Indology and the Crisis in the Humanities
Indology and the Crisis in the Humanities

In Adluri and Bagchee’s confrontation with Indology, the issue tends to be the extent to which this discipline has operated either according to no principles at all, or according to those it would not wish to acknowledge openly, such as Christian evangelism, racial theory or anti-Semitic biblical criticism.

Together with their first book, The Nay Science: A History of German Indology (2014), Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Mahābhārata Textual Criticism presents a comprehensive indictment of the dominant tendency in Indology to corrupt any effective and defensible principles the humanities may have while Indologists mold Indian civilization to their liking. What is at stake in the struggle over Indology that Adluri and Bagchee have waged is the struggle of the humanities to become relevant in a modern multicultural world.

Their argument in both books proceeds accordingly on parallel planes. On the one hand, there is the question of what the principles of the humanities ought to be. Such is the call in the Prologue of The Nay Science for an ensouled philology such as Plato already invokes in the Phaedrus against the soulless ingenuity of sophistical play with texts, or the vision in the Prologue to Philology and Criticism of an alternative modernity not estranged from the traditions of antiquity. In a similar vein are the array of practical tools provided at the end of Philology and Criticism to aid in the use of the critical edition of the Mahābhārata, to help release the potential of this extraordinary contribution of Sukthankar and the other editors to global scholarship.

On the other hand, in Adluri and Bagchee’s confrontation with Indology, the issue tends to be the extent to which this discipline has operated either according to no principles at all, or according to those it would not wish to acknowledge openly, such as Christian evangelism, racial theory or anti-Semitic biblical criticism. Hence in Chapter 5 of The Nay Science, we see that the German Indologists would fail even according to the criteria of the positivism they espoused, at least on any intellectually responsible interpretation of its principles. Simultaneously, Adluri and Bagchee subject the principles of positivism themselves to critique in the name of a hermeneutics that could arrest the descent of the social sciences into nihilism.

In other words, it is one thing to have the wrong principles, and another to have no principles whatsoever. This essential point is made with stinging clarity in a section of Philology and Criticism entitled “The Argument from Expertise” (269ff). Adluri and Bagchee speak of an institutional crisis manifest in Indology in which “expert testimony, paradigmatically manifest as citation of one’s peers, has replaced the need for demonstration … Rather, the criterion for valid scholarship has become: Who said it? Does he possess the correct pedigree? Does he enjoy his peers’ confidence? Have other experts cited him?” (273). ‘Expertise’ in this sense no longer refers to “expert skill or knowledge in a particular field,” but to the expert himself: “expertise refers to the ability to declare certain ideas valid merely because they exhibit the institutional features of scholarship,” (274).

This reduction of truth to personality or to institutions is what the misology, the hatred of logoi, of which Socrates warned (Phaedo 89d) looks like in the flesh. An entire community of scholars has abandoned oversight of their peers, treating any objections to the critical edition of the Mahābhārata as either valid or close enough, irrespective of their actual substance, so long as they have been proposed by the correct sort of people, as though no evaluation of them is possible, or would at any rate not be their particular responsibility. Truth being relative, apparently, these markers of status have sufficed for the critical edition of the Mahābhārata to be regarded as somehow clouded, albeit no two scholars agree on precisely why, and no one without a direct stake in the outcome bothers even to familiarize themselves with the issues.

In reaction to this environment, Adluri and Bagchee provide a deflationary account of philology, the more mechanical the better, daring Indologists to subject themselves to the transparency and scientificity of the method applied in the critical edition. Philology and Criticism is more playful in this respect than The Nay Science: its favored method of argument is the reductio ad absurdum, which is used to devastating effect. If the reader is surprised to find accredited scholars indicted of such elementary fallacies, they need to reflect upon the institutional factors that have ensured that nobody at any prior stage in the process of academic production and reception would dare to call them out. There are moments, too, of moral outrage expressed more starkly than in The Nay Science, as when Adluri and Bagchee close the chapter on “Confusions Regarding Classification” with a photograph reproduced from a book by a Nazi eugenicist as a reminder of the ideological roots of German Indology in racial classification (318). This is no mere hyperbole, as demonstrated by the corresponding note (n. 360 on p. 313), which argues that notions of classification used by Grünendahl, methodologically otiose with respect to textual science, should therefore rather be traced to such latent ideological influence.

