Book Review – The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra

India needs a home team to stand up for Sanskrit because something critical to Indian Sanskriti is at stake.

Can Sanskrit be used to undermine Sanskriti? If we believe Rajiv Malhotra, it may already be underway. In his recent book, The Battle For Sanskrit, Malhotra raises questions that are critical for Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language and Sanskriti, the core Indian civilizational values that found expression through this language and over the last few millennia, has inspired every other field of human thought and activity in the Indian subcontinent and beyond. The book should interest not only those who live within the Indian value space anywhere in the world, but also those who may be even remotely interested in India and the history of this language, which is now being linked to the widespread social disparity in India. Besides, the book also touches upon the highly contested Western Universalism.

Malhotra explores the issue by focusing on a prominent American scholar Sheldon Pollock, a Harvard graduate and currently a professor at the Columbia University, celebrated globally for his authority on Sanskrit language. The author examines Pollock’s scholarly works produced over the years in the area of Sanskrit studies, his views on India, his political activism and the larger implications of his proliferating army of highly articulate fellow-scholars taking his views across the world. For the past few decades, Pollock has been interpreting India’s Sanskrit and Sanskriti and exporting it back to the Indians, by infusing new meanings to the old Sanskrit texts. Malhotra’s central argument is that this interpretation aims at systematically removing from Sanskrit something that has been at the core of this language and the culture from the very beginning, i.e. the aspects concerning Dharma and Paramarthika.

Besides highlighting some major gaps in the understanding of these scholars, Malhotra also points fingers at something sinister in this post-colonial, post-cold war wave of renewed interest in India’s Sanskrit and Sanskriti. Unlike the colonial Indologists, argues Malhotra, the US led global team of activist-scholars are driven by their motivation to change India by “secularising” Sanskrit. These scholars are now starting to proclaim the secularized version of Sanskrit, purged of its core Dharma and Paramarthika aspects, as the only one worthy of scholarly attention. However, the traditional Sanskrit scholars and those who subscribe to the Sanskrit-based Indian value space are either unaware of this enterprise or lack competence and necessary resources to put up a scholarly defense. Therefore, the author provides “a ‘red flag’ list of issues that ought to wake up serious Hindu intellectuals”. The book is essentially an alert.

The opening chapter, Introduction: The Story Behind the Book, not only lays out author’s motivations, but also deals with the key characters and institutions in the story, such as Sheldon Pollock, US-based NRI interest groups, Columbia University in the US and Sringreri Sharada Peetham (SSP) in India to bring out what is at stake in an exceptionally concise, crisp and pointed manner that is generally a mark of professional management and communication Gurus. After introducing the larger cross currents through some of the recent developments regarding setting up a chair in Sanskrit studies in Columbia university under the name of SSP and some related critical points, Malhotra raises the central question: “Who will control our (Hindu) traditions?” and calls for an open intellectual debate between “outsiders” and “insiders”.

In the first chapter, The hijacking of Sanskrit and Sanskriti, Malhotra elaborates on the definition of Insiders and Outsiders and lays out in detail the disputes and disagreements between the two loosely marked camps, where the distinction is not based on nationality, race or even religious identity. Essentially, anyone who is living or interested in or just sympathetic to Sanskrit and the Sanskrit-based Paramarthika or Dharmik value space and Indian culture belongs to the “insider” camp, also referred as the Sacred Camp. On the other hand, those, who may be interested in the language and the culture it inspired, but who reject India’s Paramarthika or Dharmik tradition as irrelevant and treat it as an obstruction in the progressive development of India and hence needs to be removed, belong to the “outsider” camp, also referred as the Secular Camp. They are driven by the desire to bring change in India by secularizing Sanskrit and the associated tradition.

According to Malhotra the outsider/secular camp is well placed, resource-rich and globally networked to produce scholarly works. They systematically scrutinize traditional Sanskrit texts, sometimes by incorporating traditional scholars, and interpreting the same by using western analytical frameworks and political theories, what he calls the western lens, of which traditional Sanskrit scholars neither have any understanding nor competence to challenge. While the secular camp has already moved far too ahead in its agenda of secularizing Sanskrit, and in turn effect a socio-political change in India, the Insider/Sacred camp is not even in a position to comprehend what is going on. The author lays out the lopsided battle in detail and raises a pertinent question: “where is the home team?”. The book seems to be an attempt to build one.

