Swadeshi Indology and the Destruction of Sanskrit

Fearful of impartial research, the petitioners appear to prefer a made-in-India study of Sanskrit that churns out made-to-order truths.

Sheldon Pollock Banner 3

The petitioners agitating for the removal of Professor Sheldon Pollock from his position as editor-in-chief of the Murty Classical Library of India series seek to destroy the very thing they are claiming to protect: free and independent scholarship in Indology.

The dangerously flawed approach of the petitioners is reflected in their self-presentation and their style of argument. First, they self-righteously claim to be defenders of Sanskrit, valiantly committed to protecting Sanskrit scholarship from being colonised by foreigners. Second, they argue by spurious analogy that Sanskrit is a national possession: India owns Sanskrit, just as India owns its natural resources.

Building on this analogy, the petitioners assert that just as it is a grave error in judgment to surrender control of “our” vital resources to foreigners, “outsourcing” production of Sanskrit scholarship makes the nation vulnerable to cultural subversion. They insinuate that despite his qualifications as an Indologist, Pollock is motivated by an anti-Indian and, more precisely, an anti-Hindu agenda. In their appeal to the sponsors of the Murty series, Infosys founder Narayana Murthy and his son Rohan Murty, the petitioners claim that the only way to combat such foreign subversion is to bankroll native scholars whose patriotism and religious convictions are beyond reproach:

“The project must be part of the ‘Make in India’ ethos and not outsourced wholesale to American Ivy Leagues. Just as your visionary role in Infosys showed the world that Indians can be the top producers of IT, so also we urge you to champion the development of Swadeshi Indology. This would entail developing an entire ecosystem of India-based research, translations, journals and conferences. These would be run by leading Indian academicians as well as traditional practitioners.”

The petitioners wish to persuade the public that they are engaged in a zero-sum struggle against foreigners. This is how they seek to discredit Pollock despite the fact that he is part of a community of philologists, which includes both Indians and non-Indians, that has made important contributions to the serious study of Sanskrit.

Because the petitioners cannot challenge Pollock’s scholarly credentials, they have resorted to personal attacks. They allege that Pollock evinces “deep antipathy towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practiced in our civilisation.” They declare that when Pollock endorsed the principle of free speech and the right to dissent at Jawaharlal Nehru University he exhibited “disrespect for the unity and integrity of India.” What the petitioners disapprove of are Pollock’s moral and political convictions. Their demand for Pollock’s removal is not backed by a single criticism of his professional qualifications but rest instead on the dubious allegation that he has an “anti-Indian” agenda.

It is obvious that the petitioners are being disingenuous. They have made a political disagreement into a pretext to malign Pollock’s professional standing. This cynical move makes it impossible for any objective person to take seriously their claim to be concerned about the state of Sanskrit scholarship. If anything, they want to make Sanskrit scholarship an instrument of their narrow worldview.

At the root of the problem lies the petitioners’ refusal to see that it is by means of free and independent scholarly inquiry, not cultural nationalism, that the depth and complexity of Indological texts are best communicated. It is the impartial scholar, not the patriot defensive of “his” values and civilisation, who is able to induct students into the rich and often mysterious realms of classical and vernacular languages and literatures. As Pollock suggests, translation itself can transport us to “unfamiliar” places. This is very different from the stated aims of the petitioners, who want to turn Sanskrit into an expression of cultural pride, something akin to a bauble.

For good reason, these proponents of so-called Swadeshi Indology are fearful of impartial research. They disparage the collaborative and cosmopolitan nature of scholarship as “outsourcing.” They prefer a made-in-India study of Sanskrit that churns out made-to-order truths. Such a destructive vision should not be allowed to gain the upper hand. It threatens to destroy the integrity of academic scholarship and to degrade the public sphere.

Since the petitioners are fond of analogies, we would like to offer them an analogy of our own. British scholars of Old English today do not begin by asking whether a foreigner who offers a new translation of or innovative commentary on the eighth-century poem The Dream of the Rood secretly harbors “anti-British” sentiments. They would deem it irrelevant, even absurd, to investigate whether a foreigner who devoted decades of his life to the study of Anglo Saxon did so in order to undermine the “unity and integrity” of the British nation or to promote an anti-Christian agenda. Instead, they welcome and delight in the fact that foreign scholars take such a keen interest in Old English. If some British scholars were to disagree with the foreigner’s views, they would challenge them at conferences and in peer-reviewed publications.

In short, British scholars of Old English poetry would not foolishly seek to destroy their cultural patrimony by trying to determine whether someone who has written on an Old English text is of “suitable” background or holds the “right” views about British culture and history. Such attitudes would degrade the quality of Old English scholarship, making it attractive only to ethnic chauvinists. It is precisely such chauvinism that is prominently displayed by the petitioners against Pollock.

