Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Battle for Sanskrit, a review

(Hinduism Today, Hawaii, May-July 2016) 

Rajiv Malhotra, now headquartered in Princeton NJ, was originally a computer scientist working as a senior executive in the telecom industries. In spite of a very successful business career he took early retirement at 44 and started the Infinity Foundation to organize studies concerning the power equations underlying the way Western scholars construe India. Though by now very well-informed and very productive in developing and documenting relevant concepts, he has remained an outsider to academe. That is why he is lambasted as not having the adhikāra (prerogative) to criticize developments in the academic world – both by academics and by his Hindu nationalist detractors, who have an uppity status-consciousness in common. They still live in the feudal age, when status trumped the humble consideration whether you spoke the truth or not.

In the modern age, things work differently. Albert Einstein was a mere clerk with no adhikāra when he launched the revolutionary Relativity Theory. Closer to home, Shrikant Talageri was belittled as a mere bank clerk when he showed the academics that the very readings and Vedic analyses by which they swore, when logically thought through, were evidence for an Indian Homeland of Indo-European. Status tells you very little about whether you are right or wrong. Malhotra may not have an academic status, but with the thesis of the present book, he is essentially right – and frontally challenging the academic India-watchers.

The battlefield

The Battle for Sanskrit. Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred? Oppressive or Liberating? Dead or Alive? (HarperCollins, Delhi 2016, 468 pp.) is not a piece of Sanskrit scholarship. It is not about grammar or literature, but about the politics of Sanskrit scholarship. It reveals and studies knowledge production and intellectual control mechanisms in the globalized postmodern world. In particular, it documents the American attempt to wrest control over the Sanskrit tradition from the indigenous Pandits, disempowering the backbone of Hindu tradition.

Most Hindus are not aware that a war is raging for the destruction of their civilization. They don’t come out of their comfort zone, out of their career and family concerns, and hence have never developed a sense of the enormous hostility that is targeting them in the ugly wide world. Foreign experts in Arabic or Chinese tend to sympathize with the civilization or polity they study, and to defend it against prejudices and hostile stereotypes; but in “South Asian” Studies (the terms “Indian” and “Hindu” are taboo in those circles), the opposite is the case. Thus, like every immigrant group, US-based Hindus wish to correct the school books to make them less hostile and more accurate regarding Hindu history, and then the South Asia scholars move in not to support but to thwart them.

Yet, in the face of this aggression by “experts”, Hindus think that Sanatana Dharma has survived several onslaughts and has nothing to fear from the present one. Here then is a meritorious role that Malhotra has increasingly played since he started his series of books: getting Hindus up from their cosy unconcern and into reality. In particular, he has taught them to scan the forces in the field and take an objective look at the hostile agents approaching Hindu society with flattering smiles and on idealistic-sounding pretexts.

For the past, this job was done by the likes of the late historian Sita Ram Goel. But very few people are equipped to map out the situation in the present, particularly the interaction between the academic world in the US and the intellectual sphere in India. Americans are now definitely giving the lead, though their agenda is not simply the promotion of the American self-interest. Rather, it is mutually nurtured with the agenda of the Indian secularists, for whom the American universities have become a staging-ground for their anti-Hindu assault.

Under British rule, the foreigners’ view of India had only limited consequences (though in the end, they managed at least to bequeath to India a Nehruvian elite). Today, the “deconstruction” of Hinduism by “experts” influences policies and socio-cultural evolutions inside India and gets broadcast into every Indian village. Indeed, even Hindu leaders (Malhotra calls them “moron Swamis”) have come to intone destructive messages, such as: “All religions say the same thing” (so don’t worry if your daughter converts), or: “Yoga is not Hindu.” The Sringeri Math was on the point of entrusting its traditions to the care of American Sanskritists, but Malhotra warned them, hopefully in time.      

