[INDOLOGY] Sanskrit in our times

Arlo Griffiths arlogriffiths at hotmail.com
Sun Sep 18 16:46:14 UTC 2016

Dear Ananya,

Thank you for all this background.

I would hope that even those who have challenged you on previous occasions agree with a good part of what you write here, and if so that this agreement can become a basis for constructive action of the kind called 'bipartisan' in another political culture.

My modest contribution as a European Indologist, I believe, must continue to come in the form of working hard on all the tasks you mention in your last paragraph, notably in collaboration with Indian scholars — and scholars of other countries in whose history Sanskrit culture has played an important role, and where I have had the privilege to live and work.

Minor point: I was not aware of any report of commission on Sanskrit presided over by S.K. Chatterji. Is a pdf available and can it be shared? I had heard of a reported of an apparently similarly named commission presided over by V. Raghavan in nearly the same year (see http://www.drvraghavancentre.com/publications.html, no. 51) although I have never seen that either. Could it actually be the same report?

Yours, with every good wish,

Arlo Griffiths

École française d'Extrême-Orient

From: Ananya Vajpeyi <vajpeyi at csds.in>
Sent: Sunday, September 18, 2016 8:23 AM
To: Indology; Arlo Griffiths
Subject: Sanskrit in our times

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 continues).

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<mailto:vajpeyi at csds.in>
ext: 229


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