There is a traditional parable about a pious person who wanted to go to the local tavern in order to rescue and reform the drinkers and to bring them to the temple instead. A wise man cautioned him to think twice before entering the tavern, because while he may enter with good intentions, thinking that he will bring others to the temple, he may instead himself get stuck in the tavern. And then not only would he have failed to rescue the others, but he himself would be lost, too.
Some well-intentioned, well-heeled Indian groups and businessmen are now engaged in foolhardy attempts to go into the metaphorical tavern—in this case, the Western academy. It is well-known that the academy—the system of universities and scholarship prevalent in the West and in India today—is virulently anti-Hindu and anti-India. It is dominated by leftist discourse that hates traditional societies and religion and that finds tempting and soft targets in Hinduism.
As Indians in India and the diaspora accumulate even greater hordes of wealth, they are plum targets for fundraising and bankrolling various projects of different kinds. Combined with the sincere but misguided intention of some well-meaning Indian individuals and groups, it has led to a dangerous trend of Indians and Hindus bankrolling projects in the academy that threaten to harm the interests of India and Hinduism. Rather than taking over enemy territory, we are actually now bankrolling the enemy.
Three examples of this phenomenon have been in the news recently.
One is the controversy over the Murty Classical Library of India. N.R. Narayanana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys, and his family bestowed a $5.2M grant to Harvard University for the establishment of the Murty Classical Library of India under the general editorship of Sheldon Pollock, the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of Sanskrit and South Asian Studies at Columbia University. The library is intended to translate into English 500 classics of Indian literature in various languages from the past two millennia. Pollock has a history of anti-Hindu scholarship spanning decades.
In addition to Pollock, the editorial board for the library consists of Monika Horstmann, Professor Emerita of Modern Indian Studies, Heidelberg University; Sunil Sharma, Associate Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature, Boston University; and David Shulman, Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The first volume of the series was Sufi Lyrics, and other titles include The History of Akbar (presented in two volumes), two volumes on Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, and Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women.
A petition was launched by several renowned Sanskrit scholars in India, garnering over 15,000 signatures, asking the Murtys to reconstitute the editorial group of the library with a fair representation of the lineages and traditional groups that teach and follow the traditions of the texts being translated. They also are requesting a written set of standards and policies for consistency throughout the project, including principles like rejection of the discredited Aryan Invasion theory, etc. Now, predictably, the academy is lashing out, with a massive PR campaign to discredit the petition in order to ensure Pollock’s continued stewardship of the project.
This news comes on the heels of the University of California, Irvine rejecting a $3M donation to establish chairs in Hindu and India studies by the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF), an organization seeking to counter anti-Hindu bias in the academy. The rejection was based on concerns about the ‘ideology’ of the donors and the organization.
There have also been efforts afoot to establish an Adi Shankara chaired professorship at Columbia University on behalf of the Sringeri peetham (one of the most hallowed and prestigious Hindu institutions in the world and the first matha to be established by Adi Shankaracharya), again under the oversight and guidance of Sheldon Pollock. The determination as to who would occupy the chair, what studies would be pursued under the chair, etc., would all remain with the university administration and their appointed committee, not Sringeri peetham or the donors.
While the motives behind each of these initiatives may be laudable, they are fundamentally ill-conceived and dangerous. None of these initiatives provide sufficient controls to ensure that our interests are unharmed. They are tantamount to handing over a blind check to the academy, which has a long and checkered history of anti-India and anti-Hindu bias. When we as individuals in the US, for example, donate money to qualified tax-exempt charities, there are controls in place to ensure that the funds can only be utilized for certain purposes and in certain ways under tax laws. These controls ensure that we are not defrauded and that our hard-earned money is not squandered by the recipient. These initiatives totally lack such controls.
To think that a few million dollars here and there will be enough to cause a meaningful change in the academy is foolish and incredibly naïve. Entering traditionally hostile territory requires sufficient armor and a waterproof battle plan and strategy in order to ensure that you do not simply end up as a pawn for the other side. Even having one of our own appointed as a professor is not sufficient if the ultimate control and authority over that professorship is wielded by a coterie of scholars who are opposed to our traditions as we interpret them, in the absence of sufficient controls to ensure autonomy for the chair.
