Sanskrit Language Enlightened The European Intellectuals

It is for the astounding richness of the Sanskrit language that William Jones, a British colonial judge and linguist, first translated Kalidasa’s Shakuntala from the original Sanskrit into English in 1789 CE. This stirred the minds and hearts of some of the top European intellectuals of that era such as August and Friedrich Schlegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Johann Goethe, Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schiller etc. Very impressed by the language and its philosophical plot the father of German literature (J. Goethe) learnt Sanskrit on his own. And he plunged into this ancient play Shakuntala for thirty years. He even wrote an insightful poem eulogizing this play. Again, George Forster translated Shakuntala into German in 1791. In a span of some decades, it sprouted 46 translations into fourteen European languages.

On the other hand the translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Charles Wilkin in 1784 and Upanishads by Anquetil Duperron in 1801 opened up unprecedented vistas for the philosophical regeneration hitherto unknown in European literature. The doctrines of Vedanta such as ‘Oneness of the universe, and interdependence and interconnection of all entities and all particles‘ provided a harmonious combination of spiritualism and rationalism – it was something unheard of by the western scholars.

Again, one of the fathers of modern linguistics, Franz Bopp, and a great philosopher, Friedrich Schlegel, both from Germany, laid the revolutionary foundation of comparative linguistics by freely borrowing from Panini’s ‘Ashtadhyayi’ which was later further developed by scholars like Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield and Noam Chomsky. Panini, who was an enlightened sage of 4th BCE Bharat, was the first to systematically put down the comprehensive Grammar of Sanskrit language. His treatise ‘Ashtadhyayi’ consists of 3959 sutras which can handle the nuances and intricacies of any language in the universe, empirically and anatomically.

Having been bewitched by Sanskrit language a renowned American linguist Leonard Bloomfield exclaimsIt was in India, however, that there rose a body of knowledge which was destined to revolutionize European ideas about language. Panini Grammar taught Europeans to analyze speech forms; when one compared the constituent parts, the resemblances, which hitherto had been vaguely recognized, could be set forth with certainty and precision.” Yes, here at home we prefer to call Sanskrit as a dead language, and instead, with enthusiasm and hubris choose to learn German. We heartlessly cook up reasons not to learn this profound language Sanskrit.

There are countless western scholars and scientists who have overwhelmingly acknowledged the exceptional richness of Sanskrit language wherein they saw an immense scope in the development of any area of study. Voltaire, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Emerson, William Blake, PB Shelley, Henry Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, TS Eliot, Neils Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Oppenheimer, Mark Twain, Carl Jung, J. D. Salinger and others learnt Sanskrit or studied Sanskrit literature to strengthen their intellectual prowess.

John Archibald Wheeler –a famous modern physicist who first coined the terms ‘Black Hole’ and ‘Worm Hole’ and occupied the chair that had previously been held by Albert Einstein, enthuses – ‘One has the feeling that the thinkers of the East (Bharat) knew it all, and if we could only translate their answers into our language we would have the answers to all our questions.’ With the same vigor bursts out another physicist Erwin Schrodinger, known as the father of Quantum Mechanics — “Some blood transfusion from India to the West is a must to save Western science from spiritual anemia.”

Here are my few earnest questions – had all these rational thinkers, scientists, writers – whose theories, whose principles, whose literature, whose formulas and equations we study in schools and colleges and thus claim ourselves as academically qualified, gone crazy to heap high praise on Sanskrit and its literary treasure troves?  How can we claim to be Bharatiya when we joyfully undermine our own heritage?  What is it that makes us to see only flaws in our Mother even without ever making a bit of genuine effort to know and realize her virtues?

I don’t think we have ever seen any country in the world that its citizens speak ill of their heritage, their tradition and values. Why does it touch our raw nerves when someone appreciates the values and culture of our native land? Sanskrit and the myriad scriptures produced in this grand language are as resplendent as the Sun over our head. Can you ignore the Sun?

I don’t think François Voltaire was a big fool to announce with vehemence about 300 years ago  —-‘Everything has come down to us from the bank of GANGA’ , ‘The first Greeks traveled to India to instruct themselves’, ‘India, whom the whole Earth needs, who needs no one, must by that very fact be the most civilized land’.  Should it not call for a dispassionate introspection and thus our self-correction and reawakening?

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Editor’s note

While it is useful for Hindus to learn about the genuine appreciation that some Western thinkers and scientists hold for our civilizational knowledge systems, we must also be aware that a large and powerful school of Western Indologists from the nineteenth century onwards – the likes of Max Mueller, Albert Weber and others described in this article series ‘Western Indologists – A Study in Motives‘, and continuing to this day in the form of Wendy Doniger, Sheldon Pollock etc. – have a socio-political agenda which distorts their scholarship. The inherent value of Hindu knowledge traditions does not depend on any external validation; it is the duty of all Hindus to preserve, learn and further develop those knowledge systems.

About the Author

Salil Gewali
Salil Gewali is a Journalist & Writer from Upper Mawprem, Shillong, Meghalaya.