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Reading Texts: A Process of Discovering and Recovering Context – Part 4

Reading Texts: A Process of Discovering and Recovering Context
Part 4
by Meenakshi Bauri

A research essay submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of Master of Arts

School of Linguistics and applied Language Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, September, 18, 2002

There is another book on Tolstoy and Gandhi by Martin Green, Tolstoy and Gandhi – Men of Peace (1983). A Biography is particularly relevant in its detail. Green specifically mentions the changes in the later part of Tolstoy’s life:

During this period, moreover Tolstoy turned to India, to China, and to the East in general, in search of truths, models, and traditions with which to replace those of his own culture. He became an Orientalist….attracted by its traditions of asceticism; by the Buddhists. (Green,1983, p. 9)

Based on this evidence, my hypothesis is: Is it not possible that this trend caught on within the generation that followed – Roerich, Vygotsky, Stcherbatsky, Bakhtin, Voloshinov? This is quite possible because Tolstoy held great influence over the discourse of his times. Reading the book by Green involved travelling through time, through cultures, through revolutions, through the lives of Tolstoy and Gandhi. Martin Green remarks:

The religion Tolstoy was born into has to be described in paradoxical terms. Nineteenth century Russia was in some ways still a religious country, a religious culture like Gandhi’s India or medieval Christendom, before Western Europe was rationalized by the modern system. Tolstoy’s mother was a woman of piety. Religious practices and large religious institutions were accessible to him in his childhood, in picturesque and attractive form, and his writings show that he was attentive to them. Nevertheless there is a sense that religion never touched him intimately, never as for example George Eliot was touched by religion in childhood or as Gandhi was. Russian Orthodox Christianity was primarily picturesque for him and for others in his social class, primarily out of the past and primarily belonging to the uneducated peasantry. Though as a child he was certainly taught the ethic of Christianity with its prohibition of killing and its inculcation of chastity, he was also taught, and later learned predominantly or exclusively, the quite opposite ethic appropriate to a noble….. In Russia, nobles and priests were entirely separate castes, with very different educations, houses, readings, and living habits. The Church’s services were aesthetically splendid, its inmost life of prayer was impressively ascetic and mystical, but in between those two extremes, as a moral and institutional presence, it was negligible or contemptible. (Ibid., pp. 20-21)

Contrast this with what was happening in India. In India this was the time of great religious and social revival; this was the time of Aurobindo’s return from England to take up education and then revolutionary work, and of Annie Besant’s arrival, (Annie Besant belonged to the Theosophical society started by Madam Blavatsky. Blavatsky’s writings were translated by the Roerichs, where she extended her influence from theosophy to cultural revival and active politics). This was also the time of Vivekanand’s visit to the United States, which meant the beginning of bringing Western philosophic thoughts to India, and Eastern philosophic thoughts to the West. Gandhi at this time was just becoming a political reformer. They were all harnessing religion for the cause of nation building in India. This was the time Gandhi began reading Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You. After 1906, when he started going to prison as part of the ‘non-violent’ movement, it was one the books he carried with him to court and from one prison to another.

What follows are two extensive quotes from an on-line academic discussion group, covering material that is not covered in books elsewhere. Consider what two contemporary scholars have to say about Tolstoy, Gandhi and Ahimsa (Non-violence) in particular, and about Indology in Russia in general.

Jan Houben a contemporary Bhartrhari scholar says:

Pre- and non-institutional Indology seems to have flourished in pre-Soviet Russia. One instance of this which struck me recently is that the notion of ahimsa/non-violence was adapted to Russian literature much earlier than to other European literatures, where it became well-known only in the 20’s of this century, after Gandhi’s actions in British India. But Gandhi sought his own personal inspiration in Tolstoy and through him rediscovered his path toward the law of love and passivity. Writing Tolstoy from London in 1909, Gandhi signed himself ‘Your humble disciple’, and received back the advice to read ‘Letter to a Hindu’ . . . (Raymond Schwab1984: 451f, The Oriental Renaissance, Eng. tr. New York).

Tolstoy’s understanding of Indian thought in general and of ahimsa in particular, incidentally, is said to have been shaped very much by Buddhism My triple question to Russian-speaking Indologists on this list:

  • Which word was used by Tolstoy to express the notion of ahimsa?
  • Did it gain much currency beyond the circle of Tolstoy-admirers?
  • Did the term somehow remain in use in a similar meaning in the Sovjet period?

(Indology Discussion list. Retrieved on Feb. 1 1998, from: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~ucgadkw/indology.html)

Yaroslav Vassilkov a contemporary Russian Linguist replies,

Tolstoy seems to be the first eminent writer in European literature who was so strongly influenced by Indian religious thought. There is an important article by Alexander Syrkin: The “Indian” in Tolstoy. Tolstoy even described his own spiritual crisis and subsequent rediscovery of religion using the imagery of an Indian parable (of archetypal origin, as I tried to show in: Parable of a Man hanging in a Tree and its archaic Background. – “Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature”, Calcutta, vol.32, 1994-95, pp. 38-51, and another version in: SthApakazrAddham. Professor G.A.Zograph Commemorative Volume. St Petersburg, 1995, pp. 257-268 [I think there is a copy of this book in the library of the Kern Institute] Tolstoy used mostly Western translations and interpretations of Indian texts but benefited also from the books by and personal contacts with the founder of the Buddhist studies in Russia Th.Shcherbatsky’s teacher – Ivan P, Minayev.

  1. Which word was used by Tolstoy to express the notion of ahimsa?. Tolstoy’s expression for “ahimsa” was: “neprotivlenije zlu nasiliem”, which means literally: “non-resistance to evil by violent means”.
  2. Did it gain much currency beyond the circle of Tolstoy-admirers? No, but the “circle of Tolstoy’s admirers” was very wide, including maybe tens of thousands of people both from intelligentsia and common folk, living in communes all over the Russian Empire.
  3. Did the term somehow remain in use in a similar meaning in the Soviet period? Official Soviet propaganda used it only ironically, making fun of it. It was used, of course, in the communes of Tolstoy’s followers, but towards the end of the 1920s these communes were closed and their inhabitants exiled or imprisoned.

