Review of The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra

The Battle for Sanskrit review

Today I was ranting on Twitter about a video that they showed on Zee TV. The CCTV footage shows 5 goons barging into a class and beating up a student. The rest of the class quietly moved aside. Nobody intervened. The same thing is happening with our culture and history. Intellectual goons have barged in and they are doing whatever they want to do. They are interpreting our tradition and literature in whichever manner they want to do, and we are just standing there, either cheering for them or just throwing our hands in the air. Yes, there are some individuals like Rajiv Malhotra who have intervened. In the CCTV footage, you can see that although the entire class mutely watches the student being beaten up, the class teacher intervenes. He snatches a stick from one of the goons and then chases the goons out of the class. Maybe Rajiv Malhotra is doing the same thing while the rest of us just stand by the side due to ignorance, fear, or plain indifference.

If you have had prior experience of reading books by scholars like Rajiv Malhotra and Arun Shourie by now you know that the field of Indology has been a free for all battleground where only one army gets to fight. The history departments in various Indian universities have been run over by unapologetic Marxist historians and anybody from the West can appear suddenly like an enlightened avatar and start interpreting Indian mythology and Sanskrit literature.

We have seen how the so-called intellectuals like Wendy Doniger have wrecked havoc with the way the rest of the world (which basically means the Western world and western-influenced Indian world) interprets India’s great literary works.

Sheldon Pollock is one such intellectuals, who has taken upon himself to “detoxify” the Sanskrit grammar and make it more acceptable to the contemporary ethos of pluralism, secularism and whatever isms Marxist scholars like him can conjure up. He wants to be the Oracle of everything Sanskrit. He wants the world to look at Sanskrit through his lens. He thinks that only he knows how to properly study Sanskrit without getting affected by its inherent “toxic” grammar that conditions its indigenous adherents into mistreating people of low castes, women and, surprise, surprise, Muslims.

The book The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra is an attempt to raise red flags on various claims and interpretations Sheldon Pollock has used to draw not only certain conclusions, but has also attempted to turn those conclusions into gospel truths that are to be used by Sanskrit scholars and intellectuals who follow him. The purpose of this book is not to create counter-literature, the purpose of this book is to highlight the problem areas so that Indian scholars can create counter literature and set the records straight.

In case you don’t know who is Sheldon Pollock, he is a big name in the field of the study of Sanskrit. Whenever a world-class Sanskrit scholar is sought, he is the go-to guy. People swear by his name. It is claimed that he knows Sanskrit like nobody else, not even the traditional Indian Sanskrit scholars, so great is his stature. He has written a famous book called The Language of the Gods in the World of Men and Rajiv Malhotra has extensively quoted the contents from the book in order to prove how patchy his conclusions are.

But if many of his conclusions and interpretations are wrong, how come he is such an authority figure, a person less acquainted with such a murky world of scholarship may ask?

This, is a big problem.

This, is the problem The Battle for Sanskrit tries to deal with. Instead of working as a true Sanskrit scholar trying to study a language, Sheldon Pollock has worn the cloak of a political activist who thinks that recognising the inherent sacredness of Sanskrit means encouraging the Hindutvavadi elements among Hindus. By nature, Pollock thinks, Sanskrit has been used to oppress people. It has been used to augment the power of Brahmins and strengthen the kings.

He believes, and this is not an exaggeration, that nothing good has come out of Sanskrit or Hinduism, and whatever good has manifested in these realms, it has come from external sources and influences. Here’s a glimpse (quoting from The Battle for Sanskrit):