The second chapter, From European Orientalism to American Orientalism, places the issue in the historical context with reference to the pre-colonial interaction of Europeans with India. Historically, in the 17th century, the first motivation among the officers of the East India Company to learn Sanskrit was primarily to understand Indian culture in order to gain a certain degree of legitimacy to rule over what eventually became British India. In the post-colonial, post-cold war era, not only there was a change in the theater of what Edward Said called “Orientalism” from Europe to America, but also a change in its focus. Malhotra argues that the American orientalists are not studying Sanskrit to understand India, but in order to “sanitize” the language from what they perceive as its inherent ills and abuses and, thereby, become agents of socio-political change in the 21st century India. For them, the roots of India’s socio-political and economic challenges lie in India’s Sanskrit based Paramarthika or Dharmik tradition. Therefore, the goal is a “secular” India, completely separated from its Paramarthika or Dharmik tradition, and fully aligned with the ideals of Western Universalism. But, there is more to it.

According to the author, if Edward Said’s Orientalism had put European Indologists on the defensive for being racist and for having used their scholarship to back colonial exploitation, Sheldon Pollock is providing the Indologists a new lifeline by arguing that it was actually the Brahminical India that fed British Imperialism and German Fascism. The argument being fostered is that Sanskrit is where Europeans learnt it all, to be elitist, exploitative and ruthless, so the blame lies squarely at the door of Sanskrit inspired Hindu traditions and, therefore, the need to secularize the language to trigger a socio-political change in India. That’s a serious allegation. Malhotra responds by mapping Pollock’s works, laying out his assumptions and positions on critical issues, pointing out to the gaps to offer counter arguments. The most interesting being how experiences from “American Frontier”, including the systematic development and usage of “atrocity literature”, combined with the European colonial view developed in India, may have led to what the author calls “American Orientalism” that is determined to attack India’s Parmarthika or Dharmik tradition.

In the third chapter, The Obsession with Secularizing Sanskrit, onwards Malhotra focuses on Pollock’s works to bring out the specifics. The first and foremost charge Malhotra makes is that Pollock ignores the Parmarthika aspect of the Sanskrit tradition, unique to Indian civilization, as being irrelevant, because he thinks it has no real usage. Secondly, Pollock creates an artificial divide between Parmarthika, the transcendental and Vyavharika, the mundane aspects of Sanskrit to arrive at conclusions that suit his socio-political objectives. Thirdly, Pollock represents the Vyavharika aspect in a self-serving manner, especially when, having decided to look at only written texts, that too only Kavya, the literature, and not Vedas and Shashtras, he argues that it is only after the Buddhist intervention that Sanskrit gets its literature that reflects historicity and some degree of progressive change. Pollock’s key accusation is that the Parmarthika aspect makes Sanskrit regressive and forecloses the possibility of any creativity and innovation, and supports the Brahminical elitist top-down power structures. Therefore, Pollock builds an argument in favour of letting his “liberation philology” secularize Sanskrit by sidelining Vedas and Sashtras, and exclusively focusing only on Sanskrit Kavya to allow for creativity and, hopefully, some fundamental socio-political change in India.

In the fourth chapter, Sanskrit Considered a Source of Oppression, Malhotra provides further insight into Pollock’s thoughts and his motives for this aggression on Sanskrit, particularly its Vedic connection. The author analyses Pollock’s works to argue how, in spite of knowledge gaps or lack of evidence, Pollock has set the tone of the post-cold war grand narrative that absolves Europeans of their colonial guilt by arguing that oppression did not come to India with the Europeans, but the traditional Indian society was already quite capable of it because of its core Vedic civilizational values, carried forward and expressed through Sanskrit. In fact, Pollock goes a step further and actually accuses Sanskrit for corrupting the minds of Europeans by its embedded discriminatory structures that presumably led astray the British and the Germans, besides of course still continuing “oppression” of Muslims and the Dalits at home. Malhotra argues that Pollock’s attempt to interpret Vedic knowledge exclusively through the socio-political angle, while ignoring its Paramarthika aspect that forms the core of India’s spiritual traditions as unworthy of academic attention, makes his scholarship open to accusations of being aligned to the requirements of current global powers, while systematically making Indians suspect their own heritage by highlighting the ills of the society.

