Between Sciences of Origins and Religions of the Future: Questions of Philology

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The antique Christian “appropriation” of Hebrew by the Early Church Fathers was succeeded historically by a kind of scholarly appropriation that resulted in the emergence of a “ready-made India” founded on a new discourse about Sanskrit. In a world governed by romanticist visions undergirded with colonial aspirations, in a historical period between a Christianity weakened by Enlightenment philosophers and the advancement of scientistic secularism, certain scholarly fables about a primordial India came to resemble the fables about Hebrew. In this race toward the discovery of human origins, the new “Aryan Bible” required a new language of paradise: Sanskrit. Can one then say that India was appropriated within a scholarly environment that was being pulled between Christianity, secularism and scientism? Since our investigations have allowed us to demonstrate that this hypothesis is plausible, it is necessary to test this hypothesis through the clarification of the historical contexts, intellectual dynamics, and theological and political fields of action in which myth and reason mutually reinforce one another. While underlining the political stakes of the comparative method of anthropology, this article also recalls that not so long ago, knowledge of ancient and modern humanities often bore the mark of racial sciences that influenced all university disciplines from the early 19th century to the late 1940s.


The antique Christian “appropriation” of Hebrew by the Early Church Fathers was succeeded historically by a kind of scholarly appropriation that resulted in the emergence of a “ready-made India” founded on a new discourse about Sanskrit. In a world governed by romanticist visions undergirded with colonial aspirations, in a historical period between a Christianity weakened by Enlightenment philosophers and the advancement of scientistic secularism, certain scholarly fables about a primordial India came to resemble the fables about Hebrew. In this race toward the discovery of human origins, the new “Aryan Bible” required a new language of paradise: Sanskrit. Can one then say that India was appropriated within a scholarly environment that was being pulled between Christianity, secularism and scientism? Since our investigations have allowed us to demonstrate that this hypothesis is plausible, it is necessary to test this hypothesis through the clarification of the historical contexts, intellectual dynamics, and theological and political fields of action in which myth and reason mutually reinforce one another. While underlining the political stakes of the comparative method of anthropology, this article also recalls that not so long ago, knowledge of ancient and modern humanities often bore the mark of racial sciences that influenced all university disciplines from the early 19th century to the late 1940s.

* This essay was first delivered in French as the keynote lecture of the conference on “Semitic Philology within European Intellectual History. Constructions of Race, Religion and Language in Scholarly Practice” on the 19th of June 2013 at Freie Universität Berlin. The conference was organised by Islam Dayeh, Elizabeth Eva Johnston, Ya’ar Hever and Markus Messling. I wish to thank Ya’ar Hever for his translation of this essay.

The bishop of Seville, Isidore, who died in 636, contributed to the development of a mode of the representation of origins that would play a determining technical role in the history of European philology. In his famous Etymologies, conscious of the appeal exerted by the primordial mark of words, Saint Isidore warns his reader: “When you see from whence the name takes its origin, you will understand what its power is.”1

A thousand years later, Jean Bodin, one of the masters of the New History [Nouvelle histoire], took an interest in the fascination exerted on historians by “the origins of peoples.” They are “tormented” by this haunting “question” that takes hold of scholars’ reason, sinking them into “error”—both “early historians” and “more recent writers.”2

On Otherness: Between Attraction and Repulsion

Before examining certain ancient and modern sources that attest to structured bodies of knowledge by way of disparate representations of the indigenous, I will give some consideration to the manifold practices, especially comparative ones, that allow one to elucidate the notion of “Zukunftsphilologie.” Among the possible meanings (“the future” or “the forthcoming” of philology, or rather “a philology to come,” “emerging philology” or even “an anticipatory philology, sounding the alarm”), I choose to focus on a double-sided figure: simultaneously theory and careful practice, critical and self-critical, attentive to the shifts of science, techniques and supports, and attentive to the diverse forms of recomposing the past, a future-oriented philology. Being as much archaeological as it is genealogical, such a “Zukunftsphilologie” would give rise to interdisciplinary perspectives where poetical analyses intersect with political approaches—without forgetting that the poetic has often been able to formulate the political. One last important point: the present importance of the digital universe. Characterized notably by rapid transformation and the lability of media, the uses of digital humanities redesign our practices and our approaches to the archive, to memory and to oblivion—but without safeguarding this revamped knowledge from old biases.3

It is thus due to the initiative of the research programme “Zukunftsphilologie: Revisiting the Canons of Textual Scholarship” that I open the conference on “Semitic Philology.” And it is customary to open a presentation on an “academic” or intellectual subject with acknowledgements.4 These are often received as a purely social game, but they are not in the least “rhetorical.” The choice of an explicit formulation is part of a researcher’s approach that takes the institutional and academic drives as various economic and intellectual infrastructures, which are also simultaneously a system of technical constraints and a vibrant incentive for research.

