One facet of “Indian philosophy” that may be perfectly obvious, but is nevertheless worth talking about at the beginning stages of a blog dedicated to the subject, is that nearly all of the texts we’ve been discussing or will be discussing—almost everything that Matthew Dasti’s overview encompasses—are composed in Sanskrit. (Matthew actually noted “the use of Sanskrit as a lingua franca.”) “Indian philosophy” is strikingly coextensive with “Sanskrit philosophy.”
There are many important exceptions, but many of these end up proving the rule. Buddhism and Jainism, for example, initially rejected Sanskrit both for transmitting canonical texts and for religious and philosophical discussion. But many Buddhist communities had adopted Sanskrit for one or both of these purposes by the mid-1st millennium CE, and some Jains, too, came to use Sanskrit for the purposes of explaining their own canonical texts and arguing with non-Jains.
Sanskrit was, of course, the dominant language of culture-power for a long time in South Asia. But its dominance in philosophical discourse was even more profound than in other areas of culture. What was it about Sanskrit—or philosophy—that philosophical discourse was almost entirely conducted in Sanskrit? Where are the exceptions and what do they mean? And when, if it all, were these strictures on language finally relaxed, so that philosophy could speak in other languages? (For one answer to this last question, see Nalini Bhushan and Jay Garfield’s anthology of Indian Philosophy in English.)
One factor, although perhaps just as much an effect as a cause, is a “Sanskrit language ideology” that was formulated and promoted by Mīmāṃsakas and seems to have been rather widely accepted. (I’ll discuss one dissenter, the Jain scholar Prabhācandra, in a later post.) Pollock, in a recent paper that seeks to address the “question of language” head-on, formulates the basic postulate of this ideology thus (2011: 22): “Correct language is required for the correct communication of reality.” Sanskrit is correct by definition; other languages can only get at reality indirectly, that is, by causing us to infer the Sanskrit words for the phenomenon in question. Correct, in this position, also means “eternal”: the only way that one can talk about eternal truths is to use a language that is itself eternal.
One of the key passages for this position is the section on ritual manuals (Kalpasūtrādhikaraṇa, 1.3.6: see another post on the same section) in Kumārila Bhaṭṭa’s Tantravārttika. The earlier discussion on this topic had focused on what kind of authority inhered in the “digests” of the Vedas that told Brahmin priests exactly how to perform certain sacrifices. One reason why they weren’t considered authoritative is that they were “improperly composed” (nāsanniyamāt, 1.3.12)—they lacked features such as accents that truly authoritative Vedic texts were supposed to have. But Kumārila refocuses the argument on the authority of Buddhist and Jain scriptures. They cannot be considered authoritative because—and here Kumārila reinterprets asanniyamāt—they are not in the correct language. Not only are they not in Sanskrit, but they deviate sharply from standard Prakrit, which in Kumārila’s world was the only alternative to Sanskrit if one wanted to compose a text that people could actually read and understand.
Although Kumārila frames the question primarily in terms of eternality and non-eternality, we might think in terms of a functional stability and perspicuity: Sanskrit offered a standard language, which was intelligible to educated people over a vast area, with crystal-clear rules of derivation. There also seems to have been a widespread consensus about how to map the syntax of Sanskrit onto philosophical argumentation (with the bhāva suffixes, the use of the hetu-pañcamī, etc.). But couldn’t any language have fulfilled these functions? How do we account for Sanskrit’s position in philosophical discourse? How do we relate functionalist explanations to social and historical explanations?
Sheldon Pollock, “The Languages of Science in Early Modern India.” Pp. 19-48 in Sheldon Pollock (ed.), Forms of Knowledge in Early Modern Asia: Explorations in the Intellectual History of India and Tibet, 1500-1800. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.