So, on one side of the battlefield is a sleep-walking Hindu society that doesn’t realize what is happening, clueless to the wiles of the enemy. On the other is an ever-growing army of foreign scholars and India-watchers, allied with every divisive force inside India.


The occasion for this book is wealthy Infosys industrialist Narayan Murthy’s gift of millions of dollars to Sheldon Pollock of Columbia University for overseeing the translation of 500 classics by US-based Sanskritists. As Makarand Paranjpe has observed in the ensuing debate: this reverses the secret of Infosys’s business success, for building computers turned out to be much cheaper in India than in the US, so wouldn’t sponsoring Pandits to do this job be far more cost-effective?

Apart from financial nonsense, the spending of Hindu funds on non-Hindu interventions is unworthy and dangerous. Pollock’s approach to Sanskrit studies is what he calls “political philology”. He has consistently undervalued the spiritual dimension that Hindus associate with Sanskrit, and portrayed it as a language of oppression. This is not out of malice, he deserves the benefit of the doubt regarding his motives (he has for instance deplored the decline of classical studies in India, leaving a void which he now steps in to fill). All the same, he reproduces the widespread negative valuation of Hinduism which Western India-watchers are spoonfed. Do we want that aversion for Hinduism to have control over the Sanskrit heritage? 

Malhotra observes that it “would hand over the authority of Sanskrit studies to westernized scholars using [Pollock’s] political philology and not Sanskrit’s own literary theories or Indian socio-political resources. Persons who are outsiders to the Indian traditions would call the shots, and even become the proxies to represent the downtrodden.” (p.178)

Ever-more born Hindus are patronized by the likes of Pollock or Wendy Doniger to become sepoys, native mercenaries serving in the attack on Hinduism. This comprises both people from secularist backgrounds who get selected to acquire the scholarly equipment for making their hatred more effective and sophisticated; and well-meaning American-born Hindus who honestly want to study their ancestral traditions but get shunted towards anti-Hindu views: “The effect of Pollock’s project on some Hindus is alienation from their roots and the development of an inferiority complex (…) This alienation spreads quickly. Bright young Indians (…) rush to enter the university factories of this nexus and end up spreading the indoctrination to the public.” (p.327)

Many Hindus, including the Murthy family, are under the impression that scholarship including translation is an ideologically neutral job. For them, extra payment for Pollock rather than the Pandits only means buying American prestige rather than Indian shabbiness. In reality, translation comes with a interpretative framework that insinuates a number of anti-Hindu assumptions. Pollock’s earlier work, even more than his record of signing anti-Hindu petitions, gives a clue.


Thus, a nice case of Pollock’s warped politicized interpretation, which he terms “political philology”, concerns Valmiki’s Ramayana. Anything good in it is of course the product of “borrowing from Buddhism” (in accord with the reigning assumption: “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good”), so that he juggles the chronology to make the Buddha predate Valmiki: “Pollock’s overarching motive is to make a chronology according to which all Hindu innovations came only after the Buddha, the idea being that prior to Buddhism the Hindus were incapable of innovation as a result of their oral tradition (…) Rationality entered India only after the Buddha came, according to him, and only then did it become possible to compose complex rational texts.” (p.390)

But at heart, Pollock argues the epic to be evil: it is a trick by Brahmins and monarchs to justify royal power, priestly authority and caste apartheid. Moreover, in justifying the war against Ravana, the Ramayana essentially declares war on all outsiders, particularly the Muslims, though these invaders only were to arrive a thousand years later. So Pollock, like Hernán Cortés subduing the Aztecs with the help of the Mexican subalterns, champions the Muslims along with the low-castes and Dravidians against Rama’s wicked aggression, thus to dislodge whatever remains of the oppressive Sanskrit tradition’s power and prestige. 

