A man of languages

Meet Hartmut Scharfe, German Indologist and passionate admirer of Sanskrit grammarian Panini.

Updated - May 23, 2016 07:31 pm IST

Published - October 04, 2014 05:18 pm IST

German Indologist Hartmut Scharfe

German Indologist Hartmut Scharfe

What do Max Muller, William Jones and Megasthenes have in common? All three are among the long line of prominent Indologists and their studies are still recognised as authentic references on the vast subject of Indology and Sanskrit. Even today, across the world, individuals have dedicated their lives to the subject. One such is Hartmut Scharfe, Professor Emeritus, Department of Indo-European Studies, University of California, Los Angeles.

The author of four books on Sanskrit and a passionate admirer of Panini, the ancient Sanskrit grammarian, Scharfe developed a fascination for ancient India and its systems as a teenager. It could be this love for ancient India that led him to make some significant contributions to the study of Panini’s work on Sanskrit grammar.

A man of languages, Scharfe says Sanskrit is impressive with its relative clarity of derivation and suffixes because most of the older consonants were still preserved, whereas in Greek and Latin numerous sound changes and elisions have obscured the older structure.

When he read a book on Indo-European comparative linguistics, he was struck by the similarities of Sanskrit words and grammatical structures with the languages he had studied in school: Latin, Greek, Russian, English and German. “The Sanskrit forms always seemed to be more archaic than those of the other languages. So I asked my Latin teacher whose son studied Arabic and Sanskrit at the university to arrange for some instruction in Sanskrit.”

Though he pursued the study with dedication, a couple of years later, he switched his interest to Indology at the University of Halle where he met Professor Thieme, a reputed scholar of India. Scharfe inherited Thieme’s interest in Sanskrit Grammar (the works of Panini) and the Rig Veda.

In the 1960s, Scharfe spent some years in India, set up the Department of German in the University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. He stayed there for two years as lecturer of German and, later, he did his research on Tamil grammar in Chennai. During these years, he learnt both Malayalam and Tamil.  

Scharfe’s most important contribution is perhaps his doctoral dissertation on Panini’s grammar, which inspired other Panini scholars. His second most important contribution was the observation that, for Kâtyâyana (the ancient Sanskrit grammarian and mathematician), grammar was still an iconic reflection of the language; whereas for Patanjali (the author of the Mahabhasya , an advanced treatise on Sanskrit grammar) and his successors, it was a tool to form correct words.

The professor has just finished a long paper on the relation of the late Vedic religion and the contemporary Iranian religious developments, including the much-discussed relation of devas and asuras. His work also includes translated texts as part of his investigations into Sanskrit. Though he has not produced poetical renderings of poems or prose texts as literature, he has been working on a new annotated translation of Panini’s grammar.

Scharfe has also written on India’s ancient education system, which he tried to capture in his Education in Ancient India. Comparing Indian education to ancient Western education, he says that Indian education has been more centred on memorisation. Independent thinking came into play only later. “I think European education stressed thinking and innovation at an earlier age. There is a danger, to be sure, that too much debate before all the facts are learned can lead to superficial attitudes,” he says. Besides working on the translation of Panini’s grammar, Scharfe also has an article in which he locates the so-called ‘family books’ of the Rig Veda based on geographic features in various parts of North West India from Waziristan to Northern Punjab.

Though, as the professor says, European or American interest in ancient India is probably less now than it was in the late 19th and early 20th century, it is still there. His contributions and their steady audience are perhaps proof of this.

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