by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

My field is Indology, the reconstruction and analysis of ancient and medieval India through the reconstruction and analysis of her texts. The first thing most people don’t understand is what the discipline even is. Many think I mean etymology, the study of bugs, and some think me to perform some kind of surgery (on humans, presumably, though for all I know on bugs, too!). For awhile, I tried the gloss “Indian philology”, but people heard “phlebotomy” or “philosophy” (perhaps both also branches of medicine, whether of body or soul, but still quite wide of the mark). Only with “Sanskritist”, have I had some success, particularly with yoga’s increasingly high profile in the west. But this isn’t exactly right either since I read Pali and Avestan, too, and it tends to incite starry-eyed to presume me “spiritually advanced” (apparently, India is only a land of mystics who wrote only words of wisdom), while the more mainstream think of a language written down at the beach (“Sandscript”). If I slip up and say “ancient Indian languages”, people think I mean Navaho and are surprised to hear they had texts (they didn’t, as far as I know), and if I just say “I study India” they presume I mean the modern world.

But apart from terminology, most people have no idea why one would even do such a thing. The reconstruction and analysis of ancient India? To what possible end? What possible use could that be to us in the modern world? My answer can only be this:

that ancient India is an exceptionally interesting subject, not an exceptionally “important” one. But what is important is that, through the disciplines of the Humanities, people  make the effort to look at other times and other places in order better to reflect upon themselves. I won’t be passé and harp that, despite the richness of our differences, we are all “basically the same”not only because it’s kitschy, but because we are not. Whatever “core” of human nature exists (and I enjoy The Dish’s on-going exploration of this topic), I believe our humanity lies in the possibility of our differences, and it is this that makes us interesting, both as individuals and as a species. My favorite writer, Milan Kundera, explores in his essays the novel’s unique ability to comprehend, through a specific character’s development, one of the infinite possibilities for being human. But I don’t believe this to be the exclusive provenance of the novel. This is why the Humanities are called humanities, and why they encompass all form of texts: to explore the infinite possibilities of being human. And that, too, is why they have value, no matter from which continent or era they draw their inspiration.

The purpose of my field, then, is to understand something about the ways of being human in the world. And if I could find a single term to convey all that I’d be home free!

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.