The author highlights Pollock’s attempt to seed suspicions in the fifth chapter titled Ramayana Framed as Socially Irresponsible, where Pollock rejects the epic “as a project for propagating Vedic social oppression” by fostering Vedic ideas of “divinisation” and “demonisation”. Pollock’s argument is that the Brahmins used their exclusive Sanskrit skills to conduct Yajna to attribute divinity to the Kashtriya kings to ensure unquestioned obedience of the rulers by the masses (leading to oppression) and in turn kings protected the interests of the Brahmins. However, as a result of this ‘divinely’ enforced obedience, the Indians lost their individuality to question, which explains the Indians’ fatalistic approach to life and lack of creativity to improve their lives. Worse still, Pollock thinks that this Vedic idea of ‘divine king’ and the ‘demonisation’ of the enemy, was later propagated through Ramayana to vilify the Muslim invaders since the 11th century, which continues until today by organizations such as VHP, RSS and BJP, the Sangh Parivar. Malhotra points to the holes in Pollock’s grand narrative and offers counter arguments, citing traditional Indian scholars, as well as European Indologists to form a more balanced view. However, Pollock is determined to use his exclusive socio-political Western lens to interpret not only Ramayana but all available Sanskrit based knowledge resources to “neutralize those (oppressive) forces….through analysis of the construction and function of such a meaning system”.

In the next two chapters, Politicizing Indian Literature and Politicizing the History of Sanskrit and Vernaculars, Malhotra scans Pollock’s journey into other Sanskrit resources and brings out how Pollock forms his views on Sanskrit literature and language to support his grand narrative. Malhotra argues that Pollock not only treats Vedas and Sashtras as irrelevant and focuses on Kavya as “the primary field of cultural production” but also tries to remove any sacred connection between Vedas, Natya Sashtra and the subsequent Kavya. Pollock uses the Marxist theory of aestheticization of power to arrive at a conclusion that Kavya was essentially produced by the Brahmana-Kashtriya nexus with embedded oppressive Vedic ideas to numb the masses into having a false sense of involvement with their rulers and, thereby, offering complete obedience. Over time, the embedded oppressive structures in Sanskrit grammar and literature helped in carrying forward oppressive Vedic ideas and creating what Pollock calls Sanskrit Cosmopolis in South and East Asia during 200BCE-1100CE. Eventually, even when Sanskrit started losing ground with the rise of vernaculars, according to Pollock, the usual Brahmin-Kashtriya nexus managed to permeate the oppressive ideas and structures into the vernaculars, making progressive social change all the more impossible. Therefore, Pollock’s prescription is simple – India needs social disruption by rejecting the spiritual, the sacred or the transcendental and build an entirely secular view of Sanskrit to unleash the creative potential of her masses, particularly Dalits, minorities and women, to make them politically challenge the tradition rooted in Vedik ideas of the sacred and break free to create a new India.

In the eighth chapter, The Sanskriti Web as an Alternative Hypothesis, Malhotra offers his own Sanskrit Web model as an alternative to Pollock’s Sanskrit Cosmopolis model. Other Sanskrit scholars and historians from the insider camp too get a mention. Pollock’s Sanskrit Cosmopolis model attributes the rise of Sanskrit to the uni-directional elitist Brahmin-Kshatriya top-down flow of Vedic ideas embedded in the language structures. According to Pollock, while Sanskrit language gained by the disruptive secular interventions of Buddhists, particularly in the form of Sanskrit Kavya, its elitist orientation made Sanskrit pass its discriminatory qualities and structures of oppression to even regional languages, the vernaculars, which eventually became the reason of Sanskrit’s decline as well, of course, assisted by factors like internal socio-political decay. On the other hand, Malhotra’s Sanskrit Web model, which takes a more organic approach, explains the rise of Sanskrit due to its widespread appeal across different strata in the society for various Parmarthika and Vyavaharika reasons and its capacity to have a two way dialogue with regional languages. Besides several other reasons, Malhotra holds Islamic invasions and the colonial rule that introduced Persian and English, respectively, as the major causes for the decline of Sanskrit.

