The Challenge of Understanding Sheldon Pollock
By Rajiv Malhotra
PART 1: How to make sense of Sheldon Pollock
A generic purva-paksha of a diverse group is not sufficient
Imagine there’s a person who assumes that his knowledge of purva-paksha of one specific school of Vedanta is enough to critique all of Vedanta. The superficiality of his study might impress someone who is ignorant of Indian thought. But to any Vedantin, such a purva-paksha would be considered shallow and inadequate to address the numerous schools and commentators of our vast traditions.
Likewise, to do purva-paksha of a towering Western Indologist like Sheldon Pollock, one must develop an appreciation of what is new, unique and challenging about his works. Just as Indian knowledge advances and evolves with new schools and commentaries, so also western thought systems are very diverse, complex and evolving with time. In fact, aspects of Pollock’s ideas that align with other westerners are less important to critique, because they are repetitious.
Our purva-paksha tradition requires that we critically study each of our main opponents to understand their assumptions, lenses, doctrinal beliefs, and ensuing arguments. We cannot simply apply some generic knowledge we have for a group of persons with similar views (in this case, Orientalists in general).
One of the most revealing statements by Pollock is cited below, in which he asserts that to defeat a tradition one must go through it and not around it. This is the strategy he is fructifying, when he tells his students to first go through the study of Indian sanskriti. He considers Vedic culture to be dominant over shudras and women, and he wants to help the masses overcome its inequality. Only by mastering it (through study) could his team of liberators “overmaster” (i.e. outsmart) it. He writes in this regard:
… you transcend inequality by mastering and overmastering those discourses through study and critique. You cannot simply go around a tradition to overcome it, if that is what you wish to do; you must go through it. You only transform a dominant culture by outsmarting it. That, I believe, is precisely what some of India’s most disruptive thinkers, such as Dr Ambedkar, sought to do, though they were not as successful as they might have been had they had access to all the tools of a critical philology necessary to the task. (Pollock, Sheldon. ‘Crisis in the Classics.’ Journal of Social Research, 78 (1). Page 39. Italics mine)
Pollock considers Ambedkar’s success inadequate in disrupting Indian sanskriti because Ambedkar did not learn “all the tools of a critical philology necessary to the task”. Pollock is referring here to the tools that he (Pollock) has developed for the critical analysis of Indian traditions.
We must do the same thing in the reverse direction: Before we can respond to Pollock’s conclusions, we must first understand his critical analysis. But even before being able to understand his critical analysis, we have to study the assumptions and lenses he uses to view our traditions. This requires us to study his writings critically. There are no shortcuts. As Pollock says in the above quote, “one simply cannot go around” the opponent’s work, and one must go “through” it.
Our purva-paksha tradition demands such a critical study to arrive at a deeper understanding of an opponent’s arguments. Given that Pollock is unlike the Orientalists who came before him, the lazy approach of relying upon one’s preconceived “opinions” of previous Orientalists leads to wrong conclusions. My book, The Battle For Sanskrit (TBFS) highlights his major tools, ideological beliefs and biases, thus paving the path for a comprehensive purva-paksha of his works.
Interestingly, Pollock’s former colleague at University of Chicago, Richard Schweder, is well-known for championing the approach now called “thinking through cultures”. This was based on Schweder’s anthropology research studying Hindu sacred sites and activities in India. The strategy being promoted by him and Pollock is for westerner scholars to first immerse themselves in a foreign culture in order to develop a psychological map of how they think. Only after they have mapped it in their own western framework can they succeed in “outsmarting it”.
There is also an interesting parallel with Al Biruni whose writings on India, Indians, and their manners and customs were in the form of a purva-paksha that he had carried out for his master—Mahmud of Gazni. Yet, many Indian scholars love Al Biruni because he, like Pollock, praised certain aspects of our culture.