  1. Greek theatre existed in Ghandhara (which is now in Afghanistan) and influenced Indian theatre. Thus, Sanskrit drama, might have been an adaptation of Greek Theatre.
  2. Greek sculpture was copied by Indian artisans in Afghanistan.
  3. The Sanskrit work written in India on horoscopes was translated from some lost Greek text. Thus Indian jyotish was shaped under Greek influence.
  4. A major Indian work on architecture was copied in almost every detail from a Greek text.
  5. A particular South Indian and Sri Lankan goddess was a result of a cultural transmission from Greece.
  6. Even the Ramayana might have been influenced by a translation of a work by Homer.
  7. Ashoka’s royal inscriptions were an idea borrowed from Persia.
  8. In mid-2nd century CE, Indians translated Greek astrology into Sanskrit.
  9. The ‘doctrine’ of omens and portents was borrowed from Mesopotamia.
  10. The Greek work on architecture, Vetruvius, was adapted into the standard work on Hindu architecture, The Manasara, in the 6th century CE.
  11. The Vedas are nothing but senseless hymnology and sometimes just random sounds with no meaning.
  12. Writing came to India with Buddhism – before Buddhism writing didn’t exist.
  13. Since writing came after Buddhism, Valmiki wrote the Ramayana and Vaid Vayasa wrote the Mahabharata after Buddhism and consequently, many of the portions of these epics have been borrowed from the Buddhist Jataka tales.
  14. So on and so forth…

His basic idea is, and I’m not exaggerating, that nothing good ever came off Hinduism, Sanskrit and basically everything that directly or indirectly has to do something with Hinduism and Sanskrit.

All the good things that happened in this part of the world either happened by fluke, or through foreign — mostly Greek, Muslim and Buddhist — influences. And just as an extra precaution, even if the Buddhists (Buddhists were originally, after all, Hindus) did something positive, they had to be Shakas and Kushans who came from distant lands.

The problem is not what Sheldon Pollock thinks of Sanskrit, the Indian civilisation and Hinduism, the problem is that he has enough influence to be taken very seriously (and he IS taken very seriously) by reputed universities, international bodies and boards and scholars. As mentioned above, his work, however faulty, is quoted in other works and these works are quoted in other works and this is how the web of faulty interpretations and conclusions spreads beyond repair.

Sheldon Pollock is so influential that

  1. A Columbia University chair in the name of Adi Shankara is being set up with the help of rich NRIs and he is possibly designated to head it as the most deserving and influential Sanskrit scholar.
  2. He is the editor of the Murty Classical Library — an initiative to translate and publish classics of Indian literature. Rohan Murty, the son of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy, has “gifted” $5.2 million to the project.
  3. Pollock had previously edited the Clay Sanskrit Library
  4. From the Government of India he has received the Padma Shri and the Presidential Certificate of Honour for Sanskrit.
  5. Some administrators at Sringeri Peetham, which was established by Adi Shankara himself, want to appoint Sheldon Pollock as a sort of ambassador of the legacy of the peetham.

And this is just a small glimpse of the power he wields. Tragically, the power that he wields doesn’t come from the fountains of knowledge and wisdom and genuine scholarship, the power that he wields comes from political activism, agenda-driven scholarly interpretations and the collective umbrella of Hinduphobia.

This background was essential to understand why Rajiv Malhotra has written the book The Battle for Sanskrit.

If The Battle for Sanskrit were to be the Ramayana, then Sheldon Pollock would be its Ravana, the main villain.

Even if not the main villain, he definitely is the central theme of the book. Rajiv Malhotra has written the book to raise awareness and awaken Indian scholars to the danger the Indian Sanskriti has been put in due to internal hubris and western-Pollock-influenced intellectuals. He doesn’t just criticise Sheldon Pollock and points out factual errors, he also puts a big blame on Indian scholars who have either been underplaying the attack by American Orientalism and western Indologists or are too hubris-ridden to counter-attack in an intellectual and scholarly manner.

The book begins with the account of how Rajiv Malhotra makes an effort to reach out to the stakeholders at the Sringeri Peetham to request them to reconsider their decision to anoint Sheldon Pollock as the representative of the Peetham. Rajiv Malhotra thinks, rightly so, that the person representing the Peetham should be someone who is actually living within the traditional framework of Adi Shankara’s philosophy, rather than someone who is just reading and writing about it as an outsider.

From there on the book segues into the way Sheldon Pollock has totally remodelled the field of Orientalism and has dumped everything that has gone wrong with Indians in general and Hindus in particular , yes, you have guessed it right, on Hindus.

When the Muslims invaded India they absorbed by osmosis the inherent violent nature of the Hindu society and in fact, if you believe Pollock, it weren’t the Muslims who were the aggressors, it were the Hindus. In fact, most of the Sanskrit literature was created by Hindus, according to Pollock’s bizarre logic, to torment Muslims. The Muslims were the rakshasas in the Ramayana and since the Ramayana justifies slaying rakshasas, Hindus found it justifiable to carry out atrocities upon Muslims.

