Purvapaksha: Has Shatavadhani Ganesh Really Understood Pollock?

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Since the early 1970s, numerous educational institutions in India, especially in the areas of social sciences, history, literature and arts, have been captured by the Marxists.

They ensure who gets scholarships within India, research grants to go abroad and worse still, who gets published by the prestigious publishing houses like Oxford University Press, and whose works get translated into several languages.

Traditional scholars of Sanskrit have been sidelined and are being impoverished progressively.

The major part of The Battle For Sanskrit is intended to educate and explain to our traditionalists novel methods of analysis, problem-solving, critical thinking in order to debate with opponents.

Shatavadhani Ganesh is one of India’s most famous traditional scholars, commanding great mastery over a massive corpus of texts. In this part of the article, I will point out that even such a great mind has serious blind spots when it comes to understanding Sheldon Pollock.

But more troubling than a mere lack of knowledge is the fact that Shri Ganesh’s over-confidence makes him unaware of his limitations. He seems to trivialise the purva-paksha methods I have described in the prior section, and he adopts an accusatory posture towards my work.

The recent review of The Battle For Sanskrit (TBFS) by Shri Ganesh has numerous errors in basic understanding, both of my book and Sheldon Pollock’s works. I will examine his specific errors in subsequent articles. However, in the following pages, I will focus on showing that Shri Ganesh has not adequately understood the fundamental building blocks used by Pollock.

It appears that Ganesh uses my book for providing him secondary access to the writings of Pollock (even though, ironically, he criticises me for relying upon secondary works on Sanskrit texts.) He wrongly assumes that Pollock says the same things as any other Western Indologist; therefore, Ganesh tends to apply a generic and simplistic understanding of Orientalism to see Pollock’s works.

Ganesh does lip-service to the focus I place on Pollock, and writes: “Sheldon Pollock is arguably the most influential and well-connected Indologist in the world today.” This statement is taken directly from TBFS. But if he takes Pollock seriously, he cannot simply ignore what is new and distinct about Pollock compared to prior Indologists.

Now I will examine a few major statements made by Ganesh in his review of TBFS.

Ganesh’s complaint that I did not mention “past masters”

Ganesh writes:

He [i.e. Malhotra] fails to mention (or seems to be ignorant of) the luminaries who have categorically rubbished such attempts – AC Bose, AC Das, Arun Shourie, Baldev Upadhyaya, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Chidananda Murthy, DV Gundappa, David Frawley, Dayananda Saraswati, GN Chakravarti, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, KS Narayanacharya, Koenraad Elst, Krishna Chaitanya, Kuppuswami Sastri, M Hiriyanna, Michel Danino, Nagendra, Navaratna S Rajaram, Padekallu Narasimha Bhat, Padma Subrahmanyam, Pullela Sriramachandrudu, RC Dwivedi, Ram Swarup, Ranganath Sharma, Rewa Prasad Dwivedi, SK Ramachandra Rao, SL Bhyarappa, SN Balagangadhara, SR Ramaswamy, S Srikanta Sastri, Shrikant Talageri, Sita Ram Goel, Sri Aurobindo, Sushil Kumar Dey, Swami Vivekananda, VS Sukhthanker, Vasudev Sharan Agarwal, Yudhishthira Mimamsaka… the list is endless. And the few scholars he refers to – like AK Coomaraswamy, Dharampal, GC Pande, K Krishnamoorthy, Kapila Vatsyayan, PV Kane, and V Raghavan – are only in passing.

This is a very amateurish thing to say, for the following reasons:

  • The individuals named above belong to all sorts of categories of experts. It is a list Ganesh has randomly picked out of hundreds of good Indian scholars. Would Ganesh care to explain the criteria for his selection of “past masters”, and how a lot of other Indian scholars got left out? This looks more like the reading list that some junior student of his put together.
  • I hope Ganesh is aware that many of these individuals are living contemporaries, and hence not “past”.
  • I happen to personally know and work with several of these individuals, and that too for many years. So it’s not as if I don’t know their areas of work.
  • Ganesh should take a look at the extensive bibliographies cited in all my books.
  • The difference is that I cite writers that are relevant to a given topic, and not for the sake of name-dropping. None of these individuals he names has (to the best of my knowledge) published any extensive purva-paksha of Pollock’s school of Indology, which is the focus of my work.
  • Imagine if someone is doing very original and extensive research on a specific solar system that has not been studied in depth before. The references used would be those relevant to argue the specific thesis, and not a random assortment of quotes from astronomers just for the sake of impressing people with one’s general knowledge.
  • Most of the writers named above do not bother to mention each other in their writings, precisely because of the specialised nature of their work. For instance, I doubt Shourie, Frawley, Balagangadhara, Bhyrappa, Talageri, etc. cite all the above named writers. It would be ridiculous and irrelevant for them to do so. By Ganesh’s own criteria, this should disqualify all of them from the category of worthy “masters” – because they are guilty of ignoring Ganesh’s list of past masters the same way I am being accused.
  • Many of the scholars on his list are not Sanskrit scholars – another disqualifier if one were to use Ganesh’s criteria.
  • In summary, he is making an irrelevant and pedantic point here.

Let us face the fact that since the early 1970s, numerous powerful and elitist educational institutions in India, especially in the areas of social sciences, history, literature and arts, have been captured by the Marxists.

They ensure who gets scholarships within India, research grants to go abroad and worse still, who gets published by the prestigious publishing houses like Oxford University Press, and whose works get translated into several languages. Scholars like Sheldon Pollock, Romila Thapar, RS Sharma and DN Jha have sucked up so much oxygen out of the ecosystem of knowledge production.

Can Ganesh tell us: From the living scholars in his list of masters, which ones command the clout to head a prestigious institution recognised globally? Which one of them, despite their impeccable scholarship, can get their research published by an academic press on a continuous basis?

How much of the reading materials prescribed academically today is written by them, as compared to Western writers and Indian leftists – I am referring to university curricula outside India as well as in many elite Indian universities?

I am trying to highlight the problem and injustice we face. Traditional scholars have been sidelined and are being impoverished progressively. For instance, Pandit Yudhishthir Mimansak was one of the greatest scholars of Sanskrit grammar in the 20th century.

His writings were largely printed by small-scale regional publishing houses, and he lived in poverty and suffered greatly from illness during his last years. If he were alive today, his writings would be accused as being those of a Hindu Nationalist, just as many of the living scholars in Ganesh’s list are unfairly branded.

I knew the late Dharampal personally during the final years of his life, and he shared details of his meagre existence of neglect by the establishment, and even by most traditionalists. Both he and Kapila Vatsyayan received Infinity Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Awards, and they mentored me personally in important ways. Kapilaji also explained to me the price she paid for her refusal to sell out to the academic establishment.

When I visited her to congratulate her for the Padma Vibhushan Award some years back, she told me: there are no institutional mechanisms by which the knowledge of the scholar being recognised in the Padma awards gets disseminated, and developed further by the next generation. She felt I was one of the few at that time working so diligently to argue for swadeshi scholarship. Yet, Ganesh concludes that he cannot “absolve Malhotra of his blatant disregard to the past masters.”

Ganesh then quotes a few specific examples of works by Indians who criticised Western Indology. He feels these criticisms are somehow the same work I am doing. If that had been the case, I would not even be wasting so much time writing TBFS, for I am not interested in regurgitating what others already did. I wish to open new doors through my work, rather than rehash old knowledge that others (better qualified than me) are already pursuing. What Ganesh is doing is analogous to someone citing astronomy writings by “past masters” that have little to do with the specific newly discovered solar system someone is studying in very great detail.

My focus in TBFS is on Pollock’s school per se. My book explains how he is a completely new and different kind of thinker than the old guard Ganesh mentions (like Max Mueller, etc.) In fact, Pollock himself criticises and rejects all those he thinks of as old school Orientalists. Pollock is not vulnerable to the old criticisms against the old guard of Western Indologists.

This is why I wish Ganesh had read Pollock first, and realised that we must properly understand him, and not try to be reductionist and think of all Westerner Indologists as the same. The major part of TBFS is intended to educate and explain to our traditionalists that which is new and different in Pollock compared to prior Western Indologists.