In a quite different context, the poet Paul Celan stressed the significant intellectual importance of Danken (“to thank”). In his Bremen speech, delivered in January 26, 1958 upon his reception of the prize awarded by this Hanseatic city,5 the poet begins at once with two verbs of action: Denken und Danken—to think and to thank. Two terms that, as he explains, have in German “one and the same origin.”6 In pronouncing these two terms aloud, might Paul Celan, who knew Hebrew, have remembered that when transcribed into Hebrew orthography without vowels, the Yiddish verbs denken7 and danken could form the very same linguistic icon, a consonantal unit: dnkn?

Thus, every research endeavor bears the mark of an intellectual formation. A short word therefore on the process that led me to focus on these particular questions and on the chosen manner of formulating and defining the problems. Being an archaeologist by training, after my studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, I arrived in Paris to study comparative mythology during the seventies of the last century. At the Ecole des hautes études, I participated in the seminars of Marcel Detienne, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and later also those of Nicole Loraux, where I met Froma Zeitlin of Princeton, who was at the Wissenschaftskolleg that year; Renate Schlesier, a professor at the Freie Universität Berlin; and Dominique Bourrel, who was later commuting between Paris, Jerusalem and Berlin. Along with many others, we found each other at the beginning of the 1980s in the company of researchers coming from disparate horizons, conducting inquiries in which the distant, both in time and in space, could elucidate the nearby.

In the same years in which comparativism and interdisciplinarity guided historiographical and anthropological developments, we were mindful of the mirror games between cultures and civilizations, and the challenges of the transmission of knowledge between generations of scholars.8 Within this intellectual environment, Léon Poliakov, a historian of Anti-Semitism, who, going beyond the multiple types of Anti-Judaism, endeavoured to think and compare various forms of social exclusion, organized interdisciplinary comparative meetings at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and in Cerisy-La-Salle. Here I met, most notably, Serge Moscovici, Jacques Le Goff, Arnaldo Momigliano, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and many other friends and colleagues including biologists, geneticists, and statisticians.9 These intellectual activities also gave rise to the periodical Le Genre humain [The Human Race] in 1981.

At the same time, Momigliano published a book calling to mind to what extent the Hellenistic period, the great initiator of European philology, marked a major turning point in the intellectual modes, the ways of seeing others, the manners of conceiving, inventing, and imagining new alterities. In this work of 1975, Alien Wisdom, translated by Pierre Vidal-Naque for his collection, Textes a l’appui, published by the François Maspero publishing house, Momigliano, after noting “that Hellenism still affects our attitude towards ancient civilizations,”10 is astonished by the fact that between the 3rd century bc and the 20th century ad, learned men have not renewed their stock imagery and representations related to India. Momigliano insists on this point:

The average knowledge of an educated modern man about India is not superior to that which is to be found in Greek and Roman writers. Even now there is no obligation in our traditional curriculum to know anything about China, since the Greeks and the Romans knew nothing or almost nothing about it. The eighteenth century performed the greatest rescue operation of forgotten civilizations that humanity had ever witnessed. The Chinese, the Indians and the Celts were the most important beneficiaries. But the consequences were felt only by professors, philosophers, poets and cranks.11

In the same years, 1970-1980, at the margins of the great academic institutions, the intellectual milieu of the Hautes études could be characterized, at least for certain scholars, by a sociability or friendship as loyal as it was rigorous, fearing neither contradictions nor intellectual tensions. Inspired by the new anthropological approaches (notably those of Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss), the analysis of historical representations looked for “sensible” forms of intelligence.12

In the period after the book of Momigliano was published in France by his friend Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Jean-Pierre Vernant had asked me to review it for the first issue of a forthcoming journal, Le temps de la Réflexion, created at Gallimard in 1980 by the Psychoanalyst J.-B. Pontalis. The ideal of interdisciplinarity, more often proclaimed than practiced, has sometimes mobilized editorial dynamics in interaction with areas of scholarly research. Enumerating the “barbaric wisdoms” as conceived by the Greeks, Momigliano recalled that the Jews could be considered as admirable philosophers in comparison to the sages of India.13

It is worthwhile to re-read these fragments of Greek texts that are well-known to epigraphists and classical philologists. Take, for example, Megasthenes. As the ambassador of Seleucus I in India at the very beginning of the 3rd century bce, he notes in his History of India the affinities between “the Brahmans of India” [Indoîs hupo tôn Brachmanôn] and those that in “Syria are called Ioudaîoi, the Jews.” Megasthenes thus constitutes them as a category of privileged strangers who, despite being “outside of” Greece [exô tes hellados], are nevertheless “philosophers.”14

In a lengthy passage attributed to “a disciple of Aristotle,”15 Clearchus of Soli points out the genealogical affinities between Jewish philosophers and Indian sages: the former are the descendants of the latter. In this Hellenistic sketch, where Aristotle is summoned to testify for his encounter with a Jewish sage, Clearchus affirms that to signify “philosopher” one says Kalanoi in India and Ioudaîoi in Syria. This Clearchus, conscious of the gateway between Indian and Judeo-Syrian philosophy, has been identified in 1968 in an uncertain though plausible manner by the eminent epigraphist Louis Robert in an inscription of Bactria.16

