By Swapan Dasgupta
India often gives the impression of being excessively fractious and not at peace with itself. Controversies, a few meaningful and others less so, hog the public space and encourage hyperbole and shrillness. Indeed, the nature of the controversies that gain traction are a commentary on the society we live in. And the results aren’t flattering.
Last month, witnessed a mini-controversy with a difference. Some 130 academics wrote to Infosys Co-founder Narayana Murthy and his son Rohan questioning the choice of Sheldon Pollock, a renowned Professor of Sanskrit at Columbia University, as Chief Editor of the Murty Classical Library—a well-funded project to translate 500 volumes of classical Indian texts into English. The doubts over Pollock centred on two broad themes.
First, it was suggested that Pollock had insufficient “respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilisation.” Pollock, who was honoured with a Padma award in 2010, was seen to be too partisan both in his disavowal of the “Sanskrit cosmopolis” and his public stands on contemporary politics. The appeal expressed fears that Pollock would attach needless hidden meanings to classical texts with a view to demonise India’s inheritance. This apprehension was further fuelled by the hissy-fit of a Pollock bhakt: “Sanskrit must be taken back from the clutches of Hindu supremacists, bigots, believers in Brahmin exclusivity, misogynists, Islamophobes and a variety of other wrong-headed characters on the Right…”
Secondly, in a separate intervention, Professor Makarand Paranjape of Jawaharlal Nehru University and a signatory to the appeal, argued against the logic of outsourcing such an ambitious project to foreign “neo-Orientalists.” He felt that by missing out on an opportunity to develop India’s own intellectual capacities, the Murthys had tacitly acknowledged the West’s leading role in interpreting India for Indians. The battle, he wrote, “to regain India’s civilisational poise, equilibrium, and self-confidence is far from over. In matters of culture, education, and thought, we are still largely colonised and subservient.”
Although the move to remove Pollock from the project has been a non-starter, the effect of this controversy has been positive. No doubt it has exposed the schisms in a rarefied discipline and pointed to an excess of political agendas. At the same time, it has forced India’s intellectual community to at least begin debating the decline of serious Sanskrit studies in the land of its origin. Coinciding with this controversy and associated disputes over interpreting texts, the apparent loss and misappropriation of India’s inheritance have also become issues of concern.
There is, of course, a possible danger of the debate turning xenophobic. However, before ridiculous questions are raised over the right of non-Indians to delve into India’s antiquity, it is relevant to note that the sorry state of Sanskrit studies is entirely a post-Independence phenomenon. In its haste to acquire the trappings of modernity and even the stipulated ‘scientific temper’, India turned its back on its classics, viewing it as a dead and even retrograde inheritance. In our universities, the few that opted to pursue Sanskrit (or even Persian) became objects of social and intellectual derision. The esteem with which classicists are viewed in Western universities has not been replicated in India.
Indeed, had it not been for the Western universities and a handful of traditional institutions in India, the rigorous pursuit of both Sanskrit and Hindu theology would have died altogether. The insistence on cultural empathy and the acquisition of adhikara to delve into Sanskrit-based knowledge systems should not blind us to the virtues of transnational engagements, not to speak of untapped soft power.
Sanskrit in India has been a casualty of an unresolved tussle in higher education between knowledge and skills. True, a monastic tradition of pursuing knowledge for its own sake doesn’t correspond with economic imperatives. However, as India progresses in a global ecosystem, society can afford to create enclaves of pure knowledge, insulated from the ‘relevance’ debates, that don’t suffer from condescension and neglect. If, in the process, Sanskrit philology also generates better computer programmers, it is an unintended bonus.
Pollock’s biases may be socially unsettling but they have acquired a larger intellectual legitimacy (including within India) by sheer default. Challenging cultural misappropriation implicitly demands the recreation of lost intellectual traditions at home. If Murthy’s priorities are a little different, there are others who can step in.
Sunday Times of India, April 3, 2016