Sheldon Pollock (Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons)
  • The Battle for Sanskrit seeks to empower traditional Sanskrit scholars so they can take up this task with regards to the West.

    Ganesh’s final warning that ‘if we allow ourselves to be too troubled by such scholars and such debates, we will never be able to attain the peace of a contemplative mind’ also does not sound right to me.

Reading through  Shatavadhani R. Ganesh’s critical review of Rajiv Malhotra’s The Battle for Sanskrit my attention was drawn to an important point regarding the problem with Pollock’s scholarship made in the book which appears to have been missed. This has to do with the loss of adhikara of traditional scholars as experts in Sanskrit and its transfer to Western academicians and their Indian disciples.

Although this point is reiterated several times in the book, its major emphasis has been on the criticism of Pollock’s scholarship and so naturally this becomes the primary consideration of the reader.

Yet the motivational factor for the book was the transfer of adhikara entailed in the sponsorship of the Advaita chair in Columbia University and much of the advice that Malhotra has proffered, which Ganesh finds untenable, such as the studying of Western theories by traditional scholars, Sanskrit as the language of innovation and change, writing new smrtis, and so on, are related to empowering traditional scholars in order to keep their expertise relevant in the contemporary world.

If the adhikara issue had been considered, I think Ganesh’s critique would have been radically different for he would then have realized the peculiarity of the Pollock challenge and that it is quite unprecedented in the history of the Sanskrit intellectual tradition.

Part of the problem here is that Malhotra himself has not highlighted the novelty of his project but sought to establish a continuity with the Sanskrit argumentative tradition. He claims that in ancient times, Hindu scholars were concerned about the views of ‘others’ and refuted the challenges to their views presented by ‘others’ but over time they became insular, escapist, apologetic, and so on, did not do any purvapaksa of Christianity, Islam, Marxism, Feminism, or any school of thought they encountered in the last millennium, and that he is now seeking to revive this tradition, get the traditional scholars out of their silos, their comfort zones, and so on.

Thus, he expresses his narrative using ancient categories such as purvapaksa and siddhanta, astika and nāstika, referring to his opponents as Charvakas, and so on. This strategy has the value that it silences the objection that the kind of intellectual critiques he is promoting are typical of Western schools of thought and not of our own.

But it invites the backlash, as evident in Ganesh’s critique, that Malhotra has no formal grounding in the Sanskrit tradition, that his purvapaksa is lacking in pramanas, that he ignores all the refutations in defence of the Sanskrit intellectual heritage provided by scholars in the last two centuries against the Christians, the Marxists, and so on.

The substance of Ganesh’s critique is that if you are going to locate your project within the Sanskrit intellectual tradition, then you must first understand and agree with the universalist ideals of that tradition, then you must see where your project fits into the tradition – in this case, it is about Form (rupa) and not Content (svarupa), which makes it secondary in importance since the tradition is primarily spiritualist.

Then, you must check how such a project is to be executed in the context of Form i.e. according to the pramana-purvapaksa-siddhanta chronology and you must acknowledge the contributions of prior teachers – not just tipping the hat but setting forth their arguments and then successively placing your own views in that lineage. Ganesh is right here. This, indeed, is what it means to be part of a tradition.

Pollock’s scholarship is, however, in a completely different league and entails not merely criticising the content of Indian texts, which can be dealt with through refutations, but seeking to usurp authority for representing them. This has been, perhaps, best summed up by his great admirer Ananya Vajpeyi:

Sanskrit must be taken back from the clutches of Hindu supremacists, bigots, believers in Brahmin exclusivity, misogynists, Islamophobes and a variety of other wrong-headed characters on the right, whose colossal ambition to control India’s vast intellectual legacy is only matched by their abysmal ignorance of what it means and how it works?

I am sure most traditional Sanskrit scholars would not consider themselves as belonging to any of these groups but from the point of view of the Pollock school of thought, they would be. What the former would consider as the highest knowledge is precisely what qualifies in the view of the latter as ‘abysmal ignorance.’

This threat is not likely to be taken seriously because it is not at all clear what the ‘taking back’ of Sanskrit possibly entails. Quite simply, it involves the interpretation of Sanskrit texts in ways radically different from traditional hermeneutics and of instituting those modes of inquiry as authoritative.

I will explain the problem in detail. Consider, for example, the debate about the reality of the self, in which different positions are available in the Sanskrit tradition: the self is non-existent, the self is the body, the self is actor and enjoyer is different from the body, the self is only an enjoyer, the self is only an observer, and so on.

Now one who takes any of these positions can do a purvapaksa of the others and these are the kind of debates we find in the Indian tradition. A scholar like Pollock, on the other hand, does not have a position to take in this debate as such. Instead, he will say that he is willing to accept all these positions as mere ‘narratives’ and study their social effects. He will conclude that the dominant Hindu view of the self is socially oppressive.