Convinced that he has dealt a devastating blow to my credibility, Ganesh then alleges that “Malhotra directly accuses Indian scholars of either being unwillingly complicit with the enemies (p. 68), or being irresponsible (p. 15), or being uninterested (p. 44), or being unaware of Western scholarship (p. 1). He lacks empathy for the numerous scholars who are deeply involved in their own research.”

This statement by Ganesh is a gross misrepresentation of my commitment and of TBFS. It is a typical example of manipulating something by taking it out of context. Is he trying to create bheda between me and the traditionalists? Wouldn’t that attempt be against the interests of the traditionalists?

Of course, I do want to expose those specific Indians who have switched sides to serve the colonial system, those who are complicit and sitting on the sidelines, and those who vacillate opportunistically. Nobody who has read my work would doubt the sincerity with which I have championed what I call Swadeshi Indology.

Yet he goes on repeating his allegation, writing that Malhotra “looks down upon traditionalist scholars.” I certainly want their output raised to be on a par with Western Indology and then supersede it. For instance, we must have more and better quality assets controlled by the traditionalists, such as Indology journals, libraries and conferences in India, and research publishing with high impact.

A good role model for our scholars is Shankar Rajaraman who, along with some others, is busy highlighting the errors of Pollock; he shows that these Westerners don’t know how to use our idiom and methods for the interpretation of our texts.

Any system that is to be improved needs periodic assessment and shakeups. The worst thing for traditionalists to do is to promote vyakti-puja (idolatry) of any scholar by making him too big to be criticised. Ganesh is great, but his limitations concerning Western Indology must be discussed in a constructive manner.

Ganesh raises another irrelevant issue and writes: “And it is strange he [i.e. Malhotra] has not quoted any regional language scholar.” However, can Ganesh please cite the specific regional language scholars who have critiqued Pollock and his school? Pollock is the focus of TBFS, and not a generic “high level” critique of Western Indology.

Ganesh’s complaint is as ridiculous as saying that the astronomer who has discovered previously unknown data about a solar system ought to be rejected because he has failed to cite regional language astronomers. Ganesh appears to lack a sense of what is relevant in a given context.

Misrepresenting my movement for a competitive home team

Ganesh writes: “Malhotra writes in several places that he is the first person to undertake such a task (see pp. 27, 44, or 379, for example), which as we know is false.” But no such claim is being made by me in the pages listed by him, or elsewhere. What I say is entirely different than his characterisation. I shall elaborate.

First of all, TBFS’s purpose is not to do yet another generic critique of western Indology, but a specific one about the new school led by Pollock. If Ganesh is aware of any similar analysis of Pollock’s school, he ought to give us the references. In fact, I asked Pollock in a personal meeting about the lack of critical examination of his works by Indians operating within a Hindu framework; he was completely unaware of anyone having done this.

Furthermore, a home team is a lot different than isolated writings by some individuals. Such a team would have to match the opposing (Pollock’s) team in output, team cooperation, intensity and focus. It would have to match the opponents in influencing media and mainstream intellectual discourse both in India and overseas.

I have spent the past two decades trying many ways to create such a home team, but it is not easy. To the best of my knowledge, Ganesh has not undertaken such a project to launch a movement, and is expressing opinions not based on experience.

Ganesh also writes: “This is not a new battle. It has been fought before, and won before.” Such a statement suggests lack of awareness of major new developments in Western thought or their level of complexity. Earlier in this article I listed some such developments by Pollock that are powerful and new, and that demand fresh critiques by us.

Ganesh says that “The battle for Sanskrit and Sanskriti is not a new one. Sanatana dharma has survived years of onslaught from many quarters in many guises.” However, he does not seem to appreciate that the past battles were against the past attacks. Each encounter has required its own fresh purva-paksha.

Adi Shankara did not find earlier purva-paksha that was against earlier opponents to be sufficient for his own time and context. Because he faced new opponents, he therefore had to do new purva-paksha. Shankara also developed new paradigms and methodologies for this purpose and did not merely regurgitate old ones.

This is why I introduced the term Charvaka 2.0 and explained how the Pollock school is more evolved than the prior materialists. It is easy for someone who did not read Pollock to naively assume it is more of the same thing.

