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Why the battle for Sanskrit needs to be joined

January 20, 2016 22:52 IST

'It is a great misfortune that the Nehruvian Stalinists of India have colluded with the grand project of demeaning and destroying Sanskrit.'

'Today, the number of Sanskritists in India is low, and falling,' says Rajeev Srinivasan.

The outsider point of view sees Sanskrit as a 'dead language', of the same order as Latin or old Greek, which are museum pieces, as their cultures have been digested into the prevailing Western culture, says Rajeev Srinivasan. Photograph published only for representational purpose, kind courtesy Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao/Facebook.

'The destruction of culture has become an instrument of terror, in a global strategy to undermine societies, propagate intolerance and erase memories.'
--Irina Bokova, director-general, UNESCO

Irina Bokova wrote this in reference to the visible destruction of heritage sites in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya ('Terrorists are destroying our cultural heritage. It's time to fight back,' World Economic Forum Global Agenda, January 18, 2016), where she also talked about the #unite4heritage campaign, launched last year. She had three suggestions: Prevent trafficking in objects, reinforce preventive actions, and strengthen international cooperation.

The wholesale rape and pillage of Mesopotamian sites, and earlier of Bamiyan, are clearly catastrophes of the first order. The irony, though, is that a subtle but equally malign destruction of Indic heritage has been going on virtually unnoticed for a few centuries, although it has accelerated in scale, ruthlessness and effectiveness in the recent past.

Rajiv Malhotra, well known for articulating the civilisational attack on India by malevolent Western forces, concentrates on the topic of language in his latest book, The Battle for Sanskrit, for, he suggests, Sanskrit is the prize for the deracination project.

Rajiv Malhotra was a lone voice in the wilderness for some time, but I am delighted that he has gained a dedicated following. I am glad to have played a small part in bringing him to the attention of the Indian reader with my piece on Rediff.com: Fear of Engineering in 2002. Since then, in a series of penetrating books, he has turned around and analysed Western scholars as anthropological specimens, exactly the way they analyse us.

Needless to say, that has not endeared him to them. In 2002, the concerns expressed, about obscure American academics, may have seemed abstruse, but in the fullness of time they have become life-and-death issues for Indian civilisation. It is not a coincidence that we are seeing withering attacks on Hindu culture via, say, Jallikattu and Sabarimala.

Malhotra has devoted himself for the last 20 years to analysing Western academia in its continuous attempts to do two things: First, using an 'etic' or outsider perspective, and second, 'digesting' the tradition. The etic point of view sees Sanskrit as a 'dead language,' of the same order as Latin or old Greek, which are museum pieces, as their cultures have been digested into the prevailing Western culture, even though there is much incongruence. This, Malhotra notes, is not true of Mandarin, Persian or Arabic (and I would add Hebrew too), which are treated as living languages worthy of respect and accommodation.

In the etic perspective, the spiritual aspect of the ancient language and culture has been completely erased -- and so the Greek and Roman religious traditions have been turned into pure 'mythology' (while, asymmetrically, Western mythology is 'scripture'). The more secular aspects have been mined and digested and expropriated by the West. Thus, 'pagan' Greek and Roman thoughts have been discreetly assimilated into Semitic thought, although the pagan and Semitic world-views are like chalk and cheese.

Orientalism 2.0 proponents want the same fate for Sanskrit -- it should be shorn of all religious and spiritual meaning, and it should be turned into a source of ideas that can be mined, digested, and appropriated by the dominant Western hegemonic narrative.

In other words, in short order, the Hindu tradition should be erased, and anything useful (yoga, meditation, Ayurveda, mathematics, etc) should end up being 'owned' by the West.

In this enterprise, the academics are as one with the Christian fundamentalists, especially those such as the conversion-focused (and spectacularly Orwellian-named) USCIRF. They have already succeeded in several parts of India. The academics thus form a dangerous alliance with churches, either wittingly or not.

Those of us in the 'emic' or insider tradition, Rajiv Malhotra suggests, are unable to stand up to this withering assault spearheaded by professors from famous universities such as Harvard or Columbia. Interestingly, the locus of Orientalism has moved from Britain to the US. It was European Orientalists such as William Jones and Max Mueller who created the canonical English interpretations of Sanskrit texts that are accepted as infallible even today. Their successors include Michael Witzel of Harvard and Wendy Doniger of Chicago, as well as the entire RISA (Religions in South Asia) group of academics.

Malhotra calls them 'American Orientalists' who use social sciences fads such as postmodernism that are completely alien to the Sanskrit worldview. They are qualitatively different from the Europeans, partly because they are more subtle: For instance, they have co-opted the Nehruvian Stalinists of India, who have pretensions to nationalism.

Even though the Orientalism that Edward Said and others spoke about has been discredited, and the rights of Muslims to provide their own narrative conceded, the same is not true of Hindus and Sanskrit.

It is a great misfortune that, unlike nationalistic Arabs, the Nehruvian Stalinists of India have colluded with the grand project of demeaning and destroying Sanskrit. Today, the number of Sanskritists in India is low, and falling.

I was startled by an anecdote recounted by Michel Danino quoting the late manuscriptologist K V Sarma (he curated the canonical Aryabhatiya). When a copy of the Arthashastra (it had been considered lost, and was only known through references by others) was unearthed by accident in 1904, there was a Ramasastry who could read it. Now there are a few who still can.

