Ganesh on TBFS: A poor model of scholarship

Below is a post by Ragini Sharma which was originally published here.

Dear Kalavai,

This is in response to your April 8, 2016 article on  in which you “take your gloves off” (FB comment) to forcefully support S. Ganesh’s (SG) critical review of Rajiv Malhotra’s (RM) ground-breaking book, The Battle for Sanskrit (TBFS). But, before I get into the substantive matter, I’d like to observe that I am amazed at what comes across as your double-speak and double-standards, which I can see from your FB posts, you have a blind spot about.  Your article, as does SG’s, heaps numerous ad hominem attacks at RM while complaining that RM is disrespectful to traditional scholars. This negative approach to RM comes in the way of the reader appreciating SG’s and your intended contribution to the discourse about Pollock, which is the topic of TBFS. Regardless, you are a non-entity in this scholarly debate.

In reviewing the Facebook dialogues between you and Aditi Bannerjee and others, I noted that you speak of some deeply held resentments against RM over your past interactions. This leads one to wonder if you have an axe to grind with RM due to the perceived wrong you feel RM has done to you (you do not give details). This bias discredits you as a scholar in your review of RM’s work and allows one to cast aspersions about the motives behind your strong stand against RM. It can be argued that you used SG’s review as an opportunity to attack RM for ulterior motives. This impression is further deepened when you seek RM to apologize to SG, placing SG on a pedestal and relegating RM somewhere very low with respect to their scholarly work. I strongly object to and chide you for your disrespectful behaviour and strongly assert that each scholar has his own sphere of influence and adhikara and both are worthy of full respect in their respective areas. I find it absurd that, given your own biased and unfair approach to RM, you appeal to the readers to express their outrage towards RM for his writing style and approach! Like I said earlier to SG, one needs to walk the talk: if you want others to take the higher road, your own work needs to model that first.
Moving on to the substance of my response, in the section that follows I comment further at the message and content of SG’s review of TBFS and your defence of them.
Let me begin by first recounting that RM’s impetus for writing TBFS was the proposed establishment of the Shankara Chair in Hindu Studies at Columbia University under Sheldon Pollock’s guidance. The purpose of his book is twofold:
  1. To explain/expose the complex theories of Sheldon Pollock, an atheist, Marxist philologist who is established as world’s most eminent Sanskrit scholar today. Pollock has a serious influence on the discourse on Sanksrit and Hindu dharma in the academe, media and social-political arena in India. RM critically analyses how Pollock is different from previous Indologists, such as Doniger, Max Muller and so on, in the way that he presents his theories and ideas about Sanskrit/Sanskriti and why his control over Sanskrit is a serious concern to Hindus.
  2. To spur the development of a “home team” that can further engage “dharmic insiders” to strategically respond to Pollock’s double barrelled strategic attack: “While political philology is used to diagnose, liberation philology is used to liberate the Indian masses from the diseases being carried in their sanskriti for thousands of years” (RM, article 1, response to SG). The “home team” will need to respond by using “sacred philology” to reclaim Sanskrit as a sacred and living, not dead, language that nurtures Sanksriti. 
Having gone over both SG’s and your articles, it is clear that indeed until RM’s current book, no insiders, including the traditional scholars including SG, have written directly on Pollock in the detailed analytical way that RM has. His claim to be the first one to do so is undisputed, despite SG’s or your wailings about the large amount of work done by traditional scholars, including in regional languages in other related areas. Does that mean RM is dissing the work of others? No! He is pointing to the serious gap in purve-paksh in their work to date and asking them to take up that challenge. SG’s referral to the previous scholars who have written about threats to Hinduism is acknowledged by RM; that he does not give enough credit to these previous scholars is debatable but not sufficient to discredit RM’s current work. So again, the question is: Among the lengthy list of authors that SG provides, has even one of them written on Pollock despite his work being out there since 1980s? The answer is: None!

