A Historical Sense

What Sanskrit has meant to me
Fount
(Illustration: VIVEK THAKKAR)

I had come to Sanskrit in search of roots, but I had not expected to have that need met so directly. I had not expected my wish for a ‘historical sense’ to be answered with linguistic roots.

Aged twenty-seven or so, when I first began to study Sanskrit as a private student at Oxford, I knew nothing about the shared origins of Indo-European languages. Not only did I not know the example given in my textbook—that the Sanskrit ãrya, the Avestan airya, from which we have the modern name Iran, and the Gaelic Eire, all the way on the Western rim of the Indo-European belt, were all probably cognate—I don’t even think I knew that word, ‘cognate’. It means ‘born together’: co + natus. And natus from gnascor is cognate with the Sanskrit root jan from where we have janma and the Ancient Greek gennaõ, ‘to beget’. Genesis, too.

And in those early days of learning Sanskrit, the shared genesis of these languages of a common source, spoken somewhere on the Pontic steppe in the third millennium BC, a source which had decayed and of which no direct record remains, absorbed me completely. Well, almost completely. The grammar was spectacularly difficult and, in that first year, it just kept mushrooming—besides three genders, three numbers and eight cases for every noun, there were several classes of verbs, in both an active and middle voice, each with three numbers and three persons, so that in just the present system, with its moods and the imperfect, I was obliged to memorise 72 terminations for a single verb alone.

And still I found time to marvel at how the Sanskrit vid, from where we have vidiã, was related to the Latin videre—to see—from where, in turn, we have such words as video and vision; veda too, of course, for as Calasso writes in Ka, the ancient seers, contrary to common conception, did not hear the Vedas, they saw them! Or that kãla, Time and Death, should be derived from the Sanskrit kãl, ‘to calculate or enumerate’—related to the Latin kalendarium, ‘account book’, the English calendar—imparting, it seemed to me, onto that word the suggestive notion that at the end of all our calculations comes Death. Almost as if kãla did not simply mean Time, but had built into it the idea of its passage, the count of days, as it were.

These thrills were so self-evident that I did not stop to ask what lay behind them. But one day, a few months into my second term, the question was put to me by a sympathetic listener. An old editor at Penguin. I was in London assailing him over dinner, as I now am you, with my joy at having discovered these old threads, when he stopped me with: But what is this excitement? What is the excitement of discovering these old roots?

An oddly meta question, it should be said, oddly self- referential, and worthy of old India. For few ancient cultures were as concerned with the how and why of knowing as ancient India. And what my editor was saying was, you have the desire to know, fine—you have jijñãsa, desiderative of jña: ‘to know’—but what is it made of? What is this hunting about for linguistic roots? What comfort does this knowledge give? And, what, as an extension, can it tell us about our need for roots, more generally? It was that most basic of philosophical enquiries: why do we want to know the things we want to know?

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I grew up in late 20th century India, in a deracinated household. I use that word keeping in mind that racine is 'root' in French, and that is what we were: people whose roots had either been severed or could no longer be reached. A cultural and linguistic break had occurred, and between my grandparents’ and my parents’ generation, there lay an imporous layer of English education that prevented both my father in Pakistan, and my mother, in India, from being able to reach their roots. What the brilliant Sri Lankan art critic, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, had seen happening around him already in his time had happened to us (and is, I suppose, happening today all over India).

‘It is hard to realize,’ Coomaraswamy writes in The Dance of Shiva, ‘how completely the continuity of Indian life has been severed. A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and to create a nondescript and superficial being deprived of all roots—a sort of intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or the West.’

This is an accurate description of what we were. And what it meant for me, personally, as an Indian writer getting started with a writing career in India, was that the literary past of India was closed to me. The Sanskrit commentator, Mallinatha, working in 14th century Andhra, had with a casual ‘iti-Dandin: as Dandin says’, been able to go back seven or eight hundred years into his literary past. I could go back no further than fifty or sixty. The work of writers who had come before me, who had lived and worked in the places where I lived and worked today, was beyond reach. Their ideas of beauty; their feeling for the natural world; their notion of what it meant to be a writer, and what literature was—all this, and much more, were closed to me. And, as I will explain later, this was not simply for linguistic reasons.

I was—and I have TS Eliot in mind as I write this—a writer without a historical sense. Eliot who, in Tradition and the Individual Talent, describes the ‘historical sense’ as: a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense, he feels, compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but that [for him]—I’m paraphrasing now—the whole literature of Europe from Homer onwards to that of his own country has ‘a simultaneous existence’.

My problem was that I had next to nothing in my bones. Nothing but a handful of English novels, some Indian writing in English, and a few verses of Urdu poetry. That was all. And it was too little; it left the bones weak; I had no way to thread the world together.

The place I grew up in was not just culturally denuded, but—and this is to be expected, for we can only value what we have the means to assess—it held its past in contempt. Urdu was given some token respect—though no one really bothered to learn it—but Sanskrit was actively mocked and despised. It was as if the very sound of the language had become debased. People recoiled from names that were too Sanskritic, dismissing them as lower class: ‘Narindar,’ someone might say, ‘what a driver’s name!’ They preferred Armaan and Zhyra and Alaaya. The Sanskrit teacher in most elite schools was a figure of fun. And people took great joy at having come out of a school, such as The Doon School, say, without having learnt any more Sanskrit than a derisive little rhyme about flatulence.