The main problem here is not the derogatory conclusion but that the inquiry itself is tangential to the concerns of the tradition. Even if you try to prove that the dominant Hindu view of the self is socially liberating, you will be playing someone else’s language game.

As another example, consider different views about the beauty of kavya, whether it is to be found in alamkara, riti, guna, vakrokti, rasa, aucitya, and so on. A scholar like Pollock will say that he accepts all positions as equally valid ‘narratives’ and study how the beauty of kavya served as a political aesthetic i.e. how kavya served as a tool for states to express power. 19th and 20th century European literary theorists did not find Sanskrit kavya beautiful.

Their Marxist disciples in India, like D. D. Kosambi, reproduced the critiques of their European masters and received much opprobrium for it from Western scholars like Daniel Ingalls. Those were the struggles of yesteryear. Pollock is different. He is all praise for the beauty of Sanskrit kavya – he has to, or else how could Sanskrit kavya possibly serve as a political aesthetic?

Thus, Pollock seeks to alter the direction of Indological scholarship itself but what is of great concern is the deceptiveness in which he accomplishes it, lest he be labelled a neo-Orientalist. In his essay The Social Aesthetic and Sanskrit Literary Theory, he fully endorses Ingalls’ position that the literary theory of the Indians must be prioritized in the study of Indian literature.

And so he does a comprehensive study of the kavyashastra tradition from Bhamaha to Jagannath Pandit, and from this galaxy of scholars he picks up Bhoja, who he argues has been unfairly neglected by the kavyashastra tradition.

Why Bhoja? Because apparently Bhoja is the only rhetorician who gives priority to a social aesthetic in kavya, which Pollock then reads back into the earlier tradition and laments that it was unfortunately disrupted by the Kashmirian scholars, Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta, who privileged language-philosophy and emotive experience in their interpretation of kavya.

But even here, Pollock argues, the ‘social’ remained important although it got occluded. And therefore his project is to recuperate the ‘social’ in kavya. What is meant by the ‘social’ in kavya, you ask? Well, here is an example of a kavya:

You’re free to go wandering, holy man.

The little dog was killed today

by the fierce lion making its lair

in the thicket on the banks of the Godā river.

This is supposed to be an excellent kavya because the expressed meaning that the holy man was free to go to the thicket is contradicted by the suggested meaning (dhvani) which is to prevent him from going there. It is this kind of language use that Anandavardhana held as the greatest form of kavya. But commentators have also suggested in passing that the verse was uttered by a woman to protect the privacy of her rendezvous with her secret lover.

However, Pollock points out, they have not explained the source of this information and there is nothing in the kavya that provides this information. So there must be some theory about gender by means of which they understood that the verse is about a woman from the behaviour depicted in it.

Thus Pollock concludes that ‘the real suggestion behind the poems …[is] that the women speakers are sophisticated and clever, and ardent to preserve a place of lovemaking.’ In other words, Pollock is saying that suggestion is fundamentally ‘social’ and not ‘linguistic’ and kavya must be interpreted in a way to recover it. Needless to say, this can only lead to an Indian theory of gender which sanctions the oppression of women by depicting them in a derogatory fashion.

In this way, Pollock’s essay strives to make the point that language-philosophy and emotive experience were themselves grounded in a sociality but the scholars who prioritized them remained oblivious to that social ground. In other words, it challenges the very legitimacy of the significance that Indians have historically attached to language-philosophy and emotive experience in the case of literary criticism.

At the same time, it also valourizes sociological hermeneutics, which is a Western priority but can now be postulated as a long-suppressed priority of the Indians as well.

It thus paves the way for a new kind of literary criticism, a new form of knowledge production, in which Sanskrit literary texts can be interpreted not in terms of their linguistic content or the emotive states they affect but as promoting social causes, namely the sustenance of caste and gender hierarchies, and this whole study can remain free of the charge of Orientalism because – and this is the pièce de résistance – it can be presented as a hermeneutics sanctioned by the ancient Indians themselves.

Pollock et al is only revealing what was always there but has remained occluded from the attention of the Indian scholars because of their obsession with language-philosophy and emotive experience in the interpretation of texts, which continues to this day. This is what is meant by ‘their abysmal ignorance of what it means and how it works.’

Now we could be quite broad-minded here and say, so what? Let them do their sociological hermeneutics with our literary texts. We will apply language-philosophy and emotive experience. Let a thousand flowers bloom. But it is not so simple. The main thrust of Pollock’s essay is that the Indian forms of interpretation occlude the sociological study of kavya. So the former will have to be denigrated and cast aside to make way for the latter.

It is just like Christianity.You may say that you will worship your god and the Christian can worship Jesus but the Christian will say that Jesus died for your sins as well and so he is obliged to convert you to Christianity. There is no escaping this struggle which Ganesh hopes he can avoid through a transcendental approach.