Pause for a while, because you’ll need some time to digest.

In a Tehelka interview Sheldon Pollock said, “The Mahabharata is the most dangerous political story I think, in the world, because it is this deep meditation on the fratricide of civil war.

He dislikes the notion of Sanskrit gaining prominence in the contemporary world so much that in the same Tehelka interview he says, “You know this whole spoken Sanskrit movement fills me with a kind of nausea.”

It’s not just Muslims who learned to be violent from the Hindu society. The English imperialists took cues from the inherent imperialism among the Hindu society.

You might already be aware of the theory that it was the Hindu philosophy that laid conditions for Nazism in Germany and consequently, the Holocaust. Our scholarly Pollock subscribes to this theory wholeheartedly. The connection between Hinduism and Nazism manifested because people like Max Muller interpreted the Sanskrit texts according to their own warped views and religio-political pursuits…it’s an entirely different story and you must read it to get a clear perspective on the issue.

Even the roots of western oppression can be found in Sanskrit, according to the team of Sheldon Pollock, without throwing light on whether it was Sanskrit that was responsible for the oppression of African slaves, the native Americans and the Australian aboriginals.

So there you have it. A prominent scholar who has access to massive funds and biggest universities in the world is spreading canards (I know, it is a loose word but I don’t want to beat around the bush) about India’s ancient texts, and not just spreading them, but converting them into texts that are further used to create school and university books. He needs to be countered wholeheartedly, with full force, and The Battle For Sanskrit aims to ignite a sense of awareness and a sense of urgency among Indian scholars.

Why is it so important to counter this cabal of intellectuals and scholars? What’s the big deal if the scholars like Pollock go on twisting the Indian classics unquestioned? First of all, when our traditional ideas are translated in the West, in most of the cases they are taken out of the context, totally disconnected from the source. There can be many reasons, but one of the reasons is that the scholars who are trying to study the Indian tradition, the Indian sanskriti, they use a totally different model. They use the same scholarly models they have used to study Greek and Latin cultures.

This is a small problem actually. The bigger problem is the way the entire Hindu community is being portrayed as a highly biased, repressive entity that thrives on exclusion and casteism.

Rajiv Malhotra cites a poem taught in American schools:

The rulers who control all knowledge,
Claim the Ramayana to be India’s history
And called us many names – demons, low castes, untouchables.

But we are the  aborigines of the land.
Listen to our story.
Today we are called the dalits — the oppressed.
Once the Aryans on their horses invaded this land.
Then we who are the natives became the displaced.
Oh Rama, Oh Rama, You became the God, and we the demons.
You portrayed our Hanuman as a monkey,
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.

Pay attention that bad-mouthing Hanuman would be counter-productive here because Hanuman lived in the forest, where the tribals live/lived.

The poem goes on…

But poverty grew and to divert the poor
From their real need, a new enemy was found,
Muslims were targeted and ‘taught a lesson’.
To destroy Lanka, Oh Rama, you
Formed us into a monkey army.
And today you want us,
The working majority,
To form a new monkey army
And attack Muslims.
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.
Be warned, you purveyor of a self-serving religion.
We will be monkeys no more.
We will sing songs of humanity
And we will make you humans as well.

The theory that some alien race called the Aryans invaded the indigenous people have been scientifically debunked but look at these Marxist, agenda-driven historians are not letting go of their baby.

Highly advanced genetic coding analytics techniques have been used to verify that there hasn’t been a major change in the genealogy of the people living in this region for the past 9500 years whereas, according to the very same scientists who use and promote the Aryan Invasion theory claim that there was a big incursion around 3500 years ago.

They also claim that the sudden Indus Valley Civilisation downfall was due to the Aryan Invasion – recent palaeo-climatic studies have revealed that the Indus Valley civilisation might have perished due to a 200-year long drought caused by a monsoon aberration.

Still, it is the Aryan Invasion theory and hence, the victimhood theory that rules the roost – opinions are made, educational books are written, course material is prepared, lectures delivered, conferences are organised and grants are given on this faulty theory.

So yes, it isn’t just about a few misguided scholars propagating falsehoods knowingly or unknowingly, it is about the impact these scholars are making. Great damage has already been done and it might already be too late, but doing something is always better than doing nothing.

