Dr Joydeep Bagchee says how he and his teacher, Professor Vishwa Adluri, became interested in Indology, and why they undertook a deconstruction of Western interpretations of the Mahabharata.
With The Nay Science: A History of German Indology, Professor Vishwa Adluri emerged as one of the most powerful critics of Indology, the nineteenth-century field established to study India. Professor Adluri has called Indology “scientized racism”, a “club” and a “court”. He has been interviewed by Open, Swarajya, News18, Social Research, and IndiaFacts. Mukunda Raghavan of Meru.Media interviewed Professor Adluri’s student Dr Joydeep Bagchee on the occasion of the completion of their second book, Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Mahabharata Textual Criticism.
Dr Bagchee spoke on behalf of his teacher, and explained how they became interested in Indology and why historicising the Mahabharata was crucial to colonising India intellectually. The following transcript was edited for clarity and length. The complete interview will appear soon as a podcast and a video from Meru.Media.
MR: What are your backstories?
I have a PhD in philosophy from the NSSR, New York. It is one the most prestigious schools for continental philosophy in the US. Hannah Arendt and Reiner Schurmann taught there. I met my teacher Vish there. I learned nearly everything from him. He provided me a strong reading of the history of Western thought and its relationship with Christianity. Through him, I inherited Reiner’s philosophical legacy. The Nay Science was our first major collaboration. But everything I write flows from Vish: he inspires me.
MR: How did you get involved with studying both Western and Indian thought?
As outsiders, we never felt these boundaries existed. We had already transcended political and national identities. We wanted to learn from different philosophers. Orientalists and comparativists obsess over differences between the Eastern and Western mind. But no such mind exists. Thought ranges freely across cultures. Many gratuitously belabour the idea of method, disciplinarity, slow reading, traditionalism versus presentism. These ideas appeal to the sophist rather than the philosopher. The philosopher is at home in the entire cosmos.
MR: What would you consider your areas of interest and expertise?
We have PhDs in Western philosophy. Vish’s specialisation is ancient Greek philosophy. Mine is Heidegger and twentieth-century continental philosophy. We also studied Indian philosophy. I studied Indian philosophy as an undergraduate in India. Vish studied Mimamsa and Vedanta under Swami Prabhudananda Sarasvati, who is from the Sringeri Matha. Over the past 10 years, we explored how debates internal to Christianity and Europe shaped the reception of Indian texts. We are now working on a book on the connection between race and history.
MR: What do we know about the Mahabharata, its author or authors?
We don’t know the identity of the historical author(s). We know it was carefully copied and transmitted over centuries. There were conscious efforts to organise and seal the canon (eg, colophons, parvan lists, etc). The Mahabharata was revered as smrti and as pancamaveda. It is thus living, continuing revelation. The Mahabharata was thought to contain the essence of the Upanisads (the Bhagavad Gita). It was considered an egalitarian text: a stri-sudra-veda that brought the vedic revelation to all classes.
Once we grasp its philosophical and pedagogical intent, it is obvious that it has the brilliance of genius behind it: the literary figure called Vyasa. The Vyasa question differs from the Homeric question: nowhere in Homer is the author a character in the narrative. The Mahabharata unsettles our notions of authorship and author. Vyasa proved a stumbling block for Western scholars. To them, he was a legend: evidence of a “Brahmanic” takeover of an earlier heroic epic. They interpreted this to mean: no conscious authorship exists behind the Mahabharata. The stories they created are simply wrong — manuscript evidence proves this.
MR: What are its main themes?
Most people would say “war” or “family conflict”. Scholars insist the war is central (most recently, Jim Fitzgerald). But this is reductive. The text says this is no ordinary war. The war is not a purely human conflict. It is another stage of the devasurayuddha. It is divinely foreordained. Heraclitus says war is the father of all. We must approach the Mahabharata similarly. It reveals the distinction between changing empirical reality, which is subject to karma, and Brahman, which transcends time, space, and causality.