(Indology discussion list Retrieved on Feb. 2, 1998, from: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~ucgadkw/indology.html)

The above is also a part of the time and the environment, within which is embedded psychology’s struggle to establish itself as a discipline within Russia. The dialogical tension between the West and alternatives provided by the Eastern philosophy is not fully realized if the contribution of these Eastern philosophies to the ideological debate in the West is overlooked or ignored. Specifically, Indological studies in Russia in the 19th and 20th century have been through rough and turbulent times because of state censorship and persecution of scholars. Yaroslav Vassilkov, a contemporary scholar of Indological studies, claims that “The complete history of modern Russian Indology is yet to be written”.

Vygotsky’s Thought and Language was written amid the cultural context of the heteroglossia of voices from the East and the West, and my interpretive processes take into account this context.

To pursue this area I went on a further trail to search for any book or article dealing specifically with Russian Indology and continued to collect related information from various sources. While reading contemporary scholars’ writings on the scientific potential of Indian thought, I was reminded of similar views expressed by Stcherbatsky. However, my notes did not provide the information I was looking for, so I had to further delve into the Russian Indological scene of the 1800-1900’s to make explicit that this was a time of close ties between Russia and India, in terms of economic, cultural and intellectual exchange between the two countries. This was the time when ancient Indian Sanskrit, Pali and Tibetan texts were being made available to European scholars, and European scholars were greatly interested in the East and in the acquisition and translation of these ancient manuscripts.

Indology in Russia and the scientific significance of Indian thought

The following is not a survey nor a historical presentation of Russian Indology, but a selective, reflective rendering of information, discovered in the process of exploring “echoes of the east” in Vygotsky’s text. I will first comment on the approach of the Russian scholars who, unlike their European counterparts, gave importance to the scientific potential of Indian thought. Then, follows a brief section on one of the most noted Indologists – Stcherbatsky. I also touch upon some related recent discussions on the subject because such information is not easily available. Lastly, I summarize the main and relevant ideas from The Image of India: The study of Ancient Indian Civilization in the USSR (1984). A rendering of these various facets, however, will hopefully convey some idea about Indological studies in Russia.

Russian scholars and the scientific potential of Indian thought

Related to science and spirituality is the following passage from the writings of Sri Aurobindo:

In the words of Sri Aurobindo, “Man has first to affirm himself, but also to evolve and finally to exceed himself; he has to enlarge his partial being into a complete being, his partial consciousness into an integral consciousness; he has to achieve mastery of his environment but also world union and world harmony; he has to realize his individuality but also to enlarge it into a cosmic self and a universal and spiritual delight of existence. (Raman, 2000)

To me, this philosophic reflection by Sri Aurobindo, connects to scientific as well as historic issues. The scientific aspect concerns questions like – what is the nature of consciousness. How does one define levels of consciousness, and how does one evolve and go about integrating these levels of consciousness? There is reference to the relationship of the individual to the social in the passage above; how is this achieved? How does Indian thought explain the above – spiritually, philosophically, scientifically and logically? Finally, in terms of the historical aspect, the message of mastery over the environment, of working for world union and world harmony must have sounded very inspiring to those involved in social reform in India as well as in Russia. I am reflecting on this short passage by Sri Aurobindo not only because it is so representative of Indian thought, but also because of the associations with Sri Aurobindo’s name, – the name of Pitirim A Sorokin (1889-1968), for example. Sorokin taught at the Psycho-Neurological Institute while at St. Petersburg. He stated that the root of his philosophy (pantheism), was “integralism”. While at Harvard he conducted an analysis of the ancient techniques of Yogas, among other things (Myers, n.d.). Pitirim A Sorokin was well acquainted with Sri Aurobindo’s works because he is quoted as saying, ” Aurobindo’s treatises are among the most important works of our time in philosophy, ethics and humanities. Sri Aurobindo himself is one of the greatest living sages of our time” (Myers,n.d.). Ellen Myers, in her article, Pantheist states:

Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889-1968), chairman of the department of sociology at Harvard University from 1930-1959. He stated that the roots of his religious philosophy, “Integralism,” were in the ancient, powerful, and perennial stream of philosophical thought represented by Taoism, the Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita shared by all branches of Buddhism, including the Zen Buddhist thinkers (Ibid.).

As usual I was engaged in questions again – Was Sorokin involved in research on Yoga techniques at St. Petersburg as well? Why did Sorokin leave Russia? Were Vygotsky and other Russian intellectuals acquainted with Sri Aurobindo’s works too? Were Vygotsky and Luria aware of Sorokin’s work? Most important of all, under what constraints, individual, social, political, were the Russian intellectuals working in those days? Sorokin’s remarks about Aurobindo reveal that there was cultural contact between India and Russia through the writings of prominent Indian intellectuals of those times. I was curious to know more about St. Petersburg and its involvement in India.

On the scientific significance of Indian thought, one contemporary Indian scholar remarks:

Though Indian thought deals to a great extent on the question of consciousness it becomes essential to separate those elements that are significant scientifically, from those that are religious and philosophic (Kak,1988).

Reading this I remembered Vygotsky’s statement in Thought and Language:

We subjected to critical analysis those theories that seemed richer in their scientific potential, and thus could become a starting point for our own inquiry. Such an inquiry from the very beginning has been in opposition to theories that although dominant in contemporary science, nevertheless call for review and replacement.(1997, p. lix-lx).