In the following chapter, Declaring Sanskrit Dead and Sanskriti Non-existent, Malhotra brings back his focus on Pollock’s larger social change agenda in India, in which Sanskrit is consistently attacked for its perceived incapacity to allow for creativity, innovation and socio-political change in India, particularly its Paramarthika or Dharmik aspect for blunting the creative energies of people for centuries. Malhotra also cites authors from the traditional insider camp, who disagree with Pollock’s formulations. The tenth chapter, Is Sheldon Pollock Too Big to Be Criticized?, is an all out attack on Pollock and his scholarship for using Sanskrit language studies to pursue an agenda that not only denies Indians their core civilizational values, but also holds the same values responsible for India’s ills, in fact, the ills of British colonialism and German Fascism. The only way forward for Pollock, argues Malhotra, is to rewrite India’s past from the secular lens by rejecting Sanskrit-based spiritual aspects held responsible for India’s ills and then hope that it would trigger start the usual Marxist class conflict to bring about socio-political disruption in India.

In the concluding chapter, Malhotra offers specific suggestions regarding how to challenge Pollock led grand narrative that is being developed in the American Ivy League universities to systematically target India under the label of South Asian studies. The author makes an interesting point about the notable inability of the traditional Sanskrit scholars to do purva-paksha, the traditional approach to debate based on the systematic analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the viewpoints of ones’ opponents, especially those from the faiths that historically emerged from outside of what Pollock refers as Sanskrit Cosmopolis. Apparently, the explanation lies in what Malhotra calls as the “difference anxiety” leading to escapist tendencies; in fact, Malhotra’s list of hindrances in doing purva-paksha is worth every Indian’s attention.

The Sanskrit Cosmopolis narrative of Pollock may have knowledge gaps and is driven by his socio-political agenda, but his allegation of Indian society being hierarchical and discriminatory deserves attention. But, as Malhotra argues, the secular Marxist approach of Pollock is loaded with the risk of throwing the baby along with the bathwater. Obsession with re-engineering Indians’ understanding of their past in order to pre-fix India’s future trajectory essentially could mean gradual loss of the only distinctive feature that India can claim globally, i.e. India’s Parmarthika or Dharmik or what we vaguely refer as spiritual traditions. However, Infosys’ Narayan Murty hasn’t hesitated to provide a massive funding to the Pollock led project of Murty Classical Library of India in Harvard University that aims to translate and interpret 500 volumes of Indian texts in English. Basically, Murty has given the responsibility of attributing certain meaning to ancient Indian texts in Sanskrit (and other regional languages too) to the outsider camp, knowing that majority of Indians do not know Sanskrit, which means, Indians would understand their heritage as Pollock led outsider camp would want them to understand. And, as Malhotra says, the traditional Sanskrit scholars have no clue about the international politics of secularizing Sanskrit.

The overall strength of the book, The Battle For Sanskrit, lies in Malhotra boldly and passionately following his subject, being candid, direct and very precise, leaving nothing to doubt and with a definite call to action – India needs a home team to stand up for Sanskrit because something critical to Indian Sanskriti, i.e. Parmarthika or Dharmik tradition is at stake. Malhotra can be accused of being less academic though, but he never really claims the book to be a treatise on either Sanskrit or Sanskriti, while providing necessary information on both for the sake of clarity of his arguments. Indeed, the book is very much a “red flag” that clearly draws the intellectual battle lines in the area of Sanskrit studies. Particularly, the section on Indians’ “difference anxiety” and the list of “hindrances” is one that I would recommend every Indian to read, even if they have no particular interest in Sanskrit and Sanskriti.

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Vats Sanjeev is a professional with wide-ranging interests. He is particularly keen on exploring the interface of religion and politics influencing human development. An ardent reader, he occasionally writes as well. He also loves to explore nature.