A Note on Alexis Sanderson and Indology
On the occasion of the Symposium organised by Srilata Raman and Shaman Hatley in Toronto in March 2015, Harunaga Isaacson was given the gratifying but also daunting task of delivering a eulogy of Alexis Sanderson. This note is only very slightly based on what we, Dominic Goodall and Harunaga Isaacson, remember of the speech given on the occasion, since it was in large part extemporised from skeletal notes, and since it contained jokes and science-fictional scenarios that worked well in the telling, but that proved hard to commit to writing without losing their intended flavour.
Born in 1948, G.J.S. Sanderson later chose to be known as Alexis because he liked the name and was known by it by friends in Greece. His early education, at the Royal Masonic School for Boys in Bushey, a no-frills charitable boarding school where bromide was said to be administered in the boys’ tea, was followed by undergraduate years at Balliol College, Oxford, where he took degrees in Classics (1969) and Sanskrit (1971). He then spent a large part of a six-year period in Kashmir, studying with the scholar and Śaiva guru Swami Lakshman Joo, during which time he was simultaneously Domus Senior Scholar at Merton College (1971 to 1974) and then Platnauer Junior Research Fellow at Brasenose College (1974 to 1977).
Despite not having taken a doctorate, he was appointed University Lecturer in Sanskrit and Fellow at Wolfson College in 1977, where he remained until he became Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at All Souls College in 1992. He never got around to taking a doctoral degree, or indeed to finishing any book-length publication in that period, partly because he was so busily occupied with teaching all manner of Sanskrit texts to students of every level. As a by-product of his projected thesis on the little-read and still unpublished Yonigahvara, he had in fact produced a grammar of aiśa language, in other words of the sorts of irregular Sanskrit encountered in the Nepalese palm-leaf manuscripts that transmit many tantras. But that grammar has not seen the light of day. Looked at in this light, his career is reminiscent of a 19th-century tradition of scholarship, where recognition depended less on publications, citations and the acquisition of degrees.
A few months after the Toronto Symposium in Alexis’s honour, one of the two authors of this preface, Dominic Goodall, and perhaps several others of the contributors too, found himself in the strange position of being asked by an American administrative authority to supply a letter of reference for his own tutor. The letter perhaps now gathers dust in some bureaucratic archive, but we can now aptly quote its first two paragraphs in this note:
I had the great good fortune to begin my studies of Sanskrit at Oxford under Alexis Sanderson in 1988. At that time, he had the post of University Lecturer in Sanskrit, a rare achievement because he had not taken a doctorate, and had then published rather little: a couple of reviews (1985), one ground-breaking article on “Purity and Power among the Brahmins of Kashmir” (1985)—an article so compact that it seemed like a tightly compressed book—and one article for “general readers”. This last had few references, since it was intended as an overview, in an encyclopedia of the world’s religions, of “Śaivism and the Tantric Traditions” (1988). Clear and very readable, this article remains, twenty-seven years later, the best overview there is of a huge subject, covering a broad range of largely still unpublished early medieval literature for the first time, and providing, again for the first time, a model of how the various parts of the vast and complex corpus were related and hierarchized by followers of a major current of Indian religion.
His “lectures” at that time were really more like intensive reading classes, which sometimes seemed to take place round the clock, with students often filing in to his room for one class just as others filed out from another, and they were for me the most intellectually exciting events I attended at Oxford. I had come up to study Greek, Latin and German in the autumn of 1986, but decided to switch to Sanskrit after the first public exam, in 1988, so I had had 5 terms of lectures and weekly tutorials on Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Plato and the like behind me. From the settled certainties of centuries of classical scholarship on a relatively small corpus, I had moved to a literary universe with few well-founded editions, few published translations and annotations in European languages and seemingly endless questions. Classes were therefore essential, and although there were other learned teachers in Oxford at the time who were well-read in certain genres, it was “Mr. Sanderson” whom everybody acknowledged to have the broadest reach, and who therefore was called upon to teach whatever was required in the genres of philosophy, courtly poetry, exegesis of traditional Indian law or indeed any sort of technical commentary.1 Because there was so often no time between classes, there was presumably never much time to prepare; but preparation never seemed necessary. We, the students, would attempt to render a line of a given text, and Mr. Sanderson would interrupt, constantly, with explanations to set us right where we were going wrong. Nearly every word called for comment or explanation of knowledge that needed to be taken into consideration: details of manuscript-transmission, issues of text-criticism, semantic flavours not recorded in dictionaries, particle-usage not recorded in grammars, essential religious or historical context not described in published secondary literature, and so forth. This might all sound rather dry, but it was delivered with humour, verve, plenty of eye-contact, a rich and well-chosen vocabulary and an evident delight in teaching. And it always zipped by so fast, provoking further questions along the way, that it could never all be noted down. In short, it was thrilling. So much so, that after two years of post-graduate study in Hamburg, I decided in 1992 that there was no alternative as interesting to me as returning to Oxford with a doctoral theme consciously chosen to be of potential interest to the same teacher.
