Friedrich Schlegel, The Sanskrit Language, And The Beginnings Of Comparative Philology

The great antiquity and depth of Indian civilization had been known to Europe and the Middle East for many centuries; yet the precise contours of Indian advances in mathematics, literature, and philosophy were hidden behind the veils of preconception and confusion.  We know that the caliph Harun Al-Rashid, in Baghdad in the 9th century A.D., commissioned translations of some prominent works of Indian literature, but such knowledge remained in the hands of scholars and was not widely diffused.  Things began to change gradually with the advancement in geographic, scientific, and commercial knowledge in the 17th and 18th centuries.

All learning builds on the shoulders of successive visionaries.  The Italian Jesuit Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656) is generally credited with being one of the first, if not the first, learned Europeans who gained an intimate acquaintance with Indian civilization.  He took up residence in India as a missionary, learned several south Indian languages, and integrated himself into Indian society; but timing is everything when it comes to the propagation of knowledge, and the European public was not yet ready to hear of his discoveries.  A tremendous leap forward was taken with the researches of the Englishman Sir William Jones (1746-1794).  He was a linguist of staggering ability:  he was fluent in sixteen languages and competent in about a dozen others; even more importantly, he knew how to perceive connections that existed below the surface of linguistic data.  This is what separates a linguist from a true philologist.

A nineteenth century illustration depicting a Brahman priest

In one of the papers he presented to the Royal Asiatic Society in 1786, he proposed that Sanskrit, India’s major literary language, shared a common ancestor with the so-called Indo-European languages.  At some time in the remote past, Jones postulated, there must have been some original root from which grew the majority of Europe’s languages.  He was not the first to suggest this idea; there were other scholars who had offered the same suggestion, but conditions at the time had not been favorable to its receipt.  Jones was also one of the first Europeans to translate a major work of Sanskrit literature, the play Shakuntala (अभिज्ञानशाकुन्तलम्), authored by the revered dramatist Kalidasa.  But it was the rise of the Romantic movement in Europe that catapulted Sanskrit to the forefront of intellectual circles.  That this happened is principally due to the efforts of a passionate German Romantic philosopher and linguist named Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel (commonly cited as Friedrich Schlegel).

He was born in Hanover in 1772 and, like many great linguists, came from a clerical background.  By 1799 he had become a fervent Romantic and was entirely devoted to literary activities; he was acquainted with Schiller and Goethe, but they seemed not quite to know what to make of this tumescent, artistic soul.  But he was a dedicated scholar with a solid grasp of the major European and Near Eastern languages, and possessed an intuitive ability to find connections between things that many others before him had overlooked.  His moment of glory came in 1808 with the publication of a tremendously influential booklet entitled Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (On the Language and Wisdom of India).  Here Schlegel made his case that Sanskrit and the European languages shared the same ancestor.  As we have noted, he was not the first to make this observation; but he was able to articulate his points in a way that the public could understand, and this made all the difference.  Sanskrit was no longer the exclusive provenance of specialists; it was presented to the European public almost as a fraternal language.  Let us pause to examine the major points in this passionate admixture of scholarship and Romanticism.

Before we begin, I cannot resist here quoting a favorite passage of mine from his essay “On the Limits of the Beautiful.”  It is an idea that resonates in my own experience, and encapsulates the classical ideal of reasonable moderation:

The soul needs a certain amount of intellectual enjoyment to give it strength adequate for the daily struggle in which it is involved. The energies of the mind are as completely shattered and destroyed by constant restraint, as they are relaxed and enfeebled by perpetual enjoyments. To make pleasure the sole object of life is to defeat our own intention; for man exists but in accordance with the decrees of nature, and her laws stand in constant opposition to his own desires. Life is a stern struggle between conflicting powers. Every inordinate indulgence involves a corresponding amount of suffering. Those who yield their souls captive to the brief intoxication of love, if no higher and holier feeling mingle with and consecrate their dream of bliss, will shrink trembling from the pangs that attend their waking. Others, on the contrary, who devote themselves to glorious deeds, and seek enjoyment only in the intervals of more serious exertion, will have their best reward in the pure, unchanging happiness purchased by such self-denial.  [Trans. by E.J. Millington]

Title page of Friedrich Schlegel’s treatise on the Sanskrit language

We now return to Sanskrit.  Here Schlegel exhorts us to see Indian literature as a worthy companion to the writings of classical Greece and Rome:

The study of Indian literature requires to be embraced by such students and patrons as in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries suddenly kindled in Italy and Germany an ardent appreciation of the beauty of classical learning, and in so short a time invested it with such prevailing importance, that the form of all wisdom and science, and almost of the world itself, was changed and renovated by the influence of that re-awakened knowledge. I venture to predict that the Indian study, if embraced with equal energy, will prove no less grand and universal in its operation, and have no less influence on the sphere of European intelligence.