When Rohan declared his support for Pollock, he showed a commitment to the norms and standards that underwrite Indological scholarship. By doing so, he correctly refused to give in to conspiracy theories peddled by foolish and dangerous people with no understanding of what it takes to do research in the humanities.

Sanjay Krishnan is Associate Professor of English at Boston University and Teena Purohit is Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University.

  • windwheel

    The author is misinformed about British academia. A German who interpreted ‘the Dream of the Rood’ in accordance with Nazi ideology would have been denounced out of hand. Evan a British author- like David Irving, the Holocaust denier- would have faced ostracism and legal sanctions.
    Britain has beefed up its Hate Speech laws, though India is still ahead.
    The author thinks that Pollock’s scholarship has not been challenged- it has. The fact of the matter is that Pollock says silly things like ‘all the characters in the Ramayana are heteronomous- we can’t know what they are feeling’. He claims that only America can do Indology. vide His central thesis re. Sanskrit is obviously foolish- vide
    Pollock jumped on the wrong bandwagon post Babri. The irony is that he is a closet Purva Mimamsaka.

  • disqus_Dm5vppZhYg

    A sensitive Indian would be in pain reading translations of Sanskrit by non-Indians, says head of a project that hopes to compete with the Murty Classical Library.

    Dr Sampadananda Mishra, director of the Sri Aurobindo Foundation for Indian Culture at the Sri Aurobindo Society in Puducherry, has announced that he will start the Vande Mataram Library as an open source, volunteer-driven project to translate what the editorial board deems to be important Sanskrit scriptures in India.

    Scholar Rajiv Malhotra (Author of Battle for Sanskrit) wrote about the advice he gave Dr Mishra about the library, including steering away from politics by not including “underlying divisive political agendas such as creating caste bheda or empowering dalits, women, etc

    Dr Sampadananda Mishra’s response when asked:

    Have you read the Murty Classical Library of India publications?

    I have. Recently when I was coming from Delhi airport, I had some time, so I went through the nine that have come. The thing is that the work is very qualitative, if you look at the printing quality, the presentation and everything. Some of the things which I read are not that bad. It’s good, it gives a good read. But at the same time there are portions where the cultural element helps greatly in translating the spirit of the poem. This is what is missing. That is the most important thing. And a person who hasn’t lived the cultural values, he cannot, however he tries, get into the spirit of the poem.

    There are certain things [in a poem] which can be called non-translatable elements. They cannot be translated. They can be interpreted. How does one bring into the translation those elements? This is where the challenge lies.

    Otherwise you read [the Murty Classical Library] version and you like it, say, “Oh, it’s so beautifully translated.” But at those portions, a sensitive Indian or a sensitive person who is sensitive about the language and the culture and the whole spirit of the poetry is in pain. This can never be taken care of by those people – it’s not just bilingual proficiency that matters, but how much cultural values have gone into the person, how much he has lived that truth.

    That is what is missing, whether they have done Ramcharitmanas or Surdas. No doubt the person who has done Surdas has dedicated his entire life to Surdas but where is that spirit? It is missing to me. Even a common Indian person will sense something behind the poetry, which is not brought out in the translation.

    [The Murty Classical Library of India translations] are not malicious, then?

    We don’t know. I have only glanced through it. Someone will have to go through it word by word. Because most of the time, what these Western and European scholars do is that they twist [words] at a very crucial place. So one has to read carefully and bring [the meaning] out. That is again one enormous task and one has to read it carefully, go word by word, compare it and see where the twist has taken place.

    For them, it will be like Chhatrapati is “Lord of Umbrella”. Or Ramakrishna Paramhansa will be the “Great Swan”. A common reader will be convinced that he is great, but the word “supreme” will not seed. “Great Swan” is fine. But where is the whole spirit behind the word Paramhansa? It is not the word but the spirit that has to be translated.

  • mars bella

    The British scholars would be OK if the bible was described as fictional, oppressive and political. In fact it has been. See that is the difference between being an unbiased scholar and just a sectarian trying to peddle religion.

  • Navita

    The writers of this article are really disingenuous.

    They say the petitioners seek to destroy the very thing they are claiming to protect : free and independent scholarship in Indology. This cannot be further from the truth.

    Sheldon Pollock’s published works deconstruct the ancient Sanskrit texts stripping them to a point utterly unrecognisable to hundreds of millions of practicing Hindus worldwide. It would be instructive to remind your readers just exactly what Sheldon Pollock’s views are. Some priceless takes that he has expressed are : the shastras are a tool for political and social oppression, Ram worship is a ‘cult’ and the Ramayana is a political text used to inspire aggression against India’s Muslim invaders, the Mahabharata is the most dangerous political story in the world, Sanskrit is a ‘dead’ language, the Nazi holocaust was inspired by reading the shastras.

