A 17th-century birch bark manuscript of ancient Panini Sutra, a treatise on grammar, found in Kashmir. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • To commemorate Gandhi’s modern, political “Upanishad”, Hind Swaraj, here’s an imaginary dialogue between an Indian “teacher” and his “student” on the broader ramifications of the Murty Classical Library of India and the controversy over its General Editor, Sheldon Pollock.

In the space of nine days, from 13-22 November 1909, Mahatma Gandhi wrote his seminal treatise, Hind Swaraj, aboard the S.S. Kildonen Castle, sailing from London back to South Africa. Structured as a discussion between two characters designated as “Editor” and “Reader”, Hind Swaraj is also a dialogue between civilisations, the ancient civilisation of sanatana dharma on the one hand and modern Western civilisation on the other. Gandhi argues that modern civilisation, based on pleasure and profit, creates endless desires and promises, which it fails to fulfil. It is also inherently violent, aggressive, and, ultimately self-destructive. Indian civilisation, on the other hand, by pointing human beings to their duties and responsibilities, to self, each other, society, nature, and God, promotes virtue and solidarity. To commemorate Gandhi’s modern, political “Upanishad”, what follows is an imaginary dialogue between an Indian “teacher” and his “student” on the broader ramifications of the Murty Classical Library of India and the controversy over its General Editor, Sheldon Pollock. What is really at stake? Why is Gandhi’s dialogue between civilisations still relevant to our times?

STUDENT Don’t you think the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) is a grand project, with an even grander ambition?

Teacher It is a grand project, also a generously conceived one. For Mr Rohan Murty to put a considerable amount of his inherited wealth into supporting Indian literature is laudable. The few volumes that have come out are also reasonably well-produced and inexpensive.

STUDENT Would you say that nothing of this kind or scale has ever been attempted before?

TEACHER Not quite. As Rohan Murty himself acknowledged, there have been various attempts in the past to bring out Indian classics in translation. Notable among these has been the amazing work of the Gita Press, Gorakhpur. The Ramakrishna Mission and the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan have also brought out many translations. Indian publishers such as Motilal Banarsidass, Munshiram Manoharlal, and more recently, Penguin and Katha have also been publishing Indian texts in English translations. In fact, this is a massive, continuous, and ongoing upsurge, going way back to William Jones’s first translation into English of Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam (1789), through Max Mueller’s edition of Sacred Books of the East, to several thousand other such translations, all of which have contributed to bringing the huge literature of India into English and other modern Indian and European languages. Professor Pollock himself edited the Clay Sanskrit Library prior to MCLI, which published several volumes of Sanskrit texts in English translation.

STUDENT So, do you think MCLI will bring our great literature to the masses?

TEACHER Given that our “classics” are being translated only into English, I am not so sure. The Library is thus Anglo-centric if not “English-sacred,” upholding the imperishable empire of English rather than the continuing life of the original languages of India, whether Sanskrit, Pali, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, and so on. In fact, though the original text is reproduced, the translation is so arranged that readers will find it a tad difficult to check it against the original. It’s almost as if the original, once published, is fossilised and can be left behind, with readers simply taking in the translated text as if it were the original.

STUDENT So what’s wrong with that?

TEACHER These texts are great in their original languages; in English, many simply become caricatures or unconvincing resemblances.

STUDENT Could they have done things differently?

TEACHER They might have provided some apparatus, breaking down sentences, giving word meanings, with glossaries so that readers could try to savour the originals, even a few verses or portions of it.

Most Indians still know a couple of Indian languages and they might, with some help, be able to read these texts.

STUDENT Would you, then, go to the extent of claiming that the project is somewhat hastily, if not wrongly, conceived.

TEACHER Perhaps both. Hastily conceived in that not enough thought or consultation, especially with Indian stakeholders, seems to have gone into it. I don’t, for instance, see an advisory board, or a broad-based consultancy or review process in place. Wrongly conceived? Well, possibly in that the General Editor, Professor Sheldon Pollock, is probably the wrong person to head it. In addition, the whole project seems to have outsourced the control and management, if not the actual translation and interpretation, of Indian classics to US Indologists. This is quite in reverse of ideas of swaraj, let alone swadeshi.

STUDENT We will come to “problem with Pollock,” as I think you termed it, shortly. But let me consider the latter point first. Wouldn’t you agree that an investor like Murty would want simply the best people for the job? What’s wrong in hiring the best talent regardless of nationality?

