Interviewed by Palak Shah
A successful entrepreneur at the peak of his career, while owning 20 companies in several countries, taking an early retirement at age 44 to pursue philanthropy, research and public service is something unheard of. Meet an internationally acclaimed author, Rajiv Malhotra, an Indian–American researcher, writer, speaker and public intellectual on current affairs as they relate to civilizations, cross-cultural encounters, religion and science. He established Infinity Foundation for this purpose in 1994 and has given more than 400 grants for research, education and community work at Harvard University, Rutgers University, University of Hawaii, Columbia University, University of California, University of Pennsylvania, etc.
In an candid chat with Palak Shah, Rajiv Malhotra gives insights in and around his latest book “The Battle for Sanskrit.”
After your deeply researched and stunning book, Breaking India and and the philosophical masterpieces Being Different and Indra’s Net, you have now written, The Battle for Sanskrit. Why this book and why now?
My themes are broad – defending: India, Bhartiya Sanskriti, Dharma and Vedic culture, among others. The forces opposing these important aspects, each having a certain focus, are unified under the broad umbrella of wanting to destroy Dharma. Somebody is attacking Gurus and Deities, someone else philosophy, others unified Hinduism and yet others Sanskrit. Each of my books tackles one of those big forces individually and refutes their charges and philosophies.
Something of great import happened at the Columbia University, which required me to write this book. An Indologist named Professor Sheldon Pollock was on the verge of signing an agreement with the Sringeri Mutt, which is one of the major traditional centers of learning started by Adi Shankara some thirteen centuries ago. Columbia University was to create a Chair for Adi Shankara Studies of Religion and Philosophy and Sheldon Pollock was to head the Committee to select the Chair and determine the content. Now, Sheldon Pollock is basically a strong leftist, who approaches Hinduism from a Marxist, secularist and atheistic point of view.
People representing the traditional Indian side and Sringeri Mutt constituted the Advisory Committee that had no adhikara – authority. The Advisory Committee had to direct their requests to the Academic Committee, which had veto power.
I know of many people being paid millions of dollars upfront, to be part of the Advisory Committee. The glamour of getting their pictures taken with the Chancellor, Dean or President of the University; getting their name and pictures in the newspaper with local Senators; the fame and prestige of being an Advisory Committee Member enamors people. They make announcements and are in a hurry to get this done because they are getting money. Everybody will be tweeting about this and social media will praise them. However, being totally uneducated about the intellectual Kurukshetra they don’t know what the issues are and the red flags to look out for.
What happens is as that once they’ve got the money and as time goes by, they decide who the professor will be and invariably it would be a student of Sheldon Pollock or Wendy Doniger or one of those kind of people. They’re grooming their own army of such people. The irony is that they are using Indian money and Sringeri Mutt to lend their actions legitimacy. They will also sing songs in praise of Adi Shankara, honor the Sankaracharya of today, tell you great things about the Math, garland any visiting Hindu dignitary, put him on stage and make him look very important. But all this is Public Relations strategies -niceties to make the Hindu side feel honored and proud!
But ultimately, what matters is the substance of the scholarship which they are promoting in the text books and teaching in class. All this is too detailed for most Indians to understand. So nobody bothers to try to understand those details until somebody like me points it out. But by then it’s too late. The dye is cast. I have been through all of this for 25 years in many places.
There was a sense of urgency to publish this book because I wanted the devotees of Sringeri Mutt and the followers of Adi Shankara to look at both sides before they decide. I’m not demonizing the other side. All I’m saying is that their scholarship runs counter to the philosophy of Adi Shankara. That is what I am proving in this book. Their scholarship runs counter to the Bhakti and Devi traditions, the Vedas and the traditional understanding of Ramayana and Mahabharat. I have cited many examples to support this. It very clearly says that Vedic hymns, chants and mantras are Brahmin and a conspiracy to oppress people, which is not true. There is a great error in transferring adhikara and control to people who do not have shraddha.
