Why use Indic categories to describe the world?

The issue is simply this: why use Indic categories to describe the world? What is interesting or important about this goal or venture? This, as I said, is the issue but we need to do some amount of thinking before we can identify the real question. That is so because there is a lot of deadwood floating around that makes navigation difficult. So, let me begin the process of clearing some of the debris.

The first problem that faces us is the identification of the word “Indic Categories”. What does this refer to? From the many discussions I have been involved with, here is what I glean. Consider the following Sanskrit words: Dharma, Rasa, Rta, Deva, Puja, … etc. There are very great difficulties involved in translating these words into, say, English without distorting their meaning. Without fear of controversy, one can grant that this claim is true. But what follows from noticing this difficulty?

1. The simplest argument is the following: “Therefore, we must use Indic categories to describe the world”. However, this `therefore’ does not follow logically without making additional assumptions. For instance, the problem of translating across any two languages faces an analogous difficulty; it is neither limited to nor exhausted by the difficulties involved in translating from Sanskrit to English. Translating from the French to English confronts similar problems as translating from Sanskrit to Kannada. Does that mean that we should never undertake translations from one language to another and that each people speaking in one language continue to speak in “their own categories”? Could one ever learn another language, in that case? Does it make sense to speak of “French”, “German” and “Italian” categories? It must make sense, because the issue involves Sanskrit and English words and their meaning. If such usage does not make sense, whatever does it mean to speak of “Indic” and “western” categories? (One could use these as shorthand for something else, but such use also exhausts their meaning.) We use the word `categories’ to speak about the meaning of words in some or another language. Neither “Indic” nor “western” are languages. Consequently, only two conclusions are possible: (a) either “Indic” and “western” categories are shorthand for “something else”; or (b) it is flatly nonsensical to speak of Indic and western categories.

2. Let me focus on the second alternative for the moment. Very often, I have heard people say that without knowing Sanskrit, one cannot formulate truths and insights about the Indian culture. This claim is often used as a stick to beat one’s opponents, whether they are westerners or Indians. While one might win a shouting match by using this stick, it is very unclear what else it does or is capable of doing. Surely, this claim is empirically false: one can study Ancient Greece, the Roman culture without knowing Ancient Greek or Early Latin; one can study the medieval Christians without knowing Church Latin; and so on. If this is possible, why cannot one study Indian culture without knowing Sanskrit? It is even false to say that one cannot formulate a hypothesis about a language without knowing that particular language: linguistic science is a living and a flourishing refutation of that claim.

Often, without their knowledge, people who put across such thesis are defending the idea that studying a language is identical to studying the culture of a people. This is a very old and discarded idea that many Indologists defend.

3. Let us look at the possibility that one uses Indic and Western categories as shorthand for “something else”. What could that `something else” be? A charitable answer could run as follows: one should use Indian theories to describe the world. Which Indian theories should we use to describe the world and why? Further, which world are we talking about? The natural world, the social world, the world of the twenty-first century…? Unless one answers these and many other questions satisfactorily, it is difficult to take this alternative seriously.

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