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 (
4 thoughts on “Tigers vs goats: Rajiv Malhotra’s battle for Sanskrit”
There are two gratuitous comments in your last two paragraphs…
Easy to say your colleagues dismiss Rajiv… Maybe they are afraid that he is shaking them out of their pet “intellectual” frameworks… You have to tell the readers here the reasons for your colleagues’ condecension… Is it political or philosopical or plain envy?
Rgdg the big issues that are unanswered about Rajeev, what are they? We in the East have to still get proper answers for why the West foists its big issues on us… We are not convinced that the “big issues” you identify for us are useful to us…
You lay charge of lazy poor IQ at Rajiv’s door because he talks of insiders and outsiders… It’s your lazy or diabolic thinking to NOT tell your readers that outsiders in the context of Rajiv’s thinking are those who are outside of Hindu philosophy and practice… It is NOT discrimination by colour, ethnicity, race or geography… Open architectures are open… However they also have some firewalls. Pls show intellectual integrity when reviewing intellectual giants… No broadbrushing and lazy stereotyping like in the recent cartoon by an Australian about a poor Indian “eating” solar photovoltaic wafers with chutney.
Okay, all that you’ve said is very nice and smart. Can we now have a proper critique of Malhotra or his book? Thank you.
OK. Leaving aside the childish comment of ‘was India an American colony’, I will come to the preaching of ‘Vasudhev Kutumbakam’. Probably this term was coined in India when there was no christianity, islam, marxism etc. Our forefathers were too accomodating and it has cost India/hindus very dearly. Probably hindus should let go of this wonderful and beautiful concept of ‘vasudhev kutumbakam’ in order to safeguard themselves from the conversion gangs of abrahimic religions. Period.
Is there any actual evidence of ‘physical attacks’ where Rajiv’s writings are clearly evidenced? I’m personally not aware of any. If you can shed some light.
Apart from Malhotra’s world being ‘seductively simple’, it is a fair and accurate analysis by Malhotra – one that even the author seems to agree with. I can’t help but think that Malhotra’s World is Seductively true as well.
If Malhotra’s evaluation is accurate, he is fully justified in undertaking a PurvaPaksha of the American Orientalists. Obviously, if his PurvaPaksha has unearthed a rabid Hindu phobia within the American academy, an objective PurvaPaksha is absolutely worthwhile and to be welcomed. As for Malhotra working on behalf of all ‘insiders’, this is not quite accurate. His work is more to ‘awaken’, the traditionalists from their ‘silos’. It is therefore more an inspirational work rather then one that assumes authority on behalf of the ‘insider’.
Are you suggesting that Maholtra’s ‘Indian’ supporters are intellectually incapable of independent thinking, or are the ‘Indians’ easily fooled, much unlike their ‘non-Indian’ counterparts? Are you suggesting that his audience is largely Indian? Again, just more evidence that Malhotra is suggesting and exposing a deep-rooted superiority complex which influences the study of India. The complaint that Malhotra means the opposite of what he actually says is an assertion without evidence.
It is everyone’s right to be outraged. Pride is a sign of self-esteem and self- worth, indicating a well- grounded, stable individual. If there is evidence of appropriation and distortion or any wrong done to a group or individual, any self-respecting person will be outraged. Or are you denying the fact that colonial rule of India was oppressive?
It appears you agree there is an ‘outside’ which contradicts the ‘inside’ view. I thought only those of ‘slow intelligence think in terms of insider and outsider’. You don’t seem to understand that Sanskrit is the language of the Sanskriti. Many Indian traditions, and specifically Hinduism, are studied through the language of Sanskrit – in India, Australia and elsewhere. The Hindi Sanskriti (civilisation) is directly referring to Sanskrit, the language of the civilisation – the civilisation being the Indian society and culture. Therefore Malhotra’s equation is valid.
India is the only civilisation that defines itself through the language of Sanskrit. It is the sacred geography of India that is described in many Sanskrit texts. Therefore attacking Sanskrit is attacking the Indic civilisation and its legitimacy. Claims that Malhotra portrays neo-Vadantic thought requires more evidence, as any reader of Rajiv Malhotra would disagree with this claim. The claim that Sanatana-Dharmah and its Vedic foundation, and that the centrality of yoga and Bhagavad Gita are also Neo-Vedantic is the ‘outsiders’ view, but that doesn’t mean there is any evidence or truth to it.
Your assertion that the ‘insider’ lacks critical thinking regarding Malhotra’s position is also incorrect. This is how the ‘insider’, assesses the situation – Malhotra by highlighting the Asian studies departments that are the power structures and the controllers of discourse on Indian Sanskrit (of which you and others agree with). This is but a continuation of the old Orientalism, which was a project of the colonial powers but has now been shifted ‘across the Atlantic’ to the USA. Malhotra calls this ‘American Orientalism’, renamed as South Asian Studies, Asian studies etc.
Judging from this article, the anti-Indian and Hindu-phobic ideas of the ‘America Orientalist’ have also seeped down under. Malhotra is bringing out the colonised mindset of many Indians, which is evident from the fact that a group of people are still defined, studied and therefore controlled from ‘outside’. He is not just repeating what other postcolonial critics have already done, as he is not criticising 18th – 19th century Orientalists and Indologists, but quite clearly challenges the most powerful and influential person in Orientalism today.
India was never a American colony. But America is a powerful political force which assumes a parental role with the rest of the world that deserves to be questioned. As the most prestigious institutions of Orientalism and South Asian studies are established in America, and as Malhotra is from the USA himself, he is justified in starting a discourse challenging the dominant view – the same dominant view (in this context Sheldon Pollock) that influences many people in the Asian studies departments in Australia.
Your claim that Malhotra’s discourse is shaped by some postcolonial urge to respond to injustices is only valid (in the context of Malhotra’s writings) in providing a historical backdrop – or, in the case of American Orientalists, the colonial history of Orientalism as the precursor to South Asian studies. There is no emotional response to colonialism and its impact on India in Malhotra’s Works, and I have never heard him say he is an Indian nationalist.
The superiority complex among your ‘colleagues’ is amazing. While none can actually respond to Malhotra’s claims in an objective and unbiased manner, many are quick to use their self-assumed adhikar and be dismissive. What makes you assume that defending ‘eternal Dharma’ is a negative thing? Any worthwhile Sanskritist should realise that it is dharmah that should be defended, not adharmah.
The concept of Vasudev Kutumbakam originates in the Vedic scripture Maha Upanishad (Chapter 6, Verse 72), and is as follows.
अयं बन्धुरयं नेति गणना लघुचेतसां उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकं
ayam bandhurayam neti ganana laghuchetasam udaracharitanam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam
Only small men discriminate saying, ‘One is a relative; the other is a stranger. For those who live magnanimously the entire world constitutes but a family.’
Here is a lofty idea that the world is a family, and in any family each family member is an individual with their own ideas. Here exclusive mentality is questioned – no mention of a insider or outsider to a tradition.
In the Panchatantra version you have quoted, the shloka is recited to a moorkha (an idiot) who nearly dies/is killed by the hands of a jackal he had invited to his company. It is the jackal citing this shloka to fool its prey into thinking that there is no ‘insider’ vs ‘outsider’ binaries in order to consume the innocent. This quote demonstrates what Malhotra is all about – exposing the jackal.