Culture

Adhikara And the Academy – The Bogus Controversy over Rajiv Malhotra And ‘Plagiarism’

This hullaballoo over plagiarism is just a fig leaf for a deeper fundamental problem that these scholars have with Malhotra and other practitioner-scholars.

Rajiv Malhotra has been a ground-breaking thinker and writer on matters related to Hinduism and Indian civilization for decades now. He has single-handedly and courageously challenged a coterie of Western Indologists and associated forces bent on denigrating Indic traditions and denying the national and civilizational unity of India and Hinduism. Because of Malhotra’s work—encapsulated in books such as Invading the Sacred, Breaking India, Being Different, and Indra’s Net—there has been a resurgence of confidence and assertiveness among the Hindu and Indian communities.

Nor is this confidence based on chauvinism, on simple sloganeering or xenophobia. Malhotra first reversed the gaze on the West and showed how these Western Indologists distort and denigrate Indic traditions by viewing them through Eurocentric paradigms—such as using Freudian theory to analyse our deities (producing such gems as Ganesha’s trunk symbolizing a limp phallus that represents his jealousy over Shiva’s sexual prowess)—and how these theories trickle down to mainstream culture through media and school textbooks.

He showed how an axis of forces from the West has been using these ideas to foment separatism within India in attempts to break up India. He highlighted the importance of Sanskrit non-translatables—certain aspects of our traditions that cannot easily be translated into English or Western concepts and must instead be understood on their own terms in order to retain their authenticity.

In this way, by challenging the dominant Western discourse, he has been helping Indians and Hindus recover their own indigenous understanding of their civilization, history and religious and spiritual traditions.

Because Malhotra’s work has been so pivotal in challenging the dominant academic discourse about India and Hinduism, it is no surprise that he would be under constant attack by those very academics he has been directly challenging. That has indeed been the case. This newest controversy is part of a pattern of mudslinging by leftist scholars that began decades ago, when Malhotra first began writing on these issues.

This latest attack on Malhotra is being timed to coincide with his forthcoming book, which will show how the language and traditions connected with Sanskrit are being attacked by a cohort of leftist Indologists who are attempting to de-link Sanskrit from its Hindu spiritual and religious roots by characterizing Sanskrit as a language of political oppression used by kings to maintain their power.

Malhotra had presented these ideas at the recently concluded 16th World Sanskrit Conference in Thailand. Though the talk was well-received by Sanskritists worldwide, it infuriated a number of Western scholars whose pet theories denigrating Indic traditions were now under attack.

Rather than take on Malhotra’s views head-on, they took the cowardly route and made up a case of plagiarism against Malhotra’s last book, Indra’s Net. Mind you, Indra’s Net was published eighteen months ago with nary a complaint about any ‘plagiarism’ or uncited sources to date.

But suddenly, and so very conveniently, these charges of plagiarism have appeared so soon after the conference in Thailand! These charges were set forth in a petition to Harper Collins India, the publisher of Indra’s Net, with a demand that the publisher issue a formal apology and withdraw the book from publication.

This is nothing more than gross slander worthy of being sued in court. Objective observers who have reviewed the petition have dismissed it as meritless. The claims are mere quibbles over citation styles rather than any serious charge that Malhotra has stolen someone else’s ideas and passed it off as his own.

A point-by-point analysis as noted by Malhotra’s copy-editor for Indra’s Net, Thom Loree:

“To his credit, Mr. Malhotra prefers not to insult his readers’ intelligence with a barrage of footnotes — only when they are required. And so there are several places where the references to Nicholson are implicit, as opposed to explicit. These references are obvious to anyone who reads the passages in the context of the preceding passages and the overall chapter. This all strikes me as pretty plain. Mr. Malhotra’s accusers in this matter are being unreasonable and grossly unfair, to put it mildly.​”[1]

It is also impossible to take the petition seriously when its major proponents have distinct ulterior motives and can hardly be regarded as objective observers concerned with academic integrity. For example, one of the main backers of the petition who has taken to Twitter wars over it, is Richard Fox Young, an Afro-Dalit activist at the Princeton Theological Seminary (which is simply named after the town of Princeton and has no association with Princeton University) who works closely with John Dayal.

The Afro-Dalit Project is a U.S.-run and U.S.-financed project that frames Dalits as the ‘blacks’ of India and non-Dalits as the ‘whites’ of India, thus superimposing the history of American racism and slavery onto Indian society. John Dayal is Secretary General for the All India Christian Council and a controversial rabid anti-Hindu / anti-India activist.

Indeed, the underwhelming substance behind the petition may explain why it has gotten less than 250 signatures to date while a counter-petition by Malhotra’s supporters has garnered over 10,000 signatures.

However, this is not a game of mere numbers. Malhotra’s critics have at their disposal greater resources and influential supporters—for example, Wendy Doniger, Sagarika Ghose and several others have already waded into the fray to throw their clout against Malhotra.