Even though I am not formally initiated or a devotee of Sringeri Math I am more broad based with allegiance to several denominations and lineages. Unfortunately, the people who were enthusiastically supporting and raising funds for this chair and passionately arguing against me are hopelessly ignorant about Adi Shankara’s philosophy and hence don’t understand that these academics are saying the exact opposite.
My concern is that this being done with so much smoothness and sophistication at very high levels of our people, that even well-intended people cannot see through it. People are fooled by these nice, generous Western scholars who come to India, speak Sanskrit and do puja. So somebody has to go beneath the surface of that facade and tell people like it really is. That is why I decided to write this book.
Today for many reasons Sanskrit has at best a marginal place in the education of majority of Indians. How is Sanskrit relevant to Indians generally and to the practice of Hinduism today? Why write a book on the issue of Sanskrit?
My book is called The Battle for Sanskrit but actually it is a battle for ‘sanskriti’ – civilization/ culture, because Sanskrit texts are being attacked. The book exposes how they are misinterpreting Vedic texts. The initial chapters concentrate on the reasons Sanskrit is important to our culture.
Sanskrit vibrations and sounds are not man-made, but are part of the cosmic rhythm. They are part of the fabric of creation and existence. Mantras takes you from the intellectual level to the emotional, channeling deeper and deeper psychological states. You keep chanting a mantra it becomes part of your unconscious, without you even realizing it! That is your bridge to a deeper existence/ level of Divinity.
Sanskrit has been the medium of intellectual discourse and philosophy. One important uniqueness of Sanskrit is that you cannot get the same effect if you replace the Sanskrit mantra with something in English that means the same. English terminologies do not have the philosophical sophistication that Sanskrit does. Sanskrit is non-translatable as it is built on non-translatable root sounds. So some of the terms we use in Sanskrit do not have an equivalent in any other language. If you translate atman as soul, it doesn’t mean the same thing in the Christian/ Biblical sense because souls exist in humans, not animals and plants and don’t reincarnate.
In the Medieval era the church concluded that Africans don’t have a soul and perpetuated all kinds of stupid stuff.
Sanskrit is unique because it is the DNA of all Indian languages. It is the template and substratum upon which the Indian languages have evolved. Because of the sophisticated grammar there is rigor in the way knowledge is presented, transmitted and communicated. It’s an important source of integration because the architecture of Sanskrit permeates the architecture of other languages, the physical design of temples and buildings and also dance and music.
Knowledge of Sanskrit is essential to perfectly understand the Vedas and perform yajnas. The Mahabharata and Ramayana explain Vedic ideas in a simplified manner for the general public of Kali Yuga. It’s been presented in different levels of complexity for different yugas. Hence, the same knowledge moving through different epochs, kinds and levels of society is presented differently. So I would say that Sanskrit and Vedic unity is the substratum from which all of this other stuff emerged. If people want to go beyond their particular lineage into a deeper spiritual understanding, then they need deep knowledge of Sanskrit and the Vedas.
You just described how important Sanskrit and sanskriti are to our tradition and India, across many dimensions. What are the dangers India faces if Sanskrit and sanskriti are lost and forgotten and how far have we already fallen in this direction?
A good question! Take for example of Translations of Sanskrit works. Robert Goldman and Sheldon Pollock, among others, know Sanskrit well, but they do not have Shraddha. When they study Sanskrit literature, they are not looking for sanctity but for oppression in order to create political divisiveness. They have secured funding worth millions of dollars from Indians, to translate knowledge in Sanskrit into English. Most of the chosen translators are either Westerners or Indians trained by Westerners. They are not people trained in tradition.
Their goal is to carpet bomb Indian literature in English and sell such books cheaply. Our next generation will know Indian culture only through these “Made in USA, English libraries”. That is a tragedy because it makes English, currently the language for elite discussion, conversation, business and government, the more important language. But English is not the language for transacting your bhakti, doing a yajna or puja. Can you imagine in the future people will chant English hymns to Ram or Krishna!
Here is my key message: Letting non-practitioners (people who were never invested in or have loyalty to tradition) control the translation, interpretation and dissemination of sacred texts is very dangerous. Adhikara has been shifted from people who were raised within the tradition to non-practitioners, who have personal agendas.
