Enemies of The Tongue

Enemies of The Tongue

Sanskrit needs to be saved from both Sheldon Pollock and Dinanath Batra

A few weeks ago, I encountered a somewhat troubling article by Ananya Vajpeyi in The Hindu: ‘The Story of My Sanskrit’ wherein Vajpeyi recounts, anecdotally, her various journeys within Sanskrit, leading to her PhD dissertation based upon /around a group of late medieval Dharmashastras from Chicago University’s Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations. At the outset, one could easily be impressed with the rigour Vajpeyi says she has put into her Sanskrit sadhana (‘hundreds of thousands of hours painstakingly unpacking sutras, verses, commentaries and arguments in a range of Sanskrit texts’).

Similarly anyone who has worked with Sanskrit would be able to appreciate her love for the subject (‘hard to describe the peculiar pain and pleasure of this language, so strict are its formal rules, so complex the ideas it allows one to formulate, express and analyze’). However, that said, I was utterly baffled by the black-and-white nature of the positions that emerge from her article subsequently – and the completely atheoretical earnestness with which she expresses patronizing views that any reader with the basic rudiments of postcolonial theory at hand would find horrifying. But we’ll come to that in a bit. Before that, since the edifices of larger political points are often built upon the foundations of the personal, I’d like to get slightly anecdotal myself.

The most immediate reference for me in that article was a personal connect, a piece of striking, if brief, similarity, in our career paths. Vajpeyi refers, several times, to Prof. Kapil Kapoor, former dean and rector at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in whose literature classroom her interest in Sanskrit was stirred. (Later on, she says, his leanings towards the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led to a divergence in their paths.)

Prof. Kapil Kapoor’s last year at JNU was, incidentally, my first. I had come to Delhi from Presidency College in Calcutta after three years of studying an English Honours syllabus which was almost entirely British in character. Prof. Kapoor’s course on Bharata’s ‘Natyashastra’ changed many things in my cute little world, dismantling the certainties that English departments in posh colleges across the country often bestow upon middle-class girls like me who come from English-medium schools and are about to take their GRE exams or appear for their Rhodes interviews. Prof Kapoor retired the next year and though we never lost touch, I did not have occasion to work as closely with him as I once had.

However, the course on the ‘Natyashastra’ in my first semester, and later, one on Indian grammatical traditions that he offered in the department of linguistics in my second semester, along with yet another brilliant scholar, Prof. Pramod Pandey, left such a deep imprint on me that several years later, despite the many other half-hearted avenues I pursued and cast aside, I would eventually return to the ‘Natyashastra’ for my PhD dissertation, working under the supervision of Prof. H S Shivaprakash, the Kannada playwright, poet, scholar and maverick. Along the way, of course, I began to learn Sanskrit formally.

In this, however, my journeys were of a different nature from Vajpeyi’s. She recounts how, on the one hand, she studied with ‘the best scholars of South Asian studies in the world’ as her teachers at Chicago University, alongside ‘a small group of classmates, most of whom are professors now in America’s top universities’ and on the other hand, she was terribly disappointed by pandits of Sanskrit in India who often betrayed themselves to be ‘Hindu supremacists, bigots, believers in Brahmin exclusivity, misogynists, Islamophobes’. I moved in circles far less rarefied and definitely far less extreme. Let me tell you my about my Sanskrit tutor who grew to become my friend.

Born in the same year as me, Amlan Ray grew up in an impoverished landless Brahmin household in a small town in South Bengal. Like many others in post-industrial Bengal, his family struggled to make ends meet. In Class VII, Amlan won a scholarship to study in the residential Veda Vidyalaya run by the Ramakrishna Math, a small core group within the Ramakrishna Mission Order of Monks in Belur, near Calcutta, on the banks of the Hooghly, which offers both religious and secular instruction along with board and lodging. It was the board-and-lodging that made more sense for his family, the Sanskrit part was far less important. He joined and was in a class along with ten or twelve other boys. The medium of instruction was Sanskrit. (This makes Amlan the only person I know who has actually studied school-level math and geography and science in Sanskrit.)

As a Brahmin, Amlan was a decided minority among students in that school. Most of the students were from the scheduled and other backward castes. Later on, in college, also run by the Ramakrishna Mission, Amlan went onto study Sanskrit Honours, where once again, most of his classmates were not only not from the so called ‘savarna’ jatis but also included Muslims. One particular Muslim colleague of his went onto top Calcutta University in both the Bachelor’s and the Master’s programmes in Sanskrit, specializing in philosophy.

