You have spoken about Sanskrit’s cosmopolitan inclusiveness. Could you tell us more about it?
I keep quoting Walter Benjamin that every document of civilisation is at the same time a document of barbarism. A thing of beauty often rests on the foundations that are very ugly. The job of the scholar is to pay attention to both. One can’t speak of the glories of India without talking about the miseries of caste and vice-versa. Sanskrit’s cosmopolitanism had, in large measure, to do with its extraordinary capacity to make itself available as a language of literary and philosophical expression across the world. In the 12th century, Cambodian princesses wrote and carved Sanskrit poetry onto pillars. People wrote Sanskrit poetry in faraway Java, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka to Nepal. Those who originally resisted Sanskrit – the Buddhists and Jains – eventually decided that this was the only game in town. Sanskrit is unlike any other major language in enabling, rather than destroying, local languages. Wherever Sanskrit went it made desha-bhasha possible. Its social history is a complicated subject. References are aplenty to low-caste Sanskrit poets. The idea that Brahmins alone controlled Sanskrit is a colonial construct.
Is there any utility in studying Sanskrit today?
At some level, the question about utility and jobs is fair. With a three-year Sanskrit degree, the only job you’ll get is making havans, and I think JNU is training pujaris these days. A liberal arts degree should teach a range of skills across disciplines to empower you besides enriching your life. Shouldn’t you learn something about the structure of classical Indian music? Why do you want to live if you don’t understand the beauty around you? That’s one reason to learn Sanskrit – to enhance your capacity to read the classics of your tradition and also to enhance your capacity to think. Why do we read literature? Because we want to be lost in a story, moved by the beauty of a poem, hear the old voices speak to us, see the possibilities of human consciousness unfamiliar to us. Indian texts store 3,000 years of human consciousness. That is a lot of thought. Should we throw it all away?
So, where do you locate Sanskrit in India today?
I’ve had the great privilege of studying Sanskrit in India with many pundits: Srinivas Sastry in Pune, Pattabhiram Sastry in Benaras, Balasubramaniam Sastry in Mantralayam (Andhra Pradesh), and Venkatachala Sastry in Mysore, with whom I read old Kannada. I started working with traditional scholars mid-’90s on. With these deeply knowledgeable philologists, I read texts akshara by akshara, day after day, year after year. Are there people like that in India anymore who could read those texts? If there are no such people in India today, then Sanskrit is in big trouble.
You would know. Are there?
India is a big country and I’m a little person. I had to recommend someone to my student with whom he could read Sanskrit in Delhi for a year. I thought of Ram Karan Sharma (once the kulapati/vice-chancellor of Sampurnanand Sanskrit University in Varanasi) but he’s 95, confined to a wheelchair, and may not be taking students. I don’t know the Delhi scene, so I looked up the DU and JNU websites and called friends who couldn’t come up with a single name in the capital of India. There may be people here that I might not know of. I was fortunate as a student. The kind of Indian scholarship I read as a baccha, included S Dasgupta, V Raghavan, PV Kane. From my little blinkered position, I don’t see that level of scholarship anymore. All you hear is making spoken Sanskrit the national language and people who can’t read a single line in Sanskrit attacking those who spend their whole lives working on it.
Does criticism bother you? There was a campaign to remove you from the general editorship of the Murty Classical Library of India not too long ago…
I write what I think is correct and I deal with the consequences. It’s difficult to debate with people whose behaviour is marked by toxicity, vituperation, deceit and libel. I’m happy to talk about Sanskrit with people who actually know Sanskrit. The ancient manuscripts are just sitting there (in museums, research institutes, in erstwhile royal custody), nobody’s reading that stuff, no photographs are allowed, they won’t make copies for us. I’m hoping that people will calm down about the fear that we videshis may find nuclear secrets in Vedic texts and steal them away, and collectively together with our Indian colleagues we can really begin to read some of this material and make sense of the past.
You have been accused of building a Shringeri Math at the Columbia University.
