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Rajiv Malhotra’s responses to questions by a journalist

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There has been a huge petition led by IITB professors. Do you know any of the petitioners personally? 

I met some of them when I was on tour to discuss my latest book “The Battle for Sanskrit“.  Some are experts in Sanskrit while others are experts in other fields.  What is common to all of them is a deep interest in their sanskriti. I have explained extensively that Sanskrit and sanskriti are intertwined. A proper interpretation of Sanskrit texts must be sensitive to sanskriti. When I met them, I was impressed by their sincerity and genuine desire for authentic representation of their sanskriti as experienced by those living it.

Does one need to be an academic scholar to find meaning or have an understanding of one’s own sanskriti? Does a community need to suspend its own self-reflection and take on the views of an outsider, just because the outsider is an “academic scholar” as per western definitions of who a proper scholar is?

I submit that the focus should be squarely on the merits of issues and concerns raised by the petitioners, and not on qualifications or alleged motives of petitioners.  Same goes for the other side. Focus should be on what Sheldon Pollock’s published views are, not his qualifications or who stands in political/media support.

I have already written publicly that the IITB petitioners made a technical error by citing one Pollock quote erroneously. I have no clue why they chose this particular quote. They have my book, and it contains 100s of quotes they might have considered instead. My book does not use this particular quote. So I cannot explain this error.

However, you must evaluate the overall thesis contained in their petition, which I find compelling. Their main points are: Pollock’s work has biases – this is adequately established in my book backed by 100s of quotes, so please do read it. For example, Pollock dismisses the sacred element from the tradition, regards “political philology” as the correct methodology to use, goes out of his way to look for social abuses in the texts (against dalits, women, Muslims) as the predominant quality of those texts; and calls his peers to expunge the Sanskrit tradition of its inbuilt oppressiveness. He is a very political animal, having initiated and participated in numerous political petitions against Hindus. A chief editor must be more neutral.

In the end, Rohan Murty and the petitioners want the same thing – an authentic translation of Sanskrit works.  Differences are only about whether their process will enable this or not. The petition made to Rohan Murty is not political in nature.  It is a sincere appeal to Rohan Murthy.  Please read what it says about the Murthys – it is very respectful of them on a personal level. It would help if Rohan Murty could take time to talk with a representative group of petitioners to find out their concerns first hand.

The petition focuses on how Sheldon Pollock may not being able to do justice to Indian “ideals, values and sentiments”. Considering these books are not interpretations but direct translations, should we worry about that?

Let us take for example Sheldon Pollock’s translation of Ramayana Volume II – Ayodhya Kanda into English.  It is part of the Clay Sanskrit Library.  As you read the introduction to the book, it becomes clear that Pollock is not concerned about sensibilities of Hindus who revere Rama as divine incarnate.  He describes Rama as utterly incapable of making independent ethical choices.  According to Pollock, Rama has no control on the choices he makes and has no understanding of why circumstances are playing out as they did.  Pollock draws a parallel between Rama and slaves in the context of relationship between Rama and his father, and the family hierarchy in general.

  • On Page 22 Pollock writes: “The first role is Rama’s absolute heteronomy. The status of junior members of the Indian household was, historically, not very dissimilar to that of slaves, both with respect to the father and, again, hierarchically among themselves.”
  • On page 26 Pollock writes: “The characters of the ‘Ramayana’ believe themselves to be denied all freedom of choice; what happens to them may be the result of ‘their’ own doing, but they do not understand how this is so and consequently can exercise no control.”

I am really curious what Rohan Murty thinks of this specific portrayal of Rama by Pollock. Pollock’s biases, illustrated by such numerous examples, go against the grain of any Hindu who has grown up reading and listening to Ramayana.

One cannot deny the possibility that translations will be without any such biases. However, what we Indians, as key stakeholders of these translations, need to be ensured is that his personal biases do not make their way into the translations.  Is Pollock capable of translating or managing other translators without his personal biases?  Absolutely.  Will he?  I am not sure what standards are in place to ensure this.  This is my sense of what the petitioners are really wanting – a broadening of the editorial board and establishing of standards.

Translations should not substitute Sanskrit words when there are no good equivalent English words.  The original non-translatable must be retained. Thus, Vanara gets mistranslated as monkey, asura gets translated as demon. Many eminent Western Indologists translate shudra as slave and kshatriyas as feudal. They translate itihas as myth. There is clear superimposition of Western history and philosophy upon India. Genuine portrayal of sacred aspects of Hinduism will not go well with many Christians.  Who ensures that sensibilities of Hindu stakeholders are cared for?