Rapid translation projects are doing a big disservice because they are not being done by right kind of people or with the right attitude. The right way of translating would be to educate readers about Sanskrit non-translatables, with explanations of how it is different from the English equivalent in a way that preserves traditional sacredness and retains the sraddha for the text. But that is not how things are being done. So I feel that Sanskrit is losing out in the deeper institutional mechanism in India.
One of your phrases piqued my interest – this idea of carpet bombing Sanskrit translations across India. Which particular narratives do you think general public read and out of those which ones worries you the most?
I think that Ramayana has been abused a lot in recent times. Ramayana has been depicted as an oppressive narrative where it is masculinity ill-treating Sita. Such adverse conclusions are being drawn by these modern scholars.
Sheldon Pollock has said that traditionalists project Ram as a divine king; Ravana as raksasha – demon, meant to depict Muslims. Therefore, rather than viewing Ramayana as a sacred text which you can learn from, it is positioned as target practice of secularists who want to bring it down. That’s my concern.
In the translation of a “critical edition” of Mahabharata by the University of Chicago they translated Shudra as slave and Kshatriya as war lord or feudal king, imposing European medieval history categories that are non-existent in Indian history.
Another exaggerated and serious narrative they manufactured is the big divide between Buddhist and Vedic systems. They say that Vedic tradition was corrupted by the Brahmins, who were exploiting people and reserving exclusive rights to sacred texts. Then Buddha came and rescued Indians from their own bad culture and tradition. So (according to them) Buddhism is a sort of reformation of Hinduism, as Vedic tradition is full of problems which Buddhist traditions are trying to solve!
They will shower praise on the literature, conduct sessions with show of bhakti and then go ahead and translate/ interpret things the way they seem fit. This is disturbing.
This creates a lot of divisiveness and is fodder for modern politics. According to them, Buddha an outsider to Vedic tradition intervened and now it is for Westerners to continue /complete that process. So, in my concluding chapter I have listed 18 major topics that need to be popularized, debated and resolved.
Now shifting gears … let’s assume the revival of Sanskrit and protection of India’s cultural and spiritual traditions are solely up to the general public. What are the key steps to revive Sanskrit as a living, embodied language at the grass roots level?
Well qualified home teams and institutions must be developed. Ideas will live and spread only through human containers and transmitters. Let’s take a look at Indians today:
Ultra-orthodox, ultra-traditional Hindu gurus who are ill-equipped to understand what the opposition is doing as they have not done the required purva-paksha – building a deep familiarity with the opponent’s point of view before criticizing it. Their adhikara has been taken away using language that is alien and confounding to traditionalists.
Orthodox and traditional Hindus, who superficially know what is being written. However, they have been bought off (with trips to the US, royal treatment, positions in committees and organizations and large doses of limelight on the world stage) to support Westerners. What they don’t realize is that their credibility has been usurped, they’ve been reduced to being token mascots; and really thorough and deep interpretation of scriptures is no longer their prerogative.
There is a huge segment of people who seriously and regularly practice spirituality, but have absolved themselves of their responsibility to tradition. Either they are too busy, don’t care or find this too controversial. But you know their heart is at right place, because privately they will tell you, ‘Yes you are doing a good job,’ and yet refuse to take onus and do something about it.
Ultra-modern and self-alienated Indians active in social media and talk shows; glittery stars in literary festivals, hardly ever constructively contribute to tradition.
Politicians are mostly interested in political power will pander to any segment who will help them achieve their goals and retain them!
So having shown how the some constituents of Indian society cannot be relied upon to take on this onerous task, I have decided to align the various Hindu institutions and denominations, intellectuals and equivalent people in other denominations; empower them with knowledge and then disseminate this information. Modern Hindus can assimilate this change.
Wow, amazing! You have addressed this particular question across a number of your responses. If you would summarize the key mistakes we are repeatedly making in sabotaging the revival?