I was sitting quietly in my office when three members of the Shringeri Math committee in the US came to me and begged me to help them build the Adi Shankara chair in Columbia University. I was reluctant and said to them that nothing is sacred here except for questioning. They wanted to name the professor, who had to be vegetarian and couldn’t drink alcohol. I said, ‘You cannot dictate. This would be a critical, historical scholarly position in a secular university.’ Then a campaign began, accusing me of doing this for money. What can I say? No good deed goes unpunished. Because of the politics of culture in India today, all money coming from religious communities are becoming difficult for American universities to accept because there’s a growing sense that freedom of expression and inquiry will be compromised.
So Rajiv Malhotra’s Battle for Sanskrit attacking you is just a polemical book?
It is what it is. You see, there’s a lot of anger, and wounded narcissism. It’s very difficult for scholars in India now. In this climate, it’s hard to imagine a free and open debate with people motivated by amorphous rage. I’m a target because I’m an outsider who dares to speak about the inside. There are other series like mine in the US: Library of Arabic literature, Library of Chinese humanities, run by videshis, there’s nothing but joy on the part of the people in Abu Dhabi and Beijing. Why should a great culture like India be so afraid? It all started because of the JNU student agitation petition I signed. I will sign every petition ensuring the right of the students to protest. They have the right to say anything, raise every slogan, they are students, this is a free country. The capacity of a student to write and speak what she feels shows the strength of a nation. The capacity of the nation to express its collective rage is something that a free nation wants to invite. I’m just a scholar, I don’t do religious things. I never write on Hinduism, I’ve never used the word Hinduism.
Post Babri Masjid demolition, you wrote an essay on Ramayana and political imagination. As a classicist, don’t you think Indian epics, unlike their Western counterparts, live on in the collective consciousness?
Yes. You cannot treat the Ramayana as if it’s just the Aeneid. Virgil’s Aeneid is dead. Nobody worships Aeneus, there’ll be no marches through Rome’s streets in his honour, nobody’s going to look for Achilles’ birthplace in Greece. The Ramayana has a life in the hearts of Indian people. I think I have been, to some degree, insensitive to that and I’m trying to learn. I don’t think I would have written anything differently but I would have thought a little more seriously about how, at a spiritual level, these texts have a status very different from the texts of the Western classical traditions, the links to which, to the classical past, have been snapped (Hegel said this of Europe), but it has never been snapped in India.
Where do you want to see Sanskrit in India some years from now?
I would love to see an institute for Indian classical studies, where language study would be the very centre of the enterprise and be taught by the best scholars in India.
What are you working on currently?
I’m just finishing What China and India Once Were: The Pasts That May Shape the Global Future that looks at pre-1800 histories of India and China. It tries to make sense of these two radically different worlds: strong state-weak state, China makes hardware-India makes software. But beneath these banal truisms, lie remarkable tendencies of difference. There’s never been a comparative history of China in India. I continue to edit the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI), we are bringing out the Sanskrit work Yajnavalkya’s Dharmashastra (this year, MCLI will also bring out Akbarnama series, selection of ghazals and masnavis of Mir Taqi Mir translated by Allahabad’s Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, and Mohammad Chaudhary Naeem’s Zikr-i-Mir). I’m editing the first new translation by Robert Hueckstedt of Harshacharita, the biography of King Harsha, translated 110 years ago into English and never since. I’ve completed a new edition of my favourite poet Bhartrhari (300 poems) and Amaru Shataka (100 poems). I’ve re-edited a text on female characters, nayika-bheda, written probably in the 11th century by Rudrabhatta, and edited the only commentary on it by Gopala Bhatta (Saint Chaitanya had one direct south Indian disciple, I believe it was this guy). We’re also starting an Ambedkar Archive (besides an archive of Dalit history) at Columbia with digital records of his journalistic work, including journals Janta, Bahishkrit Bharat, Prabuddha Bharat, Samta.