Classical Sanskrit Informing Classical Chinese?

I’ve been taking some time recently to learn Sanskrit (Classical, not Vedic–I want to read philosophy).  There are a few reasons for this:

1) I think it can contribute to my understanding of classical Chinese and Chinese philosophy in general.  “That’s absurd!” one might say, “the two languages are completely different.  They’re not even part of the same language family, and are as unrelated as any two languages can be!”

Exactly.  This is just what is so useful about Sanskrit, as compared to Classical Chinese.  Sanskrit is, in its grammar, makes English (and Classical Chinese even moreso) look like kid stuff.  Verb classes and conjugation, an humorously complicated declension system (it is a ceremonial language, after all), and massive tongue (and brain) busting compounds, just to name a few (not to mention the crazy sandhi rules).  How can all of this possibly be useful to enhance my understanding of Classical Chinese philosophy?

There has been discussion through the years between comparative philosophers over whether, and to what extent, language directs the philosophical agenda in any given culture or tradition.  Do certain features of, say, Greek, make it more likely for a philosopher using Greek to find issues of being and truth central to the philosophical project in general, in a way a philosopher using Classical Chinese will not?  And if so, what is it about the respective languages that makes this the case?  It seems to me that in order to make sufficient headway on this question, we’re going to need to do more than make comparisons between Classical Chinese and Classical Greek philosophy and language.  The reason for this is that we have no way to discover whether a given difference between the philosophical traditions was due to language differences, without having access to a number of distinct languages and philosophical traditions which serve as measuring sticks.  I can always just claim that a difference between Greek and Chinese philosophy is due to a linguistic difference, but are there languages similar to Greek or Chinese in which there are also divergences?  If so, this seems to be evidence against the linguistic connection.  Looking to a distinct tradition neither Chinese nor Greek, with a language much more similar to Greek than Chinese (Sanskrit), can help in this project.  What features of Sanskrit are similar to those of Greek, and do the relevant similarities in the respective philosophical systems also obtain?

2) Comparative philosophy has for too long (although it is of course a relatively young field) taken the form of comparing Western philosopher/school X with Non-western philosopher/school Y.  Although this can be very useful, we have tended to neglect another, possibly even more useful aspect of comparative philosophy.  Why not compare distinct non-western philosophers or traditions?  Of course, I understand that much of the reason for this is that comparative philosophers in the English-speaking world are generally coming from a background in western philosophy, and even when we are conversant in the language and concepts of another philosophical tradition (say Classical Chinese), it is often just too difficult to adequately understand two distinct traditions not our own.  We’ve got to learn new languages, immerse ourselves in new literature, etc.

I don’t think this is as hard as it seems, however.  Think about what we study in graduate school.  Most of us have to take courses on Plato and Aristotle, and we also perhaps study some philosophers who wrote in Latin, German, or French.  Maybe even some Arabic-speaking philosophers.  Surely we come into contact with a variety of distinct philosophical traditions in our education.  We come to think of these various traditions as part of one overarching “western” tradition, but are they really?  Plato’s concerns most certainly weren’t those of Hume, for example.  To a large extent, what has made these various figures part of a single tradition is our acceptance of them as representing a single tradition.  We seem often unwilling to think of Indian or Chinese philosophy in the same way.  We see them as “other”, even when the issues they discuss and concepts they use overlap with the ones philosophers we are more familiar with discuss and use.

And we study Plato without knowing Greek, Descartes without knowing Latin or French.  Of course, it is better to have some understanding of the language a given philosopher wrote in, especially if one is planning on doing serious academic work on that philosopher (indeed, it is necessary in that case).  But this shouldn’t stop us from attempting to understand distinct non-western philosophical traditions in a way that penetrates deeper than merely a surface familiarity.  And this is one of the reasons I am studying Sanskrit (and new issues in Indian philosophy)–to begin and promote the project of doing comparative philosophy in a way that breaks the West/East comparison mold.

3) Interest, plain and simple.  I’ve always been interested in Indian philosophy as well as Chinese (I wrote my masters thesis at OU on early Buddhist metaphysics for example).  Sanskrit is a pretty cool language, and I know a little bit of Hindi already, which is a relative of Sanskrit.  I want to be able to read the Bhagavad Gita and other great classical texts in the original language.

So, for all of the above reasons, I’m tackling Sanskrit.  I’ll occasionally post here about interesting (or frustrating) linguistic issues, comparisons with Chinese, etc–while continuing to worry incessantly about issues in Classical Chinese philosophy, of course.

3 responses to “Classical Sanskrit Informing Classical Chinese?

  1. Congratulations Alexus! I understand and support your reasons. I’ve spent time studying Old Chinese, (Schuessler’s ABC Etymological Dictionary is very helpful) and some Latin and Greek (using the dictionaries at the Perseus website). My copy of the Bhagavad Gita is Winthrop Sargeant’s partly because it is bilingual. Anytime I look up a Bible passage, I almost always go to to look at the passage in the original language, be it Greek or Hebrew.

  2. There is philosophy written in Vedic (prose) as well.

  3. Interesting. I speak only English, however I belong to Nicherin Shoshu where we chant two sections of the Lotus Sutra and Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. I was told that this is ancient Chinese Sanskrit and that it only works if you chant in the original Chinese Sanskrit. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is supposed to be the rhythm of the universe and that one can obtain one’s dreams by chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Chanting the English translation will provide no benefit. How is this?

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