For those of us whose Sanskrit is not up to scratch, Sheldon Pollock remains an enigmatic figure. Widely lauded as a scholar in Sanskrit, some commentators like Rajiv Malhotra, the US-based author, are harshly critical of his translations, saying they present an Anglocentric view of ancient Indian literature.
That may – or may not – be true. Western scholars of Indology have often distorted Indian religious teachings. But the fact remains that few Indian scholars translate into English the large repertoire of literature in regional Indian languages, as well as in Sanskrit, which is currently inaccessible to a wider world.
Just as the best answer to an offensive book is a book in rebuttal, the best way to counter criticism of Western Indologists is to do the painstaking, meticulous research they do and produce lucid translations as well as compelling, accurate interpretations of ancient Indian literature.
Rohan Murty (who doesn’t like being known only as NR Narayana Murthy’s son, hence the dropped ‘h’ in his surname) is the man behind the new classical library.
The Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) plans to publish around 5 books every year for the next 100 years. In another 10 years, at least 50 and possibly 70 books, published by Harvard University Press, will be available to a global audience.
They will unearth some rare gems: Bullhe Shah’s works in Gurmukhi, the Akbarnama in Persian and Manucharitramu in Telugu.
“We are giving young Indians a choice,” says Murty. “They read Wordsworth, Shakespeare, TS Eliot. They should also be able to read Surdas and Bullhe Shah. I never had that choice when I was growing up in Bangalore.”
Pollock adds: “We want to represent the extraordinary richness of the Indian classical tradition and celebrate its variety.”
An interesting translation among the handful of books launched last week is Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women. Just as Greek and Latin literature are staple reading in Western universities, classical Indian literature of similar vintage will now be available in high quality books translated into English by distinguished Indian and international scholars.
Classical Indian literature predates much of Western literature. “India has the single most complex and continuous tradition of multi-lingual literature in the world and a lot of it is inaccessible,” says Pollock, the Murty library’s general editor. “These books have the original script as well as an English translation on the facing page. It doesn’t, as Europe thinks, start with Virgil and end with TS Eliot.”
Why would anyone object to an enterprise that excavates India’s classical literary heritage (Murty is funding the $5.2-million project as a philanthropic endeavour) and makes it available to the world? Cost is not a factor. Paperback versions of some of these translated classics will be available for as little as Rs. 225 and therefore accessible to Indian students.
The problem lies with Pollock’s interpretations: his scholarly work in Sanskrit has drawn sharp criticism. As Malhotra says: “Sheldon Pollock, one of the foremost Sanskritists of today, appears to agree with Edward Said in the need to reclaim traditions, histories, and cultures from imperialism (Said 1989: 219). He nevertheless insists that we must not forget that most of the traditions and cultures in question [India is obviously included in this] have been empires of oppression in their own right – against women and also against other domestic communities (Pollock 1993: 116).
“The Western Sanskritist, he says, feels this most acutely, given that Sanskrit was the principal discursive instrument of domination in premodern India. Thus Pollock deftly turns Said’s attack on imperialism into nonsense by insisting that the subjugated Indians are themselves imperialists, as much as the conquering Europeans.
“In Pollock’s view, the trend continues today, and Sanskrit is being continuously re-appropriated by many of the most reactionary and communalist sectors of the population (Pollock 1993: 116). Needless to say, this line of imagining invites many Indian mimics who make their careers as India-bashers in order to prove their usefulness to the Western institutions they serve.”
Be that as it may, Indian scholars need to come up with their own translated works of ancient Indian authors going back 2,000 years and render their own interpretations of these works, some in Sanskrit, some in Pali, some in Persian. If they don’t, someone else – like Pollock – will.
A liberal democracy should be able to absorb all assaults on its heritage – literary, religious, social and intellectual. Just as criticising the caste system in Hinduism is necessary, challenging regressive tenets in Islam or Christianity too is necessary.
For example, nowhere does the Quran say that the image of Prophet Mohammad should not be displayed. The Hadith, a later and secondary text, urges followers to not do so but there is certainly no Quranic invocation forbidding the prophet’s image (or indeed blasphemy).
The sooner religions become tolerant to criticism, the sooner reform will seep into them. This applies to the Hindu caste system, to Sunni extremism, to Zoroastrian close-mindedness and to medieval Christian beliefs such as miracles.
Murty’s classical Indian library, curated and edited by Pollock, may not be perfect but it is an important attempt to open a window to the literary treasures of our past.