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Where is the Home Team?

By: Rajiv Malhotra

Every tradition faces challenges from time to time, and its adherents must consider how to maintain its viability in new epochs. On the whole, this is a healthy process. A tipping point, however, comes when opponents begin to dominate the discourse so overwhelmingly that the defenders of the tradition simply capitulate. Sanskrit studies are facing this risk right now.

In order to ensure Sanskrit’s survival so that it may flourish anew, traditionalists need to assemble what I have called a “home team” to represent their views and restore balance.

The “home team” would consist of those who work towards seeing Sanskrit flourish as a living language, and also as a pathway into the transcendent realms of experience (and the knowledge systems based on them).

We have excellent intellectual resources for mounting such a team. In terms of methodology, we have the traditional practices of purva-paksha (examining the opponent’s position) and uttara-paksha (developing a response). These practices go back many millennia and were used by the great debaters of our tradition. They demand taking the time to appreciate an opposing position, to understand it as much as possible from within the opponent’s world view, and then to develop a response rooted in one’s own world view. Unfortunately, nobody has undertaken to do this with respect to the current dominant school of Sanskrit studies, not even to the preliminary extent that I have attempted in this book.

Therefore, such a home team is nowhere to be seen. Some of the troubling questions are as follows: Why have no traditional scholars conducted such an exercise during all the decades in which the view of Western social science has been developed and promoted, and why are none doing so even now when that view has achieved widespread acceptance and endorsement? My conversations with traditional pandits reveal that they have only a superficial awareness of what Western social science scholars and their Indian leftist collaborators have been up to. Indeed many traditionalists aren’t even aware that the opposition exists! Whereas the outsiders have been honing and refining their views for decades, the traditionalists have barely begun to recognise the problem they face. The outsiders are sophisticated, well funded and able to draw from centuries’ worth of prior Western experience in managing similar inter-civilisational encounters.

The traditional Sanskrit scholars are, for the most part, completely unprepared to tackle such issues.

The Western social sciences and philological positions are articulated in heavy, complex and sometimes jargon-ridden English. Their matrix lies in theories that traditionally educated Indians have rarely heard of. These theories are based on Western historical experiences that Indians know about only vaguely (if at all), and from a distance. Such theories originated in response to the crisis of modernism in Europe in the twentieth century: a catastrophic internal collapse of values that led in turn to predatory capitalism and fascism. The social sciences have drawn on literary and cultural theories that were developed to analyse this crisis. However, these are now being applied to India in a blanket fashion, at times with no regard for the differences in historical context between India and the West.

Those few traditional scholars who want a seat at the table of international Sanskrit studies would first have to spend years studying complex Western theories. By then, however, they might become so immersed in the perspectives of Western thought as to have forgotten or discarded their traditional methods of understanding. The Western camp presents a mountain of information, all analysed in terms of its own world views and with purposes that traditionalists find strange and antithetical to their interests.

It is natural for traditional Indian scholars to be overwhelmed and baulk at evaluating such a huge and systematic body of work.

I was disappointed that an internationally renowned Indian expert in Sanskrit drew a complete blank when I asked him basic questions regarding a prominent Western Indologist’s major work. He had no clue about such details but was in awe of the Indologist, based solely on his “reputation”.

The traditional scholars prefer to pursue the studies using the methods that evolved over the centuries, rather than grapple with the new-fangled Western methods. Among other things, they really do not consider work based on these Western theories to constitute useful or genuine knowledge. After all, they reason, the West is not bothered about Sanskrit itself but is concerned only with the political and social dimensions of its history. What, they ask, is the point of studying such things at all? It is but a waste of time, for the ultimate purpose of studying Sanskrit is only to learn what the tradition itself was intended to teach. This attitude has led many traditionalists into self-isolation.