Was Vygotsky aware of the scientific potential of Indian theories of Language? We can only guess, but we do know what Roerich the Russian artist, philosopher, and linguist, who settled in India and opened a research laboratory in the foothills of the Himalayas, has to say about his own research:

We are deeply interested in anything connected with the energy of thought. The zone of the brain and of the heart, so much put forward now by scientists of all the world, can’t be called with a hazy word “mysticism”, but it is a most real scientific cognizance. (Roerich, n.d.)

Roerich was not alone in his assertion. Theodor Stcherbatsky (1866-1942), the well-known Russian Indologist was the first among the European scholars to speak up against the ‘romantic fascination for the mystic East’. He insisted on the importance of recognizing India’s contribution to science and rationalism and said:

Just as the European mind is not altogether and always free from mysticism, so is the Indian mind not at all necessarily subjected to it. (Stcherbatsky, 1969, pp. xxii -xxiii)

I learned that the Russian approach to the study of Indian culture and language was in great contrast to the other European nations. Unlike their European counterparts, Russian scholars approached Indian thought from the point of view of materialism, logic, rationality and science as opposed to mysticism, religion, romanticism and contemplation, as we will see. The credit for this perspective goes to a large extent to the Russian Indologists of those times. Initially, my readings consisted of two books – Papers of Stcherbatsky, translated by Harish Chandra Gupta (1969); and Further Papers of Stcherbatsky (n.d.), also translated by the same author. The following facts and descriptions are from Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s introduction to Papers of Stcherbatsky. The two books deal with Stcherbatsky but in reading about Stcherbatsky one gets to know a great deal about the Indological scene of Russia of that time.

Stcherbatsky – Russian Indologist (1866-1942)

Stcherbatsky is said to have ‘discovered’ the importance of the logical traditions associated with the names of Dharmakirti (7th century AD) and Dinnaga (500 AD); he called this the tradition of “Buddhist logic”. Stcherbatsky wanted to rationalize “Buddhist logic” and bring it to the attention of the scholars. He criticized those European scholars who claimed,

That the ancient Indians were incapable of exact thinking and lucid presentations and attributed these qualities exclusively to ancient Greek and modern science. ….There is a widely spread prejudice that positive philosophy is to be found only in Europe. It is also a prejudice that Aristotle’s treatment of logic was final….There is no agreed opinion on what the future of logic will be, but there is a general dissatisfaction with what it at present is. We are on the eve of reform. The consideration at this juncture of the independent and altogether different way in which the problems of logic, formal as well as epistemological, have been tackled by Dinnaga and Dharmakirti will probably be found of some importance (Stcherbatsky, 1969, p. iii].

He also published the following works in his effort to reconstruct Buddhist Logic: Logic in Ancient India 1902; and, two volumes of The Theory of Knowledge and Logic According to the Later Buddhists 1903-9. This discovery of the Buddhist tradition was possible because of the tradition of Sanskrit, Tibetan and Mongolian studies set up in St. Petersburg, largely inspired by Minaev (1840-1890).

According to Chattopadhyaya, Stcherbatsky was the first Indologist to be seriously drawn to the rational and logical contributions of the later Buddhists. In this he differed not only from the Tibetologists preceding him but also from other European thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Hegel, Deussen, Max Muller and others, who were constructing a picture of Indian wisdom by emphasizing only the religious, “spiritual” and the idealistic tendency of the Upanisads and Vedanta. Stcherbatsky protested against this unscientific and non-objective tendency that was then prevalent in Europe. In his writings, Stcherbatsky covered a broad range of topics concerning Indian cultural heritage. His papers, essays articles and books dealt with such topics as The theory of Poetry in India; The Categorical Imperative in the Brahmanas; The Scientific Achievements of Ancient India. Further, he was one of the first among modern scholars to write The History of Materialism in India. Indian Intellectuals consider Stcherbatsky to be the greatest of European scholars on Indian philosophy. In writing about Stcherbatsky, Gupta laments:

What is unfortunately lacking in our knowledge of Stcherbatsky’s relations with India is an adequate information of his personal friends and colleagues. From the description of Stcherbatsky’s collection preserved in the archives of the Academy of Sciences, USSR, it can be assumed that Stcherbatsky was in close touch with the eminent Indians of his time. (Ibid., 1969, p. xvi)

Lenin commended the work of Russian Indologists and took great interest in the development of Russian Oriental studies. On the significance of Orientalist studies Lenin told the Indologists, “here is your subject. It seems far away. Yet it is close. Go to the masses, to the workers, and tell them about the history of India…and see how they will respond to it. And you yourself draw inspiration from it for fresh research, work and study of great scientific importance” (Ibid., p. xviii).

Indological studies in the USSR benefited greatly under Lenin. Noted Indologists, including Stcherbatsky, became involved in organizing new institutes. Maxim Gorky initiated the idea of setting up a new institute for an all round study of the Orient, and Lenin decreed that the Peoples’ Commissariat of Nationalities should take urgent steps to set up such an institute. So, The Moscow Institute of Oriental Languages and The Petrograd Institute of Modern Oriental Languages were set up. It is said that during his time, Stcherbatsky was more than just an individual scholar, rather, he had become an institution in himself. He trained a number of brilliant scholars and influenced a whole generation of Russian Indologists. Chattopadhyaya remarks:

Stcherbatsky’s interest in Indian cultural heritage was not a romantic fascination for the mystic East in which his European contemporaries were seeking an escape from the sickness and degradation of their own capitalist society. Certainly, again, it had nothing to do with the peculiarly perverted moral sanction for colonial exploitation which another section of his European contemporaries was trying to derive by depicting Indian culture as being inherently stunted in matters of science and rationalism…..Stcherbatsky insisted on the importance of recognizing India’s contribution to science and rationalism and together with Ol’denburg worked for making such data available to scholars. (Ibid., pp. xxi-xxii)


The Academy of Sciences decided to undertake the publication of translations of monumental works on Indian philosophy from Sanskrit and other Oriental languages.…Our knowledge in this field still could not be deemed to be more than a mere conjecture on the nature of Indian philosophy. The main Indian philosophical system, the one that diligently worked out Indian logic and epistemology – the Nayaya-System, still remained to be studied and its main treatises were yet to be translated into any European language…..Indian thought on the whole still remained enveloped in the mist of Oriental fantasy and the orderly forms of its consistent logical theories were hidden from the keen sight of the historians of philosophy owing first to the inadequacy of the materials available to them and second to the lack of any systematic methods of its scientific study. Besides this stage of scientific knowledge, there could be discerned, in the wider circles of reading public, a morbid interest in Indian philosophy caused by the hazy state of our knowledge of the subject and the various fables of supernatural powers rampart therein. (Ibid.)

