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A Response to Ganesh’s Review of The Battle for Sanskrit

By: Aditi Banerjee

In recent days, an important critique of Rajiv Malhotra’s book, The Battle for Sanskrit, was released by an acclaimed and prominent scholar, Shatavadhani Ganesh.  The review is available at http://www.sandeepweb.com/the-bhagavad-gita-before-the-battle/.

Purism vs. Pragmatism — You go to war with the army that you have

Ganesh begins his review of The Battle for Sanskrit with a very strange musing.  He says, “Before the Great War, Arjuna developed cold feet and Krishna counselled him to lift up his weapons and fight. But how would have Krishna reacted if Arjuna had been over-zealous to battle the sons of Dhritarashtra even before the Pandava side was fully prepared? … In the battle for Sanskrit, Rajiv Malhotra is like an enthusiastic commander of a committed army whose strengths and weaknesses he himself is sadly unable to reconcile.”

Apart from the rank condescension in tone of the statement and the rest of the review, this reveals one of the fundamental flaws of Ganesh’s critique.  He prizes theoretical purism over the practical realities of the world and the battle we are in, whether we wish to be fighting or not, whether we are ready for the war or not.  Our only choice is whether we team up in the battle against Pollock and others, because they have already started the war against us.

Donald Rumsfeld once famously said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.”  We can dither on the sidelines and engage in handwringing about whether or not we are ready, but the battle is going on with or without us!  We could stop writing against Pollock, but we can’t stop him writing against us.  To follow Ganesh’s advice, we should take a collective sabbatical for a number of years, do some deep navel-gazing, attain moksha or some level of ‘universal experience’ that quiets all words, and then we can respond to Pollock.

That might be intellectually satisfying, but that is not how the real world works.

What are the right qualifications for this battle?

Embedded in Ganesh’s critique is the allegation that Malhotra is not qualified enough for this work, because he is not formally trained in Sanskrit and does not have enough of a grounding in traditional Hinduism.  Ganesh claims that Malhotra falls short in establishing siddhanta / Uttara-paksha (i.e., giving a definitive rebuttal to Pollock) in many places and that where he does do so, it is ‘borrowed’ from other scholars.

But in fact Malhotra is quite candid in his book that the whole call to action of the book is to develop and empower a home team of such scholars who would be able to develop and deploy a siddhanta / Uttara-paksha in response to Pollock.  His aim in the book is to show what it is that the other side is saying about Hinduism and Sanskrit and to provide the outlines of a response from within the tradition.  Most of our traditional scholars to whom Ganesh points are not aware of Pollock’s work or the complexity and nuance of Western theories that underlie academic Sanskrit studies. Without knowing that, they could not offer a meaningful response to Pollock. One of the central aims of Malhotra’s book is to provide an overview and analysis of Pollock’s claims to help our traditional scholars enter the battlefield armed and prepared.

Moreover, Ganesh completely misses the fact that Malhotra does have strong qualifications for waging this battle that most of our traditional scholars today lack.  These qualifications are just as important, if not more so, than formal training in Sanskrit.  Most of our traditional scholars lack real-world experience in the global intellectual kurukshetra.  Malhotra has tirelessly battled in public with the other side and held his ground and has developed expertise and experience in debating with the other side effectively, a skill which most of our traditional scholars do not have.

It is one thing to have conclaves and discussions with like-minded people; but such discussions will not impact the academic discourse about Sanskrit and Hinduism going on in the world of universities and academia.  Traditional scholars who are cloistered in their own cocoons do not recognize what is happening in the world outside, and while they are extremely knowledgeable in their respective fields, this alone does not equip them to engage with the other side.  If they lack knowledge of Western thought, they cannot speak in the vocabulary that is needed to engage in this debate.  We do not yet have the power to dictate the terms of the battle, so we have to arm ourselves with Western models of thought in order to properly rebut them and create space for our own modes of thought.

Escapism

While Ganesh says several times that the battle for Sanskrit is an important one that must be fought, he contradicts himself and seems to be lulled into a sense of escapism that all these battles are ultimately irrelevant and meaningless.  For example, he says,

“The means of transcendence may be through text, ritual, or art, but adherents aim to go beyond Form and internalize Content (by means of reflective inquiry into the Self), thus attaining what the Taittiriya Upanisad calls ‘brahmananda.’ This transcendental approach ensures that we neither harbour any malice towards divergent views nor give undue importance to differences in form. It helps us achieve harmony amidst diversity. … The idea of transcending comes neither from inadequacy nor from inability to handle variety. While the tradition respects diversity, its focus is on going within and going beyond.”

