The Battle for Sanskrit

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The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive?
Cover of the book The Battle for Sanskrit
Author Rajiv Malhotra
Country India
Language English
Subject Sheldon Pollock
Publisher Harper Collins India
Publication date
Pages 488
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Website [archive]

The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive? is a 2016 book written by Rajiv Malhotra which warns against the post-orientalist American indologist Sheldon Pollock. Malhotra pleads for traditional Indian scholars to write responses to Pollock's views.



Rajiv Malhotra explains why he wrote this book. He notes the hegemony of western approaches in studying India, and asks for a study of this western approach from a traditional point of view. His book is an attempt to provide such a reversal.[1]

According to Malhotra, western Indology scholars are deliberately intervening in Indian societies by offering analyses of Sanskrit texts which would be rejected by "the traditional Indian experts."[1] He also finds western scholars too prescriptive, that is, being "political activists" that want to prescribe a specific way of life.[1]

The inducement for this book was the prospect of Sringeri Peetham, the monastery founded by Adi Shankara in south India, collaborating with Columbia University to set up an "Adi Shankara Chair" for Hindu religion and philosophy, sponsored by an Indian donor. The instalment committee for the Chair was to be headed by Sheldon Pollock, whom Malhotra regards as an erudite scholar but also as one who undermines the traditional understanding. Malhotra contacted the lead donor to voice his concerns, which were not shared by the donor.[1] Nevertheless, Malhotra fears "the issue of potential conflict when the occupant of the chair takes positions that undermine the very tradition that has backed and funded the chair."[1] According to Malhotra,

... the Vedic traditions are under assault from a school of thought whose fundamental assumptions are dismissive of the sacred dimension. If, out of naivety, we hand over the keys to our institutions and allow outsiders to represent our legacy, then any chance of genuine dialogue will be lost. Furthermore, because of the enormous prestige and power of Western universities, a view of the Sanskrit will become accepted by the public.[1]

Chapter 1: The Hijacking of Sanskrit and Sanskriti[edit]

According to Malhotra, Sanskrit forms the essence of Indian civilisation. Malhotra discerns an "insider" and an "outsider" approach to the study of Sanskrit texts based on the academic concept of Emic and etic.[1] However Malhotra emphasizes his distinction between insiders and outsiders is not based on ethnicity, but the lens through which one looks at Sanskrit texts.[1] Insiders view Sanskrit as sacred, but outsiders view the sacredness of Sanskrit as merely a smokescreen for oppressive views.[1]

Chapter 2: From European Orientalism to American Orientalism[edit]

Contemporary American scholars differ from their British counterparts, having greater access to Indian society and Indian collaborators. American Orientalism has a great impact. Malhotra describes the circumstances in which American Orientalism grew and how it differs from European Orientalism. According to Malhotra it is influenced by Marxism, using a liberation philology,[note 1] which under the guise of empowering social groups such as dalits, women and Muslims pits them against each other and against Hinduism.[1]

Malhotra gives special attention to Sheldon Pollock. According to Malhotra, Pollock is determined in "utterly purging Sanskrit studies of their sacred dimension."[1] Malhotra singles out Pollock as being exemplary of this American Orientalism, since he is considered its foremost exponent, and Malhotra wants to realise a maximum impact with his criticism of American Orientalism.

Chapter 3: The Obsession with Secularizing Sanskrit[edit]

According to Malhotra, Pollock separates the spiritual transcendent aspect of Sanskrit, paramarthika, from the mundane worldly aspect, vyavaharika. Pollock then dismisses the paramarthika as being irrational. Malhotra further states that Pollock is incorrect in portraying kāvya, a Sanskrit literary style used by Indian court poets, as fundamentally different from Vedic ideas. He states that Pollock "secularises" the kāvya literature by removing its transcendental dimensions.[1]


Bibek Debroy in his review states that,

The essential point is about the discourse being captured by a certain Western approach, which is no longer purely Western, but is increasingly being internalised and portrayed as an Indian approach too, since many Indian Indologists, historians and journalists have studied in the West and are part of the same intellectual networks and support systems.[2]

According to Bibek Debroy, The Battle for Sanskrit follows the traditional Indian style mentioned in the Sanskrit tarka shastra tradition of reasoning. "You cite your opponent’s argument (purva paksha) and counter it with your own argument (uttara paksha)". Bibek Debroy writes, "Malhotra does the same with Pollock, setting out the Pollock arguments first and focusing particularly on Pollock’s views on the Valmiki Ramayana."[2] According to Debroy, Malhotra agrees that there's no 'one true' approach in this, rather he wants the "home team" to be "energized". This book is best understood as an exhortation for that alternative paradigm.[2] Bibek Debroy believes that even though the book has been labelled a ‘Battle for Sanskrit’, it is about our legacy and believes that "for people to be persuaded that this would be a terrible idea, this is a wonderful book that needs to be read and disseminated."[2]

The book found support from writers who call to join this "battle," like R Jagannathan of Swarajya,[3][note 2] Rajeev Srinivasan,[4][note 3] and Aditi Banerjee, who has co-authored a book with Malhotra.[5][note 4]