Outside scholars can study – but not define for us – our Samskriti
Of course, there is a role for scholarship of our traditions from outside the tradition. A sterling example of such scholarship is that of Dr Koenraad Elst, who does not identify as a Hindu, but who studies Indology with academic rigor, impartiality and from a principled approach, without mincing words or hesitating to call a spade a spade. His conclusions often do not agree with a traditionalist Hindu reading, but because he is objective and fair, his scholarship is most welcome and appreciated.
This is in stark contrast to the scholarship of Sheldon Pollock. Pollock does not approach Indology from an impartial starting point. He has a very definite political agenda. He is explicit about wanting to remove the sacred from Sanskrit, to view Sanskrit through a purely political lens, as a tool of oppression against women and shudras in particular. He compares the aesthetic power of Sanskrit to the use of propaganda by Nazis, to make beautiful and aesthetically appealing the ideology of oppression and hate. In effect, he compares ancient Indian civilization to the racial oppression by the Nazis. This is the perspective he brings to bear in all his studies of Sanskrit; this is the inherent bias which he carries into his work on the Murty Classical Library of India.
Imagine the repercussions of such bias on the composition of the library! He in effect gets to decide, along with the editorial board, which of the thousands of texts in our history count as our classics and frame the narrative they tell about our civilization. Hiring somebody else to define and interpret your culture’s literary classics, the very history of your literature, in effect gives them the power to define you. These ‘classics’ are not dead books of a vanished civilization, like the Iliad and Odyssey of the ancient Greeks—these are the sources of our living culture and religion, as vibrant and central to our civilization as the Bible. Could you imagine the Church outsourcing the translation of the Bible to non-Christians? Why should we do the same?
The ideological biases of these scholars cannot but influence the quality of scholarship and translations of these important texts. It was precisely such biases that gave rise to the racist, Eurocentric translations and depictions of our culture and religion in colonial times. In the 1700s and 1800s, European scholars undertook a serious study of our civilization through Indology in order to exploit our wealth and digest into Western systems our traditional knowledge. When we handed over to them our texts and the wisdom of our panditas, they used this knowledge against us. Max Muller and his cohorts appropriated traditional knowledge from our pandits and then twisted and distorted our literature and practices to come up with poisonous myths like the Aryan Invasion theory, the Aryan/Dravidian racial divide and the reduction of our religion to caste, cows and sati. William Jones did the same with his fabrication of ‘Hindu Law’.
We are still suffering from the consequences of their distortions of our civilization, the deep divides created by their divide-and-rule tactics, the false notions of ourselves and our history through the lies they have fed us. It will take us generations to recover from this, if we can ever fully recover at all. We may have removed geographical colonialism but we have not yet removed the colonialism of the mind.
We cannot afford such a dangerous experiment again. For, what starts in the Ivory Tower does not stop there. Academic discourse spreads to mainstream media, to popular culture, to our psychological understanding of ourselves and our identity. It tells us in very fundamental ways who we are as individuals and as a civilization. We are not talking of arcane things here. We are talking of the creation of a library meant to withstand the test of time, that will be a testament to the greatest pieces of literature created in India over the past two millennia. We are talking of what our kids will be taught in college about their heritage and religion at a time when their identities and ideologies are most susceptible to molding.
This is a huge responsibility that we cannot take lightly. Good intentions are not enough, when there is so much at stake. We have to be far-seeing and act for the long-term interests of India and Hinduism, not for what looks good as a photo-op or glossy press release today.
Academic Qualification does not Constitute Adhikara
The Dharmic traditions are not religions of the book that can be defined by doctrine or dogma alone. They are living traditions based on embodied experience, and in order to properly understand, preserve and teach them, one has to have aparoksha jnanam (direct rather than indirect knowledge, based on experience). One must become brahmanishta (established in the consciousness of Brahman) in addition to srotriya (learned in the scriptures). It is only then that one would know which particular meaning of a verse is the correct interpretation in which context.
