The architecture of Indian civilisation or a mere language? McCOMAS TAYLOR surveys the battleline over the significance of Sanskrit.
Western scholarship devours Sanskrit just as a tiger eats a goat. It digests whatever its needs to develop and ejects the remains. In the end there is no goat, only the tiger grown stronger than ever.
So said Ravij Malhotra (pictured) in his plenary session address to the 16th World Sanskrit Conference in Bangkok on 28 June 2015. His talk, entitled, ‘Is Sanskrit dead or alive, oppressive or liberating, political or sacred?’ was a snapshot of this forthcoming book of the same title.
Who is Malhotra? According to his own website, he was born in India in 1950, studied physics at St. Stephens College in Delhi, and then undertook postgraduate studies in physics and computer science in the United States. He had successive careers as a software development executive, Fortune 100 senior corporate executive and strategic consultant. He was a successful entrepreneur in the information technology and media industries and at the peak of his career he owned 20 companies in several countries.
Having presumably made his fortune, he retired at the age of 44 and ever since has devoted himself to what he terms Hindu activism, chiefly through a body he established and funded himself, the Infinity Foundation. While his website describes him as a writer, speaker and public intellectual, he is widely perceived as a thorn in the flesh of international—particularly US-based—scholars of pre-modern India. His earlier writings and those of his supporters have led to verbal and physical attacks on western scholars and their institutions.
Malhotra’s world is seductively simple: it is divided neatly into insiders and outsiders. For insiders, Sanskrit is more than just a language; it is the DNA, grammar and the architecture of Indian civilisation. It is a sacred, living tradition embracing Vedic ritual, mantra and vibrations, with its own system and principles of interpretation. On the other hand, outsiders reject all this. The outsiders’ school, which Malhotra calls American Orientalism, is centred in the US, specifically in the universities of Chicago and Columbia, and more specifically in the person of Sheldon Pollock (pictured) and his students (although he is never named). Outsiders regard Sanskrit as a mere language, and a socially oppressive one at that, as it supports a toxic, abusive hierarchy of power.
Insiders and outsiders
Malhotra insists that the insider/outsider binary has nothing to do with ethnicity or nationality. He has ‘many western friends’ who share his insider perspective, and there are ‘a very large number of Indians’ with the outsider perspective, having been seduced by the West.
Here is the problem as Malhotra sees it: the Sanskritic goat is currently ‘sitting in the belly of the West’. Once it is digested, it will not be Sanskrit any more. Like other aspects of Indian civilisation, such as yoga, Sanskrit has been appropriated and corrupted by outside forces. It is Malhotra’s mission to return to India what is rightfully its own—this is his ‘Battle for Sanskrit’.
A further problem is the goat does not even know it is being eaten. Few traditionalists or insiders know what the outsiders are doing to their sacred language. Some insiders simply don’t care; others find the writings of American Orientalism too difficult. To understand and expose the theories of the outsiders, one must for example master the writings of Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) and the aestheticisation of power as formulated by Walter Benjamin (1892–1940).
This takes many years of study in western universities, a knowledge of the Frankfurt School of Marxism, of Gramsci (head of the Italian Communist Party), and ‘years of study of Western Leftist Marxist thought’.
The trouble is that if a traditionalist tries to do this, ‘he will become one of them’. In fact, there is a ‘whole army of Indians’ who have done just that, and have returned to powerful positions in India in academia and the media where they propagate the seemingly sophisticated view that Sanskrit is a system of exploitation and power.
People everywhere want to be proud of their heritage and they want to be outraged when they are told it has been appropriated and distorted.
Hence, on the behalf of all insiders, Malhotra undertakes a pūrvapakṣa analysis. This is a technique developed in pre-modern Indian philosophical argument in which an opponent’s position is carefully analysed and understood to better enable its demolition—an approach Malhotra now applies to American Orientalism.
Here are some examples of what this pūrvapakṣa analysis reveals: outsiders do not see Sanskrit as a positive, sacred system, but they view it through the lens of Marxist class struggle, as a system of social and economic exploitation. They reduce Sanskritic aesthetics, known as rasa theory, to a set of secular emotions, rather than a system of transcendence.
