Book Review – The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra

This book by Rajiv Malhotra brings out into the open, the existential threats facing Vedic civilisation today. This battle for Sanskrit has to be fought tooth and nail by every Hindu, better would be to wage an outright war against these divisive forces who’re hell bent on destroying our civilizational values and heritage. These destructive forces lay bare their own impotence by attacking Vedic ethos and beliefs as these are far superior than anything they can claim as their own. The first few pages provides the background that alerted the author to write this book. In August 2014 the author became aware of a sinister attempt by American Indologist, Sheldon Pollock that could have compromised the integrity of Sringeri Sharda Peetham, one of the most sacred institution for Hindus. A group of wealthy NRI’s were being beguiled by Pollock to team up with the top administrators of Sringeri Peetham in India to setup a Columbia university chair in the name of Adi Shankara, an 8th century Hindu sage widely attributed to the revival of Advaita Vedanta. The sanctity of Sringeri Peetham has been carefully safeguarded for more than a thousand years. The adhikara (authority) to represent the Peetham and speak on its behalf has always rested solely with the acharyas, who are groomed from childhood and lead an austere life to assume this responsibility. This was alarming for author to see this university chair created in name of Peetham as it would’ve amounted to giving up control of the teachings and brand name of Sringeri Peetham to outside interests. The author concedes that the issue was not whether Hinduism or the teachings of Adi Shankara can sustain critique by outside authorities. In-deed he accepts that such critiques are necessary and healthy. Rather the issue was that, in this case, the critique would be put forth with the imprimatur of Sringeri Peetham. In author’s view the Peetham should shoulder the responsibility for answering the critics, not sponsoring them!

This book is a commendable attempt dedicated to the exemplary Dharmic debating tradition of purva-paksha (examining the opponent’s position) and uttara-paksha (developing a response). The author views his attempt, rather poetically as an intellectual yajna with mutual respect, but likelihood is that after reading this book readers would question if these divisive forces deserve any such respect. It would’ve been far more heroic for someone like Sheldon Pollock to really imbibe the spiritual tenets of Vedas and then work on the reformation of the staid Abrahamic traditions to plug the huge gap that exists between the two belief systems. Instead Pollock is only interested in making these puerile and conceited attempts to distort the Sanatani beliefs and to unseat Vedic tradition from its high pedestal earned through its superior logic and reasoning. By pursuing these vain attempts Western scholars like Pollock stand the risk of being discredited in the long run even if they might get some half-witted admirers on Indian left and liberal side in the short term.

The first chapter covers hijacking of Sanskrit tradition by Western orientalists who wish to side line its sacred dimension and ‘sanitise’ or ‘detoxify’ it of what they see as its inherent elitism and oppressive cultural and social structures. The author successfully debunks these arguments and provide a pathway to celebrate Sanskrit’s enduring sacredness, aesthetic powers, metaphysical acuity and its ability to generate knowledge in many domains. Scholars wearing the Western lens regard Sanskrit’s sacredness as a smokescreen for elitist and oppressive views. They either don’t understand the dense ‘paramarthika’ (transcendent) aspects of the tradition or wish to beguile the non-scholars. Like in Pollock’s case, he ascribes low cadence to Vedas & Shastras and without providing any logical reasoning tries to reduce these as mere hymnologies. He fails to acknowledge that Vedas are the first recorded statements of human reasoning, a foremost attempt to answers the big questions like who are we? where have we come from? why this world exists? No other world scripture even comes closer to articulating these arguments in such poetic and definitive manner. Pollock ascribes greater priority to the ‘vyavaharika’ (ordinary) texts like ‘kavya’ completely failing to comprehend that in Vedic tradition both ‘shastra’ and ‘kavya’ genres are the opposite sides of the same coin, both deal with metaphysical aspects of the world, one just in a more formal way that the other. Another bogey raised by western scholars deflated in this chapter is that Vedas and Sanskrit are inherently hierarchical and oppressive leading to Brahmanical elitism. The truth which perhaps in beyond the grasp of Western scholars is that Sanskrit is a unique tool in Vedic tradition for liberation available to all humans. This chapter also dissects another far-fetched theory that Sanskrit oral traditions are not important and that written Sanskrit tradition came in force only with the advent of Buddhists that too of Scythian & Turkic origins and successfully discredits it too.