The passages of Clearchus were copied and then printed through the generations for over two millennia17 before reaching, at present, philological websites. In his Against Apion, written to denounce “the hateful slanders” of those who, through “malice, deliberate lies […] or ignorance,” slander the Jews by refusing to recognize their antiquity, Flavius Josephus chose to collect these words of Aristotle, which he read, as he specifies, in a monograph On Sleep by Clearchus of Soli. It is in this dreamlike text that Aristotle takes the opportunity to speak of his encounter with a Judeo-Syrian sage:

This man was a Jew of Coele-Syria; these people are descended from the Indian philosophers. The philosophers, they say, are in India called Calani [Kalanoi], in Syria by the territorial name of the Jews; for the district which they inhabit is called Judaea.” He therefore adds, being surprised by a word in an unknown language, that “their city has a remarkably odd name [panu skolion]; they call it Hierusaleme.18

The semantic spectrum of the adjective skolios is broad but topical: from “skewed” to “devious,” passing through “bizarre.” It indicates that which is difficult to understand due to its strangeness, that which can make one queasy, awaken unease but also curiosity, the desire to know, or even that in the figure of the other which can fascinate and seduce; a semantic universe that is characterized by its tensions between attraction and repulsion.

Let us turn back to the Indian philosophers that are called kalanoi.19 In a monograph On Education, Clearchus, speaking of the gymnosophists, offers a joint presentation of these Indian sages and the Jews. They have here as their common ancestors the Persian magicians. This is formulated as follows by the supposed disciple of Aristotle: “the gymnosophists are also the descendants of the Magicians; some say that the Jews also descend from them.”20

Before proceeding, let us emphasize that the cited texts are neither “original,” nor even copies of originals, but are rather the product of a long tradition. Luciano Canfora is correct in insisting on a commonplace which can never be recalled too often: in such a tradition, “the frontiers are erased: between the author and the copyist, between the copyist and the philologist, between the direct tradition and the indirect tradition, between the transmission of the texts and their retrospective history, between the ancient texts and the modern ones …”21 From this perspective, “there is no thing in itself, because the original is a monotheistic illusion.”

It should be recalled here that the work of Jean Bollack seeks to clarify the possible meaning of the stratifications and the interlockings that have fashioned a philological tradition from the Presocratics to Paul Celan.22

Concerning the Greek fragments, the following should be kept in mind: our sources, whose validity was reinforced by generations of historiographers, ancient and modern, affirm that the “barbarians,” by language and geography, are not necessarily deprived of the wisdom that the Greeks call “philosophy.” These writings still evoke a kinship between the Indian sages and the Jewish philosophers—forming together a genealogical trio through their common ancestors: the Persian magicians.23

Indigeneity and Etymology: A Functional Couple

A millennium after Isidore of Seville, the uses of his Etymologies attest to the poetic, political and theological influence exerted by the powers of the indigenous.24 One of the masters of historical thinking of the 16th century is concerned with the fascination of “the origin of the peoples,” which inspired the “historians,” his contemporaries.

His name was Jean Bodin. He died in 1596. Economist, philosopher, jurist, and lawyer at the parliament of Paris, he is also one of the theorists of the modern “New History” [Nouvelle Histoire]. In his Method for the Easy Comprehension of History, published in Latin in 1566, Bodin dedicates his ninth chapter to the following problem: “By what method can one know the origins of the peoples?” From the outset, he specifies:

No question has tormented the historians more than that of the origin of the people […]. Those who do not know their first origin or who conceal it from the eyes of a hated stranger declare themselves to be born of the mother-soil, indigenous or geogenic. […] because they [imagine that they] do not come from somewhere else but that they have their origin in the earth itself, mother of all gods. Furthermore, this error is not the privilege of ancient historians, as we find it equally among more recent writers. It is thus that some affirm that “the Bretons embedded in the midst of the land have not come from anywhere else, but are born right there […].”25

Thus, Bodin poses the linguistic fact at the core of his argumentation. He considers that in order to be instructed “in the subject of our origins,” nothing is more certain than the “linguistic roots that are the best argument that can be produced to establish” the genealogy and the geographic location of a population.26

The history of science can be enriched through the analysis of the conceptual frame that Bodin puts forth when he calls for the recognition of a functional couple formed by “indigeneity” and “etymology;” he establishes this by means that are at the same time archaeological, theological, historical, juridical, and finally—linguistic. The concept of indigeneity, structurally related here to that of the original language, is manifested by its political effectiveness, notably in terms of a rejection of the other and an erosion of the social bond. Let us emphasize that Bodin puts forth an explicit criticism of the cult of origins. He questions the praise comprising of idolatry of origins, and seeks to undermine any reference of indigeneity as a mark of superiority over the other—a critical attitude that is not necessarily found always or everywhere in his work.

