25th January 2009
“If America told us Sanskrit was great, India would love it,” says Professor Lakshmi Thathachar, “we love everything that comes from the West.” Instead it is up to people like the professor to extol its virtues, which he does with a series of disarming smiles and rhetorical questions.
Descended from the one of the Melkote devotees of the great 12th century philosopher Sri Ramanujar, Professor Lakshmi Thathachar was a Professor of Sanskrit at Bangalore University before setting up the Academy of Sanskrit Research at Melkote. He now runs the nascent Samskriti Foundation which takes a holistic approach to the ideal lifestyle, combining sustainability based on the Sanskrit farming treatise of Rishi Krishi Paddati with an emphasis on fusing traditional knowledge systems with technology. Sanskrit and the literature it has spawned are clearly his passion, but this brief biography does little to prepare you for a discussion which ranges from jokes about busy husbands outsourcing the production of children to TS Eliot to the reasons for the mental disorders of today’s youth (the lack of maternal attention and affection). You may not agree with all he says but you cannot help but be fascinated.
“The modern world”, Professor Thathachar declares, “needs Sanskrit,” because Sanskrit is such a systematic and scientific language. Lord Macaulay, the British politician who famously foisted an English-medium education system upon India, thought it a dead language. Now that Panini’s grammar is recognised almost as a meta-grammar for the world by those such as the American linguist Noam Chomsky, the professor welcomes Sanskrit’s ascendant star in the IT era. He has himself done much work in this field, developing computer programmes and languages for Sanskrit using Sanskrit. “I never looked to the West, what would be the point? Our systems are totally different.” He advises those working on Indian regional language software tools to use Sanskrit too. “I admire English and am a great lover of English literature, but it is an illogical language.” Why, he asks, do the ‘u’ in ‘put’ and ‘but’ not sound the same? Indians should not view their own languages through the prism of English, as many are now doing.
But more than just the language, it is the “ocean of knowledge” present in Sanskrit literature that Professor Thathachar enthuses about. According to a survey by the National Mission for Manuscripts there are approximately 1 million manuscripts in India. Only about 10% of these have been documented and deciphered. “There is so much information and we’re not using any of it.” The professor has spent many years dipping into various texts to research unlikely things such as food technology. He found 300 texts on metallurgy alone, and came across an interesting alloy in one treatise on aeronautical engineering. Some texts may contain little or nothing useful for the modern world, but we should at least read them and check. “Our predecessors wouldn’t have preserved things that weren’t worth preserving.”
Each manuscript takes two man years to properly preserve and document. It is a gargantuan task and one that may fast become impossible as people lose their ability to read the scripts in which these texts are written. He mentions a library in Jammu which houses several thousand manuscripts written in the Sharada script. None of the handful of Sharada script adepts knows Sanskrit, so the manuscripts will stay there “until they disintegrate”. The government made a law that any manuscript over 200 years old must be declared, but it is hard to see how the law will be enforced. The professor was developing a speech recognition software which would allow scholars to read the texts out loud and then capture them digitally, reducing the time it takes by about 20%. But, “there’s no money now”, he says cheerfully.
Professor Thathachar is also interested in the preservation of India’s oral heritage. “The government wants to make everyone literate, but what does that mean? If I have learnt to form the characters to write my name does that make me literate? Does that make me more literate than a villager who can’t read or write but has by heart reams of folk songs?” People need to be exposed to this literature, to imbibe it, whether via the written or oral tradition. We discuss how translation, particularly into English, can help. “I prefer the new Western term, ‘transcreation’. Translation isn’t about the words but the thoughts of the poet. To translate a poem you have to get into the heart of the poet, to understand exactly what he was trying to express”, for which the professor advocates reading a text “10, 15, 100 times”, before translating it. He cites a comment in a commentary which is itself a commentary on the Mahabhashya commentary on Panini’s Ashtadhyayi. The author writes that his own commentary is useless if the reader knows the Mahabhashya, and if the reader doesn’t know the Mahabhashya then his own commentary is useless. “Similarly, if you know the original you don’t need a translation and if you don’t know the original why would you want a translation?” Despite this seemingly harsh judgment on the very concept of translation, the professor does value the reach it affords a text, and has translated several texts himself. And he very much agrees that these literary works ought to be broadcast abroad, because “in England I don’t think you have a Mahabharata”. But he closes with a shloka which, although intended merely to illustrate the virtuosity of Sanskrit poets, also demonstrates just how untranslatable Sanskrit poetry can be. It would be unwise to attempt a translation, so suffice to say that each line of the shloka below can be broken up in such a way that it both asks a question and is the answer to that question.