Of heaven and earth

In love with Sanskrit, Professor Gary Tubb reflects on its poetics and the politics of language

May 29, 2016 06:40 pm | Updated May 30, 2016 10:16 am IST

Professor Gary Tubb

Professor Gary Tubb

With Sanskrit making news for right and wrong reasons, it is time to put things in perspective and who better than leading Sanskrit scholar Professor Gary Tubb, the Faculty Director of University of Chicago Center New Delhi to engage in a discussion. In love with Sanskrit poetry and poetics, Tubb’s scholastic interests include Sanskrit grammatical and commentarial traditions; connections between philosophy, religion, and literature in Sanskrit culture.

Talking to Tubb, who has previously taught at Harvard University, where he was chair of Sanskrit and Indian Studies and editor of Harvard Oriental Series, is like an enriching research project. For every question, he gives you an abstract, suggested readings, annotations and footnotes and then comes to the essence.

There is an increasing effort to showcase that we knew it all at a certain point in history. “I see a danger in that. Problem is, most of the efforts in that direction, are based on an anxiety to show that whatever Europeans had, Indians had earlier. It blinds you to the fact that Indians actually did do things which Europeans did nothing about. Another problem, which in a way becomes comical, is that it forces you into a position where the current state of European science becomes the endpoint.” A polyglot, who speaks German and Urdu and is familiar with Marathi and Prakrit, Tubb says if we look at (Gopal Raghunath) Nandargikar’s translation of ‘Raghuvamsa’, where he talks about Ram and Sita travelling through the air in a vimana, the word he used for vimana was hot air balloon because when he wrote the only known flying object was a hot air balloon. “Now when people translate it, they describe them as airplanes. And if you insist on that it fossilises the works into a stage of science which is now greatly superseded. The more serious problem is by looking into a limited set of things which are already defined by somebody else you don’t look for things which were actually discovered by Indians and which are not going to be pointed out by English scholars because they have not figured them out as yet. In cognitive sciences and consciousness studies, which is a very big topic now in the West, much of what you read now about what constitutes consciousness was written about in great detail in ancient Sanskrit texts by the likes of Nagarjuna, Bhartrihari and Mandana Misra. Similarly, Panini’s work in linguistics travelled to Europe. You can easily see Indian inspiration in Aesop’s fables. When people let their goals defined by others, I believe, it is a failure of self confidence,” says Tubb, who spends a third of year in India.

Working on “In the Court of King Bhoja”, an edition and translation of the “Bhojaprabandha” of Ballala and an annotated translation of Book 7 (the Drona Parva) of the Mahabharat, Tubb understands that the issue of overselling of Sanskrit is complicated and acknowledges it through the interview. “I appreciate when importance is given to Sanskrit but it is harmful when it is done in a way where the access to Sanskrit texts is restricted either by insisting that there would be only one view of what is there is in Sanskrit text or by ignoring what is actually there in the text. “ He refuses to believe that the texts lack multiplicity of voices. In Mahabharat, alone, he reminds, there are so many voices from different sections of the society. The commentaries on these texts are also varied in their observations. “Take for instance Bhagwad Gita. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi used it for very different purpose from what Lokmanya Tilak used it for.”

On associating national pride with Sanskrit and blurring the line between mythology and religion, Tubb says he is not a historian and would like to just enjoy the language. “I can see people have their vested interest in interpreting text. So they criticise foreign scholars and push for Aryan invasion controversy. I don’t criticise that because we have plenty of evidence in our own country. The rise of Donald Trump shows Americans have their own problems with anxieties and insecurities in the face of terror.”

Another part of the problem is to find support for older version of texts. “The great tradition of translation of classical texts has become absolutely ignored. Who is writing good reliable translations of texts in classical Telugu? It is people like David Shulman in Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Why is he doing it when nobody in Hyderabad is doing this? It is because you can’t do that in Hyderabad and make a living out of it.”

In love with the poetic works of Banabhatta and Kalidas, Tubb, who has edited and contributed to “Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Sanskrit Kavya Literature”, finds their language incredibly beautiful but what really draws him in is their overarching theme of bringing heaven and earth together. Tubb explains it through the concept of Solar and Lunar dynasties in Hindu mythology. “How do we bring male and female together? It is of interest to human beings everywhere. How do we bring together power in transcendence? Can you be a family person and still be an ascetic person? Kalidasa comes with answers. In Bana’s “Kadambari”, he says, the essence is that the protagonists are ascetics but they fall in love. “They have to find a way to reconcile their spirituality and their romantic love and it is told through a narrative in which there are all these Indian complications of multiple rebirths and stories within stories.”

One of the texts that often gets quoted in social and political context is “Manu Smriti”. Tubb says it is a priceless record of legal thought, written in context of a particular time and place. “That’s the way it should be used.” Its historical connection can’t be undermined because it was “Manu Smriti”, reminds Tubb that propelled Sir William Jones to find the connection between Latin and Sanskrit. “It is an important enough text but it is not something that can be taken and applied to everything. It is not the only thing worth quoting. It should be read in an atmosphere of critical enquiry and free discussion.” Also, he clarifies that the connection between languages should not be construed as racial relationship.

Tubb is concerned that learning Sanskrit and English or science and humanities has become an either/or choice in Indian education system. “Being competent in English doesn’t mean that you can’t become competent in Sanskrit. At the Center, helicopter parents, they keep hovering around their children, keep pushing their children towards medicine and engineering. I don’t quarrel with them because it makes economic sense but you talk to them for a while and you discover that they themselves read Kalidas and Ghalib at night in flash light!” This he points out is the result of following British system of education which calls for early specialisation. “In the U.S., you can do B.A. in Sanskrit and then pursue law or medicine in post graduation. In fact my physician did his in B.A. in Sanskrit and he has a name plate which describes him as bhisakacharya.” At the same time, he appreciates the rise of new academic spaces like Jindal, Asoka and Shiv Nadar Universaity which are trying to develop liberal arts approach with courses based on discussions. “The government’s GIAN (Global Initiative of Academic Networks) programme is an interesting step in the direction of collaboration.”

One of the ironies, he says, is that some Indians now take such a narrow monolithic approach to things. “If you look at some of the great Indian Sanskritists, D.D. Kosambi was a mathematician in his day job and a Sanskritist by passion. Similarly, A.K. Ramanujan and his father A. A. Krishnaswami Ayyangar had varied interests. Ayyangar was a mathematical astronomer but at the same time he could make horoscopes based on Puranic cosmology.” Similarly, he says, his teacher celebrated Sanskrit scholar Shivram Joshi followed tantric practice in private but in everyday life he was Sanskrit-speaking pandit. “The point is Indians don’t need lessons from anyone on pluralism yet right now social and political diversity is under attack in so many places.” It is complicated!

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