Karl H Potter Memorial Lecture Series in Philosophy


A Letter to a Teacher

July 2, 2020 (Manipal)

Dear XXX,

I think this is a long pending email. You have several times asked me to share my views about this in the past. And I am happy to finally be able to do it with much honesty. I am sorry if some views hurt you, but I do believe that one has to practice honesty when it comes to our discipline. For a long time I have struggled through the question you have asked me recently. It is indeed this question that changed my ontology. I have struggled through it since when I stepped into XXX in the first year of my undergraduate program and I must say that I still continue to struggle with it. There are many facets of the question itself before one wants to seek an answer. I have come to terms with this question in my own ways. One way I have come to terms with this question is my strong decision of not seeking an employment in a department of Sanskrit in an Indian university. If I had done that, it would have been, as I would like to believe, an intellectual death for me. Another problem is related to the future of liberal arts in India in general i.e., it is only recently that things have started to improve for liberal arts in South Asia. So our problem is also a part of the larger problem. However, as far as classical studies is concerned (and I include Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Pali, Prakrit etc in there as well), the situation is dismal and I am not first one to argue this. The individual language departments in Indian universities, I believe, barring English studies, should be completely shut down. They serve no intellectual purpose. They are a burden on society. Can you tell me one Ph.D. thesis from the Department of Sanskrit alone in XXX University in past ten years that has been quoted anywhere (by quoting I mean critically acknowledged in a standard quality publication that is peer-reviewed), that has made a solid ground breaking research contribution—and I imagine I am not asking for anything beyond a certain basic expectation out of a university PhD thesis. Not every printed word is a credible testimony. The situation is no different in Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Urdu etc. departments either. 

When I made the exception of English Studies above, I meant that at least they are making a solid contribution in terms of conceptual, theoretical and area studies vis-à-vis the Sanskrit literature (of course they are not concerned with the language and their mandate is not at all philological). This gives them an upper hand as far as critical studies in India is concerned, but over a period of time they have also developed a hegemony over the subject (i.e., Indian studies or Indian literature or pre-modern literature/literary traditions) for which, I think, they cannot be blamed because Sanskrit knowing people are totally defunct when it comes to ‘criticality’. This lack is only becoming dangerous day by day. On the other hand I have personally witnessed some superficial criticism by English-walas (that they erroneously think as serious) to Sanskrit etc., since they either lack the insider’s view of a text, or do not understand the language properly or try to be uselessly over critical when a certain thing only needs to be understood in a certain context. I recall Harsh Kumar Ji used to say—there are two type of Sanskrit scholars—ones who know Sanskrit and others who know about it.

The problem you have posed is manyfold. Unfortunately, most of the Sanskrit teachers etc. (I am purposely not using the term ‘scholar’) think knowing the language or having the quantitative possession of Sanskrit works and their contents in their heads qualifies them for being a ‘scholar’ or ‘śāstrin’. Unfortunately, it does not. Developing critical thinking through reading these works and questioning them, practicing creative thinking through evaluating these works only does. I might know complete Pāṇini and the application of its rules etc. but if I cannot work with Pāṇini at a meta-linguistic or meta-grammatical level or if I cannot think like Pāṇini or cannot navigate through the Pāṇinian structures of language, the knowing of all sūtras, rules etc. or even their application is just quantitative possessing of knowledge (that is undoubtedly important too). Sanskrit students in modern Indian universities are not taught to think critically, but they are made slaves of their own thinking. They are taught to be the custodians of ancient culture of India and be proud of it and make others feel proud of it too. They are made into missionaries and not scholars. It is like being an inert object of art in a museum or an archive. Or it is like the ‘dis-interested witness’ of Vedāntins. But, even if passive, the Brahman is at least a witness for Vedāntins. The Sanskrit studies in India have turned into a blind universe. 

On another note if you recall, how many times did I ask you in college that if Śakuntakā is prescribed for both BA Sanskrit and BA English, why is it that we cannot have a combined class. Why was it that English students were not benefited from your philological approach and we could have benefitted from the approach of English-walas? I also know that both of you had no choice in this matter for the system did not allow such a choice thus ignoring the good pedagogical practice—but there lies the precise question—who made the system? Why do we practice such systems that want us to learn being slaves in our respective claustrophobic baskets. In fact, if I may invoke the prasiddhi idea of the Mīmāṃsakas in this context, that Abhinavagupta has so creatively used in creating the main epistemological tool of his Āgama pramāṇa (the most important pramāṇa according to him), whatever we practice becomes a norm and if a norm is not making sense, it should be broken. 