Some novel and key ingredients of Pollock’s lens
TBFS explains some of the signature theories of Pollock that must be understood before any purva-paksha is attempted on him. These theories and interpretations include the following:
- His interpretation of paramarthika and vyavaharika: Pollock builds on the foundation of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), an Italian thinker who influenced many great westerners including Karl Marx. Pollock translates ‘paramarthika sat’ as Vico’s idea of ‘verum’. He translates ‘vyavaharika sat’ as Vico’s ‘certum’. I was unable to find any publication (certainly not by any Indian traditional scholar) that pointed out the consequence of these deliberate mappings of Indian thought onto Western notions, leave alone identifying serious misinterpretations which follow from such mappings. From this mapping follow many of Pollock’s sweeping conclusions about the nature of transcendence in Indian systems. (See TBFS, pages 102-105, for my analysis.)
- Literarization: This is one of Pollock’s novel ideas which he uses as a key building block for his theories. The term has an extra ‘ar’ in the middle, and is not to be confused with ‘literization’. Literization (without the extra ‘ar’) is a well-known term that refers to a language being written down, i.e. its users are literate. But Pollock’s signature contribution is his theory that after Sanskrit starts to be written, it passes through a subsequent stage of development called literarization (with extra ‘ar’). This is when Sanskrit gets endowed with certain structures that make it an elite language of power over the masses. Predictably, he finds the Vedas as the source of such structures, and it is this literarization according to him that allows the social oppression of Dalits/women. Only by understanding his view on what these ‘toxic’ structures are can one begin to see what he is up to. (TBFS, pages 213-14)
- Theory of the aestheticization of power: Pollock borrows an influential theory developed by Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) and the Frankfurt School of Marxism. Its original intended purpose was to interpret the role played by aesthetics in the rise of the Nazis: How could Nazis dupe so many people to vote for them and support them? This theory became an important extension of the original doctrine of Marxism. Pollock makes academic history among his western Marxist peers by applying it to develop his original theory on the oppressiveness of our sanskriti. He uses this theory to explain how and why Sanskrit helped the social elites to achieve their power over the masses. (TBFS, pages 210-17. See diagram on page 216.)
- Political philology: While philology has been a formal discipline for a long time and has many kinds of approaches that different scholars use, once again Pollock has developed his own original variety. The prefix “political” is what differentiates his method from prior philology. To give an indication of the importance of this building block, Pollock’s book “The language of the gods…” uses the term “power” about 600 times and the word “politics” about 900 times. A central argument he advocates with evangelical zeal is that Indian texts must be studied not for legitimate spiritual/sacred content, but for the purpose of finding the social exploitation and political domination contained in them. Before he can show the texts to be political, he has to devalue (and debunk) the legitimacy of the sacred dimension; then he can substitute the political motive as the reason for the successful spread of Sanskrit. In item (1) above he has identified the tools to remove the sacred. Then, in this item (4) here, we find his tool which he uses to develop his heavily politicized lens.
- Liberation philology: If one side of the coin of Pollock’s interpretation is political philology, the other side is liberation philology. This is the tool that his followers (such as Ananya Vajpeyi) use to intervene in Indian society and claim to remove the social oppressiveness diagnosed in (4). Such intervention is consistent with his strategy of going through and not bypassing the tradition. Ultimately, it is such disguised intervention that makes Pollock dangerous to the tradition and its followers. While political philology is used to diagnose, liberation philology is used to liberate the Indian masses from the diseases being carried in their sanskriti for thousands of years.
- Ecosystem of Marxism and postmodernism: Pollock’s (1) through (5) analytical tool kit is embedded within a broad spectrum of postmodern thinkers. His analysis includes ideas incorporated from Gramsci, Habermas, various feminists, subaltern theorists, among others. These theories are simply assumed by him, with no need felt to elaborate or prove them. Pollock’s work is couched in a veneer of broader Western idiom and theories.
Hardly any Indian traditionalist I came across has an in depth knowledge of his lens. His target audience of readers is clearly the Western Indologist, a term that must also include ethnic Indians who have been trained to think in the same manner as Western Indologists.
Added complexity in decoding Pollock
What is even more challenging than the idioms and theories that Pollock employs is his writing style; it is very opaque, arcane and loaded with jargon that even most English readers with experience will be unable to properly understand. He sometimes contradicts himself, not only between one publication of his and another, but also within the same publication. At times he plays both sides of an issue to seem balanced. But eventually, he quietly assumes one of the postures without explaining why it is superior to the other.
