The Battle for Sanskrit

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The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive?
Battle for Sanskrit cover.jpg
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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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.

  • There is a new awakening in India that is challenging the ongoing westernization of the discourse about India and the intellectual machinery that produces it.
  • One of his [Pollock's] goals is to critique and expunge what he sees as deeply entrenched static social hierarchies, barbarisms and poisons. I do not see anything inherently wrong with this intention by itself; most Hindus welcome improvements and the evolution of their culture. The issue worth debating is that Pollock sees these ills as deeply rooted in the Vedas themselves and as requiring the abandonment of core metaphysical and sacred perspectives.
  • I am not alone in making this point. At least one European Indologist accuses Pollock of relocating Orientalism 'to the "New Raj" across the deep blue sea'.[9]
  • He [Grünendahl] says Pollock's narrative 'is not an evidence-based study of Orientalism or Indology in Germany, but a sophisticated charge of anti-Semitism based largely on trumped-up "evidence".... Pollock's post-Orientalist messianism would have us believe that only late twentieth-century (and now twenty-first century) America is intellectually equipped to reject and finally overcome [‘Eurocentrism’...] The path from the 'Deep Orientalism' of old to a new 'Indology beyond the Raj and Auschwitz' leads to the 'New Raj' across the deep blue sea.
  • Wilhelm Halbfass, the late Indologist at the University of Pennsylvania, took such ridiculous statements into strange, speculative areas and wrote: Would it not be equally permissible to identify this underlying structure as 'deep Nazism' or 'deep Mimamsa'? And what will prevent us from calling Kumarila and William Jones 'deep Nazis' and Adolf Hitler a 'deep Mimamsaka'?
  • Thus, Grünendahl has noted Pollock's tendency to develop broad narratives without any supporting evidence. Moreover, he draws attention to Pollock's messianism in promoting American scholarship.... , casting doubt on Pollock's attempt to analyse Sanskrit objectively. He raises the pertinent question as to whether Pollock is providing the intellectual foundations for America's 'New Raj', to replace the dead British Raj - i.e., whether American imperialism is replacing the dead British imperialism.
  • It is important for Pollock that Muslims not be blamed for the decline of Sanskrit. He writes that any theory 'can be dismissed at once' if it 'traces the decline of Sanskrit culture to the coming of Muslim power'... Trying to prove the timing of Sanskrit's decline prior to the Turkish invasions enables him to absolve these invasions of any blame... I get the impression that Pollock does not want to dwell on whether Muslim invasions had debilitated the Hindu political and intellectual institutions in the first place... Throughout Pollock's analysis, hardly any Muslim ruler gets blamed for the destruction of Indian culture. He simply avoids discussing the issue of Muslim invasions and their destructive influence on Hindu institutions... The impact of various invasions in Kashmir was so enormous that it cannot be ignored in any historical analysis... The contradiction between his two accounts, published separately, is serious: Muslim invasions created a traumatic enough shockwave to cause Hindu kings to mobilize the 'cult of Rama' and therefore the Hindus funded the production of extensive Ramayana texts for this agenda. And yet, the death of Sanskrit taking place at the same time had little relation to the arrival of Muslims. When Hindus are to be blamed for their alleged hatred towards Muslims, the Muslims are shown to have an important presence; but when Muslims are to be protected from being assigned any responsibility for destruction, they are mysteriously made to disappear from the scene.
  • He sidesteps the rise in the funding of Persian and Arabic by the secular Indian government and by foreign sponsors, and the concurrent dramatic decline in Sanskrit funding. He does not expose the downsizing and dismantling of the institutions , both formal and informal, on which Sanskrit and sanskriti have traditionally thrived. Pollock is careful not to implicate the non-Hindu forces that have wreaked havoc against Sanskrit.
  • For Pollock, the fact that [...] have written about Ayodhya, Mount Meru, Ganga, etc., in multiple locations is dumbfounding and irrational..... I propose a different interpretation of the same data. As per our tradition, the conceptual space of Hindus can be replicated and localized easily. The Hindu metaphysics of immanence leads to the decentralization of sacred geography.... This is why people in south India substitute their local rivers for Ganga for ritualist purposes; there is a town called Ayodhya in Thailand; the cognitive landscape of people in Java started to include Mount Meru as a local place, and so on.
