The Year Of Opportunities—And Risks—For Asia

2022 confirms that Asia will be one of the planet’s hubs, where great tensions and opportunities, risks and fractures are concentrated, where important trends are confronted and amalgamated.

2022 will be a year of potential political changes in many Asian countries, bringing as well a confirmation of the current situation. There will be several presidential elections (Philippines, South Korea and East Timor), legislative (Australia and Japan) and local (India). Regardless of their results, the strategic lines of those countries, will remain the same. Even powerful and threatening China will see changes in the perspective of the Communist Party Congress.

However, a new calendar year does not mean a clear break with the past. Some of the main events of 2021, such as the coup in Myanmar and the takeover by the Taliban in Afghanistan, will continue to impact in 2022. And, for the third consecutive year, the COVID-19 pandemic will loom over all other events. 2021 began with the launch of vaccines and the hope of post-pandemic normality; the year ended with the Omicron variant which once again closed the borders, and by 2022, all of Asia-Pacific will have to balance health precautions with the protection of its economies.

It is useful to start talking about the USA, a true hegemonic power still on the chessboard, even if increasingly undermined by Chinese pressure. The second year of the Biden administration should see an even greater emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region (and a consequent decrease in the importance of Europe and the Middle East, albeit with notable exceptions, like Ukraine and Iran).

2020 will see the publication of very important documents, such as the National Defense Strategy and the review of the National Nuclear Posture, which should be largely focused on the Beijing challenge. Relations will remain difficult, but the mid-term legislative elections in the US and the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China should create sufficient incentives on both sides for a “managed” relationship, though the points of friction will remain; the Biden administration will continue in its actions of trying to harness Chinese forces by focusing on the network of regional and sub-regional alliances and agreements—not only on specific areas (such as Taiwan), but also on ideological issues, such as human rights and the autonomy claims of East Turkestan, Inner Mongolia, and Hong King.

In this perspective, the alliance system for Washington becomes, even more than today, a critical element, especially with regard to Japan, South Korea, Australia and India. The Quad will continue to be pushed and promoted, and it is likely that Washington will aim at the qualitative and quantitative expansion of this forum.

The other difficult point of the region, such as North Korea, will be observed by Washington with great attention, especially in the case of a conservative victory in the South Korean elections.
In addition to the stabilization of AUKUS, 2022 will see the absorption of the crisis with France (which is much more relaxed after the unionist victory in the third and definitive referendum on independence for New Caledonia, which secures its stay in the region and weaken substantially the notion that French Polynesia would follow the search for independence).

ASEAN, despite some internal criticisms, such as Cambodia and Myanmar, will remain another important partner for Washington in its confrontation with Beijing, but also for economic cooperation. In fact, given the economic (and demographic) dimensions of Asia, the economic dimension will be the other pillar of US actions.

Japan has serious difficulties, beginning with an ossified political leadership and a tired parliamentarian alternation. But the pandemic, the demographic frost, the unresolved relationship with Korea, the ambiguous relationship with Moscow are all elements of uncertainty for Tokyo, which feels gravely exposed, despite a massive weapons program.

For geographic reasons and dimensions, tensions with China (the gravity of which is evidenced by the recent installation of a “red telephone” between the two capitals) remain central to Japan. Tokyo will confirm a foreign policy and cooperation centered on the US, and with Taiwan increasingly regarded as a sovereign state. Also, for Japan, the issue of the protection of human rights in China will remain a decisive element, even if it seems that (so far) Japan will not boycott the Olympic Games, a true symbolic moment for Beijing. Meanwhile, Tokyo is increasingly solidifying its ties with other countries, in anti-Chinese functions, such as the Quad and the Japanese participation at regional military exercises with US, Australians, British and French forces.

For South Korea, the presidential elections, which could see the conservatives win, would represent a further element of tension with North Korea. With nuclear talks between the US and North Korea still stalled, in 2022, Pyongyang will continue to enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities to strengthen its influence in denuclearization negotiations. In recent years, North Korea has been testing various missile technologies, including short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. North Korea has not (yet) crossed the “red line” set by the US— nuclear weapons tests or ICBMs—but Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has pledged to further develop the military capability of the North by using such capability as an element of deterrence to block temptations of “regime change” (in Washington, more than in Seoul).

Seoul also follows Tokyo’s steps in strengthening its military apparatus, witnessing a feeling of insecurity, but its ever difficult relations with Japan are an element of weakness for the security architecture that the US has built since the 1950s.

