Let us make it clear at the outset that this article is not a denunciation of the individual assistant professor whose appointment at the Faculty of Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vigyan (SVDV) department in Banaras Hindu University has created quite a stir in the country, across ideological and political boundaries. Nor is it an evaluation of his qualifications or eligibility for the post. We are not in a position to do these things, nor are we interested in delivering ad hominem responses to a genuine issue. Instead, this article intends to present a critical survey of the discourses and arguments that have sprung up in the wake of this appointment and the consequent students’ protest against the same. We will look at the quality of these arguments and analyse them critically so as to lay bare what they are worth, and what really is at stake in this entire affair.
The legal aspects of this affair have been succinctly presented in this article by Sri Hariprasad N., published on 21.11.2019 by IndiaFacts.org. The specific rules laid out by the founding fathers of the Banaras Hindu University, subsequent amendments to them by the secular state, crucial inputs from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on parliamentary debates regarding Article 28, as well as Mahamana Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya’s comments regarding the broad vision behind establishing BHU have all been discussed in that article in a very clear and straightforward manner. Therefore, to avoid repetition, the present article will not cover those same aspects all over again. Instead, it will offer a detailed rationale of the original vision that sought to keep the Faculty of SVDV strictly under the exclusive control of Hindus, through critical analysis of the arguments and discourses surrounding the matter. The legal arguments may get informed by the rational framework laid out here.
Before getting into the actual arguments and their analysis, it is worthwhile to point out the irony in Hindu students trying to defend their right to learn the essence of Vedic thought paradigms, which are steeped in complex Hindu spiritual practices and in the profound experiential insights gained therefrom, from none other than a practicing Hindu. For so demanding, these Hindu students are being condemned by everyone, starting from their arch-rivals (like Marxists, liberals and Islamists) to those who have shown considerable sympathies for and claimed stakes in the Hindu cause (the so-called Hindu Right). Such a state of affairs is bizarre to say the least. In the present Indian context, one has enough grounds to believe that it is an inherent bias in the education system against the Hindus that the Hindu student of dharma-vijñāna (literally, the technical knowledge of dharma) finds himself in a predicament like this. For, under the current circumstances in this country, it is rather difficult to find a student of the Catholic or Muslim doctrine, preparing for a vocation in some religious office in their respective creeds, to be in a similar predicament.
Now on the actual arguments and discourses surrounding the issue. First things first: the English media as well as the Indian-language media are claiming that an assistant professor of Sanskrit has been stopped by the students of SVDV from teaching the Sanskrit language. That is a blatantly false claim. The contention is not about the teaching of the Sanskrit language, it is about the teaching of Sāhitya and Alaṁkāra-śāstra which have been rightly placed under the Faculty of Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vigyan. Either the media has been clueless about this very important distinction between a language and a distinct discipline that is primarily based in that language, or the media have been mischievously misleading the public by spreading misinformation. In either case, the media have made themselves look like a highly irresponsible, utterly unreliable and hopelessly biased institution.
Let us now go deeper, into the heart of the matter. The question that must be raised here is this: what prompts the inherent bias against Hindus in the Indian education scenario that we have mentioned? It must be kept in mind that this bias does not remain safely confined within the narrow walls of the academia nor within a select coterie of academicians. Instead, this vicious Anti-Hindu bias percolates through them to poison the public discourses unfolding in the media. It informs the so-called “enlightened rationale” of the most visible public intellectuals in this country and abroad; thus vitiating the discerning ability of the larger public and the political class which thrives by playing to the gallery.
The argument against the SVDV students’ demand that they will only accept someone as their teacher who practices what he preaches is this: why can’t a Non-Hindu teach Hindu ‘theology’ if they have studied the subject with due diligence, from the primary level and up to a research degree? This argument is being advanced, along with falsifiable facts and some equally untenable equivalences, by even those who are fairly well-known as ardent and capable defenders of the dharmic traditions. Another argument which is being frequently thrown up into the discussions surrounding this affair is as follows: of all the courses that are taught in the SVDV department in BHU, Sāhitya is “the most secular of all”. Therefore, barring someone from teaching such a “secular” course just because they are not an insider – that is to say, they are not a real participant in one or the other Sanātana Hindu traditions – is not only unjustifiable, it is a disservice to the dharmic principles. Let us look at these specific arguments more closely.