Philology and Criticism exposes the recklessness with which Indologists have sought to cast doubt upon the critical edition by any means necessary, and the breakdown in the social structures of scholarship that have permitted illogical and even nonsensical attacks to achieve the status of conventional wisdom without challenge, allowing professional camaraderie or mere laziness to take precedence over the ideals that guide the life of the mind, and upon which a wider community depends. By this wider community, I do not mean merely other scholars in recondite fields, but the entire system by which world-historical communities understand and assimilate their own histories and evaluate—yes, even criticize—their own traditions.

But why should it be so important to Indologists to cast doubt upon this text? The crime committed by Sukthankar’s critical edition of the Mahābhārata in the eyes of Indologists is that

the text the critical edition produced was much closer to the traditional reception of the Indian epic as a body of inspired literature than to the German critics’ assertions. The Mahābhārata critics had hoped for a critical edition as the best means of undermining the authority of the textual tradition, and the Bhandarkar editors had countered with an edition bearing out the traditional reception of the epic. (28)

Critics had hoped that the process of producing a critical edition of the epic would reveal seams in the text that could be used to justify the image of Hinduism itself as a makeshift construct, not unified by any common purpose or ideal, but a marriage of convenience or worse. Unmasking the text in the form in which it actually exists and has always been known to the Hindu tradition as a mere self-serving “Brahmanic redaction” would have been a valuable aid to Christian evangelism, which has always followed in the Indologists’ footsteps. But when philology, textual science, failed to produce the results they had wanted, the critics began to attack the foundations of philology in pursuit of their ideological aims.

As Adluri and Bagchee pointed out in a presentation at the recent World Sanskrit Conference,

The resultant fragmentation of the text was not the unintended consequence of applying a valid scientific procedure to the text. As we have seen, no such procedure existed … Rather, it was explicitly desired … Their sole aim in pursuing Mahābhārata “criticism” was to ensure that the text, which articulates a comprehensive vision of the Hindu cosmos, did not survive as a unity … [T]here was an urgent need to deconstruct the text, in full awareness of the challenge it posed to Christianity. The invocation of a “critical” procedure merely served as a pretext.[1]

Why, the reader should ask themselves, does a discipline ostensibly in good standing as a charter member of the humanities, throw all of its institutional weight precisely against the cosmogonic dimension of this text? What is the source of this elemental nihilism, this anti-cosmism directed against this sacred text? Is it rooted purely in Christian sectarianism? Or is it something deeper? How has a similar animus been directed, under the guise of scholarship, toward the sacred texts of other traditions? We already know from The Nay Science that ‘text-critical’ or ‘text-historical’ Indology was rooted in Protestant biblical criticism, and that this self-proclaimed ‘higher criticism’ has been referred to as “higher anti-Semitism”.[2] But there is wider project at work here, I would argue, the manifestations and methods of which are easily traced in almost every engagement of Western scholarship with a polytheistic civilization, whether it be the West’s own polytheist antiquity, or Chinese civilization, or the indigenous civilizations of the Americas, Africa and the rest of the world. In what specific ways, then, and in what ways similarly and in what ways differently from the Hindu case? And precisely what is it about theologies of the living immortals[3] that elicits this sustained attack from the supposedly secularized human sciences? In the name of what ‘humanity’ have they undertaken it? These are the questions that we need to ask, for they alone at this point will lead us to sound principles on which to inquire into the nature of the human.

