The Culture-Language of the Future
The Theosophist, December, 1897
Re-Printed from the Madras Mail.
It has often seemed to me that even the best Sanskrit scholars in Europe and America alike have no very clear insight into the purpose and tendency of their work; and I know more than one, among those who hold high rank as unquestioned authorities, who candidly admits an entire ignorance of the use of Sanskrit studies,—supposing them to have any use. And there is, I think, a very obvious reason for this dim and uncertain attitude; for, even though it may sound somewhat venturesome to say, so, it seems that, for the most part, our Sanskrit scholars study the wrong things, or, if they find themselves, by accident, among the right things, they study them in the wrong way. If we look at the history of Sanskrit studies during the past century, we shall probably be able to find the reason of this. To begin with, the first generation of Orientalists, setting to work in Lower Bengal, naturally came to study the works most familiar to the Bengal pundits—the artificial, or at least too ornate, poetry of Kalidasa; and the law-books, with Manu’s Code at their head. Now, no one who has read Kalidasa’s best verse can deny its possession of a very perfect and delicate beauty, gorgeously vivid colouring, great subtlety and refinement of fancy, and rich and ever varying music, which makes up in skilful modulation what it lacks in spontaneous freshness. Of our European poets, Kalidasa comes closest, perhaps, to Theocritus and. Petrach; and much that is characteristic of his style is very marked in the verse of Rossetti and Swinburne. Yet we need no prophet to tell us that the treasure of the East is not with Kalidasa—for all his enamelled beauty; and as little would we expect to find the justification of our studies in the wonderfully elaborate polity of Manu’s Code. If that were all India had to offer, it is doubtful whether Sanskrit could claim an intellectual position much higher than that of Syrian or Ethiopian—both of which contain much to interest specialists; something of more general interest, but almost nothing of universal value.
When the Calcutta school gradually waned, its place, in the van of Sanskrit studies, was taken by the German grammarians, and Bopp’s comparative grammar marked the high water mark of their work. And, to anyone who has anything at all of the lunguist’s instinct, it is easy enough to understand how so many minds, finding their way into the wonderful labyrinths of Sanskrit vocables and forms, have been content to stay there, and progress no further. But, even though Sanskrit has no rival, nor can have, as a key to all tho languages we are most directly interested in—the languages of the European nations—still, that alone would not insure it that wide and universal acceptance as an instrument of spiritual education which, I am absolutely convinced, it is destined to gain. There are other tongues which shed very great light on European speech, notably old Luthuanian, Mesogothic, and the Slavonic of the ninth century, preserved in the liturgy of the Eastern Church, and of the utmost value, as standing close to the headwaters of Russian, Polish, Bohemian, Ruthnian, Slavonian, Servian, Bulgarian, and a host of dialects, which are known by name only to specialists, spoken by communities as far West as Trieste and Rügen,—the extremes of the line bounding the Slavonic area, which, therefore, embraces far the larger part of the continent of Europe. Yet it needs, again, no prophet to tell us that we shall never see these tongues universally studied, nor find the village schoolmaster repeating Slavonic and Luthuanian paradigms with their Mesogothic equivalents.
The next Sanskrit epoch was the period of the Rig-Veda, at the head of which, undoubtedly, stands Max Müller; and there are very few students of Eastern things who have not felt the charm and fascination with which the Oxford authority has invested the subject of the old Indian hymns. Here, we were told, was the most wonderful storehouse of truths, which was destined to illuminate not only the old Aryan religions—with the familiar pantheons of Greece and Rome at their head—but even to reveal the very genesis of religion itself, showing how fear and wonder at the elemental forces had gradually ripened into a true worship of the Divine. But for all the charm that Max Muller wove into his researches, I think it is very generally felt that the hymns of the Rig-Veda are less, very much less than was claimed for them, and that they will never again hold the eyes of the intellectual world, as they did while Max Müller was accomplishing his best work. No one any longer looks to find the secret of the heart of faith in the hymns to Agni and Indra, the invocations to Mitra and Varuna. During the last generation, no part of Indian literature has been more amply studied, thought over, and commented on; but, now that the Rig-Veda hymns have given up their contribution to the history of the Sanskrit language, it is doubtful if anything remains in them to hold the minds of scholars in the future. And it is the unconscious perception of this that is the true cause of the perplexity I have spoken of, which leads so many Sanskritists to say that they do not see or understand the true end and purpose of their studies. None the less, I am absolutely convinced that Sanskrit is the culture-language of the future; that it is destined to supersede Greek as the instrument of the highest spiritual education, as Greek superseded Latin at the Renaissance, and thus put an end to the Middle Ages and ushered in the modern world. And Sanskrit will conquer, not because of its wonderfully transparent character as a language; not in virtue of Kalidasa’s enamelled verse and the ecclesiastical polity of Manu; not because the Rig-Veda hymns lay bare the foundations of the world’s belief; but because there are other sides to Sanskrit literature, and other works, hardly studied at all, hitherto, which bring more than pretty verse and curious knowledge; which, indeed, give us a new insight into life itself, and bring a new outpouring of that mysterious light, every new ray of which marks a step in the development of the soul. And this last word sums up the gift we are to receive from the Sanskrit tongue and what is recorded in it—philosophic thought of the utmost logical excellence, and, more than this, a conception of life, radiant with inspiration, a true revelation of the soul. That it is—not pretty poetry, or curious incantations—which will give Sanskrit the position it is destined to hold, as the culture-language of the coming era.
To begin to speak of the spiritual insight these words are destines to bring as their contribution to the wisdom of the world at the conclusion of an essay, would be to do them a grave injustice; yet I should like to give a sample of what the Upanishads have to offer in such rich abundance:—
“This self is, then, verily, of all beings the over-lord, of all beings the king; as in the nave and felloe all the spokes are held firm, so, verily, in this self, are held firm all gods, all worlds, all lives, all selves.
“As an eagle of falcon, soaring in the sky, folds his wings and sinks to his nest, so the spirit returns tot he divine world, where, finding peace, he desires no desire, and dreams no dream.
“This is his true nature, when all desires are fulfilled, when desire is only for the self; when there is no longing any more, nor any sorrow.
“There the father is father no more, nor the mother mother, not he worlds worlds, not the gods gods; there the Vedas are no Vedas, nor the thief a thief, nor the murderer a murderer, nor the outcast an outcast, nor the saint a saint; this is the highest aim, the highest home, the highest wealth, the highest bliss.
“When all desires that dwell in the heart are let go, the mortal becomes immortal, and reaches the eternal.”