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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Murty Classical Library: Petition to Remove General Editor

As per this news report, a group of 132 eminent Indian academicians, including many well-known Sanskrit scholars, have expressed strong reservations regarding Columbian University Professor Sheldon Pollock, a scholar of philology presiding over the historical project of Murthy Classical library as the general editor.

As the news report further informs us, the Murty Classical Library of India was established by Mr. Rohan Murthy, with an aim to publish modern English translations of classical Indian works present in various Indian languages.
The news report carries the entire letter verbatim.

I find this letter to be amusing. First of all, why address this to Mr. NRN Murthy. I am sure as a father he has some influence over Mr. Rohan Murthy, but why not just talk to Mr. Rohan Murthy first, before trying to use his father's influence over him.

Second, I have no idea about Prof. Pollock, and he may well be anti-South Asia in some respects. If his appointment was protested right in the beginning, it would have made sense to me. However, if he has already been there for more than a year, then the criticism should be on the basis of his work in this library. Many books have been translated and published. Point out some bias in those translations. It would strengthen your case.
But have they read any of the works produced by Murty Classical Library of India. Well, they don't seem to have read the speech that they have quoted in the letter that they have signed. They have given two examples of the "views" of Prof. Pollock which are not charitable to South Asian knowledge. One of the example is a 1985 paper. From the paper they conclude, "He sees all shastras as flawed because he finds them frozen in Vedic metaphysics, which he considers irrational and a source of social oppression." But note that they have not quoted anything from the paper to show that indeed the paper had that conclusion. The second example is from a 2012 speech, and they quote from the speech:
 “Are there any decision makers, as they refer to themselves, at universities and foundations who would not agree that, in the cognitive sweepstakes of human history, Western knowledge has won and South Asian knowledge has lost?  …That, accordingly, the South Asian knowledge South Asians themselves have produced can no longer be held to have any significant consequences for the future of the human species?”
Surely this sounds negative. But I wish these worthy academicians had read the entire speech (I have read it, and I know what he is talking about), or even just the complete paragraph in which these lines appear. This is what appears in the same paragraph before these lines:
"in the eyes of those who have never crossed the threshold of the [South Asian] Institute, ... the value of South Asians' own knowledge of the world, .... is effectively a null set."

So in the lines above, he is not talking about his own views, but only pointing out that most South Asian Studies departments other than the one at Hiedelberg University (where this speech was given) have considered South Asian knowledge as useless.

Later in the speech, he offers his own views of South Asian knowledge:

"The now widely discredited knowledge I have referred to [above], it bears repeating, is the accumulated labor of millennia of human consciousness, which we cannot lightly toss in the trash. To do so would be to enter willing into a species-wide state of Alzheimer's, a state hardly less destructive on the grand scale than it is on the personal. I have been privileged to live my life amid this body of thought, and I have glimpsed,or thought I have glimpsed, a vast range of things I would otherwise never have known: relationships of culture and power, for example, that were nothing like those we know in the contemporary world of nationalism and imperialism; forms of vernacular life, such as language ideologies, that constituted, not a compulsion driven by ethnicity, but an accommodation to, literally, the particular ecologies of particular places; a cosmopolitanism that was voluntary rather than compulsory (like, say, Romanization), ethnicities that were fluid (if they existed at all), universalism that managed to co-exist with particularism."

Another quote from the same speech:

"It has declared by the careful cultivation of many of South Asia's literary languages that the region, by its three millennia of continuous, multilingual textual production, has made perhaps the most luminous literary contribution to world civilization. And this is just to touch the top of the very deep proverbial iceberg."

So, out of two examples they have given, one is clearly showing that he holds the South Asian knowledge in very high esteem, and the other example, they have not quoted. So the case that Prof. Pollock is negatively pre-disposed towards South Asian (or Indian) knowledge is rather weak. Again, I do not know Prof. Pollock and I am not a researcher in this area. So I am not able to say about him with any authority. May be there are other works of Prof. Pollock which "prove" his antipathy towards Indian knowledge. But then these 132 persons chose to sign on something and that certainly appears to be quoted out of context.