Another reason why we need to sit up and take note of this blatant exploitation of our intellectual wealth is that due to our own indifference, we are having to import our own knowledge that has been regurgitated. Just imagine, our scholars have to visit universities like Columbia and Oxford in order to study our own epics. Now while writing this, I remember that the Hindi teacher in my class had gone to the US to do her PhD (don’t remember whether it was on Tulsidas or Kalidas)!

Scholars like Sheldon Pollock are recreating the scholarly realms according to a western point of view, to be sold to a Western audience and the Western-influenced Indian audience in a highly digestible format.

Rajiv Malhotra writes that the centres of Sanskrit studies had shifted out of India into Europe and from Europe they moved to the US. Most of the academic Sanskrit research is going on in the US universities. They are mining our intellectual wealth and if this trend continues, India will remain an importer of knowledge about its own civilisation rather than being at the helm of the discourse concerning itself.

The Battle for Sanskrit is full of reasons why Indian intellectuals who are living within the traditional parameters should be the primary interpreters, interlocutors and disseminators of our heritage rather than the Western intellectual prestidigitators who are running their own religious, cultural, ideological, political and even commercial agendas under the garb of scholarly pursuits.

Take for example how the mid-80s telecast of the Ramayana epic is often held responsible for the early 90s flux among the Hindus, and hence, through guilt-by-association the entire epic is painted with the strokes of religious hatred and divine-vs-demons (Hindus vs Muslims/Christians/Dalits) theory. Progressive Hindus are advised to be cautious of the inherent violent and racist nature of the epic. Even the fringe VHP is brought into the fold and Pollock says that the organisation draws lots of inspiration from the Ramayana.

In this regard Rajiv Malhotra quotes an incident of how these intellectuals write questionable materials and then quote each other to further each other’s careers: in March 1993 US academics Lloyd and Susan Rudolph published an article in the New Republic titled “Modern Hate” in which they discussed how the BJP had hijacked Hinduism and the Ramayana (PDF link to the article).

…In January 1987, an eighteen-month-long serial of the Ramayana based on the manas began airing at 9:30 AM, prime-time, on state-run TV.

…10 months after the Ramayana megaseries, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Coucil) called on Hindus throughout India to make holy bricks, inscribed with Rama’s name, for use at Ayodhya. They are, at the site of Rama’s birth, on the place of the Babri Masjid, they would build a temple to Rama.

In the article the Rudolphs have used Sheldon Pollock’s divinization-dominization theory to prove how the Ramayana can be used/is used, to incite violence (due to its inherent toxicity).

You will find it quite fascinating that Susan Rudolph and Lloyd Rudolf were awarded the Padma Bhushan and Sheldon Pollock the Padma Shri by the Congress-led UPA government.

Pollock had started his own projects on the Ramayana in the early 80s with his own conclusions and inferences and he was never rebutted, neither by his own western fraternity nor by Indian intellectuals. It took just 9 years for his ideas to become mainstream.

In 1996 the prominent French political scientist Christophe Jafferlot quoted the Rudolphs in the book that he wrote on Hindu nationalism:

…Thus, the broadcasting of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as Lloyd Rudolph has suggested, was ‘playing a leading role in creating a national Hindu, a form of group consciousness that is not hitherto existed’.

Again, this is just one example of how a particular vested interest formulates it totally misplaced theory and then how multiple intellectuals quote this story to validate it and to perpetuate its existence. The lie, after a fierce cycle of repetition, tragically, becomes the truth.

The main argument of Sheldon Pollock, which Rajiv Malhotra disagrees with throughout the book, is that rather than being a language that encouraged social interaction, Sanskrit was used as a principal instrument of domination in active collusion between the Kings and the Brahmins. Sanskrit facilitated the “othering” of non-Aryan and non-Brahmin communities. It was used to produce and disseminate literature that would make the kings divine (Rama) and the people who went against the wishes of the king shudras and malechhas (demons).

The Brahmins were the creators and propagators of this Sanskrit-supported myth. The grammar of Sanskrit, Pollock claims, was constructed in such a manner that people who used the language and internalised its texts would automatically be biased against communities and cultures they deemed inferior.