Is it not convenient that these scholars suddenly discovered this alleged ‘plagiarism’ in Indra’s Net one and a half years after its publication, right when Malhotra’s next book is about to be released? This is nothing but a naked power play to squash the voice of an independent scholar who threatens the very foundations of their work.

If they have issues with Malhotra’s work, they should engage those issues and debate with him openly and freely. Indeed, Malhotra has always invited and welcomed such debates on the substantive issues. But they do not have the intellectual integrity or courage to stand up in debate with their critics.

Instead, they stoop to petty ad hominem attacks designed to destroy the credibility of their critics’ voices rather than address the content of what they are saying. If these nefarious schemes are allowed to succeed unimpeded, if this stranglehold over academia by this mafia of leftist scholars continues unchecked, no pro-India /pro-Hindu scholar will have a strong voice in academia or the mainstream media.

This hullaballoo over plagiarism is just a fig leaf for a deeper fundamental problem that these scholars have with Malhotra and other practitioner-scholars. The heart of their attack is that Malhotra does not have the ‘credentials’ to discuss and debate with their hallowed, Ivy League-pedigreed selves. One such critic recently scoffed that he does not debate with plumbers.

Let us be clear—they are not saying that Malhotra is wrong, that he has not done his research or homework—they simply dismiss him on the grounds that he does not have the appropriate background. Even the charges of plagiarism they are hurling against him are quibbles over academic etiquette.

Is this not like an academic caste system? Is going through the heavily politicized, ritualized process of doctoral studies, tenure and ‘peer review’ by a small, insular coterie of similarly pedigreed scholars the only legitimate way to be a recognized intellectual?

This is a terrible double standard. On the one hand, these scholars establish arbitrary barriers to entry for their critics. On the other hand, they reject the notion of having to have any kind of adhikara (authority based on qualification and competency) as defined within Hinduism for the study of Hindu shastras (texts).

They take a cavalier attitude that they are free to conjure whatever interpretations they like about this sacred tradition, irrespective of the fact that the tradition itself would not consider them to be qualified voices of authority on Hindu shastras.

In our misguided zeal to conform to Western ways, we must never forget that we have our own standards for adhikara. Vedanta cannot be learned at Harvard or Oxford; it must be learned at the feet of a guru who is a Srotriya Brahmanishta (one who is both a master of the shastras and who has sakshatkara (self-realization)). The Vedas cannot be understood merely through poring over texts in a library.

There must be transmission, from guru to shishya, according to sampradaya and parampara so that the tradition is not corrupted. Even if one has proficiency in Sanskrit and is well-read, without the requisite level of antahkarana shuddhi (purity of the mind / senses through sadhana (spiritual practice)) and aparoksha-anubhava (direct experience), one will be a mere pandit rather than an acharya.

A pandit can point to several different meanings or interpretations of a given shloka or passage; an acharya will know which meaning to be given when, depending on the circumstances and context, and thereby speak with an authoritative voice. Even a pandit in the Dharmic tradition has to go through very rigorous training in the traditional ways. That is what brings qualification to teach and be an authority on Hinduism.

In the absence of this adhikara, all sorts of distortions and fundamental misunderstandings take place, as we have seen with scholarship of India from the West. This is what causes Pollock to see Sanskrit as primarily a tool of political oppression rather than as a medium of transmission for the spiritual, civilizational and literary samskriti of Hindus.

As brilliantly explained by Prof. Antonio di Nicolas, this lack of adhikara is what causes Doniger to translate aja eka pada (aja = unborn, unmanifest; eka = one; pada = foot, measure—meaning the unmanifest one-foot measure of music present in the geometries of the ‘AsaT’, meaning the Rg Vedic world of possibilities where only geometries live without forms) as “the one-footed goat” because “aja” in Hebrew means goat.[2]

This lack of basic competence by Doniger has given us ‘gems’ of her scholarship, such as the Gita is a dishonest book; the coloured powders and liquids used for Holi are symbolic of the blood that was ‘probably’ used in past centuries; and Sri Rama abandoned Sita because he was afraid of becoming a sex addict like his father, Dasaratha.

These scholars refuse to take into account our notions of adhikara and instead insist on replacing it with their version of adhikara, i.e., credentials based on the Western academic system where Westerners decide who is qualified or not to speak about Hinduism (a non-Western tradition) by presiding over doctorates, tenure and the peer review process in a system where there is no voice at all for indigenous scholar practitioners who do not kowtow to Western academic ways. Westerners thus conveniently become the judges of their own ‘adhikara’.

