Sanskrit and Deliberate Distortion
I’ll repeat what it already superfluous: understanding Indian philosophy requires an advanced knowledge of Sanskrit because that was the language in which this most profound philosophy was laid down originally. I stress on advanced knowledge because a word in Sanskrit often doesn’t lend itself to its literal meaning but depends on several factors like context, grammatical form, custom, tradition, usage, etc. Taking the literal meaning of a word may give us the exact opposite of what it intends to convey in that specific context. When used by deliberate distortionists, this becomes a powerful weapon. A handy example is the word Dharma. In contemporary political discourse, it has come to signify everything but its original meaning. In regional politics, it is often used to mean caste, and in national politics, to mean community: as in “Hindu” and “Muslim.”
However, not every Sanskrit scholar/linguist can interpret the Vedas and/or Indian philosophy accurately. This article partly contains the answer.
Any Indologist worth his/her salt should clearly understand the difference between conversational/literary/textual Sanskrit and Vedic Sanskrit. There’s a huge difference. The Vedas themselves provide some hints and instructions on how to interpret the exact meaning of Vedic texts, a fact which David Frawley emphasizes in this scathing retort to Witzel.
It is important to read the Vedic texts directly and not change meaning of obvious terms like ocean, river or fire, particularly terms that occur frequently in the text. A philological interpretation of texts, in order to reconstruct ancient cultures, cannot ignore the common sense meaning of words. Samudra is said to mean ocean in the oldest level of Vedic interpretation we have through such texts as Brihaddevata of Shaunaka and Nighantu and Nirukta of Yaska. Nowhere do we find a statement in the Vedas like â€œwe have just discovered the seaâ€. Rather the ocean is there all along as a primary symbol permeating the entire text. [...]
Witzel mentions that the Vedic samudra is often the ocean of the air (antariksha) and therefore cannot be construed as a terrestrial ocean. He seems unaware of one of the most common rules of Vedic interpretation going back to the Brihaddevata of Shaunaka (and even earlier). Vedic deities have three forms relative to the three worlds of the earth, atmosphere and heaven. Agni or fire, for example, has an atmospheric form as lightning (vidyut) and a heavenly form as the sun (Surya). So too, the Vedic ocean or samudra has atmospheric and heavenly forms. One cannot use this symbolism to prove that the Vedic never saw a real terrestrial ocean more than they never saw an earthly fire! [...]
One wonders how Witzel himself would translate such common Vedic statements as ‘samudrayeva sindhava’ meaning ‘as rivers to the sea.’ Perhaps he has Vedic rivers only flowing into the atmosphere or accumulating their waters in a bottomless â€˜confluenceâ€™ that never gets full, and from where the rivers do not flow any further! Or perhaps, the Vedic people thought that the Yamuna, the Sindhu and all other rivers just drained their waters in a terminal, inland lake! (Ed: Emphasis in the original stripped)
But then, scholars of Witzel’s calibre have not tended to bother about these distinctions because of the political advantage the Aryan Invasion fairy tale gives them. The Aryan Invasion fiction is powerful because in one stroke it destroys every ounce of national pride in Indians. If accepted, it means that all of India’s contribution to humanity was in reality, that of the outsiders who invaded her. This fiction we see, has been taken to absurd lengths when a certain eminence–he’s an academic (sigh)–calls Dalits India’s Blacks! So, according to this fantasy tale, who were these outsiders who gave the world all those splendid achievements we attribute to Indians? The answer is anybody’s guess: they were the fair, blonde Aryans on horse chariots from land-locked Central Asia. In other words, the Whites.
If we grant these scholars knowledge of the distinction between Sanskrit and Vedic Sanskrit, we will be forced to conclude either:
- That this knowledge is not thorough or
- They’ve wilfully distorted the meaning for reasons best known to them
Based on my readings on this subject, #2 seems a reasonable conclusion to reach. Some articles that support this conclusion:
The problem of misrepresentation is both real and dangerous. A milder form of this danger lies in the several instances where genuine, unbiased scholars who rely on such deliberately-distorted material for their research, and unwittingly end up repeating the same distortions. The graver form of this is political: “scholars” like Wendy Doniger and our own Romila Thapar (an “expert” on ancient India with zero knowledge of Sanskrit) who use their position to achieve political aims.
A common refrain that one gets to hear on the subject of deliberate falsification is that some scholars are not “sympathetic” to Hinduism, they don’t approach it in a “friendly manner,” and similar complaints. I’ll only grant a small grain of credence to this complaint. What is required is not “sympathy” or “friendly gesture,” but something far deeper. I’ll talk about it in the next part.
Part 3: What is Required