We wish more power be given to every Indian – irrespective of their religious/social profile – who decides to take up Sanskrit studies and allied disciplines for higher studies. The future of India and her civilizational ethos would be in safe hands if young Indians are encouraged to study Sanskrit, the key to understanding the Indic Civilisation. However, in our strange times, studying a discipline is one thing; while practicing what one has studied is quite another. Practicing what one has sincerely studied is no less than living one’s acquired knowledge and skills. It is a translation of the theoretical into the practical. It is a transformation of the perceived into the embodied.
This last observation applies on Indian knowledge systems more than anything else. Indian knowledge systems, including Sāhitya and/or Alaṁkāra-śāstra, are meant to be embodied forms of knowledge rather than a mere bookish exercise. This means that an expert in Sāhitya and/or Alaṁkāra-śāstra must actively and continually go on applying the siddhānta-s (that is, the final conclusions) of these disciplines into one or more performative actions. Indeed, the very name ‘Sāhitya’ implies accompaniment; the idea being, the oral or written literary compositions must accompany the performer and his performance. For many Sāhitya exponents, this sort of performance includes kathakatā (expository storytelling), pravacana (interpretation of śāstra-s through oratorical skills), avadhānam (simultaneous performing of multiple cognitive and creative tasks), among others. These complex performances require complete immersion in dharmic traditions and an uncompromising openness to the multiplicity of paths to enlightenment.
And therefore, teaching these discipline to future Indian citizens is an issue where questions of commitment and perspective become crucial. If a certain instructor does not have a healthy compassionate approach to – let alone agreement with – the view that śabda (that is, Vedic utterances) is one of the chief sources of knowledge, that the śabda is apauruṣeya (that is, they are not human constructs) and that following the lead of the śabda one can attain the paramārtha (that is, the ultimate goal), how can we expect that specific instructor to instil the same kind of compassionate approach to this view in the student? To put things into perspective, the said view happens to be the very basis of the most enduring linguistic and literary theories of the Indic Civilisation.
Learning comes through passionate teaching – which comes from a firm conviction in the things that one is teaching. This holds true for all disciplines of knowledge, but it is essential for Indian knowledge systems, which are passed on through the embodied medium, the best formulation of which has been the guru-śiṣya paramparā of the Indian gurukula system of education. A professor must profess what he teaches, that is, he have some convictions regarding the subject he teaches.
The question is: can we expect an adherent of a non-dharmic tradition to possess those essential qualifications? Even if we could expect such a thing from such an individual on the grounds that they are liberal in their religious and political outlook, can we ever ascertain whether our expectations and assumptions are infallible?
We cannot. Therefore, the best policy in such scenarios is to avoid ambiguity regarding the questions of commitment and perspective as best as one can. How do you do that? You do not allow anyone except a committed practitioner of one or the other Hindu traditions to teach a discipline that is so intricately wedded to the spiritual practices, realisations and convictions specific to the Hindu worldview. Discrimination is not inherently bad. In this specific context, this act of discrimination is necessary to protect dharma. Let us here reiterate, lest we forget, that oft-repeated dictum “Dharmo rakṣati rakṣitaḥ” which never becomes a cliché. You fail dharma, and in no time dharma will fail you. Those in charge of the SVDV department must not fail its students by allowing even a single question being raised about the convictions and commitment of its preceptors. Their integrity in observing and upholding Sanātana Hindu thought in its most pristine form must not be compromised. If need be, the aspiring candidates for the teaching posts of a department like SVDV should be asked even such questions as are apparently unpleasant to hear or answer; e.g. whether or not they believe that idol-worshippers should burn in eternal hellfire, or that one can attain God only through a specific person and/or path. That is the only practical way to ensure that the rigour and sanctity of the discipline is not diluted, or worse, subverted. In a more just and sane world, this principle of vigilant discernment should have been applied in democratic polity as well. That would have kept such forces which use democracy to subvert it and establish an intolerant theocracy in its place, at bay.
What may be the reason for contentions between the SVDV students and some sympathisers of the Hindu cause? The chief reason is that the latter are looking at this affair using such categories of thought which are patently derived from western universalism.