Instead of giving credit upfront to RM for his original important work in TBFS, SG begins his review with great condescension: he uses the first one and half pages to give a lecture from the Holy Gita about “Not acting in haste, but with viveka”. He sanctimoniously declares, “In the battle for Sanskrit, RM is like an enthusiastic commander of a committed army whose strengths and weaknesses he himself is sadly unable to reconcile”. He then goes on to claim that RM’s book has a lot of ‘useless words’ and he lacks “historical perspective” and knowledge of dharmic “underlying philosophy”. Such criticism is ludicrous given that RM four previous books provide deep insights into these topics. Did SG need to create this drama? Where is SG’s own viveka and vairagya and all the scholarly ethics he lectures others to follow? As Krishna Chivukula has noted, SG’s review “sadly reflects a dominant tamasik aspect of the current state of academic scholarship in India” (

SG’s begrudging acknowledgement of RM’s ground-breaking work comes in stages beginning with his comment that RM’s “intent is noble”. However, it is couched between platitudes and finger-wagging comments such as RM’s “understanding of the nature of sanatana dharma as a transcendental system is flawed” because it sets up the duality of “Marxism vs Theologist”. One fails to understand the relevance of SG’s reference to Gaudapada’s observation about transcendence and unity of non-duality? What has that to do with RM’s critical analysis of Pollock’s discussion of Ramayana and Sanskrit as tools of oppression of women, Muslims and other minorities based on his application of Marxist, atheist theories of human rights to Hinduism. Is SG suggesting that Pollock’s ideology fits into the transcendence frame of Advaita unity? This suggestion sound like another form of escapism to allow traditional scholars to avoid taking action. The rationale is as follows, as RM has explained: no one and nothing is ultimately evil or can harm sanatana dharma – all is One; no point getting embroiled with such ideas, its all illusionary maya anyways. No need to analyse Pollock’s work or do anything. Instead, SG suggests that its his kind of “non-qualified universal experiential wisdom” that will “counter the enemies” of dharma such as Pollock. Anyone know why that approach has not worked to date? Why do we have an atheist Marxist outsider as the leading world adhikari for Hindu Shastras? SG takes great pains to paint RM as ignorant of Sanskrit terms – I guess it makes him feel superior! Pathetic, indeed.
SG’s complaint against TBFS appears to be threefold: first, that it disrespects traditional scholars; second, that his knowledge of Sanskrit and shastras is deficient and third, that RM does not provide a pramana. I will respond to each one of these charges in detail below.
Regarding SG’s question as to why purve paksh of Pollock is critical at this historical moment, SG appears to not understand the main point of RM’s book. SG laments about RM’s “obsession with western academia, to the extent that the reader gets the impression that Hinduism will not survive unless western academia views it in a better light”. This is the question that RM’s TBFS is all about and the reason why RM’s has strongly criticised the failure of traditional scholars for their lack of interest on this subject of purva paksh. To respond, here are some questions RM raises. What weakness among insider scholars and Indian systems has led to an “outsider” claiming the seat of ‘head Pundit’ in Sanskrit studies in India and the world? What internationally acclaimed academic works are the great traditional scholars doing on purva paksh of western Indology? Why is there not a single school of Indology in India, or internationally respected journal or scholarship by insiders? Why are chairs of the cherished gurus of Hindu dharma being proposed to be set up in western universities under Pollock instead of in India? Why are millions of dollars going to Pollock, for example for the Murthy Classics library and not to traditional scholars or Indian scholars to translate Sanskrit texts? These alarm bells ring not because Pollock is an “outsider” being given authority to explain the meaning of the Hindu shastras but because this high pundit’s work undermines Sanskrit as a living language (read: Death of Sanskrit) and denies the sacredness of the Sanskrit dharmic texts (read: Ram). Yes, as GS says, its not about “playing a blame game”, its about what RM says: Insiders taking up the responsibility to take action to meet this challenge. Why does SG take the critique of traditional scholars personally? Perhaps, it has hit a nerve of guilt for what he could have done? That would be his cross to bear.
The fact is that the traditional scholars have failed to do purva-puksh is well established. The call from many leading Sanskrit scholars is that the now “besieged” traditional scholars (Elst) need to get out of the comfort zone of their silos to confront this reality (S. R. Bhatt). Fifteen eminent scholars, many of the heads of Dept. of Sanskrit Studies, whose reviews are present in the beginning of TBFS, acknowledge that traditional “are either blissfully unaware of these subversive projects or are living in isolation and are afraid of debating them” (Dayanand Bhargava). SG’s “poor me” response is that RM “lacks empathy for the numerous scholars who are deeply involved in their own research”. This is a feeble and uninspiring response to the serious challenge that dharma faces in loosing adhikara over the discourse on Sanskrit and Sanskriti to the likes of Pollock and Doniger.
