Two old men in New Jersey fight, while India, or at least a part of it, waits with bated breath for the outcome. That sentence hangs in the air, as if waiting for the punchline to land and let the bad joke finish.

On one side stands Richard Fox Young, a professor of the history of religions at Princeton Theological Seminary. On the other stands Rajiv Malhotra, a man who made his money in business and a name for himself attacking the depiction of Hinduism in the West.

Starting at the beginning of July, Young has been releasing a stream of tweets showing cases where Malhotra has appeared to lift others’ words verbatim and use them as his own. In all this, Young seemingly takes pride in being a “troll” and running out of “hot air.”

Malhotra, in turn, took to twitter and various online publications to galvanise his supporters, claiming to be the “home team”, and labelling those who disagree with him “sepoys”. He also said:

In a recent First Post article he argued the point more fully, saying that academic norms are “alien to our way of thinking.”

This kind of clash, where people are easily divided into “teams,” catches people’s attention much more than Anantanand Rambachan’s slow and methodical critique of Malhotra recently published in the right-leaning Swarajya Magazine, and then ignored. Rambachan argues from within the Advaita fold that Malhotra has misrepresented his scholarship. But, well, such is the nature of nuance.  

Meanwhile, up the media chain, responses from liberals blend into Malhotra’s criticisms, and the two start to look startlingly similar. Sunil Sethi, for example, attacked Malhotra in Business Standard, linking his writing with the ongoing Vyapam, or cash-for-jobs scandal, and saying that India is “a nation of cheats.”

Both of these perspectives, namely Malhotra’s description of scholarly method in Sanskrit writing, which he uses to defend himself, as well as Sethi’s observations about his own nation’s culture, imply that Indians are epistemically challenged: that they do not understand the principles of producing knowledge or argumentation, and are unwilling and unable to produce high-level scholarship.  And if they do manage to produce high-level scholarship, they are not fully authentic. 

The old Orientalist view that Indians are irrational thus rears its monstrous head in strange new forms. The fact that PV Kane's monumental and carefully researched History of Dharmasastra, completed in 1962, is still widely considered the most powerful authority on the subject is testament enough to dispute that claim.

But the modern business and media world creates incentives for everyone – not just Indians – to cheat and plagiarise. Conversely, and directly relevant to this controversy, good scholarship with properly acknowledged sources is not merely a Western academic practice, and saying that Sanskrit had other modes of citation does not excuse bad attribution.

Old Sanskrit practice

While the quotation marks we know are a product of 16th century printing presses, proper attribution has long been important for Sanskrit commentators and anthologists, who make it very clear when they are citing, and whom they are citing.

Writing his Raghuvamsa in the 5th century Gupta court, Kalidasa only obliquely refers to the poets who had come before him, saying that they made his work possible. But only a few hundred years later, the great poet Bana, writing in 7th century Kannauj, in today’s Uttar Pradesh, gave a long description of the poets who had influenced him.

After Bana, this became standard practice in the introductions of works of kavya, a genre that includes both Sanskrit poetry and prose, as poets felt a need to place themselves within an intellectual lineage. Novelty was valued, but always seen in relation to prior work.

Indeed, at the same time, medieval Sanskrit poets also display a great deal of anxiety that their works might be plagiarised, and take great pains to attack would-be plagiarists. Any student of Sanskrit who has done even a cursory reading of kavya will have come across verses excoriating plagiarists. In the opening to the 10th century Yashastilaka, Somadeva Suri tells us that works that came before should be piously recited, but not claimed as one’s own, writing:

कृत्वा कृतीः पूर्वकृताः पुरस्तात्प्रादरं ताः पुनरीक्षमाणः।
तथैव जल्पेदथ यो ऽन्यथा वा स काव्यचोरो ऽस्तु स पातकी च।। १.१३

Works that were made earlier,
having been already written, are studied again,
each intently.
Doing that, one should only recite them,
lest that plagiarist become a criminal!

In the introduction to his masterpiece, Vikramankadevacharita, even more powerfully, the 11th century Kashmiri poet Bilhana compares plagiarists to daityas (anti-gods) and their attempt to steal amrita (the nectar of immortality) during the churning of the ocean. His anxiety shows through as he writes:

साहित्यपाथोनिधिमन्थनोत्थं काव्यामृतं रक्षत हे कवीन्द्राः ।
यदस्य दैत्या इव लुण्ठनाय काव्यार्थचौराः प्रगुणीभवन्ति ।। १.११

Listen lords of poets!
Save this nectar of the ears
that has arisen from the churning of the treasures of the ocean.
Plagiarists, like Daityas, are smoothing it over for looting.

And in his 14th century Paddhati, the anthologist Sarngadhara gives us the following verse, which tells us just how sneaky plagiarists can be, changing a word here and there, emerging from material he doesn’t credit:

अन्यवर्णपरावृत्त्या बन्धचिह्ननिगूहनै ।
अनाख्यातः सता मध्ये कविश्चौरो विभाव्यते ।। १९६

In order to conceal the mark of the work,
exchanging one letter for another,
a plagiarist arises in the midst of anonymity.

Dozens of these verses that can be found littered throughout the introductions to poems or in the kukavinindā sections of anthologies.

Respect for readers

No doubt in the days before print capitalism many people would recognise plagiarism just by hearing it. But now that people are expected to read thousands of words every day, plagiarism can often slip by undetected. It is the job of the author to provide references so that others can confirm or deny the conclusions they come to.

An author who uses bad references does so because they don’t think their readers are intelligent enough to confirm or deny their claims, or to know the intellectual tradition the author is invoking. References to prior material are not a conspiracy created by “publishers, the media, etc.” Rather, they invite the intelligent reader into the discussion.

The idea that there are “teams” fighting each other is just as laughable as the idea that paying homage to your influences while writing original work is anathema to Sanskrit. Not every Indian who disagrees with Malhotra is a “sepoy,” Indian pandits aren’t naïve and constantly being tricked by cunning Western academics, and there were plenty of powerful critiques against the Western academy long before Malhotra came along.

Bruce Lincoln, for example, provides a stunning critique of scholarship of Aryans in Theorizing Myth; Ronald Inden wrote the classic book about Orientalism in India Imagining India; and Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe is required reading against certain historicist practices.

Western and India scholars need to work hand-in-hand to combat the racism and xenophobia people of Indian heritage face in the US and Europe. As American enrolments in Indian language courses are shockingly low and decreasing, what we need now is more scholarship, funding, and caring for the history and literature of India. This can be done in a scholarly, intelligent manner, and fortunately is happening, albeit much more quietly than the recent shouting matches would suggest.

David Shulman’s collaborations with Velcheru Narayana Rao have brought Sanskrit and Telugu literature to the hands of those who would have never had the opportunity to experience it before. Their work is careful, meticulous, historical, and most importantly, beautiful.

I’ll end with the dedication from Rajeshekhara that Shulman, Yigal Bronner, and Gary Tubb offer to HV Nagaraja Rao – one of the greatest living Sanskritists – at the beginning of their new volume Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kāvya Literature:

उदन्वच्छिन्ना भूः स च निधिरपां योजनशतं सदा पान्थः पूषा गगनपरिमाणं कलयति |
इति प्रायो भावाः स्फुरदवनिमुद्रामुकुलिताः सतां प्रज्ञोन्मेषः पुनरयमसीमा विजयते ||

That one is up to you to translate.

Eric M Gurevitch is a New York-based writer and translator. His translations of Sanskrit poetry have appeared in The Hypocrite Reader and Muse India; his prose has appeared in Religion DispatchesAsymptote Journal, and The Hindu Business Line. He also writes a column in Public Books.