In addition, South Korea’s attention to Beijing is a matter of concern for Washington, both for reasons of economic interest and as an element of mediation in the face of North Korea’s excesses. Since President Moon Jae-in officially proposed ending the 1950-53 Korean War at the UN General Assembly on September 21, 2021, Seoul and Washington have consulted on a draft for the declaration. However, amid the stalemate in North Korea-US bilateral talks and deteriorating US-China relations—both of whom are expected to co-sign such a declaration—no progress has been announced on the initiative, because of concerns about an end-of-war declaration, which hold that it could weaken the South Korea-US military alliance and the role of the UN Command (which has seen a significant increase in participating states and reactivation of others in recent years). The decision on whether to proceed with the end-of-war declaration will depend on the results of the South Korean presidential election in March.

With the opening ceremony on February 4, 2022, Beijing will become the only city in the world to have hosted both the Summer and Winter Olympics. But despite China’s stern and repeated warnings against the “politicization” of the Olympics, the Beijing 2022 Games have taken on very important political connotations, with the focus, by a growing number of states, on long-standing protests over human rights violations against ethnic minorities, and in Hong Kong.

The US said in December that it would not send an official delegation to the Beijing 2022 Olympics because of human rights concerns. Australia, Canada, and the UK quickly followed suit. As if that weren’t enough, China’s organization of the Olympics will also be proof of its ruthless commitment to a zero COVID policy. Beijing won the Games at the International Olympic Committee votes, expecting great public relations success to showcase its wealth and influence on the global stage. But the events of the past two years suggest that China will face much more scrutiny during these Olympics than in 2008.

Beijing will face another important moment in the fall of 2022, when the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th Party Congress, in which it will promote a new list of leaders. Xi is expected to break the previous (even recent) pattern and get a third term as the CCP Secretary-General (the first mandate was in 2012). The big question, then, is whether Xi will allow an heir-apparent, at least initially, on the Politburo Standing Committee, signaling that he will step down in 2027; or whether he is looking for a role of “life leader.” Linked to the confirmation or not of XI, but not only, in the dynamics of power in Beijing, there are those linked to Taiwan.

Last December Nicaragua established diplomatic relations with Beijing and cut off those with Taipei, which has only 14 states left with which to (officially) have diplomatic relations. Beijing is convinced that it will be able to eliminate this residual diplomatic presence in mid-term (at least one a year).
On the other hand, the trend of countries extending their unofficial relations with Taiwan (Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are the most recent examples) is likely to continue, defying pressure and retaliation from Beijing. Other European countries could follow in 2022, especially after a resolution by the European Parliament calling for ties to be strengthened with Taiwan. In particular, it will be necessary to see whether the EU or the US will take concrete steps towards free-trade agreements with Taiwan, long desired by Taipei but so far not taken seriously by either Washington or Brussels, because of concerns about Beijing’s retaliations.

Alongside the diplomatic game, there is the military dimension, which actually remains worrying, with the continuous Chinese amphibious exercises and air and maritime show of force. China remains fully committed to absorbing Taiwan and refuses to rule out the use of force to achieve that goal if forced to (from its point of view). A Chinese invasion of Taiwan remains a low-probability event, but it would be potentially risky, even for Xi, if he remains the CCP leader, because failure of any sort will make it politically too expensive, as well as catastrophic.

Also, in India, there will be key elections in 2022 and with heavy indications on the general policy of the country. In addition to the presidential elections, several states (Goa, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat) will elect local assemblies. The outcome of the Uttar Pradesh elections is the most important, as it is the most populous state in India (it holds about one fifth of the seats in the Indian federal parliament) and should provide useful indications on the political direction in the country, in consideration that that state is ruled by the nationalist BJP party, which also heads the federal government, and suffers from strong internal criticism for the economy and the management of COVID-19.

The disputed region of Kashmir will remain a hot-spot in Indian politics, as it affects relations with Pakistan (and to a secondary extent with China). The region, used as an electoral bastion by the BJP, and its belonging to India is the focal point of the patriotic narrative of India, a unifying element of an extremely complex, divided subcontinent. Even in this region, the elections for the local assembly will be an element of tension, given that they will be the first after the unilateral revocation of the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 by the federal government (and which has further worsened Indo-Pakistani relations).

