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