Culture

Rohan Murty & His Critics Ought To Have Been Allies In Battle For Sanskrit

Sheldon Pollock: second from left; Murthy junior: second from right/Getty Images
Snapshot
  • In opening the Murty Classical Library of India, Rohan Murty says that his main intention was to highlight the immense contributions of ancient India.

    It is very clear that both Rohan Murty and the petitioners have in their own way been working to bring alive our civilisational achievements.

    Why then, has a mere difference of approach between two highly learned, well-meaning groups descended in to an ugly public spat?

On occasions when individuals or groups with the same objectives become combative and then find themselves in adversarial positions, it is often prudent to look at the intent of the other side. As we say in Hindi, ‘neeyat saaf honi chahiye’. On doing a background check of the other, each side would be surprised to find that they have actually been motivated by the same concerns and seek to achieve the same result.

Not pausing to look at the other side’s original intention can only be disastrous - you tend to react to the latest arguments put forth by supporters of the other side which, well-meaning though they may be, tend to dilute and deviate from the core issue. Soon you begin to suspect the worst about the other side and then start to see the other side as an opponent.

Such a situation is ripe for the real common enemy to take the side of one, and put the two groups with shared interest and goals into such implacably adversarial positions, that rapprochement becomes virtually impossible. The history of India is replete with instances of the common enemy benefiting from entirely avoidable ego clashes among dharmic Hindus.

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Rohan Murty’s response to the academicians who petitioned him to remove Sheldon Pollock from the position of Chief Editor and Mentor of the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) created a flutter. A great deal of heat has been generated by Pollock’s supporters who have coloured the issue and the sharp counter-reactions in support of the petition. This entire issue is fast threatening to become nasty and irreconcilable.

We need to first see what has motivated the young Rohan Murty to set up the MCLI with a very generous US$ 5.2 million grant to Harvard. Rohan Murty declares, “My main goal with this series is to highlight to us Indians and to the rest of the world the incredible diversity and depth of intellectual contributions that ancient India made to literature and the classics”.

In a signed article titled ‘What poetry has to do with math’, Rohan Murty bemoans how the modern Indian education system had infused him and fellow Indians with awe and admiration for Western civilisation with a curriculum replete with “strange ideas, words, phrases, stories, heroes and worlds” that had little or no context in their lives.

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Murty wrote, “Part of our ongoing ignorance of the past appears to be structural. At my high school in Bangalore, we read Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, works by Wordsworth, Tennyson, James Joyce, Dickens… even read Walt Whitman wax eloquent about the end of the American Civil War … Lincoln’s death in “O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done.”

While grateful for knowledge from the West, Rohan Murty feels that our education system had failed him by keeping silent on the equally vast and possibly deeper knowledge hidden in our civilisation, thereby denying him and fellow Indians a rightful pride in their civilisational heritage, “What strikes me as odd,” he says, “is that we students never read any classics that originated in this part of the world - that is, ancient India - despite having a cultural advantage of perhaps being able to understand the context better. We knew of no texts, poems, plays, great prose, science, mathematics, civics, political life or philosophy…from ancient India. My friends and I…remained entirely unaware of the intellectual contributions of this past.”

The little that was taught about ancient India, he regrets, was “perfunctory... a couple of random dates, trinkets of information on Indus Valley civilization, Ashoka and Chandragupta Maurya…without any depth”. Rohan Murty’s deep anguish is further evidenced when he says Indian students were given opportunities to be “well versed with Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Copernicus, Newton… and their tremendous contributions to mankind… yet, most of us had never read about Aryabhatta, Brahmagupta, Pingala, Kalidasa, Hemachandra, Madhava, the Nyaya or Mimimsa Sutras, or the Therigatha”.

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What objection can any Indian have with the above lament of Rohan Murty? It is indeed the lament of every right thinking Indian; we as a nation are so bemused that in 68 years of independent India we have not been able to decolonise our education system.

Rohan Murty, being intelligent and rich, sought to rectify this great disconnect with our civilisational past because he genuinely believed that our past “is no less relevant” than what had been imparted of western knowledge in our schools and colleges and “these sources of knowledge from ancient India are products of creative human thought and hold genuine value for the world”. Murty asserts that “any child on this planet will find mathematics far more amenable when learning parts of it through poetry, as opposed to the dry, dull methods espoused by most mathematics pedagogy today.”

While it is evident that the deep commitment and pride in the achievements of ancient India that motivates us all also motivated Rohan Murty to institute the MCLI, let us do a background check of Prof K Ramasubramanian, chief petitioner against Pollock, who oversees Murty’s MCLI. One quote from the professor regarding the sloka form of Indian mathematical equations would suffice here to show the similarity between the two ‘opponents’ in this debate: “It is easy for people to remember them, because they are in beautiful verse! … Our objective is how to make mathematics more interesting and recreational. Otherwise it would be just dry and boring. Once you understand what it conveys, it would inspire you to be creative. If you want to become a leader, you should understand our scientific heritage. Not just the Puranas or Itihasas, but everything - science, maths, technology, etc. That is not known now!”

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Similarly, a quick look at the achievements of petitioners like Kutumb Shastri and Girish Nath Jha, among others, would convince us of their capabilities and commitment. It is, therefore, very clear that both Rohan Murty and the petitioners have in their own way been working to bring alive our civilisational achievements.

Why then, has a mere difference of approach between two highly learned, well-meaning groups descended in to an ugly public spat?

