Some Thoughts on l’affaire Malhotra-Pollock-Murty-Ganesh

A rich Kannadiga gives 5.6 million USD to an American professor of Sanskrit in Columbia University to translate Sanskrit (and some actually spoken-language) works to English. An American citizen of north Indian origin, making highly publicized trips to India and not having two aksharas of Sanskrit in head suddenly rises to save Sanskrit, writes a book arguing that the American professor is inimical to Hinduism. Another Kannadiga, but this time an actual walking encyclopedia of Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature, shows what’s wrong with the American citizen’s book. Then the American citizen writes a reply literally begging all insiders to support him instead in the war against the enemy, viz., the said professor, showing the world that it’s not the truth that matters in this war but solidarity within the Indian army.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a few things to say about these developments.

It’s a pity Rohan Murty is paying someone, anyone, to translate Sanskrit and other Indian-language classics to English. The $5.6 million largesse is based on the idea quite popular among educated urban Indians that Indian languages are going to die soon, that is if they already aren’t dead. However, since the wisdom of our ancients shouldn’t die with them, we’ve got to quickly collect it in a living language, viz., English, before the dying languages in which it’s coded become totally unintelligible.

Better than this fatalistic approach would have been to actually fund the Sanskrit University in Karnataka. I’m saying this even though I don’t think this institution should actually exist; it’s more important for us to invest in Kannada. In a world where people understand the difference between Sanskrit and Kannada I wouldn’t make this statement. But people don’t understand the difference.

Even Shatavadhani Ganesh (the walking encyclopedia of Sanskrit in case you didn’t guess) pretty much finds no difference between Sanskrit and Kannada. Kannada, for him, is equivalent to Sanskrit because it has no life without Sanskrit. Read two Kannada sentences written by Ganesh and you’ll experience reading Sanskrit for all you know.

Ganesh shares the belief that Indian languages are dying or dead. Only, he shares the belief about living languages such as Kannada. The one dead language, if you can call Sanskrit that, is like totally actually completely fully alive and kicking. It is in his mind; I must be fair to him.

I don’t share this fatalistic belief about Kannada or other living Indian languages. They’re not dead. They’re not dying. They’re only going from strength to strength. Those who are working in these languages know this quite well. Yes, they lack a few things such as terms of modern science and technology, but if you’ve even taken a superficial look at the recent attempts to fill this void, you know that these languages are just waiting to replace English.

All this is certainly true for Kannada, my mother tongue, which we’ve been strengthening from the inside for close to a decade now. I say we since I’m also a part of this ongoing movement led, so to speak, by stalwarts like D N Shankara Bhat, K V Narayana, and others. This movement intends to make Kannada stand on its own legs in today’s world. We’ve been coining new words in Kannada, writing a new grammar for Kannada because the existing ones try to force-fit Sanskrit grammar like one force-fits a square peg in a round hole, and building a new genre of Kannada writing from scratch – the science and technology one.

Given this, I think it’s much better for Rohan Murty to put his money in efforts to strengthen Indian languages, especially his own mother tongue, Kannada. Not English! What Rohan’s mother, Sudha Murthy (a Kannada writer of some repute) tries to do individually needs the power of Kannadiga youth, and money, behind it. There are many more linguistic registers to fix in Kannada than literature.

Even in the limited context of ancient Sanskrit texts, there is a lot of important Kannada work that hasn’t even been attempted. The Vedas, Upanishads, and the like, remain totally inaccessible to most Kannadigas, including Brahmanas. They need to be completely converted to Kannada, ready for chanting and everything. It’s time we did this to take the wisdom of the ancients to the masses speaking a living language. If this seems like a pitch for Rohan Murty’s money, you’re sensing it right. Why not?

Shatavadhani Ganesh, interestingly but understandably, finds our attempts to reinvigorate Kannada regressive. It’s regressive to try and strengthen Kannada, especially without the best help people like him can offer, viz., filling the empty vessel of Kannada with life using Sanskrit. It’s regressive to try and build a science and technology corpus in Kannada because English is the way to go. It’s regressive to question the ancients’ view of Kannada grammar because it’s ancient and ancient is right. I haven’t exactly proposed chanting the Vedas and Upanishads in Kannada to him but if I may take a guess based on my previous interactions with him, he’d dispose it off as both impossible and unnecessary. Impossible because he’s too busy with Sanskrit; and unnecessary because where’s the difference between Sanskrit and Kannada?

You must now be wondering why the title of this post mentions Rajiv Malhotra. Why hasn’t the American citizen out to save Sanskrit, not possessing two aksharas of Sanskrit in his head, entered the story yet? I didn’t plan it out this way; I naturally began talking about people I can relate to, those who are tied to me by the bond of Kannada.

But mention I must, because many who are reading this have pretty much cut off their links with Kannada due to circumstances they don’t control. Their children are in English medium schools and the national media, together with the nation’s constitution, has already buried Kannada. Having cut off, some of the people in question have joined the Rajiv Malhotra cult because he’s naming and shaming whites like Sheldon Pollock (the American professor in the story). And boy, isn’t it fun to name and shame whites, the ones who killed Sanskrit, created the caste system, and divided India by creating new languages?

What do I have to say about Rajiv Malhotra? The man’s scholarship begs proof of existence; it’s certainly no match to the walking Sanskrit encyclopedia of Bengaluru, Shatavadhani Ganesh. This fact Rajiv proves in every book of his, every tweet of his. His idea of intellectual kshatraguna is worth nothing in real intellectual circles. Being an intellectual is about pursuing the truth – real or imagined – not about bulldozing your way in the intellectual battle like a warrior with a sword to kill. The only thing to be destroyed in the intellectual battle is ignorance – irrespective of in which individual it’s lodged – the siddhanti or his purvapaksha. Not for Rajiv. For him, intellectuals are people who churn out material to destroy enemies like Sheldon Pollock and stick to it come what may, the truth be damned. Enemies don’t speak the truth, we do. We we we we we. We are right, they are wrong.

You can see this nonsensical approach to non-scholarship in Rajiv Malhotra’s reply to Shatavadhani Ganesh. He’s basically begging Ganesh to fight the enemy, i.e., Sheldon Pollock, instead of creating dissent in what he calls, from the comfort of his home in the United States, the home team. You can also see this approach in the casual way in which Rajiv Malhotra believes someone could have written a ‘grammar of the Dravidian race’. Languages, not races, have grammar, but try telling that to an intellectual kshatriya with an army of twitter trolls. Their intellectual standards are different.

To put a long story short, I don’t have anything to add to the criticism of Rajiv Malhotra in this article. Shatavadhani Ganesh has done a wonderful job of it. I find him unshakeable (I’ve tried) when it comes to Sanskrit and Sanskrit works. Where he is shakeable (I’ve tried) is when it comes to Kannada and living languages.

Ganesh seems to be unaware of Sheldon Pollock’s Language of the Gods in the World of Men – I mean the half that talks about Kannada (not that I think he’s read the half that talks about Sanskrit). In that, Pollock traces the historical path of Kannada as it slowly replaced Sanskrit as the lingua franca – something S Settar independently does in his monumental and recent work, Halagannada: Lipi, Lipikaara Mattu Lipi Vyavasaaya. Ganesh doesn’t have time or inclination for stuff like this. All this talk about Kannada and its independence from Sanskrit (in his blame he includes samskruti also) is the last wish of the dying. Kannada is transient, Sanskrit permanent.

So let’s not even fight the battle for Kannada; let’s chant the Bhagavad Gita and run away like cowards.