I can invoke another example, on the name of practicing pedagogy and creativity, Sanskrit students in XXX university are/were encouraged to be a part of the most banal practice of doing some verse recitation, a few chanting of Sanskrit verses, some utterance in Sanskrit etc. etc. that has no critical value. Learning music and speaking in Sanskrit by all means are good practices, but they are not the end in themselves. Faculty of music can teach music. Why should a department of Sanskrit feel proud that it can teach its students ‘Indian music’ and they can grab prizes for them (I know Harsh Kumar Ji would have completely disagreed on this)? Why should it not bother you that Sanskrit students in XXX are not at par with any of the other students in other humanities disciplines of the same batch/class? Seldom can they stand in terms of intellectual achievements cultivated by students in other disciplines. It is because in disciplines like History, English, Philosophy etc. students are taught to think critically. I am aware that you are in complete disagreement with me. And it should not surprise us if we see now a days that almost all Sanskrit students are right wing followers (of course there are students from other departments, disciplines, colleges as well). They will quote all scriptures to you but they cannot do anything more than that. And for this I do not blame them. I blame our teachers. And now I also blame myself as a teacher. Why did they allow it in the first place to let this happen? Why did they allow the system to produce the mindless minds? I am attaching to this email a ‘Foreword’ I recently happened to write for a book of Prof C. Rajendran. I have tried to bring forth such questions there in detail. You may want to go through it. In this email, however, I have kept myself confined to what I think about Sanskrit scholarship in India. I have not touched upon the outside India situation that also has benefits and disadvantages. But that is for another email.

I think the modern university Sanskrit teachers are like triśaṅkus (they are in a limbo state of mind) (in a sense this is what Ashish Nandy calls ‘Intimate Enemy’)—they are caught up in the mid of modernity and pre-modernity. They are not completely traditional Sanskrit scholars (barring a few, of course, who may be traditionally trained but still not moved a step ahead of that) and they are not completely aware of the so called modern paradigms of pedagogy and critical thinking while they try to act like as if they are experts of their own kind. Some people may wander the whole planet and know everything that is happening in the Sanskrit world, but until they are slaves of their own thinking or knowledge, nothing is going to change. Please tell me one article any of them have written that in all honestly reflects the original contribution (or one original idea) made to the discipline that they practice (writing books and getting them published by local publishers does not have value unless it is attested by some credible source or scholar). This is why I would respect scholars like Harsh Kumar Ji much more than anyone else, because that man may not have attended even one conference or not delivered even a single lecture in his life, and that man may not have travelled all his life anywhere but only from his home to college and back, but that man was a critical thinker. He used to think through even if he did not have a background in modern tools of critical thinking. His penetrating insights into a text and the interpretative intertextual method was enough to exhibit his sharp mind and its matchless magnificence. This is the reason I have more respect for dynamic traditional Sanskrit scholars rather than mediocre modern day university professors of Sanskrit in India. Ironically, Harsh Kumar Ji also did not write anything, but not for the same reasons as XXX. He did not write anything because he was a perfectionist, and when he would have written something substantial, unfortunately, he did not live long to do so.  

Most of the modern day university professors of Sanskrit in India are interested in ‘glory’—their own glory and the glory of ‘Sanskrit’. As we say in Kashmiri—they milk a dead cow for their own selfish interests, not because they are having sleepless nights not understanding a certain concept in Nyāyamañjariī of Jayanta Bhaṭṭa or they are not able to think creatively vis-a-vis what the whole poetic tradition means by the term kāvya, rasa or dhvani etc., and how should one respond to the entire colossal tradition of Sanskrit creativity bringing in one’s own critical thinking to the table. They are only worried about ‘position’ and ‘glory’. And on the other hand, the ones who are preoccupied with such intellectual concerns are only interested in problematising the questions of ‘fame’ (or ‘power’) and ‘glorification’. How do we build inquiring into such questions and seek answers from the pre-modern Sanskrit traditions! We cannot corporeally live in the present and mentally exist only in the Vedic times. The people who do, are transformed into radicals and fanatics and we have already enough of them. 

Needless to say some dedicated scholars, both traditional and modern, have really done remarkable work. In Śaiva studies itself, I cannot stop becoming impressed by the scholarship of Prof Vrajvallabha Dwivedi and Prof Navjivan Rastogi. In the preface to his Luptāgamasaṃgraha, Vrajvallabh Dwivedi Ji says: आङ्ग्लभाषामाध्यमेन हिन्दीभाषामाध्यमेन च लिखितेषु केषुचनाधुनिकेषु ग्रन्थेषु संस्कृतभाषामाध्यमेनास्माभिः कानिचन संशोधनानि प्रस्तुतानि | तान्यधीयते विदेशीया विद्वांसः, न च पठन्ति भारतीयाः सुधिय इत्यहो दैवी विचित्रा गतिः | I often wondered why scholars like Dwivedi Ji had to say this. But I think this is what is lost in Indian scholarship of Sanskrit. Indeed the scholars of Ashok Aklujkar, Sheldon Pollock’s generation have been lamenting why there is no other P.V. Kane produced. But how can it be! Kane died writing the History of Dharmaśāstra. Who will die today for sincerity and honesty of scholarship? My opinion is that no one should enter a Sanskrit department or any other classical or modern Indian languages department in Indian universities. It is merely a waste of time and these students will anyway end up having a dark future or just end up becoming right wing supporters or begin preaching Hinduism or Hindutva. I always suggest students to join a relatively good (even when there is really nothing good out there—it is a very relative term) philosophy, history or English department so that they can at least pick up good thinking habits and good writing skills and while at the same time they should study Sanskrit privately with a good (non-right wing) teacher. For someone who is more inclined to focus on Sanskrit alone, it is a better suggestion to study somewhere traditionally with a private tutor or in a good traditional Sanskrit university (not that traditional Sanskrit universities are not problematic at all). 

