Rewriting History: Ganesh Devy Puts Pali on a Pedestal, Sanskrit on a Stool

Rewriting History: Ganesh Devy Puts Pali on a Pedestal, Sanskrit on a Stool
Image Courtesy: Madras Courier

Frontline, a fortnightly magazine from Chennai, published an article titled “Why Pali Lost Out and Sanskrit Received More than its Due,” authored by Ganesh Devy in its issue of June 2, 2023. Soon after the publication, on June 27, 2023, I sent a letter to the magazine informing them of the misinformation and inaccuracies in the column. The editors did not respond; they did not even acknowledge my mail. When I wrote again (August 14, 2023) and asked if they were interested in publishing my response to and review of the article, they mailed back saying they had sent my rejoinder to Prof. Devy and were awaiting his reply. They also expressed their unwillingness to publish my full rejoinder with the excuse that they lacked space to publish it. They asked me to send instead a letter to the editor of 150-180 words. Left with no other option, I agreed and sent my truncated response as they desired:

Ganesh Devy’s ramblings on an imaginary Pali wasteland (2 June 2023) illustrate the pitfalls of writers with a public cachet venturing into subjects they know nothing about. His equating Pali with the language of the Buddha and Buddhism, his simplistic geographical boundaries between Sanskrit and Pali, his assertion that the Indo-Aryan Indian languages have been nurtured by Pali, and his crediting Dharmanand Kosambi with rediscovering Pali, and introducing Ambedkar to Buddhism, and Marx to India, all highlight his ignorance and unfamiliarity with the basic knowledge in these fields. There are far too many errors of fact and understanding in his column to be pointed out in the compass of a letter to the editor. Suffice it to say that Pali has not been short-changed: neither in India’s long Buddhistic phase nor in modern India.

Devy has long established a track record for writing on subjects he knows nothing about or knows only superficially. Right from his first work, the sloppy and poorly-argued “After Amnesia,” where he dabbled in subjects as varied as Indian aesthetics, Indian philosophy, Gujarati language, literature, and criticism, to his latest piece in your esteemed magazine, Devy has been commendably consistent.

After I mailed this letter, they did not reply, nor did they care to reply to my emails (of August 16, August 22, September 18, and September 27, 2023).

It seemed to me that the editors of Frontline were happy with the misinformation, inaccuracies, if not outright falsehoods they circulated through Devy’s column, and did not want to address the intellectual and academic damage caused by the distorted and fabricated facts in Devy’s article. The tagline of Frontline is “Leading the debate,” and I wondered, given their penchant for political partisanship and smothering debates, if they should more appropriately change the tagline to “Frontline: Suppressing the debate”.

In the introduction to his co-edited book — Indians: Histories of a Civilization — Devy pontificates: “[…] the established conventions of scientific discourse of history expects the conversations about a society’s past to keep a safe distance from fantasy, hallucination, and wishful nostalgia”. As such, and ironically, Devy’s piece exhibits all three features that he warns us about — fantasy, hallucination, and wishful nostalgia. Alas, it seems that he does not want to practice what he preaches!

Here are the errors in Devy’s article (with some minor edits, in-text citations, and a complete reference section) that I pointed out to the editors of Frontline:

This has reference to Ganesh Devy’s column India, This Side of June 2, 2023 titled, “Why Pali lost out and Sanskrit received more than its due”. As usual, Devy has made some very interesting observations and has provided his readers with information which cannot be found in any source. Be it the languages mentioned in the title or allied topics such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Marxism, or personalities like Dharmanand Kosambi and Dr. Ambedkar, Devy has something new and unsubstantiated to say.

Despite the startling title, Devy chooses not to discuss the intricate historical processes as a result of which Pali “lost out,” as he claims, or for that matter the very complex reasons for why Sanskrit received, if at all, “more than its due”. It is important therefore to draw your attention to the more glaring errors in his piece. I might as well add that there is not a single important statement in his opinion piece which is correct.

