Who are We?
What do we do?
How the First Academic Vamsa Was Established
By Francis C. Assisi
specialist in South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago,
Maureen L.P. Patterson, was certainly not exaggerating when she
wrote at the end of a long and distinguished career as Chief
Librarian: "In the long sweep of India's historic past, measured
in yugas rather than millennia or centuries, the total American
experience of Indic civilization is but a ksana."
For those on the first rung of the 21st century it may be
difficult to realize how great a sensation was the intellectual
discovery of India by the West towards the end of the 18th
century. Until then, the historical and cultural horizon of
Europe and America had been practically entirely bounded by the
Ancient East of the Bible, by
Greece and Rome. Now it was suddenly widened by the first
glimpses of the ancient civilizations of India and China.
India, had, on the strength of travellers' tales and
missionaries' reports, been reputed as an exotic and mysterious
wonderland from where anything might be expected. And when,
thanks to the pioneering efforts of some interested British
officials such as Sir William Jones and others, the first
original Sanskrit works were made accessible, the deep
impression made by their contents was doubled by the sensational
fact, that their language proved akin to Latin and Greek and the
other languages of Europe while at the same time it was older
and more refined than any of them.
At once it lead to far reaching speculations. And along with
Hebrew in Ivy League schools and in divinity schools, Sanskrit
too came to take a place. That's why most of those who initially
took interest in Sanskrit were really prompted by a religious
It was this discovery of Sanskrit alone that gave rise to a new
branch of research, comparative philology and modern linguistics
in general.The founder of this new science was a German, Franz Bopp; and it has
remained a favorite domain of German scholars ever since.
Sanskrit not only furnished to it important and even
indispensable raw material; the masterly analysis of their
sacred language by the ancient Indian grammarians opened up
entirely new vistas and gave some decisive inspirations to
modern Western scholars. The knowledge of Sanskrit has ever
since been considered indispensable for every worker in the
field of linguistics.
As early as the 1880s, the charter of universities such as
Columbia, Pennsylvania, Chicago, California, Michigan and
Minnesota stipulated that Sanskrit should be taught. It was a
time when Yale, Harvard and Johns Hopkins already had viable
Sanskrit programs by then. Although 2nd generation Desis are
today forging a new vanguard in South Asian Studies at American
universities, interest in the study of the Sanskrit language
really goes back a century and a half.
Sanskrit studies in the United States may be said to have begun
more than 150 years ago with Edward Elbridge Salisbury
(1814-1901) who was appointed Professor of Sanskrit and Arabic
at Yale in 1841. As Salisbury wrote in 1848: "The very
peculiarity of our national destiny, in a moral point of view,
calls upon us not only not to be behind, but to be even
foremost, in intimate acquaintance with oriental languages and
institutions. The countries of the West, including our own, have
been largely indebted to the East for their various culture; the
time has come when this debt should be repaid." Salisbury, who
graduated from Yale in 1832, had spent several years abroad
under Sanskritists Prof. Franz Bopp in Berlin and Prof. Garcin
de Tassy in Paris. After his appointment at Yale he once again
went toEurope and studied Sanskrit under Christian Lassen at
Bonn and Eugene Burnouf in Paris. It was Burnouf's two German
students, Rudolph Roth and Max Muller, who later on made a name in European Sanskrit
This background was fortuitous for America in the years to come.
In Paris it was not just Sanskrit; Modern India was not
neglected. Along with teaching of ancient Indian philology by
Burnouf, the teaching of Hindi and Urdu philology was actively
carried on and continued by Garcin de Tassy whose History of
Hindu and Hindustani Literature as well as translations of
seminal works such as the Ramacaritamanasa were well known.
Burnouf was among the first to realize that great progress could
be made in the morphology of European classical languages by
comparisons with Sanskrit, a cognate language in which the
analysis of forms was clearer and had even been carried to a
degree unknown elsewhere by grammarians of ancient India.
Burnouf set out to make use of Sanskrit to penetrate deeply into
Indian culture and to decipher other still unknown languages.
At the Inaugural lecture at the College de France, Burnouf
explained: "We shall analyse the scholarly language in which the
people originally expressed themselves, we shall read the
immortal works which are monuments of their genius
venture to add, however, if this course is to be devoted to
philology, we shall not for that exclude the study of events and
ideas. Our eyes shall not be shut against the most dazzling
light ever to shine from the Orient and we shall seek to
understand the spectacle before us. This is India, with its
philosophy and its myths, its literature and its laws, which we
shall study through its language
It is our profound conviction
that just as the study of words, in so far as it can possibly be
conducted to the exclusion of ideas, is useless and frivolous,
so words, as visible signs of thought, are a solid and
productive branch of learning. There is no true philology
without philosophy and history. The analysis of language
processes is also an inductive science and,
if not the science of the human soul, is at least that of the most
extraordinary faculty which it has been given to express
Around this time, in 1842, a group of New Englanders from the
Boston area, founded the American Oriental Society - which
served as the chief American organ for Oriental and especially
for Indic scholarship. Salisbury, whose interests were
scholarly, was one of the earliest members of the Society.
Salisbury served as its Secretary and
later as its President for a total of 21 years and made large
financial gifts toward the Society's support.
Salisbury did three important things for Indic studies in the
United States; he discovered the first great American
Sanskritist William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894; he got him a
secure position in a great university where he could work to his
full capacity and provided for perpetuity of the chair then
established; and he helped more than anyone else to create a
means of publication for Oriental studies.
Whitney had studied under Salisbury and later went to Germany to
study under Albrecht Weber and Rudolf Von Roth. Not long after
his return to America he was installed in his professorship at
Whitney was a man of wide attainments. He was one of the
collaborators in the production of the monumental seven-volume
Petersburg Sanskrit Dictionary. He made translations of the
Atharva Veda, with notes, in two volumes; he produced a masterly
Sanskrit Grammar (first edition 1879, reprinted in India eighty
years later in 1961); he translated the Surya Siddhanta, and
wrote extensively on linguistic science and Indo-European
Thus, Whitney established Indo-European philology and scientific
linguistics in the United States. His influence was widely felt
throughout the American academic world. With respect to the
Indic field, one academic has commented that all the
Sanskritists in America "either directly or indirectly are pupils of Professor Whitney's".
According to the late Prof. Norman Brown of the University of
Pennsylvania, Whitney did indeed "establish a vamsa which, with
just a few notable exceptions, has included every Sanskritist
teaching in America since his time".
Himself a member of that Vamsa, Brown notes that the greatest
misfortune the founder of the American Vamsa suffered seems to
be that he never visited the land to which he devoted his life.
Ironically, Yale University itself was built upon America's
lucrative trade with India. Boston-born Elihu Yale went with his
family's business to England. From England he went to India in
1671 as a writer for the East India Company. He rose steadily in
rank until he became Governor of Madras and a merchant prince in
his own right, amassing a great deal of wealth. He retired to
England in the early 1700s and contributed substantially to the
founding of the university that today bears his name.