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'Sanskrit is a magical language; its study should be a joy' - The Times of India

Reeta Dutta Gupta ()
21 February 1997

Title : 'Sanskrit is a magical language; its study should be a joy'
Author : Reeta Dutta Gupta
Publication : The Times of India
Date : February 21, 1997

Professor- of historical linguistics, George Cardona, teaches
Indian grammatical theory at the University, of Pennsylvania and is
a modern tikakaar (commentator) on Panini's Ashtadhyayi. He
switched to Sanskrit grammatical studies from the study of
Indo-European, the family of languages (Greek, Latin, Sanskrit,
etc) which by 1000 BC were spoken across Europe to South Asia. Its
easternmost sub-branch, the Indo-Aryan (Indic) is the language of
the subcontinent, the oldest record being the Vedic Sanskrit of the

Since 1962 Prof Cardona has been visiting India to study original
texts in the oral tradition and hunt for old manuscripts in Indian
villages. He has taught at several American and Indian universities
and at Gurukuls. Author and a contributor to the Encyclopaedia
Britannica on Indo-Aryan, he was in India recently to attend the
World Sanskrit Congress, held in Bangalore. Excerpts from an

Q: Why did you choose to study Sanskrit?

A: You can't explain why you love something. I was trained as an
Indo-Europeanist when I did small amount of Sanskrit to compare
with classical language. Then Paul Thieme, a very good German
teacher with whom I read the Vedas, got me interested. I came to
India and Jagannath Pade Shastri and Raghunath Sharma took me on.
They made me fall in love with the stuff and it became my life's

You studied in the guru-shishya tradition in Varanasi, and in
village Chhata (UP) with no electricity. What was the experience

The experience was lovely - getting up at two in the morning to
learn. With my teachers I learnt the Shastras, Vyakarana, Mimamsa
(study of rituals), the Vedas, Nyaya (logic), Mahabashya by
Patanjali and Vakyapadaya (philosophy of grammar) by Bhartrihari.

Originally all texts running into enormous length were orally
composed and orally transmitted. How was purity of text ensured?

If the texts were not recited with absolute fidelity, the learner
had to perform a prayaschitta - a yoga. The Vedas, for example,
have parts which lay down rules of pronunciation. After 12 years
of learning, the texts were learnt perfectly. The tradition
continues today. When learned discussions are held, it is a shame
if one has to look up a text.

The first book of your eight-volume series in 14 parts on "Panini:
his work and its traditions" has just been published. What is the
relevance of this monumental work?

The relevance is in the intellectual study of language and the
formal study of grammar which is important in the West. Noam
Chomsky is the giant of modern linguistics. But Panini who lived
no later than the 5th century BC has an even greater stature. He
was the first to compose formal grammar with unbelievable
theoretical insight. His Ashtadhyayi deals with complex and
complicated issues about language, thought, relationship of form
and meaning, and logic. He was the product of a long history of
thinking on every aspect of language. The Upanishads, Aranyakas
and the Vedas speculate on language, and all this Panini codified
in crisp statements on which long commentaries are written. He was
the culminating point and a brilliant scholar.

What is the status of the study of Sanskrit in the West?

They are de-emphasising classical studies, but in recent years
there has been an inflow of Japanese students to American
universities with very advanced knowledge of Sanskrit. We all know
that the study of Sanskrit in the West gave an impetus to the study
of Indo-European languages. Having learnt what we know about it
today, it is impossible to omit Sanskrit from the total study of
human culture. I just contributed four articles to the Italian
Encyclopaedia on the history of science outside Europe. One of the
sections is on India. They consider grammar and things associated
with grammar as part of science.

Indo-European languages are spoken by Aryans. What linguistic
evidence exists to suggest that the Aryans came to India or were
originally from India?

There is an ongoing debate. But now Edwin Bryant is writing a
doctoral dissertation in Columbia University on this. He deals
with it in a very scholarly manner and is very balanced and fair.
He is taking both sides of the argument seriously. It would be
interesting to wait for a year or two for the conclusions.

Many people say Sanskrit is a dead language.

No, it isn't. There are scholars in Varanasi and Tirupati composing
original texts, including grammar. Sanskrit continues to be the
language of learned communication among pundits. Besides, we have
modem Sanskrit literature Shakespeare's plays are being translated
and also Omar Khayyam's poetry. A Sanskrit newspaper is published
from Pune. And the satirist from Maharashtra who writes under the
pen name 'Kantaanjali' (handful of thorns) is brilliant.

What is the state of the study of Sanskrit studies in India?

Sanskrit is the magical language of one of your great traditions;
you can't ignore the base of your language and knowledge. Bharat
is the Constitutional name of your country, which is from Sanskrit.
Probably the way it is taught is boring. Why can't its study be
made a joy?

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