Recent decades have seen a growing genre in academia: the book or article that attempts to ‘rethink’ or ‘re-evaluate’ a particular field. This is part of a growing movement of re-evaluation within the university in general, mostly but not exclusively by those within the fields themselves. Much of this comes from a growing unease with the state of the disciplines as they react (or do not react) to broadening critique from literary theorists and philosophers. Talk about one’s discipline, therefore, has become almost as common as talk in one’s discipline. There are those who find this change a welcome one (including this writer), as well as those who find it a distracting complication. To the latter, the critique often appears as a jeremiad, that ‘re-invent’ often means ‘re-pent’, and the message is simply one that points to the sins of the fathers (there are no mothers in this lineage), merely enjoining us to avoid the mistakes of the past. In fact, however, that critique has little if anything to do with blame or guilt, of good versus bad, of bias versus unbiased, as these terms are commonly used.
There are at least two other reactions that I have observed. The first is one that simply points out the virtues of the fathers, and enjoins us to follow in their footsteps. We are told that it is, after all, the Indologist who discovered Ashoka, described the glories of the Gupta Age and, out of the infinite chaos of the Hindu past, put Indian history in order. Why gratuitously question these accomplishments? The second reaction is that the attention to Indology – the study of the ancient cultures of the Subcontinent – distracts from the ‘real’ work: Would one rather not make a contribution to the history of Ashoka’s reign or edit some new text, rather than deal with the long line of minor, almost forgotten, characters that formed a discipline such as Indology? What is more interesting, the history of India or the history of Indology?
The notion of ‘real’ work and the question that follows it, as well as the defence of the virtue of the fathers, reveal what seem to be some fundamental misunderstandings. For as noted, the critique is not about sins or virtues, nor is it about two rival antiquarian interests, one about India, the other about ‘Indianists’. Indeed, these reactions mistake the very point of the critique: that in the formation of any scholarly, humanistic activity, choices are made, often in the past, that affect what academics do and how they write and teach. These choices, and the assumptions and values that led to them, should be critically examined by today’s academics – if only because we now harbour at least the suspicion that many of the choices and conceptions formed before may no longer be acceptable to us. It is, therefore, not a question of ‘real’ work in the field as opposed to ‘unreal’ or ‘less valuable’ work about the field; nor is it a question of the history of India as opposed to the history of Indology. Rather, it is the relation between the two that is important, and today’s academics must exist and write fully aware of the tension between them – if indeed they can be separated at all.
Exploring this tension necessarily entails an examination of Indology. And here the term refers to classical Indology, or the study of the written records of Indian culture that are ordinarily associated with the methodology of the broader discipline of which it is a part: philology, or the study of the history of language. This Indology evolved, because of its historical primacy from its beginnings in the 19th century to the present day, a discourse that has influenced much of the subsequent writing about India. This influence continues today, and other disciplines concerned with the Subcontinent – notably history, art history, religion and anthropology – have at times been dependent on Indology and philology, with many of their basic assumptions about India having been dependent on the discourse of Indologists. The longevity of Indology has meant also that its ideas, like those of all of academia, have in part passed into mass culture. Indology is therefore an authoritative discourse that legitimates a number of activities at various levels of society, including in India itself. There is then a ‘high culture’ Indology and a ‘mass culture’ Indology, both of them now international in scope.
In the case of Indology, the chief choices that concern us were made at the time of the formation of philology, the science of language, as a science, between 1780 and 1820. This is a period that increasingly impinges on today’s academics, as the intellectual choices made then seem important but increasingly invalid, or at least in need of reaffirmation. The ‘old’ philology of the 17th and 18th centuries accepted the ‘problematic’ of language (the idea that language by its nature obfuscates), seeing itself as the arbiter between rhetoric and logic; in this, the philologist had a role as a mediator and even interpreter of the four central disciplines, grammar, logic, rhetoric and music. On the other hand, the 19th-century philologist saw language itself as object, subject to the same kinds of rules that came from science. For the first time, this objectification of language connected philology with such fields as botany, biology and economics.