To decode him, one has to read him multiple times. After you understand one theory of his, you need to go back and re-read the prior works you already went through. In places, only after connecting the dots with his other scattered writings can you realize what he wants to say. If his individual points are at times murky, murkier still are the links among the dots to make sense of the big picture. One gets the impression that only a few fellow-travelers subscribing to his ideology are meant to understand him.
In other words, one cannot do purva-paksha of Pollock surgically by random citation; it must be done holistically. But to uncover the entire intellectual quagmire that Pollock is a part of, one must go beyond his own writings and also examine his cohorts. Even more broadly, one has to also study the contextual backdrop of the three layers that make up American culture in order to get the complete picture:
- At the top is the pop culture layer in which everything is nice, all a part of the so-called global village.
- Beneath this surface is the middle layer where the institutions lie. The institutions provide continuity, infrastructure assets, and a robust transparency defined within the values of Western Universalism.
- The lowest of the three layers is what I term the deep culture. Here, the notion of American Exceptionalism is well established and protected. This deep layer comes out publicly and violently at times of duress – such as the xenophobia of white males that Donald Trump has tapped into. The veneer of civility is very thin indeed, and crumbles under duress.
The deep layer is Judeo-Christian. The middle layer of institutions is based on modernity. The top layer of pop culture projects postmodernity. One must understand all this as a unified whole, in dynamic equilibrium. I am trying to convey here that that the methodology to do purva-paksha of Pollock has to be multi-disciplinary. We cannot have narrowly limited experts only. We must build teams across disciplines.
Traditional scholars have not done purva-paksha on Pollock’s school
Traditional scholars in general have not performed any such purva-paksha on Pollock yet. While doing the research for TBFS, I tried hard to get help from some well-established traditional scholars. But in the end, despite sincere efforts by some traditional scholars, not a single one was able to deconstruct Pollock, much less be able to develop a response.
Here is an excerpt from my book on the challenges our traditionalists face. This is not a matter of my opinion but is based on my experience that includes extensive interviews and conversations. Most senior Sanskrit leaders in India that I discussed with have confirmed my views as expressed below:
Unfortunately, many traditionalists live in silos. They tend to dismiss the views of the opposing ideological camp, seeing them as irrelevant to the ‘real’ tradition. They are unaware of, or indifferent to, the fact that they are the objects of study from the ‘outside’. Some of them are so naïve and insecure as to feel flattered when representatives of the Western elite show an interest in them. In addition, the scholars using the ‘outsider’ lens are highly vocal and public in championing their point of view whereas the insiders often prefer to remain private about their allegiances and shy away from defending their tradition even in important forums. […]
I sent drafts and overviews of this book to some persons who I felt would be supportive, only to discover that several of them vehemently opposed the very idea of investigating this new elitist [Pollock] school of Sanskrit studies. Their general attitude is that we should instead be grateful to those Westerners who are ‘taking the time to study us’.
A lot of traditional scholars are oblivious to the fact that their ‘adhikara’ (authority) as experts on Sanskrit is being systematically eroded. Many outsiders have appointed themselves as new authorities for the interpretation of Sanskrit traditions. Their tentacles penetrate deep, not only into the psyches of young scholars but also into several traditional and modern institutions. This book is meant, in part, to serve as a wakeup call for insiders, to force them out of their slumber and isolation.
Chapters 10 and 11 of TBFS go further in discussing the blockages and handicaps that the traditionalists contend with. I explain the nefarious forces at work and what ought to be done to give back the traditionalists their adhikara. Each of my previous four books is also focused on showing that our traditional/insider view is being suppressed in the academy, media and elsewhere. I do what I do because of my immense respect for our knowledge systems, traditions, and civilizational contributions.
I elevate the issue of hitherto lack of purva-paksha by traditional scholars in order to raise their awareness on two matters of utmost importance: (a) the need for their immediate attention; and (b) the need for a team effort.