In spite of the supercilious tone he adopts in the first paragraph, while listing the language families of India he forgets the Greater Andamanese and Tai Kadai, and thinks that “Tibeto-Burman” is “Tibeto-Burmese”! “Gautama” is spelt correct with the inherent “a” but “Jina Mahavira” is spelt “Mahaveer Jain”! His remark that “Pali did not have much of a place” in William Jones’ thoughts is unhistorical as it was not known to Jones. He thinks the Marathi saint-poet Eknath flourished in the fourteenth century!

Devy’s claim that “Our amnesia about how greatly Pali has contributed to all (my emphasis) that we speak and think is not of recent origin” cannot be supported by evidence, literary or linguistic. Notwithstanding his bold assertion, the Jains have nothing to do with Pali. Nor does Pali have any connection with Mahavira or with the language in which his and his predecessor Parshva’s teachings were preserved. There is no proof that the “philosophers who preceded (Mahavira and the Buddha]” spoke Pali; merely because their names appear in Buddhist and Nirgrantha canonical literature in Prakritic garb, it does not mean that they spoke that language. Interestingly, Sanskrit-speaking philosophers like Yajnavalkya, and Uddalaka [“the earliest philosopher of humanity” as Ruben called him (1954: 25, 84)] have no place in Devy’s conception of pre-Buddhist philosophy. Should we call it amnesia?

The geographical boundary that Devy draws between Sanskrit and Pali (“The west of the Yamuna was the land of Sanskrit. The east of the Yamuna was the land of Pali during the pre-historic times”) is both simplistic and fanciful. As for Sanskrit, a quick look at the geographical locale of the early Upanishads would be enough to negate this assertion. In so far as Pali is concerned, there is no unanimity among scholars but most take it to be a western Indian language originating and spoken in a region around Ujjayani (for example, Westergaard) or Vidisha (Frauwallner) (cf. Elizarenkova and Toporov 1976: 17).

Throughout his essay, Devy makes the unfortunate equation between Pali and Buddhism. Devy has this strong misconception that the Buddha gave his sermons in Pali. Budhha’s language was not Pali; it was an eastern language, most likely Magadhi as the communis opinio holds. Devy gullibly believes that “…each and every Buddhist scripture is written” in Pali. He seems to have trapped himself by this notion because, for him, Buddhism is Theravada Buddhism and perhaps what is not Theravada Buddhism is no Buddhism. Devy is simply wrong. As is well known to students of Buddhism, apart from Pali, Buddhist canonical texts were not only rendered into Sanskrit but also into Chinese, Tibetan, Gandhari, and above all, what is called (for want of a better term), Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.

He confidently asserts that “the knowledge of Pali Buddhist texts remained alive in countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Thailand”. The omission of Burma in this list is as astonishing as the inclusion of Nepal (for Burma and Pali, see von Hinüber 1983: 67; LeVine and Gellner 2005: 69–70). Since Buddhism has been quite strong in Nepal, and because of his equating Theravada with Buddhism, Devy thinks Pali was studied there. With a little more reading, he would have discovered that Theravada Buddhism, and with it Pali, has only recently been introduced to Nepal (Kloppenberg 1977; Tewari 1983; LeVine and Gellner 2005). Even a smattering of knowledge of the history of Buddhism and the development of its various sects could have saved Devy from the pitfalls he has dug for himself.

Devy also seems to be undecided, if not ill-informed, regarding the nature of Pali and its connection with Prakrits and with Sanskrit. At times, he treats Pali and Prakrits as different, but elsewhere he takes Pali to be equivalent to all Prakrits. To begin with, Pali is not a homogenous language; it is a mixed dialect; and an artificial, literary language as has long been pointed out and which has been accepted by almost all serious scholars (cf. Geiger 1916/1956: 1–2; Levman 2016). Artificial, not like Esperanto, but as Oskar von Hinüber explains, despite Pali’s manifold connections with several dialects, it is not identical with any of them. Some of its constructions and forms are, as he calls them, “ghost construction” (von Hinüber 1982). As such, Pali could not have been, at any point in time, a spoken language, much less the language of the Buddha. By pitching Pali against Sanskrit, Devy appears to downplay the importance of Sanskrit in Buddhism and indeed in the linguistic history of India. Much to the disappointment of Devy, Pali instead of becoming a “rival” to Sanskrit started at an early date to Sanskritize itself!