Signatories also make the argument that he is not the right person because he is not politically neutral. Aren't most of us political animals. Didn't these 132 people vote in any elections so far. The point should not be that someone has political leanings. Only when the political leaning affects the impartial judgment and introduces a bias that it becomes a problem. So the right thing to do should be to show that the work done so far (and many texts have already been translated and published by the Murty Library) has biases. It is important to note that no such bias has been pointed out.

Finally, the organizations that these 132 academicians represent have huge resources, much more than what Murthy Classical Library has, and these organizations keep getting large grants from the government year after year and have been getting for decades. Why worry about a foreigner. Take up this task yourself. Do a better job. Go beyond Murty Library. They are translating only 500 texts. You should translate many more. They are translating only to English. You should do translations into all Indian languages. They are translating only really old texts. You should translate classics of more recent origins also.

If these academicians can do a far better job, then the bias of any foreigner would not matter. Also note that the government usually is very supportive of any efforts to make Indian culture and knowledge accessible to all Indians. So money is not likely to be an issue. I think collectively, the Indian institutions can do a far more comprehensive and a better quality job than what a venture funded by a single person can do. Let us do that instead of complaining about an editor.

To think that a small venture can have a huge negative impact on our culture is paranoia. Most of the popular texts (like Ramayana, Mahabharata and Gita) are available in both Indian translations and foreign translations, and most people don't care for foreign translations. So if we have good quality Indian translations for these 500 books also, there is no reason to believe that people will read foreign translations.

Another rebuttal found here by Professor Dominik Wujastyk.
An article in The Wire that explores what the petition is really about.
Another article in The Quint on what the row is about: DeQoded: What the Sheldon Pollock Row Is Really About
An editorial in Indian Express: It's politics, stupid:  The hounding of Sheldon Pollock has little to do with academic or intellectual standards
The hounding of Sheldon Pollock has little to do with academic or intellectual standards - See more at:
The hounding of Sheldon Pollock has little to do with academic or intellectual standards - See more at:
The hounding of Sheldon Pollock has little to do with academic or intellectual standards - See more at:
The hounding of Sheldon Pollock has little to do with academic or intellectual standards - See more at:
Article in Live Mint: Who is Sheldon Pollock
Statement from the Indian Writers Forum on Sheldon Pollock
Reporting in Make in India and remove Sheldon Pollock from Murty Classical Library demand 132 intellectuals
An article in Hindustan Times: Pollock-Murty Classical Library issue: Indian experts back Canadian prof.

Another blog: Why Sheldon Pollock
An article in Telegraph: Scholarly reply to Swadeshi - Citing JNU, academics target leader of landmark project
Response by Mr. Rohan Murthy in this Huffington Post article:  Rohan Murty has a brilliant response to those seeking Sheldon Pollock's removal
An article in asking both sides to avoid polemics:  Polemics and paranoia over scholarship: Why the right-wing should not target Western scholars
A video on Watch Sheldon Pollock answering his own question, 'What is Indian knowledge good for?
The quote from 2012 speech has been removed from the petition after this blog was published. But one can judge the ethics of the organizers of this petition by the fact that even though it changes the petition substantially, they continue to claim that all 132 are signatories of this new petition.
I am told that at least one person has withdrawn his signature from the list of 132, and some more are in the process of doing so. I hope that many more signatories would consider withdrawing their names.
I see that Prof. Ramasubramanian is no longer the author of the petition. Prof. Ganesh Ramakrishnan is. I am hearing from my friends that he says that he was made author without his consent (though he largely agrees with the issue, I am told). I am trying to get exact status of what exactly has happened.
Another article in Telegraph. A very interesting quote from the article:
In January 2015, while commenting on the Murty Classic Library project, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, a poet and a professor who retired from the University of Allahabad, had told The New York Times: "Everyone here will praise this library and talk about the glorious civilisation it represents. But then Indians will wake up and realise they've done very little to preserve or translate their own texts."
Interesting not for what Prof. Mehrotra said, but what he did not say, and I may extend that to say this, "When certain Indians realize that they have done very little, they will stop supporting this project."
It has been pointed out on my facebook discussion that this debate has led to some individuals (including Mr. Rajiv Malhotra) to do a parallel effort. That would be a fitting result of this debate. Instead of acrimony, if we can have more scholarship, everybody gains. Here is the link to the initial announcement:


Vikram said...

