India Has to Be its Own Cultural Ambassador, But it Has to Be Scientific About it

Read this interview with Manjul Bhargava posted on thewire.in on 19 Jan 2016. Completely agree with the thoughtful and measured views of Manjul Bhargava. Introduction from the article:

On January 2, Princeton University mathematician and 2014 Fields Medallist Manjul Bhargava delivered a lecture at the Madras Sanskrit College, Chennai, on the connection between Sanskrit and mathematics. Over 75 minutes, he touched upon ancient Indian contributions to advancing number theory and geometry, the importance of preserving their historic contexts, and what institutions like Sanskrit College can do to legitimise modern debates over India’s claims to primacy. Edited excerpts of his speech follow.

In other interviews Manjul Bhargava has cautioned against over hyping Indian contributions to science and technology. There are many important contributions which can be backed up by solid evidence. Let’s just stick to them.

One work that does a great job of collecting such contributions is Dr Alok Kumar’s book Sciences of the Ancient Hindus: Unlocking Nature in the Pursuit of Salvation. I will post a review of this book at some point. Interestingly, Rajiv Malhotra’s Infinity Foundation has funded a project to design a school curriculum based on this book. A great idea!

 

 

 

Response to Shatavadhani Ganesh’s review of The Battle for Sanskrit

This is indeed a thorough and critical review of Rajiv Malhotra’s book The Battle for Sanskrit,  befitting a scholar of Shatavadhani Ganesh’s standing. SG admits the influence of Pollock and the need for opposing people like Pollock who are undermining Sanskrit and Sanskriti. Infact he provides explicit material to strengthen RM critique of Pollock in the appendix “Additional Approaches to Counter Pollock”. I hope SG expands this appendix to a full article.  

Given all this it is somewhat puzzling that SG can not bring himself to fully support RM; he supports the spirit of RM’s mission, though. It seems to me that SG is primarily bothered by RM’s presentation of the finer aspects of Hindu tradition and philosophy – idea of transcendence; blurred boundaries between sastra, kavya, and veda; epistemologies of adhibhuta, adhidaiva, and adhyatma; scope of dharshana and dhyana, etc. And yes, these are finer aspects for a large majority of Hindus, including myself.

Does SG really believe that the current social, political, and even academic environment in India is conducive to such lofty discussions? 

Let me illustrate the importance of what RM is doing using my own example.

I grew up in India in the 80s and 90s in a Hindu family. I went to top CBSE schools and an ‘ivy league’ engineering college in India — a privileged upbringing and best education by any standards. However, nothing in my education at home or in school exposed me to the philosophical underpinnings of the Hindu tradition. At an individual level, Hinduism for me was effectively what RM calls ‘transactional hinduism’ and at a community level it was about festivals and rituals. And at the political level it was about caste, cows and Ram mandir. In effect, a lay Hindu in India is completely unaware of the deep philosophical basis of the Hindu tradition. And if you add to that the idea that origin of modern science and technology in the west involved rebelling against religion, you end up with the mindset that I had just out of college. Forget being proud of my heritage, I had become cynical about it and at best I thought of it as a glorious past which belonged in the past.

And I was not an outlier – most of my highly educated Hindu friends had the same attitude.

Then I came across the work of RM a few years back and it completely changed my views. Suddenly it all made sense. I understood that my previous mindset was an outcome of a massive multi-century social engineering program that was started by the likes of Max Mueller, institutionalized by the British and pretty much continued forward post-independence. If anything it became more vicious due to people like ‘pandit’ Pollock and his Indian followers. Now I am enraged, but not surprised by commentaries in defense of Pollock by people like Ananya Vajpayee in leading Indian newspapers like Hindu! At a personal level, I am no longer ashamed or apologetic about my heritage. On the contrary, I am motivated to go deep into it, not with an attitude of cynicism, but one of shraddha.   

But now I am an outlier!

Most of my friends continue to have the same pseudo-secular anti-Hindu attitude and think of me as fringe or right wing (hence the title of this blog!).

My point is that if SG really wants to elevate the discourse to the level of his critique here, then the first step has to be winning the battle that RM has outlined. I learned a lot from this review and I hope SG uses his deep understanding of the subject to mentor the ‘home team’, not undermine it.

Additional Reading

Other analysis of SG’s review:

  1. By Aditi Banerji on 27 March 2016 (link)
  2. By Raja Bhardawaj on 27 March 2016 (link)
  3. By Druvid A CRITIQUE OF DR.GANESH’S CRITICAL REVIEW OF RAJIV MALHOTRA’S ‘THE BATTLE FOR SANSKRIT’ on March 26 2016 (link)
  4. By Rajiv Malhotra A preliminary response to Shatavadhani Ganesha on 26 March 2016 (link)
  5. By Sejuti Banerjea A Laymans Response To Shatavadhani Ganesh on 26 March 2016 (link)
  6. By SureshVure RESPONSE TO SHATAVADHANI GANESH on 29 March 2016
    (link)
  7. By Rajiv Malhotra – full response posted on April 4, 2016 in two parts (part 1, part2). For me these two articles are the last word on this debate! Must read.