Pollock says that Sanskrit was never used by common folks. In fact, he says that the language went mainstream only after Buddhists invented writing and people began to write in Sanskrit. He pays no attention to the oral Sanskrit tradition that had existed thousands of years prior to writing becoming mainstream.

By the way writing came to this part of the world a few thousand years before Buddhism. Even the Indus Valley Civilization is known to have a script that still hasn’t been deciphered, and the Indus Valley Civilization existed in around 4500 BC.

Sheldon Pollock believes that Sanskrit as an active, spoken language, has no business existing. Like other classical languages like Latin and Greek, Sanskrit should be confined to scholarly museums, only to be learned and interpreted  by a particular clique of scholars, as a dead language. It should be quarantined. He wants to create an army of western and Indian intellectuals and scholars that will help him detoxify the language and make it more acceptable to modern ethos of secularism and tolerance.

Rajiv Malhotra on the other hand says Sanskrit is very much alive. There are many scholars actively using Sanskrit to create literature. It is being spoken in many spheres. The only problem is, it is not as prevalent as it deserves to be.

Even in ancient times Sanskrit was widely spoken. There are ample proofs of Sanskrit being used by common people. Rajiv Malhotra mentions Chamu Krishna Shastry who has compiled textual evidence showing that Sanskrit was spoken by common people in ancient times.

The celebrated Sanskrit grammarian Panini created separate lists of Sanskrit words that were used in Vedic rituals as well as the words used in day-to-day interactions. Patanjali, another ancient Sanskrit grammarian, has listed many Sanskrit words used by farmers, and even ruffians, gamblers and tricksters!

He contends that if ancient languages like Mandarin, Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese and Persian can remain mainstream, why can’t Sanskrit?

We shouldn’t rescue Sanskrit from the clutches of American Orientalists simply because of its exotic value or because of a hollow sense of pride; it actually contains a wealth of knowledge, and this knowledge is already being mined by Western scholars to make it their own. Concepts of science, abstract philosophy and mathematics yet unknown to the mankind are preserved in our ancient Sanskrit texts. There will come a time when we will be using our own knowledge as Western concepts without even knowing it that they come from India.

Often while reading the book you wonder, “if this, this, this is wrong, then what is right?”

Although in many instances Rajiv Malhotra has quoted counterarguments by other scholars, he hasn’t provided many rights to the wrongs propagated by the likes of Sheldon Pollock and he has specifically mentioned that.

The Battle for Sanskrit is not a pointwise rebuttal, it is an attempt to raise red flags.

He pinpoints problem areas where traditional scholars must focus on and come up with counterarguments.

He also stresses upon the importance of inculcating and nurturing a tradition of purvapaksha —  the practice of studying and understanding the point of view of other fields of thoughts, religions and scholarship.

During a conversation with Rajiv Malhotra, Sheldon Pollock points out that it is not his problem that he is never countered. And he is right. If he is not countered, if his mistakes are not pointed out, if his claims are not debated, why would he try to change the narrative that is reaping so many benefits for him? Unless his point of view becomes a liability for him, he is not going to admit that he is wrong.

Scores of religions came to India but we never studied them, we never understood them. The British came to India and wrote hundreds of books on our culture, social norms and economic disparities. Our writers and scholars didn’t study them, didn’t write treatises on them. Syrian Christians came to India almost 700-900 years before Islam but nobody in India tried to understand them. The same was the case with Islam. We have never had our own historians visiting foreign lands, observing the norms and writing about them. We have always been the subjects. We have never been the observers. This is also one of the wrongs that Rajiv Malhotra thinks we should  right.

In order to create scholarly literature our intellectuals and scholars, while remaining steeped in our own traditions, need to adopt modern models and acquaint themselves with contemporary scholarly vocabulary, terms and definitions. They need to fully understand Christianity, Islam and other religions according to the traditional ways of analysis and deduction which is much holistic and broad minded compared to Western contemporary methods. We need to have our own subject matter experts on other religions and methods of learning.

Again, in The Battle of Sanskrit you may not find many solutions to the questions that trouble you. This is not a solutions book; it’s a red flags book. It points out where the problems are. It gives our Indian traditional scholars a point of reference, from where they can start and what direction they can follow if they want to follow.

Should you read this book? Yes.

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