But the proximity of Kashmir to Afghanistan makes India concerned about possible infiltrations by terrorist elements from both Al Qaeda and IS. Here, too, China will remain the main concern for India’s security and foreign policy. Several rounds of talks between Indian and Chinese military officers and diplomats over the situation in Ladakh (where there have been several clashes and a massive deployment of forces in the region by the two contenders) have not yet borne fruit. There is the possibility that India will push Russia, thanks to its historical proximity, to discreetly facilitate the repositioning of the opposing forces from the disputed points of Ladakh, as a prelude to a possible summit meeting (without further indications, it remains a mere hope).

India’s other major concern with Beijing is China’s growing presence and influence in South Asia. India can be expected to strengthen its economic diplomacy with its neighbors to counter China’s growing presence in the region; and New Delhi has made progress in this regard in 2021, especially in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

For Pakistan, there are many elements that mirror India, albeit with the important variant of the institutional weight of the armed forces, increasingly opposed to civilian leadership, and public opinion. With the victory of the Afghan Taliban, the challenge of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has increased, and the Pakistani Taliban have increased attacks on official institutions, using their own sanctuaries in Afghanistan, even though the Kabul leadership has already said that the TTP does not exist in Afghanistan and that the issue is an internal issue within Pakistan.

For Pakistan, too, China is fundamental, albeit in a different sense, given the once good relations with Beijing are rapidly deteriorating due to the management of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The growing divergences emerging between Pakistan and China over the issue of payments, development costs, security threats and the increasing resistance of local populations, especially in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, risk leaving Pakistan without support, should it decide to break ties with Beijing (given that the US would not fail to pay for its proximity to China).

2021 saw Pakistan fail to meet its payment deadlines, prompting China to withdraw funds, and even stop some projects. The CPEC slowdown has had a severe impact on Pakistan’s cash-strapped national economy, as the country’s trade deficit expands and foreign debt grows. Once hailed as a turning point for national development, CPEC has become an increasingly controversial topic in Pakistan, particularly around the port of Gwadar, where thousands of residents have called for local control of resources, which they believe will benefit exclusively China. It cannot be ruled out that Beijing may suspend work on the Gwadar port and related infrastructure projects, with a devastating impact on Pakistan, as the country’s economy remains under pressure, and there seem to be no new avenues of financial support.

So far, no country in the world has recognized the new government of Afghanistan, the so-called Islamic Emirate of the Taliban, which was built in August 2021 on the very expensive ashes of the previous architecture. First of all, the Afghan problem, beyond the institutionalized violations of civil and human rights, is a problem of recognition, where both Russia and China, which have relations with the Taliban, are reluctant to let them sit at the UN. Western countries and the leadership of the UN link the offer of recognition to an “inclusive” (sic) government. This situation is linked to the enormous governance problems for the Taliban (who do not have any), as well as financing, given that the 9 billion dollars of the reserves of the central bank of the Afghan Republic, kept by Western financial institutions, are frozen.

The local branch of IS, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), formed around 2015, despite heavy difficulties and conflicts with both the “official” Taliban and Al Qaeda militias, seems to be present in all provinces of Afghanistan and represents a threat to the Taliban themselves who do not have the ability to hold ISK in check nor to prevent incursions in the surrounding areas (which go as far as India and China [East Turkestan]).

A humanitarian disaster of epic proportions awaits that wretched country, linking itself to political and security challenges. These difficult political and economic conditions have mixed with a recent drought and early winter to set the stage for a colossal humanitarian catastrophe by 2022. According to the UNDP, a staggering 97% of Afghans could fall into poverty in 2022, as the economy contracts sharply. The UN emergency food aid agency, the World Food Program, has warned of the impending famine. For the Taliban, the inability to provide for the Afghan people can make it nearly impossible to rule the country. After the war that began in 1980, 2022 could be the worst year for Afghanistan.

Even for the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, the ramifications of the fall of Afghanistan are heavy and are linked to pre-existing complex situations, where Russia and China, allies and competitors at the same time, work hard to push any other influence out of the area. The US and Western presence and/or influence, somehow less visible because of the prolonged process of reducing NATO forces in Afghanistan (and after the summer disaster in Kabul), led to the building (by China) and/or rebuilding (by Russia ) of influence, as in Moscow with the imposing push to spread again the use of Russian, which was greatly reduced from a vehicular language after the exodus of a large part of the Russian-speaking population; this decline of the use of Russian began after the end of the USSR, starting from 1991.

