Spoken Sanskrit and Daṇḍin

Over at the Language Log, Victor Mair has a post about spoken Sanskrit at the recent international workshop, “A Lasting Vision: Daṇḍin’s Mirror in the World of Asian Letters”. The workshop itself may be of interest to readers of this blog, since Alaṁkāraśāstra is (I would argue) a significant philosophical tradition (despite its lack of representation in places such as Potter’s Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. The lectures have been uploaded on YouTube.

The focus of Mair’s post, however, is not philosophical, but his observations about the Sanskrit spoken by scholars at the conference, and his surprise at its being used in this way (he says, “I had always thought of it as long-dead, classical language and because, from having studied it for several years, I was intimately familiar with the extraordinary complexity of its grammar, which made me think that it was not suited for quotidian purposes”). The post includes discussion of spoken Sanskrit by David Shulman, Whitney Cox, Frederick Smith, Shenghai Li, and Devin Patel.

That Sanskrit would be spoken at a conference on Daṇḍin, is of course, appropriate, given his attitude towards speech–and in what follows I quote from Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the Worlds of Men–“This entire triple world would become pitch darkness if ever to the end of days the light called speech should cease to shine” (p.82). Pollock’s remarks on Daṇḍin and Bhartṛhari , orality and writing, are useful, too:

The Daṇḍin and Bhartṛhari who celebrated the spoken lived in a world where the written had permeated both kāvya and śāstra for centuries. Many of the foundational texts of the Sanskrit intellectual tradition were composed in a literate environment even as they bear the shadow of the oral…There is thus no little irony in the fact that Sanskrit culture, in the form in which it became Sanskrit, and not just vaidika–culture, was centrally based on writing, given the ídee reçu long dominant in Indology of the culture’s allegiance to orality. What made kāvya historically possible as a cultural practice at all was writing itself; indeed, one could say that kāvya was the name given to an expressive text that was written down–and the text was the kind it was precisely because it was written down (p.83).

A final note, in the comments section, someone posted a link to the Australian Spoken Sanskrit Summer School, which takes place this (Australian) summer, from February 7 to 19, 2016.

Did any readers attend the conference? If so, did you notice the phenomenon of spoken Sanskrit, and do you have any thoughts to add (such as the relationship between the spoken and written word)?

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Humanities (Philosophy) at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

3 thoughts on “Spoken Sanskrit and Daṇḍin

  1. I did attend the workshop, and I will have something to say about it shortly, but I did want to note that Victor’s gracious post (and most of the comments on Language Log) comes out of his surprise that a “dead” language can be spoken so well. But Sanskrit doesn’t really fit the dictionary description of a “dead” language—which, by the way, is a category that Italian-language chauvinists invented in the 16th century to cast aspersions on Latin. If a language is “dead” when it has no native speakers, then Sanskrit was “dead” during the entire period that it was used as one of the principal language of intellectual and cultural creativity in southern Asia. Anyone who studies Sanskrit seriously will be exposed to people reciting and singing verses in Sanskrit, debating in Sanskrit, commenting on texts in Sanskrit—that’s all part of the educational package that Sanskrit was a part of. By the way, you can see Nagaraja Rao start to speak at 9:10 in this video.

  2. Andrew, about the “dead language” bit, absolutely (anyone with an interest in Sanskrit who has not read Pollock’s book, from which I quote Daṇḍin, ought to, in order to fully appreciate your point).

    The idea that the grammar is “too complex” for quotidian purposes struck me as strange, too. And anyone beginning Sanskrit language studies today will be exposed to very simple sentences about ordinary things (usually comings and goings into forests and villages, people carrying pots, etc). That a language is capable of complex syntactical constructions doesn’t mean it is incapable of simpler ones.

    I look forward to your post on the conference, and thanks for the link to Nagaraja Rao’s remarks.

  3. Pingback: Daṇḍin and the Philosophy of PoeticsThe Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

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