In other words, since our goal is to go beyond diversity, we should not get too bothered by Pollock and his divergent views.  In fact, he further criticizes Malhotra for “go[ing] against Gaudapada’s observation – ‘Dualists have firm beliefs in their own systems and are at loggerheads with one another but the non-dualists don’t have a quarrel with them. The dualists may have a problem with non-dualists but not the other way around.’ (Mandukya Karika 3.17-18).”  In other words, because we are so superior to the West, it is understandable for the West to have a problem with Sanskrit but we should not bother to have a problem with them!

It is precisely this kind of contradiction, complacency and escapism that has been the plague of Hindus for so long.  While Ganesh says this is a battle we should fight, he doesn’t seem to have the heart for it.  Ganesh’s goal seems to be inner peace and contentment – in which case one wonders why he bothers having this encounter with Malhotra in the first place. He concludes his critique with the following:

“That said, if we allow ourselves to be too troubled by such scholars and such debates, we will never be able to attain the peace of a contemplative mind. While we shall respect scholars like Malhotra and Pollock, we shall also remember Shankara’s insightful words: ‘The web of words, akin to a great forest, deludes the intellect. Seek thus to know the true Self, O seeker of Truth!’ (Vivekachudamani 60).”

That is great for Ganesh personally, but for those of us who care about the defense of Dharma, we do have to care about Pollock’s views, we do have to take them seriously, and we do have to counter them.

Mischaracterizations of Malhotra’s Work

Ganesh in many places mischaracterizes Malhotra’s positions or misunderstands them.

Ignoring Internal Differences

Ganesh accuses Malhotra of “clubbing all insider views” as the traditionalist view and reiterates that different schools of Vedanta have different interpretations of the Vedas but claim that only theirs is right.  He asks, “Who is to say what the right version is? Which of these schools qualify to be ‘the traditionalist view’? Who is the ‘ideal insider’?”

First of all, Malhotra has never glossed over the diversity within Indic thought.  His earlier book, Being Different, in fact goes through great lengths to contrast Indian diversity with the Western impulse towards homogeneity and the Abrahamic emphasis upon “one truth”.  In his subsequent book, Indra’s Net, Malhotra developed this thesis further into what he calls the open architecture of dharma systems, i.e., a framework and ecosystem that promotes the flowering of multiplicity of views and practices without competition or the need to assert supremacy.  Not only is there immense diversity, but at the same time there is profound underlying unity.

While respecting the diversity of Indic traditions, however, it is possible to find within them a harmonious ethos and value system that is consistent across them and that can be meaningfully contrasted with Western models without eliding the differences between the various darshanas, for example.  When Malhotra talks about the traditional view in the context of this book, he is not picking one of the darshanas as being the right and only one; he is speaking to a unity of thought behind all of the darshanas that bind them together and differentiate them from Western ways.

If Ganesh is offended at such a characterization, then such purism will render it impossible to ever engage in meaningful dialogue with the West or with any other tradition.

Ignoring Traditional Scholars

Ganesh accuses Malhotra of ignoring and looking down upon past masters and traditionalist scholars.  He provides a whole laundry list of scholars that he alleges should have been mentioned by Malhotra.  However, it is not clear what the point of this is.

Malhotra has never denied the existence of traditional scholars and when appropriate he always cites other scholars.  In fact, he always includes very extensive bibliographies and gives credit to other scholars whose ideas he uses—as Ganesh himself implicitly acknowledges elsewhere when he claims that Malhotra’s siddhanta is often ‘borrowed’ from other scholars that he cites.  Malhotra also explains in his book that he approached numerous traditional scholars for help in his research. But that almost every one of them came back after a few weeks to say that they could simply not understand Pollock’s heavy, jargon-laden writings.