Let us follow Bodin:

[…] those who boast to be the true indigenous, do they do anything but break the link of the human community […]. How much more appropriate, on the contrary, to join with strangers along the lines of blood and cohabitation rather than to reject proudly by taunt any idea of kinship and of common origin.27

These sentences should be taken in their historical context. We are in the 16th century. The author responds to a burning current event: the war of religions. In his eyes, praising indigeneity amounts to denying what Moses said of the origins of the peoples “in our sacred books.” Furthermore, he writes, the “promoters” of this idea of indigeneity, “not acknowledging any other origin to these nations but that of the native soil, retreat at the same time from the society and the companionship of the rest.”28

Three years after the report of Bodin, in a different political and sociolinguistic context, a Flemish scholar, Jan van Gorp, wished to demonstrate, with the aid of the linguistic techniques of his time, that the language of Paradise is his mother tongue. Who would have remembered this proposition, had Leibniz not ensured its long reception, affirming that van Gorp was “not too wrong in claiming that the Germanic language […] has equally and more marks of something primitive than Hebrew itself.”29 Being a ground-breaking scholar of his era, Leibniz (with others) thus dismissed the clerical orthodoxy of the Church Fathers, the majority of whom wished to recognize Hebrew as the universal mother tongue. This choice situates Leibniz among those who wished to promote the idea of the regional and then of the national in Europe. It is undoubtedly also the passion of the mother tongue, so often coupled with the nation, that prompts Leibniz, who was otherwise rather a “cosmopolitan,” to identify in his Deutsche Schriften (1697) “the origin of the peoples and the languages of Europe” in “the archaic Germanic language,” which he formulates thus: Stecket also im Teutschen Alterthum und sonderlich in der Teutschen uralten Sprache, […] der Ursprung der Europäischen Völker und Sprachen […]30 “It is therefore in Germanic antiquity and specifically, in the ancient Germanic language […] that the origins of the European peoples and their languages lie.” It is for this reason that Leibniz adds that “the study of the Germanic language brings light not only to us […] but to all of Europe” [die Untersuchung der Teutschen Sprach nicht nur ein Licht vor uns, sondern auch vor ganz Europa].

The testimony of Leibniz is valuable in several respects. It allows one to see to what extent the prehistory of the Indo-European idea—called at the time Scythian or Japhetic—could convey operational models. Here, the reference becomes a theoretical abstraction: we might even speak of a “scientific icon”—that which the Indo-European hypothesis has eventually become, constantly disputed nowadays without being invalidated in the least.31

This type of abstraction opens hitherto unseen perspectives on the knowledge of the time in which it arose. One can observe that this knowledge, while innovative, is inextricably intertwined with religious and national conceptions haunted by a quest for the “archaic language” [uralte Sprache]. Science and religion, technicity and ideology can thus, in certain historical contexts, be associated and developed to support each other.

Before the Flood: A Solitary and Anonymous Language

A historiographical perspective contributes to the uncovering of issues of cultural appropriation and scholarly captivation, and to the determination of how Sanskrit came to replace Hebrew. The background of the Hebrew foundation that bears the linguistic traits of a faceless God with an unpronounceable name, who created the universe by uttering certain vowels, has often occupied the memory of theologians, poets, and later philologists. For the emerging Church, the opening scene takes place in the three holy languages, Hebrew, Greek and Latin: Bereshit, En Archè, In principio.

Evoking the primordial biblical verb, the creative power of speech in countless cultures should not be underestimated; it could even be transformed into the Speech Goddess. Charles Malamoud sheds light on this matter in his study of Vac in the ancient Sanskrit texts of the Vedas—this sounding word, as it is revealed, authorizes the knowledge of all things.32

Let us proceed with the biblical text. One of the particularities of the material history of this corpus is undoubtedly derived from the fact that the Divine Word, uttered in Hebrew, finds its new way in and through a Christian Word, born from a translation. The Hebrew Bible, having become Christian, results therefore from the Word of a Father whose divine word is incarnated as a Son who, without being exactly a god of translation, despite the miracle of the Pentecost, is hallowed as the Great Mediator. Anyone who looks at the theology of Mediation can easily see to what extent our culture, known as a “media” culture, is fueled by a discourse of this Christian anthropology of the Mediation, which harks back to the passages in Paul where Christ is the Mediator between God and men: mediator of a New Alliance and Redeemer for all.33

Keeping in mind the two crucial points (“Translation” and “Mediation”), it is worth pursuing certain aspects of this divine speech in order to “hear” the primordial language of which God made use in Genesis, creating a Universe of representations that became that of the cultures modeled by the biblical stories.34

The following question is therefore posed. This primordial language, is it really unique? The response of Augustine is explicit: Before the Flood, there is only one human language. Saint Augustine calls it humana lingua vel humana locutio35—“the human language” or “the human parlance.” Isolated and anonymous, this language is devoid of nomen proprium. What good is a proper name? Why would it be necessary to name it? A proper name is meant to characterize in order to designate through differentiation. Thus, the lingua humana shone in its solitude, splendid and unparalleled, and anonymous. It was sola, without nomine proprio.

This language has been very often—but not always—identified by the Church Fathers as the Hebrew of Adam in the Garden of Eden.

One can never stress enough the importance given to the parlance or the language, to the attention directed at the divine word, Adamic, paradisiacal and human, in these biblical exegeses. The historian of linguistic ideas is therefore right to investigate these texts, as he would other theoretical narratives, scholarly fictions, or mythical or theological poems.

