Sunday, March 27, 2016

An exchange with a Scholar...

Dear Sir,

Further to our short discussion about Sri Ganesh and his critique on The Battle For Sanskrit (TBFS) by Sri Rajiv Malhotra (RM), I read and reread his long critique. RM himself has mentioned in the book and also many times during his tour, he wants the discussion going and he also wants a substantive debate that focusses more on the subject and not a person. So Sri Ganesh’s joining the debate is a very welcome move. That said, I have observed certain things in his critique that make me think that all is not fair and Sri Ganesh might have some axe to grind against RM.

That said, I completely agree with you when you say that we need to set aside our differences and unite for the sake of the larger cause.  

“கல்லாதது கடல் அளவு”
What is to be learnt measures an ocean

Before I go further let me clarify that I am not THE expert on Sanatana Dharma or Sanskrit, I am just a student. But the beauty of our culture is that one doesn’t have to be THE expert to join a discussion, he can if he understands (just) what he is talking and more importantly if he is willing to learn.

What I have must be less than a teaspoon, leave alone a handful. So please pardon my enthusiasm and feel free to correct me. Now over to Sri Ganesh’s critique and my observations.

Further, he is also confused with some of the basic terms like sastra, kavya and veda. The irony is that Malhotra himself doesn’t know as much formal Sanskrit as the Indologists he is out to battle.

Here, Sri Ganesh implies that RM relies on second hand information when it comes to all things Sanskrit. From my lay perspective I don’t see a problem with RM and I will not get into justifications just yet. But let me point out that Sri Ganesh himself is found doing what he says RM is doing in this critique. He uses the book (TBFS) as a substitute (the source) for Prof Pollock’s writings and proceeds to criticize RM. 

Malhotra claims to merely perform purvapaksa, but in places where he unwittingly tries his hand at siddhanta, he falls short. In other places where the siddhanta is well-reasoned, it is entirely borrowed (from scholars like K S Kannan, Arvind Sharma, T S Satyanath, etc.) Perhaps bringing them on board as co-authors might have salvaged this work in terms of the quality of siddhanta (and also the diagnosis of the problem). However, Malhotra deserves credit for attempting a purvapaksa. And this is why The Battle for Sanskrit is a valuable work.

In the start of the book itself RM is clear that he is doing just the Purvapaksha and he would require a home team of EXPERTS in the language & tradition to take the subject to the next step. I am sure
Sri Ganesh is aware about the project to take the Purvapaksha of Prof Pollock’s work further, initiated by Dr K S Kannan (information about which I had mailed you 2 weeks ago). Having read the book, I don’t see RM prescribing anything. He repeats time and again that he is just raising the red flag for a more qualified home team to study them and take things forward and that his study is ONLY descriptive.

Sri Ganesh doesn’t stop there, he even prescribes what could have “salvaged” the quality of TBFS and also questions RM’s understanding of the problem. In the next line he contradicts himself to praise RM for attempting a Purvapaksha and calls TBFS a “valuable work”. He has probably taken the principle of carrot & stick a bit too seriously and demonstrated its use in a single paragraph.

Western scholars are familiar with dissent but they often lack a framework to reconcile with the differences and transcend them. While Malhotra respects this spirit, he is unable, unfortunately, to express it clearly in his book.

I thought is comes out clearly in the book, RM explains how the outsider seeks to find differences, amplify them, demonize and then try to secularize our texts using western theories. Among the many things discussed in TBFS, Prof Pollock’s litererization, Ramayana as a text of “othering” and his use of Walter Benjamin & his aesthetics of power, political & liberation philology stand out as things
Prof Pollock has done to run Sanskrit and Sanskriti down. And the advantage is that RM has explained it so simply that even I could understand.

That said, Malhotra’s analysis of European Orientalism and its latter variant, what he terms ‘American Orientalism’ is reasonably accurate.

What good is an analysis without explaining what European Orientalism & American Orientalism stand for ? If RM’s analysis is “reasonably accurate” then he surely has expressed something clearly in the book ? Because one can’t describe a portrait without taking into consideration the subject / object it deals with.

This viewing of India through the Western lens has given rise to several erroneous conclusions and Malhotra makes this point numerous times in his book (to the extent that he could have saved many pages had he chosen not to repeat himself).