The Mahabharata shows us how, caught in the web of time, humans struggle to master fate. By cleaving to dharma they take the upward path. The text analyses mundane reality (jagat) and the soul (jiva) in the literal sense of taking them apart. They are revealed as epiphenomena of Brahman. The political drama at Hastinapura and the genocidal conflict of Kurukshetra are set amidst this. They remind us that the cosmos is inherently violent, an endless conflagration.
MR: What is its major overarching philosophy (and secondary philosophies, if any)?
Dharma is the central teaching of the Mahabharata. It is not just one theme among others, but a matrix that organises the narrative and debates on action. But dharma itself is grounded in a philosophy of being: an ontology or brahmavada. Without hyperbole or anachronism, the Mahabharata’s overarching philosophy is Vedantic. The text also refers to Samkhya, Yoga, Vaisesika, etc. But if we look at these terms as positions in an intellectual debate rather than as schools or doctrines, the Mahabharata is clearly committed to establishing the unity of being and presenting Brahman theistically as Narayaṇa. It undertakes a systematic effort to mediate between different standpoints. The overarching aim is liberation as the final aim of all human effort.
MR: What is so important about the concept of ahimsa? How does it differ from Buddhist or Jain ideas of ahimsa?
Vish recently published an article on ahimsa in the Mahabharata. It shows how ahimsa paramo dharma applies in a twofold perspective. As a value, ahimsa is the highest dharma. We are enjoined to minimise violence. However, violence does not proceed solely from man. Neither is it entirely at his disposal. Enlightenment ethics failed on this count. Strategies for minimising violence must be combined with a transformative ontology. The universe is a violent place.
Ultimately, ahimsa can be fully achieved only by realising one’s identity with Brahman, which transcends time and becoming. This is the real sense in which ahimsa is paramo dharma. Hinduism thus avoids utopianism, while recommending a practice of thoughtful living.
MR: When did the West first interact with the Mahabharata?
The earliest encounters were excerpts/retellings (Nala and Damayanti, Sakuntala). This piecemeal approach did not translate into a cohesive interpretive strategy. Only after Christian Lassen presented his “historical” reading of the Mahabharata did the text acquire unity in the Western imagination. The principles of this reading are well known.
The Mahabharata encompasses an earlier heroic core and Brahmanic interpolations. The core relates a racial conflict between white Aryans and black natives. The epic was originally composed for the king’s court. It glorified brave knights. Brahmans could not accept such a recollection of heroic deeds. They wished to reeducate and enslave the warriors. The Brahmans rewrote the epic to show that success depended on their favour. They added cosmology and new gods to the epic. They introduced offensive ideas such as Vyasa’s niyoga. Other scholars also took up these ridiculous and patently self-serving hypotheses. Of course, the Gita had its own history of reception.
MR: How did Western scholars view and interpret the Mahabharata?
Lassen decisively shaped all Western scholarship. Every idea in Western scholarship can be traced to his 1837 article. If there is one work on the Mahabharata Indians should read, it is this article (large parts are translated in The Nay Science). Lassen’s interpretation was congenial for Westerners. It accorded with the prejudice against Hinduism. Lassen had explained the mechanism of degeneracy: why India did not develop as the West had. It accorded with anti-Brahmanic prejudices.
Lassen blamed Brahmans for India’s backwardness. He provided a historical narrative that, replacing indigenous ideas of history, integrated Indian civilisation into world history. He anchored the biracial theory (the view that Indian civilisation comprises two races, civilising white Aryans and primitive black natives) in history. Lassen’s interpretation reified the concept of race and legitimised racial conquest as historical and natural fact. By claiming Brahmans invented rituals for money, Lassen undermined the soteriological and epistemic praxis of Hinduism.