The 'network of trust' created by the book is said to have caused 132 academics from India to sign a petition asking for the removal of Sheldon Pollock from the editorship of the Murty Classical Library of India.[6]

Battle for Sanskrit was discussed extensively in an article in Jankriti International Magazine by Ayesha Tahera Rashid.[7]

Koenraad Elst, a noted Indologist notes,

Westerners consider themselves very progressive when meddling in Indian affairs. The values they now defend, such as egalitarianism and feminism, are different from what prevailed in the West during the colonial age, but the underlying spirit of “civilizing the savages” is the same. They now try to wrest control of Sanskrit studies from the “oppressive, reactionary” traditionalists, and increasingly succeed with the help of native informers eager for the status and money that Western academics can confer. Once upon a time, the colonizers brought prized artworks to museums in the West, claiming that these were safer there than in the care of the irresponsible natives. Now, their successors try to carry away the adhikara (prerogative) to interpret Sanskrit texts, so as to make Hindus look at their own tradition through anti-Hindu lenses. For the first time, Rajiv Malhotra analyses the stakes involved for Hindu civilization, which risks losing control over the backbone of its historical identity, and the power equation in the production of knowledge concerning Sanskrit and the dharmic tradition. He proposes a research programme that Hindus will need to carry out if they are to face this sophisticated onslaught. This path-breaking book maps a battlefield hitherto unknown to most besieged insiders.


  1. The Hijacking of Sanskrit and Sanskriti. This chapter mainly deals with the current state of Indology and Sanskrit studies, but the home team, a term Malhotra uses for the practitioners of the tradition is largely non-existent.[8]
  2. From European Orientalism to American Orientalism. This chapter details the history of orientalism from European during colonial times to American.[8]
  3. The Obsession with Secularising Sanskrit
  4. Sanskrit Considered a Source of Oppression.
  5. Ramayana Framed as Socially Irresponsible.
  6. Politicizing Indian Literature.
  7. Politicizing the History of Sanskrit and the Vernaculars.
  8. The Sanskriti Web as an Alternative Hypothesis.
  9. Declaring Sanskrit Dead and Sanskriti Non-existence.
  10. Is Sheldon Pollock Too Big to be Criticized?
  11. Conclusion: The Way Forward

The book contains five appendices, two of which are evidences to refute Pollock's assertions about various subject matter and one which is solely devoted to Pollock's political activism in Indian arena.

See also[edit]


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  1. See Sheldon Pollock: Liberation Philology [archive].
  2. Jagannathan: "The Battle For Sanskrit is an important book, even a disturbing one, for Indians who love this country and take pride in its Hindu and Sanskrit traditions even while cherishing diversity and acknowledging our many faults and negative practices. It is our bounden duty to join Malhotra in his Battle For Sanskrit. It is our battle. And it is a battle we cannot afford to lose.

    Malhotra’s is the most important critique of the new form of Orientalism that has taken root in American academia, now the European academia is no longer calling the shots on Indic studies. The reason why American Orientalism is dangerous for Indic culture is because of the sheer sophistication it brings to the idea of hollowing out Indic culture and studying Sanskrit by decapitating the head from the body. It is about studying a carcass, not a living tradition or idea."[3]
  3. Srinivasan: "This is an important book; for any Indian, and particularly any Hindu who is concerned about the Indian Grand Narrative, the possible loss of control over Sanskrit is a tragedy. At the moment it is an avoidable tragedy, but only if there is a concerted effort on our part. It is nothing short of an act of terrorism, if you believe the UNESCO director-general, and this book is an attempt at preventive action.[4]
  4. Banerjee: "Malhotra explains clearly and simply the key ideas in this body of scholarship and what is at stake for Hindus and India as these ideas are being carefully fed into the mainstream culture and media. Malhotra has distilled the arcane complexities of enormous tracts of Sanskrit scholarship into a clear narrative, has explained the stakes of the debate between these scholars and a traditional view of Hinduism and has offered a compelling rebuttal to their main arguments [...] We must learn and experience for ourselves the great treasures of spirituality, philosophy, ethics and literary masterpieces bestowed upon us by our ancestors. The battle for Sanskrit is on, and it is a battle we cannot afford to lose.[5]


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  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 Malhotra 2016.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Bibek Debroy, Home Alone [archive], OPEN Magazine, 26 February 2016.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Raghavan, Jagannathan. "American Orientalism' As The New Macaulayism, And What We Need To Do About It" [archive]. Swarajya. Retrieved 27 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Srinivasan, Rajiv. "Why the battle for Sanskrit needs to be joined" [archive]. Rediff. Retrieved 27 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 Banerjee, Aditi. "The Battle for Sanskrit: A Battle We Cannot Afford to Lose" [archive]. Retrieved 27 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Nikita Puri, Murty Classical Library: Project interrupted [archive], Business Standard, 12 March 2016. See also the full input of Rajiv Malhotra [archive] to the journalist.
  7. Rashid, Ayesha Tahera (April 2016). "Indology and Sanskrit Studies: The Battle for Sanskrit between the East and the West" [archive] (PDF). Jankriti International Magazine. 2 (14). ISSN 2454-2725 [archive]. Retrieved 4 June 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named :0



External links[edit]