Devy seems to be quite certain that “Sanskrit came to India from outside, while Pali was –like ancient Tamil — very much our own”. This, to say the least, is a fantastic proposition. Even if we agree, as Devy apparently does, that the Indo-Aryan-speaking people migrated to the Indian subcontinent, or “invaded” if you will, this proposition does not hold water. It is so for the simple reason that the “migrating” Aryans brought with them not only Sanskrit but also Prakrit. The impressive work on Prakritism in the Rigveda, right from the days of Albrecht Weber, unmistakably shows, these Prakrits were spoken by Devy’s “invading/migrant Aryans” along with Vedic when they entered India (cf. Devasthali 1970; Elizarenkova 1989; Werba 1992). So, if we go by Devy’s argument, Pali is as allochthonous as “Sanskrit”. As has been shown convincingly, Pali has features that are more archaic than the Rigvedic Sanskrit and has affinities with the language of the Avesta (cf. Oberlies 2001: 7–8; von Hinüber 2008: 198–199). In other words, the dialects on which Pali is based go back to a period when the Indo-Aryan speakers had not yet “migrated” into India! If it is argued that Pali developed in India and is therefore “indigenous,” the same applies to Vedic and Sanskrit too. Vedic evolved in India as the (fossilized) Mitanni-Aryan forms (fifteenth-fourteenth century BCE) unambiguously show (if we believe Kammenhuber, Mitanni-Aryan u̯ašanna from Indo-Iranian *vāźhana > Vedic vāhana attests Indo-Iranian ǰh and źh developing into Vedic h; Mitanni-Aryan aika (one) > Vedic éka-, and so on) (cf. Kammenhuber 1968: 207–208; Mayrhofer 1964/1972: 12, §2a; Burrow 1973: 125). What is true of Vedic, it is needless to say, applies a fortiori to (Classical) Sanskrit.

When Devy states that “from the 10th century onwards one variety of Prakrit developed as Gujarati, another as Bangla and Odiya, and a third as Marathi and Konkani,” it is apparent that he does not make, or understand, the very vital difference between Prakrit and Apabhramsha. Devy, the brains behind the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, believes that “all States [sic] in the south, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Orissa, West Bengal, and Bihar are nurtured by either Tamil or Pali”. I am afraid, in so far as Pali is concerned, no linguist worth his salt will risk his reputation by supporting Devy in this claim. Devy’s systematic exclusion of Sanskrit and replacing it by Pali may have roots in his ideological concerns but facts, fortunately, are not subservient to ideology. A cursory look at Emeneau and Burrow’s Dravidian Borrowings from Indo-Aryan (1962) will convince Devy of the far reaching contributions of Sanskrit to Dravidian languages. Sanskrit tops the chart with 312 words, followed by Prakrits with 163; Pali staggers with 45 words (cf. 1962: 99 ff.). It would be advisable to add here, for the uninitiated, that this list takes into account only those words which either underwent change of meaning or “far-reaching phonetic changes” or both, and excludes all tatsama Sanskrit words, the number of which is quite large (Emeneau and Burrow 1962: 1). Bh. Krishnamurti writes in his compendium Dravidian Languages that “Texts of Middle Tamil literature (300–600 CE) are flooded with borrowed words from Sanskrit and Middle Indic” and “many more are taken from Sanskrit as adapted tatsamas” (2003: 473, and in general §10.2, pp. 470 ff.). Among the Dravidian languages, Malayalam has the highest number of Sanskrit vocables. As far as influencing the New Indo-Aryan languages is concerned, Sanskrit leaves Pali far behind.