In the interim, Alexis had become Professor Sanderson, having acquired the Spalding chair for Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford’s most prestigious college. There was, in consequence, a marked change in teaching style. The lectures were now magisterial, theme-oriented, weekly talks on aspects of his chosen field: early medieval religion, focusing on the history of Śaivism, its relations with the state, and its influence on Buddhism and Vaiṣṇavism. And they were well-attended events, taking place around a very long dining table in the Wharton Room of All Souls College. Each week, there would be a substantial and beautifully typeset hand-out giving passages of often unpublished materials,2 and each week several of us gathered naturally together to discuss it afterwards over lunch at Wolfson College, for it was there that several of the throng of new doctoral students were enrolled, or over tea in the crypt of the University Church. It was in this period, because he was at last less rushed than he had been as a lecturer, that Alexis Sanderson entered his first phase of prolific writing, to begin publishing his many discoveries. To date, his work has appeared exclusively in articles, although several of them run into hundreds of pages and are actually book-length studies, accepted nonetheless in journals and volumes of essays because of their truly exceptional quality and importance.
His most celebrated piece is perhaps “The Śaiva Age—The Rise and Dominance of Śaivism during the Early Medieval Period” (2009), an “article” of more than 300 pages that bears in fact upon all the classical religions of India, and not just upon Śaivism. Among his other outstanding articles we may mention just two that might be said to have revolutionised different fields of study that were not in fact at the centre of Alexis Sanderson’s scholarly interests. The first is “The Śaiva Religion among the Khmers. Part I” of 2004, which covers fully 114 pages of the large-format Bulletin de l’ École française d’ Extrême-Orient. This paper has much of importance to say about how Śaivism may be defined and how it has manifested itself in different regions, but it is also essential reading for historians of medieval Cambodia and other parts of South East Asia, by whom it is much quoted. The second, in length a more conventional article of just 18 pages, is entitled “Vajrayāna: Origin and Function” (1994); this proposes a new paradigm for the understanding of Tantric Buddhism and has therefore relaunched a vigorous debate among scholars of Buddhism about the relations between Śaivism and Buddhism.
As stated above, these articles are in fact peripheral to Alexis Sanderson’s abiding central focus of interest, the work of India’s most famous tantric thinker, the prolific polymath Abhinavagupta, who lived in Kashmir at the turn of the first millennium, where he produced a corpus of rich, difficult and influential Sanskrit works on poetry, theatre, aesthetics, theology, ritual and salvation. In 2015 Alexis Sanderson retired from the Spalding professorship and since then has been able at long last to concentrate exclusively on the most celebrated work of this seminal thinker, the vast and complex “Light on the Tantras” (Tantrāloka), working on a critical edition of the text, with an annotated English translation and a detailed commentary.3
In other words, the work that Alexis is currently engaged in is the culmination of a lifetime of research on Abhinavagupta’s place in Indian thought and the diverse Śaiva and Śākta traditions that informed his Śaivism and are in varying degrees subsumed within it. His other contributions to our understanding of Indian intellectual history, dazzling though they may be, are mostly the offcuts and side-products of his preoccupation with this literary giant. Since “retiring” he has now been able to write up his prodigious knowledge about what has for him always been the “central story.”
