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Monday, April 4, 2016

If we won't save Sanskrit, why stop foreigners?

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


Ankush said...

Ill informed piece. Better study a little more on colonialism and read some detailed critiques of works produced by Pollocks and Donigers before writing on this topic

Amit Saxena said...

Swapan Dasgupta misses the point that developing Swadeshi Indology does not mean it has to be an isolated system.
Why stop others? Because they are not adding value but attacking and misrepresenting Sanskrit (not saving it). Here,Swapan Dasgupta should do more research.
Efforts are underway, hope results would be palpable soon. I respect Swapan Dasgupta's views and I hope he will change them by then.

SatyaK said...

The Murthys', particularly the senior, obsequiousness to the US is well documented. Remember the incident when he advised against singing the national anthem at an Infosys event in Mysore lest the few American interns in the audience feel alienated! So this is not at all surprising. While I'm not informed on Pollock and his attitude to India, the cry of protest from the academics many not be misplaced. Don't we want the likes of Friedrich Max Muller undertake such a project, who besides outstanding scholarship also bring a sentiment of admiration for the subject to their works? Extending soft power through translations doesn't preclude the need for cautiously choosing the agents for such cultural evangelism.

Nagarajan L V said...

Excellent Article.
I was in touch with Rohan Murthy. I wrote to him
"But unfortunately the Sanskrit I learnt in school talked only about Raghuvamsam and Kumarasambhavam. No doubt these are great classical works, but I wonder why they did not teach me about Surya Siddhanta, Arya Bhatta, Nilakanta Somayaji. I came to know about these works only after my age of 60.
I feel all of my generation have been blacked out of these knowledge and literature. Further I wrote: Following are some of the impediments for studies of such Indian classics.

1. The so-called leftists, liberals, secularists or global citizens find any thing in Sanskrit to be Aryan, Brahminical, manuvadic, fundamental, religious. In political sense they identify Sanskrit with BJP/RSS, coolly forgetting or ignoring Sanskrit's much stronger links with Buddhism and Jainism.
2. The so-called rightists, fundamentalists, Hindu Nationals find Sanskrit to be Gods only language and that it already has every thing the world has ever discovered and developed in the recent past. It is not enough to keep saying this. Studying such literature is not given importance.
3. Lack of facilities for such serious studies: Good teachers, good library, Legible original works annotated with comments, Context based translations, Technical Dictionaries. I have seen French-English Technical Dictionary, German-English Medical dictionary."

Rohan was kind enough to respond as below: "I do agree with your view that there has been harm on both the left and the right done to our classics and education system. Consequently we as a society have lost out. Too many shrill voices."

I feel all of my generation have been blacked out of these knowledge and literature.

I also refer you to an article by Michel Danino at the following link:
6 Apr 2016

Dr. Vinayak Pandey said...

"No Swapan, This is NOT About Passport of Scholars"

After reading Swapan Dasgupta's eloquently written quick commentary about the on-going debate on Sanskrit interpretation the first thing struck me was its misleading title. The disconnect between the impression created by the headline and the central argument is astonishing. Eyeball catching headline must have been editor's handy job.
It is apparent that Swapan has not studied Pollock in depth thereby is ignorant about his approach towards Sanskrit. But the most heartening was his independent assessment about timing of Sanskrit's decline. Swapan, a first-rate commentator and (unlike Pollock) a first-hand India expert, convincingly asserts that "the sorry state of Sanskrit studies is entirely a post-Independence phenomenon" and unknowingly rubbishes Pollock's view that Sanskrit is a dead language since 12th century!
But Swapan gets confused when perceives this debate being about "right of non-Indians to delve into India’s antiquity". No Swapan you grossly mistook it. This debate is neither about which Passport a Sanskrit scholar should carry nor anyone negating the "virtues of transnational engagements" as you misread it.
Thanks to Rajiv Malhotra and others, India now simply demand Sanskrit not to be viewed with pre-conceived notions rather with open-mind and comprehensively. Facets such as Jyotish, Aurveda, Kavya, Mathematics, KarmKand, sacred texts, Mantra sound impacts etc are inseparable to Sanskrit. In fact Sanskrit possesses enormous cultural repository of one of the oldest yet thriving civilization, therefore cannot be allowed to be distorted/manipulated by those neither have ANY stakes in it nor acknowledge it in its totality.
Let's look a parallel of restoring 3000 years old grand temple. Restoration/ interpretation of such heritage essentially has to encompass all aspects including architecture, ritual, sacred, social, music, literary, cosmic etc. Anyone perceiving temple-restoration as just another physical structure restoration, hence view it as simply an architectural challenge, cannot be entrusted to lead its revival. Heritage temples are NOT merely archaeological monuments but far beyond !
Same principle applies to Sanskrit interpretation as well. Sans its inherent knowledge-cultural-sacred aspects it would not be Sanskrit. Pollock & alike incorrectly treat it as a dead-language and as Rajiv says their intention is to interpret Sanskrit exactly how palaeontologists study dinosaur fossils. Obviously reviving the extinct giants not palaeontologists' job !
You are right Sanskrit has suffered a lot. Nevertheless, far from being dead, it still run like blood in cultural embodiment of this nation-civilization. Therefore Adhikara/legitimacy for Sanskrit interpretation has to be decided for comprehensiveness of the approach, not for scholar's Passport !
In fact many Indian scholars follow Pollock's line, as a few westerns view Sanskrit in its totality.
Thank you for highlighting Murthy's priorities "being a little different" and also for cautioning everyone about "Pollock’s biases acquiring legitimacy by default" and the call to "recreate lost intellectual traditions at home".
The process has just begun. A layman responding to your articulation on this hitherto neglected subject is proof enough!

simple simon said...

Supplementing Ankush's post, a good start would be Rajiv Malhotra's book "The Battle for Sanskrit".

virendra singh mehta said...

The entire saga reminds me of my elder & younger kid. The elder one doesn't care until the junior champ play with the toy. I wonder such a day would come if the rituals will be followed, and we will cry foul.

Unknown said...

Swapan, please be better informed, before you write these kind of articles. It would br better had you listened to the oppposing party's genuine concerns. Really a short-sighted article.