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WHAT CAN IT TEACH US Book: F. Max Muller Review: Satyendra Nath Dwivedi
I have through life considered it the greatest honour if real scholars, I mean men not only of learning, but of judgment and character, have considered my writings worthy of a severe and searching criticism, and I have cared far more for the production of one single new fact, though it spoke against me, than for any amount of empty praise or empty abuse. Sincere devotion to his studies and an unswerving love of truth ought to furnish the true scholar with an armour impermeable to flattery or abuse, but with a vizor that shuts out no ray of light, from whatever quarter it may come. More light, more truth, more facts, more combination of facts, these are his quest. What Can India Teach Us I could shut my eyes completely to the fact that, after all, Universities were not meant entirely, or even chiefly, as stepping-stones to an examination, but that there is something else which University can teach and ought to teach, - nay, which I feel quite sure they were originally meant to teach – something that may not have a marketable value before a Board of Examiners, but which has a permanent value for the whole of our life, - and that is ‘a real interest in our work’, and more than that ‘a true joy and happiness in our work’. Sanskrit Literature, if studied only in a right spirit, is full of human interests, full of lessons which even Greek could never teach us.
If I were to look over the whole world to find out the country most richly endowed with all the wealth, power, and beauty that nature can bestow – in some parts a very paradise on earth – I should point to India. If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has mostly deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions of some of them which well deserve the attention of even those who have studied Plato and Kant – I should point to India. And if I were to ask myself from what literature we, here in Europe, we who have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of Greeks and Romans, and of one Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw that corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in fact more truly human, a life, not for this life only, but a transfigured and eternal life – again I should point to India. You will find yourself everywhere in India between an immense past and an immense future. The study of Sanskrit will open before you large layers of literature, as yet almost unknown and unexplored, and allow you an insight into strata of thought deeper than any you have known before, and rich in lessons that appeal to the deepest sympathies of the human heart. In the study of the history of human mind, in the study of ourselves, of our true selves, India occupies a place second to no other country. Whatever sphere of the human mind you may select for your study, whether it be language, or religion, or mythology, or philosophy, whether it be laws or customs, primitive art or primitive science, everywhere, you have to go to India, because some of the most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India, and in India only. The Aryans of India were the framers of the most wonderful language, the Sanskrit, the fellow-workers in the construction of our fundamental concepts, the fathers of the most natural of natural religions, the makers of the most transparent mythologies, the inventors of the most subtle philosophy, and the givers of the most elaborate laws. We all come from the East – all that we value most has come to us from the East, and in going to the East, not only those who have received a special oriental training, but everybody who has enjoyed the advantages of a liberal, that is, of a truly historical education, ought to feel that he is going to his ‘old home’, full of memories, if only he can read them. Truthful Character of the Hindus Having never been in India myself, I can only claim for myself the right and duty of every historian, namely, the right of collecting as much information as possible, and the duty to sift it according to the recognized rules of historical criticism.
What Colonel Sleeman continually insists on is that no one knows Indians who does not know them in their village-communities – what we should now call ‘Communes’. It is that village life which in India has given its peculiar impress to the Indian character, more so than in any other country we know. The political unit or the social cell in India has always been, and, in spite of repeated foreign conquests, is still the village-community. To the ordinary Hindu, I mean to ninety nine in every hundred, the village was his world, and the sphere of public opinion, with its beneficial influences on individuals, seldom extended beyond the horizon of his village. In their Panchayats, Sleeman tells us, men adhere habitually and religiously to the truth, and “I have before me hundreds of cases”, he says, “in which property, liberty, and life has depended upon his telling a lie, and he has refused to tell it.” During the two thousand years which precede the time of Mahmud of Gazni, India has had but few foreign visitors, and few foreign critics; still it is surely extremely strange that whenever, either in Greek, or in Chinese, or in Persian, or in Arab writings, we meet with any attempts at describing the distinguishing features in the national character of the Indians, regard for truth and justice should always be mentioned first. “Though the Indians are of light temperament, they are distinguished by the straightforwardness and honesty of their character.” -Hiouen-Tsang [Chinese traveler to India 7th Century] “The Indians are naturally inclined to justice, and never depart from it in their actions. Their good faith, honesty, and fidelity to their engagements are wellknown, and they are so famous for these qualities that people flock to their country from every side.” - Idrisi [‘Geography’ 11th Century] “The Hindus are religious, affable, cheerful, lovers of justice, given to retirement, able in business, admirers of truth, grateful and of unbounded fidelity; and their soldiers know not what it is to fly from the field of battle.” - Abu Fazl [‘Ayin Akbari’ – 16th Century] So I could go on quoting from book after book, and again and again we should see how it was love of truth that struck all the people who came in contact with India, as the prominent feature in the national character of its inhabitants. The whole of Hindu literature from one end to the other is pervaded by expressions of love and reverence of truth. Their very word for truth is full of meaning. It is ‘sat’ or ‘Satya’, ‘sat’ being the principle of the verb as to be. True, therefore, was with them simply ‘that which is’.