What was even more dismaying was that very few people in this world regarded Sanskrit as a language of literature. In fact, Sanskrit, having fought so hard historically to escape its liturgical function and become a language of literature and statecraft, had in the India I grew up been confined once again to liturgy. And an upper-class lady, on hearing that you were learning Sanskrit, would think nothing of saying: ‘Oh, I hate all that chanting-shanting.’

Sanskrit was déclassé; it was a source of embarrassment; its position in our English-speaking world reminded me of the VS Naipaul story of the boy among the mighty Mayan ruins of Belize. ‘In the shadow of one such ruin,’ Naipaul writes in The Enigma of Arrival, ‘a Mayan boy (whatever his private emotions) giggled when I tried to talk to him about the monument. He giggled and covered his mouth; he seemed to be embarrassed. He was like a person asking to be forgiven for the absurdities of long ago…’

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To have Sanskrit in India was to know an equal measure of joy and distress. On the one hand, the language was all around me and things that had once seemed closed and inert came literally to be full of meaning. ‘Narindar’ might have sounded downmarket to the people I had grown up with, but it could no longer be that way for me. Not when I knew that beyond its simple meaning as ‘Lord of Men’, nara—cognate with the Latin nero and the Greek anér—was one of our oldest words for ‘man’. Some might turn their nose up at a name like Aparna, say, preferring a Kaireen or an Alaaya, but not me. Not when it was clear that parna was ‘leaf’, cognate with the English ‘fern’, and aparna, which meant ‘leafless’, was a name Kalid ¯a sa had himself given Paravati: ‘Because she rejected, gracious in speech though she was, even the high level of asceticism that is living only on leaves falling from trees of their own accord, those who know the past call her Aparna, the Leafless Lady.’

My little knowledge of Sanskrit made the walls speak and nothing was the same again. Words and names that had once seemed whole and complete—such as Anuja and Ksitaja—broke into their elements. I saw them for what they were: upapada compounds, which formed the most playful and, at times, playfully profound compounds. Anuja, because it meant ‘born after’, or ‘later’, was a name often given to the youngest son of a family. And ksitaja, which meant ‘born of the earth’—the ja being a contraction of jan, that ancient thread for birthing, begetting and generating—could be applied equally to an insect and a worm as well as the horizon, for they were both earth-born. And dvi|ja, twice born, could mean a Brahmin, for he is born, and then born again when he is initiated into the rites of his caste; it could mean ‘a bird’, for it is born once when it is conceived and then again from an egg; but it could also mean ‘a tooth’, for teeth, it was plain to see, had two lives too.

So, yes: once word and meaning were reunited, a lot that had seemed ordinary, under the influence of the world I grew up in, came literally to acquire new meaning. Nor did the knowledge of these things seem trifling to me, not simply a matter of curiosity, not just pretty baubles. Because the way a culture arrived at its words, the way it endowed sabda with artha, gave you a picture of its values, of its belief system, of the things it held sacred.

Consider, for instance, sarıra or ‘body’. One of its possible derivations is from √srr, which means ‘to break’ or ‘destroy’, so that sarıra is nothing but ‘that which is easily destroyed or dissolved.’ And how could one know that without forming a sense of the culture in which that word emerged and how it regarded the body? The body, which, as any student of John Locke will tell you (1), had so different a significance in other cultures.

I thought it no less interesting to observe the little jumps of meaning a root made as it travelled over the Indo-European belt. Take vertere, ‘to turn’, from the old Latin uortere: we have it in Sanskrit too: vrt, vartate: ‘to turn, turn round, revolve, roll; to be, to live, to exist, to abide and dwell’. It is related to the German werden—‘to become’. From where we have the Old English wyrd—‘fate, destiny’; but also werde: ‘death’. That extra layer of meaning restored, it was impossible ever to think of Shakespeare’s ‘weird sisters’ from Macbeth in the same way again.

What Sanskrit did for me was that it laid bare the deep tissue of language. The experience was akin to being able to see beneath the thick encroachment of slum and shanty, the preserved remains of a grander city, a place of gridded streets and sophisticated sewage systems, of magnificent civic architecture. But to go one step further with the metaphor of the ruined city, it was also like seeing Trajan’s forum as spolia on people’s houses. The language was there, but it was unthought-of, unregarded, hardly visible to the people living among it: there as remains, and little more. There are few places in the world where the past continues into the present as seamlessly as it does in India, and where people are so unaware of it.

Neither is the expectation of such an awareness an imposition of the present on the past. Nor is it an import from elsewhere; not—to use the Academic’s word—etic, but deeply emic to India. For it is safe to say that no ancient culture thought harder about language than India, no culture had better means to assess it. Nothing in old India went unanalysed; no part of speech was just a part of life, no word just slipped into usage, and could not be accounted for. This was the land of grammar and grammarians. And, if today, in that same country, men were without grammar, without means to assess language, it spoke of a decay that could be measured against the standards of India’s own past.

That decay—growing up with as little as I had—was what lay behind my need for roots and the keenness of my excitement at discovering them. It was the excitement, at a time when my cultural life felt thin and fragmentary, of glimpsing an underlying wholeness, a dream of unity, that we human beings never quite seem able to let go of. But there was something else. In India, where history had heaped confusion upon confusion, where everything was shoddy and haphazard and unplanned, the structure of Sanskrit, with its exquisite planning, was proof that it had not always been that way. It was like a little molecule of the Indian genius, intact, and saved in amber, for a country from which the memory of genius had departed.

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1 ‘Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State of Nature hath provided, and left in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property.’