Do these quotes indicate the ‘philosophical arguments’ that Vygotsky hints at? They definitely give us an idea of Stcherbatsly’s approach to Indian philosophy and at the same time reveal Russia’s interest in studies related to Indian thought, and the kind of research involved. One important factor that contributed to Stcherbatsky’s approach regarding Indic studies, was the growing strength of the democratic movement in Russia, which brought about the October Revolution. The Russian intellectuals connected with this democratic movement, were themselves struggling against exploitations and imperialist designs of the Czarist regime. These intellectuals felt empathy for the Indian situation, and were responsible for creating in Russia, an atmosphere of sympathy for the people of India. In this way they helped the Russian Indologists develop an alternative methodological approach to the study of Indian cultural heritage:

What is the reason for this advantage of Russian Indologists over most of their Western counterparts? The question is in need of a detailed consideration. Yet we can mention here one obvious reason for this difference. Undoubtedly it is because of the general atmosphere of sympathy and friendly feelings towards the oppressed peoples of the East nurtured in Russia in the 19th century under the influence of Russian revolutionary democracy in which the progressive intelligencia was brought up. It is sufficient to mention that the organs of revolutionary democrats like Otechestvennye Zapisky and Sovermennik regularly published in their pages materials and reviews on the life of the Eastern peoples, including that of India….N.G. Chernyshevsky and N.A. Dobrolyubov were highly interested in the East, particularly India and devoted many moving articles to India, in which, by exposing the groundlessness of Europeo-centricism, they highly estimated the achievements of the people of the East in the field of culture, warmly supported them in their struggle for national independence and condemned the colonial rampage of the capitalist ‘civilizers’…Chernyshevsky was one of the first Russian thinkers who, even in the middle of the 19th century opposed the then widely prevalent view-point that Greece was the homeland of philosophy. He emphatically argued that all this is only due to the lack of knowledge about the East in those times.’ Like most of the Russian scholars, Chernyshevsky highly estimated the level of scientific and philosophical thoughts of the Indian nation. In his opinion, the ancient Indians were not only in no way inferior to the ancient Greeks but in many respects were undoubtedly superior to them. (Ibid., p. xxiii)

Stcherbatsky, together with other Russian intellectuals of his times, shared this intellectual atmosphere created by the Russian revolutionary democrats. Stcherbatsky studied under Minaev, G. Bühler and Jacobi. Mineav, who is said to have influenced Tolstoy with regard to Eastern thought, taught in the Faculty of Comparative Linguistics at the University of St. Petersburg.

Until this point, I had gathered my information on Russian Indology and the study of Indian thought in Russia from several different sources. I realized that to trace the iconographic presentation of Indian thought in Vygotsky, it was important to understand Indian thought and the philosophy of Language within the tradition, but it was equally important to understand the study of Indian thought within Russia as well.

Recent discussions on the web by contemporary Indologists on Russian Indology

Reading about Indology in Europe was fascinating, so I searched web sites for information and discovered the discussion forum on Indology. I started to read closely postings on the Indology discussion list and this proved to be a great learning experience. Some passages relevant to Russian Indology are given below. According to Yaroslav Vasillikov, a contemporary Russian Indologist, the Russian Indological scene is a much-neglected aspect of Indology. Responding to one member’s queries he replies:

If you are interested in the review material written in English on the history and main trends of Russian Indology in the xx century, you will probably find it useful to acquaint yourself 1) with the article: G.N. Roerich, Indology in Russia. – “The Journal of the Greater India Society”, vol. 12, pt. 2, Calcutta, 1945 – the pre-war period ended, in fact as early as 1937, when all Scherbatsky’s pupils were executed or imprisoned as “imperialist agents” and “propagandists of Buddhist religion”. Before that, in the 1920’s and the beginning of the 30’s there was really some cooperation, exchange of ideas and polemics between Russia and the West – e.g. between Scherbatsky and L.de la Valee Poussin.

Then Classical Indology was revived in the late 50’s by George N. Roerich, who had returned from India to Moscow. Some of his pupils later joined the so called Moscow Tartu School of Semiotics and published their articles, in particular in the famous series “Trudy poznakovym systems” (‘Works on Semiotics”, a special series of “Acts rrt ommentations” of Tartu University, Estonia). Their work got some response in the West and east reviewed, in particular, by 2) Wendy Donigger O’Flaherty,…( “Disregarded Scholars: A Survey of Russian Indology. South Asian Review, Vol 5, Number 4, July 1972) But contrary to people’s expectations, the détente only worsened the situation in Soviet humanitarian sciences. Brezhnev decided to compensate the concessions he made to the West in politics by strengthening his control over “ideology”. Some Indologists lost their jobs after they signed the letters of protest against the persecution of dissidents, some had a lot of troubles after the fabricated trial in Buryatia of the Buddhist scholar and religious leader B. Dandaron (1972-73). For about 10 years any studies of Buddhism remained practically under ban in the USSR (at least they could not appear in print), and classical Indology in general was looked at by the authorities with suspicion. Many eminent specialists in Classical Indian culture were forced to emigrate – among them A. Pyatogorsky, A. Syrkin, B. Oguibenin and others. But other people stayed, and now the true leaders of Classical Indian studies in Russia – such as T. Ya. Yelizarenkova and V.N. Toporov – still belong to the same generation and same scholarly circle. I think you may find some useful