In this now-dominant construct, Ravana is presented as a resister against Aryan aggression who is shown his place by the Aryan hegemon Rama. Even the boon of invulnerability which Ravana receives, cannot save him from Aryan revenge against his ethnic pride. In reality, however, the Rama narrative does not extol ethnic oppression at all, as Malhotra observes: “Hindus are taught that (1) bad conduct after getting the boon is what makes Ravana an enemy, and nothing else, and (2) being a brahmin (…) does not exempt him from being considered wicked. Pollock ignores this significance, perhaps because it would undermine his depiction that brahmins were always considered good.” (p.189)   


Malhotra discovers where so many India-watchers have gotten their rabid hatred for Hinduism from: “Pollock takes the blame game against Sanskrit to new heights when he argues that German Indologists (…) borrowed ideas of racial purity and ethnic violence from their study of Sanskrit” which then “prompted the Nazi holocaust”. (p.169) Yet Pollock fails to pinpoint these ideas of “racial” purity in the Sanskrit tradition.

Fact is that Adolf Hitler repeatedly expressed his contempt for Hindus. He supported British colonialism and told Subhas Chandra Bose to his face that India was better off under the rule of superior white men – just like Murthy thinks Sanskrit literature is safer in the hands of white Americans rather then of brown natives. Hitler had become a religious skeptic, like the Indian secularists, yet he thought highly of the Catholic priesthood because, being a celibate class, it was perforce recruited from the common people – unlike the elitist hereditary priesthood of the Brahmins. At Pollock’s rate of Nazi associations, Pollock himself shares his anti-Brahminism (India’s equivalent of anti-Semitism) with Hitler.

Pollock actually tries to make us believe that there is something Nazi about asserting an Out-of-India Theory for the Indo-European languages. In fact, the Nazis had a militant belief in Pollock’s cherished Aryan Invasion Theory. It was a cornerstone of their worldview: dynamic Aryans moving in to rule the indolent natives; white Aryans banning intermarriage to preserve their racial purity, thus creating caste; yet submitting to at least some admixture and thereby becoming inferior to their purer white cousins, thus needing their rule. Hitler, Pollock: same struggle!

At any rate, in the West, “Nazi!” counts as the single worst allegation. Would you entrust the care of your heritage to someone who slanders Sanskrit like that?



With this book, Rajiv Malhotra has taken a powerful stand for the self-respect of Dharmic tradition, warding off a clear and present danger. Every Hindu who can contribute is called upon to join him in the struggle.


American said...

KE, Many of the native translators are deeply flawed too. Scholarship does not need "adhikara", as Albert Einstein example you give amply proves. Yet, let us not forget, almost all clerks are not an Albert Einstein.

I have read the manuscripts and native translations of many of the Upanishads and the Puranas, frankly most of the native translations are terrible and absurd. The web translations of Bhagavad Gita are mostly silly, though a profound document it is. We need translations, a list of screened and tested translators, and most importantly, we need rules, methodology and guidelines for translations that includes literal and contextual translations. A good example is Sargeant's Bhagavad Gita translation edited by Chapelle.

Buddhism was an oral tradition too for many centuries. No Buddhist text was written down for 400 years after the Buddha's death (the first was written in Sri Lanka), and many of the famous Suttas were written for the first time 600 to 800 years after his death. Imagine we trying to write entire doctrines from 12th to 16th century, for the first time today.

Anonymous said...

If someone is sincerely interested in understanding a text, a translation will never suffice. One must have a mastery of the language and understanding of the culture and civilization that created it in order to truly comprehend the text. This is true for both poetry and prose.

Gururaj B N said...

One of the problems with Sanskrit in India is that it is no longer a priority subject, not even for Brahmins, who are the traditional custodians of the language, much less for other Hindus. Whosoever pursues Sanskrit as a career are either steeped in tradition with utter disregard for these political overtones, or are have already sold their souls for thirty pieces of silver. Samskrita Bharati of RSS propagating spoken Sanskrit through its periodic camps does not focus on sanskritic tradition of going back to scriputures, secular and classical in Sanskrit.

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