The Sanskrit Text in the Modern World: A Paradigmatic Case?
In the modern world, Sanskrit texts have elicited the attention of several different groups of
readers including devout (and in-search-of-devotion) Hindus, nationalist artists and writers,
Orientalist scholars, and right wing Hindu nationalists. The tensions between different
approaches to early Sanskrit texts reveal that readers always bring to these texts a set of political interests and theoretical assumptions, though these are rarely articulated in a clear way.
Contemporary academic engagement with Sanskrit texts also does not take place in a vacuum,
but participates in the fraught political arena of modernity. In this paper I attempt to articulate
some of the theoretical-political questions that emerge in the study of early Sanskrit texts today. Discussing, on the one hand, the work of Romila Thapar and Sheldon Pollock, both of whom have written extensively about ways of approaching Sanskrit texts, and on the other, the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who have paid particular attention to matters of textuality, temporality, and reading, I contend that the “case of Sanskrit”—minor and marginal as it may seem—may allow us to perceive some central questions confronting literary studies and the Humanities today.
Simona Sawhney teaches South Asian Literature and literary theory at the University of
Minnesota. Her book, The Modernity of Sanskrit, has recently been published by the University of Minnesota Press and Permanent Black, New Delhi.