  • It seems obvious that Pollock is committed to the Marxist theory linking literary works and political power. He wants to deploy it as his lens for analysing how the aesthetic use of languages in India became interwoven into the fabric of politics. At a deeper level, beyond the aesthetic and political usage of Sanskrit, he finds that old Marxist demon: theology. For him, as for most Marxist-oriented scholars, all forms of spirituality/transcendence are, in effect, irrational, deformed and mystified ways of thinking....
  • Many similar views were also expressed in the Sanskrit Commission Report written under the Nehru government in the 1950s. That report declares: "The State in ancient India, it must be specially pointed out, freely patronised education establishments, but left them to develop on their own lines, without any interference or control. It says that until the British disruption, the salient features of our traditional education included: 'oral instruction, insistence on moral discipline and character-building, freedom in the matter of the courses of study, absence of extraneous control...' ... We can never insist too strongly on this signal fact that Sanskrit has been the Great Unifying Force of India, and that India with its nearly 400 millions of people is One Country, and not half a dozen or more countries, only because of Sanskrit.'
  • He then goes a step further and briefly imposes a Freudian reading on the text, a reading outdated and crude even in the current Western context of cultural criticism. He says the depiction of 'the other' in Ramayana can be understood as a projection of the unfulfilled sexual desires of traditional Indians. .... The motive of applying a totally alien framework, viz., the Freudian one, to a traditional Hindu text is something that is questionable.
  • If a scholar were to refute the very existence of Allah..... it would be called Islamophobia. .... An analogous situation exists in the way an attiutde gets classified as anti-Semitic. Hindus should be alarmed by the existence of a double standard in Western academics, because the same sensitivity and adhikara to speak for our tradition is not granted to Hindus. ..... We need to define a level playing field for characterizing a work as Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Hinduphobia, etc.
  • Although he sees this process as politically driven, Pollock does acknowledge there were no conquering Sanskrit legions that caused Sanskritization, unlike the coercive Romanization which followed Roman military legions. Nor was there a central church-like religious institution and hence no evangelism that could have Sanskritized through religious conversion. He admits that the notion of the Sanskrit cosmopolis does not fit the Western notion of an empire.
  • I wish to also point out that Dr Ambedkar, the pioneering Dalit leader, had worked zealously to promote Sanskrit. A dispatch of the Press Trust of India dated 10 September 1949 states that he was among those who sponsored an amendment making Sanskrit, instead of Hindi, the official language of the Indian Union.
  • I do not contest that this top-down instrumental use for pure politics was being made to some degree; but to reduce the entire process of cultural evolution to a matter of politics betrays a profound misunderstanding. This view disregards the intrinsic appeal of the Sanskrit tradition, including for non-elites, and the various roles it played in the cultures it touched. In particular, to dismiss the entire symbolic discourse of Sanskrit as 'mystifying' is to apply a reductive Marxism that cannot account for sacredness in the lives of people.

See also[edit]


  1. See Sheldon Pollock: Liberation Philology.
  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]


  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, 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". 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". 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". Retrieved 27 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Nikita Puri, Murty Classical Library: Project interrupted, Business Standard, 12 March 2016. See also the full input of Rajiv Malhotra to the journalist.
  7. Rashid, Ayesha Tahera (April 2016). "Indology and Sanskrit Studies: The Battle for Sanskrit between the East and the West" (PDF). Jankriti International Magazine. 2 (14). ISSN 2454-2725. 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
  9. Reference is to Gruenendahl 2012



External links[edit]