I did manage to read two of the sources mentioned by Vassilikov in the above discussion. Before I give a brief summary of the main and relevant ideas discussed in those sources, I would like to cite some more from the above mentioned discussion list, because I have not come across this information in the articles and books to which I have had access. About the exchange of ideas between East and West, Russia and Western Europe in the field of Indian studies Yaroslav Vassilikov further says:

Speaking about the exchange of ideas between East and West, Russia and Western Europe in the field of Indian studies, we should stress the fact that George Roerich, who had graduated from University of London, Harvard and Sorbonne, worked for about 30 years in India and then, on his return to Russia, founded in Moscow a center for Classical Indian and Tibetan Studies – after they had been banned in the USSR for more than two previous decades. Roerich himself started teaching Sanskrit and Pali and guiding young Indologists in their work. He managed to revive the “Bibliotheca Buddhica” series ( (banned in 1937). But in 1960, when the first volume of the renewed translation of Dhammapada, done by one of G. Roerich’s pupils Vladimir Toporov) was in the press, somebody reported to the authorities, that G. Roerich and his pupils are going to publish a “Buddhist religious text”. Immediately the printing process was stopped. Roeerich was told that Dhammapada, as a book containing “religious propaganda”, will never be published in the USSR. But then suddenly Roerich’s old friend, the Ambassador of Ceylon and a Buddhist scholar Malalasekera came to his help. He invited many high soviet officials, including some leading “ideological workers”, to a festive reception at the Ceylonese Embassy. Only at the Embassy most of them learned that the reception had to celebrate “the would-be publication of the great work of Ceylonese literature – Dhammapada – for the first time in Russian translation”. Of course, after that the party bosses could not ban the publication. But they had their revenge on Roerich next day after the book appeared in print. He was invited to Director’s office at the Institute of Oriental Stuidies and crudely reprimanded by the Institute’s Communist party officials who shouted at him accusing him in “subversive activities”. People say that this incident caused Roerich premature death from the heart attack several days later. I hope you will forgive me this excursus into the history of Indian studies in the former Soviet Union.

(Indology discussion list, Jan 31, 1998. Retrieved from: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~ucgadkw/indology.html)

In response to the above post George Thompson wrote:

On the contrary, I hope that the entire list would accompany me in inviting you to say more. I think it is important that the history of Indology in the former Soviet Union be better known to us all. And it is important not only for historical reasons. Not only in Buddhist studies, but also in vedic studies important advances have been made by scholars who have had to overcome ordeals like those that you have described. The remarkable thing is that even within such a hostile environment so much was accomplished! I myself, as a Vedicist, have benefited greatly from the exposure that I have had to the work of scholars like Propp, Jacobson, Luria, Bakhtin, Lotman, Ouspenski, Toporov, Elizarenkova, Ivanov, Gamkreldize, Oguibenine, et all., who move so skillfully among numerous disciplines – historical and synchronic linguistics, semiotics, poetics, etc. This is a rich intellectual tradition that combines a mastery of traditional philology with great theoretical sophistication and courage to experiment with new ideas. A combination, it seems to me, that will assure a thriving future for Vedic studies, as for Indology in general. So, please, tell us more. (Ibid.)

The discussions above touched upon many aspects of Russian Indology. To get a clearer picture, I decided to read the sources mention in the discussions above. The book The Image of India: The study of Ancient Indian Civilization in the USSR (1984), presents a historical and a systematic perspective, in-spite of the fact that much was left unsaid because the book was censored for political reasons. Below is a brief summary of the main and relevant ideas in these readings.

In their book, Image of India (1984), G.M. Bongard-Levin & A.A. Vegasin present the history of the study of ancient India and its culture in the USSR from the early times to the present. According to the authors there are many references to India in ancient Russian literature. They say that, not only Russians, but other nationalities within the former USSR also have an ancient tradition of cultural ties with India well before Vasco de Gama’s travels in 1492. Then, there is the influence of Buddhism, and the fact that there are a great number of Buddhist, Tibetan and Mongolian texts stored in Buddhist monasteries in the region of Buryatia. Peter the Great, is said to have issued directives in 1712 to explore the possibilities of a direct route to India to facilitate trade between India and Russia. Alexander Radishchev, a Russian revolutionary, is said to have protested against the activities of the East India Company. There is mention of Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev, a Russian actor, musician and scholar, who spent 12 years in India from 1785 to 1797. He was the first Russian to point out the affinity of Sanskrit with European and Slavonic languages, and is considered the founder of Indology in Russia. In the 19th century, the study of Sanskrit started in St. Petersburg and Kazan Universities. St. Petersburg is considered to have one of the richest collections of invaluable manuscripts related to Indological studies. By the end of the 19th century, Indology was firmly established in Russia. Many Russian writers and intellectuals – Roerich, Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Lenin, Zhukovsky, of the Russian Romantic school of poetry; Karamzin, and Alexei Baranikov – did much to bring the literature and culture of India to Russia, Maxim Gorky wrote:

We must acquaint our peoples with one another so that all who thirst for justice, who want to live in accord with reason may realize their unity, the community of their aims and spirit and by their joint efforts overcome all the evil in the world. (Bongard-Levin & Vegasin, 1984, p. 9).