The central event in the formation of this new philology was the so-called discovery of and prominence given to Sanskrit at the end of the 18th century. In addition to the usual linguistic training in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, the new philologist now had a new powerful tool. It was through this sacred language of ancient India that the new philology ‘objectified’ itself – becoming, in its eyes, a real comparative science. The similarity of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit enabled the philologist/Indologist to relate languages from the point of view of internal structures. All of the new philologists, no matter what their special interest, were Sanskritists, or were aware of the comparative use of the language. It is through Sanskrit that the ‘old’ philology was transformed into the scientific study of language that evolved in the 19th century. The new philology helped to de-prioritise the Bible, to free more of the intellectual life from the fetters of religious belief – ultimately, to continue the process of secularisation. Hellenism (the study of classical Greek and Roman societies) and Hebraism (the study of Hebrew and Jewish culture) were now joined by a third, Orientalism, all transformed by the new scientific discourse of philology and its chief instrument, Indology.
What are the tasks and assumptions that determined this new philology/Indology? It begins with a search for an object, the simplest kind of which is a document or documents. Once found (and removed, if possible), it works with these documents regardless of their medium – paper, palm leaf, stone, metal. It takes steps to preserve them, then classifies, deciphers, edits, translates and historicises them; in short, it works to transform them into neutral entities, the contents of which can now be exploited for a variety of purposes. Second, it analyses and classifies the elements of the languages found in these documents, creating grammars, dictionaries, manuals; it finds relationships between the pieces of one language and those of another; it hunts for regularities between the elements of languages, their sounds and words, thereby creating the possibility of comparison. Third, it makes a subtle but important assumption, that one can apply analogous rules to the content of the text – ie, not only the language itself, but what information the language holds can be historicised and compared. This process subsequently gives rise to other comparative disciplines, such as comparative religion and
Fourth, it makes an important temporal judgment. If regularities hold between the linguistic elements of a text, then they must hold between those elements or their analogues before the text was composed, and in texts after that in question – and, indeed, in spoken language as it is found today. Hence, the contemporary world of language can be used to support judgments about the text language and vice-versa, and the rules, assumptions and analogies can lead to a method of language reconstruction and comparison over very broad spans of time. (For instance, the anthropologist who notes a seeming anachronism in a modern tribal community, and thus assumes to be able to understand something about life from eons ago.) This is therefore an entry into unrecorded pre-history, a world of which there is no direct evidence but one that we can glimpse accurately – or so it is claimed. Fifth, if language can be constructed over this broad timeframe, then the historical and comparative methods evolved in the study of language can be used such that prehistoric societies can be reconstructed, can be related to the textual and contemporary societies that come after them. The result is the possibility of a very broad historical portrait. It is here that philology transforms itself imperceptibly into historical anthropology: a science of humankind.
The specific models from which this philology/Indology takes its terminology are the notions of classification found in the botanical and biological sciences – such as root, stem, branch and tree, or genus, phylum and family. Although arguments rage between those who believe that the use of such language is merely metaphorical and those who believe that they represent a conceptual reality, there is no debate between the philologists on the scientific nature of philology itself. In this assumption, they are at one. There is therefore a presumed unity with the biological and botanical sciences that has little to do with terminology: Philology is based on a naive realism, assuming that there is a straight run between language and reality. Put another way, there is an assumption that words and things match, that one can accurately use language to describe what is ‘out there’.
Thus, philology is thought to be objective: knowledge obtained through it is true, and only subject to errors that are easily discoverable and eradicated. There is therefore implied in all of this a set of assumptions about falsity and the nature of error. For instance, error is created by the improper use of rules and axioms, either intentionally or unintentionally, but can be removed by procedures inherent or implied by the rules. Behind the verification procedure is the notion of replication of the experiment of the natural scientist: If I can get the same results that you did, the experiment holds. This led to the development of the well-laid-out map of philological scholarship of footnotes, references, bibliographies, etc, analogues to the replication procedures of the natural scientist. The trail that one follows must be absolutely clear, and repeatable with the same results.
Speech and blood
The philologist/Indologist considered the rules of language that evolved through the study of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit (later expanded to what was called Indo-European) to be universal, applicable to all languages and all texts. Hence, the rapid and almost immediate extrapolation geographically of the rules and assumptions of philology to all areas of the world, and the subsequent rise of the geographical or ethnological ‘ologies’ mentioned above – Sinology, etc. We thus have a language game played, excepting for varying local conditions, in the same way in all the philological chambers of the university. The universality of these rules makes their continuity assured, or at least subject to little change over time. As such, the history of philology/Indology becomes part of the broad mapping-out of language throughout the world, with little change in its fundamental assumptions.