If Isidore of Seville asked himself, “what was the nature of the language in which God spoke in the beginning of the world when he said: Fiat lux,”36 Augustine raises the same question no less than fifteen times in the space of three pages, in his first book The Literal Interpretation of Genesis.37 He contrasts the double nature, corporal and spiritual, of the vox Dei and lux, the divine light: “should one think […] that the voice of God resounded materially when he said fiat lux […] If it is so, in what language resounded that voice when God said fiat lux? …”38

Augustine pursues his scholarly inquiry on the origins of the divine and the human word, on the analogies between the exercise of divine speech and words pronounced by mortals.39 He starts from the initial formula of Genesis, the Hebrew Bereshit that opens the Gospel according to John: En arché in Greek; in Latin In Principio. Starting from this crucial passage, Augustine writes in his Homilies on the Gospel of John:

The words that we speak are fleeting and transient: as soon as your word has sounded from your mouth, it passes away; it makes its noise, and passes away into silence [transit in silentium]. […] When God spoke, did He give out a voice [vocem], or sounds [sonos], or syllables [syllabas]? If He did, in what tongue spoke He? Hebraea, an graeca, an latina? Tongues are necessary where there is a distinction of nations. But there none can say that God spoke in this tongue, or in that.”40

A development follows that leads to the mystery of the “God who gave birth to the Word,” his Son.

That the Word of God is thus inscribed in the language of the Faith and of the Symbol (the title of another treatise),41 did not prevent a succession of eminent Christian exegetes from condemning Augustine for failing to make the effort to learn the two holy languages—Hebrew and Greek. Richard Simon, the founder of biblical criticism, wrote in 1678 that “if he had the knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew languages, he would have succeeded much better”42—he thinks here of a literal exegesis rather than an allegorical reading. Insistent, he specifies again a few years later that “it would be difficult to excuse the negligence” of Augustine.43

Augustine had responded in advance to such grievances,, when he said that he learned the name of Christ “in the milk” of his mother.44 In Book xi of Confessions, desiring to understand the first verse of Genesis, Augustine exclaims:

Let me hear and understand how in the beginning thou madest heaven and earth. Moses wrote of this; he wrote and passed on […]. If he were [here], I would lay hold on him and ask him and entreat him solemnly that in thy name he would open out these things to me, and I would lend my bodily ears to the sounds that came forth out of his mouth. If, however, he spoke in the Hebrew language [si hebraea voce loqueretur], the sounds would beat on my senses in vain […]; but if he spoke in Latin, I would understand what he said […].

Indeed, within me, deep inside the chambers of my thought, Truth itself—neither Hebrew, nor Greek, nor Latin, nor barbarian [nec hebraea nec graeca nec latina nec barbara], without any organs of voice and tongue, without the sound of syllables—would say, ‘He speaks the truth’45

May we understand here the “Truth” of Augustine as a mediating Pentecost, where each one grasps the Divine Word in his own language, where the multiplicity of alterities are joined in catholicity, One and Universal? Being sublimated, the ancient repealed Law is incarnated in a new Faith. From this point on, the Church marches toward the conversion of the world. The particular is called to be joined in a universal, borne by the Faith of a Christ whose “philological” vocation is to establish a unique “Truth” for all.

Proving by Forgetting

The primordial Hebrew, which has long been for Christian erudition the language of Paradise, could be replaced, at the end of the 18th century, by Sanskrit, which had recently been discovered by the scholars and artists of the Occident.

One should remember that since the Renaissance, one could encounter in Europe a multiplication of languages of Paradise. Every population took its own idiom as Edenic: Flemish here, Tuscan there, then Swedish, German or French. Everyone imagined they spoke the language infused by God into Adam.46 In addition, since the 16th century, Sanskrit words migrated to Europe in the wake of the spice trade, and thanks to the correspondences of some Jesuits.47 These transfers of words or vocables led to comparisons of Sanskrit linguistic roots to those of Greek, Latin, Persian and Germanic. Between the 16th and the 18th century, resulting from new comparative methods, a “prehistory of the Indo-European idea” would hasten the burial of Hebrew, the language of Paradise.48

Between theological ruts and poetic sparks, renewing centuries of Christian discourses on Hebrew, Herder, the father of romanticism, would still make an apology for that “language of paradise”49 in Vom Geist der Ebräischen Poesie in 1782-83. In his statements on that which could be described as “Christian Hebrew,” ancient oriental philology could motivate certain modern occidental representations of a primordial Sanskrit, which was transformed rather into an originary “Aryan.” It is worth re-reading the pages of Herder as he makes the ultimate praise of Hebrew in the 1780s, then, a few decades later, to see how Sanskrit has come to replace Hebrew in the first celebrations of an “Aryan bible.”50

Other sources also have their importance here for elucidating the mechanisms of substitution and transfer, between theology and original ideas. Father Coeurdoux,51 a contemporary of Voltaire, wrote in 1767 a mémoire in India, where he subsequently stayed. It is to be noted that the essay of the Jesuit, an excellent linguist and Indologist, despite being known by members of the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris, would not be published until 40 years later, in 1808—an editorial delay that was not without consequence for the history of what would become the reception of the Indo-European hypothesis. While extending the ancient exegesis of Genesis, Coeurdoux renews it when he writes:

Japhet, the elder son of Noah, left the plains of Sennaar [the valley where the confusion of Babylon is situated in Genesis, 11:2], bringing with him a third of the men towards the occident. His seven children were without doubt of equally large families, of which each one had to speak one of the new original languages such as Latin, Greek, Slavic, and if I may be allowed to add, samskoutam; It merits to be mentioned among the primitive languages more than any other language, in view of its scope. The supposition that I make at present, may perhaps later become a reality […].52

We are in 1767. Historiography recognizes the “reality” and linguistic validity of this “supposition,” known as the Indo-European hypothesis, beginning from February 2nd 1786, when William Jones marvelled at the relation between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin: this “affinity [is] so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.”53 Jones makes the hypothesis no longer of a primordial language but of its plausible oblivion. This proposition of “no longer exists,” this usage of an oblivio as a concept, this relation between an affirmation of oblivion along with the conditions of a positive knowledge—I have explored elsewhere, underlining the importance, in different eras, of the linguistic hypotheses resulting from the supposition of an oblivion, perhaps of a partial or total disappearance, of the original language.54 We find here, in a manner of speaking, an affirmation that wishes to prove through oblivion.

“A Page of the Origins of the World”55

Among the controversies for and against Hebrew at the origins of the Christian religion and of intelligent humanity, Voltaire dots the i’s from the first words of the article Brachamnes, Brames in his Dictionnaire philosophique (1764). Against other scholars who consider Hebrew and French to be “essentially the same language,”56 or who derive the name of the Brachmane “from a Jewish word barac with a C […] or barak with a K, which means to bless or rather to pray,”57 Voltaire asks the following question, which illustrates well the uses that were then made of India to weaken the biblical chronology: “Is it not likely that the Brahmans were the first legislators of the earth, the first philosophers, the first theologians? […]. The Hebrews, who were known so late, never mention the Brahmans: they did not know India until the conquests of Alexander […].”58 In these conflicts concerning the oldest origins of humanity, Voltaire chose to have Adam come from India:

The first man was created of the Indies […], he was called Adimo which means the engenderer and his wife was called Procriti which signifies life. […]; The sect of the Brahmans is incontestably more ancient than that of the Jews; […] The Indians were always inventors, and the Jews always imitators.59

The “barbarian knowledges” of India, imagined through Hellenistic erudition, were succeeded by new philological usages, both Christian and anti-Christian, which were more or less secularized. These modern approaches to India have contributed to a transfer of one ancestrality to another, from the myth of biblical origin to the new Indo-European hypothesis: from Hebrew to Sanskrit.

If in 1833 Eugène Burnouf affirms that “the fundamental identity of Sanskrit, Greek and Latin is already an established fact,”60 he also says that as to what concerns the “mother language of the European dialects, it [i.e., Sanskrit] is nothing but the sister;” strictly speaking, “the historical question would have to remain insoluble.” Being primordial, this idiom remains “impenetrable, because it escapes the memories of history.” He insists on this, while specifying that the time for even an “outline” has not yet come.61 In his Discours d’Ouverture à la chaire de Langue et Littérature sanscrites at the Collège de France, after recalling how everything remains open and uncertain, Eugène Burnouf ends his lecture by exalting a philology of the human spirit that takes its sources from India. It is worth citing his conclusion in extenso:

Let us nonetheless dare to say: if this course should be devoted to philology, we shall not ban the study of facts and ideas for that reason. We shall not close our eyes to the brightest light that would ever come from the Orient, for we seek to understand the great spectacle offered to our eyes. It is India, with its philosophy and its myths, its literature and its laws, that we study through its language. It is more than India, Gentlemen, but a page of the origins of the world, of the primitive history of the human spirit, that we try to decipher together. […] In us there is a deep conviction that as much as the study of the words alone is useless and frivolous, if it is possible to conduct it without that of the ideas, so is the study of the words, considered as the visible signs of thought, solid and fruitful. There is no real philology without philosophy and without history. The analysis of the processes of language is also a science of observation; and if it is not the science itself of the human spirit, it is at least that of the most astonishing faculty by aid of which it was possible of being produced.62

In his principle, his methodological intention, which associates philology, history and certain aspects of a new anthropological linguistics, Eugène Burnouf, a scholar whose austerity is recognized by his contemporaries,63 manages the concepts with equal intellectual prudence and audacity, which does not prevent him from formulating his knowledge as a man of his time. Nevertheless, when he proclaims that “we are not afraid to affirm, that Sanskrit will become the instrument of the most beautiful discoveries,”64 Burnouf does not exalt, it seems to me, the old quarrels over the Adamic language that are about to take place throughout the 19th century, and even beyond.65 In these debates, we find the duo—in certain cases, the duel—Hebrew-Sanskrit, enrolled in a new race towards origins, animated by a theological and political tandem, mobilized by the colonial component.