Ganesh simplifies his characterisation of Western Orientalists and Indian Leftists by referring to all of them with the same brush as “crass materialists”, without delving into details on how such materialists today differ in substantial ways from the earlier Charvakas.

Shri Ganesh is silent on TBFS’s purpose which is stated in its Introduction chapter. He completely ignores the urgent matter of Sringeri mattha becoming almost hijacked by Pollock, even though I clearly explained that incident as my reason for writing the book.

The recent case of Rohan Murty handing over to Pollock the responsibility of translating 500 Indian texts has also failed to alarm him. He ignores the list of 18 debates given in the final chapter of TBFS, which the book says it wishes to spark. Shri Ganesh ignores all the intentions, context and strategy of the book he tries to review.

In the Hindu tradition, a significant commentary ought to go beyond the words and sentences and get at the essential thought, teaching and philosophy of the root text. Only such a commentator is referred to as a ‘pada-vakya-pramanajna’ (to allude to the opening verses in Shankaracharya’s Bhashya on the Taittiriya Upanishad). Alas, this eminent man’s review of TBFS has not gone beyond the pada-vakya.

Shri Ganesh gives his sweeping uttara to my work, but without having first done a proper purva-paksha of either my book or Pollock’s work. I find this error common among people who do not listen well before starting to articulate a lot. He betrays a lack of understanding of TBFS by branding it as “Malhotra’s pseudo-logic”. His review of TBFS is more a personal criticism of me than an analysis of the book’s thesis.

Sri Krishna advises us that one must do his own svadharma (even poorly) rather than imitate someone else’s svadharma. If Ganesh does this introspection, he would understand that we are both on the same side.

Need to advance beyond data accumulation towards knowledge and wisdom

There is a broader issue that many of our scholars face. The Indian education system’s obsession with exams based on memorised information has led to a focus on accumulating large quantities of factual information. But this does not constitute knowledge, because knowledge also requires critical thinking. And even knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom, because wisdom requires appreciation for the contexts and the big picture in which a discourse is situated.

Data by itself can be cluttered and requires the clarity of wisdom to be useful. Even those with a mental search engine that allows them to quickly retrieve some quote from a text are often unable to apply it to solve the problem at hand. We must upgrade our traditional scholars to be capable of analysis, problem-solving, critical thinking and debate with opponents.

To some extent, computer tools can help alleviate the mundane tasks of memorising, and thus help free up human resources to undertake higher level intellectual challenges. The Abrahamic religions have invested heavily in computer searchable databases of all their literature, including primary texts, commentaries, historical works, etc.

I have seen very impressive analytical tools for Christianity that apply artificial intelligence methods. For this reason, it is not considered important for Christian scholars to have memorised a lot, because such factual knowledge is readily accessible from any smart phone.

I hope the 10-year plan of the Indian government to revive Sanskrit and its studies will include the development of such computer tools for scholars. This would allow the emphasis of Sanskrit education to shift beyond heavy memorisation and towards higher levels of analytical thinking and the wisdom of global contexts.

I conclude by reaching out to Shri Ganesh to discuss our disagreements with mutual respect, and with the commitment to defeat the common enemy we both recognize. The battles are many and cannot be won in an elitist way by excluding insider voices that have done their share of tapasya to the cause.

I respect Shri Ganesh’s work and expertise. I hope he is also able to see that my goal is to make traditional scholars aware of these latest threats that we face. We each bring different dimensions of expertise, and the movement for dharma will be stronger by working together.

The problem of tunnel vision is brought out in Satyajit Ray’s movie, ‘Shatranj ke khilaadi’, based on the story by Premchand. It shows two elite Indian men playing chess and constantly engaged in petty and pedantic arguments. They are unconcerned that all around them are political and military activities by the East India Company, heading towards the annexation of the Indian state of Awadh.

Living in a cocoon and disengaged from the real world, these men abrogated their responsibility as community leaders. They made light of the gradual surrender to the British, full of arrogance and self-importance. I wrote this book because I do not treat the survival of my tradition as a leisurely game of chess.

Read the first part of the article here.