Another name for truth in Sanskrit is ‘rita’, which originally seems to have meant ‘straight’, ‘direct’, while ‘anrita’ is untrue, false. Now one of the highest praise bestowed upon the gods in the Veda is that they are ‘Satya’, true, beautiful, trustworthy [Rig-Veda I-87.4, 155.5, 174.1, V-23.2]; and it is well known that both in modern and ancient times, men always ascribe to God or to their gods those qualities which they value most in themselves. “Whosoever speaks the truth makes the fire on his own blaze up, as if he poured butter into the lighted fire. His own light grows larger, and from tomorrow to tomorrow he becomes better. But whosoever speaks untruth, he quenches his fire on his altar, as if he poured water into the lighted fire; his own light grows smaller and smaller, and from tomorrow to tomorrow he becomes more wicked. Let man therefore speak truth only.” In the Epic ‘Ramayana’, ‘Rama’ says: “In this world the chief element is virtue is truth; it is called the basis of everything. Truth is Lord of the world; virtue always rests on truth. All things are founded on truth; nothing is higher than it”. Truthfulness is a luxury, perhaps the greatest, and let me assure you, the most expensive luxury in our life – and happy the man who has been able to enjoy it from his very childhood. I doubt whether in any other of the ancient literature of the world you will find traces of that extreme sensitiveness of conscience which despairs of our ever speaking the truth, and which declares silence as gold, and speech silver, though in a much higher sense than our proverb. Let us hold by all means to our sense of what is right and what is wrong; but in judging others, whether in public or private life, whether as historians or politicians, let us not forget that a kindly spirit will never do any harm. Human Interest of Sanskrit Literature Such is the marvelous continuity between the past and the present in India, that in spite of repeated social convulsions, religious reforms, and foreign invasions, Sanskrit may be said to be still the only language that is spoken over the whole extent of the vast country. The literature of India never ceased to be written in Paninian Sanskrit. Even at the present moment after a century of English rule and English teaching, I believe that Sanskrit is more widely understood in India than Latin was in Europe at the time of Dante. There is ‘The Pandit ’ published at Benares (Varanasi), containing not only editions of ancient texts, but treatises on modern subjects, reviews of books published in England, and controversial articles, al in Sanskrit.
The ancient epic poems of ‘Mahabharata’ and ‘Ramayana’ are still recited in the temples, and in villages (drawing large crowds), around the ‘Kathaka’, the reader of those ancient poems. There are number of Brahmans even now, when so little inducement exists for the Vedic studies, who know the whole of the ‘Rig-Veda’ by heart and can repeat it; and what applies to Rig-Veda applies to many other books. But even if Sanskrit were a dead language than it really is, all the living languages of India, both Aryan and Dravidian, draw their very life and soul from Sanskrit. Let us look at the facts. Sanskrit literature is a wide and vague term. If the Vedas, such as we have them now, were composed about 1500 BC, and if it is a fact that considerable works continue to be written in Sanskrit even now, we have before us a stream of literary activity extending over three thousand four hundred years. With the exception of China there is nothing like this in the whole world. The true history of the world must always be the history of the few; and as we measure the Himalaya by the height of Mount Everest, we must take the true measure of India from the poets of the Veda, the sages of the Upanishads, the founders of the Vedanta and Sankhya philosophies, and the authors of the oldest law-books, and not from the millions who are born and die in their villages, and who have never for one moment been roused out of their drowsy dream of life. About forty years ago, a new start was made, which has given to Sanskrit scholarship an entirely new character. The chief author of that movement was ‘Burnouf’, then Professor at the College de France in Paris, an excellent scholar, but at the same time a man of wide views and true historical instincts. What he wanted when he threw himself on Sanskrit was history, human history, world history, and with an unerring grasp he laid hold of Vedic literature and Buddhist literature, as the two stepping-stones in the slough of Indian literature. He died young, but his spirit lived on in his pupils and his friends, and few would deny that the first impulse, directly or indirectly, to all that has been accomplished by the students of Vedic and Buddhist literature, was given by Burnouf and his lectures at the College de France. It is at all events a problem worth considering whether, as there is in nature a South and a North, there are not two hemispheres also in human nature, both worth developing – the ‘active, combative and political’ on one side, the ‘passive, meditative and philosophical’ on the other; and for the solution of that problem no literature furnishes such ample materials as that of the Veda, beginning with the hymns and ending with the Upanishads.
If we turn our eyes to the East, and particularly to India, where life is, or at all events was, no very severe struggle, where the climate was mild, the soil fertile, where vegetable food in small quantities sufficed to keep the body in health, and strength, where the simplest hut or a cover in a forest was the shelter required, and where social life never assumed the gigantic, aye monstrous proportions of a London or Paris, but fulfilled itself within the narrow boundaries of village communities, - was it not, I say, natural there, or, if you like, was it not intended there, that another side of human nature should be developed – not ‘the active, the combative and acquisitive’, but ‘the passive, the meditative and reflective’? After having provided from day to day for the small necessities of the body, they thought they had the right, it may be the duty, to look around upon this strange exile, to look inward upon themselves, and to see whether they could not understand a little of the true purport of that mystery which we call life on earth. The highest wisdom of Greece was ‘to know ourselves’; the highest wisdom of India is ‘to know our Self’. A being satisfied with the world of sense, unconscious of its finite nature, undisturbed by the limited or negative character of all perceptions of the senses, would be incapable of any religious concepts. Only when the finite character of all human knowledge has been perceived, is it possible for the human mind to conceive that which is beyond the finite, call it what you like, the Beyond, the Unseen, the Infinite, the Supernatural, or the Divine. That step must have been taken before religion of any kind becomes possible. Supposing that the Vedic hymns were composed between 1500 and 1000 BC, we can hardly understand how, at so early a date, the Indians had developed ideas which to us sound decidedly modern. I maintain that for a study of man, or, if you like, for a study of Aryan humanity, there is nothing in the world equal in importance with the Veda. I maintain that to everybody who cares for himself, for his ancestors, for his history, or for his intellectual development, a study of Vedic literature is indispensable. [To continue] Review: Satyendra Nath Dwivedi
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