Behind Indo-European, Semitic and Turkic families, of course, are found the so-called ‘speakers’ of these languages. These peoples are inextricably linked to their languages, and it is precisely in the creation of these abstractions that philology/Indology hid its assumptions about the relationship of language and people, of people and race, and (the phrase that often appears in the philological literature) of speech and blood. It has often appeared as a curious fact that the creator of the notion of ‘Aryan’, the German philologist Max Muller, went out of his way to point out that language and race are in no way inextricably connected, and that when he used the term Aryan he meant nothing more than the name of a language group at a particular point in history. At other times, however, it is clear that Muller had indeed made the leap to the Aryan as a race, albeit inconsistently. Similar inconsistencies can be seen in the works of William Dwight Whitney, the most influential of all American Sanskritists.
What becomes apparent in a close reading of their works, however, is that race (whatever its exact meaning) is a reality for Whitney and Muller. Furthermore, if race and language are not inextricably tied, they seem to suggest, language is at the very least a probable indicator of race. For Whitney, the task of philology was not to separate language and race, but to find the philological evidence that supports the notion of race, which is properly the project of the ethnologist. One can only marvel at the symmetry of the philological and anthropological disciplines as they developed at the end of the 19th century. So close were they that they were sometimes combined in one chair: Moriz Winternitz, for instance, the famous historian of Indian literature, was a professor of both Indian philology and ethnology.
In reading the many pages of Whitney’s or Muller’s lectures, despite their professed scientific procedure, one can note how slippery the concepts of language and race were in their usage. Nowhere is language clearly defined; and race is interchangeable with a large number of related notions: blood, nation, culture, community. It is behind this surface confusion that one begins to discern a problem: that what are presented as neutral concepts are really no more than tropes for the common sense, rather loose, notions of the time, the middle-class illusions of the late-19th-century European world around which philology and ethnology organised themselves. Indeed, the notion of language itself, dressed as it was in the terminology of biology and botany and the terminology of genetic kinship – family of languages, mother tongue, sister language, living languages, dead languages – can be seen as a trope for race. Despite the caveats, ‘blood’ and ‘speech’ are inextricably, methodologically and metaphorically, one. They are twin projects.
It is no wonder, then, that Whitney and Muller appear to be inconsistent as they move imperceptibly between language and race. And after anthropology and linguistics have long abandoned them, today’s academics stand among the inheritors of these very tired and tristes tropiques (‘sad metaphor’) of ‘language and culture’, and the grid of assumptions that underlie their topological definition.
Philology, reduced to its tropes and figures of speech, stands more and more alone – for history discards and abandons, it rarely refutes. It is no accident that two major philologists, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ferdinand de Saussure, one a Greek scholar, the other trained in Sanskrit, left the philology movement early on. Indeed, Nietzsche reportedly characterised the standard philologist brilliantly: as a restorer of paintings, one who touches up a previously painted portrait.
Whether one abandons philology/Indology, or works to change or re-invent it, depends largely on whether one believes that the scientific concepts of the discipline have become or are unacceptably worn-out tropes. More broadly, however it also depends on how one sees the relationship between concept and trope, between logic and metaphor, between philology and criticism. The problematic of language has re-entered the philosophical debate through literary and critical theory, and it will not easily disappear now, nor can it go unheeded in this work. The debates continue, articulated as theory and culture, culture and imperialism, power and knowledge, the social production of knowledge, and the like.
In the Anglo-American world, the debate is often characterized as ‘common sense’ versus theory – with the latter often characterised as ‘gobbledegook’, usually of French or German origin. Indologists and other philologists have remarked that their methodology is ‘self-evident’ and is simply ‘common sense’. This is what the postcolonial theorist Edward Said referred to as “paper thin” methodology, and seen in the light of the above critique, the creations of Indology become highly questionable. Who is this Ashoka, this spiritual king who merely reinforces our fictitious notions of Indian spirituality? What is this Golden Age of the Guptas, which, like all golden ages, functions to devalue the present? And what is the chaos of the Hindu past if not an infinite time/space in which the Indian literary imagination moves in an infinite conversation with itself?
