Our South Asian Collection includes a rich sampling of the vast geographic regions representing multiple dialects and belief systems.
Perhaps no other geographic area in the world has given rise to so many unique yet interrelated traditions of cultural wisdom than the sub-continent. Our unique and growing digital collection of Ayurvedic and Sanskrit Buddhist texts begins to shape a rich story which holds tremendous value to the modern world.
The rich and varied literary wisdom traditions of South Asia are influenced directly by the diversity of geographic regions represented there.
South Asia is one of the most linguistically diverse ecosystems in the world. Its communities have given rise historically to a stunning combination of knowledge systems, including medical and natural sciences, the arts, philosophy, and of course spiritual disciplines.
The Asian Legacy Library has begun documenting and preserving South Asian text traditions by focusing on the “classical” works in Sanskrit. ALL has begun its mission in South Asia with a focus on the trans-regional Sanskritic culture that for at least 1,500 years spanned from modern day Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, the Malay Archipelago, and Indonesia.
As Sanskrit was the prestige language of learning, secular power, and spiritual life throughout the first 1,500 years of the Common Era, works in Sanskrit are an indispensable point of access to knowledge of the premodern world and for applying its gifts of wisdom in a modern context.
TRADITIONS OF KNOWING
The unique tradition of recovering the meaning of original texts through commentary originated in this part of the world.
Commonly known among traditional Sanskrit authors was the proper role commentary played in bringing to life what was inherent in an original manuscript.
Within Indian knowledge systems—and all forms of literary expression—is the inter-nesting of narrative with meaning in the mode of expression that conveys them.
The literary text was intended to only have meaning in the context of its commentary; in this sense, the commentary must not only be present, but present itself as part of the original, based on a logic that operated upon the recovery—rather than the discovery—of meaning.
The role of commentary has two main implications for the work of preservation. First, a text’s necessary openness to interpretation led to a rich diversity of interpretive systems. Second, premodern works of South Asia cannot stand alone or be understood without consideration of how a text was relevant to its physical community. This creates a tension between the conservative reliance upon lineage and therefore orthodoxy, and the emphasis on innovation within the guise of renaissance based on new discovery of timeless truths.
There is no other place in the world where the oral tradition and the physically documented tradition are represented in such a unique way.
South Asia is home to the world’s oldest spiritual poetry, the Vedic hymns “seen” by poets in the very fabric of creation and addressed to personified forces of nature and the cosmos. First compiled some 1,500 years before the Common Era, these Sanskrit collections were transmitted orally without being committed to writing for another millennium. A strong “literary” tradition in the narrow sense of writing did not develop in India until the 1st century BCE.
Similarly, the diverse spiritual traditions of this extraordinary region share an emphasis on oral transmission through highly developed memory cultures. India’s wisdom traditions—Vedism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, to name a few—emerged out of a dynamic interplay between the written and spoken word. Even as literary culture became increasingly widespread from the beginning of the Common Era, works that were composed in writing maintained the pretense of speech.
So while India transmitted knowledge and culture through manuscripts for around 2,000 years before the advent of print culture, the written word was never divorced from the living context which gave rise to it.
The modern approach and its path to personal transformation was never more evident than its origins in South Asia.
According to some of the most ancient and authoritative treatises for the Buddhist traditions, knowledge of the Dharma—the liberating spiritual truth taught by the Buddha in India 2,500 years ago—comes about as a result of the interplay among three kinds of understanding:
- prajñā: that which comes about as a result of study,
- śruta: that which arises from reflection (cinta), and
- bhāvanā: personal realization arising out of applying the first two in one’s spiritual practice.
It is this practical emphasis on how the transmission of knowledge must ideally lead to personal insight to be applied in lived experience that highlights the central roles of oral instruction and the teacher-student relationship in classical South Asian systems of learning. While of course not unique to India, the oral origins of traditional Indian learning continued to inform its structure long after texts had begun to be committed to writing.