We are not doing purva-paksa and the others are. We are trusting blindly. We fund Chairs, activities and projects not under our control and simply empower opponents. We should not call them enemies but opponents – more dignified – because they are entitled to their ideology even if it is not consistent with ours or something we would promote. Therefore, I would say that one of the most serious mistakes is that we are empowering the wrong people.
Second issue- too much into the selfish introversion. ‘I am doing my own job and I don’t have time for this. Somebody else may look after it.’
We have a large number of people calling themselves Hindu leaders to get something out of it, become somebody important quickly and differentiate themselves. They are not doing the seva needed, so I think there is this lack of sacrifice and tapasya.
The pettiness of rivalry and craving for political position are also issues.
There will be those who would point a finger and say you are not a Sanskrit scholar by training – on what basis did you choose to write The Battle for Sanskrit?
Of course, that’s a very valid question! The crux here is not about knowing Sanskrit, but knowing to critique, build an argument, a thesis, how you debate. It is imperative to understand Western thought, history, psychology and politics and also to recognize the Western ways of exploitation and colonization. What my critics don’t understand is that I have met with these “trained Sanskrit scholars”. Not one of them read Sheldon Pollock, Wendy Doniger, Jack Frawley, Western Indology or done the purva-paksha, which I am doing! So I am doing actually a job which I should not be doing.
When somebody asks me this question I say, ‘Ok, thank you so much. Now you take over this job. I want you to write a 500-page book – a critique of one or two very prominent schools of Western Indology in 12 months. Do a purva-paksha and read about 4000 pages of their work. Promise me that this is all you will do day and night, in the next year. If 5 people can promise me that, I promise I will retire tomorrow.” There were no takers, so I started it myself. They simply don’t understand it.
That, by the way, is my favorite question!
There were attempts to sabotage the writing of The Battle for Sanskrit even before you began writing. Who attempted to do this? What was the ultimate result of their efforts?
The Crown Prince of Thailand hosts the World Sanskrit Congress Bangkok every 10 years. I was the keynote speaker with Murli Manohar Joshi in 2005. I was invited again in 2015, when I informed the Crown Prince of my upcoming book and shared an outline with him. The Indians and Buddhists of Thailand loved it. The Crown Prince told the organizer that mine was the finest talk delivered there. Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs, was present and complimented me.
Now in 2005, the majority of participants were Western Sanskrit Indologists and local Thai people; maybe 10-15% were Indians and they were on the side of the Westerners. In 2015, more than 50% of the participants were traditional Indian scholars, Hindus and different kind of voices, 20% were Westerners and the rest were local Thai people.
The Westerners were very angry and resented the fact that they were not treated like gods anymore. Then a guy like me was given the prime slot of main speaker. There was much negotiation behind the scenes to throw me out of the event. Some Indians too were part of this. Within 24 hours of my successful talk, the firing started. The team appointed to go after me claimed that I am a rich man who is exploiting my power, I am against Shudras and Muslims, and all kinds of weird things! Incredible though it may sound Indians foolishly started re-tweeting these accusations. This is part of our internal problem.
This encouraged Richard Fox to petition that all my books be banned and the publisher withdraw them. Stupidly, the whole Indian contingent of leftists, rightists – everybody – just believed that being a Princeton University professor, he was using academic standards. This was the perfect opportunity for Fox to came up with completely fabricated, idiotic charges and allegations about some grave violations in my work. Nobody bothered to verify Fox’s credentials. He actually has nothing to with Princeton University, but runs a Christian seminary. He is deeply involved in conversion activities especially in South India, Dalit Christian movement and Aryan Dravidian divide.
Sometimes you feel demoralized and beaten up and need someone to encourage you; otherwise you wonder why you are doing all this. Luckily, I have a few strong supporters who came to my rescue. I couldn’t have done it alone. We started a counter-petition publicizing the story and eventually they ran away because none of those points they made had merit. They could not persist.
The mere fact we could get this book out is itself is a pretty amazing journey!
Rajiv, this was indeed a wonderful opportunity to get an insight into your innermost thoughts on a subject important not just for Indians but all of humanity!
Exactly what I feel!