I do broadly agree with your comments here. The petition managers are the ones who come off as biased, and simply unhappy with Pollock's appointment.

But there is a broader phenomena at work here that should be pointed out. Let me try and illustrate it via a personal anecdote. A Korean post-doc recently joined our lab, and one day we just started talking about Indian cities. I pointed out to him that many Indian cities are named after Hindu goddesses, Delhi after Dhillika, Patna after Patni, Chandigarh after Chandi and so on. His first words after he heard 'Hindu' were, "isnt Hinduism about a strict hierarchy" and so on. Indeed, Wendy Doniger, the target of many Hindutvavadis ire has herself remarked how frustrated she is with the fact that after every lecture she gives on Hinduism, the first question she is asked is "What about the caste system ?".

As more and more Indians interact with the outside world, they have come across the rather unsettling fact that most of the world associates Hinduism with the caste system and hierarchy. It doesnt help that most of the Indians talking to the world are urban, upper caste Hindus who havent really experienced caste as a social phenomena.

The idea of Hinduism as a justification of caste system, was an oriental view, conditioned strongly by colonial exigencies. It is totally called the 'Dumontian view' and has largely been rejected in the light of newer, post-colonial theories such as the 'Hocartian view'. But a large section of academia, especially left-leaning and those associated with neo-Ambedkarian groups have stuck with the Dumontian view, either out of ignorance or political convenience.

This has made a very large number of urban, English speaking Hindus extremely distrustful of academia. A case in point is the controversy regarding Durga and Mahishasura. The hyperbolic sections of academia and neo-Ambedkarites portray the various versions of the story in a highly racialized and inflammatory manner. This view challenges their notions,

But it has to be done in anonymity, so far ....

L said...
Alink to Prof Sheldon Pollock's talk in Mumbai.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

Vikram, My limited interest and knowledge in non-tech areas tell me that there is a constant need to relook at our history, our heritage, our past classics, even more so in case of India where the colonial past has affected their readings and interpretations seriously. It is also given that people in India should be doing this. But should only people in India be doing this. Is our heritage and culture which has survived centuries of attacks has suddenly become so fragile today that a foreigner who is known in academic circles for his credentials, merely acting as an editor (and not as a translator), of just 500 texts, would be able to bring in so much bias even as an editor in all those translations, would be able to sell to the entire Indian nation that those translations are better than all the translations done in India, and would cause so much damage to Indian society that we must oppose his participation in the project, and not just oppose based on prior biases (which he must have displayed in his 40-year long career), but based on lies. The lies are ok, since the goal is so extremely important, saving the Indian society, so important that in this case, end justifies the means.

To me, it seems that the right thing to do would have been to withdraw that appeal, write a fresh one, this time a lot more carefully, a lot more academic (since largely academicians are the target group for signing this), and then send the fresh letter to Mr. Rohan Murthy. If Prof. Pollock has been the General Editor for 14-15 months, a delay of a another week would not have mattered so much.

Any which way I look at it, I find the whole project to be such a small project, just 500 texts being translated at a cost of Rs. 50 crores (about), I really don't see what the fuss is about. If you do the same thing in India, the cost would be a fraction of 50 crores, since government funds salaries, infrastructure, PhD students, and many such things separately. So may be a project of 10 crores is all that is needed to do the same and avoid the so-called foreigner bias. Why don't these people do that. I am sure any government would support such small costs to make the societal heritage accessible to its citizens. Some of these organizations are so rich that they can do it even without fresh funding from the government.

Satchitananda said...