    Whilst Pollock is entitled to his fanciful and politically motivated methods of dissecting the shastric texts, he is not entitled to pollute the minds of generations to come by giving such distorted views perceived legitimacy through the Murthy Classical Library project. No one can guarantee that such negative views will not wrongly taint and malign the output of the translations under his purview. This would be entirely contrary to Rohan Murty’s espoused aims of sharing ancient India’s literary treasures and bringing pride to the people of India at the luminous achievements of our poets and thinkers.

    The writers state that the petitioners cannot challenge Pollock’s scholarly credentials and so resort to personal attacks. Well firstly, of course no one is going to challenge things that are a historical fact on paper. But one can certainly challenge Pollock’s ideological positions and this can hardly be called a personal attack. Given Pollock’s above views, it cannot be denied that he indeed does evince ‘deep antipathy towards many of the ideals and virtues cherished and practiced in our civilisation’.

    And the last sentence of the article calling the 132 eminent scholars ‘foolish and dangerous people with no understanding of what it takes to do research in the humanities’ is so utterly full of false hubris that it was embarrassing just to read it. Now that is what one would call a ‘personal attack’.

  • Tanmay

    Debate is not about if someone has hired Indians or non-Indians. It is about if someone is imposing his own views on a culture vs people who are claiming it to be unfair representation of their culture .Opposition is to taking verses/statements out of context to fit to one’s own narrative.

    In his book ‘Breaking India’, Rajiv Malhotra has documented how racist Chamberlain, Gobineau, Rudolph Grau, Adolphe Pictet, Friedrich Max Muller selectively took information from Indology to build histories of civilizations and races in a manner that fit European supremacy which further led to holocaust.

    If a Scholar is impartial then why he has to dismiss the whole ‘transcendental realm’ before critiquing it ?

    If it is seriously manufactured that ‘Sanskrit is political’, ‘Ramayana is filled with oppression’ than can we call it as contribution!!

    It is irony that petitioners who’s demand is not to MISREPRESENT their tradition are getting attacked as having narrow world-view, ethnic chauvinists, proponents of made-to-order truth, people with destructive vision, people contributing to DESTRUCTION OF SANSKRIT and Shri Sheldon Pollock who’s past work is ‘Death of Sanskrit’ ‘Deep Orientalism’ ‘Ramayana and political imagination in India’ and has narrow view that ‘Ramayana is oppressive’, ’kavya is political’ and ‘Shashtras are frozen in time’ is hailed as impartial researcher.

  • girjesh soni

    Well explained. Excellent insight, I am better informed after reading your comments. Thanks.

  • Afghan Balochi Friend

    Though the evidences of true history & influences of Hinduism are so blatantly wiped out from Middle East & Eastern Europe, Hinduism like worshiping & culture was well established far beyond Hindukush in North & farther up to Istambul in West & in Nile Valley regions. Existence in far East is remnant evident despite Communist on slot in ACEANs (far vivid in country like Cambodia) & despite destruction by Colonists in Phillipines & Surrounding hundreds of Islands pockets like Bali (Talking of original Hindu identity, not preserved Buddhist branches of it).
    New generation of Indians are smart enough, can’t be fooled now. It’s high time start expose those half cooked Westernized Fast Food Versions of Hinduism (South Asian Studies / Indology in their language).
    In their own comfort zone Rohan & Narayn Murty, Teena Purohit & Sanjay Kreeshan etc. are simply carrying out their jobs of protecting the interests of their Masters to protect their own livelyhood (Academic Post & false Prestige) & for Murtys- their sources of worldwide contractual incomes. The day they speak truth, could be replaced by another over zealous Chamcha (is the right terminology) of the status Quo establishments.
    The process in Main Stream Media in Mainland India where paid press & television Agents Lobbyists are getting exposed & are gradually getting sidelined in Politics by Common Men & Women (Power of Social Network).
    In similar way in the field of Theology & Religious Studies too, those who can see the obvious distortions & fallacies in representation of True Hindu History and interpretation of it.
    By collective conscience all those Indigenous Real Scholars & new generation of Academia {(irrelevant of their race, creed, caste or color)- [eg Dr. David Frawley is one of the indigenous by virtue of his own],}
    These true Scholars & Academia without Consent, Influence or Stamp of Approval of Western Power Houses, Agencies or Ideologies will raise their points.
    And certainly repeatedly, constantly & more progressively, more powerfully raise their points. The whole new generation is more versed, more knowledge d and focused, not to take any more denigration or looked down unfairly.
    By calling them Conspiracy Theorist, Foolish & Dangerous, the caller themselves are exposing themselves as that, in their own arrogance, shallowness & inferiority with lack of true knowledge. How can they teach others or guide them on right path?