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Sanskrit, Character, and Bipartisanship

By: on July 4, 2009

At first I couldn’t understand. Why would an Upper East Side New York City private elementary school feature the Sanskrit language as a key component of its curriculum? And, why would such a school founded in 1994 be named the Abraham Lincoln School? Later I understood, it turns out the answer to both my questions is that character matters.

 

Elizabeth Gariti, writing for uppereast.com, quotes Bill Fox, headmaster of the school which in 2005 changed its name to the Philosophy Day School, “Our emphasis is on character – whether the child is a good person. Even though they are young, we instill in them a sense of service and draw from the teachings of Eastern and Western philosophies to encourage spiritual growth.”

 

And then there’s Honest Abe, a rarity in American political history, a president who has maintained a reputation for good character for over 150 years. The name evokes qualities of sacrifice, perseverance and equal treatment, pretty good building blocks upon which to build the character of young children.

 

Yes, character matters, especially in a world where surety is fast becoming a thing of the past, in a communication age where according to Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message,” and philosophers of language are still pondering the question, "What is meaning?"

 

Yes, teach your children well, it’s a big bad bewildering world of words out there; teach them to be a good judge of character. Consider what Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s Chief of Staff, said last week. Mr. Emanuel, who holds a master's degree in Speech from Northwestern University, met with a group of journalist on June 25, 2009. Staff writer Linda Feldmann filed this report for The Christian Science Monitor, “Rahm Emanuel redefines bipartisanship.”

 

“The test of bipartisanship is not just how many Republican votes you have,” Mr. Emanuel told reporters at a Monitor breakfast. He laid out three tests of bipartisanship:



    • The bill contains bipartisan ideas.

      “That is a test the president laid out, and he has said it repeatedly: This will be bipartisan. There will be ideas from both parties and individuals from both parties in the final product,” Emanuel said. “Whether Republicans decide to vote for things that they’ve promoted will be up to them.”



    • The president has reached out to Republicans.

      “For [a bill] to be bipartisan, or appreciated for its bipartisanship, the president has to try,” Emanuel said. “As I said after the Recovery Act [economic stimulus bill], everybody said, ‘Oh you didn’t get Republican votes.’ But the American people saw the president trying. They saw the Republicans, implicit, instinctually and reflexively just rejecting any effort in the height of an economic recession as severe as the Depression.”

 

    • The final vote count.

      “Then you’ll get into the measurements that we have – ‘Oh, you didn’t get this many,’ ” Emanuel said.



Given the nature of politics, the fact the Emanuel’s job is to straddle the fence on many political issues, and the fear still lingering from reading Orwell’s 1984, which taught us about “Newspeak,” it can be quite a task to figure out whether Emanuel’s redefinition is cunning or committed. How are you going to know for sure? Character matters.

 

In Classical Sanskrit, analogies play a big role in both learning language usage and understanding character. There are two ways to interpret Emanuel’s equivocal redefinition of bipartisanship. The first questions his character, the other shows his character.

 

First is the maxim of the crow’s eyeball. It takes its origin from the supposition that the crow has but one eye and that it can move it, as occasion requires, from the socket on one side into that of the other. The maxim is applied to a word or phrase which, though used only once in a sentence may, if occasion requires, serve two purposes. The connotation here is that Emanuel’s redefinition is cunning, and that unless Mr. Emanuel displays impeccable character we may have reason to suspect his redefinition of bipartisanship.

 

Second is the maxim of the lamp placed over the threshold. It takes its origin from a lamp hanging over the threshold of a house which, by its peculiar position, serves to light the rooms on both sides of the threshold; and is used to denote something which serves a two-fold purpose at the same time. The connotation here is that Emanuel is committed to making bipartisanship work to the benefit of both sides. This approach promotes mutual benefit and trust, elements of good character.

 

Language and character are meant to be linked. This is the special contribution of Sanskrit. Shukavak Das, who holds a PhD in South Asian Studies and a Masters in Sanskrit Grammar from the University of Toronto, writes “The relationship between culture and language is an intimate one, for language is the vehicle of human thought. Language determines a culture’s worldview. Vocabulary and syntax, with its subtle nuances and shades of meaning, determine how a culture interacts with the world. Language ultimately determines the shape of civilization.”

 

Teaching a child this type of discrimination, how to understand the difference between cunning and committed words not only builds his or her own character but offers some hope for a world drowning in the information age. Kudos to the Philosophy Day School (although I like the name Abraham Lincoln School better).

 

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