Over many years the question I have been most frequently asked by my students, my colleagues, and my innumerable friends in India and in the Indian diaspora is, “How did you get to be a Sanskrit scholar?” This is not just an idle question about a normal career choice, as one might ask someone, “What made you choose Neurology?” and so on. For me the question has always come with a (mostly) unspoken expression of surprise indicating the questioner’s curiosity which could be framed as follows: “You aren’t Indian (are you?) And yet you seem to have given your life over to the study of Indian culture and civilization through the medium of India’s most difficult and demanding language.”
For the many, deeply learned Śāstris, Paṇḍits and academic scholars of Sanskrit with whom I have studied and worked over the past fifty years and more, the question was easily resolved. As these colleagues often said, “You must have been an Indian in a previous birth!” This is meant as a compliment and that is exactly how I have always taken it as it is intended to show that the speaker is impressed with what little mastery of the vast tradition of Sanskrit learning I have managed to acquire. The idea is inspired by the time honored idea in the Indian tradition that a person’s knowledge, inclinations and tastes are strongly influenced by his or her experiences in previous lives, (vāsanā, literally “perfuming”) and that these latent impressions carry on from birth to birth as a sort of transmigrational unconscious. As the great poet-playwright Kālidāsa put it so beautifully:
ramyāṇi vīkṣya madhurāṃś ca niśamya śabdān
paryutsuko bhavati yat sukhito ‘pi jantuḥ /
tac cetasā smarati nūnam abodhapūrvaṃ
bhāvasthirāṇī jananāntarasauhṛdāni //
“When they see beautiful things and hear sweet sounds even happy people are filled with a sense of longing. Surely they must be unconsciously recalling loving relationships, deeply fixed in their hearts, from their previous lives.”
And maybe this is not far from the truth, for who really knows what determines a person’s tastes, desires and choices? But, let me confine this brief essay to my present life.
Life, as the Beatles sang back in 1970, can be a long and winding road and mine took a sharp turn in 1961 when I was an enthusiastic young pre-medical student majoring in Chemistry at Columbia. One of the great things about being an undergraduate at Columbia is the College’s insistence on a truly “liberal education” for all its students who are thus required to take a series of courses on the history of western civilization, philosophy, literature etc. which constitute its, no doubt heavily Eurocentric “core curriculum.”
In my sophomore year, a change was introduced which allowed students to substitute for a previously required course on the history of western social science a two semester sequence which, in those old, pre-Saidian days, was called “Oriental Civilization. In this course one covered a history of the great civilizations of India,China and Japan from the earliest surviving records down to the present day. This course, taught by senior, outstanding scholars in the three areas, was an extraordinary eye opener to American students like me who had virtually no exposure to any of the history and rich cultural traditions of Asia.
I found the amazing cultures, societies and civilizations of China and Japan to be of great interest. But, as for the segment on India, well, I was just completely entranced by its philosophy, its religious traditions, its literature, its arts… in short, everything. I asked my teachers to suggest further courses and they directed me to Columbia’s extensive curriculum in Indian history, music, art and so on. But when I asked how I could get to learn about the culture in a truly profound way they said, ‘You should take Sanskrit.”
And so I did. Once I was exposed to the complexity, expressiveness and beauty of the devavāṇī and the vast and varied body of texts in a wide spectrum of fields of knowledge and literary genres written in the language I was, as they say, hooked. I changed my major to “Oriental Studies” (i.e. Sanskrit) and, after graduation, did my doctoral work on the Mahābhārata at the University of Pennsylvania and in India, mainly in Pune, a city with a great history of Sanskrit scholarship. My dear mother was perhaps a bit disappointed that I did not go on in medicine, but she at least had the pleasure of introducing me to her friends as Dr. Goldman. She never needed to specify exactly what kind of doctor I was.
In India I read and spoke Sanskrit with traditionally trained Sanskrit scholars virtually every day in all kinds of texts but especially steeped myself in the great Sanskrit epic poems, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata. After two years in Pune I returned for one year of teaching at the University of Rochester (New York) and then shifted to Berkeley where I have been teaching ever since, except for my numerous return visits to carry on my research in India. For my part I think I could not have made a happier choice of career.