By Nithin Sridhar
For long, Hindus have allowed the outsiders to interpret our religion and traditions for us. For long, these scholars who are not practitioners of Hindu religion, but who study Hindu religion and practices through western frameworks–scholars like Sheldon Pollock and Wendy Doniger– have been considered as authorities on Hindu issues. For long, Hindu practices have been allowed to be secularized, dismantled, and uprooted from their roots.
This was partly a result of European colonialism that dismantled Sanskrit language as well as the traditional institutes of education; partly a result of left-liberal narrative of Independent India that imitated their previous colonial masters; and partly due to the failure of Hindu traditional centers to develop a critique of the modern methodologies (poorva-paksha) and reclaim the adhikara (authority) of our tradition to analyze and interpret itself.
This lacuna in the Hindu response to the western appropriation of the adhikara to interpret our traditions has been finally filled by the Indian American author and Indologist, Rajiv Malhotra, who addresses precisely these issues in his new book: ‘The Battle for Sanskrit’ The sub-heading of this bold book summarizes the whole battlefield of Sanskrit and Sanskriti (culture) thus: ‘Is Sanskrit political or sacred, oppressive or liberating, dead or alive?’
Some influential western academicians like Sheldon Pollock have been arguing for long that Sanskrit has been a dead language for over a thousand years. Thus, they tend to equate Sanskrit with classical European languages like Latin or Greek and hence consider Sanskrit as being a museum artefact of the past. As a corollary Indian culture and traditions, which have their roots as well as their most creative expressions in Sanskrit, must also be considered primitive and superstitious practices of the past, which must be discarded to progress into future.
This notion is clearly contradictory to even the everyday experience of a practicing Hindu. Hindu culture or Sanatana Dharma is a perennial flow of sacredness, values, and philosophy and there has been no break in the tradition for last many thousand years. Sanatana Dharma has remained as always static at the core essence, but dynamic and ever changing in outer forms. Sanskrit, which is repository of Vidyas (knowledge) continues to be alive in Hindu culture, religion, and practices.
Malhotra strongly endorses the traditional view that Sanskrit is alive and argues that Hindu Sanskriti did not evolve as a rejection of the past, but instead as a continuation of the past. Malhotra also challenges attempts by some academicians to secularize Sanskrit knowledge repository by discarding everything connected to sacred- yajnas, pujas, etc. – as being superstitious and exploitative. This secularization of Sanskrit and Sanskriti will result in the uprooting of Hindu culture from its roots and reduction of Hinduism into materialism. Malhotra strongly counters this secularization and shows how it would compromise the integrity of the tradition.
Another area of contention is the portrayal of Sanskrit and Sanskrit as being inherently abusive and oppressive towards certain sections of society like women, Dalits, etc. Some western academics allege that Vedic philosophy is by design discriminatory and curtails intellectual freedom. The Kavyas, for example, is given as example for literatures which ancient Hindu kings used as propaganda literature to spread political hegemony over people. Similarly, Ramayana is portrayed as a political tool as well. Malhotra strongly condemns this reduction of Kavya (poetry) from being a creative mode of expression, which included various sacred and secular elements, to being a tool for establishing political hegemony. Similarly, the tradition holds Ramayana as a text that teaches Swadharma (righteous live through practice of duties) and considers Rama as a personification of Dharma and as ideal Man, which is completely antithetical to the view held by some western academicians.
Malhotra also takes up many other related issues like chronology of Hindu texts, the importance of oral traditions of Sanskrit, presence of Hinduphobia in western academia, etc.
The central issue of the whole debate lies in the question- Who owns the Adhikara (authority/competency) to analyze, interpret, and present correct essence of Hindu scriptures, culture, and practices? Is it the practitioners of the Hindu religion, who are the inheritors and rightful owners of the traditions and its symbols, who have invested their life in understanding and realizing the truth spoken in their scriptures, and who have traditionally evolved various worldviews, frameworks, and methodologies to analyze their own tradition? Or is it the Western non-practitioner scholars who study Hinduism and practices as a specimen that needs to be dissected and uses western social and cultural models to make various conclusions about Hindu religion, while completely ignoring how Hindus themselves perceive their culture and religion?
For the last many decades, western academicians have considered themselves as the rightful authority to dictate and decide what Hinduism is and what it is not, what is central tenet of Hindu philosophy and what is not, what practice of Hinduism is authentic and what is not. This book is the first serious attempt that challenges this hegemony of certain section of Western academicians. The book maps various methodologies and frameworks employed by Western Academia in Indology and Sanskrit studies and provides a thorough critique of the same from a traditional Hindu standpoint.
The battle for reclaiming the adhikara for understanding and interpreting Sanskrit and Sanskriti has finally begun.
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