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The Battle For Sanskrit book review by Akash Ravianandan

The Battle For Sanskrit book review by Akash Ravianandan

This book review is not by any intellectual but a commoner. However the book strikes some very fundamental notes, that even commoners can understand the central conviction of the author which being packed with sufficient data and reason provokes the reader to ask- Is India on the verge of an intellectual re-colonization? The book provides sufficient reason for us to believe so. In some sense, one can also claim that India is indeed already intellectually colonized in which case the book provides sufficient reason that we are at the cusp of no return. Indeed how we act now, will determine whether Indian civilization will get diluted and reduced to museum exhibits or thrive and truly turn towards standing on her own feet.

The book begins by tracing the history of Orientalism from Sir William Jones to present day Sheldon Pollock. While Sir William Jones was trying to fit India within the Christian Grand narrative and employing the Biblical lens to study India, Sheldon Pollock applies the materialistic (Charvaka 2.0) Marxist lens to study India. Ironically, India lost the Golden opportunity of turning the tide when orientalism was exposed for its racist bias by Edward Said.

But rather than seizing the opportunity, Indian leftists were co-opted by the American elite and rather than championing a Hindu renaissance, ended up further critiquing the already racially abused Hindus. Hinduism was again at the receiving end of excessive and ideologically driven critique under the overall banner of subaltern studies.

Present day Indology is championed by esteemed scholar Sheldon Pollock. The book is essentially a purva paksha of Pollock’s scholarship and in some instances also provides uttara Paksha. Purva paksha is part of the age old debating tradition of India of first understanding the opponents view and presenting it in a very cogent manner to capture the essence of the opponent’s siddhantha. After giving ample reasons for why Pollock is a worthy purva pakshin who holds significant influence in the Indian establishment and world wide prestige, Malhotra conducts a thorough purva paksha of various positions and his thesis vis-a-vis Sanskrit. I will just mention the central positions of Pollock that Malhotra presents which are:-

  1. Secularizing Sanskrit – Once the paramarthika (transcendent) realm is deemed primitive and irrational, the age old shastras and kavyas are open to any form of twisted interpretations. Pollock considers any idea of paramarthika as primitive and hence deems that Indian tradition was fixed on the Vedas which inhibited creativity as any knowledge was based on regressive re-appropriation of the past.
  2. Sanskrit as source of oppression – Vedas and shastras have deeply embedded toxins which are the source of oppression of women and dalits
  3. Ramayana as socially irresponsible – Ramayana was propagated by the Kings and brahmins for divinising the Kings and demonizing the Muslims. Ramayana wasn’t so popular before this conflict.
  4. Politicizing Indian literature – Alleging the spread of Sanskrit to brahmin-King nexus. Aestheticization of power served as smokescreen to maintain a happy indoctrinated populace.
  5. Politicizing the rise of Vernaculars – Rise of Vernaculars attributed to political motives of kings. Seeds of framework and deep structures of Sanskrit sowed within the Vernaculars carry forward the social toxins thereby maintaining status quo and hegemony of the Kings
  6. Declaring Sanskrit dead – Sanskrit died a millennium ago because of its social abusiveness. Muslims and British tried to revive Sanskrit, but failed due to apathy and deep social repressiveness among the Hindus.

No one needs convincing about the seriousness of these charges. Everything that the tradition holds sacred is under attack, every historic attack on the Hindus is blamed on the Hindus themselves coupled with a cynical interpretation of the past to look for political motives in every nook and corner of Sanskrit literature.

I believe this new book of Malhotra is a very logical advance over his earlier books. His book “Being Different” was about an Indian challenge to western universalism. For any in doubt of western universalism, Pollock in his very subtle writings pitches for an American universalism in the mould of the Sanskriti web of South Asia where the particulars thrive under an overarching universalism. He wants an American universal matrix running at the background of diverse cultures of the world modeled after this sanskiriti web. This book seeks to rekindle the age old Indian tradition of purva paksha, the decline of which the author has identified, as the central problem for the mess that India has landed in. All hopes for the future of India lie in the success of this spark which the author has ignited. If and only if India seizes its long dormant tradition of purva paksha does India have any hope of breaking free of Intellectual colonization. If this happens, the Dharmic challenge to western universalism that “Being Different” started will take off in a very big way. It will also result in a lot of introspection on the traditional side which may result in injecting more egalitarian values for modern social context. This outcome will also be one of the most important fruits of this book. The natural progression of Dharma was fiercely broken by invasions for a thousand years. It is finally time for us to regain our footing. This book also addresses serious problems of digestion that India is facing. With MCLI and other translations, the knowledge contained in the vast corpus of Indian literature is slowly enriching English and diluting Indian languages of any residual value that they have at present. Collonialism landed a huge blow to native languages wherein it is a mammoth task for them to even survive. The constant barrage of unimpeded outflow of knowledge from them has just hastened the death of the native languages.

This is a path breaking book that serves to break the trend of western intellectual hegemony. All of us rely on the traditional Indian scholars to do their Purva Paksha. I believe there is a massive and dormant intellectual energy in India seeking voice, unaware of the politics and de-humanizing scholarship written behind their backs. Malhotra pitches for a seat at the table for traditional voices. If India rises up to the challenge, we will see the sun again.

Author: Akash Ravianandan

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