Chapter 2 provides a unique view into origins of Orientalism and how it evolved from its original European roots to currently in vogue strand of American Orientalism. The term ‘Orientalism’ and associated theory as propounded by Edward Said in 1978 discredited Western scholars by proving credibly that the way the western scholars ‘perceive the West and thereby defines East’ is inherently flawed. The author describes the rise of American orientalism and how it appropriated the Indian left and influenced post-colonial studies in India thus giving rise to the bogeys of Aryan invasion, marginalisation of Dalits & Muslims and anti-Brahmanical discourse in politics. This chapter also introduces Sheldon Pollock as the foremost pandit of American Orientalism and describes his collusion with Indian left. The author summarises the primary works of Sheldon Pollock in this chapter, in particular his publication ‘The language of the Gods in the World of Men’ where he tried to label Sanskrit as a dead language and also judged it as a primary tool of social oppressiveness in India. The author has tried to expose these works and has put forward an interesting viewpoint that Pollock can be located to the ancient Vedic Charvaka school of thought in light of his abhorrence to sacred.

Chapter 3 deals in depth with the obsession of Western scholars with ‘secularising’ Sanskrit. Here author provides excepts from Pollock’s works and debunks the fabricated interpretation of Sanskrit as against transcendence, against ritual/yagna, against Shastras and against grammar. Here author proves Pollock as overly influenced with the Italian thinker Giambattista Vito on his interpretation of transcendence and sacredness as representation of a primitive culture.

Chapter 4 is an argument against Sanskrit being a source of oppression as attested by Western scholars. Here author exposes the cunning attempt by Western scholars to come back into contention after a sound beating from Said’s Orientalism. The author first describes the flawed Pollock’s contention that the field of Indology is not something which helped oppressors but instead that ‘Orientalism as such had existed in Sanskrit itself long before the advent of European Orientalism.’ Then author exposes the inherent unsound nature of this argument and shows this as the clever ploy to boomerang the blame for oppression on Sanskrit itself and thereby exculpate the European Indologists. Then Author further disapproves of Pollock’s contention that the study of Sanskrit and its ancient texts hold clues to understanding oppression in Indian society today. Author claims that Pollock by justifying the domination built into Sanskrit and by his ardent wish to ‘liberate’ Indians from their own Shastras is only implying that the crown jewels of our civilisation i.e. Vedas and Shastras are not to be used as a means for producing new knowledge and thus making Indians intellectually dependent on West. The author lays bare this clever ploy by Pollock and his associates to justify his Anti-Shastras stand which runs through most of his works over several decades. The author’s contention is that Pollocks’ proposal would hand over the authority of Sanskrit studies to westernised scholars using his ‘political philology’, this would lead to western scholars like Pollock to call the shots and eventually become the proxies to understand the Indian culture and beliefs.

Chapter 5 deals with Ramayana which Pollock views albeit ludicrously, as a project for propagating Vedic social oppression. Here is the most far-fetched theory ever propounded by a Western scholar that Ramayana is a myth potentially inspired by a Buddhist Jataka tale about a man named Rama. Here Pollock appears to side-line the traditional view that the Ramayana reflects an actual event, conveniently ignoring the issue of historical evidence. According to him Brahmins co-opted the new literary Sanskrit developed by Buddhists in order to write the Ramayana as their first kavya. One of the Pollock’s fundamental views is that all the important sacred figures of the tradition lack individuality and fee will. He sees that the characters in Valmiki’s Ramayana as lacking agency and freedom of choice and therefore no control over their destiny. For him, this is the acceptance of suffering which means there is no justice referring to karma as a form of fatalism. The author deflates this attempt at equating Karma with the Western concept of mechanistic fate and argues that this is based on a profound misunderstanding. Author says it is better to see Karma as a system of causation in which a portion of the effect is time-delayed. Author also exposes Pollock’s intellectual dishonesty by proving that he has an agenda of political intervention while interpreting these ‘dangers’ of Ramayana. Pollock’s political bias was apparent in his work ‘Ramayana and political Imagination in India’ written very soon after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992.