TEACHER This is a classic liberal argument and I respect it, but what do you mean by “best”? We’re not talking of producing a computer programme or launching a rocket here. Even in the areas of science and technology, “value neutrality” is questioned. But value awareness, don’t you think, is crucial in matters of culture? Who do you think is “best” equipped to understand or interpret a cultural text? Someone to whom that text is a living presence, who embodies the understanding of it, or someone from another culture or tradition, to whom it remains foreign, if not remote? Also, there’s a huge difference in hiring the “best” talent and ceding control. Consider the Library of Tibetan Classics (LoTC) as a case in point; the supervision, control, and interpretation is firmly in the hands of traditional Tibetan scholars, guided by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, even if many Westerners are involved.

STUDENT Are you saying that MCLI is neo-Orientalist?

TEACHER You tell me. Don’t you think American and European Indologists have their own agenda in studying Indian culture? Hasn’t this been demonstrated with ample evidence over the centuries? At the very least, aren’t their goals quite different from ours, when it comes to the study of our own culture?

STUDENT In the past, Orientalism was aligned to British imperialism. The “knowledge” they produced helped to rule Indians.

TEACHER Precisely. Moreover, many Orientalists were also missionaries or Christian propagandists. Their professed or covert aim was to show Indian scriptures and traditions as inferior. In fact, some of the most prestigious chairs in Sanskrit, such as the Boden Professorship at Oxford, established in 1832, had as one of their aims the specific intention of converting Indians to Christianity. This doesn’t mean that I want to dismiss the contribution of Western Indologists, only to underscore that their purposes might have been different from ours.

STUDENT But Pollock doesn’t want to “convert” Hindus, does he?

TEACHER Funnily, in a way he does. He advocates “political philology”, which actually, when taken to its logical conclusion, turns into “liberation philology”. Don’t forget that liberation philology sounds suspiciously like “liberation theology,” the phrase used by the powerful Catholic Church in Latin America to support rebels against dictators. Liberation theology may have served a useful function in fighting oppression in South America. One might even concede that many classical texts need to be read against the grain to liberate competing claims to legitimacy, whether social or spiritual. But what Pollock does is to brand mainstream Hindu tradition, from the Vedas to the present day, what he calls the “shastric” tradition, as inherently repressive and unjust. To “save” those it has oppressed over centuries, he, messiah-like, will reinterpret Hindu texts in such a way as to liberate us from its clutches. In other words, he reads Hindu texts in an overly political manner and his interpretations contribute to a negative and skewed view of who we are. His is a scholarship with a definite prejudice; it clearly militates against the professed neutrality and non-political object of the Murty Library. Amazingly, Sanskrit itself, a language he has specialised in, is considered a vehicle of oppression and exclusion in his writings, though he also asserts that it is a “dead” language.

STUDENT But, as you hinted earlier, nothing in the realm of culture is value-neutral or non-political, is it?

TEACHER Indeed, I wouldn’t quarrel with Pollock’s right to his politics or how he chooses to link it to his academics. This is his personal prerogative. But we need to come in when that becomes inimical to our civilisational and national interests. I am troubled by Pollock’s being given charge of such a large translation library, with the power to influence so many minds. Pollock’s misunderstandings of India, of Indian texts and traditions, shouldn’t surprise us; it is part of the informed and historic misunderstanding of dominant, Abrahamic, then modern societies of their civilisational, ideological, and spiritual “Others”. What should surprise us is how alacritous we are in empowering such misunderstandings, endowing them with funding and legitimacy, thereby discrediting ourselves in a competitive cultural and civilisational global environment.

STUDENT But how is it that Rohan Murty and his associates didn’t do their “due diligence” before handing over millions to Pollock and his ilk?

TEACHER That is exactly what troubles me. The problem is not just with Pollock. It runs far deeper. It has to do with our entire culture-dominating elite.

STUDENT What do you mean?

TEACHER Don’t you see how Rohan Murty, far from bothering to read and understand Pollock, went by his reputation in Western academe? We are a colonised lot, incapable for the most part, of forming our own judgments. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj was written more than 100 years back, but we are still mentally colonised.

What is more, we have contempt for our own traditions and institutions. When Murty wanted to gain prestige both for himself and his library, what did he do? He simply turned to Columbia and Harvard, opened his purse strings and paid them for it. The fact that he went to US Ivy League universities, aside from his being educated there, not to Oxford or Heidelberg, only proves that the US has overtaken Europe when it comes to the production of knowledge, even knowledge about India.

