भारतीय दर्शन एवं भारतीय भाषाएं

I have recently returned from a conference in India (the “Prakrit International Conference” or प्राकृत अंतर्राष्ट्रीय संमेलन्), about which I may or may not say more in a subsequent post, but I wanted to share this observation, which seems like a relatively urgent problem for “our field,” whatever we take that phrase to mean.

Almost all of the Indian representatives gave their talks in Hindi. The conference took place at Śravaṇabeḷagoḷa, in Karnataka, but hardly a word of Kannada was spoken: Hindi is now the “link language” among Indian academics, at all but a few places. All of the European and American representatives (including me) gave their talks in English.

This would be fine, if we could actually understand each other. But I know that not all of the English speakers knew Hindi well enough to follow the talks in Hindi, and vice versa. This is a problem: we have two communities of scholars working on Indian thought (in this case, primarily Jain thought) and essentially not talking to each other, not reading each others’ scholarship, etc. What is worse, it can sometimes seem like these two communities don’t particularly want to talk to each other, as if the concerns of one community were alien to the concerns of the other. I am sure that this is not the case—I am sure, in other words, that everyone is fully aware that each community of scholars has its own traditions, its own set of core questions, its own way of thinking about and talking about certain topics—but this situation is a powder-keg for the kinds of culture-wars (or “battles”) that have been erupting in the last couple of years, which are based on the premise that real scholarly conversation across cultural boundaries is either impossible or undesirable.

When I began my PhD program, my supervisor required me to learn Hindi, since it has now become a sine qua non for working in India with Indian colleagues. I wonder: how many students of Indian philosophy, who are not from India, learn modern Indian languages? How important do you, reader, think it is? What do we miss (or not miss?) by conducting the vast majority of our conversations in English? What have been your own experiences in multilinguistic contexts? How can we try to improve the situation?

4 Replies to “भारतीय दर्शन एवं भारतीय भाषाएं”

  1. You are raising such an important point, Dr. Oilett. I myself took the PhD in Religious Studies at UIowa. I had to learn Hindi, Sanskrit, and German as did all of my colleagues in the Indian Studies program of the department.

    It seems like it would be impossible to do research without having some South Asian linguistic skills. How would a person even finish a dissertation?

  2. I think the issue isn’t being competent in Indian languages per se: we all understand that a specialist in Indian philosophy needs to know Sanskrit, and a comparativist benefits greatly from it too. The question is whether we need to know modern Indian languages – and in this case specifically Hindi.

    It’s an interesting question – in part because this post is the first time I’ve ever seen it raised. When I was in grad school, there was significant discussion of the languages one needs to read modern scholarship – but other than French and German, the other modern language that came up was Japanese. In part this has to do with India’s particular modern history, with English the lingua franca for two hundred years. I wonder if a similar conference thirty years ago would have had a Hindi “track” the way this one did – it’s my understanding that Hindi has started to become more of a lingua franca in India because of the spread of Hindi films, but that this is a relatively recent phenomenon.

  3. Isn’t this part of the more general problem of Anglophone scholars implicitly assuming or explicitly thinking that if something has not been written or said in English, then it is not worth reading or listening to it?
    (I see that in the case of India, it is more than weird to de facto refuse to listen to contemporary Indian scholars and personally I am happy to have the chance to refresh my Hindī)

  4. Elisa, yes, of course, but in this case I think we might broaden the category to ‘Europhone.’ And yes, individuals can feel bad for not knowing Indian languages well enough (as I often do), or congratulate themselves for knowing them as well as they do, but I wonder what steps are being taken, or could be taken, to stop the conversations from drifting further apart. One possibility would be to simply insist that these conversations happen in English, since people are “supposed to” know it anyway; another would be to accommodate Hindi speakers by forcing ourselves to speak and write in Hindi more often (and forcing our students to learn it); and a third option would be to use Sanskrit, which is maybe less crazy than it sounds.

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