The October Socialist Revolution marked the beginning of a new stage in the Russo-Indian relationship. Revolutionary democrats such as Chernyshevsky, Pisarev and Dobrolyubov worked to acquaint Russians with India’s history, its cultural heritage and the colonial British rule. Lenin played a major role in establishing the Soviet Oriental Studies. According to Bongard-Levin and Vegasin:


This short rendering barely glosses the surface of the details recorded in the book The Image of India: The Study of Ancient India in the USSR (1984). Of particular interest is the statement by Bongard-Levin and Vegasin, distinguishing Russian Indology from that of other European countries. They attribute this to the absence of “Europocentricism”. This, they say, was the success of Russian Oriental studies.

Another point of significance concerns Russian linguists in general, and Vygotsky in particular; the authors mention A. Potebnya, the Ukranian linguist whose book is said to have influenced Vygotsky greatly, among others. Kozulin, in his edition of Vygotsky’s Thought and Language says:

Vygotsky had a keen interest in James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and Thought and Language the book of the nineteenth century Russian linguist and follower of Humbolt, Alexander Potebnya” (Vygotsky, 1997, p. xv).

What Kozulin does not mention is the following:

In Russian universities of the last century there was usually a department of comparative linguistics and Sanskrit, and all leading Russian linguists, specialists in comparative linguistics, were at the same time scholars in Sanskrit. Some of them made an in depth study of Sanskrit and published special research articles. The leading Ukranian Linguist Alfanasy Potebnya studied Sanskrit in Berlin in the early 1850’s…Sanskrit was considered absolutely essential for the specialized work of linguists and in particular for those working in comparative linguistics. For Russian linguists this was frequently the first step in their scholarly training. The basic achievement of Fortunatov, Baudoouin de Courtainay and A. Potebnya were not in the field of Sanskrit studies, although the study of Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature was a school for them. (Bongard-Levin & Vegasin, 1984, p. 99).

If one seriously starts looking, one comes across much evidence that, in the 1840’s and 1850’s, Russia was drawn to the study of Sanskrit, and the study of India formed an integral part of the general history course in the universities in Russia (Image Of India, 1984, p 74). Bongard-Levin and Vegasin’s book is filled with evidence of such widespread influence of Indic studies in Russia. One can only wonder at what had to be left unsaid because of state censorship. However, the book still provides leads to crucial details relevant to my exploration, such as the kind that Vygotsky indicates:

Vygotsky argued that psychology cannot limit itself to direct evidence, be it observable behaviour or accounts of introspection. Psychological inquiry is investigation, and like the criminal investigator, the psychologist must take into account indirect evidence and circumstantial clue – which in practice means the works of art, philosophical arguments, and anthropological data are no less important for psychology than direct evidence. (Vygotsky, 1997, pp. xv,xvi).

Taking my cue from Vygotsky’s statement above, and knowing that direct evidence may be difficult to get, in my readings I was looking for anthropological evidence, indirect evidence, circumstantial clues, philosophical arguments, and information related to works of art to reconstruct for myself a picture of the cultural context within which Vygotsky’s work is embedded. Two aspects of the above line of exploration can be specifically referred to in relation to philosophical arguments, and for works of art.

This was also the time when Russian Indologists were for the first time involved in the first art exhibition (1919) of its kind regarding Buddhist relics in Petrograd. The exhibition assumes great significance when it is realized that the Orientalists and intelligentia in St. Petersburg were the organizers of the exhibition and they viewed it with great interest:

they tried to find in Buddhism ideas close to their own day….The outstanding Russian Indologists and scholars of Buddhism were active builders of the new life and helped to confirm the new ideals. The exhibition was a great success…prominent Russian Orientalists were giving lectures on Buddhism. In his lecture Oldenberg pointed out the importance of Indian culture to all mankind. On display were items of art, religion, writing and the daily life of the peoples of the countries where Buddhism was professed, that is China, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, India and Ceylon. This was a major event in the history of the country in those days. (Bongard-Levin & Vegasin 1984, p. 145)

Another important fact regarding art and the 1920’s, relates to the work and travels of the Roerich family. Russian painter and Indologist, Nicholas Roerich and his son G. Roerich, also an Indologist and linguist, founded a scientific research institute in India in the 1920’s. The Image of India: The study of Ancient Indian Civilization in the USSR (1984), it is clearly mentioned that, the Roerichs:

Worked in co-operation with the Indologists in Russia. Roerich was abroad during the Civil war Years…was working on a series of Panels – Eastern Dreams…His interest in the East and particularly in India was maintained due to his links with Russian Indologists and his acquaintance with their works. (Ibid.)


In this section I have outlined the reasons for European involvement with the East, and touched upon issues concerning scholarship related to Indic studies within Europe in general, and Russia in particular, during the 19th Century. By looking at Tolstoy and Gandhi I have brought to the surface the connections between the two cultures related to a mutual exchange of philosophic and the spiritual ideas of both Indian and Russian scholars. I have also highlighted the importance of the influence of literary giants, like Tolstoy, upon the intellectuals of the period and the generation that followed. I have commented upon the state of Russian Indology, outlining factors involved in giving an impetus to the study of Indian thought and culture within Russia, and mentioned the consequences of repression upon Indologists and other scholars connected with the study of classical Indian culture during the turbulent times of revolutions and state censorship. Commenting upon the contributions of eminent Indologists like Stcherbatsky, I have mentioned the unique approach of Russian Indologists. Russian Indologists had approached Indian thought from the point of view of materialism, logic, rationality and science as opposed to mysticism, religion, romanticism and contemplation like their European counterparts. I have also quoted extracts of recent debates on Indology by contemporary scholars to highlight the above-mentioned factors concerning Indology in Russia. Finally, I have presented a brief summary of the main and relevant ideas of the book The Image of India (1984), which deals with these topics in great detail. Material on this aspect of Russian history is very difficult to come across. Because of this, one can only construct a hazy and incomplete picture of the times and the issues involved.