By claiming Indians were duped by Brahmans and did not know their texts, he deprived them of intellectual authority. Henceforth, what a practising Hindu said had less value than what the historically and critically-trained scholar had to tell him. Most important, Lassen replaced the Mahabharata’s own concept of itihasa purana with a meta-narrative of history, in which Indians themselves would participate (eg, when they prove the Mahabharata War “really” happened, ie, happened in history). At this point, Hinduism ceased to exist as an independent tradition. It was subsumed into Christian supersessionism and its modern, secular analogue: world history.
MR: Who were the major players?
Besides Lassen, Adolf Holtzmann Sr and Jr, Theodor Goldstucker, Hermann Oldenberg, Richard Garbe, and Edward W Hopkins played a major role. For instance, the most widespread statistic about the Mahabharata is that it was composed between 400 BC and 400 AD. This statistic is completely false. It is pure conjecture. Sukthankar demolished Hopkins’s dates. Yet Hans van Buitenen, Romila Thapar, and others still quote them as established fact. Hopkins himself drew most of his ideas about the Mahabharata from Holtzmann Jr. He wanted to provide a more nuanced chronology than Holtzmann, but he accepted his basic ideas.
These ideas also percolated to others such as Oldenberg and Garbe. Holtzmann merely embellished the basic interpretive scheme that Lassen had already provided. He and his uncle developed the idea of Brahmanic mischief in the context of German nationalism: they saw the Mahabharata as a prototype for the reformation and Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. Unfortunately, in the Indian case, the Catholic side, that is, the Brahman priests, won. They thus argued that critics should recover the original epic before its Brahmanic revision, thereby undoing the triumph of Brahmanism.
MR: What historical reality influenced their criticism and how did it do so?
Frantz Fanon deeply influenced The Nay Science. Let me, therefore, respond as I think he would. The most important feature is that it was an era of condescension. The ‘Negro’ (Fanon uses this word consciously) is incapable of articulate speech. His representations are by definition primitive. He must be shown ‘reality’. He must be taught what he ‘really’ means when he uses language (eg, that he worships natural forces out of fear because he has not learned to control them as Western man has). This condescension survives today. Indology is the last field where racial prejudices can be lived. The second feature is a missionary agenda.
Many Indologists participated directly in missionary activity (eg, with the Halle and Basel missions). Nearly all saw their work as contributing to Christianity’s triumph. Albrecht Weber, Max Muller and Paul Hacker explicitly affirm this. “Orientalistik (Oriental languages)” and “Hebraisitik (Hebrew studies)” developed as subdisciplines of Christian apologetics and its OT concerns. Likewise, the purpose of uncovering and translating Hindu scriptures was to provide foundations for evangelism. The third feature, especially in German Protestantism, was anti-Judaic and anti-clerical tropes, which were projected on Brahmans. There has been a sustained attack on Hinduism as a Brahmanic system of thought. Indologists benefited personally as traditional teaching was eliminated.
MR: What are the major flaws?
Obviously, if we approach any text with this many prejudices, dialogue is impossible. What we have seen for 200 years is a Western monologue. Western scholars assured themselves of their cultural superiority: they had ‘discovered’ science and rationality. They felt divinely vindicated: the ‘elect’, who were called upon to understand the dark half of humanity. Many still join this dying discipline to participate in a racial experience. A degree in Indology teaches less about Indian texts, philosophy, literature, or culture than a traditional education. It also does not teach textual criticism, as Philology and Criticism demonstrated. What is Indology’s appeal?
Here, Fanon’s concept of ‘lactification’ can help us. Fanon says a black woman undergoes ‘lactification’ when she dates a white man. (I should add: Fanon isn’t talking about a relationship based on love, but one where whiteness itself is the appeal.) In other words, she becomes more white: in self-understanding, mannerisms, social status, etc. Applying Fanon’s insight to Indian intellectuals, we can identify a similar need to present as white — if not racially then at least intellectually, culturally and socially. This takes the form of an unrelenting critique of Indian traditions, customs and conditions.