Accordingly, in the context of this book, Malhotra was unable to rely on the traditional scholars he sought out to consult.  The process of writing this book revealed the shortcomings we have when it comes to our traditional scholars and how ill-equipped they are for the type of engagement and debate we need to have with the West.  Moreover, when it comes to this particular kshetra, the work of other traditional scholars cited by Ganesh is less relevant.  Malhotra is not discussing here the Aryan Invasion Theory or other specific issues; he is dismantling the very frameworks used by Western Indologists to study and interpret our traditions.  His approach is unique and new.

It is true that Malhotra critiques traditional scholars in his book.  This is not out of disrespect or dismissiveness of the role of the traditional scholar—to the contrary, Malhotra wants to empower them to take up the mantle of academic studies of Sanskrit and Hinduism that are currently dominated by Westerners.  The critique is meant as a call to action to develop a strong coterie of traditional scholars who can take this battle forward.

Why Study the West?

Ganesh takes issue with Malhotra’s proposition that traditional Indian scholars must study Western theories in order to be taken seriously by the West.  Again this is part of the self-contradictory nature of the critique, which at times acknowledges the importance of fighting this battle and at other times resorts to escapism.  Here again he takes an escapist approach:

“Malhotra’s pseudo-logic is like the trap of Nyaya that later advaitis fell victim to. See Shankara’s comment on nayyayikas in his commentaries on the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad and the Brahma Sutra. He says that logic can be used on both sides. It doesn’t rely on universal experience. Logic seeks proofs, which are external but spirituality seeks to go inward. Therefore, we have to consider all proofs in the light of universal experience. Nyaya operates at the level of adhibhuta, but Vedanta operates at the level of adhyatma.

“The same applies to the Western Orientalists or the Indian Leftists, who are crass materialists. And why should we use Western jargons and systems to study Indian works? We must work out our own way. Doesn’t Malhotra himself admit that the fundamental problem is the viewing of India through a Western lens? An ‘insider’ will use his/her experiential wisdom to silence the complex web of words.”

Ganesh uses pseudo-Vedanta to try to refute Malhotra’s alleged ‘pseudo-logic’.  But he totally misunderstands Malhotra’s position.  Malhotra is not saying that we should use Western jargons and systems to study Indian works.  He is saying the very opposite!  He is saying that viewing them through a Western lens distorts them.  But in order to remove the Western lens effectively and replace it with a traditional one; in order to counter the dominant academic discourse, one first has to understand the modus operandi of the opponent, their mental frameworks and ideology.  Without that, there can be no effective debate or rebuttal.  The very first step of purva-paksha is understanding the opponent.  Then only can a rebuttal be given!

Otherwise, we would continue to operate in silos; the difference is that the Western silo controls the academic system, the media, the educational system, and governmental policy.  We have our own little cocoons that have very little power or support.  If we do not take on the Western silo, we will just be conceding to them all power and let them become the sole dominant voice representing our traditions.

Missing the Forest for the Trees — Nitpicking without Purpose 

One of the most frustrating things about Ganesh’s critique is that instead of offering constructive criticisms that would strengthen the purva paksha, and which would be most welcome, most of his critique is merely nitpicking of different points that do not add anything of substance.

Sacred vs. Beautiful

One example is the following: “[Malhotra] says that the traditionalists see Sanskrit as sacred while the orientalists see Sanskrit as beautiful but not necessarily sacred. Why this divide between sacred and beautiful?”

This is a total non sequitur.  Malhotra did not in any way create a divide between sacred and beautiful; he simply said that Orientalists do not see Sanskrit as sacred while traditionalists do.  That does not mean traditionalists do not also see Sanskrit as being beautiful. In fact, a major criticism Malhotra has of Pollock is precisely that Pollock “removes the sacred” from his history of kavya.

Downplaying the Importance of Sanskrit

Ganesh also takes issue with the following statement by Malhotra: “Traditionally, Hindus have read Sanskrit for the purpose of understanding the ideas of ultimate reality.”

One would think this is a relatively straightforward, noncontroversial statement.  But Ganesh nitpicks this to an extreme:

“The ultimate reality is beyond form – it is immaterial if Sanskrit is used as a means. Speaking about deep sleep, there is a famous passage that proclaims, “In this state, a father is no longer a father, a mother is no more a mother, the universe is no longer a universe, Vedas are no more the Vedas, a thief is no longer a thief, a sinner is no more a sinner…” (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 4.3.22)

“Further, how does he account for the teachings of many poets and sages who were unaware of Sanskrit – be it the alwars, the vacanakaras, Mahalingaranga, Tukaram, or Ramakrishna Paramahamsa? And are they not a part of our tradition?