Amlan works as a Sanskrit teacher in a government school. When his wife and former class-mate, also a scholar of Sanskrit, cleared the School Service Commission examination (at a grade higher than his, do note) he moved out of Calcutta to live closer to her school. So, on an average day, Amlan would travel three hours – by train, ferry, bus and auto-rickshaw – to go to his village school, conduct classes through the day (one government school can hire only one Sanskrit teacher), eat the midday meal in school with his boys, come into the city to tutor me in Sanskrit, and then return home again, after yet another three-hour bone-juddering journey, to spend time with his son.

The reason he came to take these classes day after day could not have been money – as you can imagine, being a fulltime writer does not pay much, so what I offered him was hardly worth the trouble – it was perhaps that thing which Vajpeyi describes so unerringly as ‘the painstaking pleasure of unpacking sutras.’ Amlan wishes to return to research someday – his MA thesis was on Sankhya philosophy – but currently he must pay off a loan that his father had obtained from the government to start a poultry farm (it failed miserably, and the money that Amlan is paying back over all these years had vanished into a black hole in just a space of few paltry months).

‘It’s up to liberal, secular, egalitarian, enlightened and progressive sections of our society to preserve and protect this unique civilizational resource. Kapil Kapoor opened a window for his students, from where they could see a breathtaking vista of India’s past, filled with traditions of philosophy, religion and literature unparalleled in almost any other language. Scholarship like that of Sheldon Pollock and his colleagues helps us to understand the history, the power, the circulation and the importance of Sanskrit knowledge systems in the pre-modern world, not just in India but across Asia. We learn to really read texts, to carefully unpack their meaning in complex historical contexts of production and reception, rather than merely brandish them as false tokens of identity and imagined superiority in our own times.’

Vajpeyi credits her teacher Sheldon Pollock – and her great American alma mater – with teaching her this important tool of analysis. Powerful sentiments; and I think it is only fair if I apply this maxim to her piece as well.

Enemies of The Tongue

If one reallyreads this piece, one can carefully separate the images and stack them in two different piles, dividing the world of Sanskrit studies into two poles: the world of liberal Western Indology (characterized by mellow, often-nostalgic phrases, such as, ‘the safe cocoon of yet another great American institution’, and grandiose proclamations of superiority, ‘best scholars’, ‘top universities’), led by enlightened scholars like ‘Sheldon Pollock and his colleagues’ who help us ‘to understand the history, the power, the circulation and the importance of Sanskrit knowledge systems,’ the suave, earnest, passionate people, caring only for a global cosmology of Sanskrit – a world of knowledge independent of the geographical boundaries of India since Sanskrit clearly needs to be saved from Indians – the good guys really, standing tall against the supposedly ‘dark side of Sanskrit’, the dwindling minority of scholars in India, small men, obscure and petty, ‘embattled inside collapsing institutions’ (you can actually smell the dust under the tables and the cobwebs in the corners) mired in ‘caste hierarchy and sexism, inequality and misogyny,’ and erecting walls ‘of prejudice’ against outsiders.

The words Vajpeyi uses to connote this world in India, as opposed to the light and safety of the American counterparts, are revealing of her predilections: ‘shrinking’, ‘collapsing’, ‘demeaned’, ‘threatened’, ‘humiliated’, ‘bitter’ and ‘resentful’. The ring-leader of this frustrated bunch for Vajpeyi no doubt, has to be Dinanath Batra, the short, wizened, 85-year old vegetarian with book-burning tendencies and claims of India’s past scientific glory. The perfect straw man, as it were, ranged against whose ragtag team of petty obscure brown men, the brave American scholar-heroes, the true inheritors of the tradition, are almost like GI Joes.

Vajpeyi’s sub-text writes itself. While an Indian scholar like Kapil Kapoor can merely open a window for his students, it is only the rational, objective, and finally scientific methods of the West that can truly open up the text.

You know, to tell you the truth, I am neither a true blue Sanskritist nor an academic. As a novelist, I would have been almost charmed by this compelling absurdism, by the bizarre nature of this polar division hearkening to colonial times if I did not find the earnestness with which it was suggested dangerous. For it is impossibly in line with much of the rhetoric that propelled the Orientalist project in colonial times – the binaries of light/dark, civilized/savage, west/east that underpinned so much of the discourse.

In a powerful article, the Nigerian writer, Teju Cole, had coined the phrase ‘the white saviour industrial complex’ to throw light on another contentious area in Western discourse: charity in Africa. Cole urged the magnanimous Americans, so ready to donate five dollars to eradicate ‘need’ in Africa, to actually consider the larger co-ordinates – the economics of oil, for example – that might begin to explain why the ‘need’ exists in the first place, and understand how they too are implicated in the calamitous global transnational chains of linkages that are responsible in sustaining that ‘need’.

