March 10, 2016

India: Swadeshi Indology and the Destruction of Sanskrit (Sanjay Krishnan and Teena Purohit)

The Wire, 10 march 2016

Swadeshi Indology and the Destruction of Sanskrit

Fearful of impartial research, the petitioners appear to prefer a made-in-India study of Sanskrit that churns out made-to-order truths.

Sheldon Pollock Banner 3
The petitioners agitating for the removal of Professor Sheldon Pollock from his position as editor-in-chief of the Murty Classical Library of India series seek to destroy the very thing they are claiming to protect: free and independent scholarship in Indology.
The dangerously flawed approach of the petitioners is reflected in their self-presentation and their style of argument. First, they self-righteously claim to be defenders of Sanskrit, valiantly committed to protecting Sanskrit scholarship from being colonised by foreigners. Second, they argue by spurious analogy that Sanskrit is a national possession: India owns Sanskrit, just as India owns its natural resources.
Building on this analogy, the petitioners assert that just as it is a grave error in judgment to surrender control of “our” vital resources to foreigners, “outsourcing” production of Sanskrit scholarship makes the nation vulnerable to cultural subversion. They insinuate that despite his qualifications as an Indologist, Pollock is motivated by an anti-Indian and, more precisely, an anti-Hindu agenda. In their appeal to the sponsors of the Murty series, Infosys founder Narayana Murthy and his son Rohan Murty, the petitioners claim that the only way to combat such foreign subversion is to bankroll native scholars whose patriotism and religious convictions are beyond reproach:
“The project must be part of the ‘Make in India’ ethos and not outsourced wholesale to American Ivy Leagues. Just as your visionary role in Infosys showed the world that Indians can be the top producers of IT, so also we urge you to champion the development of Swadeshi Indology. This would entail developing an entire ecosystem of India-based research, translations, journals and conferences. These would be run by leading Indian academicians as well as traditional practitioners.”
The petitioners wish to persuade the public that they are engaged in a zero-sum struggle against foreigners. This is how they seek to discredit Pollock despite the fact that he is part of a community of philologists, which includes both Indians and non-Indians, that has made important contributions to the serious study of Sanskrit.
Because the petitioners cannot challenge Pollock’s scholarly credentials, they have resorted to personal attacks. They allege that Pollock evinces “deep antipathy towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practiced in our civilisation.” They declare that when Pollock endorsed the principle of free speech and the right to dissent at Jawaharlal Nehru University he exhibited “disrespect for the unity and integrity of India.” What the petitioners disapprove of are Pollock’s moral and political convictions. Their demand for Pollock’s removal is not backed by a single criticism of his professional qualifications but rest instead on the dubious allegation that he has an “anti-Indian” agenda.
It is obvious that the petitioners are being disingenuous. They have made a political disagreement into a pretext to malign Pollock’s professional standing. This cynical move makes it impossible for any objective person to take seriously their claim to be concerned about the state of Sanskrit scholarship. If anything, they want to make Sanskrit scholarship an instrument of their narrow worldview.
At the root of the problem lies the petitioners’ refusal to see that it is by means of free and independent scholarly inquiry, not cultural nationalism, that the depth and complexity of Indological texts are best communicated. It is the impartial scholar, not the patriot defensive of “his” values and civilisation, who is able to induct students into the rich and often mysterious realms of classical and vernacular languages and literatures. As Pollock suggests, translation itself can transport us to “unfamiliar” places. This is very different from the stated aims of the petitioners, who want to turn Sanskrit into an expression of cultural pride, something akin to a bauble.
For good reason, these proponents of so-called Swadeshi Indology are fearful of impartial research. They disparage the collaborative and cosmopolitan nature of scholarship as “outsourcing.” They prefer a made-in-India study of Sanskrit that churns out made-to-order truths. Such a destructive vision should not be allowed to gain the upper hand. It threatens to destroy the integrity of academic scholarship and to degrade the public sphere.
Since the petitioners are fond of analogies, we would like to offer them an analogy of our own. British scholars of Old English today do not begin by asking whether a foreigner who offers a new translation of or innovative commentary on the eighth-century poem The Dream of the Rood secretly harbors “anti-British” sentiments. They would deem it irrelevant, even absurd, to investigate whether a foreigner who devoted decades of his life to the study of Anglo Saxon did so in order to undermine the “unity and integrity” of the British nation or to promote an anti-Christian agenda. Instead, they welcome and delight in the fact that foreign scholars take such a keen interest in Old English. If some British scholars were to disagree with the foreigner’s views, they would challenge them at conferences and in peer-reviewed publications.
In short, British scholars of Old English poetry would not foolishly seek to destroy their cultural patrimony by trying to determine whether someone who has written on an Old English text is of “suitable” background or holds the “right” views about British culture and history. Such attitudes would degrade the quality of Old English scholarship, making it attractive only to ethnic chauvinists. It is precisely such chauvinism that is prominently displayed by the petitioners against Pollock.
When Rohan declared his support for Pollock, he showed a commitment to the norms and standards that underwrite Indological scholarship. By doing so, he correctly refused to give in to conspiracy theories peddled by foolish and dangerous people with no understanding of what it takes to do research in the humanities.
Sanjay Krishnan is Associate Professor of English at Boston University and Teena Purohit is Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University.