There is also a question that we usually do not pay much attention to and this question, I think, has a lot to do with what you yourself used to say “our students have issues understanding English” “our students find it difficult to cope with what is taught in other disciplines” etc. etc. You always said since your Sanskrit students in XXX are not comfortable with English, so they were indirectly kept aloof from the rest of the college activities etc. It should have been a common practice if a Sanskrit student participated in philosophy, history, English department academic activities or vice-versa. But the department of Sanskrit was always aloof in the college and I wonder if ever the teachers paid any subtle attention to it. It is a different matter altogether how Sanskrit students were treated as backward in college, but this backwardness had to do with their academic incompetence of not developing any critical thinking. I could have preached, but I could not have critically thought through. Of course I am speaking in very general terms about a Sanskrit student vis-à-vis my own experience. I should not shy away from adding (at least in my own context) that whatever I have been able to learn later in my life etc. was ignited by none other than you yourself and XXX. But we are looking at a larger picture of Sanskrit studies in South Asia. Not all students are lucky enough to learn from teachers like yourself and XXX. I still recall how you personally took me to so many libraries in Delhi and inspired me far beyond my expectations. I still quote to my students parts from your Manusmṛti classes—the matchless way one could learn about the Dharmaśāstra. I cannot imagine anyone else teaching a Dharmaśāstra text than how you used to do it. But even then, though you brought enough interdisciplinary approach to the class, the questions related to the university system and curriculum at large do remain unanswered and problematic. 

I recall Prof Nirmalanshu Mukherjee asking me when I joined the Philosophy Department for my M.Phil (after being frustrated in the department of Sanskrit where I think I only utterly wasted the two precious years of my life): “What do you guys do there?” I had no answer. In him, outside XXX, I found for the first time someone who used to “profess” and was worthy of being called a professor. The Sanskrit department there (I am sure you have more experience with respect to other departments in XXX University) was a feudal camp. Looking back, in XXX University-Sanskrit Department, there was only one man who was a scholar when I was there and that was XXX (who I recall used to teach us the Yoga-sūtra). He used to teach and bring critical insights to the class that no student appreciated. Some other XXX, who was a Vedānta specialist, used only to sing the Gauḍapāda-kārikas, and some other awful professor who taught one of the most useless papers titled some “Outlines of Indian culture” etc., that did have some extremely critical concepts involved, but she not only made a mess out of it, but….!!!  Imagine how the ‘cultural theory’ or ‘critical theory’ in the Cultural Studies is taught in other departments in Indian universities and how did a professor from a Sanskrit department stand via-a-vis that—it still makes me feel that our existence is not only useless, but it is even derogatory if this is how critical insights are practiced in a university department. It is the same Sanskrit Department that invited someone like XXX a few years back for delivering a prestigious annual memorial lecture of the department who was ‘teaching’ all anti-Pollock stuff to the so called Sanskrit scholars there, who would never even have attempted to read the first two pages of Pollock’s book that was being presented, and they anyway had no idea what XXX was talking about but they were still nodding their heads in bizarre agreement because it was boosting their random nationalistic ego—spineless beasts are a better choice and their lord can only be paśu-pati. They may know Sanskrit, but should not be called ‘scholars’ or ‘professors’

How many XXX University Sanskrit teachers are critically acclaimed scholars who have made solid contributions to the domain of thinking and not only made efforts to re-produce the already re-produced stuff? So how do we expect that they will inculcate a critical practice amongst their students. I do not. Sanskrit language knowing people in India (again not all of them) are so terribly and deeply stuck in the past (and wrongly so) that it can only be explained as a wrong construction of the colonial manifestation of the concerns those were never a part of any śāstric discourse or any pattern of Sanskrit thinking. That is why they are being seduced by pseudo-Indians (and pseudo-intellectuals) like XXX now. They have themselves paved a way for the hegemony of the radical marxist scholarship harming themselves, so much so that it is unthinkable to have fine Sanskrit scholars like D.D. Kosambhi in India anymore. 