Devy writes, in all seriousness, that “It was only towards the end of the 19th century, when a young man from Goa set out in search of Pali and with great difficulty acquired scholarship in that language, that the country woke up to the fact that here was a great language which we had all but forgotten. The man: Acharya Dharmanand Kosambi (1876-1947)”. When Kosambi was in swaddling clothes, in 1877, R. G. Bhandarkar had dealt at length with Pali and its linguistic peculiarities in his Wilson Philological Lectures (1914: 31–70, 274 ff.). The University of Calcutta had started offering Pali as a subject from 1889 at the MA level and Satish Chandra Vidyabhushan was the first candidate to have obtained the MA degree in 1901 (cf. Jaini 1956/1997: 344 = idem 2002: 42). Kosambi, who is claimed to have woken up his country to Pali, on the contrary, had no idea about Pali until he visited Bodh Gaya in February 1902, and even then he thought it was a Siamese language! When a local bhikkhu recited a few Pali sentences from the Tripitaka, Kosambi was thrilled to realize that it was similar to Sanskrit and therefore it would not take him long to master it (he has narrated this incident in his autobiography, cf. 1924: 71).

His ideological inclinations lead Devy to assert that Kosambi was “the first Indian to know of Marxism”! Let alone first, he was not even among the first few Indians to learn about Marxism. Kosambi learnt of Marx and socialism not earlier than May 1910 (cf. Kosambi 1924: 163). Tilak wrote about Marx in his Mahratta of 1 May 1881 when Kosambi was just four years old (cf. Naik 1999). Jogendra Chandra Ghosh in his essay on the “Village Community of Bengal and Upper India,” published in Calcutta Review of 1882, mentions Marx the next year (cf. Baksi; also cf. Setalvad 1910).

As if these were not enough, Devy credits Kosambi with having introduced Ambedkar to Buddhism. Ambedkar never mentions Kosambi in his voluminous writings nor does any of his biographers or Ambedkarite scholars. Ambedkar specifically credits Dadasaheb Keluskar and his biography of the Buddha (published in 1898) for his interest in Buddhism (cf. Ambedkar 1957/2011: xxvi; also cf. Jaffrelot 2000/2005: 131 and n. 63 on p. 193).

In contrast to Devy’s anguish that Pali did not receive its due in independent India, Ambedkar had a different take. While delivering his speech at the Third World Buddhist Conference at Rangoon in Burma in December 1954, Ambedkar mentioned with justifiable pride that, on his insistence, a special provision was made for the study of Pali in the Indian Constitution. He also informed the gathering that it was because of his efforts that the Ashoka Chakra was adopted in the tricolor (much to the disappointment of Mahatma Gandhi who wanted the charkha), and that Ashoka’s lion capital was designated as India’s national emblem. He also referred to “the inscription of a Buddhistic aphorism on the frontage of the imposing Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi” in Pali language (cf. Keer 1954/1971: 481, 395). Given the minuscule minority of Buddhists in India at that time, for Ambedkar, these were great achievements.

I do not make any apology for having written at some length about how Devy blithely writes in the mainstream press about very important subjects that require genuine commitment, serious research, and better arguments. As a rule, no scholar would write on subjects, and not publish his writings, without adequate reading or fieldwork. Devy has long established a track record for writing on subjects he knows almost nothing about or knows only superficially. Right from his first work, the sloppy and poorly-argued After Amnesia (cf. Trivedi 1994: 37–38; Rao 2004: 65), where he dabbled, without any careful reading, in subjects as varied as Indian aesthetics, Indian philosophy, Gujarati language, literature, and criticism, to his latest piece in Frontline, Devy has been commendably consistent.


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Hemant Dave

Hemant Dave studied history, archaeology, and Indian philosophy, and has taught history for the past twenty years at Sardar Patel University, Vallabh Vidyanagar, Gujarat. His areas of interest and research are archaeology and literary traditions, historical consciousness in ancient India, Sanskrit aesthetics, historical linguistics, medieval and modern Gujarati literature, nineteenth-century Gujarat, and anthropology of religions. Some of his publications belong to these fields.