            Philology and Criticism lays out a vision for a new kind of philology, one that appreciates the full development of the Mahābhārata tradition in all its “chromatic variation” (xxv) rather than obsessively seeking a putative Aryan Urepos. The German Mahābhārata critics believe that the Mahābhārata critical edition reconstructs the text of a “normative redaction” they hold to have taken place in the 3rd to the 4th centuries CE, when an earlier and more fluid oral epic tradition was standardized by hypothetical Brahmin “redactors”. Adluri and Bagchee show how Indologists have exploited a basic misconception about textual criticism in support of this pet theory: “Tracing a tradition back to an archetype dating, say, from the fourth century, does not at all mean that ‘in antiquity’ (or in the Middle Ages, or in the early modern period) a single witness of our text was preserved, or a single copy that was authoritative for one reason or another,” (20). The Mahābhārata critics have pretended that, because the archetype occupies the vertex of the stemma, this must mean that the tradition was reduced at some point to a single exemplar. But as the authors demonstrate, the stemma is not an image of historical reality. There is no evidence that an actual ‘constriction’ exists, as opposed to the winnowing we would expect simply from the vulnerability of manuscripts to the ravages of time. Moreover, even if we had independent evidence of some kind of decimation of the tradition, we could not conclude that this was due to an ideologically motivated ‘redaction’. The authors’ conclusion is succinct: “No evidence exists for such a redaction, and the only reason it appears plausible is that the German scholars have redefined the critical edition as a Brahmanic redaction,” (66).

A vivid example of the extent to which anti-Brahmanic resentment has driven the German Indologists’ analysis is provided by Adluri and Bagchee’s summary of Andreas Bigger’s work, worth quoting in full:

As in the first stage of his argument, when he randomly restored passages to the constituted text, here also he randomly restores passages to it except, whereas he earlier justified their restoration on the grounds that they were passages the Brahmans removed during their redaction of an earlier oral epic, he now justifies restoring them on the grounds that they are passages the Brahmans added during their redaction. What he fails to realize thereby is that no evidence exists that the Brahmans either added passages to or removed passages from an earlier oral epic, and the only person making changes to the text is he himself! Either way, the Brahmans cannot win. If parts that Bigger thinks belonged to the earlier Kṣatriya epic are not in the text, he blames the Brahmans for removing them. But if parts that he thinks they added to the text during their redaction are not in the text, he attributes their absence to accidental loss and still blames the Brahmans for adding them. (88)

Adluri and Bagchee recount how an entire discipline was institutionally founded on anti-Brahmanic prejudice:

[T]he idea of a Brahmanic “takeover” of an earlier Kṣatriya tradition dates back to Christian Lassen, where its origins were clearly racist. German Mahābhārata critics argued sophistically and dishonestly for a critical edition. They were never interested in a secure text. Rather, they feigned interest in textual criticism because only thus could they sustain the illusion of objective inquiries and of binding procedures and results. Everyone in the field operated under an as if: write as if the Kṣatriya epic existed; as if the Brahmans had corrupted it; as if a redaction occurred. From Holtzmann to Bigger, Indology unfolded within this as if. Degrees were granted based not on the quality of evidence or arguments, but on the extent to which students conformed to this as if. Scholars were cited based on the extent to which they assimilated themselves to this as if. Corresponding to this as if of the Mahābhārata tradition was a second as if: write as if the professor was infallible; write as if a genuine intellectual tradition of Indology existed; write as if the German critics were beyond criticism. Arguing like the Protestant theologian Johann Jerusalem, who wrote: “My experience is my proof ” (meine Erfahrung ist mein Beweis), the German Indologists needed no proof of what the Brahmans did beyond their experience of the work. Arguments were superfluous because they did not seek to demonstrate anything. At best, arguments had a rhetorical value in that they confirmed the basic experience of the work or provided a means, in communal experience, to return again and again to the basic precept of Brahmanic corruption. (88)