Kyrgyzstan’s political system was shaped into the desired form by President Sadyr Japarov: an almighty president, a constitution, a parliament that poses no obstacles. In 2022, Kyrgyzstan will face major challenges, starting with the instability of the energy and gold markets, rising food prices, high unemployment and serious corruption.

As with Kyrgyzstan, energy (fuel price increases) and environmental (persistent drought) problems could become political problems with severe protests across the area, starting with Tajikistan (which borders directly on seething Afghanistan) and ending. with Uzbekistan. But for all these states, including the most distant Kazakhstan, Afghan developments impact the region. The once quiet, solid, rich (and maid of Moscow) Kazakhstan saw a sudden and very rapid change of scene at the beginning of 2022 with President Nursultan Nazarbaev (a relic of the Soviet system), who had managed to navigate between Russians, Chinese, and Europeans, was overthrown by a very violent popular revolt, ignited by the increase in fuel prices, but which seems to contain elements of fatigue of the local population because of the immovable leadership of the country.

The crisis of Kazakhstan, quickly solved by determination of Moscow, teaches how apparent-tranquility can end up, and how Russia learnt the lessons of Maydan, where a disastrous management of the local leadership originated a major shift for the Moscow security landscape after 1991 (another, also ignored, lesson of how Russia studies the past, and acts rapidly, is the Belarus file) with the entry of Ukraine in the Western sphere of influence. Russia, a peculiar presence in Asia, will work hard to defend its space; consolidate and, if possible, expand it.

For two decades, Central Asia’s position on the map has made it important to the US, and this parameter has prevailed over a range of value-based concerns, not least democracy for national security. This has allowed several of these states to have obtained repeated waivers from US sanctions related to civil liberties and human rights, but without major pressures. Now, these exceptions, also due to the ideological approach of the Biden administration, could be suspended and sanctions applied (with the ultimate result of bringing these states closer to the Russian orbit and the growing Chinese influence, in search of energy resources). As in Pakistan, local Islamist groups close to the Al Qaeda and IS spheres could find space and enjoy sanctuaries not particularly disturbed by the Taliban forces.

The stalemate continues in Myanmar. After the coup d’etat in February of last year, despite persistent civil disobedience, the resumption of armed uprisings in the border areas, and uncertain international pressure, the military junta seems willing to remain in power by playing on the divisions of international partners and seeking to take advantage of support from regional actors, starting with China, which seeks to weaken ASEAN, to keep Westerners away and to maintain solid economic control over important parts of the Myanmar economy.

At the closing ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit on October 27, 2021, Brunei handed over the presidency of the regional bloc to Cambodia. The small nation of Southeast Asia takes its toll in a potentially crucial year for ASEAN, which finds itself besieged by a series of pressing challenges. These include strategic competition in Southeast Asia, continuing tensions in the South China Sea, the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Myanmar crisis. There is another reason why the presidency of Cambodia will be closely observed: the very close ties with China would make Phnom Pen a Beijing agent within ASEAN, with all the consequences and risks of such a role. Thailand, in a prolonged state of crisis since 2014, should see elections in 2022 to return to stability and normality, contributing to the recovery of ASEAN credibility

Political transitions are underway in Indonesia, the Philippines (where the progressive absorption of the Islamist insurgency in the southern part of the archipelago seems to be progressing well), Singapore and East Timor. But maritime security problems remain intact, leading to the consolidation of ties also between states which had open border problems and thus increased the military dimension of ASEAN, hitherto exclusively economic. The architecture for trilateral patrols between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to tackle piracy, illegal fishing, illicit trafficking and a series of transnational crimes had begun to be built before COVID-19, but progress slowed as the pandemic broke out. However, the three sides still held dialogues and consultations on how to proceed and expand their cooperative work.

Indonesia’s regional and global leadership will also be in the spotlight in 2022. Indonesia (which will host the G-20 Summit) has nonetheless shown its leadership role on some key issues in recent times which affect its national interest, such as maritime economy, or the situations in Afghanistan, after the US withdrawal, and in Myanmar, after the coup, or Thailand for the political blockade.

The Australian federal election is perhaps the most important event for the sub-area, given the ripple effect it will have on other key issues in Oceania in 2022. Although there is no confirmed date, the elections will be held between March and May. With major contenders battling over important issues, such as climate change, how to interact with China and, more broadly, what role Canberra should play on the international stage, the outcome of the vote will have significant implications not just for Australia but for entire Oceania, given the importance that this country has on the chessboard.