Meanwhile, Western scholars who not only teach but dignify and encourage this behaviour are revered as prophets. They offer suitably secular redemption in the form of the belief “I too can become white”. Indology departments’ real appeal is that they offer Indians degrees in lactification. They teach them to speak about their traditions as though outsiders, with faint distaste. They teach them to disparage texts they don’t understand. They learn to say: “we don’t believe in these gods and ceremonies”. Rammohan Roy was the first thoroughly lactified Hindu.
MR: What has been the response to your work in academia both in the West and India?
Except the Indologists, everyone loved our books. Many Western academics appreciated our critique. They saw it as original and path-breaking. The Nay Science was compared with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, its great predecessor. Indologists had problems with our work. Remember what we are doing is unprecedented: two Indians critiquing Western scholarship and turning a critical lens on Indology.
A well-bred Indian should be grateful to Western scholars for ‘critically’ expounding Indian texts. He ought to acknowledge he is ‘religious and confessionally bound’ and bear a heavy cross for caste. Instead, we were using our knowledge of intellectual history to question Indologists’ claims of scientificity and universality. Indologists experienced anger and shame at being caught out in this racial game. They tried to reinstate racial categories (eg, by accusing us of ‘Hindutva’). They knew it would never stick, but they desperately clung to the old game of racial oversight. It cannot be resurrected. Indologists’ authority — scholarly, epistemological, methodological, intellectual, and public — has crumbled.
MR: What is the status of these kinds of studies in India?
Unfortunately, a generation behind the West. Indians quickly assimilated the natural sciences and technology, but they lag behind in the humanities. Whereas global philosophy and race theory are current here, Indian universities teach a curriculum of dead European philosophers. People chant slogans such as right and left, but who reads Hegel critically? The reception of Sanskrit texts is filtered through orientalists such as Friedrich Schlegel, Max Muller, etc.
Many people know old chestnuts such as Schlegel’s remark, “everything, absolutely everything comes from India”, or Muller’s “If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed […] I should point to India”. The fact that Schlegel made this statement while excluding black Africa from rationality, articulate speech, and humanity goes unmentioned. Irrespective of the ruling party, veneration of Europeans continues. Government conferences obligatorily feature a Sanskritist from every European nation, while ignoring Africa and Asia. I won’t speak of Indians who break out in hives when someone mentions the Ramayaṇa. Indians are ashamed of their texts — the more so the less they know their contents. They can only accept what Indologists have sanitised and sanctified and offered to them. Indologists are treated like godmen in India — a clear sign of internalised colonisation.
MR: How does this impact our current understanding and engagement with the Mahabharata?
Returning to the Mahabharata requires a deconstruction of canons of knowledge and method created in nineteenth-century Europe. This is why, before embarking on positive interpretations, we wrote The Nay Science. It traced the history of Western misinterpretations of the Mahabharata. We showed how prevailing dogmas about the Mahabharata originated with Lassen’s racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Brahmanic views. In Philology and Criticism we showed how these views survive in barely veiled form in the work of contemporary scholars. Two hundred years of so-called critical Mahabharata studies were a waste.
Western scholars neither understood the work nor contributed to textual criticism. We should be very suspicious when scholars use ‘critical’, ‘text-historical method’, or ‘textual history’ in relation to the Mahabharata. They ignored the actual text for a fantasy, coining silly terms such as ‘oral bardic epic’, ‘Ksatriya epic’, ‘Brahmanic takeover’, ‘normative redaction’, ‘textual makeover’” etc. Every time Indologists second-guessed Sukthankar, they erred. He is the greatest Mahabharata scholar after Nilakaṇṭha. I think of Vish as the greatest Mahabharata commentator of our time, but he stands with me in acknowledging Sukthankar as the genius who appreciated what the Mahabharata is. The final prejudice we must overcome is history equals the real. Once these layers of misinterpretation are removed, the text can shine forth again as an intellectual creation and a work of art.