As this book will show, the secular camp has definitely infiltrated the apparatus of formal Sanskrit studies worldwide. Its exponents control many of the important international conferences on Sanskrit, the prestigious chairs of research activity, the best-paid academic jobs, the availability of grants for research work and so forth. In other words, they influence the means of knowledge production. As a result, many scholars who would be qualified to carry out due diligence regarding the Western school of Sanskrit studies are enmeshed in a conflict of interest that prevents them from performing such controversial work. Some of the important traditional scholars have been co-opted by Western Indology. There are those who dance between conflicting postures depending on the audience they are facing at a given time.

Many top Indian scholars of Sanskrit enjoy Western – most notably American – patronage in one form or another.

Their careers are often underwritten by American largesse. They are frequently invited to places like Columbia and Harvard universities which brings them more prestige back home in India. The support increases their brand value among peers and boosts their careers. Consequently they become even more loyal to their Western sponsors and are less prone to question them. It is difficult to expect such individuals to involve themselves in the formation of such a home team as I have described. Some have given me leads and pointers to help with my own work but often under the condition of anonymity.

Worse still, many traditional Indian scholars have told me they actively support the work of the outsiders, who they say have done yeoman service to our tradition, whereas, according to them, the insiders have neglected to work in this area. Some traditional scholars of this variety are simply bowled over by the fact that a few white men and women have learned enough Sanskrit to read out slokas in public, and feel flattered by the praise such westerners routinely lavish on the beauty of the language. These individuals tend to close ranks with the Americans. They proudly parrot the Americanised discourse as a way to appear more sophisticated than their fellow Indians.

This raises the question: What about those modern (and westernised) Hindus who are concerned about these issues and who do have the English language skills and Western education to grapple with this work? They know postmodernism theory, and can read densely written English materials. Their difficulties, I find, are the opposite of those our traditional scholars face: They lack even a rudimentary understanding of the Sanskrit tradition, metaphysics and cosmology it would take to respond to the theoretical sophistication of the other side.

As a result, these potential defenders of a traditional point of view cannot adjudicate what the Western-trained scholars write. They are also sometimes shamed by the fact that others know so much more about their tradition than they themselves do. Hence they turn to anyone who appears to give them English-language access to this tradition: something they have been denied by the Indian education system.

Frequently, these westernised Hindus are simply unaware that India even possessed such a distinguished Sanskrit tradition until some Western-trained specialist happens to mention it. The new discourse falls on their ears like a revelation, fascinating them because it charts the unknown territory of their own history. A number of modern Hindus also feel that Western-trained scholars, whatever their flaws and limitations, will “package” Sanskrit thought in such a way as to make it presentable in international forums: something traditional pandits have not been able to do. The process of re-packaging our tradition for worldwide acceptance instills pride.

Unfortunately, such well-meaning supporters of the tradition fail to see that Sanskrit thought becomes seriously compromised in the process. In most cases, they cannot even evaluate what is being delivered. They have a shallow understanding of the real treasures of Sanskrit and sanskriti, and they cultivate an aura of sophistication by joining the chorus of support for Western interpretations.

One must acknowledge that the Western Sanskrit studies camp has cultivated a highly skilled ability to be poetic in their popular lectures and interviews, using careful words of praise.

For instance, they often praise kavya as valuable but often remain silent on shastra/knowledge; acclaim Sanskrit’s revival but do not extend this to spoken Sanskrit; celebrate vyavaharika texts while omitting mention of paramarthika texts.

While the traditionalists are sensitive to instances of blatant attack, they fail to “read between the lines” when the subversion is subtle or when the insinuation is by omission. Often they miss the nuances in the discourse, hence they cannot see through the fine rhetoric employed by the outsider camp.

Although the Sanskrit tradition has met with many challenges in the past, the situation now is more dangerous than ever. For the first time, American scholars of Sanskrit have co-opted Indian billionaires, received Indian government awards and endorsements and become the darlings of the mainstream Indian media elite. In effect, the outsiders have infiltrated some of the most sacred, established and renowned traditional Sanskrit centres of learning.

In sum, few today are engaged in responding to the outsiders. Those who have the necessary knowledge do not wish to object. Those who understand the problem and wish to object are ill-equipped with the required knowledge.

[Excerpted from: The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive?, Rajiv Malhotra, HarperCollins India, pages 43-48.]


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