The real goal of TBFS is not only to alert and awaken traditional scholars to the nature of systematic attacks from outsiders, but also to encourage them to join a collective effort to develop an ecosystem for insiders. Western Indologists do not shy away from getting help from Indian traditionalists. Indian insiders, too, should not shy away from getting help from one another and even from Westerners where applicable. Once such an ecosystem reaches a level of self-sustenance and growth, I would consider TBFS a success. Traditionalists should not shy away from any source of knowledge or help for their shared cause. Tradition weakens when it is not united – as we witnessed in the form of a near-debacle with the Adi Shankara Chair at Columbia University. The existence of an ecosystem would have prevented such a dangerous situation from arising.
My book is a serious initiative, but it is a humble beginning only. It ought to be superseded by writings that will go even deeper. I feel I am providing a guide to undertake purva-paksha of the Pollock school, and my book invites others to join me in developing uttara (responses) to him.
PART 2: Has Shatavadhani Ganesh understood Pollock?
Shatavadhani Ganesh is one of India’s most famous traditional scholars, commanding great mastery over a massive corpus of texts. In this part of the article, I will point out that even such a great mind has serious blind spots when it comes to understanding Pollock. But more troubling than a mere lack of knowledge is the fact that Shri Ganesh’s over-confidence makes him unaware of his limitations. He seems to trivialize the purva-paksha methods I have described in the prior section, and he adopts an accusatory posture towards my work.
The recent review of TBFS by Shri Ganesh has numerous errors in basic understanding, both of my book and Sheldon Pollock’s works. I will examine his specific errors in subsequent articles. However, in the following pages, I will focus on showing that Shri Ganesh has not adequately understood the fundamental building blocks used by Pollock. It appears that Ganesh uses my book for providing him secondary access to the writings of Pollock (even though, ironically, he criticizes me for relying upon secondary works on Sanskrit texts.) He wrongly assumes that Pollock says the same things as any other Western Indologist; therefore, Ganesh tends to apply a generic and simplistic understanding of Orientalism to see Pollock’s works.
Ganesh does lip service to the focus I place on Pollock, and writes: “Sheldon Pollock is arguably the most influential and well-connected Indologist in the world today.” This statement is taken directly from TBFS. But if he takes Pollock seriously, he cannot simply ignore what is new and distinct about Pollock compared to prior Indologists.
Now I will examine a few major statements made by Ganesh in his review of TBFS.
Ganesh’s complaint that I did not mention “past masters”
He [i.e. Malhotra] fails to mention (or seems to be ignorant of) the luminaries who have categorically rubbished such attempts – A C Bose, A C Das, Arun Shourie, Baldev Upadhyaya, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Chidananda Murthy, D V Gundappa, David Frawley, Dayananda Saraswati, G N Chakravarti, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, K S Narayanacharya, Koenraad Elst, Krishna Chaitanya, Kuppuswami Sastri, M Hiriyanna, Michel Danino, iNagendra, Navaratna S Rajaram, Padekallu Narasimha Bhat, Padma Subrahmanyam, Pullela Sriramachandrudu, R C Dwivedi, Ram Swarup, Ranganath Sharma, Rewa Prasad Dwivedi, S K Ramachandra Rao, S L Bhyarappa, S N Balagangadhara, S R Ramaswamy, S Srikanta Sastri, Shrikant Talageri, Sita Ram Goel, Sri Aurobindo, Sushil Kumar Dey, Swami Vivekananda, V S Sukhthanker, Vasudev Sharan Agarwal, Yudhishthira Mimamsaka… the list is endless. And the few scholars he refers to – like A K Coomaraswamy, Dharampal, G C Pande, K Krishnamoorthy, Kapila Vatsyayan, P V Kane, and V Raghavan – are only in passing.
This is a very amateurish thing to say, for the following reasons:
- The individuals named above belong to all sorts of categories of experts. It is a list Ganesh has randomly picked out of hundreds of good Indian scholars. Would Ganesh care to explain the criteria for his selection of “past masters”, and how a lot of other Indian scholars got left out? This looks more like the reading list that some junior student of his put together.
- I hope Ganesh is aware that many of these individuals are living contemporaries, and hence not “past”.
- I happen to personally know and work with several of these individuals, and that too for many years. So it’s not as if I don’t know their areas of work.