Sri Ganesh seems to be more worried about saving paper than seeing the matter in it. A layman in me can see the different contexts that RM is addressing by repeating the issue of looking India through a western lens. For example the theories of aesthetization of power and liberation philology are two different lenses although the expected end result of using them might be the same, running down Sanskrit & Sanskriti. So you have lenses of multiple focal lengths that end doing the same damage that would sit in the big bag of western lenses. That is the reason why RM refers to the big bag when you describe a specific focal length.  

While his comparison of the two kinds of Orientalism is notable, he begins to falter when he compares the ‘Sanskrit Traditionalists’ and ‘American Orientalists.

I guess Sri Ganesh has got it wrong here, what RM refers to in his book is about two kinds of people, (1) Insider & (2) Outsider. I don’t think he terms the insider as a “Sanskrit traditionalist”, if RM describes so then the first person to fall out of this categorization would be he himself. In simple terms (paraphrasing RM in my own words) insider is anyone who understands & respects the Paramarthika & Vyavaharika realms of Sanskrit, in other words he acknowledges the Sanskriti. The outsider is one who secularizes the language by acknowledging only Vyavaharika and attributes motivesto it & calls Paramarthika as some mumbo-jumbo used for suppressing the lesser privileged.

Further, he seems to be ignorant of the voluminous writings of D D Kosambi, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, R S Sharma, and Rahul Sankrityayan, who opposed Sanskrit and/or Sanskriti long before this supposed American collusion (and even when he mentions Kosambi and Sharma, it is in passing).

This sounds more like, because the author didn’t quote A or B or C enough times I expected, I call him ignorant. Sri Ganesh seems to be missing the point here, all those authors he has mentioned would fit into the “Outsider” category RM describes although they are Insiders from a geographical sense. For instance Marxism as far as we all know is a western concept. So a different focal length but the same western lens.

…but this cannot, sadly, absolve Malhotra of his blatant disregard to the past masters (in spite of his ostentatious dedication line to “our purva-paksha and uttara-paksha debating tradition…”) Not stopping at ignoring the remarkable scholars of the past and present, in several places in his book, Malhotra directly accuses Indian scholars of either being unwillingly complicit with the enemies (p. 68), or being irresponsible (p. 15), or being uninterested (p. 44), or being unaware of Western scholarship (p. 1). He lacks empathy for the numerous scholars who are deeply involved in their own research – be it a specific aspect of Sanskrit grammar, or the accurate dating of an ancient scholar, or preparing a critical edition of a traditional text. And to top it all, Malhotra writes in several places that he is the first person to undertake such a task (see pp. 27, 44, or 379, for example), which as we know is false.

There are many things Sri Ganesh accuses RM of starting with a blatant disregard for the past masters which for me is a bit frivolous and very similar to what I have said before. The reader / reviewer giving a long list of illustrious Indian scholars and saying that the author by not naming each one of them in A BOOK of his is a grave mistake, to an extent that it discredits his work completely. Most of the people mentioned in the list have been mentioned by RM in some work of his or the other.

The other important thing is a generalization that he does to tar RM, that he accuses all Indian scholars. On this I remember I video of the book launch in the Karnataka Sanskrit University (if my memory serves right), he asks the audience, a group of scholars and students of Sanskrit as to how many of them have done some Purvapaksha of any western work. Two people raise their hands reluctantly and the fact that RM found that they too hadn’t done substantive Purvapaksha is another matter. So RM is not saying nobody has done anything, but is clearly saying that one review here and an unpublished work there don’t qualify as a Purvapaksha. Unless they jump into the Kurukshetra and take the bull by its horn, it would be a drop of water in the western Indological ocean.  That said, is RM the FIRST is a question left to RM to answer.

For me the question is not about first or second, to quote my favorite Rajinikant dialogue…

“லேட்டா வந்தாலும் லேட்டஸ்டா வருவேன்”

In an important discourse it doesnt matter who came first or last, what matters is the contribution. For me that is exactly what RM has done.
While it is the saving grace of the book, it is also an indicator of Malhotra’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.

Another point Sri Ganesh completely misunderstands about RM.