Appendix

With that background, here are some specific comments on SG’s review:

  1. SG makes the following observations regarding RM’s contributions and his mission: 

This is not a new battle. It has been fought before, and won before. We (Malhotra included) have to humbly submit to the fact that we are merely trying to continue the great scholarly tradition.

The battle for Sanskrit and Sanskriti is not a new one.

.. 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.

He provides extensive bibliography of “past masters” who countered the ‘outsiders.’ I am not aware of most of these masters but will now try to seek out their works. As for how much credit should RM get, I have explained his impact above.

I will just add that the scope of this battle is huge and I hope the other scholars would do the same kind of outreach as what RM does — write books explaining things for a common Indian, visit college campuses and make their lectures videos available broadly.

2. SG writes

.. it is noteworthy that Time has been unkind to theories and approaches that have been against the spirit of sanatana dharma.

In principle, I agree with SG here but perhaps this time is different.

The ground reality is that Pollock is being awarded the Padma Bhusan and made the head of Murty Library of Classics! The influence of western indologists is deep and too close to home. 

Moreover, in this age of social media it is not difficult to spread false propaganda. Nevertheless, I do not believe in any sort of censorship. I just want equal representation for both the insider and outsider views. It is then up to an individual to pick his side.

  1. SG writes

[RM] aims to show that Hinduism is exclusivist in its own way and its exclusivism is somehow better than other exclusivist faiths like Christianity or Islam (see his previous book, Being Different).

RM books and lectures do not give me this impression. He has repeatedly and explicitly said that dissent and diversity of thought are unique strengths of the Hindu tradition and must be preserved.

  1. SG writes

That said, Malhotra’s analysis of European Orientalism and its latter variant, what he terms ‘American Orientalism’ is reasonably accurate. When the British scholars came in contact with Indian knowledge systems in the 18th and 19th centuries, they faced a worldview vastly different from theirs. Instead of understanding the Indian view in Indian terms, they force-fitted what they observed into the worldview they were familiar with. Added to this, there was the White Man’s Burden that egged them to ‘civilize’ the people they conquered. This led to a gross misrepresentation of the Indian culture and this would later become, ironically, the primary source for educated Indians to learn about their own culture. 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).

Very well put. Completely agree. But this is not common understanding and more scholars need to make this point .. repeatedly!

Romila Thapar dethroned .. finally!

This might well be the most important thing that Modi government has done so far! Hope  many more will follow.

Humanity departments in Indian academia need to be cleaned up by removing leftists and pseudo-secular scholars like Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib. Once the clean up is done, it should be massively funded to enable original and unbiased Swadeshi Indology. Projects like Murthy library of classics should be undertaken by Indian universities.

I think this is even more important than boosting  science and technology. Of course, both should be done.

 

 

A (censured) comment on an article in thewire.in

This is a comment on this article in thewire.in titled “Swadeshi Indology and the Destruction of Sanskrit”. The authors are: Sanjay Krishnan is Associate Professor of English at Boston University and Teena Purohit is Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University. They seem to be from the Pollock cabal.

I had submitted this comment on 11 March, 2016 but it was not posted for 5 days. I sent an email to the editors. No response! An example of censurship by the “liberal” media!

Having read Rajiv Malhotra’s critique of Pollock in “The Battle for Sanskrit”, impartiality is not the adjective I would use for Pollock. Infact Pollock himself has admitted using a political lens to look at Indian scriptures. He invented ‘political philology’, for crying out loud!

As for Pollock’s scholarship, his method appears to be to cherry pick data to fit his theories. In other words, data and logic are secondary for him. To make his theories work he can even go as far as manipulating historical chronology! In physical sciences, that would be called out as academic misconduct. Standards of western indology seem to be different.

Nevertheless, I would absolutely not want Pollock and his cabal to be silenced. In fact I would like them to respond to the issues raised by RM.

In that spirit, I welcome articles like this since it gives an opportunity to put forth an alternative point of view. Although I doubt that the authors would be open to considering the alternative, but some of the readers here might be more open minded. To them I would strongly recommend Rajiv Malhotra’s book and also articles associated with the petition.

The petition per se has been unsuccessful since Pollock continues to be at the helm of Murthy library. However, it has been incredibly successful at spreading awareness about this topic, impact of which might be even greater than if Pollock had been removed.

