Scholars, not guardians

Sanskrit scholarship must not be trapped in outsider/insider dichotomy. Its task is to understand tradition, engage with other systems.

Written by Mrinal Kaul | Updated: June 8, 2018 8:25:50 am
Scholars, not guardians Scholars of Pollock’s age, both South Asian and non-South Asian, have a common concern — that the dynamic Sanskrit pandits they studied with in India are not to be found any more.

Last week, there was an interview of Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock published in The Indian Express (‘I am a target because I am an outsider’’, IE, June 4). I think there are points of agreement and disagreement with what Pollock says. While I am exactly half his age, I understand his concern for the discipline he specialises in.

Scholars of Pollock’s age, both South Asian and non-South Asian, have a common concern — that the dynamic Sanskrit pandits they studied with in India are not to be found any more. And one cannot disagree with them completely. After all, where can we find another Carudeva Shastri or Mukund Ram Shastri or T Ganapathy Shastri or Gaurinath Shastri or Kuppuswami Shastri? All of them, and many others like them, are simply irreplaceable. But does that mean there are no solid traditional Sanskrit scholars in India today? Certainly there are, even if not all of them are of the stature of the above-mentioned pandits. In fact, in India, I think they are pedagogically more nuanced than the Sanskrit professors of modern universities.

Pollock is not unique in being puzzled about how India’s concern with its pre-modern intellectual traditions has completely detached itself from contemporary India. He is referring to the deteriorated quality of the engagement with classical studies in India. Sanskrit is not an exception — the situation is the same case with Pali, Prakrit, Persian, Arabic, Tamil etc. And it is also a fact that the Indian education system in the humanities has hardly produced a P V Kane or R G Bhandarkar or Kunjunni Raja in the past several decades.

While I am not sure how meaningful it is to compare the contemporary traditional Sanskrit pandits to their unmatched predecessors, the fact is that today there are almost no scholars left who can train you in intellectual disciplines like Pratyabhijna shastra or Tantra shastra. However, if one wants to read Nyaya, Vyakarana, Mimamsa or Kavya today, one can still find excellent traditional pandits who can train one in those disciplines. One only has to name pandits like Mani Dravida Shastri in Chennai. In the traditional scholarship itself, there is a scholastic hegemony attached to the elite shastric disciplines like those mentioned above while those like Tantra/Agam, are often disdained. Yet that does not make them any less important.

I think Pollock is being attacked not because he is an outsider but precisely because he is an insider to the discipline. The insider to a discipline or a competent person (Patra/Adhikari), according to the traditional definition itself, is one who can develop the capacity and capability to understand and problematise it and even be sceptical (shamsa) about it. Romila Thapar was also attacked, not because she was not South Asian, but because she was problematising things. Ironically, the majority of pre-modern Sanskrit authors themselves strongly believe in the idea of problematisation. And if Thapar and Pollock are to be blamed, then philosophers like Daya Krishna should also be blamed because all of them talk about how to meaningfully engage with this pre-modern intellectual culture of South Asia.

Daya Krishna’s complaint was that the philosophical ideas discussed in Sanskrit texts were always discussed as a thing of the past and were never brought into the mainstream philosophical discourse. It is important to distinguish between quantity and quality here. In other words, what is important? How much do I know or how well do I know it? And how meaningfully can I engage with what I know? Should I develop independent thinking while mastering the text and the tradition or should I become a slave to both? In other words, what should be regarded as serious scholarship and who decides what is serious scholarship?

Rather than being a custodian of the discipline/tradition, one should be thoroughly trained in the discipline/tradition. At a mature level of scholarship, I find no distinction between the works of Vrajvallabh Dwivedi and Alexis Sanderson, both towering scholars of Tantric studies. Their styles and concerns are, of course, different — as they ought to be. Concerns of the petty kind are only raised by the so-called self-proclaimed Sanskrit intellectuals in both the East and West. Many of them are driven by diasporic concerns.

I thought we have overcome the dichotomies of the East and West. We should learn how to create a narrative that is beyond these dichotomies. These pre-modern traditions are to be strictly understood on their own terms. But at the same time, a meaningful comparative interaction cannot be ruled out. In the world we live in today, we cannot afford to be the frogs in the well. We have to be able to bring in the larger picture of South Asian intellectual cultures on a wide canvas where we can portray its universal picture, comparing it to various other grand intellectual cultures. This cannot be compromised for any other petty concerns that either insiders or outsiders of the discipline may hold.

Kaul is a Sanskrit scholar and assistant professor in Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal

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