- Ganesh should take a look at the extensive bibliographies cited in all my books. The difference is that I cite writers that are relevant to a given topic, and not for the sake of name-dropping. None of these individuals he names has (to the best of my knowledge) published any extensive purva-paksha of Pollock’s school of Indology, which is the focus of my work.
- Imagine if someone is doing very original and extensive research on a specific solar system that has not been studied in depth before. The references used would be those relevant to argue the specific thesis, and not a random assortment of quotes from astronomers just for the sake of impressing people with one’s general knowledge.
- Most of the writers named above do not bother to mention each other in their writings, precisely because of the specialized nature of their work. For instance, I doubt Shourie, Frawley, Balagangadhara, Bhyarappa, Talageri, etc. cite all the above named writers. It would be ridiculous and irrelevant for them to do so. By Ganesh’s own criteria, this should disqualify all of them from the category of worthy “masters” – because they are guilty of ignoring Ganesh’s list of past masters the same way I am being accused.
- Many of the scholars on his list are not Sanskrit scholars – another disqualifier if one were to use Ganesh’s criteria.
- In summary, he is making an irrelevant and pedantic point here.
Let us face the fact that since the early 1970s, numerous powerful and elitist educational institutions in India, especially in the areas of social sciences, history, literature and arts, have been captured by the Marxists. They ensure who gets scholarships within India, research grants to go abroad and worse still, who gets published by the prestigious publishing houses like Oxford University Press, and whose works get translated into several languages. Scholars like Sheldon Pollock, Romila Thapar, R S Sharma and D N Jha have sucked up so much oxygen out of the ecosystem of knowledge production.
Can Ganesh tell us: From the living scholars in his list of masters, which ones command the clout to head a prestigious institution recognized globally? Which one of them, despite their impeccable scholarship, can get their research published by an academic press on a continuous basis? How much of the reading materials prescribed academically today is written by them, as compared to Western writers and Indian leftists – I am referring to university curricula outside India as well as in many elite Indian universities?
I am trying to highlight the problem and injustice we face. Traditional scholars have been sidelined and are being impoverished progressively. For instance, Pandit Yudhishthir Mimansak was one of the greatest scholars of Sanskrit grammar in the 20th century. His writings were largely printed by small-scale regional publishing houses, and he lived in poverty and suffered greatly from illness during his last years. If he were alive today, his writings would be accused as being those of a Hindu Nationalist, just as many of the living scholars in Ganesh’s list are unfairly branded. I knew the late Dharampal personally during the final years of his life, and he shared details of his meager existence of neglect by the establishment, and even by most traditionalists. Both he and Kapila Vatsyayan received Infinity Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Awards, and they mentored me personally in important ways. Kapila ji also explained to me the price she paid for her refusal to sell out to the academic establishment. When I visited her to congratulate her for the Padma Vibhushan Award some years back, she told me: there are no institutional mechanisms by which the knowledge of the scholar being recognized in the Padma awards gets disseminated, and developed further by the next generation. She felt I was one of the few at that time working so diligently to argue for swadeshi scholarship. Yet, Ganesh concludes that he cannot “absolve Malhotra of his blatant disregard to the past masters.”
If Ganesh wants to have a competition of who did more for the cause of traditional India studies, I welcome him to debate my record over the past 25 years alongside his own record on this matter.
Ganesh then quotes a few specific examples of works by Indians who criticized Western Indology. He feels these criticisms are somehow the same work I am doing. If that had been the case, I would not even be wasting so much time writing TBFS, for I am not interested in regurgitating what others already did. I wish to open new doors through my work, rather than rehash old knowledge that others (better qualified than me) are already pursuing. What Ganesh is doing is analogous to someone citing astronomy writings by “past masters” that have little to do with the specific newly discovered solar system someone is studying in very great detail.
My focus in TBFS is on Pollock’s school per se. My book explains how he is a completely new and different kind of thinker than the old guard Ganesh mentions (like Max Mueller, etc.) In fact, Pollock himself criticizes and rejects all those he thinks of as old school Orientalists. Pollock is not vulnerable to the old criticisms against the old guard of Western Indologists. This is why I wish Ganesh had read Pollock first, and realized that we must properly understand him, and not try to be reductionist and think of all Westerner Indologists as the same. The major part of TBFS is intended to educate and explain to our traditionalists that which is new and different in Pollock compared to prior Western Indologists.
