The petition asking for Sheldon Pollock to be removed from the editorship of an ambitious translation project called the Murty Classical Library reminded me of many happy hours I spent during my undergraduate days in a library across the road from my college in Bombay, working my way through 50 volumes of the Sacred Books of the East. The series was edited by the Sanskrit scholar Friedrich Max Müller, after whom the German cultural centre that housed the library was named. I glanced only cursorily at most of the books, but took my time over those dedicated to the major Upanishads, important Vedic hymns, and the Dhammapada, all of which happened to be translated by Max Müller himself. I came away deeply impressed by the 30 years of effort that had gone into translating and annotating the monumental collection.

While he was alive, Max Müller was celebrated by most educated Indians, although conservatives condemned his magisterial edition of the entire text [PDF] of the Rig Veda (in the original rather than as as a translation) along with Sayanacharya’s commentary, considering it sacrilegious for women, lower castes and outcastes to have access to that sacred knowledge. More liberal thinkers such as Swami Vivekananda applauded the German scholar’s “long and arduous task of exciting interest, overriding opposition and contempt, and at last creating a respect for the thoughts of the sages of ancient India”.

In the years following Independence, a counter-narrative emerged, which demonised the German Indologist as a zealot determined to interpret Indian history in the light of his literal reading of Biblical chronology. Max Müller committed two unpardonable sins from the perspective of the Hindu nationalists who have grown prominent in the past few decades. First, he dated the composition of the early Vedic hymns to a period of around 1500 BC to 1200 BC, far too late for Hindutvavadis.

Dating the Vedas

Second, he upheld the idea that the ancestor language of Sanskrit was spoken in a region near the Black Sea, and that the Vedic people had gradually migrated into India from the north-west. His reasoning for the 1200 BC date was fairly arbitrary, as he repeatedly admitted, but it so happened he was in the right ballpark. The chronology that most experts accept today owes nothing to Max Müller’s methodology, something his critics obtusely refuse to accept.

Since Independence, nationalist Hindus have spent inordinate amounts of energy trying to push the date of the Vedas back, and trying to prove that the Harappan civilisation that was discovered in the twentieth century, and which predates the earliest Vedic literature, was in fact a Vedic culture. I don’t want to get into the details of that tedious debate. What I want to highlight is that Max Müller’s path-breaking work as an editor, translator, and interpreter of sacred Indian texts is now forgotten or ignored in favour of contesting certain speculations that were not central to his work and which he didn’t take too seriously.

The shifting reputation of Friedrich Max Müller is instructive in the light of the Murty Classical Library controversy. The project funded by Rohan Murty is manifestly in the tradition of the Sacred Books of the East. MCL’s scope is restricted to the Indian subcontinent, but it covers secular as well as spiritual literature, and includes translation of seminal texts from languages widely spoken in India today such as Punjabi, Telugu and Marathi. Who could have a problem with such an enterprise? Well, the Hindu Right evidently does. Many moons after the idea was mooted and at a time when the first handsome volumes are already in bookshops, Hindutvavadis have decided that Sheldon Pollock, editor of the series, is insufficiently “imbued with a sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilization”. Angered that Pollock signed a statement supporting the right of Jawaharlal Nehru University students to dissent, the petitioners accuse him of “disrespect for the unity and integrity of India”.

Make in India

Rohan Murty put the petitioners firmly in their place, and the matter would have been closed, had not Makarand Paranjape, professor of English at JNU, published an article in the Indian Express reigniting the issue. I was shocked to see Paranjape’s signature on the Pollock petition, for he often speaks about the necessity of evading the pieties of Left and Right, and it is hard to square such a position with a document that asserts the Murty Classical Library “must be part of the ‘Make in India’ ethos”, among other borrowings from the Narendra Modi playbook.

In defending the Pollock petition, Paranjape laments the deterioration of India’s educational and cultural institutions, but does not draw the logical conclusion that such deterioration could contribute to a paucity of sufficiently qualified scholars within India to tackle a task like the Murty Classical Library. He asks, rhetorically, “Suppose a library of 500 best books of American culture, with an endowment from, say, Bill Gates, was handed over to Chinese scholars to produce, wouldn’t interested Americans protest?” It’s an absurd question, since the United States does not have a repository of untranslated classical literature, but the answer surely is that if Chinese scholars and expatriates teaching in Chinese institutions formed the best-qualified cohort of experts in the field, it would be logical for Bill Gates to offer them the project. In any case, individual volumes in the Murty Classical Library will be taken on by different translators, many of whom will doubtless be Indians.

Rather than go after a private endowment, the Pollock petitioners would have been better served lobbying the administration to initiate a project of its own to disseminate the nation’s literature across major indigenous languages. After all, the Murty Classical Library, like the Sacred Books of the East, makes a trove of literature available to English readers who are already spoiled for choice. Translating Punjabi, Telugu, Hindi, and Marathi classics into English is all very well, but what about translating Punjabi into Marathi and Marathi into Telugu and Telugu into Hindi and so on? Why not select a hundred important texts, produce 20 translations of each by leading scholars, and put those online? Only the government has the resources to back a project so massive in scope. But while the current dispensation pays lip service to the glorious past, it appears more interested in godmen who sell noodles or plan garish celebrations on the Yamuna floodplains than in making the finest examples of our literary heritage accessible to a new readership.