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  • Sanskrit Snapshots
  • Karla Mallette (bio)

For someone coming from outside the field, Innovations and Turning Points can be a forbidding volume—in part because of its length, and in part because reading the essays in this book feels a bit like turning the pages of another family’s photo album. Individuals, relationships, and the history in which they are entangled come into focus briefly, then blur and recede, leaving behind a sense of vague but urgent affection, like the smoke skeleton of fireworks. I take the invitation to respond to it as a way to open a conversation—between Sanskrit and other languages, between kavya and other literary traditions, and between scholarship on Sanskrit and scholarship on other languages. And at moments I pause to admire indecipherable passages, irreducible mysteries that remain for the nonspecialist. The result is another photo album: a series of snapshots taken by a tourist to the language, reflecting on the challenges posed by thinking about Sanskrit kavya in a comparative context and what seem to me the most compelling possibilities for the comparatist opened up by the essays in the volume.

The cosmopolitan language—provisionally defined as a literary language that positions itself outside of time and space—insists, at times with hauteur, that it is changeless. It provides a touchstone for thought, and even for something more sublime: it alone is capable of producing the rhythm of ritual, or of telling true stories about the divine. Arabic is the extreme example of cosmopolitan language as lingua sacra or religiolect. The Quran refers to itself repeatedly as an Arabic Quran: “We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an so that you might understand” (12:2; see also 13:37, 41:3, 41:44, 42:7, 43:3, 44:58). And for Muslims, the meaning of the Quran does not survive translation. The believer may use translation as a means to reach the Arabic but must understand scripture itself in its original tongue. Latin complicates the [End Page 127] picture. It is a serial monogamist among religions. First, in antiquity, wedded to pagan belief and practice, during the Middle Ages and in western Europe it became the language of a monotheistic religion with no mother tongue (Christianity itself was born into Greek as a second language and code-switched between cosmopolitan languages). And yet, despite its midcareer conversion, Latin too is a steady state language. It was not engineered for ease and comfort, like a mother tongue, but instead to give scope and range to thought. According to the position papers of mega-languages like Latin and Arabic, people come and go; literary fashions come and go—but the language remains changeless. This is the bait it holds out to its acolytes: come to me, and I will hoist your thought far above the sound and fury of the merely spoken languages.

Sometimes the cosmopolitan language enlists a goon squad to ensure that the language retains its elite, unchanging nature. The essays in Innovations and Turning Points provide a firm corrective to this notion. “Older is better,” the language trolls said about Sanskrit in the fifth century CE.1 And they commanded the litterateur to emulate the standards of perfection that the language reached in the first blush of youth. Fourteen centuries later, the “theorists” of classical Sanskrit insist that literature does not change; neither does the reader’s experience of literature change. But Velcheru Narayana Rao shows us how the modernist Sanskrit playwright Satyanarayana resists this idea (727). The editors of the volume state their purpose to watch and appreciate innovation: “to discern freshness where it exists” (6). How does the language that holds itself separate from time and place transform and renew itself from within? How do language workers contribute to the maintenance of the intricate, unimaginably vast mechanism of the cosmopolitan language? Can an onlooker from without the language understand the arcane ministrations of those who sustained Sanskrit through a long and eventful life?

Whether the subject is language, literature, or art, the rhythm is familiar: a bold departure from the past introduces a muscular new medium or style. This era of classicism gives way to a period of noodling on...


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pp. 127-135
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