Keeping in mind the details explored in this section can it be safely assumed therefore, that it could be because of the influence of eastern traditions on his research that Vygotsky’s text was later severely criticized as “the exotic fruit of Soviet psychology” (Kozulin, 1997, p. lv), and his research pronounced “eclectic” and “erroneous”? Kozulin states that the controversy regarding Vygotsky’s theory, centered on the problems of the relations between “consciousness, activity and reality” (Kozulin, 1997, p. xliii-xlv). It is these relations that Bhartrhari explores as we will see in the next chapter.

Chapter 5: The Theory That Comes To Us From Antiquity

Bhartrhari – Grammarian, Philosopher and Poet

As with Vygotsky, I am once again confronted with the complexity involved in outlining a theorist’s thoughts, where the emphasis is not on the theory itself but also on the reading process which led to the theory. However, this paper would not be complete without reference to Bhartrhari’s theory of language. I present here, a brief and concise summary. For more on Bhartrhari and his thought, one can refer to the works of contemporary Bhartrhari scholars like Coward, Matilal, Houben, Aklujkar, Iyer, to name a few. Still others have commented upon the importance of his theory: for example, Scharfe, Flood, Beck, Dehejia, K.K. Raja and Kristeva. In presenting Bhartrhari’s philosophy of language and his concept of Sphota, I have relied mostly on the works of Matilal, and Coward. A very brief survey of some early works on Bhartrhari’s most important work the Vakyapadiya is given below to establish a historical perspective on the interest of European scholars regarding his thought:

  • 1651: First European Sanskrit scholar, Dutch missionary, Abraham Roger, published some of the works of Bhartrhari.
  • 1874, 1875, 1883a, 1883b, 1886-7: Lorenz , Franz – Dutch translations of the Vakyapadiya.
  • 1882: George Bühler’s paper in German.
  • 1899: La Terza, Emenegildo – Italian translation.
  • 1884: First edition published in India.

Beck states that “Bhartrhari was more or less forgotten for centuries…but he is gradually receiving the attention he deserves” (1993, p. 65). According to contemporary scholars, the study of Bhartrhari’s thought is considered to be in its infancy (Scharfe, 1977, p. 174).

Bhartrhari is said to have lived between A.D. 425-450 and belongs to the tradition of Paninian grammar – The Grammar school of thought. He is said to have systematized the philosophy of language. It is through his work that Grammar (vyakarna) became a full-scale drama (philosophic school of thought). In his most important work, the Vakyapadiya, he explicates the theory Sphota.

Bhartrhari’s theory of language

Looking at Bhartrhari’s theory of language, I will first comment:

  1. On levels of consciousness
  2. Outline the basic ideas of the Vakyapadiya, such as the distinction between word and sound, and what constitutes the meaning unit of language
  3. Discuss briefly his theory of Sphota. In his theory these above ideas are systematically explored.

1. Levels of consciousness

Bhartrhari’s thought in general looks at consciousness from two levels:

the higher level which includes the spiritual, the transcendental, and the metaphysical; and the lower level referring to the empirical, and linguistic utterance. At the higher-level, Bhartrhari’s theory of language is connected with the purpose of living, which is the realization of moksa or liberation from the bonds of maya/prakrti, or nature. This liberation is achieved when a person attains unity with the word principle – the Sabdabrahman, and this is also the level of higher knowledge. Bhartrhari’s Sphota doctrine identifies itself with the ultimate reality called Sabda-brahman or the supreme word principle. Within this theory, consciousness and thought are intertwined, and language is the base of all human activity. In this approach, Grammar is the path to liberation. At the metaphysical level, Bhartrhari investigates the nature and meaning of language.

At the lower level, Bhartrhari is concerned with the process of communicating meaning. Here Bhartrhari deals with the traditional psychology of India, the yoga psychology. Investigating the process of communication, Bhartrhari deals with word and sound distinction, word meaning, the unitary nature of the whole sentence, word object connection, levels of speech, etc. His focus is on cognition and language.

This division of Bhatrhari’s theory into two levels does not imply dualism. According to Murti, Bhartrhari’s sees the entire world as a non-transforming emanation of the non-dual Brahman, the Word. “Brahman, without beginning or end, the indestructible Essence of Speech, manifests Itself in the form of things the world-process thus proceeds” (1963, p. 369). Murti further says,

In linguistic apprehension, as in other cognitions, there is the interplay of two factors of two different levels – the empirical manifold of sense data…and the transcendental or a priori synthesis of the manifold by the Category of the Whole Unit Word which alone imparts a unity and singleness of purpose to those empirical elements which would otherwise have remained a mere manifold, unorganized without unity. The Sphota is the Real Sentence or Word -Unit which operates behind the façade of the overly sensuous syllables and words (1963, p. 369)

2. Basic Ideas of The Vakyapadiya

Bhartrhari’s most important work is the Vakyapadiya. It is written in the form of karikas or verses, and for a complete understanding they require a commentary. This commentary was written by others or by the author himself. The Vakyapadiya is divided into three books or Kandas. The first canto is called the Brahmakanda and it outlines the metaphysics of Linguistic Philosophy. The second canto is called the Vakyakanda, and it deals with linguistic topics in a linguistic background. The third canto is called Padakanda, and it is concerned with word, word meaning and ‘relations’ (Pillai, 1971, p. xv). Houben states, “A theme which pervades the entire Vakyapadiya is the relation between language, thought and reality (1995, p. vii)

The basic ideas of the Vakyapadiya are as follows (Coward& Raja, 1990, p. 211)

i. The distinction between sabda (word) and dhvani/nada (sound)
ii. The question whether sabda (word) signifies the general or the particular; and
iii. What constitutes the meaning unit of language

I will first give a brief general comment on the above three concepts, because they form the core of Bhartrhari’s thoughts on language. I will elaborate on them later while discussing the theory of Sphota.

i. The distinction between sabda and dhvani:

The distinction between word (sabda) and sound (dhvani) is basic to the understanding of language in all schools of Indian philosophy. “The word is considered to have a physical embodiment in the sound and it is made manifest through the latter, but the conveyance of meaning is the function of the word; the sound only invokes the word” (Murti, 1963, p. 363).

ii. The question whether sabda signifies its meaning through the universal or through the particular.

