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
Rohan Murty did not respond to an email request for comment.