Tuesday January 16, 2018

Battle for Sanskrit and Sanskriti finally begins

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Battle for Sanskrit
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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.

The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred? Oppressive or Liberating? Dead or Alive? By Rajiv Malhotra, Harper Collins Publishers India 2016, Hardback, Rs 699.

Battle for Sanskrit

(Feature Photo: beingdifferentforum.blogspot.com)

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Western intellectuals’ overwhelming love for Sanskrit literature

Many famous scholars and scientists learnt Sanskrit or studied Sanskrit literature to strengthen their intellectual prowess and acknowledged the need to develop the Sanskrit language.

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Sean O’Callaghan, a westerner, is seen doing a play
Sean O’Callaghan, a westerner, is seen doing a play "Battlefield" in Sanskrit in the western world. VOA

-By Salil Gewali

 It is for the astounding richness of the Sanskrit language a renowned linguist Sir William Jones first translated Kalidasa’s Shakuntala from the original Sanskrit into English in 1789. This stirred the minds and hearts of the top European intellectuals that include Johann Goethe, Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schiller, August Schlegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, et al. Very impressed by the language and its philosophical plot the father of the German literature (J. Goethe) learnt Sanskrit on his own. And, he plunged into this ancient play Shakuntala for the whole thirty years. He even wrote an insightful poem eulogizing this play. Again, George Forster translated this Kalidas’s work into German in 1791. In a span of some decades sprouted 46 translations into fourteen European languages.  On the other hand, the translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Charles Wilkin in 1784 and Upanishads by Anquetil Duperron in 1801 opened up unprecedented vistas for the philosophical regeneration hitherto unknown in the European literature. The doctrines of Vedanta such as ‘Oneness of the universe’, interdependence and interconnection of all entities and all particles seemed very plausible to the philosophically rational psyche of the western scholars.

Robert O. Johann was a western scholar.
Robert O. Johann was a western scholar. wikipedia

Again, one of the fathers of Modern linguistic Franz Bopp and a great philosopher Friedrich Schlegel, both from Germany, laid the revolutionary foundation of the comparative linguistic by freely borrowing from Panini’s “Ashtadhyayi ” which was later further developed by the language giants like Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield, and Noam Chomsky. Panini, who was an enlightened sage of 4th BC India, was the first to systematically put down the comprehensive Grammar of Sanskrit language. This treatise consists of about 3959 sutras which can handle the nuances and intricacies of any languages in the universe, empirically and anatomically.

Having been too bewitched by the Sanskrit language a most renowned American linguist Leonard Bloomfield exclaims — “It was in India, however, that there arose a body of knowledge which was destined to revolutionize European ideas about language. Panini Grammar taught Europeans to analyze speech forms; when one compared the constituent parts, the resemblances, which hitherto had been vaguely recognized, could be set forth with certainty and precision.”  Yes, here at home we prefer to call Sanskrit a dead language, and instead, with enthusiasm and hubris choose to learn German.

Erwin Wilhelm Müller, a western scholar who acknowledged Sanskrit.
Erwin Wilhelm Müller, a western scholar who acknowledged Sanskrit. wikipedia

There are countless western scholars and scientists who have overwhelmingly acknowledged the exceptional richness of Sanskrit language wherein they saw an immense scope in the development of any area of studies. Voltaire, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, TS Eliot, Neils Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Oppenheimer, Mark Twain, Car Jung, J. D. Salinger and others learnt Sanskrit or studied Sanskrit literature to strengthen their intellectual prowess.

John Archibald Wheeler –a famous modern physicist who first coined Black Hole and Warm Hole and occupied the chair that had previously been held by Albert Einstein, enthuses –‘One has the feeling that the thinkers of the East (INDIA) knew it all, and if we could only translate their answers into our language we would have the answers to all our questions.’  With the same vigor bursts out another physicist Erwin Schrodinger, known as the father of Quantum Mechanics — “Some blood transfusion from INDIA to the West is a must to save Western science from spiritual anemia.”

Here are my few earnest questions — had all these rational thinkers, scientists, writers — whose theories, whose principles, whose literature, whose formulae and equations we study in schools and colleges and thus claim ourselves as academically qualified, gone crazy to heap high praise on Sanskrit and its literary treasure troves?  How can we claim to be INDIAN when we joyfully belittle and undermine our own heritage?  What is it that makes us to see only flaws in our Mother even without ever making a bit of genuine effort to know and realize her uncanny virtues?

François-Marie Arouet is a French writer who was also known as Voltaire.
François-Marie Arouet is a French writer who was also known as Voltaire. wikipedia

I don’t think we have ever seen any country in the world that its citizens speak ill of their heritage, their tradition and values — however archaic, rustic and crude they may be. Why does it touch our raw nerves when someone appreciates the values and culture of the native land? Sanskrit and the myriad scriptures produced in this grand language is as resplendent as the Sun ball over our head. Can you ignore the Sun? I don’t think François Voltaire was a big fool to announce with vehemence about 300 years ago  —- ‘Everything has come down to us from the bank of GANGA’ , ‘The first Greeks traveled to India to instruct themselves’, ‘India, whom whole Earth needs, who needs no one, must by that very fact the most civilized land’.  Should it not call for a dispassionate introspection and thus our self-correction and reawakening?

Salil Gewali is a well-known writer and author of ‘Great minds on India’. Twitter @SGewali.