It is really amusing that with due respect, you begin your arguments "Second, I have no idea about Prof. Pollock, and he may well be anti-South Asia in some respects." and yet go on to defend Mr Pollock in the rest of your piece.

If you claim not to know, how can you defend??

To respond to your claim, why this was not raised earlier, let me place two points - a) The book "The Battle for Sanskrit" which showcases Mr Pollock's track record was not yet available to the public. Now there is published evidence. You can question the evidence itself (hopefully after reading all the articles in the footnotes quoted). Secondly, the evidence of Mr Pollock's interest to do socio-political engineering in India with not just his liberation philology, but also proactive interests in his political stance and supporting JNU like issues are sufficient proofs for his proclivities. I am not clear, why you want an outsider to both the country and tradition, meddle with an internal affair.

I think if you are quoting one speech about Mr Pollock's motive, then the burden is on you to ensure you do your due diligence by reading his multi decade scholarship. If you still claim "Second, I have no idea about Prof. Pollock, and he may well be anti-South Asia in some respects.", then in my opinion, this entire article you have written is farce.

On the question of translations - are you even aware of the havoc caused by deliberate and willful mistranslations and due to nature of our unsuspecting indian masses, how we import these ideas back into our pop culture?

Are you even aware that basic translations of words like dharma into religion or atman into soul are so horrendous and these are today commonly accepted? Till day we are mired with a non existent aryan theory.

Your lament that only 500 are translated is pathetic, as you should be saying we must read the original. I didnt hear a trace of that so called love for indian culture you are defending in your article. When Sir, you yourself have not exhibited your love for indian culture, defending someone else as having it seems bit hilarious.

Your assumption that we wont read foreign translations is wrong. Most of cartoon ramayana, mahabharata stories are total take offs from these twisted translations. There is umpteen evidence to catalog on your blog. If you wish, go and watch the Tehelka interview of Mr Pollock on youtube where he defines Ramayana as an oppressive tool. Where is the sacredness associated with the text? If that doesn't cause indignation, then it is proof that such a person is not really caring for Indian Sanskriti.

Sorry sir, I strongly recommend you to read The Battle for Sanskrit, before you start taking positions. It is such a heavy scholarly work, I refuse to accept if anyone who claims to have digested that book by now.

The last line seems to be a give away. Even if all the 132 do award wapsi style, dharma still stands on its own legs.

Do we lack good translators or knowledge in english that our traditional sanskrit interpretors cannot do this job?? If you were a true lover of our sanskriti, you would be placing emphasis on the standards of translation. I didn't see a word to that effect.

Thanks for exposing your stance, I appreciate it sincerely. It really helps to know how far the root of disillusion runs.

Cynic said...

Let me first apologize to you for any untoward thing that may come from me..

1. Your first problem is about teh To: field. I'm not one of the drafters of the letter but I can understand the intent of the drafters. NRM is a notable industrialist and often a public intellectuals (as he's invited for talks and seminars). Sure, the funds are allocated after Rohan's name, but in your naivete you assumed that no one talked to Rohan before going public with this petition.

2. Secondly, I appreciate your frankness in admitting your ignorance of what Pollock have written. Also, you don't seem to mind the petition itself, but the timing. So according to you basically you should continue to get flogged if you start getting flogged. Stopping someone from flogging you is 'nonacademic' and 'intolerant' (I'm borrowing the words from Great Indian SLOBs).

3. You are citing the need to criticize Pollock based on the works he has produced. And for once, I agree with you and would encourage you to read The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra. There hasn't been a more comprehensive critique of Pollock ever. The book has recently been released and I believe it has helped this petition to gather 11k signatures as I write this comment. If you want to read something from Pollock himself, please go through His idea of Sanskrit literature not being able to produce of anything of serious worth is expounded here.

4. About his political neutrality. I agree that no one is politically neutral, but I don't mix my personal beliefs with my job. I don't remove a person from job or outcast a person simply because he doesn't think in the same way as mine. The point which personally irks me is that Pollock write academic papers which are politically motivated which first started from Babri demolition. His rabid anti nationalistic stand which doesn't find a voice in American RW is both startling and suspicious at the same time.

