Professor Gopinath answers questions from a journalist of Business Standard

Professor Gopinath, one of the prominent signatories to the petition that requests Rohan Murty to reconsider his choice of Sheldon Pollock as the General Editor for the Murty Classical Library of India, was sent a questionnaire by one of the journalists from Business Standard. His responses are reproduced below.

Pollock has been heading the Murty Classical Library for sometime now - why do you think his editorship is coming under fire just now, don't all of us have our own political views? 

 The issue has picked up only after the book ”The battle for Sanskrit” by Rajiv Malhotra (RM) was completed last year and now released. As recently as 2014, many were uncomfortable with Prof. Sheldon Pollock's (SP) way of interpreting texts but it needed someone with the required fortitude to really study the full corpus of his work to understand the issues (specifically his interpretive lens). The book itself was written by RM to put a cogent argument that Shringeri Matha should be careful about funding someone (to hold the Adi Shankara chair at Columbia U.) who has looked at Indian civilizational values in a highly jaundiced fashion. 

For example, in the section "For a Critical Indology" in his 1993 paper "Deep Orientalism? Notes on Sanskrit and Power Beyond the Raj” where there is a serious effort to prove some causal connection with Sanskrit and the Nazi holocaust, he writes 

"Reviewing Indology in the way we have just done, we encounter a field of knowledge whose history and object both have been permeated with power. From its colonial origins in Justice Sir William to its consummation in SS Obersturmführer Wüst [“Nazi” Indologist], Sanskrit and Indian studies have contributed directly to consolidating and sustaining programs of domination. In this (noteworthy orthogenesis) these studies have recapitulated the character of their subject, that indigenous discourse of power for which Sanskrit has been one major vehicle and which has shown a notable longevity and resilience.” This quote may not be all that clear but what the last sentence is saying, in (highly) simple words, that the subject of study (Sanskrit) made its students (German Indologists) also into Nazis or provide legitimacy for Nazis. The big “elephant" in the room, the deep antagonism between Christians and Jews (esp repeated pogroms against Jews) for 2 millennia, is conveniently glossed over. What is amazing in the argument is its sheer mindlessness: there is inequality in the Indic tradition (no where else?), German Indologists (using the cooked up theory of Aryan race to score brownie points over other Europeans) fell for this inequality and Nazism followed. The historical and well documented pogroms against Jews by the Church all over Europe and Russia just disappears from the discussion. 

Furthermore, "Perhaps the western Sanskritist feels this most acutely, given that Sanskrit was the principal discursive instrument of domination in premodern India, …” He is certainly a feeling person compared to all of us. 

Also, many, many stmts of the following form where linkages are made betw Indic forms of thinking and Nazi thinking: 

"From such factors as the semantic realm of the distinction arya/anarya and the biogenetic map of inequality (along with less theorized material, from Vedic and epic literature, for instance), it may seem warranted to speak about a "pre-form of racism" in early India (Geissen 1988: 48ff.), especially in a discussion of indigenous "orientalism," since in both its classic colonial and its National Socialist [“Nazi”] form orientalism is inseparable from racism.” 

What is striking about SP is the almost complete erasure of the “elephant” in the room: British and US role in not stopping the Nazis till the war was forced on them (for eg. Chamberlain’s Munich treaty in ’38; this is also a credible allegation by the Communists of that era) and active collaboration by Vatican with Italian and German fascism. Instead, he spends 10’s of pages looking at obscure sources from “deluded" German indologists who are hoping to use Indian (Sanskrit) materials to show their superiority over other Europeans or provide some cover for Nazism! Or, find one (obscure) Indian author with prejudiced views (Bhatta Lakshmidhara) out of the many and make him the spokesperson for all Indians! 

I hope it is clear why some of us are leery of letting someone like SP speak for Sanskrit literature. If you want more details, RM’s book has a lot more detail. Luckily, the book is well written and easy to read. Since some of the materials are avlbl on the net (for eg. the above paper is at, you can check many of them for accuracy yourself. Nothing is made up except SP who presents different sides of himself to different audiences. 

I am not sure what his pitch at Shringeri is: 
that Sanskrit is responsible for Nazism? 
that Sanskrit is dead (see his paper “Death of Sanskrit” 2001)? 
that Sanskrit cosmopolis is oppressive (see his 2006 book)? 

> - The petition focuses on how Sheldon Pollock may not being able to do justice to Indian "ideals, values and sentiments". Considering these books are not interpretations but direct translations, should we worry about that? 

When I was a student at IIT (may be around 17 or 18 years old), I was curious how the Bhagavad Gita could be interpreted differently to result in Advaita, Dvaita or Vishishtadvaita perspectives. So I took 2 (or 3?) translations side by side (along with the Sanskrit text) one from ISKCON and the other one I think from an author from Raamakrishna Mission and laboriously looked at where they diverged. If one can get different perspectives on such a *widely* circulated text, one can imagine how much more easy to subtly interpret texts to push one’s viewpoint. I have also read DD Kosambi’s interpretation of Gita from a Marxist perspective: he sees a lot of “class struggle” as expected and also other highly “original”/creative interpretations (not listed here as my response is already too long…). 

Another example: Laal Ded (Lalla Yogini) in the 14th c. is claimed by Kaashmiri Hindus and by Kaashmiri Muslims as their own. The trick here is to selectively choose those vaakhs (“sayings”) that talk about Siva (“blue throated one”) or that use Persian words. Note that these vakhs were not really written down till the 18th c. and circulated as folk memory. As Kashmir became more Islamic, it is natural that some words may have got substituted with Persian words (and may be vice versa?). Same with Kabir. Now who gets to write the books is important. Is it a really an (unbiased) scholar or a person with an axe to grind? 