For example, Doniger arrogates to herself the right to say whatever she wants about Indic traditions:

I don’t think there is any substance to the argument about Western scholars “appropriating” Indian texts—the texts are there for anyone to write about them, if he or she simply takes the trouble to learn Sanskrit or Telugu or whatever, and a bit of the historical and social context. … Western scholars can’t damage the texts they interpret, no matter how wrong their ideas about them may be … Indians can air their views at any time.[3]

In claiming that anyone can write whatever they want and “Indians can air their views at any time” to counter Western scholarship,[4] Doniger conveniently ignores the asymmetric balance of power between Western scholars and indigenous scholar practitioners. The colonialists dismantled the traditional educational institutions of India. In their absence, the pandits and other traditional custodians of our samskrita do not have the resources or backing of strong institutions or organizations to leverage.

They thus lack access to the key channels of distribution of knowledge—the mainstream media, the upper echelons of premier educational institutions, think tanks and policy makers. They also lack the fluency in English and Western style thought to reach a global audience. And finally, those few who do have this fluency—like Malhotra—are sought to be discredited and silenced by Doniger and others. Doniger herself dismisses Malhotra’s voice by claiming he knows “nothing about the subjects he writes about.”[5]

On the one hand, Hindus who want to study and write about their own tradition have to play by the rules of Western scholars who control the channels of distribution of knowledge in today’s world. They have to follow their dictates on scholarly etiquette.

On the other hand, according to these same Western scholars, Hindus dare not insist on any criteria or qualifications on who can speak authoritatively about their own tradition. That would be chauvinist or fundamentalist, but the Western restrictions, rooted in Eurocentric paradigms, are simply about upholding objective academic standards! They cannot have it both ways.

Ultimately, what Malhotra is fighting for is the space for these voices of adhikaris from within the tradition to have a level playing field and equal access to shape the discourse about their own tradition. Hindus are the only ones of the major world religious traditions whose discourse is defined and dictated by outsiders to the tradition; the academic discourse about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and, to an extent, Buddhism, has been shaped largely by the mainstream voices from within the tradition with academic freedom to create controversial views at the fringes.

The case of Hinduism has been the exact opposite, largely as a result of the colonialist hangover that privileges Eurocentric voices over indigenous ones even within India itself today.

Malhotra seeks to reverse the gaze, to highlight the distortions implicit in Western interpretations of Indic traditions, to create the space in this area monopolized by Western thought for indigenous voices and authentic views from within the tradition to emerge. He is fighting for traditional scholars who do not have wherewithal to fight for themselves as yet.

Until that day when there is a true level playing field, Indologists will have to acknowledge and be sensitive to the fact that they have disproportionate power in defining how Hinduism is understood, including by Hindus themselves. They have to be willing to entertain serious, substantive challenges from critics like Malhotra to ensure the discourse about Hinduism is not just Eurocentric but balanced by voices from within the Indic traditions.

At this critical juncture, where the very definition of foundational concepts of Dharma and Indian civilization are up for grabs—such as yoga, Sanskrit, Hinduism as a religion and the continuity of Indic civilization and Hinduism—the stakes are incredibly high. If Malhotra’s opponents get their way, they will be emboldened to continue their attack on voices that oppose their pointedly left-wing ideology.

Ultimately, this controversy is not just about Rajiv Malhotra, but about what he has come to represent. He is the foremost scholar taking on these Western Indologists and counterattacking their assault on the samskriti, history and civilizational fabric of India and Hinduism. He is the only one who has had the courage to stand up to the Western academy and advocate for alternative voices.

Those in the other camp are closing ranks. The fatal flaw within Indian society has always been disunity and internal bickering. It is time to set aside these petty politics and unify for this cause, which is not about Rajiv Malhotra as an individual but about something much larger.

We have to fight back; to expose these scholars who are attacking Malhotra and show their underlying agenda and the games they are playing; to ensure that the publishers of Malhotra’s books do not buckle under pressure; to demand an equal place at the table for assertive Hindu voices from within the tradition as a counterbalance to predominantly Western voices in the discourse and debate over Indian civilization and Hinduism.

If you believe that assaults on intellectual freedom should be stopped, then you must stand with Malhotra.

If you believe that the Western academic discourse cannot possibly be the only legitimate discourse about India, Indian civilization and Hinduism, then you must stand with Malhotra.

If you believe that, in addition to academic voices, there must be equal space for the voices of scholar practitioners from within the tradition, then you must stand with Malhotra.

If you believe that, in the spirit of true multiculturalism and diversity, the process of reversing the gaze must be encouraged in order to challenge fundamental Eurocentric assumptions and implicit biases, then you must stand with Malhotra.

If you believe that, just as competition must be encouraged in the marketplace for the health of the economy, the flowering of multiple views and ideas must be encouraged for true scholarship, then you must stand with Malhotra.

If you believe in Indian unity and Hindu continuity, then we all must stand with Malhotra—because for so long, and mostly alone, he has fought and stood for all of us.

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