Schlegel separates his book into discussions on (1) the Indian language generally; (2) the affinity of its roots; (3) the grammatical structure of Sanskrit; (4) the classification of language groups; (5) the origins of language; and (6) the differences between languages.  There are some flights of fancy here, and odd digressions into metaphysics and religion that need not concern us; but here, at long last, is a clear and cogent demonstration of the common origins of the speech of Europe and India.  Consider the following passage, where he provides specific examples of connections between Sanskrit, German, Greek, and Latin:

I shall select a few of the most remarkable words signifying mind, thought, science, as affording particularly clear evidence of their common Indian descent. Momoh monoson, in the Latin mens, the verb monyote [he thinks] is found in the German meinet. Motih is the Greek métis. Another form, closely connected with this and with the German muth [spirit, courage], is found in amódoh [pleasure], anmuth; the a in the Indian amódo (which probably is also allied with the Persian oméd [hope]) is used merely as a prefix; from the same root we shall then have unmadoh; un being the regular form adopted for the sake of euphony, instead of ut; unmadoh [desperate, furious], literally the same as ermens, may have been contracted into the English mad. Atmoh, which signifies ipse and spiritus, has already been noticed in the Greek and German, atmé and athem [breath].

So likewise the root vedo, whence comes vetti, the German wissen [to know]. The Latin video is somewhat different in signification, but more closely resembling the Indian in form. The prolific root ina, signifying knowledge, science, and understanding, gives us the Persian shuneedun, shunoodlin, shimakhtián. The root dhi signifies deep thought and reflection, whence comes dhiyote, in the German dichtet [to compose], which in its original signification expresses to meditate, or also to write poetry; dhyayo, dhyayoti, &c., are allied with the German dachte [he thinks]. The Latin vox may have been derived from vocho, or from vakyon; both forms are in use. The root re signifies speech or language, rede in German. Ganon becomes in Latin cantus, from the root gi, giyote [he sings]; in the Persian khöndan [to sing and read].

The Indian pronouns generally coincide with the Latin. Certainly tvon [thou] is common to all the derived languages; vhon [I] is, on the contrary, traced only in the Celtic on; the dative moya [to me] is nearest to the Greek moi; the me, which is used instead of man [me], and also in the fourth and sixth cases, is common to both Greek and Latin; but the root svo (whence L. suus, -a, -um [his] are derived, and is often prefixed as a particle in order to express self-reliance, or self-confidence, has in its declension cases which are precisely similar to the Latin, as svon, L. suumsvan, L. suam, etc.

At long last, we finally have what was so desperately needed:  a clear demonstration of the common origin of the Indo-European family of languages.  That Schlegel was able to record these connections, and present them to the lay reader in a way that was both intelligible and engaging, was a skill of considerable importance.  What was once exotic and inaccessible now became comprehensible and accessible.  From 1808 until his death in 1829, Schlegel was occupied with both literary work and appointments to various governmental posts.  Both he and his brother August made significant contributions to German literature and philosophy.  But it is for his work on Sanskrit that Schlegel is primarily remembered today; he functioned as one of the catalysts and engines of the budding study of comparative philology.  Those that came after him would build on what he had begun.  More than any other man of his era, he cut away the tangled overgrowths of linguistic speculation and ignorance to see what truly lay beneath.


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3 thoughts on “Friedrich Schlegel, The Sanskrit Language, And The Beginnings Of Comparative Philology

  1. Beautifully explicated with balance.

    “More than any other man of his era, he cut away the tangled overgrowths of linguistic speculation and ignorance to see what truly lay beneath.”

    And there’s RUB.

    It’s was once suggested that everything is everything – we just forgot because of our own arrogance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Since the Portuguese arrived in India in about 1510 and controlled whole cities by 1526, you’d suspect there were “under-documented” Portuguese priests and / or scholars who preceded de Nobili (who arrived in India in 1605.) Without understanding a territory’s language(s) and culture, an occupation is going to be much harder and much less rewarding, as the distinguished American sage George W Bush can attest. 95 years feels like a very long lag for the Portuguese & their priest guests to seriously study Indian culture.

    Liked by 1 person

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