5. You say, "It is important to note that no such bias has been pointed out.". I would again encourage you to read the book I mentioned above 'The Battle for Sanskrit'.

6. Finally, you talk of how a foreigner writing stuff about India is not a big deal. But unfortunately, I would disagree with you here as well. Aryan Invasion Theory was an invention by one such foreign indologist by the name of Max Mueller in the recent 150 years. Before that Indian literature was absent of such a concept and I don't need to show you the extent in whcih it has transformed our society and politics. There are regional parties capable of removing central government form power many of whom have a single point agenda centered around Aryan-Dravidian-Dalit divide.

I'm writing this comment at a fit of rage, so pardon me for any transgression. I mean no ill will.

Lucifer said...

People like sheldon Polock and Wendy Doniger have always wanted to paint our culture and our religious practises with a certain brush that fits well with the western interpretation of those practises and our classics are being used to bring in more self loathing Indians like you so in my opinion you should stick to your core competencies instead of poking your nose everywhere

binesh nair said...

One thing which distinguishes peopl from Bharat with others is that we believe in live and let's live. So inspite of knowing that our civilization and heritage is much older, much universal we never went around the world to super impose our teachings to one and all. We don't invest time is dissecting others beliefs even when we know it has element of manipulation. Inspite of all this outside religion and their teachings never found resistance In this country and by its original inhabitants... The followers of Sanatan Dharma.

But we have seen how British, Portugese, Dutch, German historians in their eagerness to satisfy the interest of their bosses tried to mislead people by misrepresenting the teachings of our scriptures. First they broke the tradition of vedic education system in this country and once that was achieved they introduced their interpretation which became part of historical compilations. We believed this foreigners because generation after generation just forgot that they belonged to much higher civilization. Unfortunately our historians too charted the way found by foreign historians.

However in between all this our scholars did try to bring out true accounts of history and many times they were never allowed to bring out their work to be showcased to general public. One example was of Veer Savarkar's work on first war of independence 1857.

What I feel bad is why still Mr Murty is so inclined towards a foreign historian/so called sanskrit pandit when our country has many many scholars. Is it any commercial commitment or do they still believe Indians can't still head a project which has their own scriptures.

Be proud of your country and it's people. Let not be a slave of a foreigners perception.

Hitesh said...

Mr Dheeraj Sanghi,
Waiting to you see your response to Satchitananda. He has exposed you very well.

Sanjay Vaidya said...

In a nut shell no indologist in India is qualified to take on the job hence we are exporting it to a western indologist.Somethings doesnt seem right in this picture?

Karigar said...

For those ignorant of Pollock's work, its time to get acquainted with it, along with his often declared ideologically based activism (desire for intervention) in Indian affairs. After one parses out all the jargon, his work is basically about 'elite' (read 'evil brahmins') in ancient India having oppressed the "others" (muslims, Dalits, & every other group that can make a case of being 'subaltern', 'oppressed' etc). Where does he get all this 'authority' from? Well, its from his deep ability to read "sanskrit texts" - be it Veda, Shastra, Kavya - and 'decode' the inbuilt oppressive genes right there. It's only a bit of an exaggeration to say that he even claims that brahmins inspired Nazism in Germany (read his paper "Deep Orientalism" if you think I'm pulling a fast one here).

With all this, if you support his scholarship, you either you're quite ignorant, so wise up, or ... you know what you're doing, & so do I ...

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

The comments are very interesting to say the least. It shows that people have no interest in reading anything, or understanding anything.

Hitesh, I ignored Satchinanda, since he exposed himself very well. I don't need to do so. He says, "the burden is on you to ensure you do your due diligence by reading his multi decade scholarship." It is obvious that he has not understood my point. So why say it explicitly. But since you insist. I have only pointed out that the original petition contained falsehood, and I provided proof for that. I have nowhere said that I know Prof. Pollock's work in general. So why is burden on me. Burden is on those who want to remove him to show there is reason to remove him, and not on those who point out falsehoods. Those who point out falsehood, only have to prove the specific charge of falsehood.

