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Key debates in the battle for Sanskrit

By: Rajiv Malhotra

This book argues that Sanskrit and sanskriti are alive, sacred and sources for liberation. However, the future will depend on what the insiders of our tradition do with this. The big breakthrough will take place only if serious Sanskrit scholars and important India-based institutions enter this Kurukshetra to directly make a difference. An old adage says: a pandit is one who is moved to act upon his conviction (‘yah kriyavan sah panditah’). Change can be brought about only through action, not by armchair pandits.

I wish to propose a list of debates that will hopefully result from this book. Even if only a few of these debates take place with well-informed insiders representing the tradition, they could be game changers. This approach is also the best way to train intellectual kshatriyas who can represent the dharmic traditions confidently, based on solid knowledge and argumentation skills. Furthermore, the knowledge generated as a result of such debates would inform policymakers in education, culture, science, public health, interfaith affairs, foreign affairs and media. In each case, I state my position concisely in the list that follows.

A. Contesting the intellectual re-colonization of India

1. Export of the adhikara for Sanskrit studies: The Battle for Sanskrit is the result of my campaign to discourage the Sringeri Peetham from being shanghaied by American Orientalists. Such a hijacking is being attempted with the help of NRI funding and the support of senior administrators at Sringeri. This illustrates a tendency for adhikara to get transferred to institutions and individuals who are invested in other civilizations. I consider this very dangerous. Debates are needed to discuss the mechanisms required for reviving and developing our civilizational foundations in a manner that does not undermine the traditional adhikara. We must develop strategies for collaboration with Western Indologists and install the safeguards needed for this.

2. Western universalism as the privileged framework being adopted: The present trend has been to train Indian scholars in the use of Western tools for critical thinking; this requires many years of mastering a wide range of Western theories and theorists. This threatens to marginalize the tools of critical thinking found in Indian sanskriti, siddhantas, paramparas and sampradayas. Meanwhile, Indian civilizational gems are being appropriated and turned into Western assets. I use the analogy of the US dollar serving as the world reserve currency. I propose that we position some powerful Sanskrit non-translatable categories as part of the global intellectual currency for the future.

3. Status of Orientalism: Although Sheldon Pollock claims we live in a post-Orientalist era, I argue that the old form of Orientalism 1.0 has mutated into the more sophisticated form of American Orientalism that may be seen as Orientalism 2.0. We ought to discuss whether Indology today is largely a newer and updated genre of Orientalism.

B. Contesting the use of Buddhism as a wedge against Hinduism

4. Buddhism’s relationship to Hinduism: Is Buddhism truly at odds with Hinduism? Was it really anti-Vedic as commonly alleged by Western scholars? Evidence from traditional Indian sources suggests that the differences between the two have been grossly exaggerated. In fact, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism share a common matrix/womb of dharma from which they all emerged.

5. Chronology of key Hindu texts: In order to support their thesis that Hinduism lacked innovation due to brahmin monopoly and the oral tradition, the American Orientalists tend to explain all the innovation in Hindu texts as being the result of Buddhist interventions against the Vedas. They adjust the chronology for the primary Sanskrit texts of grammar, Purva-mimamsa, the Ramayana, etc., to locate them after the Buddha. This is to support the claim that all these texts were Hindu reactions to Buddhism.

6. Writing in ancient India: Was writing in India introduced a few centuries after the Buddha, by foreign migrants and converts to Buddhism, as claimed by the American Orientalists? The entire history of Indian languages and culture as depicted by them disregards the evidence of writing available from the Indus–Sarasvati Civilization materials.

C. Contesting the depiction of Sanskrit and the sanskriti based on it

7. Oral tradition: The scholarship I critique in this book tries to undermine the importance of the Indian oral tradition. I have explained why the oral tradition was not only vital in the past evolution of Indian culture, but that it also holds great promise for the future development of mind sciences and offshoots into education and other fields.

8. History of Indian languages: American Orientalists assume that Sanskrit arrived from foreign migrants into India and that it was genetically and structurally different from the Indian vernaculars. They allege that Sanskrit eventually succeeded in dominating the vernaculars and established hegemonic control over them. This contestable premise has infiltrated contemporary social theories that are being used to divide Indians into conflict-ridden linguistic and social groups. It contradicts the traditional view that Sanskrit and Prakrit (from which the vernaculars evolved) are two mutually supportive linguistic streams constituting a speech system known as vac.

