Book Review: The Battle for Sanskrit

The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive orLiberating, Dead or Alive?The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive orLiberating, Dead or Alive? by Rajiv Malhotra
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Rajiv Malhotra's book I read. It concerns itself with criticizing Sheldon Pollock's views on Sanskrit and its social impact on Indian society (I heard his name for the first time in this book). It is indeed a class work of criticism. Malhotra speaks of Pollock respectfully, presents Pollock's views well and gives a dispassionate counter view-point. Rajiv Malhotra mentions that he even met Pollock twice to discuss their disagreements. This is really a very professional and dignified way to approach criticism and I am quite impressed with that!

Coming to the core topic of this book, I am surprised that there are intellectuals like Pollock who think that Sanskrit language itself is a "language of oppression"! Of course the Sankrit Kavyas are blamed by people like Pollock for portraying patriarchy, hatred, social oppression and what not, but to take it further and blame the language itself is something only intellectuals can do! Rajiv Malhotra does not deny that these "dangerous elements" pointed out by Pollock exist in Sanskrit literature but he does not treat these as the "core characteristics" of the Sanskrit language/literature. Traditional interpretation of the Sanskrit kavya literature is that it is essentially "sacred" in nature and hence Malhotra points out that one needs to approach it accordingly to understand it in the right spirit. I side with him on this. So there may be some troubling aspects in Ramayana but normal people read it for inspiration and spiritual development, not to oppress woman or cultivate hatred against Dalits/Muslims as Pollock seems to imply.

Malhotra explains in detail that the issue is much larger than Sanskrit language and literature. It has to do with efforts by people like Pollock to replace/reinterpret certain aspects of Indian traditional thinking with Western approaches. Pollock thinks he is doing a favor to Indians by flushing out the "toxicity" embedded in their literature but he is actually "throwing out the baby with the bath water", Malhotra argues convincingly. In the end, "toxicity" is not really out there in Sanskrit language or literature or Hinduism but in the human mind. Man thinks he is replacing the external toxicity but he is actually creating a new version of it! So it is amusing that Pollock himself is doing the very same things he is opposing in Sanskrit literature (being hegemonic in his views, seeking sponsorship, spoiling the purity of literature with his own interpretations etc), as Rajiv Malhotra explains towards the end of the book.

At parts, the book gets too detailed and intellectual for my taste but it is an eye-opener in many aspects. This book is a must-read to understand the current intellectual eco-system with its social and political biases against the Indian tradition. I give the book 4 stars only for the "readability" aspect, it is a somewhat dry book (guess all intellectual books are!). But the content itself is surely 5 star!


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