STUDENT So, Murty went to the “market leader”, instead of exercising his discrimination?

TEACHER It appears so. He does not seem to care what repercussions his bequest would have on India and Indian readers. He does not appear to have consulted a wide range of Indian scholars either, both Indologists and post-colonialists, before deciding on how to conduct his project. Even after the controversy erupted, the attempt was simply to shut down dissent by dismissal or bullying.

STUDENT I heard that the petition for the removal of Pollock had some mistakes in it?

TEACHER Yes, actually, that’s how I got involved. I signed the petition, but discovered that it misinterpreted one of Pollock’s essays; this error was corrected later. I don’t entirely blame the petitioners, though. Pollock’s writing is extremely complicated, if not evasive. One needs to be well-versed in post-colonial theory and rhetoric, if not literary forensics, to disambiguate some of its strands. But when you do so, some of his conclusions are egregious and execrable. For instance, he tries to trace the source of the Nazi ideology that caused the Holocaust of the Jews to German Sanskritists. This is the ultimate “no no” as far as Western academe is concerned; once you hint that something is akin or linked to Nazism, you are effectively destroying its reputation. He tried to do that to Sanskrit and Indology. How he must hate the very discipline that he practices if he considers it genocidal! He also considers the Ramayana tradition as invented to authorise the demonisation of non-Hindus. There are many such positions that he takes which are not just contra-factual or counter-intuitive to most Indians, but also downright damaging to our civilisational unity and dignity.

STUDENT I believe there was a well-supported campaign to defend Pollock and the Murty Library?

TEACHER It would seem so. For several years, Pollock was promoted as a star at literary festivals and prestigious forums in India. Politicians, bureaucrats, and cultural czarinas, not just academics, bent over backwards to fete and laud him. He was even given a Padma Bhushan by a previous government.

The problem, therefore, is primarily with us, and only secondarily with Pollock. We can’t, beyond a point, blame Pollock for what he does, but we can certainly blame ourselves for our own lack of self-respect and self-knowledge. Where there is not atma-bodh, how can we have shatru-bodh? We still haven’t learned to value, let alone earn our swarajya.

STUDENT What do you think is the cause of this apathy, even self-hatred?

TEACHER Evidently, we don’t want vaicharik swaraj, swaraj in ideas. We are content to take directions from the dominant culture, which is Western. In return, we only want to retain our privileges and receive their approbation.

STUDENT Is this true of all Indians?

TEACHER Not at all; but it is certainly true of an unworthy, usurping class of collaborators who have run academics, culture, and media here for decades.

STUDENT Then, without dislodging them, nothing can be done?

TEACHER Yes, that’s why I call this an uncivil war of sorts. And because these “unworthies” are being exposed and discredited, they are at their most vociferous and ferocious in attacking us.

STUDENT So the battle against Pollock and US Indologists is secondary?

TEACHER I should think so, but see how the two have formed a mutual dependency and alliance. To me, the chief benefit of the controversy over the Murty Library is the highlighting of this huge civilisational conflict. Many Indian academics entrenched in Western academia are more India and Hindu-hating than their American, British, or German counterparts.

STUDENT But wouldn’t you say that many US Indologists are better scholars than us?

TEACHER I am not condemning all Indologists, only the highly political and motivated ones like Pollock. Actually, US Indology has had its own crisis. They were getting more and more disempowered and irrelevant in changing times. Many classics departments have been closed down, as you know, in US universities. Similarly, Sanskrit studies were threatened with closure. Chinese and Arabic, on the other hand, are funded by their respective countries or cultures. And the Western academia dare not depict any aspect of Chinese or Islamic tradition in a bad light. But, with us, it seemed like a cultural coup to secure Hindu funding in order to badmouth us.

STUDENT And that backfired?

TEACHER Yes, you see the Indian diaspora in the US suddenly came of age. They began to notice how Hinduism was taught to their children in schools. And these “NRIs” were rich and powerful; they were not about to take this lying down. One of them, Rajiv Malhotra, took up the challenge of attacking such negative Indology.

STUDENT He started with Wendy Doniger, didn’t he?