It must be said that the ‘philologisation’ of Indian culture was not always easy or pretty, and many have remarked on the close symmetry between the political process of colonisation and the cultural occupation of mental space by Indology, an equally appropriating and violent force. In creating its product, the Indologist had his raw materials shipped to London and other manufacturing centres, where they were refined, critically edited and packaged for re-export as well as domestic consumption. Rarely did the manufacturing Indologist leave home, for he relied on agents in the field to locate his raw materials. Thus, the Rig Veda, having suddenly appeared in three manuscripts at Oxford, was transformed into a book. Described as the oldest work of the Indo-European peoples, it was dedicated to Queen Victoria, the empress of India, by its local patron, the Maharaja of Vijayanagara, and its ‘manufacturer’, Max Muller.
Yet critically edited texts, once returned to India, sometimes became items of controversy and even oppression. More often, they became the icons of the English-speaking elite. Sanskrit, having performed its revolutionary task in the philological process and exported now all over Europe and America, could not recognise itself as described in the rules of Muller, Whitney and others. Unable to free itself from bondage, it refused to speak and was pronounced dead. But the Indologist, too, was often unhappy – sometimes with the raw materials, sometimes with himself. No more unhappy Indological expression has ever been penned than that of Julius Eggeling, the British Sanskritist, in his introduction to the translation of the Satapathabrahmana:
The translator of the Satapatha-brahmana can be under no illusion as to the reception his production is likely to meet with at the hand of the general reader. In the whole range of literature few works are probably less calculated to excite the interest of any outside the very limited number of specialists … If I have, nevertheless, undertaken, at the request of the Editor of the present Series, what would seem to be a rather thankless task, the reason will be readily understood by those who have taken even the most cursory view of the history of the Hindu mind and institutions.
Muller, Whitney and their successors adopted inevitably for the Indological task language stripped of all rhetoric, the common model for humanistic thought in the 19th century. Indeed, this adoption has been so complete that it has led to the irretrievability of rhetoric as a problem in the English-speaking world: in other words, the resistance to theory. It is difficult for many to even conceive of the problem. Yet it is one that resurfaces in the Anglo-American world almost always through French, Italian and German, and now through a growing access to these languages by an increasing group of people from the formerly colonised world. Hence, the trivialisation of rhetoric, its reduction to what is called in some Indian languages alankara – poetic or literary adornment – and the common reaction of theoretical ‘gobbledegook’ to the critical and philosophical arguments that have, however obscurely at times, attempted to inject into our intellectual life the whole problematic of language.
Someone once said that walking in the Himalaya is a perpetual ascent followed by a perpetual descent, punctuated by the continuous crossing of rivers. It is foolhardy to travel alone in such terrain, and so one travels in small groups. Many of these rivers are crossed by bridges – narrow, flimsy footbridges that are often no more than pieces of rope tied to wooden rungs, or pieces of bamboo that sway in the wind over torrents or gorges. Having spent many years in the Himalaya, crossing these for me is always the most frightening part of the journey. One arrives in a group, but one must cross alone. The first few steps are heady ones: suspended in midair, barely supported, one sees what one has not seen before. Soon, however, the most feared happens: one’s foot slips between the planks of the bridge. Slowly and carefully, one must stand and continue across.
My image of the intellectual situation today’s academics find themselves in is often that of such a traveller. Each is the first one of a group, one whose foot has slipped through, who now sits insecurely and uncomfortably where he or she is on the bridge. He is in no immediate danger of falling through. He has his back to his friends – he can hear them, but they cannot hear him. But unable to rise or to go back or forward, he realises suddenly that this is where he is, and where he will spend his time. His resources are what he has with him. He is condemned to ‘bricolage’, to finding a way with what is at hand. Perhaps a new body of ideas forms out of the dialogue of survival that each of us, as such suspended individuals, is able to weave out of the tales we share with each other about such experiences.
The writer is currently at work on a critical update to the line of thought encompassed in this article. Watch these pages for an essay on the groundbreaking new work by the Southasia scholar Sheldon Pollock, Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, culture, and power in premodern India.
~ Ted Riccardi is professor emeritus at Columbia University, and author of two Sherlock Holmes novels. He is currently affiliated with the Social Science Baha in Kathmandu.