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The Battle for Sanskrit

The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive?
Battle for Sanskrit cover.jpg
Cover of the book The Battle for Sanskrit
AuthorRajiv Malhotra
SubjectSheldon Pollock
PublisherHarper Collins India
Publication date
ISBN978-93-5177-538-6 (Hardcover)

The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive? is a 2016 book written by Rajiv Malhotra which criticizes the work of the American indologist Sheldon Pollock. Malhotra pleads for traditional Indian scholars to write responses to Pollock's views.



Rajiv Malhotra explains why he wrote this book. He notes the hegemony of western approaches in studying India, and asks for a study of this western approach from a traditional point of view. His book is an attempt to provide such a reversal.[1] According to Malhotra, western Indology scholars are deliberately intervening in Indian societies by offering analyses of Sanskrit texts which would be rejected by "the traditional Indian experts."[1] He also finds western scholars too prescriptive, that is, being "political activists" that want to prescribe a specific way of life.[1]

The cover of the book is a picture of artwork featuring the British philologist William Jones which Malhotra had seen displayed in Oxford, depicting Jones giving knowledge to Hindu pandits.

The inducement for this book was the prospect of Sringeri Peetham, the monastery founded by Adi Shankara in south India, collaborating with Columbia University to set up an "Adi Shankara Chair" for Hindu religion and philosophy, sponsored by an Indian donor. The instalment committee for the chair was to be headed by Sheldon Pollock, whom Malhotra regards as an erudite scholar but also as one who undermines the traditional understanding. Malhotra contacted the lead donor to voice his concerns, which were not shared by the donor.[1] Nevertheless, Malhotra fears "the issue of potential conflict when the occupant of the chair takes positions that undermine the very tradition that has backed and funded the chair."[1] According to Malhotra,

... the Vedic traditions are under assault from a school of thought whose fundamental assumptions are dismissive of the sacred dimension. If, out of naivety, we hand over the keys to our institutions and allow outsiders to represent our legacy, then any chance of genuine dialogue will be lost. Furthermore, because of the enormous prestige and power of Western universities, a view of the Sanskrit will become accepted by the public.[1]

Chapter 1: The Hijacking of Sanskrit and Sanskriti

According to Malhotra, Sanskrit forms the essence of Indian civilisation. Malhotra discerns an "insider" and an "outsider" approach to the study of Sanskrit texts based on the academic concept of Emic and etic.[1] However Malhotra emphasizes his distinction between insiders and outsiders is not based on ethnicity, but the lens through which one looks at Sanskrit texts.[1] Insiders view Sanskrit as sacred, but outsiders view the sacredness of Sanskrit as merely a smokescreen for oppressive views.[1]

Chapter 2: From European Orientalism to American Orientalism

Contemporary American scholars differ from their British counterparts, having greater access to Indian society and Indian collaborators. American Orientalism has a great impact. Malhotra describes the circumstances in which American Orientalism grew and how it differs from European Orientalism. According to Malhotra it is influenced by Marxism, using a liberation philology,[note 1] which under the guise of empowering social groups such as dalits, women and Muslims pits them against each other and against Hinduism.[1]

Malhotra gives special attention to Sheldon Pollock. According to Malhotra, Pollock is determined in "utterly purging Sanskrit studies of their sacred dimension."[1] Malhotra singles out Pollock as being exemplary of this American Orientalism, since he is considered its foremost exponent, and Malhotra wants to realise a maximum impact with his criticism of American Orientalism.

Chapter 3: The Obsession with Secularizing Sanskrit

According to Malhotra, Pollock separates the spiritual transcendent aspect of Sanskrit, paramarthika, from the mundane worldly aspect, vyavaharika. Pollock then dismisses the paramarthika as being irrational. Malhotra further states that Pollock is incorrect in portraying kāvya, a Sanskrit literary style used by Indian court poets, as fundamentally different from Vedic ideas. He states that Pollock "secularises" the kāvya literature by removing its transcendental dimensions.[1]


Bibek Debroy in his review states that,

The essential point is about the discourse being captured by a certain Western approach, which is no longer purely Western, but is increasingly being internalised and portrayed as an Indian approach too, since many Indian Indologists, historians and journalists have studied in the West and are part of the same intellectual networks and support systems.[2]