The Wonder That is Sanskrit

A fascinating speech by Bibek Debroy on the many aspects of literature, philosophy, science, art in Sanskrit delivered at the 2016 International Mother Tongue Day organized by UNESCO. Bibek Debroy recently published a complete translation of Mahabharat in 10 volumes. Amazing scholar!

Some excerpts that I enjoyed –

  1. Grandmother language!

Most Indian languages, in greater or lesser degree, trace their roots in Sanskrit. In that sense, more than a mother tongue, Sanskrit is a grandmother tongue.

2. Sanskrit was earlier known as Bhasha

However, don’t form the impression that the language has all along been called Sanskrit. For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, the language was simply called भाषा (bhasha), language.

3. Evidence of Sanskrit being used as a spoken language:

In 19th century by Vivekananda –

Third, there is a famous text of Vedanta, attributed to the sage Ashtavakra. As Narendranath Dutta, Swami Vivekananda used to visit Ramakrishna. At that time, Swami Vivekananda was still searching. However, Ramakrishna recognized his potential. To awaken seeds of Vedanta in Narendranath Dutta, Ramakrishna asked him to translate the Ashtavakra Gita for him, from Sanskrit to Bengali. In this respect, there was nothing unusual about Swami Vivekananda. In that day and age, many people spoke and read Sanskrit. With many languages and dialects, it was a language used for communicating among different parts of the country.

In 12th century

There was a famous Sanskrit poet named Sriharsha, circa 12th century CE. He wrote a great epic (Mahakavya) named Naishada Charita. This was about the famous King Nala. Nala married Damayanti, through what is called a svayamvara, a ceremony where a lady, typically a princess, chooses a husband from among assembled prospective suitors. From different parts of the country, many kings assembled for Damayanti’s svayamvara. Naishada Charita tells us अन्योन्यभाषानवबोधभीतेः संस्कृत्रिमार्भिव्यवहारवत्सु। दिग्भ्यः समेतेषु नृपेषु तेषु सौवर्गवर्गो न जनैरचिहिन॥ A free translation, not an exact translation, is something like this-“There were kings who had assembled from different parts of the country. They were scared that they would not understand each other’s mother tongues. Therefore, they conversed with each other in Sanskrit.”

4. Language of all, not just upper caste

But what of the proposition that Sanskrit was spoken by the upper class males, the brahmanas and the kshatriyas, the priests and the nobles, the elite? This is offered as a theorem, when it is no more than a hypothesis. We are talking about many thousands of years. A hypothesis true at one point of time may well be false at another point of time.

I remember a book titled “The King’s English”, written by the Fowler brothers in 1906. That determined correct English grammar and language. A lot of people spoke and speak cockney and slang. King’s English is refined and polished, so to speak, though few people spoke it, or speak it. Am I therefore right in proposing that English is dead? There were great Sanskrit grammarians like Panini (before the 5th century BCE) and Patanjali (also 2nd century BCE, though there may have been more than one Patanjali). Too much grammar tends to kill the living character of a language. One can cite from the works of Panini and Patanjali to establish that Sanskrit was a thriving spoken language, with regional variations, when these works were written.

5. Script came later, and was not exclusively Devanagari

Sanskrit is a language that flows freely, like water. It does not like stops. It is essentially a spoken language and was rendered into writing much later. Even when it was rendered into writing, many different scripts were used. The use of Devanagari as a script is of very recent vintage.

Let me reiterate what I said earlier. Writing is new in Sanskrit and writing in the Devanagari script came even later. Even when the language was Sanskrit, the script may have been something that few people know how to read today. The sharada script, widely used in Kashmir once, is an example. I have asked several learned people – how many people can read sharada today? The invariable answer is, one or two, but no one seems to know who these one or two individuals are. There was also something called Brihatkatha, a collection of stories written by Gunadhya in 6th century CE. This was in a language called paishachi and both Brihatkatha and the paishachi language have vanished.

6. Source and meaning of Satyamev Jayate

If I write a letter to you, this expression will be on my letter-head. This states सत्यमेव जयते, satyameva jayate, truth alone triumphs. This quote comes from the Mundaka Upanishad. Perhaps I should quote the shloka in its entirety. सत्यमेव जयते नानृतं सत्येन पन्था विततो देवयानः। येनाक्रमन्त्यृषयो ह्याप्तकामा यत्र तत् सत्यस्य परमं निधानम्॥ “Truth alone triumphs, not falsehood.” It is through truth that the path of the gods is laid out. It is by following this that the sages obtained their wishes and reached the supreme foundation of truth.”

 

7. How many upanishads are there?

How many Upanishads are there? This isn’t a question that can be easily answered. There are major Upanishads and there are minor ones. Depending on which ones you include, the major Upanishads number 11 to 13. There are 100-200 minor Upanishads.

