‘The Battle for Sanskrit’ – A Preview of Rajiv Malhotra’s latest book

Following his seminal and voluminous works published in three books, Rajiv Malhotra (RM) is about to launch his fourth book, ‘The Battle for Sanskrit’. The following briefly describes the main points of this forthcoming book and the import of the cover page of this book. This is based on RM’s essential points on his new book discussed within his Discussion group recently. The texts under inverted commas are his original words. The underlined text and italicised text in parentheses are my additions to RM’s words, which have been inserted for the sake of clarity to the article. Moreover, some Sanskrit words are also italicised.

This forthcoming book is a continuation of RM’s thesis published and disseminated previously. It is therefore recommended by RM himself that readers wishing to read this book, and get the most out of it, should get acquainted with RM’s thesis. He specifically gives references to his recent lectures at the World Sanskrit Conference (Bangkok - June 2015), Goa (Feb 2015), and Delhi University (Jan 2015). The youtube links to these videos are provided below for ease of access. His previous three books are Breaking India [2011], Being Different [2011] and Indra’s Net [2014]. Of course, there are a host of other public lectures by RM, but the aforementioned lectures are focused on the nature of Sanskrit studies in the West.

At the outset, RM makes it clear that this current book is a Purva-Paksha on the West regarding their Sanskrit scholarship. Purva-paksha, for those who don’t already know, is an integral part of the ancient Indian practise of debate (called Shaastraartha) between different philosophical views where one school of thought diligently educate themselves on the ideologies of the other school and vice-versa. For instance, the Buddhist school would do a Purva-paksha on the Vedanta school and vice-versa. As such, this book is not political nor is it an angry response. Continuing along the lines of the ancient Indian tradition of Shaastraartha, subsequent to the Purva-paksha, one school would challenge the ‘leader’ of the other school. The story of Adi Shankracharya of the Advaita Vedanta school challenging Mandana Mishra is one for the ages. With this in view, RM has identified Sheldon Pollock as the leader of the Sanskrit studies in the West. This book is respectful towards Pollock and as RM states, “there is no ad hominem attack on anyone”. RM believes that “both sides stand to come out ahead in such debates by explaining their positions better”. He also hopes that “both will also benefit from the opposing stance and ought to reconsider their own in some cases”.

So which are the two sides, i.e. ‘both sides’ that RM refers to? The schools of thought that differ in ideas about Sanskrit have been called the ‘Insiders’ and ‘Outsiders’ by RM. These are the two sides. The ‘Insider’ camp holds a Traditional view of Sanskrit while the ‘Outsider’ view looks at Sanskrit from a purely Social studies point of view. Here I have used the word ‘Traditional’ and ‘Social science’ as proper nouns, i.e. labels for the point of view in question. Thus the distinction between ‘Insider’ and ‘Outsider’ is solely on the basis of their respective point of view. Indeed, RM is categorical in stating that the ‘Insider’/’Outsider’ division is “not based on race, ethnicity or nationality”. Thus, while in general the Western view looks at Sanskrit with a Social science lens, any Westerner holding the Traditional viewpoint on Sanskrit would be called an ‘Insider’. By the same token, Indians holding a Social science point of view would come under the ‘Outsider’ camp.

RM’s thesis is his concern about the Western view of India and the Sanskrit studies with the Western lens of Social science falls under this purview. This is amply depicted in the proposed cover of the book itself that shows an artwork of the motif that is still being displayed at the University of Oxford.

Motif depicting Sir William Jones at the Oxford University. Getting a picture of this motif was not straightforward. RM had to spend a year getting this picture! (Source: http://rajivmalhotra.sulekha.com)

The motif shows Sir William Jones on an elevated seat surrounded by people of Indian origin listening to what Jones is articulating. The message underneath reads “He formed a digest of Hindu and Mohammedan Laws”. The irony of the motif is not lost on those who know the history. RM explains the marble carving motif. ”It is Sir William Jones (in late 1700s) talking down at the pandits. Earlier he had learned at their feet, but back home he claimed to have 'discovered Sanskrit' and 'given the Hindus their laws'. Hence it is an image of arrogance.”

According to RM, the goal of the book is “to highlight how, why and by whom the Traditional [Insider] views are being replaced by the social sciences [Outsider] views”. This book also explains ‘the implications [of this replacement] to the future of the Tradition’. Those familiar with RM’s thesis will readily see the continuity of his work in this book. RM’s major concern is that the ‘Insiders’ are blind to this, and hopes that this book will help raise awareness about this hidden agenda amongst the ‘Insiders’. He hopes that after reading the book, the ‘Insider’ will find a gateway to perform a thorough Purva-paksha on the ‘Outsider’ camp vis-à-vis Sanskrit studies in the West. Keeping this in mind, the book looks at Sanskrit studies from an ‘Insider’ (Traditional) versus ‘Outsider’ (Social science) viewpoint. With the ‘Traditional’ vis-à-vis ‘Social science’ viewpoint the book is written within three sub-themes - Is Sanskrit: Dead or Alive? Oppressive or Liberating? Political or Sacred? These form the bylines of the title. While ‘Alive’, ‘Liberating’ and ‘Sacred’ are the ‘Insider’ views based on Tradition, the West/’Outsider’ view takes a Social science lens at Sanskrit and calls Sanskrit ‘Dead’, ‘Oppressive’ and ‘Political’. Within these sub-themes the book discusses Philosophy, Metaphysics and History as seen under the two ideologically different lenses. The book argues that there are parallels between the Social science view and the William Jones’ motif and raises concern that this Social science view is a deliberate attempt at hijacking the Traditional view of Sanskrit. As an aside, it should be clear that this book does not teach Sanskrit grammar or how to converse in Sanskrit!

This book on Sanskrit has been welcomed by all in RM’s Discussion group. The book cover-page has also been discussed within the Discussion group and several good points were raised – the motif, title and the artwork of the motif. Attempts will be made to incorporate these comments as the book launching date nears. Indeed, several group members have already placed bulk orders ranging from 10 to as many as 100 books, for distribution in their local communities.

'Outsider' community campaigns against Rajiv Malhotra prior to his book release
Finally, an important comment on the recent turn of events which has some bearing on this book. About a fortnight ago, a plagiarism charge was laid against RM on one of his previous books by Richard Fox (RF). RF works in a seminary in New Jersey and his work supporting conversions in India was exposed in RM's book 'Breaking India'. These plagiarism charges against RM have since been proven to be false by independent scholars, and a petition filed by Madhu Kishwar supporting Rajiv Malhotra's outcry against the 'Outsider' academia has more than 10000 signatures in support so far. A lot has been written in the last few days both for and against RM. This link  provides a compiled list of articles in support of RM, with articles against him nested within the support articles. Of special mention is Western Indologist Koenraad Elst's post, who takes a neutral stance. He states,"Do I agree with Malhotra? Firstly, we don’t entirely work on the same subjects. Secondly, where we do, there are still differences,...". However, he does go on to emphatically say that the powerful Western academia on Indology has a few questions to answer. Revealing the modus operandi of the 'powerful establishment', Outsiders in this case, Koenraad states, "...serious debate is indeed being avoided. The first step of an establishment against a vocal opponent is always to deny him legitimacy, [KE's original writing in bold] then to pretend that there is no real debate, only a querulant rebelling against established common sense. These mechanisms can be seen at work now against Rajiv Malhotra".

We wait in anticipation for the book to come out!

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