[INDOLOGY] Sanskrit in our times

Ananya Vajpeyi vajpeyi at csds.in
Sun Sep 18 08:23:55 UTC 2016

Thanks Arlo for your notes, on and off the Indology list.

If you don't mind too much, I'd say this business of the Emergency is a red
herring and we agree to set it aside for purposes of this discussion.

In preparation for the article you read in the World Policy Journal, and in
connection with a larger work I am hoping to undertake, I began looking at
the voluminous report of the first Sanskrit Commission under the leadership
of Suniti Kumar Chatterji (1957), and looking for the report of the second
Sanskrit Commission, prepared by a committee of experts set up under the
UPA government and scrapped by the current Modi government over the past
couple of years. In place of this second report, I came upon a "Vision
Document" for the future of Sanskrit education over 10 years, available on
the website of the Ministry of Human Resource Development at the time that
my article had to go to press.

Apart from the history of Sanskrit-related government policy, several other
factors were also at play while I worked on this piece over many months. I
taught a graduate class on "Religion, nation and democracy in modern India"
at a summer school (just concluded) and one of the texts my students and I
read carefully together was Savarkar's Hindutva, which lays out the
cartography of the Hindu Rashtra, including his highly problematic theories
about race, language, geography and religion.

At the same time, more or less, the controversial minister for Human
Resource Development, Smriti Irani, was replaced by Prakash Javadekar,
bringing to an abrupt halt a series of policy changes and political
decisions that she had been taking since the inauguration of the new
government, that did much damage to universities and higher education more
generally and threw Indian academia into a state of crisis (which still

I joined this list quite recently, but I am sure it has already seen an
extensive discussion of all that happened at the Indian Science Congress
and the World Sanskrit Conference, both of which took place in 2015 with a
BJP government in place. Apart from former HRD minister Smriti Irani,
External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, Minister for Culture Mahesh
Sharma, Dina Nath Batra (of Wendy Doniger notoriety) and others inside and
on the fringes of the Modi administration have repeatedly weighed in on the
place of Sanskrit in not just textbooks, degree programs and teaching
syllabi but also the larger cultural and political life of the nation.

The dilemma for Sanskritists, philologists, classicists, historians,
philosophers, scholars of whatever discipline who care about the quality
and future continuation of Sanskrit studies in India, is that on the one
hand both traditional and university-based Sanskrit programs of linguistic
training, textual and archival study, and literary and philosophical
inquiry have been in precipitous decline since Independence. For the most
part, it is secular, centrist and left-leaning state and national
governments in postcolonial India that have presided over this decline and
fall of what were once thriving and multifarious knowledge traditions.

On the other hand, when at last it seems like there might be some
willingness on the part of the government in power to invest in Sanskrit,
this promise of monetary support and institutional regeneration comes at a
heavy ideological cost, antagonising and alienating not just secular-minded
scholars, but also Muslims and Dalits, among others. Hindutva most directly
and most negatively impacts the discipline of History (which was the theme
of the fall issue of the WPJ), and Sanskrit is unfortunately exemplary in
the kind of manipulation it can and has been subjected to in the course of
what I and others have been calling India's "culture wars".

So we are in this peculiar situation where we want desperately for Sanskrit
to flourish, for it to have the strength and space to undertake fresh
thinking, self-correction and auto-critique, produce new texts, and show
all of the signs of vitality needed to keep any epistemological tradition
in business, but instead all we get is the worst sort of "Hinduization" of
the vast universe of Sanskrit textuality and the instrumental use of
Sanskrit to further communalise Indian history and exclude minorities from
all official narratives about our shared pasts. The damage is not just to
the facts of history, but also to the templates of plurality, inclusion and
coexistence that modern Indians have struggled hard to build and maintain
in the world's largest and most diverse democracy.

Most scholars I know -- and I include myself in this count -- would much
rather be left alone to read and write their books, think their thoughts,
teach their classes and engage with the ideas that most interest and excite
them. I would rather spend years in the library and classroom, than even a
moment in the vicious arena where ideas are now debated, populated as it is
by charlatans who are ignorant of the facts, armed with social media's
instruments of propaganda, misogyny and abuse, openly in service of
political forces and thoroughly innocent of intellectual motivations.

But this sort of sequestration is no longer possible. You can't retire with
the ancients, no matter how well you know how to read them. In fact, it is
precisely because you -- we -- people on this list -- know how to read,
that we must take up the responsibility of really questioning and
interpreting the texts to which we alone have access, and making their
treasures available to our students and a potentially vast reading public,
in order to deepen democracy and liberate our societies.

I began my article with JNU's Sanskrit department because it helps to
crystallise a number of intersecting concerns. That a heavily left-leaning
university should have a Sanskrit department was a good thing, in theory.
It should have balanced out JNU's own biases and made up for its
shortcomings. But it got off to a controversial start with the very
building in which it was housed, shaped, as I explain, like a Swastika (you
can look it up on Google Earth, it's pretty startling).

But then, things only got worse, in the sense that the intellectual culture
of the department became beholden to the suffocating binarism of secular
left versus Hindu right that is now writ large all across Indian academia.
So an opportunity was lost, from a scholarly and pedagogical perspective,
and this is happening in department after department at every Indian public
university. Instead of producing great researchers and great teachers,
Indian universities are producing half-baked ideologues.

In Sanskrit and Indology, practically all of the real hard work of critical
editing, translation, interpretation, teaching, publication is happening
overseas and not in India. And how could it? Politics and communal politics
especially has devastated our institutions. We have to deal with the
consequences of this fact. Avoidance is not an option.




*Ananya Vajpeyi *
*Centre for the Study of Developing Societies*
*29 Rajpur Road, Civil Lines*
*New Delhi 110054*
*e: vajpeyi at csds.in <vajpeyi at csds.in>*
*ext: 229*

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