Since 2003, India has a National Mission for Manuscripts (Namami). This has a gargantuan task of listing, digitizing, publishing and translating manuscripts — a manuscript is defined as a text more than 75 years old. This manuscript wealth isn’t necessarily in public hands. Hence, surveys are used to estimate what’s in private collections. As of now, Namami has a listing/ digitization of three million and the estimated stock of manuscripts in India is 35 million. There are at least 60,000 manuscripts in Europe and another 1,50,000 elsewhere in South Asia. Ninety-five per cent of these manuscripts have never been listed, collated and translated.

To compound the problem, knowledge was transmitted verbally, not in written form, through a guru-shishya or preceptor-disciple mode. We have no idea of how much knowledge has been lost in the process. Take the Rig Veda as an example. Originally, this was believed to have 21 shakhas, schools or recensions. The Yajur Veda had 101 shakhas. The Sama Veda had 1000 shakhas. The Atharva Veda had 9 shakhas. Together, the four Vedas had 1131 shakas. Now, there are only 13 left. What has been irretrievably lost is beyond redemption. Let us at least save what remains.

8. Word play!

Shishupala Vadha has 20 sargas. Indeed, it is a mahakavya and many connoisseurs of Sanskrit poetry have raved about Magha. The ingenuity reaches a crescendo in the 19th sarga. Sanskrit poetry had a concept of चित्रकाव्य. चित्र has many meanings – picture, wonderful, excellent. So these are wonderful decorative compositions. For example, how about composing a shloka with the first pada (quatrain) entirely in ज, the second pada entirely in त, the third pada entirely in भ and the fourth pada entirely in र? Magha came up with जजौजोजाजिजिज्जाजी तं ततोऽतितताततुत्। भाभोऽभीभाभिभूभाभू- रारारिररिरीररः॥ Believe it or not, this means “Then the warrior, winner of war, with his heroic valour, the subduer of the extremely arrogant beings, he who has the brilliance of stars, he who has the brilliance of the vanquisher of fearless elephants, the enemy seated on a chariot, began to fight.”

Here is another example, composed only with भ and र. भूरिभिर्भारिभिर्भीराभूभारैरभिरेभिरे। भेरीरेभिभिरभ्राभैरभीरुभिरिभैरिभाः॥ This means, “The fearless elephant, who was like a burden to the earth because of its weight, whose sound was like a kettle-drum, and who was like a dark cloud, attacked the enemy elephant.” As a third example, composed only with द, दाददो दुद्ददुद्दादी दाददो दूददीददोः। दुद्दादं दददे दुद्दे दादाददददोऽददः॥ The meaning is, “Sri Krishna, the giver of every boon, the scourge of the evil-minded, the purifier, the one whose arms can annihilate the wicked who cause suffering to others, shot his pain-causing arrow at the enemy.” Magha also specialized in palindromes. Here is one. वारणागगभीरा सा साराभीगगणारवा। कारितारिवधा सेना नासेधा वारितारिका॥ The translation is, “It is very difficult to face this army which is endowed with elephants as big as mountains. This is a very great army and the shouting of frightened people is heard. It has slain its enemies.”

Notice that each line is a palindrome, read right to left. Magha was partly trying to rival Bharavi. Bharavi wrote a mahakavya titled Kiratarjuniya and that was replete with palindromes too. This work was about the duel between Arjuna and Shiva, the latter in the garb of a hunter. Ignoring the Bharavi palindromes, here is another remarkable example from Bharavi. विकाशमीयुर्जगतीशमार्गणा विकाशमीयुर्जगतीशमार्गणाः। विकाशमीयुर्जगतीशमार्गणा विकाशमीयुर्जगतीशमार्गणाः॥ The words only seem to repeat themselves.

However, the meaning is quite different. “The arrows (mārgaṇāḥ), of the king (jagatīśa) Arjuna spread out (vikāśam īyuḥ). The arrows (mārgaṇāḥ), of the lord of the earth (jagatīśa), Lord Śiva, spread out (vikāśam īyuḥ). The Gaṇas (gaṇāḥ) who are the slayers of demons (jagatīśamār) rejoiced (vikāśam īyuḥ). The seekers (mārgaṇāḥ) of Lord Śiva (jagatīśa), i.e. the deities and sages, reached (īyuḥ) the sky (vikāśam) (to watch the battle).”

9. Long-term vision of Goverment of India for Sanskrit

Sanskrit is a great wonder and it is a great heritage. India’s Human Resource Development Ministry set up a Committee to recommend a long-term vision and road-map for the development of Sanskrit. The Report was submitted recently and is available here. It will be a great pity if Sanskrit ever becomes a “dead” language.

It is a 32-page report titled VISION And ROAD MAP For the Development of Sanskrit  
Ten year perspective Plan. Bibek Debroy is one of the authors of this report. Great start. Hope it is implemented and the vision is realized.