Ganesh claims that ‘one has to counter Pollock with facts, and that will come only from a deep study and understanding of the Indian tradition.’ He appears to have great faith in the power of facts: ‘And indeed, when we encounter intellectual dishonesty in scholars who tried to canonize their views as facts, we shall combat them with facts.’ This, I am afraid, is sheer fantasy. I will explain with two examples.

First, McComas Taylor, a Sanskrit professor at the Australian National University and another great admirer of Pollock, wrote an article called Mythology Wars in which he denounced the critiques of Western academicians written by the authors of Invading the Sacred. With regards to the ‘catalogue of factual errors’ pointed out by Vishal Agarwal and Kalavai Venkat in Courtright’s Ganesa, Taylor had this to say:

‘The fact that Courtright holds this view, and that apparently many of his reviewers and peers in the academy find it illuminating, productive or insightful, cannot be undermined by philological fault-finding. It is possible to disprove a fact by presenting a counter-fact, but interpretations and opinions are not subject to proof or disproof.’ (159, italics mine)

It is evident in this confession that facts are meaningless to our opponents. We will have to produce an analysis which is ‘illuminating, productive or insightful’ to the peers in the academy, and I can assure that it is a task which is beyond all of us.

Second, what do facts means for Pollock? Read his denunciation in Deep Orientalism, of the priority Webber placed on facts in the study of the human sciences:

‘Weber demands, for example, of the students listening that they should just ‘establish the facts.’ He offers to prove ‘in the works of our historians that, wherever the man of scholarship comes forth with his own value judgments, the full understanding of the facts ceases.’ In all of this there is little acknowledgment that historical or cultural facts may not actually be lying about like so many brute existents waiting merely to be assembled, but are actually constituted as ‘facts’ by the prejudgments – by the values – of the historians and ‘men of scholarship’ themselves. Relentless in driving politics from the lecture room, Weber seems to have left it to rule untroubled in the study.’ (85, italics mine)

So skeptical is Pollock about the ability of knowledge to transcend political values that his own knowledge production is unabashedly and openly political. If you say that your knowledge is objective, he will reject it on ground that you are simply oblivious to your own political aims because all knowledge is grounded in some kind of politics. So facts are not really going to get you anywhere.

This may sound crazy to many Hindus who hold great regard for facts but there is nothing illogical about it. Although we may be patriotic Indians committed to sanatana dharma and proud of our intellectual heritage, the overarching context of our lives is the West, whether in India or in the diaspora. This is our tragic reality. Our strong emphasis on facts is the result of our birth in the scientific age.

Had we been born at a time when Christianity was the dominant paradigm, Ganesh would have said that we will combat with ‘scriptural evidence.’ But he is a product of the scientific age, so he says that we will combat with ‘facts.’ But the scientific age has now been replaced by post-modernity in which you will have to combat with ‘narratives’ and as Taylor has so eloquently put it, they better be ‘illuminating, productive or insightful’ to your peers in the Western academy.

If we do not want our intellectualism to remain a handmaiden of the West, then we will have to cut the Gordian knot on the basis of our intellectual heritage. We cannot simply turn inwards for it is not in the nature of the West to leave anything alone. We will have to take their intellectual traditions seriously and challenge them.

The best example of an analogous situation in our past is the conduct of Yajnavalkya in Janaka’s assembly to which Ganesh has alluded in his critique. Yajnavalkya propounded the atman doctrine which in his view was superior to the ritualistic beliefs of the pandits in the assembly. But he did not tell the pandits they are crass ritualists, the way Ganesh has referred to Western Orientalists and Indian Leftists as crass materialists. On the contrary, Yajnavalkya first answered all the ritualistic questions of the pandits, demonstrated his proficiency in their fields of expertise, and then he explained his own position.

I think this is the fundamental proposition of The Battle for Sanskrit. It seeks to empower traditional Sanskrit scholars so they can take up this task with regards to the West. Ganesh is right that the Sanskrit intellectual tradition is far too complex and diverse to fit into Malhotra’s simplified paradigms of sacred-alive-liberating vs. political-dead-oppressive, or integral unity vs. synthetic unity, and so on.

But this in no way undercuts the essential value of The Battle for Sanskrit which is to create awareness of the looming threat posed by Pollock’s scholarship to the adhikara of traditional Sanskrit scholars. Ganesh’s analogy of an over-zealous Arjuna and Yudhishthira’s advice to Bhima to not act out of haste is most unbecoming.

On the contrary, it is creditable that Malhotra has rushed into the field even if prematurely and at great risk to his own reputation, because time is running out. The MCLI project has already gone to Pollock. The Advaita chair was already on the way and more would have followed.

If now is not the time to act, when? Ganesh’s final warning that ‘if we allow ourselves to be too troubled by such scholars and such debates, we will never be able to attain the peace of a contemplative mind’ also does not sound right to me. Wouldn’t the advice of the Gita to the intellectual be that one should seek ‘the peace of a contemplative mind’ precisely at the moment when one is engaged with ‘such scholars and such debates’?

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