It appears that there is overwhelming evidence against Prof. Pollock in this new book by Mr. Rajiv Malhotra. But then why did the original petition not include that evidence. Even when after I pointed out the falsehood, and that particular paragraph was dropped from the petition, the other highlighted line, which is still there as of this writing has exact same problem - misquoting out of context, that is so obvious to an even untrained mind.

So several on this thread are claiming that there is evidence, overwhelming at that, but no one is trying to tell the petitioners that they should include that evidence in their petition.

Is that too much to ask. Presumably, it is for many people.

So what you people are saying is that these 132 distinguished persons (or whatever number is left now) know Prof. Pollock is biased and have overwhelming evidence to support their view. Hence they sign a petition. In the petition, somehow there a serious falsehood detected. They delete that para, but highlight another quote which again is quoted out of context. For reasons best known to these 132 persons, they do not wish to include the massive amount of evidence that they have. And so many of you are trying to tell me that I should just believe these 132 persons who have been proven wrong, and continue to not include any evidence in the petition.

Sorry, that is not the way I work. We should simply agree to disagree on this issue and move on.

sachin said...

Sir, You may like to read this. Prof Ramasubrmanian responds to Prof. Dominik Wujastyk

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Aditya, I have not allowed your comment, since it is the response of Prof. Ramasubramanian copied verbatim. His response is already included as a link above, and such a long response as a comment (or series of comments, since there is a limit on the size of comment) would only dissuade readers from reading all comments.

Aditya Agrawal said...

Thanks for posting this Prof. It is quite fair, particularly when an above post has given the link. By the way I am an IITK alumnus. Class of 2000 (Roll No. 96011). Just as Arjuna had to oppose Bheeshma, I stand to oppose my Guru: Prof. Sanghi. You have been quite fair in posting alternate opinions and I respect you for that.

My request: When you do get time, do read "Breaking India" and then read "The Battle for Sanskrit".


Dheeraj Sanghi said...

Thanks, Aditya. In the last couple of weeks, people have sent me extracts from both the books, and I have read everything that has been sent to me. And I maintain that I am not qualified to comment on Pollock's scholarship, but so are most of these 132 who have signed the petition, and so are most of the people commenting here. The blog has a limited purpose - to point out the errors in the original petition so that either the petition can be changed or some people may withdraw from lending their names to the petition. The purpose of the blog was not to discuss and debate whether independent of this petition, Prof. Pollock is pro-India or anti-India.

I have also realized that the goal of this petition is NOT to remove Prof. Pollock. If the goal was to remove Prof. Pollock, those opposed to him would have taken into confidence someone who understands Prof. Pollock's scholarship and thus his biases (if any) and can put them together in an academic setting, and then approached Mr. Murthy privately and not in a public petition. It should have been obvious to anyone that Mr. Rohan Murthy will have a strong relationship with Prof. Pollock by now, and he will have to be convinced through strong academic arguments that he can verify through other experts and even then he might influence the Harvard to reduce the role of Prof. Pollock and not remove him completely from the project.

In retrospect, these 132 were making a political move and since I normally avoid political discussions, if I had understood this as a political move, I would have preferred to keep quiet, and not write this blog. Now that I am into it, I will keep reading what I get access to, but it is obvious that now the battlelines are drawn and people will continue to give arguments consistent with their biases and will ignore arguments that make them rethink their positions. It is no longer an intellectual debate, where I look forward to reading of opinions of experts on both sides. Experts are largely missing in the debate, and since it is mostly about politics of the day, I want to be out of it. And hence I am not commenting on those two books.

Aditya Agrawal said...

An Indian alternative to MCL: Vande Mataram library to challenge Sheldon Pollock’s Murty Classical Library of India.

nice_guy said...

The author of this blog is "Sanghi" only by name and not by game. :)