Chapter 6 deals with the sinister attempt to politicise Indian literature. Here author exposes Pollock’s approach to consider all the important historical developments strictly from the point of view of politics and social domination. He ignores that any legitimate quest for spiritual wisdom could have driven these cultural developments. This chapter summarises Pollock’s seminal theory of kavya which ascribes the primary purpose of kavya being a tool used by kings to reinforce and perpetuate their power with no emphasis on the spiritual dimensions to avoid showing a non-political motive at work. Either Pollock thinks that Indians are dim-witted or innocent enough to be beguiled but this chapter shows the depravity of overall thought process in all Pollock’s works.

Chapter 7 continues with this dialogue but this time in the historical context. Here Pollock’s view of the rise of vernaculars and how power shaped these vernaculars is deflated. Pollock’s novel stipulation of Sanskrit cosmopolis model which insists that Sanskrit was driven top down by kings and Brahmins is discredited. The flaws in Pollock’s view, that Sanskrit was monopolised by Brahmins and that there was no writing before Buddhists came around 200 BC are uncovered. The author shows convincingly that Pollock rather naively superimposed the theory of aestheticization of power in most his works and this results in ill-conceived formalisation that Sanskrit grammar and kavya depend solely on the hold of royal power. Author does say rather harshly that it is dumb-founded to propagate this alleged link between grammar and social order and that Pollock compounds the confusion by saying that the king’s ‘philological judgement’ was an index of ‘correct political judgement’. According to author, Pollock does not seem to fully grasp the gist of Sanskrit grammar when he says that political was thoroughly pervaded by the poetical and the philological and above all the by grammatical. His example of word ‘varna’ used both in grammar (to mean a range of language sound) and as a social term (referring to individuals and groups with certain qualities) does not mean that it can be conflated to claim that politics and grammar of Sanskrit are causally linked. The author says that it is nothing but an example of ‘homographs’ which are words with more than one meaning and abound in all languages.

Chapter 8 provides an alternative to Pollock’s view on the rise of Sanskrit and its relationship with vernaculars. The author’s hypothesis is that there has been an organic process that respects the sacred dimension in people’s lives and their agency in bringing historical changes. Hence one cannot presume top-down politics as the sole cause for change and that it would be more accurate to assume that Sanskrit spread organically throughout India.

Chapter 9 refutes the Pollock’s paper ‘The Death of Sanskrit’ (2001) where Pollock lays bare his divisive agenda and condemn India’s latest attempts to re-popularise Sanskrit as ‘political revisionism’ in the service on nationalism. The author convincingly debunks the paper as latest in Pollock’s attempts to exploit dichotomies like Sanskrit versus the Vernaculars, Buddhists versus Hindus, Hindus versus Muslims and Dalit versus Brahmins. He says that this paper is nothing but adding a new dichotomy of Hindu nationalist attempts at reviving Sanskrit versus his own liberation philology approach that would detoxify it. The author points out that Pollock is using Hindu identity politics as an effigy to make a sweeping case against the efforts to promote Sanskrit’s viability as a spoken language.

Chapter 10 provides some more inputs on Pollock’s methodology and his use of ‘political philology’ and ‘liberation philology’. The author shows that Political philology is a largely a Marxist initiative to use philology for the specific purpose of posting at politics (i.e. power and exploitation) as the driver of culture. Liberation philology is Pollock’s recent term which he uses to describe his particular ideological lens. It emphasises on social activism to bring change with social engineering. Author raises red flags on this approach and points to an alternative approach to the study of Sanskrit.

Chapter 11 is the last chapter and in which author comes out with his own alternative approach of ‘sacred philology’, a philosophy rooted in the conviction that Sanskrit cannot be divorced from its matrix in the Vedas and Shastras, or from its orientation towards the transcendent realm. Author believes that a wholehearted embrace of sacred philology would require not just that traditional Sanskrit scholars wake up from their hibernation and that a whole new and well-funded set of programmes be launched to support it and to develop a cadre of younger scholars.

In conclusion, this is a seminal book by Rajiv Malhotra and would go long way in initiating a genuine public debate and dialogue about the defence of Sanskrit. This battle for Sanskrit would be a long & hard one but it would be well worth to expend our energies to save our core civilizational values. Without these values the world would be such a poorer place. The author warns us that only a few are strong enough to go through an intense study of Western thought without irrevocably drifting away from Indian thought. We need institutional environment to exist to support such a context and still provide the learning and breadth and engagement necessary to understand our Sanskriti.

Tarun Rattan

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