The reasons are quite complex. We can begin to search for reasons with Rohan Murty’s question, “We started this is 2009. Since then, not one person…. bothered to write to me. What stopped any of these people from getting in touch with me?” The Economic Times quoted him as saying when the anti-Pollock petition hit the headlines.

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The government of India which structured our education system so as to carry our colonial legacy forward with pride – and which Rohan Murty so laments – retained the colonial policy of suppressing indigenous Sanskrit studies. Consequently, traditional scholars in Sanskrit and other Indian languages have been kept out of mainstream socio-political discourse. Ironically, global Sanskrit studies over the last 50 years, has been hijacked by Western scholars without any authentic reference to its roots. Since all the discourse about Sanskrit was happening in English within Western paradigms, our scholars did not understand and, therefore, did not counter the arguments and issues raised against our civilisation. This explains why the petitioners had not approached Rohan Murty six years ago.

Why now? The answer can be found in Rajiv Malhotra’s books - Being Different, Indra’s Net and The Battle for Sanskrit - where he has alerted dharmic intellectuals to the danger of losing our right to interpret our civilisation and its values to outsiders. He has explained the political motivations of American Indology, which has brought together the most unlikely of bedfellows - the Christian Right, the secular left of America and the Indian Left - to shape and influence the socio-political debate in India. His books have provided, for the first time, traditional scholars with the tools to understand, analyse and interpret American Indology cloaked in academic jargon. Only now, with the launch of The Battle for Sanskrit in January 2016, do they feel empowered to fight for their adhikara.

The anti-Pollock petition drawn up by the academics and put out through change.org, is respectful towards Narayana Murthy and Rohan Murty. The petitioners raise the issue of Sheldon Pollock’s “deep antipathy towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practiced in our civilisation”. They point out that Pollock “echoes the views of Macaulay and Max Weber that the shastras generated in India serve no contemporary purpose except for the study of how Indians express themselves.” The petition further points to Pollock’s influential 1985 paper, where “he sees all shastras as flawed because he finds them frozen in Vedic metaphysics, which he considers irrational and a source of social oppression.”

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Rohan Murty, in his several responses, has not addressed the core concerns regarding Pollock.

In this debate the English media has been blatantly biased; as though Sheldon Pollock’s authority to translate, interpret and disseminate our civilisational texts was self-evidently superior to anything anyone from India might be able to offer as an alternative.

It presented the events of JNU as the only reason for the petition, choosing to completely ignore the main points of objection to Sheldon Pollock, and goaded Rohan Murty to speak about the petitioners rather than about the petition. And it would not even speak to Prof K. Ramasubramanian to present his views.

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Now the question that remains unanswered; why did Rohan Murty choose Sheldon Pollock to head MCLI? Can we doubt his motivations?

Such has been the level of ignorance about the nature, course and trajectory of American Indology in the highest echelons of the government that the latter even conferred the Padma Shri on Pollock. Now we know that even the Sringeri Sharada Peetham almost gave Pollock the right to run the Adi Shankara Chair of Hinduism studies at Columbia University.

One can well ask: if the Indian government could honour Sheldon Pollock with a civilian award, if the Sringeri Sharada Peetham wanted to anoint him as the Peetham’s de-facto voice in America, if the learned petitioners and their predecessors at Universities were silent for 60 long years (for Paul Hacker began his assault on Hinduism way back in 1953), how can we blame Rohan Murty? How can his motives even be doubted? There are few Indians who have been so generous with their wealth to envision something so grand and great for India.

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The unfortunate reality of modern India is that urban educated Indians, who take pride in their civilisational past, have to depend on Sanskritists from America to interpret ancient India for them, as they cannot read or understand Sanskrit.

In his desire to protect, preserve and make available to the people of India and the world the hidden treasures of Indian literature, Murty went to Harvard and the much honoured Sheldon Pollock. Given Rohan Murty’s belief that we need to understand our context better, why does he object to the petitioners’ request to include the insiders?

I ask of Rohan Murty, if our colonial masters put in place an education system of which he and I are such terrible victims, why does he think a foreigner would interpret our books to give us a sense of pride? Especially, why did he choose to trust a man who believes that the shastras serve no contemporary purpose, when Rohan Murty believes the sources of knowledge from ancient India hold genuine value for the world even today? He must surely want to ensure that MCLI puts in place a proper system of checks and balances to ensure authenticity.

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Infosys has successfully executed several large projects, which required multi-disciplinary skills. A similar approach can be adopted here by putting together teams of traditional Sanskrit scholars, English Scholars and domain specialists.

Before I conclude, one question remains unanswered. Were the petitioners right in taking the issue to change.org?

It has often been said that the ‘medium is the message’. This dictum has perhaps never been proved as true as in this instance. Change.org is understood to represent the angry and adversarial voice of victims. It is suitable for oppressed minority groups to seek the intervention of the authorities. Rohan Murty was perhaps left wondering how he had victimised the petitioners. I would want to forget Rohan Murty’s comment where he made the simian comparison, as being said in the heat of the moment.

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Had the petition not been published through change.org, and instead reached Rohan Murty at a personal level, I daresay, the result would have been very different.

I would like to categorically state that the petitioners, Rohan Murty and the people who have reacted rather sharply on either side share the common objective of reviving our pride in our civilisational past. The best ending to this episode would be a meeting between a team of petitioners led by Prof. K. Ramasubramanian and Rohan Murty.

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