Adluri and Bagchee proceed in the second chapter to examine the vexed issue of ‘contamination’, which the Indologists have often cited to discredit the textual tradition and discount the critical edition, while the third chapter illustrates the spectacular errors in textual criticism of Reinhold Grünendahl, further demonstrating that the Indologists’ work “cannot claim the title of philology at all; it is rather a mixture of dogmatic assertion and Protestant anti-traditional, anticlerical sentiments masquerading as rigorous textual scholarship” (319). A detailed evaluation of Michael Witzel’s edition of the Kaṭha Āraṇyaka (his PhD dissertation) helps the authors to demonstrate Indology’s untenable position:

In this contrast between what the Indologists say it is that they do and what they actually do we see the central contradiction at the heart of the discipline: on one hand, in order to be recognized as a legitimate discipline within the university canon, they were forced to constantly seek the comparison with classical philology, the discipline that had most successfully mastered the transition from an indefinite literary enterprise to a discipline modeled on the natural sciences and their rigorous procedures; on the other, the depth of expertise available in the field was always scant as compared with their colleagues in classical philology. (324)

Adluri and Bagchee’s larger philological project, encompassing The Nay Science and Philology and Criticism, bears on the history of Western rationality itself: contrary to the Enlightenment’s self-understanding that it represented the claims of a universal reason and incarnated this reason in its fullest form for the first time, Adluri and Bagchee show that the Indologists, supposedly at the front lines of the encounter between the Enlightenment and its non-Western Other, are neither self-critical nor self-aware, that they neither know what it is that they do, nor do they actually possess a method, nor can they teach anyone any real techniques. Rather, what they offer is initiation into an elite, institutionally secured and intellectually legitimated through “a narrative about history as a progression from the darkness of religious belief to the light of reason,”[4] in virtue of which Indologists feel authorized to exercise what Adluri and Bagchee have elsewhere called their “oversight function”[5] upon Indian texts and history and, ultimately, over Indians themselves. Appropriately, therefore, Adluri and Bagchee turn the tables and exercise oversight upon philology itself:

Given the inflation in the use of the expression critical edition in Indology, it appears appropriate to institute some criteria for its use. We propose the following definition: “Only those editions should be permitted to call themselves critical as make use of the genealogical-reconstructive method (also known as the common-error method) to reconstruct the relations of filiation between manuscripts and that propose a reconstruction of the archetype of the tradition on the basis of an explicit stemma.” This reconstruction, moreover, must be mechanical in the sense that it must be apparent, from a glance at the apparatus, what stage of the tradition the editor is reconstructing at any given moment. Further, no edition should be permitted to call itself a critical edition unless it is based on a systematic recensio of a large number of manuscripts (this would a priori exclude such one-manuscript “critical” editions as Witzel’s edition of the Kaṭha Āraṇyaka). We are aware that in many cases this ideal will not be attainable, but if this reduces the number of critical editions of Indian texts in circulation, so much the better. (324)

By taking up the task of articulating clear and distinct principles for the practice of textual criticism, principles ensuring that ancient texts are made available for the labor of interpretation in a form which does not presuppose an interpretation having already taken place, Adluri and Bagchee show what is ultimately at stake in their entire investigation of Indology: freeing the ancients from being subjects of interrogation, and permitting them to question us moderns instead.


[1] “Method and Racism in German Mahābhārata Studies,” Handout, Special Panel 2: After the Critical Edition: What Next For Mahābhārata Studies?, 17th World Sanskrit Conference, Vancouver, Canada (2018), (accessed 10/11/2018), 3f.

[2] Solomon Schechter, “Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism” (1915), quoted in Philology and Criticism, p. 313, n. 359.

[3] The phrase comes from Richard Bodéüs, Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals, trans. Jan Garrett (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000). Bodéüs dismantles the Christian fiction that Aristotle proposed a radical, monotheistic theology, showing instead that Aristotle’s thought is premised upon the mainstream theology of Hellenic polytheism.

[4] “Against Occidentalism: A Conversation with Alice Crary and Vishwa Adluri on ‘The Nay Science’,” (accessed 12/12/18).

[5] Adluri and Bagchee, “Theses on Indology,” (accessed 12/12/18).

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