MR: What is our take away?
Colonisation leaves scars. Nothing is more dehumanising than living in the gaze of the other. As Vishwa says, the only possibility for dialogue is to become historically self-aware, ethical and thoughtful. Many Indologists think they can make a career by baiting Indians, hoping for a fatwa of some kind. Scholars need to see that such behaviour is damaging for them collectively. Particular individuals may gain notoriety by flaming. But the discipline as a whole suffers.
Ultimately, we have to decide whether Indology is a discipline in the humanities or a social science with interventionist concerns. This also applies to Indians: for example, D D Kosambi. What is Kosambi’s original contribution to Marxism? He adopted a crude understanding of Marxist ideology, applied it reductively, and then tore up texts according to categories he had absorbed uncritically. This is not reading. It is vandalism masquerading as intellectualism.
MR: How do you recommend we address and engage with the text now?
We must remember two points. First, ancient texts are distant from us. Broken frameworks of reception, conquest and colonisation, Western education, historicism, etc, make it impossible to read them straightforwardly. When we try, we project contemporary social and political realities on them. We impose our language and idiom on them. What results is a hybrid understanding. For instance, vahanas are airplanes, astras are nuclear missiles, etc. We give calendric dates for Bhisma’s death or Krishna’s avatara.
Orientalists mock Indians for this, but who took away their interpretive frameworks? Who destroyed the language — I mean the semantic system of meanings — they spoke? Isn’t the real problem that Indians have to transpose concepts that make perfect sense within their episteme into an alien episteme? Why must they explain their views to strangers, who anyway consider the Western worldview the sole normative one? This is why in The Nay Science we first undertook a deconstruction of Western interpretations of the Mahabharata. We cannot understand a text traditionally unless we first bracket our contemporary episteme.
The second point we must remember is: despite all historical distance, ancient texts still make a claim on us. They are the reason we have scholarship in the humanities, and not vice versa. Sukthankar once said, “what is the secret of this book of which India feels after nearly two thousand years that she has not yet had enough? It would be a rather hazardous conjecture to suppose that such a thing might perchance happen also to the works of the critics of the Mahabharata.”
Not only does the text make a claim on us; it also remains close to us, closer than we are to ourselves. Sukthankar again: “we must therefore grasp this great book with both hands and face it squarely. Then we shall recognise that it is our past which has prolonged itself into the present. We are it: I mean the real WE!” Scholarship on the Mahabharata is worth less than the retellings published today. Through them, the text is making its claim felt and inviting us to rediscover ourselves. Vishwa keeps emphasising the notion of continuing revelation in Hinduism. Texts approach us. We only need remain open for them.
MR: Any final words? What is your next book?
Indologists claim their work is critical and scientific, it is philology, and it provides a history of India. We already examined the first two claims in The Nay Science and Philology and Criticism. We showed how their work was neither scientific nor objective. Their philology hardly deserved the name: we established this vis-a-vis Lassen, Holtzmann Jr, Garbe, Jacobi, and Oldenberg in The Nay Science. In Philology and Criticism, we show how Andreas Bigger, Reinhold Grunendahl, Walter Slaje, Michael Witzel, Oskar von Hinuber, James L Fitzgerald, John Brockington, etc, committed elementary philological errors. They had not understood basic concepts in textual criticism.
Eli Franco (in his review of The Nay Science) states, “the nature and origin of ‘Indology’ [as Indian philology] were already clearly stated in A W Schlegel’s founding essay”. He also says, “premodern India was not in possession of its history”, and implies that Indians ought to be grateful to Indologists for providing them with a history. This is the final task: to show that the history of India Indologists provided is a racial history: a story about how civilising white Aryans invaded India and brought culture to the aborigines. Once we show this in our next book, all three pillars of Indology — science, philology, history — will fall.
This interview was first published on Indictoday and has been republished here with permission.