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Rosane Rocher’s Remarks on Professor Richard Salomon’s Retirement

March 2, 2018

On Friday February 23rd the UW Department of Asian Languages and Literature and the South Asia Center hosted an event marking professor Richard Salomon’s retirement. Professor Salomon received a PhD in Sanskrit from the University of Pennsylvania in 1975, and came to the University of Washington in 1981. He taught and published on ancient South Asian languages, epigraphy, and Buddhism. Professor Salomon is also the director of the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project, which analyses Buddhist texts on birch-bark scrolls in the Gandhari language; they are the oldest Buddhist texts in existence. On this occasion Rosane Rocher, one of professor Salomon’s teachers at Penn made the following warm remarks.


On Rich Salomon’s retirement


Thank you, Collett, thank you, Paul, and thank you all for inviting me to share in the celebration of Rich Salomon’s achievements, to date and future. This moment is a milestone in his glorious career. Fortunately, it does not mark the end of a journey. He still has great work to do.

For starters, I would like to seize on the unique advantage I believe I have in your midst. I have had Rich as a student. Simply, Rich is the only student I have never known to make a mistake. This was quite a feat in a language course; language teachers will agree. That was in 1970–1971. I went through the rest of my teaching years wishing for a second edition of such a marvel. It didn’t happen.

In his quiet, understated way, Rich was a leader of a memorable group of students. His fellow students looked up to him. And they liked him too. He never sought the limelight. He just concentrated on the task at hand. Yet, he was always the go-to person when the going got tough. It is that same spirit I still find in his Kharosthi Klub, in which I had a chance to sit for a second time today. Most might have called this group a seminar, with good justification. But no, it is a club, even though spelled with a K. It is a get-together of fellows bound by a common interest. Just collaborative learning, without consideration of age, rank, or standing. The joy lies in the thing under study.

There was also something endearingly unworldly about student Rich. There was, for example, that November day, when Ludo, my late husband, arrived, early as usual, to teach his Vedic Seminar (Mondays, 9–11) and found Rich squatting in front of his door in an empty hallway. Rich had been living for upward of 30 hours one hour ahead of his fellow Philadelphians, unaware that Eastern Standard Time had kicked in, and that the clocks had to be reset.

It also turned out, to everyone’s surprise, that Rich had unexpected talents beyond academics. He was a skilled cabinetmaker. He had never mentioned that hobby. It came to light when Jesse was born. For his son’s arrival, Rich had crafted the most beautiful, polished cradle, with immense care and art, and unbounded love for his newborn.

Rich’s oeuvre, published and in the press, is remarkable for its sheer volume: 7 books, more than 150 articles in journals and collective volumes, not to mention two edited volumes and a host of reviews. Staggering as these numbers are, they are not its most amazing feature. What makes Rich’s oeuvre so special, so valuable, and so lasting is that, from the largest volume to the shortest review, there is never a trace of hastiness. The research is thorough; the documentation is solid; the argument is thoughtful and incisive; hypotheses and suggestions are clearly identified as such, and are well-founded; and the writing is unambiguous. From start to finish, clarity reigns. All this stems from an abiding respect for, and devotion to, the object of study. There are no shortcuts or ever a hint of self-promotion.

Epigraphy is not for the faint of heart. It might be one of the hardest branches of Indology. Yet, this was the specialty that Rich embraced, while maintaining in a separate stream his love of high Sanskrit poetry. His intrepidity in tackling a variety of epigraphical and numismatic material made of him a leading authority on Indian scripts. No wonder that the British Library called on him when they were flummoxed by newly acquired birch bark scrolls of manuscripts from Gandhāra. The world knows that the team he anchored has opened a new era in the study of early Buddhism.

Through the maze of documents and sources of various origins with which Rich has contended throughout his career, the guiding trend is a strong sense of social history. An attention to the development of lived lives, to the complexity of an ancient world in which people met, competed, traded, thought, wrote, communicated, and influenced one another. A rich place where the edges are not less important, but often more active and meaningful than the established centers that tend to dominate the canons of scholarship.