Convinced that he has dealt a devastating blow to my credibility, Ganesh then alleges that “Malhotra directly accuses Indian scholars of either being unwillingly complicit with the enemies (p. 68), or being irresponsible (p. 15), or being uninterested (p. 44), or being unaware of Western scholarship (p. 1). He lacks empathy for the numerous scholars who are deeply involved in their own research.”
This statement by Ganesh is a gross misrepresentation of my life commitment and of TBFS. It is a typical example of manipulating something by taking it out of context. Is he trying to create bheda between me and the traditionalists? Wouldn’t that attempt be against the interests of the traditionalists? Of course, I do want to expose those specific Indians who have switched sides to serve the colonial system, those who are complicit and sitting on the sidelines, and those who vacillate opportunistically. Nobody who has read my work would doubt the sincerity with which I have championed what I call Swadeshi Indology.
Yet he goes on repeating his allegation, writing that Malhotra “looks down upon traditionalist scholars.” I certainly want their output raised to be on par with Western Indology and then supersede it. For instance, we must have more and better quality assets controlled by the traditionalists, such as: Indology journals, libraries and conferences in India, and research publishing with high impact. A good role model for our scholars is Shankar Rajaraman who, along with some others, is busy highlighting the errors of Pollock; he shows that these Westerners don’t know how to use our idiom and methods for the interpretation of our texts.
Any system that is to be improved needs periodic assessments and shake ups. The worst thing for traditionalists to do is to promote vyakti-puja (idolatry) of any scholar by making him too big to be criticized. Ganesh is great, no doubt, but his limitations concerning Western Indology must be discussed in a constructive manner.
Ganesh raises another irrelevant issue and writes: “And it is strange he [i.e. Malhotra] has not quoted any regional language scholar.” However, can Ganesh please cite the specific regional language scholars who have critiqued Pollock and his school? Pollock is the focus of TBFS, and not a generic “high level” critique of Western Indology. Ganesh’s complaint is as ridiculous as saying that the astronomer who has discovered previously unknown data about a solar system ought to be rejected because he has failed to cite regional language astronomers. Ganesh appears to lack a sense of what is relevant in a given context.
Ganesh writes: “Malhotra writes in several places that he is the first person to undertake such a task (see pp. 27, 44, or 379, for example), which as we know is false.” But no such claim is being made by me in the pages listed by him, or elsewhere. What I say is entirely different than his characterization. I shall elaborate.
First of all, TBFS’s purpose is not to do yet another generic critique of western Indology, but a specific one about the new school led by Pollock. If Ganesh is aware of any similar analysis of Pollock’s school, he ought to give us the references. In fact, I asked Pollock in a personal meeting about the lack of critical examination of his works by Indians operating within a Hindu framework; he was completely unaware of anyone having done this.
Furthermore, a home team is a lot different than isolated writings by some individuals. Such a team would have to match the opposing (Pollock’s) team in output, team cooperation, intensity and focus. It would have to match the opponents in influencing media and mainstream intellectual discourse both in India and overseas. I have spent the past two decades trying many ways to create such a home team, but it is not easy. To the best of my knowledge, Ganesh has not undertaken such a project to launch a movement, and is expressing opinions not based on experience.
Ganesh also writes: “This is not a new battle. It has been fought before, and won before.” Such a statement suggests lack of awareness of major new developments in Western thought or their level of complexity. Earlier in this article I listed some such developments by Pollock that are powerful and new, and that demand fresh critiques by us.
Ganesh says that “The battle for Sanskrit and Sanskriti is not a new one. Sanatana dharma has survived years of onslaught from many quarters in many guises.” However, he does not seem to appreciate that the past battles were against the past attacks. Each encounter has required its own fresh purva-paksha. Adi Shankara did not find earlier purva-paksha that was against earlier opponents to be sufficient for his own time and context. Because he faced new opponents, he therefore had to do new purva-paksha. Shankara also developed new paradigms and methodologies for this purpose and did not merely regurgitate old ones.