I think we might tweak Teju Cole’s phrase a little when we return to the American scholar-heroes to identify and name ‘the white scholar-saviour industrial complex’. The American scholar-heroes, backed by their noble universities and their oil-backed dollars, are, it seems, the true inheritors of every tradition in the world (after all, the final stamp of authority is accorded by their academic publishers) – whether it is Yoruba oral narratives or the tile-making traditions of Baghdad or the linguistic lineages of Syria.

This format of cultural appropriation – do note, I use the word appropriation with great deliberation – works even better where the fine marriage of American foreign policy and American turbo-capitalism can actually combine to destroy the traditions in their native sources completely and preserve their true essence in American libraries, along with the specimens of a few native scholars as well, those who have fallen in love with the ‘safe cocoons of their great institutions’. An updated version of Noah’s Ark.

And according to Vajpeyi, the ‘liberal, secular, egalitarian, enlightened and progressive sections of our society’ need to learn from this school of educational excellence in order ‘to preserve and protect this unique civilizational resource’ that is Sanskrit.

I rest my case.

What Sanskrit needs – and who it needs to be saved from – is a question with many possible answers. The debate, I am guessing, shall continue, from either pole. But there are many people in the middle – who stand firmly between the hijacking of either Pollock or Batra – who have worked silently in this area, in different parts of the world, not bothered by the dust under the tables or the cobwebs on the walls, neither patronizing nor closed to criticism. They are the ones who are doing what needs to be done, and who know better what will actually work or bear fruit. I shall not presume to speak for them.

However, what I have realized in the course of my own modest investigations, are two certainties.

The first is: the tradition of critique within different branches of Sanskrit is extremely old and deeply robust. It is believed that the Great War in the sub-continent (what is possibly recorded in the Mahabharata),said to have occurred around 3071 BC, was followed by a period of deep churnings, after which a philosophic school of skeptic materialism is supposed to have evolved. Kautsa was the great scholar of this epoch. It is said that he roundly dismissed the verses of the Vedas as nonsense. A couple of hundred years later, the great linguist Yaska decided to respond to Kautsa.

He took a linguistic view on the subject and began to compile his Nighantu. A unique text, the Nighantu, one of the first lexicons in the world, investigates the shades of obscurity of Vedic words and responds to Kautsa from across the years. Katyayana, the great post-Panini grammarian, believed that 1500 of Panini’s rules did not hold. (You would note, the varnamala that is followed in most modern Indian languages – ka, kha, ga, gha…– was organized, with great scientific precision, by Katyayana.) Later, Patanjali, in his Mahabhashya, revisited, and it might be said, resolved the debate. There are hundreds of other instances.

For a tradition of critique that is as old as this, I do not think a Western critical intervention will serve as a silver bullet for Sanskrit studies. This is what leads me to my second certainty. What is required, instead, is that within India – in my opinion, in the geopolitics of modern-day academics, the real-estate slogan ‘Location! Location! Location!’ is all-important – a radical new effort should be made to inject fresh blood in what constitutes the world of Sanskrit studies.

For hundreds of years now, Sanskrit, once the language of vigorous debate and cutting-edge theories, has become the victim of only one-way translational traffic. Things are merely translated out of Sanskrit (I am fully implicated in this myself – in my doctoral thesis I translate three chapters of the ‘Natyashastra’ albeit offering a new translational model). Though there is still some original writing in Sanskrit – the Sahitya Akademi even awards its coveted literary prize for Sanskrit literature – the world of letters in Sanskrit has suffered gravely from the absence of new currents and new ideas in the last few hundred years. Thus, in my opinion, what ought to be done perhaps is to make a concerted effort to reverse this translational traffic.

On twitter, I encountered a précis on the 2014 budget this year in Sanskrit and I was utterly thrilled. But this is not enough. Let us come up with a list of ten books. And here, taking into account the sentiments of the liberal, secular, egalitarian and enlightened progressives who have been galvanized to play out their roles, I say, let the texts be the most radical they can find. Let these be translated into Sanskrit, a feat that is not merely a token of rhetorical flourish, but an actual reclamation of the language. It will do more for the tradition than West inspired ‘critical’ Indology can ever hope to accomplish.

I would suggest Dr B R Ambedkar’s classic ‘Annihilation of Caste’ be the first book in the series. What is the book you’d suggest?

Devapriya Roy is the author of The Vague Woman's Handbook (2011) and The Weight Loss Club (2013). Her next book, co-written with Saurav Jha,The Heat and Dust Project: Pilot, is due in the summer of 2015. It chronicles the first part of an eccentric journey across India on a very very tight budget
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