Yesterday (26.03) on twitter, I read this passionate RM supporter who was trying to talk about the contribution of India to grammar, science etc. A famous troll (I don’t want to name and give credit) tells him that he cannot do that in a peer reviewed academic paper without citing Prof Pollock as one of his sources. That is what we are faced up with. The west will tell you that India henceforth will be called South Asia, and define our religion based on their thinking, our guys will go get educated there, come back and crow what they were taught by their western masters and their theories. There are ample examples of these sepoys if we look around (who hold forte on all things Hindu in MSM).

And finally in his concluding remarks, Sri Ganesh says this…

The battle for Sanskrit and Sanskriti is not a new one. San?tana dharma has survived years of onslaught from many quarters in many guises. But this doesn’t mean that we should ignore the current threats. Malhotra has given a new shape to the debate and because of his influence, this message has spread widely. As he himself writes, it is hoped that more Indian scholars will get on board and provide fitting responses to Malhotra’s red flagging of problematic areas in Pollock’s discourse.

While acknowledging RM’s contribution through TBFS grudgingly, he also gives out another very important thing about the purpose of the book, to  get more Indian scholars to get into the home team and provide fitting responses based on the red flags RM has raised.

If someone got this, then he is cognizant of the red flags and of course the merit of RM raising them.
If that is acknowledged then what is the point ? Let us all join RM, Dr KS Kannan’s Purvapaksha project and work towards a common goal instead of trying to prove whose ego is bigger.

There is one more thing I wish to mention from Sri Ganesh’s critique before I close.

Sanskrit words are non-translatable (pp. 22, 32, 101)

Never in the book or beyond RM has said that Sanskrit words are non-translatable. He has clearly mentioned a few of those words that have a deeper meaning & sound and can’t be translated in “one word”. So it is not Sanskrit that can’t be translated it is certain words that can’t be. That too, is limited to “one word” translations. What RM implies here is that those words should be EXPLAINED to get the actual meaning out and hence while using them it is better to use the Sanskrit original as a transliteration rather than translating them and explaining them separately. An example that RM  frequently quotes is “Aatma” which is commonly translated as “Soul” which actually is wrong.

From what I understand from Sri Rajiv Malhotra (through this e-group interactions) is that he has always been open to working with Sri Ganesh and there is always a road block on the other side. As you will agree we need two hands to clap and just one to slap. Sri Rajiv has been extending that hand waiting for the other to join him in clapping, let us all hope Sri Ganesh joins in soon.


PS: I hope there is a nice intellectual discourse between the two scholars to iron all differences out and we get to see them coming together soon. And yes, these personal attack from both sides should stop immediately. Sri Rajiv Malhotra has repeated it time and again in his group and I am sure people will heed to this request of his.

PPS: Has this critique been stitched up  by many people who probably read one chapter each and then copy edited by one person ?

PPPS: When I finished reading The Battle For Sanskrit last week little did I expected that I would write this as a rejoinder to someone who should actually be part of the home team. All I thought about at that point in time was a small 2 page review of the book.


Karigar said...

Enjoyed the pithy points. Especially: "As you will agree we need two hands to clap and just one to slap. Sri Rajiv has been extending that hand waiting for the other to join him in clapping, let us all hope Sri Ganesh joins in soon."

R.Venkatanarayanan said...

RM raises major issues of relevance to safeguarding our great treasures of knowledge and insight, while in the process of analyzing the views of Pollock. GS has raised some issues of factual nature and some differences of professional opinion. But the manner of writing by GS on the whole is denigratery and it is not justified at all. Similarly many responses to GS seek to win brownie points and do not examine merit issues. I am glad that RM has invited GS not only for a debate on merit matters but even to join hands to safeguard Sanskrit and our intellectual heritage. There is little ground for GS to refuse to do it. If he does so, it will be conceit. We seem to be losing a good opportunity to tackle superficial or ideologically soiled scholars like Pollock (both RM and GS think the same about Pollock) with the refusal or inability of an admittedly great Sanskrit scholar (GS) joining hands with a tremendous intellectual kshatrya (RM). Dharma does not deserve this loss of opportunity.

RajaB said...

Thank you very much !! I only hope that the two scholars shake hands soon and work towards the common good. Time is too precious to be lost on ego battles :(

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