Make in India and remove Sheldon Pollock from Murty Classical Library, demand 132 intellectuals
Other suggestions are to bring on board traditional practitioners and to develop 'Swadeshi Indology'.
After renowned Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock signed two statements condemning government action against students at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, he is now being targeted by another petition
asking that he be removed as general editor of the Murty Classical Library of India.
The Murty Classical Library of India, funded by Rohan Murty, a junior fellow at Harvard University and son of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy, plans to translate ancient texts in several languages including Sanskrit, Telugu, Hindi, Bangla and Pali into English to make them accessible to modern readers. It has published nine books so far.
A group of 132 scholars and intellectuals have signed a petition requesting the project's funder Rohan Murty to invite critics of Pollock for discussion and to align the ambitious translation project with the goals of the government of India.
“Such a historical project would have to be guided and carried out by a team of scholars who not only have proven mastery in the relevant Indian languages, but are also deeply rooted and steeped in the intellectual traditions of India,” the petition said. “They also need to be imbued with a sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilization.”
This, the petition argues, cannot be done by Pollock who it states is well-known to have a “deep antipathy towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practiced in our civilization”.
The petition, posted on Friday, had almost 10,000 supporters by Sunday night.
Batting for government
One of Pollock’s perceived missteps, the petition states, is his position condemning policies of the Indian government, particularly his stand against government action at JNU in support of “separatist groups”.
“[It] is crystal clear that Pollock has shown disrespect for the unity and integrity of India,” the petition said. “We submit that such an individual cannot be considered objective and neutral enough to be in charge of your historic translation project.”
Other demands in the petition include aligning the Murty Classical Library of India with the principles of the government’s “‘Make in India’ ethos” and to reconstitute its board to give fair representation to traditional practitioners of the texts being translated.
“The project must be part of the “Make in India” ethos and not outsourced wholesale to American Ivy Leagues,” the petition said. “Just as your visionary role in Infosys showed the world that Indians can be the top producers of IT, so also we urge you to champion the development of Swadeshi Indology.”
Who wants this?
Of 132 signatories, 32 are from Indian Institutes of Technology across India. The petition lists Professor K Ramasubramanian, a Sanskrit scholar and translator at the department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT-Bombay as its first signatory. He did not respond to an email request for comment.
Though the majority of the petitioners are faculty members and administrators of universities, there are also a few former and current bureaucrats on the list. This includes N Gopalaswamy, former Chief Election Commissioner of India and current head of the Human Resource Development ministry’s committee on Sanskrit Promotion and CSR Prabhu, former director general of India’s National Informatics Centre.
“The [Murty Classical Library of India] project is very good, but it should be done by someone who knows our civilisation well,” said Varadraj Bapat, a signatory of the petition and a professor at the School of Management at IIT Bombay. “Today modern educated people don’t know Sanskrit, so the right to translate manuscripts should lie with those who really know Sanskrit. Subsequently people will read only the English interpretation, whereas the actual manuscripts will have much deeper meaning.”
Bapat believes that those who have a traditional understanding of texts will be better translators than outsiders.
Among the sources the petition cites in its case against Pollock is a talk he gave at Heidelberg where he is quoted as having said:
“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?”
The petition neglects to note that in this passage Pollock was actually charaterising the arguments made by some sections, not offering his opinion. The petition also fails to cite a later part of the speech where Pollock clarifies
that while he does not believe that “South Asia’s contribution is the most important ever made to world knowledge”, the region provides a “record of the achievements of human consciousness, equalled by few other areas of inquiry in its richness and duration, and which thereby allows us to frame strong hypotheses about the nature of that consciousness and the conditions of its transformation.”
“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.”
— 'What is South Asian Knowledge Good For?' ‒ Sheldon Pollock
An Open Letter to Sri Rohan Murthy\
Dear Sri Rohan Murthy,
I read with interest your article
on DailyO explaining why you funded Harvard to start and run the Murty Classical Library. I shall be honest and blunt to a fault without meaning any disrespect. I am sure you agree that a frank discourse and exchange helps all of us. If it helps, I’ve been a senior academic for over three decades in various spheres related to Indology and Sanskrit among other related disciplines. In that spirit, let me state at the outset that you have been taken for a ride by Prof. Sheldon Pollock or to be more truthful, by an Anglophonic attachment. Just because Harvard has experience in bringing out a classical series is no reason for your giving them the largesse. You could have easily done the job in India by getting Indian Universities involved in the project and thus assisted the development of classical studies in India.
You have paid for promoting the American academics and indirectly, put things under their control. To be fair, I know that several Indians will be involved in the project and do the translations, but this is not the same as a series coming out of India. You have basically entrusted your money into a non-indigenous centre of power that will translate and over time, order and repackage classical texts of India to suit the Western vision of India. I have admiration for the scholarship of Prof. Sheldon Pollock but the fact that such an endowment should have been made to a foreign university smacks of total mistrust in the abilities of Indian scholars, their institutions and their ability to execute the task. I do not blame Prof. Pollock, as he is working well in the interest of his language and his culture.
Shri Murthy, if your father could build an IT firm that counts as a solid achievement by an Indian, why didn’t you think it fit to place trust in Indians scholars to do the same with done the translation series? That some of them will be employed by Pollock is not the point. Sri Rohan Murthy, you have also erred on another major count. You have empowered English and not “modern Indian languages”—I refer to the classics that Prof Pollock professes to get translated. What is needed is the translation of the classics of Sanskrit and of each modern Indian language into other 25 or so modern languages. That is the task which would have instilled greater intellectual awareness, and led to a literary renaissance in India. It would have given creative work to thousands of scholars in India and made Indian medieval heritage an available reality. Several major translations done in the mid-20th century are lost or are out of print. Translations into English from the so called regional languages are currently being done by American university departments as parts of their doctoral and higher research programs while there’s no comparable effort in our own academia.
My dear Rohan Murthy, you have provided financial help to all those employed abroad—to be candid, you have breathed fresh life into these universities which are increasingly starved for funds and shutting down Indology and/or Sanskrit departments. You could have helped the Indian language departments immensely if such translations between the languages of India had been done by an Indian general editor located in India. It would have helped the literary studies at our universities.
More generically, there seems to be a fundamental error in the minds of globalized Indians—that packaging Indian things into English empowers Indian things. This is a grievous fallacy. The Salman Rushdies of the world have brought some fame to India but how abiding the fame is, only time will tell. However, the Tulsidases and Tagores have constructed the spiritual, philosophical and literary consciousness of India. Let their languages be promoted with each other, for each other and by each other. With due respect, you seem to resemble another version of Chandrabhan Prasad who has recently consecrated a temple for the “English Goddess for Dalits” near Shahjahanpur.
In the end, Sri Rohan Murthy, I would say, yes, it is your money and your prerogative to donate to whoever you deem it. I don’t grudge the fact that you have chosen to serve Harvard. Perhaps, some other Indian corporate can still take the challenge and serve Indian languages, keeping both the control of the discourse as well as the funding rooted within India.
With best wishes,
Dr. Bharat Gupt
Associate Professor (Retd), Delhi University
An Open Letter to Sri Rohan Murthy