TEACHER Yes, he ran a listserve and tried to crash the American Academy of Religions (AAR), the most powerful group of scholars and teachers in the field. He was shut out. He’s not a PhD or a tenured professor. But Malhotra is a smart businessman, who survived in the cutthroat world of US industry. So he outflanked his detractors. With inputs from scholars and researchers, he started targeting individual scholars, and recently, writing his own books against them. Now he has thousands of followers and troopers, so is a force to be reckoned with.

STUDENT What is your own view of US Indology?

TEACHER Well, as I said, they were struggling to keep afloat. In Western academia, it is innovation and novelty that are respected; that is what makes scholarship marketable, relevant. So Indologists, too, had to reinvent themselves. They had to spice up their field.

Doniger, for instance, made Indology “sexy”. Literally. She focused on sex and scandal. She sexed up, for example, the translation and interpretation of the Vedas. That sold. She had many followers, what Malhotra calls “Wendy’s children”. People began to write about flying yoginis, semen consumption, trunks as limp phallus, and a great master such as Ramakrishna as homosexual. That was one brand of Indology.

Now what Pollock has done is create another mode, which possibly supersedes Wendy’s—political Indology. It fit in very well with some political parties and their agenda; it served to divide Hindu society, also pit dalits and minorities against the so-called dominant, Hindu majority.

STUDENT Both Doniger and Pollock are translators, too, aren’t they?

TEACHER Yes, indeed. But rather bad ones, albeit hardworking. Look at Doniger’s Rig Veda, for instance. Terrible stuff; lacking in inspiration, let alone spiritually elevating. And Pollock’s Ramayana, the two Kandas that he has translated? Where is Rama, the Maryada Purushottama that a billion people around the world revere and even worship as their Ishta Devata?

Totally absent. Pollock famously likened Indian gods to Greek heroes alike Ajax or Achilles, wondering why we were so upset at his derisive portrayals. Doesn’t he know that we still worship these ancient and mythic “heroes” while the Greeks don’t? How can he compare a living culture with a dead one? Our stakes are totally different.

STUDENT But Christians tolerate several non-reverential portrayals of Jesus, Mary, and so on, don’t they?

TEACHER So do we, but do the Muslims? No. As I said earlier, Pollock has every right to his point of view. Charlie Hebdo-like reactions aren’t the Hindu way. But does this mean we authorise Pollock, endorse his views of Hindu texts, and get him to direct a library of 500 translations?

STUDENT I have recently heard of Swadeshi Indology. What is it?

TEACHER It aspires to be a “movement” against Western Indology. The first in a series of conferences on this topic was held at IIT-Chennai 6-8 July 2016. That is when I encountered the term and the people behind it. The moving spirit is Rajiv Malhotra, while the convener of the conference series is Professor K.S. Kannan, Centre for Ancient History and Culture, Jain University, Bengaluru.

STUDENT Do you think Swadeshi Indology will succeed?

TEACHER That depends on what you mean by success. To me swaraj is as important, perhaps even more so than swadeshi. Others in the game, such as the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, produce excellent scholarship on Hinduism, especially on Vaishnavism, without being overly political or polemical. The people they train then go out and teach at good universities all over India. So that is another model. We need both: to produce better scholars in own traditions than Western ones and also to refute and overturn common misunderstandings about India.

STUDENT Are there another notable efforts of a similar sort?

TEACHER Yes, there is the Vande Mataram Library, recently launched under the able leadership of Dr Sampadananda Mishra. They have already put out an excellent web version of the Bhagavad Gita. Earlier, there have been many notable endeavours to make Indian texts available on the internet such as sanskritdocuments.org.

STUDENT True, but sanskritdocuments.org posts texts without translations and commentaries.

TEACHER Indeed. However, don’t forget that the overall objective is similar, to make our texts widely and easily available in the original languages. Eventually, we must take charge of our own literature and culture; it should belong to the people whose ancestors produced it, and, of course, to the world at large.

With the support and participation of thousands of committed and concerned Indians and India-lovers the world over, such efforts, carried out in multiple ways, by multiple agents, will make a huge difference. The battle for India’s heart, mind, and soul, which Gandhi championed, will be won.

The author is Professor of English at JNU. His latest publications include The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (Penguin Random House, 2015), Cultural Politics in Modern India: Postcolonial Prospects, Colourful Cosmopolitanism, Global Proximities (Routledge, 2016), and Transit Passenger/Passageiro em Transito (University of Sao Paolo Press, 2016).

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