Prof. Ramasubramanian of IIT Bombay responds to critics of the petition

Rajiv Malhotra: Since Prof Ramasubramanian is named as the first petitioner, it is important to hear his side. Unfortunately, his side never got covered by any mainstream media. I re-post his response below:

At the time of filing this report, we understand that Prof. Ramasubramanian's response has not been posted to the mailing list in the Indology Discussion Forum by Dominik Wujastyk as requested by Prof. Ramasubramanian. 

Date: Thu, Mar 3, 2016 at 8:29 AM
Subject: Re: Against the petition against Prof. Pollock
To: Dominik Wujastyk
Cc: Mandyam D Srinivas
Dear Prof. Wujastyk,

Thank you for your mail concerning the petition calling for a reconstitution of the editorial board of the Murty Classical Library of India. I am grateful to you for your kind words of appreciation on the work of our group on the Indian tradition of Mathematics and Astronomy.

At the outset let me clarify, as I have done elsewhere too, that I was not the prime mover behind this petition though I fully subscribe to it as a signatory. It was by error that the petition was uploaded in my name at, an error which has been corrected subsequently.

I also appreciate your kind gesture to enclose the mail that you had sent to the Indology Discussion Forum in response to some of the issues raised in the petition. I just arrived in New Zealand as a visiting Erskine Fellow in the Department of Mathematics, University of Canterbury, and it took sometime for me to settle here. I also had to give a couple of lectures, and hence the delay in responding to your posting in the Indology Forum.

The following response is prepared by me in consultation with my colleague Prof. M .D. Srinivas (cc-ed). We would greatly appreciate, if you could post this response in the Indology Discussion Forum.

Thanks much, and
Best regards,

Response to Prof. Wujastyk's posting in Indology Discussion Forum
We are surprised that Prof. Wujastyk's response to our petition is totally silent on the main issue raised in the petition, which is that Prof. Pollock has been a prominent signatory of two statements which have strongly condemned the actions of the authorities of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the Government of India in taking constitutionally mandated legal actions against the anti-national slogans raised by an unauthorized assembly of protesters at the JNU on the 9th of February 2016. While castigating the actions of the democratically elected Government of India as an “authoritative menace”, these statements do not condemn the protesters who called for the dismemberment of India and abused the Supreme Court of India for “judical killing”. Clearly Prof. Pollock and others who were signatories to these statements have no respect for the unity and integrity of India which has been won after a long struggle of the Indian people against colonial rule. We are at a total loss as to how Prof. Wujastyk could miss this central issue which was the `"main context" of this petition calling upon the Murty Classical Library not to be mentored by academics who have an ideological and political bias that does not allow them even to respect the unity and integrity of India.

In the following, we shall only briefly respond to Prof. Wujastyk's point that the petition has misconstrued the views of Prof. Pollock on “What South Asian Knowledge is Good For”. mesaas/faculty/directory/ pollock_pub/What%20is%20South% 20Asian%20Knowledge%20Good% 20for.pdf

He has referred to the following passage cited in the earlier version of the petition from the 2012 Heidelberg lecture of Prof. Pollock: "Are there any decision makers, as they refer to themselves, at universities and foundations who would not agree that, in the cognitive sweepstakes of human history, Western knowledge has won and South Asian knowledge has lost? ...That, accordingly, the South Asian knowledge South Asians themselves have produced can no longer be held to have any significant consequences for the future of the human species?”

Prof. Wujastyk would like us to believe that, Prof. Pollock is only presenting the above statement as a पूर्वपक्ष (purvapaksha). Sorry, if it were so, all the theses presented in पूर्वपक्ष have to be completely refuted before presenting the सिद्धान्त. Prof. Pollock has only begun with what he believes is a "statement of fact" that the leaders of Western academia are unanimous in their conviction that “Western knowledge has won and South Asian knowledge has lost” and that South Asian knowledge "has no significant consequences for the future of the human species".

If this were to be a पूर्वपक्ष in Pollock's paper, the rest of the paper would have been devoted to the खण्डन (systematic refutation), of this पूर्वपक्ष in its entirety. Here, we do not even see Prof. Pollock expressing his deep shock or strong condemnation that such a Western supremacist view is prevalent in the exalted circles of Western academia.

It is true that Prof. Pollock does concede (these are the examples that Prof. Wujastyk also cites) that there are some South Asian “forms of knowledge that may be thought of to possess a truth value for the contemporary world (the nature and nomenclature of nominal  compounding or aesthetic response) or at least a truth value for some people in the contemporary world (the benefits of yogic asanas and pranayama)”. However it is Prof. Pollock's considered view that the “greater part of South Asian achievements and understandings” have “no claim whatever ... to any universal truth value in  themselves, and precisely because they pertain to what are specifically South Asian modes of making sense of the world.”