The current conservative government has had several setbacks (of its actions and of image), leaving aside the painful management of the AUKUS pact, the equally negative ones of wildfires, floods and COVID. If Labor achieves an electoral victory, there will be a major shift on key issues, in particular climate policy and migration. The only thing that should remain unchanged, if not accelerated, will be the massive rearmament of the armed forces, and the determination to face China, in every field and area (especially in the South Pacific).

Many Pacific Island countries have handled the pandemic well, with only a handful of cases or none; but their economies have been shattered because of the region’s reliance on a narrow range of external sources of income, particularly tourism. The mineral riches of many islands (starting with precious nickel) and their institutional events have long been at the center of Beijing’s attention, which has consolidated the cooperation of various players, such as the USA, Australia and France.

Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).

Sanskrit – Language Of The Buddhists?

India is a recent state created by the conjunction of three historical sequences: The old civilization dominated by the Sanskrit language; the Mughal civilization where Persian and Muslim components were predominant; and mostly the British colonization that opened India to the contemporary world.

In the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, the Sanskrit language discovered by the Europeans left them intoxicated, having essentially turned them towards the past; they now had access to some of the oldest texts in the world. Unlike Germany, French Indianism did not completely lose its mind over Sanskrit, and began to study the language at the beginning of the 20th century. But the idea of the great antiquity of Vedic and other texts (and therefore of Indian writing) was a kind of ineradicable dogma.

Before The Discovery Of The Ashoka Edicts.

The religious texts of India do not translate any historical reality nor clarify historically the history of India. For that, it is necessary to turn to the testimonies of foreign authors, generally Greek ones. Hence the importance of monuments, which very early became the initial point of support for the historical reconstruction of the past. In 1801, we discovered the first datable inscription – which we attributed to a king by the name of Ashoka (circa 260 BC). Then were found a set of edicts of this same Indian sovereign. Both finds became rare and firm islands in the sea of fog that is otherwise the history of India.

Grandson of Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, Ashoka completed the unification of India, begun by his grandfather and continued by his father. He governed a kingdom that encompassed the entire sub-continent (except for the extreme south of the peninsula), as well to the north, Gandhara and part of Bactria, and then won over the Hellenistic kingdoms that were the consequence of the conquest of Alexander.

European Indianism made Ashoka a convinced Buddhist, and attributed to him the organized diffusion of Buddhism throughout Asia, with “missionaries” being sent out, and a grand council, whose legendary character is now well established.

However, neither the Sanskrit known by the literary tradition, nor the religious language of the Vedic hymns is the language of Ashoka. Nor is it one of the Prakrits, (languages that have disappeared but are consecrated either by dramatic or religious literature). His inscriptions are everywhere written in a dialect which is distinct from Pali, especially by the phonetics (which therefore makes it not Pali), and which thus makes it possible to write the different dialects of the Ashokan empire – that of West India (Girnar recension); the dialect of north-west India (the inscription of Kapur-di-Giri); the dialect of Eastern Hindustan (the inscriptions of Orissa). We knew nothing about this alphabet, when we discovered the first edicts on stone, or on a column. And it was not until 1837 that a young English engineer, James Prinsep, succeeded in deciphering them. We called this “Indian” alphabet, Brahmi.

We know today that these inscriptions were “proclaimed,” and that the engraved edict was a kind of witness, so that the people did not forget the royal instructions of an empire under the close surveillance of a solidly organized administration. Three decades later, another series of Ashokan inscriptions were discovered – but in another alphabet, called Kharosthi (also called Gandharan). In north-western India, none of the Mauryan rulers had touched local customs. Ashoka just left an old bureaucracy, probably effective, in the south and east, comprised of officials from other parts of the empire, regions formerly under-administered, or whose loyalty remained doubtful.

The Role Of Émile Sénart: The Linguistic History Of India

In France, the one who studied Ashoka’s language was the Indianist Émile Sénart. But it is less the language of the king that interested him than the difficult question of the linguistic history of India, of which he wanted to try to lay some foundations. In a small, dense, and concise article written in 1886, he took up the analysis made in his work on Ashoka’s inscriptions. He attacked a double dogma: that of the antiquity of Indian texts in general and that of the antiquity of Sanskrit.