But in 50 years, there will probably be nobody in India who can read a newly discovered old manuscript. Some American Orientalist will be called in, who will give it all the colouring of his or her Western biases.

A few years ago, I remember the ICHR said the classical languages of India were, drum roll, Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic! Of course, not Pali and Tamil. The Sri Sankara Sanskrit University had a leftist extremist as VC. Neither he, nor Romila Thapar, 'eminent historian' of ancient India, knows Sanskrit! JNU, at least until recently, did not have a Sanskrit department. The neglect, and active hostility, have been startling. Nehru thought Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism were outdated.

The fact that so few Hindus know Sanskrit, except the dwindling few who have chosen the traditional path of mathas and spirituality and learning sadhana under a Master, means that we are gullible.

For instance, it is now widely alleged by missionaries that Prajapati, the Lord of Creation, is actually Jesus. They will quote verses from the Bhavishya Purana to substantiate this. Since most of us have no idea of the authenticity of that Purana or the specific verses, and have no way of disputing the Sanskrit translation they produce, we are forced to accept this hilarious, and possibly even (if we had that concept, blasphemous) equivalence.

In general, this is the problem Malhotra is attempting to address in his book: Who has adhikara (authority)? As of now, the American Orientalists are attempting to -- with, alas, considerable success -- take on that mantle. Hindus are unable to fend off their claims, partly, as Malhotra explains, they fall into several categories:

  • Traditionalists who do not understand the mala fide intentions or the jargon of the American Orientalists and are therefore unable to do a purva-paksha (analysing their arguments prior to debate);
  • Genuine scholars who are so enmeshed in the Western system that they find it hard to take a stand;
  • Sepoys who are happy with the crumbs that they can get;
  • Committed Leftists who are delighted to collaborate in the 'breaking-India' project; and finally
  • Well-meaning Indians, including tech billionaires, who, while wanting to support Sanskrit, end up being hoodwinked into supporting these very same malign American Orientalists.

It is just such an effort that prompted Malhotra to write this book: The Sringeri Math, a major centre of Sanskrit learning set up by Adi Sankara, to give its imprimatur to Columbia University for a project to be headed by one Professor Sheldon Pollock. By doing his due diligence, Malhotra shows that Pollock with his 'liberation philology' is a dangerous adversary.

At least in my reading, he is the Dr Jekyll-Mr Hyde doppelganger of the corrosive and foul-mouthed Wendy Doniger. Pollock uses the turgid disciplines of post-modernism and other social sciences to deconstruct, and most importantly, rob Sanskrit of its spirituality and its universality.

To be fair, Pollock does advertise his intentions. One of Pollock's important works is titled The Death of Sanskrit, and Malhotra in his purva-paksha identifies several memes that Pollock uses frequently, and that analysis forms the bulk of the book. Malhotra goes on to provide suitable counters to them.

  • Decoupling Sanskrit and its shastras from the Vedas
  • Politicising kavyas (literature) and decoupling them from the Vedas
  • Interpreting the Ramayana as a project for propagating Vedic social oppression (the ideas in the itihasa instil hierarchical thinking)
  • Rise of the pan-Asian Sanskrit cosmopolitan (only after Buddhism arose did Sanskrit become formalised and written down)
  • Death of Sanskrit and the rise of the vernaculars
  • Dangerous impact of Sanskrit on Western thoughts (that the 'Aryan' business was imported by Germans from Sanskrit).

Malhotra raises an interesting question about Pollock: Is he 'too big to challenge?' Personally, I don't think so. Let him debate and win, as Malhotra seems to be saying. Besides, Pollock may well be on thin ice based on faulty chronology: His conjecture that Sanskrit was purely oral before the Buddhists was probably plain wrong. Intriguingly for a classical scholar, Pollock is explicitly political: Malhotra shows that he has been a signatory to a number of petitions against, for instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And some of his former students in India are now explicitly anti-Hindu.

The book is not a personal attack on Pollock, as he is merely the archetype of the American Orientalist. On the other hand, it throws light on the convergence of destructive influences that motivate the beast, including the Church's efforts to completely convert India (as seen in the Joshua Project and Project Thessalonica), the left’s efforts to wipe out Hinduism, and the West's efforts to contain India.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the Pollockian effort to paint Sanskrit as inherently casteist and without value before Buddhism (although the Buddhist canon is written in Pali) is coeval with the British left's efforts to declare caste as an artifact explicitly punishable by law.

Nor is it separate from the efforts to secularise and undermine Ganesha Puja, Durga Puja, the Sabarimala pilgrimage, Navaratri, and in fact everything Hindu.

This is an important book; for any Indian, and particularly any Hindu who is concerned about the Indian Grand Narrative, the possible loss of control over Sanskrit is a tragedy. At the moment it is an avoidable tragedy, but only if there is a concerted effort on our part. It is nothing short of an act of terrorism, if you believe the UNESCO director-general, and this book is an attempt at preventive action.

The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred? Oppressive or Liberating? Dead or Alive?, By Rajiv Malhotra, Harper Collins Publishers India 2016, Hardback, Rs 699.

Rajeev Srinivasan