And, one might add, on what basis can SG claim to be the self-appointed spokesman for all traditional scholars? What about the eminent traditional scholars who have acknowledged this weakness of the traditional scholars? Is SG also claiming to trump their views by regarding himself as the monopoly view of traditional scholars?
Further, SG’s dismissal of the urgency of the issues RM raises is exactly symptomatic of what RM analyses is the disease that ails insiders: escapism (TBFS, p. 370). SG presents these escapism themes in his review of TBFS: we have faced this battle for so long and have won, nothing can harm Hinduism. SG’s even admonishes RM to meditate and let things go – suggesting his is getting all tied up in knots for nothing and that how that will come in the way of his sadhana. SG admonishes “if we allow ourselves to be too troubled by such scholars and such debates, we will never be able to attain the peace of a contemplative mind.” Another route to escapism!
SG’s approach can be confusing to those insiders who wish to inject the Kshatriya aspect in to intellectual response to threats to Hindu dharma – SG appears to throw cold water on their enthusiasm to take action rather that go on with business as usual.
Compare that to the response of RM to the threat posed by the establishment of the Shankara’s chair to Columbia: he flew to Shringeri to explain to him the importance of maintaining the insiders’ authority on the legacy of Shankara and urge the Shankarachara there to reconsider this move and then burned the midnight oil for a year to put out TBFS. Yes, that fight appears to be one battle for Sanskrit won by RM’s tapasya!  If RM would have taken the approach suggested by SG, ‘not to be hasty’, etc, it may have been too late to stop the Shankara’s Chair at Columbia, and for that matter the many other chairs that are still planned in the US. It is actually significant that SG does not appreciate the importance and urgency of responding to the threats of Sanskrit outsiders’ attempt to claim authority to speak for the tradition. Compare that to the response of the Kumbh Mela Akhara’s who upon reading the Hindu translation (done by some smart, fast-action oriented RM volunteers) immediately issues a letter of support to RM for informing them of threat and planning to respond to them accordingly. RM refers to Satyajit Ray’s film Shatrang ke Khelari to explain the SG attitudes of escapism – get busy playing a game of “petty and pedantic arguments” while dharma’s treasures are lost, stolen or broken.
Much of SG’s criticism of RM’s work is centered on complaining that RM has not understood Hinduism well and nit-picking on his use of Sanskrit terms. To analyse this further, I refer to an article by SG on the dharmic tradition of discourse (
A useful framework to have while embarking on a discussion is found in the anubandha catuṣṭaya, ‘the four bindings’ that Sadānanda Yogendra Sarasvati puts forth (Vedāntasāra 1.5) for the study of vedānta, which can be easily applied to discussions in general:

adhikāri – one who is qualified to study or speak about a subject
viṣaya – the subject matter; the scope of the discussion
saṃbandha – the connection of the adhikāri to the viṣaya
prayojana –the purpose of the discussion
Some of the biggest gaffes in today’s debates are because one or more of these four criteria aren’t taken into consideration by the debaters.
Indeed, SG’s complaint against RM regarding his knowledge of Sanskrit terms is a big gaffe on SG’s part: RM has clearly said that, regarding the book BFS, his purpose is to provide purva paksh of Pollock’s work, which due to its dense and complex language, is difficult for non-academics and non-English speakers to understand. His subject matter or scope is on Pollock and the sambandha is that he has spent 25 years studying and understanding western academe and their work on India, which makes him an adhikari in the subject area. The purpose of his book, as mentioned earlier, is to wake up Indians, including the traditional scholars, to the social, political and religious threat posed to Sanskrit/Sansksriti by the control of the dominant discourse on Hinduism by likes of Pollock et al. (TBFS p. 21). RM calls the book his “humble attempt as a starting point only. There are many shortcomings in my purva paksh and uttar paksh from my own limitations” and given the limitation of time (p. 49) and that it will be up to others, including the traditional scholars, to build on it.