Traditionally, there were three types of Sanskrit: the Vedic language (an archaic Sanskrit), classical Sanskrit, and the group of Prakrits. But Sénart added a fourth category – an idiom “in a way intermediate between Sanskrit and Prakrit” – the dialect of the Gathas, used in fragments and versified by northern Buddhist literature, but also in secular works (such as a treatise on arithmetic).

Why, Sénart wondered, was Sanskrit not used by King Ashoka, which in its “literary” form would have been adequate for official or literary use? The answer is simple – because this literary Sanskrit, in its written form, did not exist in the time of Ashoka.

But if it did not exist in its written form, it did indeed exist elsewhere, sheltered in the schools, where it was developed without any other application than the cult from which it hardly dissociated itself, and within the dominant religion, Brahminism. The Vedas dominate. The Vedic hymns are the eternal word that regulates everything, that decides everything; worship governed by Vedic ritual is the source of all prosperity in this world and in the next.

In the history of Indian scriptures and Sanskrit, the presence of the Brahmins and of their language has been essential. Sanskrit is the standard language. The distance between the truth that they state and the reality that they inspire (or imagine themselves inspiring) characterizes the Brahmins, as does the relationship that they have established with their language of worship – the language that states the fixed norm, unchangeable and sacred, which governs the Word that must also be sacred. Through the transmission of ancient songs, these Brahmins found themselves in possession of an idiom that belonged to them in their own right. Exclusive depositaries through oral tradition of a religious literature on which their authority was based; and they have shown themselves reluctant to relinquish their monopoly.

From the analysis of language, the Brahmins draw consequences, sometimes surprising, on the world, on its structure, its future, on things, or on man: “There is the blue sky, the sea, the stars and … Sanskrit,” which is, as the grammarian Patañjali says (around 200 BC?), “the support of the world order.” Hence the weight of grammar, as Michel Angot rightly noted, has an almost metaphysical dimension. All traditional knowledge adopts the method developed by the master-founders of the grammar of Panini and Patañjali. Adopting the old archaic Vedic language, the Brahmins thus adapted it to their spiritual and intellectual needs to work out the Sanskrit which they thus fixed, perpetuated and made sacred. The development of this language has therefore been almost completely controlled, being subject to this small group of statutory scholars.

At the time of Ashoka’s reign, in the 3rd century BC, what therefore existed was an archaic religious language that was essentially liturgical, and the object of a certain culture. Buddhists, on the contrary, might have been rather in a hurry to use writing to spread their doctrine. And their relationship to speech was not that of the Brahmins. For the latter, what was first, was the sacred Word. For the Buddhists, it was the “Law,” allegorized by the key moment of the “gesture” of the Buddha – the sermon of Benares, when he formulated his preaching for the first time. Now the “Law” and the “Word/preacher” were on the same plane. But that was not formulated doctrinally; and whatever the moment when this gesture of the Buddha was elaborated and transmitted, the Brahmins were not be mistaken: Buddhism was an enemy religion.

Speaking of this legendary Sanskrit language, Sénart said aptly that if we attributed all authority to it, it is pure fiction. We sit her on a throne, but she is dead. Indianists called it “archaic” or “Vedic Sanskrit” to distinguish it from classical Sanskrit and corrupt Sanskrit. It was Colebrooke who made the first distinction between states of the Brahminic language, which the Sanskritizing Indianists then readily adopted.

On the basis of this idiom, which was primarily religious and liturgical, the priestly caste no doubt created a learned language, which may have had profane use. But the idiom thus created could not long remain an instrument without use in the hands that forged it. Modified by the reaction of popular writing on religious language, Sanskrit once “thrown into general circulation” passed to the status of literary language, and entered the secular sphere and found new applications. In other words, it was secularized.

What is called classical Sanskrit was born and became the standardized language of a specific civilization, by assuming analogically the role that elsewhere was played by Greek or Latin. A language of scholars, it took the name of samskrita vac, “refined word;” that is to say. prepared according to the canons of Panini’s grammar. It then became the language of the spiritual; and it was reserved for this job. A largely artificial language, it was now a “language of thought,” to use Michel Angot’s expression.