Even for those of us who are not invested in Buddhist studies–and I am not–Rich’s work, and that of those he has inspired, have levered the Northwest so called Frontier into the core of classical Indology’s compass, which the Indo-Gangetic plains stubbornly, but unwarrantedly, occupied. The fact that Pāṇini, the ancient sage who magisterially described and codified classical Sanskrit, hailed from a location in current Afghanistan, failed to register. The Indo-Iranian continuum tended to be relegated to the prehistory of proto-Indo-European. Classical times were primarily portrayed as periods of individualization. The excitement over the revelation of scrolls and artifacts from Gandhāra has brought about an important corrective.

This is not only a matter of geography. The same undue truncation has also impoverished the wonderful world of lived languages. Rich is also a master of the mixture of languages, Sanskrit, Pāli, Prākrits, Gāndhārī, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, Epigraphical Hybrid Sanskrit, vernacular Sanskrits of different stripes, not in isolation, but in communion with one another. He has cogently argued against the sanitization of Sanskrit judged faulty in manuscripts and inscriptions, and recklessly “corrected” by editors. Derogations to norms ought not to be automatically discounted as scribal or engraver’s mistakes, or authorial lapses. Again, the respect that Rich gives to texts entails a thorough consideration of patterns of variation and their frequency within a text and in related texts and related languages. The area in which Sanskrit has been current has been multilingual for as long as history stretches. It should be thrilling, not regrettable, to find cross-fertilization documented in texts.

I’d like, if I may, to indulge in two of my favorite minor gems in Rich’s works. One, titled “An ancient Indian diplomatic dispute” (1987) delightfully solves the problem of why one king took grave offense at a draft treaty. Grammar is the fundamental science in India, just as mathematics is in the West. And there are grammatical rules for Sanskrit which stipulate that, in an enumeration of A and B, the more important comes first; if they are equal, word length determines the order. The more powerful king refused to come in at number 2 in the draft treaty. Simple! but it had defeated all prior interpreters. Short as this article is, it shows one of the most important traits of Rich’s scholarship: an uncanny ability to bring all branches of knowledge to bear together on manifestations of Indian culture.

Another piece that I particularly treasure is Rich’s presidential address to the American Oriental Society, in 2015. This is one of the toughest assignments one can get. It has to be of sufficient importance to be later upgradable to a scholarly paper, with footnotes and other academic trappings, for publication in the Society’s journal. And yet, one has to keep it simple and lively, since it has to be delivered after the Sunday evening libations and banquet, to an audience whose interests are scattered over all parts of Asia. Rich’s address “How tall should a Buddha be?” nailed it. It was aptly illustrated and delivered at a perfect tempo, with a few pinches of self-deprecating humor, without harm to its scholarly significance.

To conclude, I beg to add one item to your list of publications, Rich. Carol’s City of Mirrors is also a part of your accomplishments. You supported her scholarship throughout her life; you endured the long separations that her fieldwork required; and you refused to accept that her work might remain unpublished. You engineered the publication of her work by drafting competent editors in her little-trodden, but fascinating field. It is a book that does you both credit, both of you former students of whom I am incredibly proud.

So, thank you, Rich, for all your gifts to Indology to date. And thank you for the students you have nurtured and given to our field. When all is said and done, when our books and articles get to be known, if we are so lucky, as “classic” or “pioneering,” it is those students and those students’ students, and on, who will constitute a continuing gift to our field. So, thank you, Rich, and best wishes for the coming years. Retirement is wonderfully liberating. Enjoy more time with Robin, Jesse, Sarah, and Adin, the apple of your eye. And be more productive than ever. The best is yet to come.

Rosane Rocher

University of Pennsylvania

Rosane Rocher, Richard Salomon

Rosane Rocher speaking about Richard Salomon