Our rishis and acharyas were fastidious about the qualifications required in order to approach the study of our shastras. Our religious system, and that of all dharmic traditions, is based on adhikara bheda, meaning differentiation according to qualification. In other words, in order to properly understand, study and teach our traditions, it is not enough to know Sanskrit. One must follow a certain lifestyle, based on yamas and niyamas, have a requisite level of vairagya (dispassion) and viveka (discrimination) and learn from a qualified teacher.
Technical knowledge or book knowledge is not enough. Qualification is based upon antahkarna shuddhi (inner purity), which is attained through strict disciplines and adherence to a lifestyle of ritual purity, spiritual practices and learning in accordance with the traditional ways. In order to study the Vedas, for example, one must have undergone the upanayana samskara (sacred thread ceremony) and perform daily the trikala sandhya vandanam (particular rites of worship offered at dawn, dusk and midday as prescribed in the Vedas and transmitted at the time of upanayana). Nor is the concept of adhikara limited to the Vedas alone. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that the wisdom of the Gita is never to be explained to those who are devoid of austerities, who are not devoted, and who do not render service.
The integrity of our shastras and their interpretation was of utmost importance to our rishis and acharyas. The Vedas and the Vedic tradition were carefully organized into various lineages, so each aspect would continue throughout time uncorrupted and pure. The methods through which oral transmission and the various paramparas were preserved ensured that the Vedic tradition lived on and came to us today as a living tradition, even when all other ancient religious traditions have perished.
Most people now do not even know who a Ganapathi is, but this is a designation for a particularly learned Vedic scholar. In order to become a Ganapathi, one first learns the Vedic texts by heart. This process itself could take up to five years. In the next stage, the pada patha, the entire samhita is split word by word and learned. After that, the krama patha is learned, in which the student learns to combine words. Next, in jata patha, the verses are learned in the sequence of 1,2,2,1,1,2/2,3,3,2,2,3/3,4,4,3,3,4, and finally, in the ghana patha stage, the verses are learned in the sequence of 1,2,2,1,1,2,3,3,2,1,1,2,3/2,3,3,2,2,3,4,4,3,2,2,3,4. By learning the same verses in so many different sequences, the Vedic texts become encrypted in the mind and full-proofed against error or corruption in their recitation and transmission. Such is the unfathomable discipline and intensity of practice with which our forefathers have preserved our samskriti for us. Alas, today there are hardly more than a few dozen Ganapathis left in India.
Our ancestors and acharyas sweated blood to pass along to us the Vedic tradition uncorrupted and pristine. They developed frameworks for preservation and transmission that safeguarded against error and abuse. They knew before the Europeans ever came along the dangers of being lax in terms of who can interpret and teach the Vedic tradition and how it is to be taught.
When they took such care, how can we dare to be so negligent and reckless?
What Will Be Our Legacy?
We choose today what our legacy will be in the years to come. Do the Murtys want to be remembered for funding the next Max Muller, for being yet another in a long line of sepoys? Do we want to be remembered for funding the study of our religion by those who see it as oppressive and fundamentally bad?
Or, do we have enough self-respect to decolonize our minds, to demand that we have over the study of our tradition the same autonomy that the Muslims, Buddhists and Christians have over theirs? They get to define who they are for themselves, with outside scholarship playing only a marginal or fringe role. When Hindus try to do the same, they are accused of being fanatical or fundamentalist.
Our ancestors and acharyas have entrusted us with the custodianship of the oldest surviving religious tradition in the world, the last living of the pagan faiths, the mother source of all dharmic traditions, the civilization which has been the backbone of Bharata desha and the Indian subcontinent and beyond. To outsource that custodianship, to abdicate our duties of custodianship of our samskriti, would be a betrayal of who we are, from where we come and who we are destined to be.
Aditi Banerjee is a practicing attorney at a Fortune 500 financial services company in the greater New York area. She is on the Board of Directors of the World Association for Vedic Studies (WAVES) and has organized and presented at global conferences on matters related to Dharma. She co-edited the book, Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America, and has written widely on Hinduism and the Hindu-American experience.
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