It is this classic Sanskrit that the Germans discovered, as “the egg of Columbus in linguistics,” during the “Eastern Renaissance” which intoxicated the great German dreamers of the early 19th century. But was it the language of the Buddhists? There is nothing to suggest it. Sénart made the assumption that King Ashoka, with the edicts engraved almost everywhere in his kingdom (in particular on the borders), played an eminent role in this event, which constitutes the emergence of classic Sanskrit. He did not have his edicts engraved in Sanskrit, but in a unique alphabet (Brahmi) which made it possible to write the different Prakrits spoken in the different regions of his kingdom, in particular in Peninsular India. And in the northwest regions, it was another alphabet entirely, this one from Aramaic (Kharosthi), in which he had these edicts engraved with a religious, but above all a political, purpose. Before their Hellenization, linked to the conquest of Alexander, these regions of the northwest were included in the great Achaemenid federal state, that which the Macedonian took over. The language chosen by the Achaemenids was Aramaic, the “lingua franca” of the ancient world. We can thus legitimately assume that it was under the influence of the Hellenized scribes, in their meeting with Indian scribes, that these Ashokan alphabets were designed.

If the language of Ashoka was not Sanskrit – if it did not appear in its written form until about a century later, and then in its grammatically fixed form another century later – at what point was this presumed Buddhist canon fixed? And was it in Sanskrit?

The Role Of The Buddhists

Buddhists were recruited into the Brahminic caste, as into the others, and were introduced, to a certain extent, to its knowledge, including linguistic. And over time, they were also able to form themselves as a class of scholars who eventually adopted Sanskrit, first to communicate with the Brahmins, and then as a religious language. As the use of Sanskrit led to the scholarly immobilization of the language, there was thus fashioned a convenient literary instrument which allowed the grammatical elaboration of Prakrits, those languages which had a literature. This is how the northern Buddhists, in their mixed Sanskrit, deployed Prakritic spellings that resembled literary Sanskrit. This also explains how their spelling in “mixed” Sanskrit (a term that Indians prefer to the perceived depreciative phrase, “corrupt Sanskrit”), tended to come closer and closer to correct Sanskrit. And this can help shed some light on the mystery of these legendary “Buddhist Scriptures.”

If classical Sanskrit has undoubtedly been the subject of an elaboration by the Brahmins, (and on this point we can follow Sénart), it was the Buddhists who indirectly caused its diffusion. Unlike the Brahmins, they were animated by a strong missionary spirit, eager to spread their doctrines by all means. Early attempts at writing, undoubtedly gradually, introduced into circulation the processes of a fixed and learned spelling – with probably less mastery than the Brahmins. At least at first.

If, as it has sometimes been argued, that Pali was, despite Magadhi, fixed in Western India, its relatively archaic character can be explained either by the tendency for etymological spelling, sensitive to the North West; or (during the period of development of classical Sanskrit) by the divergence of the tradition among rival sects, to then become immobilized in each of them. This could explain the two identifiable and identified traditions: One in Pali, the other in Sanskrit. But this does not account for Magadhi, with many Indianists even claiming that the language of the Buddha could be Magadhi.

But it was apparently in Sanskrit that Buddhism continued to expand outside the subcontinent. To understand this, it suffices to remember that in the first century AD, it was the Kushans from the steppes who took possession of this entire area of North-West India and part of the Maurya kingdom. And they chose two languages of chancellery, Sanskrit and “Bactrian,” another Indo-Aryan language. Their religious indifference largely contributed to the expansion of Buddhism out of its original cradle (in southern Nepal). This is how Sanskrit was able to continue its expansion outside the subcontinent. From the third century AD, it undoubtedly began to play the role of language of the Buddhist koine. Thus, when Chinese pilgrims set off for India (from the north), in search of the “sacred” texts of Buddhism, which they took to be written in Sanskrit, Sanskrit itself spread throughout Eurasia.

Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, Buddhism disappeared from the Indian lands where it was born; but it persisted outside India, where it had been exported, and with it Sanskrit, despite the tough competition from Persian, linked to the rise of Islam in India. It is this persistence of the sacred language of Brahminism, held (wrongly) for the original language of the doctrine of the Buddha that has resulted in the same texts in Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian, on the basis of a “table” Sanskrit texts. The first corpus of Buddhist texts was collected by the Englishman Brian Houghton Hodgson, in Nepal, where he was stationed. Working in monasteries, he affirmed that Nepalese texts had Sanskrit originals. But often the Sanskrit originals had disappeared, and the remaining text was only known in the language of translation.

The second corpus was collected by Sándor Csoma de Kőrös, a Hungarian who mastered the Tibetan language with heroic dedication, and included in the journal of the Bengal Asian Society, with detailed analyses of the great Tibetan library.

