Although several Western scholars have “studied” our culture well, they continue to remain ignorant about its various nuances on numerous occasions and in several ways. We can cite substantial examples to support this fact starting with William Jones (a multilingual scholar who for the first time translated Kalidasa’s Shakuntala from Sanskrit into English about two hundred and thirty years ago) up to the likes of Sheldon Pollock.
Several highly decorated scholars like Max Mueller, Monier Williams, Arthur Berriedale Keith, Weber, Rhys Davids, and A.K. Warder fall by the wayside in the most fundamental aspects when their scholarship is set against a sharp touchstone. In fact, it would require an entire independent thesis to list out all such instances. Constraints of space forbid such an exercise at the moment.
Such instances of omissions and errors have occurred on numerous occasions not merely due to ignorance but owing to deliberate bias on the part of these Western scholars. More importantly, a combination of sectarian, racial, political, linguistic and cultural prejudices have led to the emergence of deliberately (or rather maliciously) distorted expositions and misinterpretations in what is known as Indology.
We need to carefully examine the merits or otherwise of such scholarship in consonance with the fundamental precept of Bharatavarsha’s philosophical and cultural sensibilities rooted in universal experience. We must especially not be indifferent towards some insights and technicalities that we’ve obtained from Western scholars.
In this backdrop, how right is it to assume that everything that Western scholars have written about our language and culture is objective scholarship and writing? This question assumes greater weight when we recall the fact that they were produced by alien people who came here and studied our knowledge systems purely out of self-interest. And how can we blindly take their word as final pronouncements of the Enlightened, and wear it as a crown on our head?
But then there’s no dearth of scholars of our own country who have made our culture a casualty of distorted scholarship. These scholars mainly belong to two categories. The first holds religious and nationalistic zeal as paramount and upholds its respective faith and nationalism with no basis in either logic or experience. In the same manner, the second category rejects the fundamental Indian cultural sensibility itself. There’s also a third category which criticises and opposes the former two, claiming that it is solely endowed with objectivity and wisdom, and that it serves our culture in some other, unspecified manner. For the most part, this category is just another face of the second. Given this, where is the space for truth and pure knowledge?
The main reason for such distortions or narrow or biased interpretations is the fact that all such scholars haven’t lived their chosen field of study. To make it clearer, our study must course throughout our mind, speech, and body. The erudition required for attaining this elevated state must be earned by those labouring in these disciplines.
When examined in this light, it won’t be incorrect to say that scholars of Indology after India became independent do not possess the sort of depth and sweep of scholarship that pre-Independence scholars were endowed with. Notably, it wasn’t rare for scholars of that period to possess multifaceted talents, who were also multilingual experts and multidisciplinary authorities. It is true that even today there are scholars who are talented, skilled, and can offer learned expositions and are well-exposed to several disciplines. However, there are very few, if any, who are deeply learned, insightful and penetrating measured by the standard of the pre-Independence scholars.
Indeed, there is a long line of hundreds of scholars of the previous generation such as Ananda K Coomaraswamy, S. Srikanta Sastri, M. Govinda Pai, Karlamangalam Srikantayya, Ambale Venkatasubbayya, Hazariprasad Dwivedi, Vasudevasharan Agarwal, Pandurang Vaman Kane, Gopinath Kaviraj, Baladeva Upadhyaya, Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, M. Hiriyanna, Kuppuswami Sastri, V.Raghavan, Sediyapu Krishna Bhatta, K. Krishnamurthy, U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, and so on. The manner in which these giants had digested and could command at will their knowledge of innumerable Indian disciplines such as manuscriptology, palaeography, epigraphy, grammar, philosophy, aesthetics, customs and traditions, religions and sects, and art forms is truly unparalleled.
But today, the fashion seems to be to blindly believe secondary sources (even in this case, it appears that no careful study has been done) and then to cross-pollinate newer and newer hypotheses and guesswork churned out by Western universities (chiefly, America, England, France, and till recently, academic chairs in the erstwhile Soviet Bloc) merely for the sake of novelty in sophistry with respect to language, culture, society, psychology, politics, and art forms with philosophies of our country. The tragedy of our land is the fact that an over-enthusiastic circus of exposition has occupied the centre stage today. Such immature and unlearned prefaces have become a huge deluge in our time mainly because the objective is to secure academic or professional positions.
The pitiable phenomenon of the scholarly world of today’s India is the fact that the number of scholars who can read primary sources in depth in the native language and then realize the worth (or otherwise) of the values propounded therein and living a life of integrity is scarce. However, that doesn’t mean all is lost. We have people like Prof. T.V. Venkatachala Sastry, (the late) Dr. Kapila Vatsyayana, (the late) Dr. R. Satyanarayana, Mahamahopadhyaya (the late) N. Ranganatha Sharma, Vidwan (the late) Sheshachala Sharma and (the late) Sri Sri Rangapriya Mahadesika amongst us. But the question is: who are their heirs?
The purpose of this lengthy discussion is this: we will never obtain the insights and subtleties of any culture unless we live them. The efforts that we spend in order to attain the said insights is the result of sustained practice, akin to Tapas. Ananda K Coomaraswamy had attained mastery in more than thirty languages. But in the list that he himself wrote on the matter, there was no mention of the Chinese language. On occasion, when his son Dr. Rama Coomaraswamy spotted him studying a work in Chinese and asked him why he hadn’t included it in the list despite knowing it, Ananda Coomaraswamy said: “When I’m studying a work of a language, which requires me to rely more and more on the dictionary, I consider that I don’t know that language.” How many people have this kind of illuminative sensitivity born from insight, nourished by expertise and scholarship?
In the Indian tradition, the word “Acharya” commands great respect. The derivation of this word is noteworthy:
acinoti ca śāstrārthān ācare sthāpayatyapi |
svayamācarate yasmādācāryastena ca ucyate ||
(Apastamba Dharmasutra: 1-2-6-13)
Accordingly, an “Acharya” is one who not only comprehensively consolidates the information and essence of a Shastra and assimilates it (within himself), but also establishes its structure and substance in the tradition. Not just that, he also harmonizes its eternal values in his own life.
When we consider this, it becomes evident as to the kind and quality of people who we can regard as a standard. In this light, the phenomenon of being swayed by the fiascos in our understanding will disappear. I’m reminded of a poem in the chAtu style composed by one of the towering scholars of our time, (the late) Acharya Pullela Sriramachandrudu from Hyderabad:
keṭalāgapaṃḍitaḥ kecit pīṭhikāpaṃḍitaḥ pare |
kecit paṃḍitānāmagnaha sarve saṃskṛtapaṃḍitāḥ ||
— śrīrāmacaṃdralaghukāvyasaṃgraha, Page 40
Some are but catalogue Pandits, some are Foreword Pandits. Others are Pandits by name only. Thus, all are Sanskrit Pandits.
This is the fate of all branches of learning. There are several people who are inspired by some sentence in some book by some author. Based purely on this, they begin to philosophize with grandiloquence as though they’ve understood the heart of that work. Given this, what’s the value of a scholarship that’s not put in practice?
Postscript: In this context, it is relevant to interrogate the scholarship of some Western scholars who unleashed a tsunami with their wild and licentious theorizing about Lord Ganapati, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and others that Bharatavarsha regards as sacosanct.
(This is an English adaptation of Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh’s original Kannada article titled Jnanapurvaka anushtaanave vaidushyada oregallu that first appeared in Vijaya Karnataka in 2002.)
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