According to the view suggested by the school of Grammar, word-meaning is signified by the universal (general). “The particulars are considered as the appearances of the universal” (Ibid., p. 366).

iii. What constitutes the meaning unit of language

The above question is an important issue for the school of Grammar. Contrary to the other schools of thought, to the Grammarian, meaning is a single and a unitary whole and the real unit of language is the sentence. This concept is elaborated in the theory of Sphota.

3. Bhartrhari’s theory of Sphota

Definition of Sphota:

In his Sanskrit-English Dictionary, V. S. Apte defines sphota as, breaking forth, bursting or disclosure; and also as the idea that bursts out or flashes on the mind when a sound is uttered. The term, Sphota, is derived from the root ‘sphut’ which means ‘to burst’, but is also described as ‘is revealed’ or as ‘is made explicit'( Apte, V.S. 1965). Thus, the Sphota in being itself revealed, conveys the meaning to the hearer. A modern scholar, John Brough, puts it this way: “the sphota is simply the linguistic sign in its aspect of meaning bearers” (1951, p. 33). Some Indologists describe Sphota as a “mysterious entity” (Keith, 1928, p. 387). Other scholars describe it as “not a sound or a conglomerate of sound”, but “unanalyzable units which make up the linguistic reality a speaker has in his intellect and whereby he communicates” (Cardona, 1976, p, 301).

Coward (1971, p. 35) states that in general, Sphota is considered to be a technical term, and difficult to translate into English. The word ‘symbol’ is also used for Sphota, emphasizing its function as a linguistic sign. It has also been suggested that the Greek conception of logos best conveys the meaning of Sphota. With the Grammarians, the concept of Sphota evolved into the theory of Sphota and Bhartrhari is considered to be a major representative of the theory. However, Bhartrhari did not create the concept of Sphota, he modeled it on the vedic concept, which goes far back to 4,000 to 1000 BCE.

Bhartrhari’s Theory of Sphota

In the Vakyapadiya, Bhartrhari develops the doctrine of Sphota. For Bhartrhari the vakya-sphota, i.e. the sphota in the form of a sentence, is the true form of Sphota. Bhartrhari’s basic premise is that the meaning-whole, or Sphota, is the fundamental unit of language; this unity is expressed in the diversity called speech. In Bhartrhari’s definition:

A sentence is a sequenceless, partless whole, a sphota that gets ‘expressed’ or manifested in a sequential and temporal utterance. For Bhartrhari Sphota is the real substratum, proper linguistic unit, which is identical also with its meaning. Language is not the vehicle of meaning or the conveyor belt of thought. Thought anchors language and language anchors thought. Sabdana, ‘languaging’, is thinking, and thought vibrates through language. In this way of looking at things there cannot be any essential differences between a linguistic unit and its meaning or the thought it conveys. Sphota refers to the non-differentiated language principle (Matilal, 1990, p. 85)

Bhartrhari and later Grammarians distinguish between “two types of sabda among the linguistic sound”, Matilal calls it the sphota-nada distinction of language (Matilal, 1990, p. 85), in other words, the distinction between word and sound.

Coward explains it thus,

In his discussion of the distinction between word and sound , Bhartrhari employs three technical terms: sabda/sphota, dhvani, and nada. By sabda and or sphota he refers to the inner unity which conveys the meaning. The dhvanis are described as imperceptible particles which become gross and perceptible sounds and are called nada. These nada function to suggest the word, sphota or sabda. And since these nadas which are gross and audible, have division and sequence, the word also has parts, when in reality it is changeless and sequenceless. Bhartrhari offers the example of reflection in water. Just as an object reflected in the water may seem to have movement because of the movement of the water, similarly the word, or sphota, takes on the properties of uttered speech (sequence, loudness or softness, accent, etc.) in which it is manifested…why is the unity expressed in the diversity called speech? In Bhartrhari’s view, it is because the sphota itself contains an inner energy (kartu) that seeks to burst forth into expression. What appears to be unitary is thus seen to contain all the potentialities of multiplicity and complexity like the seed and the sprout or the egg and the chicken. In the Vakyapadiya, Bhartrhari suggests two ways in which the energy of speech causes the phenomenalization of the sphota. On the one hand there is the pent up potentiality for bursting forth residing in the sphota itself, while on the other hand there is the desire of the speaker to communicate. Bhartrhari finds language to contain and reveal its own telos. (1971, p. 37).

For the sake of communication for language users – the speaker and the hearer – “the sphota (sequenceless, durationless, and partless whole) needs to be made explicit, i.e. potentiality must be actualized, so that the hearer may receive it. This cannot be done without nada, the sequential utterances of sound-elements. This is how the nada becomes the causal factor for making sphota explicit” (Matilal, 1990, p. 86). According to Murti,

Epistemologically, it is a two level theory as applied to linguistic cognition. The Sphota is a necessary intermediary and is called the Madhyama vak as distinct from empirical speech called vaikhari vak. These two belong to different orders – one is empirical and the other is submerged and hidden and therefore has to be excited and manifested by the overt sounds. The relation between them is that of the soul and body, is one of identification or superimposition…that they (word and meaning) stand related and are generally identified implies that they both spring from some common source which is the ground of their being…Indian philosophers of language are not content to stop at any duality, the duality of Word and Meaning or the duality of Thought and Reality. As Bhartrhari states it: “All difference presupposes a unity”; where there is a duality there is an identity pervading it. Otherwise one cannot be related to the other; each would constitute a world by itself (1963, pp. 368-369).


Continue to Part 5