We do not always find excellence in research combined with excellence in teaching. But Alexis’s career as a teacher has been extraordinary too. Testimony to the truly exceptional qualities of Alexis Sanderson as an inspiring teacher may be found by looking around the universities of India, Europe, North America and Japan where his students have been employed; they are not clustered together in one academic fiefdom, but have spread widely abroad and attained international recognition as scholars in a range of subjects from classical Indian theatre to the history of yoga. They include, for example, Jason Birch, Parul Dave, Csaba Dezső, Paul Gerstmayr, Dominic Goodall, Jürgen Hanneder, Gergely Hidas, Madhu Khanna, Csaba Kiss, Nina Mirnig, John Nemec, Srilata Raman, Isabelle Ratié, Péter-Dániel Szánto, Judit Törzsök, Somadeva Vasudeva, James Mallinson, Ryugen Tanemura, Joel Tatelman, Anthony Tribe, and Alex Watson.
We have mentioned Alexis’s reading-classes and his impressively rich lectures, but what many of his direct students may remember best are interactions with him in tutorials. He tended to offer aspiring doctorands many hours of extremely helpful criticism and coaching for the first year or so, and then, when he judged them capable of working more independently, he would nudge the doors of opportunity half-closed and so encourage them to get on with their work by themselves. Once they were thus launched, they would be invited to deliver a lecture in his graduate research seminar, an experience which many will remember as both daunting and exhilarating, requiring the victims to give of their very best before an audience of fellow students along with Alexis and Harunaga Isaacson, typically seated to their right and left, at whom they would be casting furtive glances to search for their reactions!
Alexis is something of a raconteur when the mood takes him, imitating the accents and mannerisms of the cast that people his narrations, and so we tended to learn unwritten snippets of history about other indologists from him. One annual occasion was particularly propitious for this. Professor Gombrich used to mark the end of the summer term, and so of the academic year, with a lunch in his garden, after which several of us would walk to the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Kidlington to visit the grave of another former Boden Professor of Sanskrit, Thomas Burrow. This never failed to call forth a string of reminiscences of Alexis, beginning with something about Professor Burrow himself, but leading often to Professor Brough and others.
The above paragraphs recall Alexis’s interactions with students who spent years at Oxford. But there were also many others who came for only short periods or whose interactions were only or largely epistolary and upon whose work Alexis nevertheless had an important influence. Those who have received Alexis’s immense letters, typically packed with quotations from unpublished Sanskrit texts marshalled to demonstrate ideas, doubts and conclusions, will know just how extraordinarily rich and useful they are. In some well-known cases, they have provided invaluable evidence for the recipients’ books. Parts of David Gordon White’s The Alchemical Body, for instance, or Frederick Smith’s The Self Possessed, or François Grimal’s edition of Harihara’s commentary on the Mālatīmādhava, are heavily indebted to lengthy letters from Alexis.
In a bygone age, it might have been appropriate to gather together in one publication all Alexis’s Kleine Schriften, or all his published work, as was done just over a century ago for another illustrious thinker whose work helped shaped knowledge both of Indian and Cambodian history, namely Auguste Barth, the first volume of whose complete Œuvres was published in 1914. But unless and until the internet implodes, such an endeavour seems unnecessary: Indologists throughout the world have PDF copies of Alexis’s published works, a list of which is appended to the end of this preface. A collection of his many fascinating letters would be a boon, but gathering and editing them seems impracticable, and we hope that Alexis will himself continue publishing such discoveries as they document, as well as others, in the publications that he continues to work on today.
What we hope and expect instead is that the papers gathered in this volume will reveal some of the many ways in which Alexis has been influential, their authors showing us in the mirrors of their own bright intellects some reflections of the radiance, the prakāśa, of Alexis Sanderson.
In the realm of classical Sanskrit literature, a notable exception here was the technical literature of traditional grammar, for which we were fortunate to have the guidance of Dr. James Benson, who first introduced me to Sanskrit and painstakingly began to reveal the complexities of the thought of Pāṇini. Rereading this letter, I am prompted to add that I am of course grateful to him and to all of my other teachers too.
Some of these hand-outs are now available online for download from Alexis Sanderson’s academia.edu page.
In spite of its fame and in spite of its being the focus of numerous scholars’ work over the last century, only one translation of the Tantrāloka into a European language has ever been completed, that of Raniero Gnoli.