In S. India, there was a famous poetess in the 13th c. (Akka Mahaadevi) who wrote in Kannada and, as far as I can understand it, clearly was a Siva bhakta/lover (in the use of imagery just like Lal Ded). But there are many recent writings claiming that she was against the "religion of the day”, etc. I would call this as a “creative" interpretation and followed by those who look at anything Indic as toxic. Since such writers are in influential places (in Indian and outside academia), their views have a salience that traditional peoples' do not have. 

So the issue is whether someone has a point of view that would be pushed inspite of evidence. Unfortunately, SP seems to be that kind of Sanskrit scholar (note the discussion above wrt Nazism). Note that his own guru (doctoral adviser), Prof. Daniel Ingalls (at Harvard), had a deeper and better appreciation of the Indian tradition (he studied, for e.g., Tarka shaastras with some Kolkata tarkikaas/panditaas; contrast this with SP’s interlocutors who were more in the social/artistic/political spheres such as Girish Karnad, UR Ananthamurthy, etc). I would go ahead to say that I may not be that uncomfortable if Daniel Ingalls (or similar caliber) were to head the project (but he is no more). But I still would argue that since traditional Indian scholars have been given a raw deal in the past so many decades, anyone funding such projects should first look at local intellectual resources (traditional scholars) and help them (with funds, livelihood and managerial/technical help as necessary) and if this is not feasible then to look outside. I do not think any due diligence was done.

Note that if there were many projects and SP’s is one of the many, I would not be highly alarmed. With the serious lack of support for Sanskrit in the country, one well funded and motivated project can poison our understandings for generations. 

The claim that there are no Sanskrit scholars in India who can do it is absolutely false; one of the more tricky technical shaastras Neelakantha Somayaaji’s astounding book on astronomy (Tantrasangraha written 1500 CE) has been translated recently in 2010 (using earlier work of KV Sarma 1977) and annotated with detailed explanatory notes by Profs K. Ramasubramanian (prof with a doctorate in physics) and MS Sriram (prof in theoretical physics), both signatories to the petition.

There are also subtle aspects when such works are funded to “outsiders”. For example, I am not comfortable reading Sanskrit texts in Roman. Because Indian languages are close to being phonetic, Devanaagari or Telugu script, etc are more suitable. I have looked at some volumes of the Clay Sanskrit library series (edited by SP with money from an erstwhile millionaire stock broker/Sanskrit lover from NY) and invariably there is only Roman! So essentially, many Indians will not be enthused (leaving aside the Anglophiles in the country) with such productions as it is meant only for the *West*. I cannot read them without a sense of feeling violated. The Murtys funding SP seems to make the asymmetry worse longterm. 

Another example: The many Telugu poems in Roman is a torture for me to read in "A Poem at the Right Moment: Remembered Verses from Premodern South India” by Velcheru Narayana Rao (Vēlcēru Nārāyaṇarāvu), David Shulman

> - Have you got a chance to read any of the Murty Library books? If yes, what do you think of them? 

I have ordered some but they have not arrived yet. However, I have looked at earlier attempts such as the Clay series (with SP as General Editor). Also the U Chicago project on Mahabharata, edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen (JABvB), etc which is a bit disturbing. In the 1st few volumes of JABvJB at least, terms in old English power structures such as feudal barons have been used as a translation for kshatriyas. This transplantation of alien models into the translations is bothersome. 

In the Telugu translation for one book Manucharitra in the Murty Lib, some have already pointed out the following errors: (see for more details) 

"God Brahma is translated as 'the Supreme Lord' or 'the God creator', which at best is an approximation and simply does not convey what the author had in mind. In another phrase, 'Konda Chiluva' is translated as 'Boa Constrictor'. For the uninitiated, there were never any boa's in India, so please read it as python. 

A verse 'Ghora Vana Pradesa' is translated as 'God Forsaken Place'. Sorry, this is junk. There is no such concept as 'God Forsaken' in Indian culture [where God is everywhere!]. The phrase literally translates to 'A dark and deep forest'. “

> - Can only Indians be the guardians of classic Indian literature, does not a man who has studied the field for most of his life not work in the field? 

As I already indicated, SP is highly political in his thinking. His goal is to “detoxify” Sanskrit given that it could in principle give rise to Nazism and other horrors (the Western world is off the hook for the 2 large scale murderous world wars). It is true he is a scholar (prof at Ivy School) but that does not necessarily mean appropriate for a Murty Library. As I already mentioned, I would not have a serious problem with someone like Prof. Daniel Ingalls, SP’s own thesis advisor. Lifelong study in certain areas may not necessarily mean an impartial perspective that is evidence based. 

> - I believe some of the petitioners are coming together to form the Vande Matram Library on the lines of the Murty Library, please comment. 

Having seen a few attractive volumes of the “Culture and History of Mathematics” published by Hindustan Book Agency without any large funding (AFAIK!), I do not see any problems per se if a competent set of scholars set down to do the job if provided reasonable funds and good managerial oversight. I would really welcome it if it empowers the seriously disenfranchised traditional scholars both of Sanskrit and languages such as Kannada, Telugu, etc.

1 comment:

  1. "I cannot read them(in roman script) without a sense of feeling violated" - that is the feeling shared by most of Indians.