Crisis in the Classics

Crisis in the Classics
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For complementing video of Sheldon Pollock's discussion on the topic, see
Crisis in the Classics
in October 2004, after an electoral sweep in the spring
parliamentary elections brought it unaccustomed influence over the
ruling coalition in Delhi, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK),
the Dravidianist party of the state of Tamil Nadu, demanded that the
United Progressive Alliance declare Tamil a classical language—which
it did, apparently the first such declaration by a national government
in recorded history. Sanskrit was soon granted classical status, without
external pressure, but the floodgates were now open to other language
activists to seek classical status, and they proceeded with passion to
petition the central government on behalf of Kannada (2006), Telugu
(2007), and Malayalam (2009).1 This is not the classical language debate
India should be having, however; there is something other than status
to worry about—and to worry about deeply.
At the time of independence in 1947, India was home to scholars
whose historical and philological expertise made them the peer of any
in the world. They were the heirs of the longest continuous multicultural
literary tradition in the world, and produced editions and literary
and historical studies of texts in Apabhramsha, Assamese, Bangla,
Brajbhasha, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Persian,
Prakrit, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu—the list could go on because the
list of Indian languages goes on—that are still used today. Two generations
later their works have not been replaced not because they are
irreplaceable—it is in the nature of scholarship that later knowledge
should supersede earlier—but because there is no one capable of replacing
them. And this is a sign of what people should be worrying about:
if Indian education and scholarship continue along their current trajectory,
the number of citizens capable of reading and understanding the
texts and documents of the classical era—or precolonial or premodern
or pre-1800 era, all equivalent terms for my purposes here—will very
soon approach a statistical zero. India is about to become the only major
world culture whose literary patrimony, and indeed history, are in the
custodianship of scholars outside the country: in Berkeley, Chicago,
and New York; Oxford, Paris, and Vienna. This would not be healthy
either for India or for the rest of the world that cares about India.

Christopher Robinson
Christopher Robinson While Sanskrit studies in European universities may be dwindling, there is also an increase in the popularity of
Sanskrit in America, stimulated, in part, by the 1960's curiosity about non-Western religious traditions and
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