The inherent bias against Hindus and Hindu structures of thinking arises from an indiscriminate superimposition of certain incompatible ideas, which are products of western universalism, onto such domains of activity which should have been left to Hindus and Hindus alone. These domains should have been left to Hindus alone because the expertise and prerogative for such domains can only be acquired through hard experience; acquired through a life wherein certain practices are observed with due contemplation. For example, if one is to teach the concept of rasa – a key concept in the understanding of Sāhitya and Alaṁkāra-śāstra (loosely translated as poetics and aesthetic philosophy) – one has to be first acquainted with the idea of rasa that has been introduced in the Upanishads as “raso vai saḥ”. Translated into English, this Upanishadic statement would read as “Brahman is rasa”. Now, the Upanishads are part of the Mokṣa-śāstra, that is, they deal with the liberation of the Atman from all bondages of life and death – which is the ultimate goal of human life in the Sanātana Hindu or Vedic view. Sāhitya-Darpaṇa, one of the most important primary texts on Alaṁkāra-śāstra by Viśvanātha Kavirāja, formulates the experience of rasa as the “twin brother of that experience which is the experience of knowing Brahman” – brahmāsvādasahodara. The Upanishads also speak of the Atman as one and the same with Brahman (“ayamātmā brahma”); which leads us to the inference that the experience of rasa is similar to the experience of knowing the Atman, the Real Core of our being. The Natyaśāstra of Bharata, the fountainhead of all Sanskrit poetics and aesthetic philosophy gives us another useful concept in experiencing rasa. That concept is “sahṛdayatva”, which literally translates to “same-hearted-ness” but is actually a state of the spectator/reader in which they are in the same intuitive level as the creator who may be a composer/author/playwright/performer of the specific art form. This concept applies in the appreciation of any art form – be it music, theatre, painting, or poetry – and it is way ahead in time of the modern, twentieth century western literary/aesthetic-theoretical concepts of ‘reader-response theory’ and ‘reception theory’ in anticipating the crucial role played by the experiencer of the art form in its actualization. Now, sahṛdayatva is a general yardstick used in the field of Sāhitya and Alaṁkāra-śāstra to ensure if one can have a complete understanding and appreciation of a concept (like rasa). By this standard, one cannot become capable of understanding – let alone teaching – complex concepts like rasa unless one has sahṛdayatva with its source(s). Can we then really expect any individual whose professed religion mandates as false the claim of sameness between Atman, the Self, and Brahman, to actually profess this idea – that is, to have a firm conviction in it, which is reinforced by repeated śravaṇa (hearing of the idea), manana (conceptualizing of the idea) and nididhyāsana (finally, realising the idea) – and then to actually teach it to students in order to instil the idea in them with the same zeal and passion as would be done by a Hindu scholar who is expected to have lived and breathed this very idea through his practices, informed by a sadguru, if not actually realised it? It is no mere coincidence that the Indic masters of poetics and aesthetic philosophy, our best ācārya-s from the fields of Sāhitya and Alaṁkāra-śāstra, happened to be the best ācārya-s of the Mokṣa-śāstra as well. The names of Abhinavagupta and Panditaraja Jagannatha readily come to mind in this connection.
Applying the same yardstick of equality in every domain is nothing but a subtle way of exercising racial supremacy of the West. Not every domain is suitable to be judged by the idea of ‘equality of opportunity’ – much less by the idea of ‘equality of outcome’ – as the West understands and preaches it. The West’s idea in this regard is informed and shaped by a sharp demarcation between the Church and the State – a formulation that they call ‘secularism’. Ironically, this idea is informed by the Judeo-Christian notion that human beings are born sinners and an excessive dependence on the written word. By contrast, the Indic civilisation stresses the inherent divinity of man, whose Real Self or Atman has to be manifested by gradually overcoming the false notions of the body-mind-intellect complex through karma, jñāna, and bhakti. This is the dharmic way of understanding man and his place in the universe. Non-Indic individuals will create for themselves a level playing field with Hindus and other Indic individuals for faculty positions in the dharma-vijñāna disciplines when they immerse themselves in the dharmic way of living. Until then, there can be no equality of opportunity, in the true sense of the term, as far as teaching dharma-related disciplines is concerned.
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Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit is an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres in India and abroad. He can be reached at [email protected]