According to Bibek Debroy, The Battle for Sanskrit follows the traditional Indian style mentioned in the Sanskrit tarka shastra tradition of reasoning. "You cite your opponent’s argument (purva paksha) and counter it with your own argument (uttara paksha)". Bibek Debroy writes, "Malhotra does the same with Pollock, setting out the Pollock arguments first and focusing particularly on Pollock’s views on the Valmiki Ramayana."[2] According to Debroy, Malhotra agrees that there's no 'one true' approach in this, rather he wants the "home team" to be "energized". This book is best understood as an exhortation for that alternative paradigm.[2] Bibek Debroy believes that even though the book has been labelled a ‘Battle for Sanskrit’, it is about our legacy and believes that "for people to be persuaded that this would be a terrible idea, this is a wonderful book that needs to be read and disseminated."[2]

The book found support from writers who call to join this "battle," like R. Jagannathan of Swarajya,[3][note 2] Rajeev Srinivasan,[4][note 3] and Aditi Banerjee, who has co-authored a book with Malhotra.[5][note 4]

The 'network of trust' created by the book is said to have caused 132 academics from India to sign a petition asking for the removal of Sheldon Pollock from the editorship of the Murty Classical Library of India.[6]

Battle for Sanskrit was discussed extensively in an article in Jankriti International Magazine by Ayesha Tahera Rashid.[7]

See also


  1. ^ See Sheldon Pollock: Liberation Philology.
  2. ^ Jagannathan: "The Battle For Sanskrit is an important book, even a disturbing one, for Indians who love this country and take pride in its Hindu and Sanskrit traditions even while cherishing diversity and acknowledging our many faults and negative practices. It is our bounden duty to join Malhotra in his Battle For Sanskrit. It is our battle. And it is a battle we cannot afford to lose.

    Malhotra’s is the most important critique of the new form of Orientalism that has taken root in American academia, now the European academia is no longer calling the shots on Indic studies. The reason why American Orientalism is dangerous for Indic culture is because of the sheer sophistication it brings to the idea of hollowing out Indic culture and studying Sanskrit by decapitating the head from the body. It is about studying a carcass, not a living tradition or idea."[3]
  3. ^ Srinivasan: "This is an important book; for any Indian, and particularly any Hindu who is concerned about the Indian Grand Narrative, the possible loss of control over Sanskrit is a tragedy. At the moment it is an avoidable tragedy, but only if there is a concerted effort on our part. It is nothing short of an act of terrorism, if you believe the UNESCO director-general, and this book is an attempt at preventive action.[4]
  4. ^ Banerjee: "Malhotra explains clearly and simply the key ideas in this body of scholarship and what is at stake for Hindus and India as these ideas are being carefully fed into the mainstream culture and media. Malhotra has distilled the arcane complexities of enormous tracts of Sanskrit scholarship into a clear narrative, has explained the stakes of the debate between these scholars and a traditional view of Hinduism and has offered a compelling rebuttal to their main arguments [...] We must learn and experience for ourselves the great treasures of spirituality, philosophy, ethics and literary masterpieces bestowed upon us by our ancestors. The battle for Sanskrit is on, and it is a battle we cannot afford to lose.[5]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Malhotra 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d Bibek Debroy, Home Alone, OPEN Magazine, 26 February 2016.
  3. ^ a b Raghavan, Jagannathan. "American Orientalism' As The New Macaulayism, And What We Need To Do About It". Swarajya. Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  4. ^ a b Srinivasan, Rajiv. "Why the battle for Sanskrit needs to be joined". Rediff. Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  5. ^ a b Banerjee, Aditi. "The Battle for Sanskrit: A Battle We Cannot Afford to Lose". Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  6. ^ Nikita Puri, Murty Classical Library: Project interrupted, Business Standard, 12 March 2016. See also the full input of Rajiv Malhotra to the journalist.
  7. ^ Rashid, Ayesha Tahera (April 2016). "Indology and Sanskrit Studies: The Battle for Sanskrit between the East and the West" (PDF). Jankriti International Magazine. 2 (14). ISSN 2454-2725. Retrieved 4 June 2016.


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