SG, on the other hand, clearly, is not an adhikari in the area of purva paksh of western Indology. His adhikara is in the area of traditional knowledge – as an eminent Shatavadhani. So, where is the conflict or competition? Why the attempt to pull RM down from the important work he is doing to bring these matters to the attention of insiders? It is undisputed that no one prior to TBFS had done a similar analysis of Pollock’s work. The same malicious attempt was made on RM some years ago when the book, Invading the Sacred, came out which exposed Wendy Doniger’s work of denigrating Hindu deities, gurus and symbols. TBFS shows that while Doniger’s work was overtly denigrating Hindu civilization, Pollock’s work is more covert and insidious – more like the Shakespearean “snake underneath the flower”. For example, Pollock speaks about the beauty of the Sanskrit language, but at the same time prefers to study it as “dead” language, devoid of its sacred connections. In fact, Pollock describes the the sacredness itself as the “serpent underneath the flower” – a guise to entrap Hindus while aiming to suppress the human rights of women, Muslim and other minorities.
I am incredulous that SG is unable to get the point that RM makes about Pollock’s ‘serpent underneath the flower” approach of praising Sanskrit, while covertly twisting the meaning of its texts using Marxist and Euro-Christian lens of human rights. As RM exposes, these filters historically were used in Europe to separate the role of Church and state due to the Church’s hegemonic hold over the politics of the time and its inability to support science. Marxism was a virulent response to Christianity’s long history of oppression of women and minorities, all over the world in pre-modern times. Pollock projects these rationales, that were used against Christianity, onto the Ramayana in unique ways. RM provides an exceptional analysis of his work to show why Pollock is different in his approach: he appears to be someone who loves and respects Sanskrit, but with a hidden “poison pill” inside. So, while appearing to be ‘love Sanskrit’, Pollock’s work proposes the cultural genocide of Hindu Sanskriti it inspires. Despite a lengthy explanation of Pollock’s ideology in the TBFS, SG questions why RM has arbitrarily divided Sanskrit into ‘sacred’ and ‘beautiful’. SG denouces such distinctions, saying they are “rather shallow and even impertinent”. Well, it appears that SG did not read the relevant section (p. 210-17) in the TBFS. RM did not invent that distinction, Pollock did. SG did not appear to have read the section on Pollock’s theory of “aestheticization of power” and its application to the Ramayana.

SG asserts that RM’s work is a failure because he has not established the “pramanas (methods and means by which knowledge is obtained)” prior to doing purva paksh is one of the most perplexing parts of SG’s review.  It is at this point that he finally at the end of two pages, he gives credit to RM: “for attempting a puvapaksha. And this is why TBFS is a valuable work. SG then sets up a loose-loose situation for RM: SG insists that proper purva paksh requires opposing sides to agree to the pramanas that are to be used. However, he acknowledges that western scholars are not familiar with the dharmic approach which allows ‘differences to be reconciled and transcended’ as indicated by diversity of dharmic traditions. While one could reasonably expect that Pollock is fully aware of these dharmic traditions of debate, the question is this. How does RM engage Pollock in a dharmic style debate when the man refused to do engage with him at any level, despite being personally asked by RM to do so? Who can compel Pollock to agree to dharmic style of debate? Pollock’s theories are western based and he is not looking to work towards ‘transcendence or unity’ of the kind GS has in mind. While Pollock’s ideology can be seen as a darshana – RM refers to it at Charvak 2.0 – its not something RM would support. If GS is suggesting to bring Charvak 2.0 into the Hindu dharmic fold, it seems ludicrous. Perhaps its for this reason that GS then moves on in this discussion to give credit to RM: “That said, Malhotra’s analysis of European Orientalism…and ‘American Orientalism’ is reasonably accurate”. It is not much later, that SG acknowledges that “The assiduous efforts of Malhotra in writing TBFS bears fruit…- a meticulous analysis of the works of Sheldon Pollock.”