This is why I introduced the term Charvaka 2.0 and explained how the Pollock school is more evolved than the prior materialists. It is easy for someone who did not read Pollock to naively assume it is more of the same thing. Ganesh simplifies his characterization of Western Orientalists and Indian Leftists by referring to all of them with the same brush as “crass materialists”, without delving into details on how such materialists today differ in substantial ways from the earlier Charvakas.
Shri Ganesh is silent on TBFS’s purpose which is stated in its Introduction chapter. He completely ignores the urgent matter of Sringeri mattha becoming almost hijacked by Pollock, even though I clearly explained that incident as my reason for writing the book. The recent case of Rohan Murty handing over to Pollock the responsibility of translating 500 Indian texts has also failed to alarm him. He ignores the list of 18 debates given in the final chapter of TBFS, which the book says it wishes to spark. Shri Ganesh ignores all the intentions, context and strategy of the book he tries to review.
In the Hindu tradition, a significant commentary ought to go beyond the words and sentences and get at the essential thought, teaching and philosophy of the root text. Only such a commentator is referred to as a ‘pada-vakya-pramanajna’ (to allude to the opening verses in Shankaracharya’s Bhashya on the Taittiriya Upanishad). Alas, this eminent man’s review of TBFS has not gone beyond the pada-vakya.
Shri Ganesh gives his sweeping uttara to my work, but without having first done a proper purva-paksha of either my book or Pollock’s work. I find this error common among people who do not listen well before starting to articulate a lot. He betrays a lack of understanding of TBFS by branding it as “Malhotra’s pseudo-logic”. His review of TBFS is more a personal criticism of me than an analysis of the book’s thesis.
Sri Krishna advises us that one must do his own svadharma (even poorly) rather than imitate someone else’s svadharma. If Ganesh does this introspection, he would understand that we are both on the same side.
Need to advance beyond data accumulation towards knowledge and wisdom
There is a broader issue that many of our scholars face. The Indian education system’s obsession with exams based on memorized information has led to a focus on accumulating large quantities of factual information. But this does not constitute knowledge, because knowledge also requires critical thinking. And even knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom, because wisdom requires appreciation for the contexts and the big picture in which a discourse is situated.
Data by itself can be cluttered and requires the clarity of wisdom to be useful. Even those with a mental search engine that allows them to quickly retrieve some quote from a text are often unable to apply it to solve the problem at hand. We must upgrade our traditional scholars to be capable of analysis, problem-solving, critical thinking and debate with opponents.
To some extent, computer tools can help alleviate the mundane tasks of memorizing, and thus help free up human resources to undertake higher level intellectual challenges. The Abrahamic religions have invested heavily in computer searchable databases of all their literature, including primary texts, commentaries, historical works, etc. I have seen very impressive analytical tools for Christianity that apply artificial intelligence methods. For this reason, it is not considered important for Christian scholars to have memorized a lot, because such factual knowledge is readily accessible from any smart phone. I hope the 10-year plan of the Indian government to revive Sanskrit and its studies will include the development of such computer tools for scholars. This would allow the emphasis of Sanskrit education to shift beyond heavy memorization and towards higher levels of analytical thinking and the wisdom of global contexts.
I conclude by reaching out to Shri Ganesh to discuss our disagreements with mutual respect, and with the commitment to defeat the common enemy we both recognize. The battles are many and cannot be won in an elitist way by excluding insider voices that have done their share of tapasya to the cause. I respect Shri Ganesh’s work and expertise. I hope he is also able to see that my goal is to make traditional scholars aware of these latest threats that we face. We each bring different dimensions of expertise, and the movement for dharma will be stronger by working together.
The problem of tunnel vision is brought out in Satyajit Ray’s movie, ‘Shatranj ke khilaadi’, based on the story by Premchand. It shows two elite Indian men playing chess and constantly engaged in petty and pedantic arguments. They are unconcerned that all around them are political and military activities by the East India Company, heading towards the annexation of the Indian state of Awadh. Living in a cocoon and disengaged from the real world, these men abrogated their responsibility as community leaders. They made light of the gradual surrender to the British, full of arrogance and self-importance. I wrote this book because I do not treat the survival of my tradition as a leisurely game of chess.