Among the students of Eugène Burnouf, it was Ernest Renan who dedicated to him in 1849 L’avenir de la science [The future of science]—the opus of his life, published in 1890, two years before his death. The impact of Burnouf’s work gives rise here to an “enthusiastic” vision,66 which was able to influence its reception when, at the opening of his book, Renan addresses Eugène Burnouf:

It is not a banal thought, sir, that leads me to address this essay to you. It is in your presence that I have considered it. […] In hearing your lectures on the most beautiful of languages and literatures of the primitive world, I have reached the realization of that which formerly I could only dream: science becomes philosophy and the highest results arise from the most scrupulous analysis of details. […] The science of the human spirit must be, above all, the history of the human science, and this history is only possible through a patient and philological study of the works that it has produced in its different ages.67

Is it the inspiration of this new “science of the human spirit” that authorizes Renan,68 citing at the same time Burnouf, Lassen and other scholars of his time, to discern “a certain affinity” between the biblical Eden and “the kingdom of the Oudiyâna, or garden, situated near Kashmir”?69 Be that as it may, the objective seems to be achieved. Here we are in a “kingdom,” meaning “garden,” that designates at the same time a religious and a linguistic position within a geography of paradise: from primordial Hebrew towards an originary Sanskrit we witness the transfer of Eden from one Orient to another, from the paradise of Christian biblical exegesis to the philological sciences of an Aryan garden.

There are abundant texts of the 19th century that tell of these transfers, related to the prestige of the primordial: from the ancient Semitic Orient to a new Aryan Orient.

Emile-Louis Burnouf (not to be confused with Eugène Burnouf, his cousin) seeks to view Christianity founded in the Vedas, in the ancient religion of Brahma. Less known than the famous formulation of Renan, “essentially, Jesus has nothing Jewish about him,”70 here are two short citations of Emile-Louis Burnouf, to be read in his Science des religions of 1870: “Christianity is in its entirety an Aryan doctrine and as a religion, has almost nothing in common with Judaism.” And furthermore: “It is in the hymns of the Veda and not in the Bible that we should seek the primordial source of our religion.”71

Voltaire, as we have seen, conceived a new genesis for humanity when he wrote that “the first man (named Adimo) was created in the Indies.”72 Without being a “precursor”, he brings into the fashion of his time an ancient erudition that, since the 16th century, endeavored to undermine the Christian representations of Hebrew. It was on the eve of Christmas that Voltaire wrote to Frederick ii, king of Prussia, on December 21st of 1775: “It seemed evident to me that our sacred Christian religion is uniquely founded on the ancient religion of Brahma.”73 Thus was made a plea that would increasingly strengthen the weight of a Sanskrit “Bible” at the sources of a new Christian Occident.

It is not the place here to catalogue this type of formula. It should nevertheless be remembered that these scholarly disputes would develop further from the 16th century on. Being both theological and political, these disputes for and against Hebrew are internal to Christian erudition, being more or less secularized according to the authors. Varying according to time and place, these debates were already old when the conceptual pair Aryan-Semite appeared in the 19th century.74 Sanskrit, following then partly the linguistic fictions of a Scythian continent,75 now occupied, in the philological and historical sciences, a special place in an intellectual world where, since the Renaissance, there is a “crisis of the Hebrew mother language”—a chapter in scholarly history that was studied notably by Daniel Droixhe.76

Following the advice of Nicole Loraux, who encouraged the “proper use of anachronisms,”77 let us formulate a few questions and some hypotheses in an exploratory fashion. The ancient pattern that was observed for the Hellenic period, imagining a compatible trio of “philosophers,” “sages” and “magicians” and combining in a single genealogical fiction Jews, Indians and Persians, was succeeded in the 19th century by other alliances under the label of the incompatible: the monotheistic Hebrews, devoid of any creative capacity, who became “Semites” from the end of the 18th century,78 can be opposed to the Indo-Europeans of versatile intelligence, who are scientific because they are polytheists.79 Another modern variant: to set the Indo-European Iran of Zoroaster, declared as the source of an Aryan monotheism,80 against Moses, his Hebrew “rival.”81

As a product of its double genealogy, which is both religious and linguistic, Semitic and Indo-European, the colonial Occident fumbles between its two Orients, poles of imaginary appropriation: the Hebrew and the Aryan. Rocking within a modernity on its way to globalization, the occidental world suddenly measures a universal space, which has long been Christian and whose control unfortunately escapes it.

“The European Scholars, Unwitting Toys …”

In handling scholarly narratives and elaborating the representations of Sanskrit and Hebrew, certain discourses could have as their calling to construct an originary social and linguistic state. But how can we understand the narrative modes of this type of erudition, often inadvertently poetic, connected to a dreamlike seduction of beginnings? And how does that which has all the appearances of a philological and historiographical “captivation” operate?

