Western Marxist Orientalist scholars are chewing up Sanskrit as a tiger would devour a goat, digesting what is needed and excreting the remains. So said well-known Indian fire-brand Rajiv Malhotra at the opening of the 16th World Sanskrit Conference in Bangkok on 28 June 2015. Many of the 600 or so attendees were also surprised to learn that international scholarship on Sanskrit is fundamentally perverted by the ideas of Giambattista Vico (1688–1744). The world is neatly divided into secular leftist ‘outsiders’ (Westerners and many Indians who have been coopted by the system) who regard Sanskrit as dead, oppressive and political, and ‘insiders’ for whom Sanskrit as alive, liberating and sacred.
The conference, which received a very substantial subsidy from the Indian government, was officially opened by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirishorn, herself a student of Sanskrit. Held in the glitzy Renaissance Hotel over for five days, papers began at 8am and ran until 6pm, but there were plenty of good meals and cultural entertainment to leaven the scholarly dough.
My colleague Prof Elizabeth Rohlman from the University of Calgary and I co-convened the first ever independent panel on puranas (foundational texts of Hindu mythology), which produced excellent results. There is a growing awareness that the puranas represent a gold-mine of understudied texts (note the exploitative ‘outsider’ turn of phrase here).
As is usual with these mega-events, there was a full spectrum of papers and conversations. The presentations ranged from paradigm-changing to time-wasting. I jotted down eight Really Good Ideas in the front of my notebook, which constitutes an overall success.
Among the many high points were the formal disputation in Sanskrit by tradition scholars on the significance of shabda – ‘word’ or ‘sound’, and a very lively Sanskrit poetry reading session, including poems in Haiku format and a humorous take on mobile phones. Spoken Sanskrit was everywhere–it is always a pleasure to it used as a lingua franca among scholars who have no other language in common, as has been the case for the last two or three millennia.
The recurrent problem with many papers is that scholars consistently fail to place their work in the broader theoretical or academic context. Papers either consist of data with no theory, theory with no data and those with neither (i.e. story-telling). Sometimes it seemed as if no one read anyone else’s work. Of course we all love to chase down our own rabbit-holes, but if we can’t explain why our work is important or interesting, or how it contributes to the big picture, one wonders why it is presented at all.
It was sad to see a changing of the guard–many of the grand old scholars of Sanskrit studies are too old or unwell to travel, but on the plus side, a pleasing number of young scholars are coming up the ranks.
There was general excitement and widespread approval when at the final session it was announced that after the 17th conference in Vancouver in 2018, the 18th World Sanskrit Conference will be held in Canberra in 2021.
Had he attended the rest of the conference, Mr Malhotra would have been highly displeased: there is a great deal of excellent scholarship going on around the world. He would also have been surprised to learn that many of us are vegetarians and that we don’t eat goats of any description.