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Sanskrit in America: How the First Academic Vamsa Was Established


By Francis C. Assisi


A specialist in South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago, Maureen L.P. Patterson, was certainly not exaggerating when she wrote at the end of a long and distinguished career as Chief Librarian: "In the long sweep of India's historic past, measured in yugas rather than millennia or centuries, the total American experience of Indic civilization is but a ksana."



For those on the first rung of the 21st century it may be difficult to realize how great a sensation was the intellectual discovery of India by the West towards the end of the 18th century. Until then, the  historical and cultural horizon of Europe and America had been practically entirely bounded by the Ancient East of the Bible, by
Greece and Rome. Now it was suddenly widened by the first glimpses of the ancient civilizations of India and China.



India, had, on the strength of travellers' tales and missionaries' reports, been reputed as an exotic and mysterious wonderland from where anything might be expected. And when, thanks to the pioneering efforts of some interested British officials such as Sir William Jones and others, the first original Sanskrit works were made accessible, the deep impression made by their contents was doubled by the sensational fact, that their language proved akin to Latin and Greek and the other languages of Europe while at the same time it was older and more refined than any of them.



At once it lead to far reaching speculations. And along with Hebrew in Ivy League schools and in divinity schools, Sanskrit too came to take a place. That's why most of those who initially took interest in Sanskrit were really prompted by a religious motive.



It was this discovery of Sanskrit alone that gave rise to a new branch of research, comparative philology and modern linguistics in general.The founder of this new science was a German, Franz Bopp; and it has remained a favorite domain of German scholars ever since. Sanskrit not only furnished to it important and even indispensable raw material; the masterly analysis of their sacred language by the ancient Indian grammarians opened up entirely new vistas and gave some decisive inspirations to modern Western scholars. The knowledge of Sanskrit has ever since been considered indispensable for every worker in the field of linguistics.



As early as the 1880s, the charter of universities such as Columbia, Pennsylvania, Chicago, California, Michigan and Minnesota stipulated that Sanskrit should be taught. It was a time when Yale, Harvard and Johns Hopkins already had viable Sanskrit programs by then. Although 2nd generation Desis are today forging a new vanguard in South Asian Studies at American universities, interest in the study of the Sanskrit language really goes back a century and a half.



Sanskrit studies in the United States may be said to have begun more than 150 years ago with Edward Elbridge Salisbury (1814-1901) who was appointed Professor of Sanskrit and Arabic at Yale in 1841. As Salisbury wrote in 1848: "The very peculiarity of our national destiny, in a moral point of view, calls upon us not only not to be behind, but to be even foremost, in intimate acquaintance with oriental languages and institutions. The countries of the West, including our own, have been largely indebted to the East for their various culture; the time has come when this debt should be repaid." Salisbury, who graduated from Yale in 1832, had spent several years abroad under Sanskritists Prof. Franz Bopp in Berlin and Prof. Garcin de Tassy in Paris. After his appointment at Yale he once again went toEurope and studied Sanskrit under Christian Lassen at Bonn and Eugene Burnouf in Paris. It was Burnouf's two German students, Rudolph Roth and Max Muller, who later on made a name in European Sanskrit scholarship.

This background was fortuitous for America in the years to come. In Paris it was not just Sanskrit; Modern India was not neglected. Along with teaching of ancient Indian philology by Burnouf, the teaching of Hindi and Urdu philology was actively carried on and continued by Garcin de Tassy whose History of Hindu and Hindustani Literature as well as translations of seminal works such as the Ramacaritamanasa were well known.

Burnouf was among the first to realize that great progress could be made in the morphology of European classical languages by comparisons with Sanskrit, a cognate language in which the analysis of forms was clearer and had even been carried to a degree unknown elsewhere by grammarians of ancient India. Burnouf set out to make use of Sanskrit to penetrate deeply into Indian culture and to decipher other still unknown languages.

At the Inaugural lecture at the College de France, Burnouf explained: "We shall analyse the scholarly language in which the people originally expressed themselves, we shall read the immortal works which are monuments of their genius…Let us venture to add, however, if this course is to be devoted to philology, we shall not for that exclude the study of events and ideas. Our eyes shall not be shut against the most dazzling light ever to shine from the Orient and we shall seek to understand the spectacle before us. This is India, with its philosophy and its myths, its literature and its laws, which we shall study through its language…It is our profound conviction that just as the study of words, in so far as it can possibly be conducted to the exclusion of ideas, is useless and frivolous, so words, as visible signs of thought, are a solid and productive branch of learning. There is no true philology without philosophy and history. The analysis of language processes is also an inductive science and, if not the science of the human soul, is at least that of the most extraordinary faculty which it has been given to express itself"..

Around this time, in 1842, a group of New Englanders from the Boston area, founded the American Oriental Society - which served as the chief American organ for Oriental and especially for Indic scholarship. Salisbury, whose interests were scholarly, was one of the earliest members of the Society. Salisbury served as its Secretary and
later as its President for a total of 21 years and made large financial gifts toward the Society's support.

Salisbury did three important things for Indic studies in the United States; he discovered the first great American Sanskritist William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894; he got him a secure position in a great university where he could work to his full capacity and provided for perpetuity of the chair then established; and he helped more than anyone else to create a means of publication for Oriental studies.

Whitney had studied under Salisbury and later went to Germany to study under Albrecht Weber and Rudolf Von Roth. Not long after his return to America he was installed in his professorship at Yale (1854).

Whitney was a man of wide attainments. He was one of the collaborators in the production of the monumental seven-volume Petersburg Sanskrit Dictionary. He made translations of the Atharva Veda, with notes, in two volumes; he produced a masterly Sanskrit Grammar (first edition 1879, reprinted in India eighty years later in 1961); he translated the Surya Siddhanta, and wrote extensively on linguistic science and Indo-European philology.



Thus, Whitney established Indo-European philology and scientific linguistics in the United States. His influence was widely felt throughout the American academic world. With respect to the Indic field, one academic has commented that all the Sanskritists in America "either directly or indirectly are pupils of Professor Whitney's".
According to the late Prof. Norman Brown of the University of Pennsylvania, Whitney did indeed "establish a vamsa which, with just a few notable exceptions, has included every Sanskritist teaching in America since his time".



Himself a member of that Vamsa, Brown notes that the greatest misfortune the founder of the American Vamsa suffered seems to be that he never visited the land to which he devoted his life.

Ironically, Yale University itself was built upon America's lucrative trade with India. Boston-born Elihu Yale went with his family's business to England. From England he went to India in 1671 as a writer for the East India Company. He rose steadily in rank until he became Governor of Madras and a merchant prince in his own right, amassing a great deal of wealth. He retired to England in the early 1700s and contributed substantially to the founding of the university that today bears his name.



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