The third corpus was especially cited by Russian orientalism which claimed to have it, as per Isaac Jacob Schmidt.

Philippe Édouard Foucaux, a pupil of Émile Burnouf, who is considered to be the founder of Buddhist studies, had only one Tibetan copy. His Sanskrit copy is very late (18th century); and the first translation was made from the Burmese.

In the 20th century, the expeditions of Dutreuil de Rhins and Fernand Grenard, of Albert Grünwedel and Albert von le Coq, of Sir Aurel Stein, of Sergey Oldenburg, that of Otani Kozui and Zuicho Tachibana and of Paul Pelliot and Louis Valliant unearthed from the sands of Central Asia and caves of Kansu a mass of documents in various languages (in particular, Sogdian). Among these texts, the Sanskrit ones correspond to the sutras translated into Chinese.

What Buddhist Canon?

What then can we say about an alleged Buddhist canon?

It is impossible that a primitive Buddhist canon existed prior to the concomitant written fixation of the orthographic reform described by Sénart, which may have spanned two or three centuries, (from the 2nd century BC to the first century BC).

The French Indianist very clearly posed the question: “Is it believable that a sect, Buddhist, Jain or other, which would have possessed, either written, or an established oral tradition, that is, a definite and consecrated canon, would have consented to modify and to subject canonical writings to a new grammatical regulation? The codification of an idiom specific to the sect and applied to its fundamental texts can only be imagined on the very date when traditions hitherto imperfect or dispersed were united. Fixed earlier in a canonical body, they would have made law; their authority would have made the reform both useless and impossible.”

Between the language of Ashoka’s edicts and the Prakrit of grammarians, the similarities are obvious; but there is no complete agreement between any of the dialects described by grammarians and those represented by the edicts. Sénart’s conclusion is clear: the Brahmi alphabet has no precedence. It is an alphabet designed for Ashoka, probably by scribes at his service.

However, for the same alphabet to adapt to different languages, a deep knowledge of Indian languages was required. It could not have come from the Brahmins, grammarians specialized in Sanskrit, and who, moreover, did not form a body of administrators in the service of the State. These two functions, scribes and administrators, were reserved for a specific caste whose status was always lower than that of the Brahmins, even if some of the latter could participate, as advisers, in the exercise of power. It is undoubtedly a conglomerate of this specific caste of scribes, undoubtedly Hellenized, especially those in the Northwest, who conceived the two alphabets intended for King Ashoka. Whatever the religion of these scribes, the concept of Dharma (Law) was familiar to them. And it could be Buddhist or Hindu or Vedic.

But if the alphabet was designed by the king (or his language technicians) and for his particular use, and if it did not have prior existence, the inscriptions could not be read by anyone. It was therefore necessary to proclaim them. Hence the existence of emissaries sent by the king. “Oyez, Oyez good people, King Ashoka makes his instructions heard for the happiness of his people, and the happiness of his people is to obey Dharma, the Law” – that is, the Law defined and identified by the king. The Mauryan state was indeed a police state, as suggested by Megasthenes, the Greek who spent some time at the court of King Chandragupta. King Ashoka’s alleged Buddhist teachings enveloped close administrative surveillance, for political rather than religious ends.

Buddhism: Sect Or Heresy Of Brahminism?

None of the founders of the modern Indian state, Nehru, Gandhi, Jinna for Pakistan, knew Sanskrit. When they were of Brahmin origin, they sometimes knew some hymns or prayers as we can still know some prayers in Latin, or can know them in Aramaic. The pandits converted to politics. If Sanskrit had been the language of this radiant Buddhism throughout Asia, it is difficult to believe that we cannot find more originals – especially when you think of the profusion of Buddhist texts in various languages found in the cave of a thousand Buddhas. If we had had a Buddhist canon, “Living Word of the Blessed One,” there is no doubt that it would have been preciously preserved by his followers.

When, at Benares, during his first sermon, the Buddha “turned the law,” what can it mean except that he instituted by this gesture (whether he existed historically or not) the new legislator: a new Manu for the Hindu world. As for Brahminism, the preaching of the Buddha claimed to replace this sacred Word, so sacred that it was reserved only for the legislators of the language which conveyed and preserved it. Little wonder that Buddhism competed with both of these religious currents. And that, no doubt, if a primitive cannon existed, it was destroyed.

Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.

The featured image shows the head of the Buddha, Gandhara, ca. 1st-2nd century AD.