SG goes on to complain that RM has repeated himself in his discussion on Pollock’s political ideology and “could have saved many pages” if he had not done so. Here, SG has failed to understand how RM has laid out the book. In the introduction RM clearly states that the book is set up in way that each chapter stands on its own and he suggests readers read the first and concluding chapter first and then go to any other chapter that interest them to delve deeper. This has required him to repeat key ideas in each of the chapters.  SG also complains that it is not “practical” RM suggests a revival of Sanskrit to produce new knowledge in Sanskrit. Why not? If sufficient scholars begin to speak fluently in Sanskrit, as a spoken language, would it not be natural for them to create new smritis? They could be songs, plays or stories in Sanksrit language about traditional culture or modern culture.  Its one of Pollock’s assertion that Sanskrit is a “dead” language and is not capable of producing creative works (see chapter 9 of TBFS).
In the conclusion part, SG continues with his lecture on Sanskrit and Sanskriti terms and ideas. I have called it self-serving because it does not add to the discussion on Pollock that RM’s book is about but rather shows SG’s expertise in the area, which is well recognized by RM already. RM has without hesitation invited SG, and all others, to join together to respond with strength to the Pollockization of Indian history, language and culture, most powerfully through media and academia.
Regarding the many criticisms of RM’s use of key Sanskrit words or dharmic concepts, I suspect RM has not responded to them because many of them represent either missing the point that RM is making or are just plain minor to the battle at hand. For example, SG’s concerns about RM’s use of the term “Sanskrit non-translatable’ is an important topic that RM has devoted a whole chapter to in his book Being Different (p. 220-306). I guess SG did not read it because his comments do not add anything to this topic. As I wrote in my previous response to SG, there are other area where his criticism is mere nitpicking. For example, in the appendix, in the section on “Partially incorrect claims that you point out in RM’s work”, I draw your attention to point #7 on the four levels of speech. SG states that Malhotra’s explanation is incorrect. You state:
They are not four ‘levels’ of speech but rather the four ‘stages.’ From conception to utterance, an idea is said to pass through four stages – paraa (before thought), pashyanti (thought), madhyamaa (on the verge of utterance) and vaikhari (utterance). The ancient seers were able to go from paraa to vaikhari instantly (see Vicaraprapañca of Sediapu Krishna Bhat).
I would like to point out that perhaps SG is incorrect and RM is correct. I say this not because I am a Sanskrit scholar but because of what I have heard my Guru His Holiness Sri Ravi Shankar explain, and I quote as follows.
There are four levels of speech:
  1. Vaikhari is the level of speech that we are all using now to communicate.
  2. Madhyama is subtler than Vaikhari, where you don’t need language to communicate, but just intentions or feelings help to communicate. It is like you would communicate with people who don’t understand your language or with babies who throw tantrums to tell you that they are hungry or sleepy, or communicate through different signs. Madhyama is subtler than speech, even animals and trees use Madhyama to communicate.
  3. Pashyanti is where you simply recognize the knowledge without words or language. It is like deep intuition. Sometimes, when you go deep into meditation, you may hear some chanting or words, or you might get some ideas. When ideas come without language, it is called Pashyanti. A seer would recognize a little bit of that, from somewhere deep. All scientific discoveries happen from the Pashyanti level.
Para, beyond Pashyanti, is the universal language or the source of all expressions. In deep Samadhi or total stillness, you are connected with Para. No verbal communication is needed. Actually, real communication happens from Para, it is just the vibration that communicates. All the other talking that we do, from the Vaikhari level, is only to keep the mind engaged. The mind cannot capture communication from the level of Para, only the soul understands it. Para is the language of the soul. The mind needs some entertainment; the entertainment of the mind is Vaikhari, the language that we speak.
My intension here is to show, as SG has said, there are different interpretations of Sanskrit texts. I do not see the need to make this issue a critique of RM’s book.
In conclusion, I would say that it is unfortunate that SG allowed his ego to come in the way of appreciating the inspiring, important and timely work that TBFS represents. Its unsavoury condescending language is against everything he professes to others. He has set a bad example and the impact of it is evident in Venkat’s support for this poor scholarship. The ball is firmly in the court of SG to clean up his act and take positive action towards what RM has beautifully referred to as our collective yajna to protect and serve our dharma. Om Shanti.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article kudos, can you please use antaratma/atma instead soul.