed the physical boundaries of India into Central Asia, South Asia, South-East Asia, and has spread its impact far and wide. One of the great epics of human achievement has been the diffusion of Sanskrit, and through Sanskrit the ideals it has expressed, throughout a very large portion of the civilized world – whether it is distant Siberia or Mongolia, China or Japan, Indonesia or Indo-China, apart from the countries which are in the neighbourhood of India – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Ceylon, Burma and Bhutan. Everywhere Sanskrit has carried with it its ideals, and wherever Hinduism or Buddhism have gone in the ages past, Sanskrit has been the major vehicle for carrying the message.

Then again, a superb role has been played by Western Orientologists in the rediscovery of Sanskrit in the modern age, and I would like to place on record that this country is deeply indebted to these great scholars who, coming from distant lands, very often not even visiting India, nevertheless played such a tremendous role in the rediscovery of Sanskrit in the modern world; men like Schlegel and Chezy, Max Muller and Monier Williams, Alexander Hamilton and William Jones, Petrov and Menaev. The list is a long one and it is very difficult to choose, but these are the people who in modern times have rediscovered Sanskrit for us. Otherwise, as a result of foreign domination, this great heritage would have been lost not only to India but to the world, because Sanskrit is a part of the heritage of the entire world and not confined to India alone. It is in this context that our International Sanskrit Conference has a special significance.

…I would like to place before you what I consider to be the four fundamental levels on which Sanskrit can be evaluated in the modern age.

There is, first, its superb linguistic structure. Thanks to the Trimuni – Panini, Patanjali and Katyayana – Sanskrit has a linguistic and phonetic structure of unrivalled beauty and perfection. Therefore the study of this structure, for itself and for the relationship that it bears to other great classical languages of the Indo-European family and languages belonging to other families, is of tremendous and continuing significance. It is a living laboratory of linguistics and phonetics, because Sanskrit is a language that is classical but still very much alive.

Then there are the literary glories of Sanskrit, multifaceted and many-splendoured. Valmiki, Vyasa and Vishvanatha; Kalidasa, Kapila and Kalhana; Jayadeva, Jaimini and Jagannatha; Bhavabhuti, Bhasa and Bharata; Asvaghosa, Abhinavagupta and Anandavardhana; Vatsyayana, Visakhadatta and Vidyadhara… the list is endless. The corpus of Sanskrit literature covers the whole gamut of human experience, it is by no means confined to grammar or what is known as philosophy. Every human emotion and aspiration, every beat of the human heart, every flight of the human mind, the joys and sorrows of humanity are to be found in Sanskrit literature, and this makes it continuously meaningful in the modern age.

Next, there is a corpus of knowledge which is relevant and valid in modern studies. For example, in art and architecture, music and dancing, astronomy and medicine, yoga and the whole gamut of psychology and depth psychology… in all these fields, works in Sanskrit have made original contributions which need to be carefully assessed and integrated into our contemporary storehouse of knowledge.

Finally, of course, we come to the para vidya, the higher knowledge. Modern man today is on a crucial crossroad. After centuries man has emerged with tremendous power. He has the power, if he uses it wisely, to abolish misery and poverty, suffering and degradation from the face of this earth. And yet the same power, if misused, can annihilate all life upon this planet, and if even a fraction of the nuclear weapons that are piled up were to explode, it would be enough to destroy not only Sanskrit but the entire human race. Therefore, what man needs today is wisdom and a new vision. Sanskrit has given such a vision. It has the vision of the divinity of man. Not only the divinity of God, because if God exists he is divine by definition and there is nothing very special about it. But as far as the divinity of man is concerned, every human being carries with him a spark of that divinity – a spark of that unique potentiality. The Upanishads have a marvellous phrase for mankind – children of immortality. And then there is the concept of the family of man, the unity of man, a concept that cuts across all barriers of caste and creed, religion and nationality, race or political ideology; a vision that unites mankind into a single family. And it is this vision, this wisdom that is required today to heal the fractured psyche of man in the nuclear age. This is what we need if man is to survive his own ingenuity and to move into the future. There are difficulties on the way, the voices of doom and destruction call from all sides. But for man, the eternal pilgrim, there is no waiting, there is no tarrying by the wayside. He must push on regardless of the difficulties, secure in the knowledge that ultimately the victory will be his, secure in the wisdom which has come down to us through the medium of Sanskrit.

Dr. Karan Singh

(Excerpts from a Presidential Address by Dr. Karan Singh; International Sanskrit Conference, March 26, 1972. Dr. Karan Singh is an Author, Former Indian Minister of Education, former Ambassador of India to the USA, Member in the Parliament of India, currently Chairman, Auroville Foundation, Auroville.)