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Associate Professor McComas Taylor offers his reflections on this important gathering of Sanskrit scholars.
It is easy to love Vancouver in the summertime: long mild days, trees in full leaf and snow on the mountain tops across the water. The University of British Columbia campus occupies most of a peninsular that juts out into the Strait of Georgia and is fringed by national park that drops down to the water’s edge. With broad grassy avenues, sweeping views out over the Strait, some of the biggest trees I have ever seen and lots of wonderful First Nations sculpture, the campus stretches out like a city unto itself. Six hundred delegates from all over the world convened in these idyllic surroundings for the Seventeenth World Sanskrit Conference, 9-13 July 2018. The WSC is held every three years under the auspices of the International Association of Sanskrit Studies, and is the premier international event in the field.
The Vancouver WSC ran like clockwork under the guidance of Prof Adheesh Sathaye and colleagues at UBC. The plenary sessions were held in the UBC’s beautiful new Chan Centre, with regular panels spread throughout the neighbouring Buchanan Building. The organisers had very successfully mobilised the local Indian community to act as volunteers. One could never be seriously lost for long, as friendly volunteers were on point-duty to direct traffic, and they also prepared and cheerfully administered constant supplies of sustenance in the form of chai-vai and namkin-vamkin.
There seemed to be a general consensus among attendees that the standard of papers reached a new benchmark for excellence. Sessions were more scholarly, and—importantly—more carefully and professionally chaired than ever before. From my personal perspective, the highlight was the strength of the Purāṇic Section with eighteen papers scheduled. This is only the second time that the WSC has included such a section, and it is showing very healthy signs of growth in this important but rather neglected genre.
With ten parallel sessions to choose from most days, and cultural events, workshops or special session most evenings, it was impossible to get more than a taste of what was happening in other areas, and some very difficult decisions had to be made about which sessions to attend.
No one who saw the superb Kutiyattam performance by the Nepathya company from Kerala will ever forget it. Kutiyattam is a highly stylised operatic tradition (with the dialogue in Sanskrit), that lies along the spectrum with Peking Opera and Japan’s Noh tradition: fabulous costumes, high drama and lots of action. The group performed ‘Balivadham’, an episode from the Ramayana in which the hero Rama ignominiously kills Balin, the monkey king. As a person who has worked in a hospice for three years, this was the most convincing and moving death scene I have ever witnessed.
As well as providing scholarly stimulation and wonderful entertainment, the WSC also raised a number of important issues. One long-term problem is that WSCs often feel like two conferences running in parallel: one attended by scholars from India, and the other for delegates from everywhere else, and there is not nearly enough interaction between the two cohorts. For example, the Kavisammelana (Concourse of Poets) and Shastracarca (Scholarly Debate) were attended almost exclusively by Indian scholars. Most non-Indians cannot follow Spoken Sanskrit and don’t bother attending. This is a great pity as even if one cannot understand the content, these are important cultural practices that should be of interest to anyone in the field.
The number of papers in other sessions delivered in Sanskrit has grown dramatically in recent years. This is also a problem as they are largely unintelligible for non-Indian scholars. The other side of the coin, of course, is that native speakers of English speak (or—horrors!—) read their papers so rapidly that only fellow native or near-native speakers can follow them. Interaction between the two communities is hampered by language, discipline, inclination and a certain amount of arrogance on both sides.
The WSC also highlighted a relative new question: who has the right or qualifications to study Sanskrit, or, more simply, who ‘owns’ the field. The international community regards Sanskrit as a legitimate area of study to which any suitably qualified person can contribute. With the rise of a new nationalism in India this is now being contested. Rajiv Malhotra set the tone in his plenary address at the WSC in Bangkok in 2015 when he divided the field into ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. This was echoed in the plenary address in Vancouver given by the Indian Minister for Human Resource Development in which he seemed to be saying that only Indians could really understand the ‘context’ of Sanskrit studies. This seemed to be a particularly off-key message to deliver to the most eminent assemblage of international Sanskrit scholars in the world. I beg forgiveness if I misunderstood the minister. The question of who ‘owns’ Sanskrit also spills over into the question of freedom of speech, academic inquiry and respect for the sensitivities and ‘feelings’ of others. Is it acceptable to talk about caste, gender, sexuality or ‘brahminism’ in relation to Sanskrit studies? The international community has largely agreed that these are all legitimate subjects for discussion, whereas sections of the audience now find these topics problematic at least, and offensive at most. This question is all the murkier as it involves issues of history, colonialism, imperialism, post-colonialism, nationalism, race and gender.
There is an increasingly widespread view that Sanskrit is the vehicle of a unitary, sacred, timeless tradition that is above and beyond the intrusive apparatuses and processes of international scholarly inquiry. We have been here before: when Max Müller first went to Oxford in the 1850s he was amazed to find that his High Church colleagues believed that the Bible was not a suitable object of study, something the Germans had been doing for decades. This issue is likely to intensify and further polarise WSCs if we don’t address it, but the way forward is by no means clear.
I was so pleased when I heard one Indian colleague say, “We want to hear what Western scholars are doing”. For too long many Indian scholars have been isolated from the international academic conversation through no fault of their own. They have been restricted by lack of funding, access to journals and up-to-date libraries, and lack networks with the outside world. Surely a key role of the WSC is to help bridge this gap.
On a more cheerful note, the conference seemed pleased and excited to be reminded that the next WSC will be held in Canberra, Australia, 18—22 January 2021, and in 2024 in Kathmandu. The take-home sentiments from Vancouver? Re-energisation, excitement with the developments in our field, and pleasure at catching up with colleagues, old and new.