Rules of grammar will not save you

Exciting because I get to include something from Sanskrit studies since I don’t have to type it myself. Here is the opening verse of Sankara’s (disputed attribution) Bhaja Govindam. The story goes that Sankara during his pilgrimage to Kashi came across a very old man repeating grammar rules to himself. In some versions the man is a scholar, in others someone simply trying to learn. Either way, Sankara observes that the type of knowledge he seeks/meditates on is not the sort that provides liberation.

Worship Govinda, worship Govinda,
Worship Govinda, oh deluded mind!
At the time of your death,
Rules of grammar will not save you.

भज गोविन्दं भज गोविन्दं
गोविन्दं भज मूढमते ।
सम्प्राप्ते सन्निहिते काले
नहि नहि रक्षति डुकृङ्करणे 

But I can think of a mild counterpoint to this position from another culture – in Circero’s De Senectute (On Old Age, 8.26) where Cato describes his own late life efforts with Greek.

But you see how old age, so far from being feeble and inactive, is even busy and is always doing and effecting something—that is to say, something of the same nature in each case as were the pursuits of earlier years. And what of those who even go on adding to their store of knowledge? Such was the case with Solon, whom we see boasting in his verses that he grows old learning something every day. And I have done the same, for in my old age I have learned Greek, which I seized upon as eagerly as if I had been desirous of satisfying a long-continued thirst, with the result that I have acquired first-hand the information which you see me using in this discussion by way of illustration.

Sed videtis, ut senectus non modo languida atque iners non sit, verum etiam sit operosa et semper agens aliquid et moliens, tale scilicet, quale cuiusque studium in superiore vita fuit. Quid, qui etiam addiscunt aliquid, ut et Solonem versibus gloriantem videmus, qui se cotidie aliquid addiscentem dicit senem fieri. Et ego feci, qui litteras Graecas senex didici, quas quidem sic avide arripui quasi diuturnam sitim explere cupiens, ut ea ipsa mihi nota essent, quibus me nunc exemplis uti videtis.

Without the Greek he wouldn’t have acquired the knowledge to make the argument – and he couldn’t have gotten the Greek without the grammar (the Solon I’ve quoted elsewhere). The point being, grammar isn’t the optimal choice but I can’t read the Upanishads without knowing my conjugations and sandhi so it is a necessary one.

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