“In Devendra’s commentary on the Uttaradhyayana Sutra of the Jains, there is a beautiful quote in the second lecture – “When Mahavira spoke, his words were understood by gods and goddesses, men and women, forest-dwellers, and animals.” This is also a traditionalist view!”

Again, this is a very weird response.  Malhotra nowhere denies that deep spiritual experiences are beyond language.  He points out that the methods and processes and descriptions of these experiences used to reach these spiritual states were in Sanskrit, and that is why Sanskrit is known as deva bhasha.  Sanskrit was the language in which the Vedas were revealed to us.  That is why Sanskrit was sacred.  The fact that the state of consciousness in Samadhi is beyond any language, including Sanskrit, does not negate the status of Sanskrit as a language that was used for spiritual practice and development, for understanding and explaining the realm of adhyatma.

Furthermore, the primacy of Sanskrit in Hindu tradition in no way denigrates or denies the importance of vernacular languages.  Malhotra nowhere claims this, and this is yet another non sequitur.

Four ‘Levels’ of Speech

In yet another example, Ganesh quibbles Malhotra for referring to the four ‘levels’ of speech rather than the four ‘stages of speech’.  He says, “Malhotra’s explanation is incorrect (and he doesn’t give any references for this too). They are not four ‘levels’ of speech but rather the four ‘stages.’ From conception to utterance, an idea is said to pass through four stages – paraa (before thought), pashyanti (thought), madhyamaa (on the verge of utterance) and vaikhari (utterance). The ancient seers were able to go from paraa to vaikhari instantly (see Vicaraprapañca of Sediapu Krishna Bhat).”

In fact, based on the example provided by Ganesh, it seems that ‘level’ would be a more accurate rendering than ‘stage’ since one can go from one level to another without passing through all the levels in between, but one cannot do the same with ‘stages’.  However, that is beside the point.  This is such a meaningless, semantic quibble that it is hard to believe it is warranted to be included in this kind of a book review instead of a copyediting markup provided by an editor.

Being a ‘Sanskrit Fanatic’

Ganesh admonishes Malhotra for championing Sanskrit as a ‘Sanskrit fanatic’.  He says:

“Of course, we understand and agree in spirit with Malhotra but he should realize that the same tradition that he is defending has these diverse views. We are not anti-Sanskrit but we are also not Sanskrit fanatics. Here, the insightful words of M Hiriyanna prove invaluable – “When a new stage of progress is reached, the old is not discarded but is consciously incorporated in the new. It is the critical conservatism which marks Indian civilization…” (Popular Essays in Indian Philosophy)”

The ‘diverse views’ being referred to here by Ganesh are those views he claims that downplay the importance of Sanskrit.  In other words, Ganesh seems to be arguing that perhaps it is okay if Sanskrit is dead or is allowed to die since it is simply a ‘means’ and not the content to be preserved.  It is actually quite difficult to tell what it is that Ganesh means—in the beginning of the review, he disavows the death of Sanskrit but then are so many other places like this, where he suggests that Sanskrit is simply a means to an end, to be transcended, and therefore perhaps dispensable, that it is impossible to come up with a cogent, coherent critique out of these pages and pages of writing that could be considered constructive criticism.  And that is ultimately where the critique fails and misses its mark.

Conclusion

As Ganesh himself acknowledges, the battle for Sanskrit is one that must be joined.  In order for this to be successful, we need to join forces and work together.  We all want to build a strong home team that can reflect a diversity of views yet unite against our opponents strongly with one voice.  Critiques that are aimed at strengthening the response and arguments against Pollock are eagerly welcomed; however, critiques that simply demean Malhotra and his efforts without offering constructive suggestions and strategies backfire and strengthen our opponents instead.

Ganesh and Malhotra both agree that it is the job of traditional scholars to take up the mantle and move this battle forward.  While Ganesh seems to attack Malhotra for not having the right credentials for being a traditional scholar, he misses that point that Malhotra repeatedly says that he is having to do the job that traditional scholars ought to have done, but failed to do.

It is earnestly hoped that a constructive engagement and direct dialogue could be opened between Ganesh and Malhotra to join in the battle both acknowledge is urgent and necessary.

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