American Orientalism holds that Valmiki (pictured) created the great Sanskrit epic of Ramayana to bring Oriental despotism into South and Southeast Asia by depicting kings as divine and their enemies as demonic. Royal power then used this story to entrench its own position and privilege. Malhotra claims that a ‘vast inventory of journals, dissertations and conferences’ perpetuate these erroneous views.
Malhotra is a master at what he does. In Bangkok, his huge audience (largely Indians, most non-Indians had departed) was eating out of his hand. His delivery was measured and magisterial. Even when he means the opposite, he always chooses the language of reasonableness: ‘I’m not saying one camp is right or wrong—I’m saying the outsiders cannot have total control, the insiders need a seat at the table.’ He does not force his opinion of Sheldon Pollock down other people’s throats, but advises them to undertake their own pūrvapakṣa.
He is also very successful at pressing all his audience’s buttons. Nearly everyone in the audience would regard Sanskrit as something sacred and special. Nearly everyone would be horrified and repelled at the thought of Sanskrit being digested like the poor goat in his story. Nearly everyone would regard the Ramayana as scripture. Nearly everyone would respond to the postcolonial dog-whistle issue of the wrongs done to colonised peoples.
It is easy for Malhotra to equate western with Marxism and leftism. The phrase western Marxist rolls off his tongue with such facility that it is simple to accept it at face value. It is so easy to feel righteous and wronged when the world is divided into insiders and outsiders, us and them, the colonised and colonisers. People everywhere want to be proud of their heritage and they want to be outraged when they are told it has been appropriated and distorted.
The other side of the story
By the same token, very few in the audience would be aware of the other side of the story. Unless you have an outsider’s perspective, it is easy to miss Malhotra’s sleight of hand in equating Sanskrit, Sanskriti (Sanskrit–Hindi for culture), and a unitary Indic civilisation. Some of what Malhotra says about Sanskrit the language, he conflates with general remarks about Indian society.
Thus any attack on Sanskrit is construed as an attack on India. Without an outsider’s view, it would be very difficult to recognise that Malhotra’s unitary muscular Hinduism, sanātana–dharma, a system founded on the authority of the Vedas, the centrality of yoga and the Bhagavad-gita, is typical of the Neo-Vedantic school that developed in the late 19th century in response to colonialism itself.
Without an outsider’s perspective it is difficult to assess critically Malhotra’s position vis-à-vis postcolonialism. Some of what he says is spot on. For example, he accurately observes that the most prestigious journals and professorial chairs are in the West—‘the power structure is there’. It is the western scholar, ‘who speaks with greater adhikāra—authority—who controls research dollars, who is the gatekeeper of distribution of knowledge’, and who determines the ‘right approach’ to Sanskrit.
Many of us would agree that colonial powers controlled the production of knowledge from the outside. Malhotra is right: postcolonial studies have shown how control of Indian civilisation, history, religions, knowledge was taken over as part of the colonial process. He said: ‘I am gifting you your history. I am gifting you what your tradition was. People feel very happy and they are in awe and they say thank you. That is how colonialism works.’
True, but was India an American colony? Without the outsider’s perspective one might not be aware that Malhotra’s own discourse is shaped by a postcolonial urge to respond to historical injustices and imbalances, and by a sense of resurgent Indian nationalism.
Where does this leave us? Most of my colleagues dismiss Malhotra out of hand. Recent discussion on the Indology email list degenerated into a futile argument over plagiarism while the big questions about Malhotra remained unexplored. Malhotra has a huge following, a very slick international online presence and an army of followers ready to take up cudgels for Hindu activism and to defend the ‘eternal dharma’.
One place we might begin is in breaking down simplistic binaries of us and them. Malhotra is fond of quoting one part of a famous Sanskrit verse: vasudaiva kuṭumbaka—‘The whole world is one family.’ Perhaps we should all be reminded that the first line of the same verse—ayaṁ nijaḥ paro veti gaṇanā lāghucetasām—may be translated as ‘Those of slow intelligence think in terms of insider and outsider.’
Tamil or Grantha script found on Tanjavur, Bṛhadīśvara Temple, Tamil Nadu, India (