Have you got a chance to read any of the Murty Library books? If yes, what do you think of them?  

I just gave you excerpts from Sheldon Pollock’s translation of Ramayana.  His commentary has been consistent with what he has written for the last 30 years.  Besides, my recent book examines in detail numerous other kinds of biases in Pollock’s work. We are given no reasons to believe that his translations will be different now.

Less than 2% (9 out of 500) of Murty library has been translated and published so far.  Of those, three are related to Islamic culture in India and one on Buddhism.  We are at the very early stages of these translations, and we cannot shake off Pollock’s 30-year legacy; so we cannot extrapolate the whole library. It is not too late for Rohan Murty to put in checks and balances to ensure that sensibilities of Hindu stakeholders are cared for.

You wrote in your book that ‘Indian social scientists are like dogs that are trained to stay within a perimeter with a tracking collar and electric shocks’ – please elaborate on this analogy from your latest book. 

Wanting to be sure, just now I searched the Kindle version of my book. There is no such sentence in it.

However, I agree that it is a good analogy.  The analogy is not comparing social scientists with dogs or comparing their jobs with tracking collars.  The analogy is in being trained to stay within a perimeter.  I have said this in my talks – that Indian social scientists lack autonomy from westerners who are like their intellectual masters.

For supposedly independent thinkers who refuse to yield an inch of their freedom of expression, they are surprisingly regulated on what they say collectively.  The analogy says that there must be some invisible hand prodding them with “electric shocks” as they venture towards the perimeter of their real freedom.  When Pollock wants to use the word heteronomy, this is a great group he should analyze.

Can only Indians be the guardians of classic Indian literature, does not a man who has studied the field for most of his life not work in the field? 

National origin or race are not relevant.  We have enough Indian nationals who will toe Pollock’s line with much greater exaggeration and without a second thought. At the same time there are many non-Indians who treat our culture with great shraddha.

The Introduction of my book explains that there are many examples of individuals who want to fight a system and therefore spend their entire life studying it. A lifetime of study does not guarantee Shraddha for it. Many Christian evangelists study Hinduism more intensely than most practicing Hindus do. But their goal is to find clever ways to subvert it. The CIA spends a lot of resources studying Islam. Biologists wanting to defeat a bacteria spend a lot to understand it. So please get rid of this confusion that merely having studied our sanskriti for a lifetime makes an individual a genuine lover of it.

Here is another point to put things in perspective.  When the Bible is translated into an Indian language, it needs approval from outside India.  It is common knowledge that specific translations of the Bible into Indian languages had to go to Vatican for approval.  Translations of Qur’an by non-Muslims that are independent of the Islamic authorities in the Middle East are not treated as authoritative by practicing Muslims. I am glad we Hindus are more open-minded than that.  Now, is it too much to ask Rohan Murty to care for sensibilities of Hindus when translating books that are sacred to them?  If Pollock can do that, with guarantee, I will support him.

I also request that patrons like Rohan Murty should look for choices in India first, since he is really concerned about decline in patronage of our ancient works. We urgently need funds in India to arrest the decline in scholarship.

Many Indian scholars are actively involved in the West, is there a problem when the reverse of that happens? 

There are no similar parallels. There is no problem if Westerners write.  I do not have issues with Pollock writing his honest views, even if they are biased.  I have said this multiple times, written so in my recent book, and I am saying it here again.  My issue with Pollock is that he has not been open about his biases with his Indian counterparts.

Pollock portrays the most sacred texts of Hindus as socially oppressive and politically motivated. And what did the Hindu majority country do? Indian Government gave Sheldon Pollock Padma Sri and a National Award and research grants, not to mention a long list of hagiographies.  Are we really being unfair to Pollock here?

Unfortunately, his Hindu counterparts are largely unaware of what he has written. The strongest criticism in my book is about the lack of response from the Indian side – what we call purva-paksha.

Pollock has been heading the Murty Classical Library for some time now – why do you think his editorship is coming under fire just now?

As I said, Murty Classic Library is still in its early stages. Better that its editorship is coming under scrutiny now than after it is too late.  It would have been even better if Rohan Murty gave traditional scholars a fair chance before he gave the contract to Pollock.