9. Allegation of built-in social abusiveness: According to a growing number of Western Indologists, Sanskrit and sanskriti have always abused and oppressed the women, Dalits and Muslims of India. This is emphasized as a structural defect as opposed to being a matter of isolated instances. It is alleged that Sanskrit grammar, Vedic texts and the shastras are the root causes; they are said to be laden with rules that preclude intellectual freedom. This is a viewpoint traditionalists might want to vigorously contest, and we must hear both sides.

10. Allegations of lack of creativity: It is further purported that shastras prevent genuine creativity and progress in vyavaharika (worldly) matters, because they are straitjacketed by the Vedic world view. However, there is an abundance of counter-evidence showing that Indians have been innovative in producing and applying shastras to both empirical and spiritual domains. Shastras, therefore, cannot be dismissed as lacking in practical innovations and creativity.

11. Allegation of Sanskrit’s ‘death’: I have argued against the academicians who say that Sanskrit has been dead for a thousand years. I cite traditional scholars such as Krishna Shastry and K.S. Kannan who wish to debate this issue.

12. Secularization of Sanskrit and sanskriti: Sheldon Pollock’s camp is committed to the secularization of Sanskrit because it regards spiritual practices such as yajnas, rituals, pujas, tirthas (pilgrimages), vratas (vows, promises) and various other sadhanas to be primitive, superstitious and exploitative. One of their principal agendas is to remove aspects that are linked to the paramarthika (spiritual) realm and only focus on those in the purely laukika or vyavaharika (mundane) realm. Traditionalists consider this a serious violation to the integrity of our tradition. I firmly resist this reductionist secularization.

13. Allegation of kavya as political weapon: The American Orientalist camp maintains that kavya (literature) was developed specifically for the kings to be able to assert their power over their subjects. In other words, it is seen as an ancient form of a ruler’s propaganda machinery. Such a reductionist view must be contested. Kavya cannot be collapsed into mere politics; it has served many positive functions for the general population both in the secular and sacred domains.

14. Ramayana: Is the Ramayana meant to portray an exploitative dominion by the kings, i.e., is raj dharma an abusive system of governance? My opponents see the Ramayana not in terms of a genuine spiritual quest but as a political device. They consider it a weapon that has been used to cause violence against the Muslims even to this day. However, bhaktas (devotees) maintain otherwise. They see Rama as a role model for all rulers.

D. Reclaiming and repositioning Sanskrit and sanskriti

15. One-way flow of knowledge from Indian texts into English: For centuries, Indian-language texts have been translated into English while a flow in the reverse direction has remained virtually non-existent. As a result, only English has become the language of research and communication for knowledge in most fields. Sanskrit must find its legitimate place alongside English as a repository of knowledge with its own way of thinking. Here we can learn from China’s strategies concerning Mandarin.

16. Other ancient languages comparable to Sanskrit: Western scholars routinely categorize Sanskrit with Latin which they deem to be a ‘dead’ language, and/or with Greek which they hold as a classical language. Modern Indian scholars blindly accept such a classification of Sanskrit as a dead or classical language. This is not acceptable to traditionalists because Sanskrit and sanskriti did not evolve through outright rejection of the past but as a continuity with the past. Therefore, we need to make efforts to decouple Sanskrit studies from Latin/Greek studies and to classify it alongside Mandarin and Persian which are living and continuous with their respective pasts. We should bring in discussants from Asian countries where languages such as Mandarin, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew and Japanese are given prominence, and recognized as both old and modern.

17. Scope of Sanskrit studies: Besides studying the Sanskrit language and its old texts, it is necessary to introduce and employ Sanskrit categories and methods for research in modern domains such as computational linguistics, ecology, animal rights, the aging population and family structures, neurosciences and mind sciences, education and accelerated learning, mathematics and other theoretical sciences and health sciences, just to name a few. We must dismantle the present system of intellectual apartheid in which Sanskrit is kept isolated from the knowledge disciplines where its treasures are being appropriated and reformulated into Western paradigms, and given new histories as so-called Western ‘discoveries’.

18. Exposing Hinduphobia: If a scholar were to refute the very existence of Allah, or claim that the Quran does not represent the actual word of God, or that Muhammad was not a prophet, it would be called Islamophobia. This allegation would apply even if the scholar in question were saying ‘positive’ things like: Arabic has a rich treasury of poetry, the Quran holds a light for humanity, etc. None of that would satisfy the Muslim mind. An analogous situation exists in the way an attitude gets classified as anti-Semitic. Hindus should be alarmed by the existence of a double standard in Western academics, because the same sensitivity and adhikara to speak for our tradition is not granted to Hindus. This is why Sheldon Pollock was shocked when I characterized several of his stances as inimical to Hindu dharma (i.e., Hinduphobic). We need to define a level playing field for characterizing a work as Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Hinduphobia, etc.

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