Concerning such a “captivation” characterized by multiple tensions, a bit of semantic archaeology could perhaps enlighten us: the Latin capere is found associated to a group of verbs that signify to take, to seize, but also to choose, to capture. If capere can say how to capture and imprison, this verb may also indicate how to seduce a bird, or another animal, in erotic relations. Other aspects of this verb express as much violence as passion, between action and reaction: at the same time taking hold of the other or being taken, possessed, and consequently charmed and seduced.82 The “captivation” can also infect the one who captures, not only as the active agent who manipulates his or her toys, but also as the one who is affected, under the influence of his or her own puppets. A bit like the collector pursuing his or her passion, in a desire for control, even though, in the act, he or she loses all might.83

This possible reversal, where the author of a captivation, dreaming of supremacy, gets controlled by the very thing that he thought himself to have captured, occurred to me while reading the orientalist James Darmesteter. In his praise of Abel Bergaigne, who died in 1888, for opposing the Indianists who transformed the Veda into “a primitive poetry of well talented shepherds,”84 Darmesteter makes a beautiful lesson of epistemology, recalling that the sanskritist Bergaigne did not follow the scientific tradition of his time under the influence of an Aryan philosophy of origins:

The European scholars, unwitting toys of the mythological illusion of India, were used to push the Veda to the most ancient past, not only of history, but also of human thought. The Brahmanic orthodoxy claimed to access the first divine revelation through the Vedas, the scientific orthodoxy of Europe believed itself to have access through them to the first revelation of the religious thought of the Indo-European race; the Vedas had thus become like a sacred book of the religious origins of the race, the Aryan bible.85

This manner of envisioning India, erasing the rough edges of its historical dimensions,86 these ways of capturing India, cancelling time in its history, could provide the Occident, overwhelmed by its nostalgia, a mirror of its own purified origin.87 In the 20th century, the work of Mircea Eliade, including the “History of religions,” could constitute a textbook case.88

Where Freud, attentive to “historical stratification,”89 called for vigilance, stressing that “the determination of the original state remains therefore every time a matter of construction,”90 the scholarly historiography could implement dreamlike sites with all academic legitimacy, losing sight of the fact that the originary, like the discourse that produces it, is never pre-existing. As Freud wrote with disarming simplicity: “this originary state of the society has been observed nowhere.”91

Analyzing these remarks, the historian of modern Christianity, Jacques Le Brun, was right in insisting on one point: for Freud, the dream of unveiling will give way to the “construction of the originary.”92

It does not obstruct. Scholars have often dreamed of unveiling the infancy of languages in order to access the origins of an initial humanity, the revelation of a primordial religion. Not so much in order to know more about it or even to understand it, but rather to adhere to a sublime affinity with the desire to appropriate one’s fabulous ancestors by envisaging an unattainable temporality: as if touching the dawn of time could guarantee the mastery of the future. Numerous are these “prophets of the past” who bequeathed to us the romantic generations. One may recall Schlegel and fragment 80 of the Athenaeum: “Der Historiker ist ein rückwärts gekehrter Prophet.”93

At the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries, despite the advances of the positivist sciences and of secularism, the indianist Sylvain Lévi measures the biblical weight and prejudices that mark the works of the specialists. He writes in La Grande Encyclopédie:

Frustrated by the state of advanced civilization of which the infancy of the Aryan languages bear witness, […] frustrated by other scientific facts, it was believed, due to the old biblical prejudices, and to a presumptuous enthusiasm, that the birth of language had been reached, almost back to the creation of man. […] It was therefore declared that the primitive Aryan language was monosyllabic and made only by roots. The theory of dissylabic roots of Mr. de Saussure, as useful as it may be for explaining the forms that remain otherwise obscure, still breaks today against this unshakable prejudice.94

The discourses on “the infancy of the Aryan languages” would thus flourish until the middle of the 20th century. Crossing social and political barriers and inspiring art forms,95 literature and erudition as well as journalism, these arguments contributed to the emergence of the pairing Aryan-Semite as conceived and legitimized by the academic world during the 19th century and, in the cases of certain theories, into the first half of the 20th century.

It is worth pointing out that, since the 1850s, the academic world has often remained deaf to well-founded criticisms raised persistently by eminent scholars against the aryanist and raciological theories applied to the whole of the social and human sciences of their time.96 Among them, from Bopp to Lévi-Strauss: Steinthal, Goldziher, Gaston Paris in his famous opening of the first volume of Romania in 1872,97 Eugène Burnouf, Abel Bergaigne, James Darmesteter, Saussure … and, in the beginning of the 20th century, the anthropologist Franz Boas and the sociologist Max Weber.98 This question of the deafness to all “critical resistance”, internal to the academic world, this internal opposition that encountered little or no reception in the historiographical practices, remains a blind spot in our philological and historical studies, as much as in our archaeological ones.99

We have seen this type of critical vigilance at work in the same 1890s, when Darmesteter distanced himself from “the scientific orthodoxy of Europe” among his contemporaries, or when Sylvain Lévi pointed to the “old biblical prejudices.” It is to these years that one can date Ferdinand de Saussure’s notes that bear witness to his perspective on India. In “The Harvard Saussure Manuscripts,” published a couple of decades ago by Herman Parret,100 some passages classified under the heading “Writings on the Hindu mythography” should be mentioned.

These notes, which I recall only briefly, are diverse, sometimes contradictory. Poorly dated, they are drafts of 1893-1894, including incomplete sentences, as is often the case in Saussure’s manuscripts.101

It is a fact that we are always very easily prone to forget when we speak about India, but which nevertheless has importance, that India is a country comprising around 240 million individuals, and consequently the same size of population as all of western Europe. On this India, which represents in itself a true continent, we find quite naturally that i