My recent book tour has been very successful and many who could not penetrate Pollock’s difficult-to-read works now have a door open to delve into his writings.  There are multiple summaries and discussions of Pollock’s biased writings that are now emerging from various individuals. Such debate and conversations are to be encouraged. As a champion of the study of Indian texts, Rohan Murty should join in facilitating purva-paksha by open minds.

Could you tell us a little about the work done by Infinity Foundation in the US and in India?

Infinity Foundation is a non-profit organization based in Princeton, New Jersey engaged in giving grants seeking to promote civilizational dialogue and a proper understanding of the Indian experience. The world today is grappling with issues arising from globalization, religious conflicts and economic, ecological and cultural challenges. Infinity Foundation believes that the experience and wisdom in the Indian civilization can play a positive role in an inter-civilization dialogue based on harmonious co-existence.

The foundation has given over 400 grants for research, education and philanthropy, including grants to leading institutions of higher education, specialized research centers, as well as grants to many individual scholars. It has also organized several conferences and scholarly events to bring out a balanced view of the many positive contributions from the Indian civilization.

You talked about how we need to build an ecosystem for such a massive project in India, where it is more sustainable. 

a) The Harvard University Press which publishes these books is already known for translations of Greek, Latin and medieval literature into English, among other projects. Why do you think it may not do justice to Indian classics?

b) It is well known that increasingly the newer generations are losing touch with classics. Doesn’t this project actually help in bridging that gap by translating classics – there’s no interpretation involved here.  

(a) One author wrote in The Continuum Compendium of Hindu Studies that Sheldon Pollock is important for pointing “an accusatory finger at the language [Sanskrit], highlighting its function as a purveyor of forms of authority that are culturally and ethnically exclusive, benefiting the few at the expense of the many.”  This is not a flattering portrayal of Sanskrit that is consistent with Indian sanskriti.

Unfortunately, this type of portrayal is more the norm when you look at many books today. What is being written is the issue, not the brand of the university or nationality of the person involved. The use of philology meant for studying Greek/Latin classics is not the best way to study Sanskrit texts. My book explains the subtle differences in the methods involved.

(b) I am all for doing such a project.  I appreciate the kind thought that originated in Rohan Murty’s mind.  My issue is with how the translations are done, and that the team that is chosen influences how a translation gets done.

Indeed, the newer generations are losing touch with tradition. I appreciate that Rohan Murty is concerned about it. But he should invite independent due diligence on whether Pollock has ideological commitments against the sacredness of Indian texts.

How has The Battle for Sanskrit book fared, how has it been received in India and abroad?

It has done very well as a thought provocation device. My intention is to trigger honest debates free from acrimony. The book is dedicated to our traditional debating tradition and to the opponents from whom I can learn so much. My book is not closed or final, but an invitation for conversations.

Closing remarks:

In a pluralistic world, we should encourage multiple viewpoints. We should encourage even those different from our own. I am against any form of suppression of freedom of expression.  Let us have no-holds-barred freedom of expression.  I believe that this is good for Hinduism.  In fact, I have been on record saying that the Internet is the best thing that has happened to Hinduism.  No one can mute the voice on the internet, much to the chagrin of those who are angry at me and work so hard to try and muzzle my voice.

Sheldon Pollock should be free to publish his views, biased or not.

To wrap this up, I have the following points that are worth summarizing:

1. Pollock’s patron should go beyond the “positive” kind of writings of Pollock (which there are in plenty as well), and also see his other side which my book explains; this latter side is not well known among Indians and needs to be uncovered;

2. Traditional Indian scholars are finding their voices muted. Pollock wields a large stick in India.  We need to bring about a balance so that pluralistic world is sustained in India.  We need to ensure that original Indian voices remain.  Rohan Murty, and patrons like him, should be sensitive to this issue;

3. When translating Indian texts, patrons should be especially cognizant of irreparable harm they could bring if they do not pay careful attention to the religious or political ideologies (explicit or implicit) of the translators;

4. India has its share of problems. We need to acknowledge them.  But we need to find Indian remedies to Indian problems attending to Indian sensibilities.  Bringing in outsiders to “teach us a lesson” will not play well.

5. If Rohan Murty truly worries that the younger generation is losing touch with ancient Indian texts, then I submit that translations will only worsen the situation if they are injecting certain unsubstantiated assumptions such as the foreign Aryan theory.