Prof. Pollock is indeed very forthright in expressing his opinion that he does not believe that “South Asian contribution is the most important ever made to world knowledge” and that “What the region does provide is a record of achievements of human consciousness” which “allows us to frame a strong hypotheses about the nature of that consciousness and the conditions of its  transformation”. These need to be studied “in and of themselves” and not because they “enable us to live intelligently in the world."

Clearly, Prof. Pollock sees little role for “Indian knowledge” qua “knowledge” in the contemporary world or for the future of human species. Its relevance is mainly as a historical expression of human consciousness which could help “us” (namely, the Western academia) to learn something about the nature of that consciousness. After arguing for such a thesis (सिद्धान्त), it is indeed ironical that Prof. Pollock makes a claim in the end of his talk that "our understanding of 'usefulness' and 'truth' [of South Asian knowledge] has grown substantially in the time since Marx and Weber".

It was this thesis that was summarised in the petition by the statement that Prof. Pollock holds the view that “the shastras generated in India serve no contemporary purpose except for the study of how Indians express themselves.” It is indeed a fairly accurate summary of the thesis presented by Prof. Pollock in the Heidelberg lecture.

As regards Prof. Pollock’s 1985 paper, we would also not go into details, except for drawing attention to the following pronouncement in the abstract of the paper:

“The understanding of the relationship of Sastra (“theory”) to Prayoga (“practical activity”) in Sanskritic culture ...Theory is held always and necessarily to precede and govern practice; there is no dialectical interaction between them. “

Any scholar who has studied the standard texts of Indian sciences such as Jyotisha or Ayurveda would not fail to see how these texts advise the practitioner of their sciences to be acutely aware of the limitations of the theories expounded in the sastras which are only thought of as means (उपाय ). The Jyotisha texts emphasize the need for continuous examination (परीक्षा ) of the procedures taught through observations. The Ayurvedic texts, as Prof. Wujastyk is indeed well aware, go to the extent of declaring that “the entire world is a teacher of the intelligent” and that the “Sastra is a light which serves to illuminate. It is ones own intellect that perceives the correct course of action.” In his monumental work Narayaniyam, Narayana Bhattatiri succinctly summarizing an important section of Bhagavata observes: 
त्वत्कारुण्ये प्रवृत्ते क
इव नहि गुरु: लोकवृत्तेपि
भूमन् ?

Prof. Pollock only betrays his deep prejudice against the Vedic culture when he concludes the abstract with another pronouncement that “... [In sastras,] progress can only be achieved by a regressive re-appropriation of the past The eternality of the Vedas, the sastra par excellence, is one presupposition or justification for this assessment of sastra. Its principal ideological effects are to naturalize and de-historicize cultural practices, two components in a larger discourse of power.”

It is precisely scholarship of this genre that Mahatma Gandhi aptly characterised in his seminal work Hind Swaraj over a hundred years ago:

"The English ... have a habit of writing history; they pretend to study the manners and customs of all peoples. God has given us a limited mental capacity, but they usurp the function of the Godhead... They write about their own researches in most laudatory terms and hypnotise us into believing them. We, in our ignorance, then fall at their feet."

We are not upset by Prof. Wujastyk's claim that “Prof. Ramasubramanian has misunderstood Prof. Pollock's views by 180 degrees”, though it is totally incorrect. But we are deeply dismayed by his insinuation that many of those who have signed this petition (most of them eminent Indian scholars) “have signed Prof. Ramasubramanian's petition, presumably without having read Prof. Pollock's work for themselves, or having failed to understand it.” As indicated by Gandhi, statements exhibiting such condescension borders almost on racial prejudice.

K Ramasubramanian,
Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay

M D Srinivas
Chairman, Center for Policy Studies, Chennai and Member ICHR

1 comment:

  1. Excellent rebuttal, Sir. Congratulations. It is sad to see even now in the twenty first century, the western arrogance, both academic and political, shows no signs of decline or remorse. Unfortunately, as in the case of Murty Classics, our own often wittingly or otherwise tend to contribute to its sustenance. Scholars are entitled to their opinion and interpretation, but the least we can do is not to support and promote such efforts that are inimical to our on interpretations. Mr Rohan Murty's response to the petition is evidence enough of our failure as a a nation to develop and sustain a sense of pride in ourselves and our past as pointers to our future with dignity and individuality as a society with a rich heritage we can justifiably be proud of.