I recall as an undergraduate I used to ask XXX that since Kālidāsa wrote the Kumārasaṃbhava centuries ago, we have been reading him, year after year students and scholars read this text and teachers teach it, but what ‘new’ do we find in there. We all have been reading age-old literature and what does reading the same text again and again teach us? He would fail to explain it to me. We were not trained in the philological method where we should have been taught the problems a Kāvya text may present for us, we were not introduced to the hermeneutic problems (represented by the rich commentarial tradition) either, we were not taught the problems of translation a classical Sanskrit text brings forth, we were not taught the problems of poetics a court poem (mahākāvya) invokes, we were not taught how to look for thematic issues in such literature, we were not introduced to the historical or philosophical problems such literature may present and how do we make sense of it. 

In Northern India, basically many scholars think they are teaching Sanskrit, but basically they are teaching Hindi. They have very comfortably and proudly reduced down Sanskrit into Hindi. And this is one reason I have issues with Hindi. I think it is mostly the modern day Hindi speakers who also happen to know Sanskrit, who have harmed Sanskrit the most. The Hindi-walas have been truly harmful to Sanskrit. Prof Kanti Chandra Pandey used to say that there were only two languages worth speaking in viz., Sanskrit and English. Even though his mother tongue was Hindi, he almost never spoke it. The language question is very problematic too—this is also true that there is no critical or serious scholarship available in South Asian languages, (Vrajvallabh Dwivedi has shown us that serious research oriented scholarship is possible in Sanskrit in terms of modern writing) and on the contrary it is also true that the most important critical scholarship is available in English that simply cannot be ignored. The modern day Sanskrit student is neither practicing solid Sanskrit, nor are they aware of (or made aware of) good English or Hindi or any other language of their academic choice. But they can do Hindiazed Sanskrit sambhāṣaṇa very well. Of course I am excluding traditional and very competent and serious young scholars.  

In this competitive academic world, where cutting edge research scholarship is available at the click of a mouse, Sanskrit departments still prescribe completely obsolete studies to students. They still depend on problematic works of Baldev Upadhyay and Radhakrishnan, Taraporwala or P.D. Gune etc. (who, of course, we wonderful scholars of their own time) (and prescribing Pollock becomes blasphemous—in a sense it is clear that they are only jealous of his critical scholarship and nothing else) which is a testimony to the fact that they never learn to move ahead. They themselves do not learn, and they fail to make their students learn. Unlike most other departments in Social Sciences and Humanities, Sanskrit departments are never up to date with the latest research and critical insights significant scholars in the world have to present, and they are obviously never receptive to new ideas or fresh interpretations. In such a situation, their only tool is to glorify Sanskrit, that too uncritically. Their minds are not only fossilised or frozen in the past, but they have completely become myopic in their approach and vision (like a kūpamaṇḍūka). This leads them trying to find recourse in this banal modern appropriation of Sanskrit—either it is the best language for computers etc, or it has all knowledge in it, or all science came from the Vedas, or finding management skills in the Gītā, or actually all modern day science has roots in Sanskrit or the Vedas, so on and so forth. The Sanskrit departments are a derogatory shame for what Sanskrit truly stood for throughout it’s development—penetrating criticality and sharp critical insights represented by the śāstric discourses, and I think when this is killed, Sanskrit is killed. So Sanskrit is indeed a dead language since it has been robbed of its soul. 



Is there a Philosophy of ‘Joy-full-ness’? Abhinavagupta’s Reply by Mrinal Kaul

Lecture titled “Is there a Philosophy of ‘Joy-full-ness’? Abhinavagupta’s Reply” by Mrinal Kaul on January 8, 2021 at Azim Premji University, Bangalore

Abhinavagupta’s (fl.c. 975-1025 CE) tantric system holds quite a unique position within the classical South Asian philosophical discourse wherein a predominant essential presupposition is not conceived as ‘suffering’, but an idea of everlasting ‘bliss’ or ‘joy’. In fact, even what is often understood as ‘suffering’, as Abhinavagupta would say, is a kind of intense form of ‘bliss’ or ‘joy’ that one needs to cultivate a ‘taste’ for. This phenomenon that a certain taste reflects unto the tasting agent (the one who tastes it) is the experience of ‘joy-full-ness’. There is no distinction created between the transcendental and empirical states of ‘joy’. The substratum of this experience is the knowing and experiencing subject alone (not in the same sense as that of the Buddhist idealists). As one would expect, a number of potent philosophical problems of cognition, perception, imagination, error, and consciousness are involved in here, and their mapping needs further profound probing. However, I am gradually becoming convinced that the larger project of Abhinavagupta was an ‘aesthetic project’ wherein his critical epistemology had an underlying mission of achieving an aesthetic goal.

Abhinavagupta on ‘Reflection’ by Mrinal Kaul

Lecture titled “Abhinavagupta on ‘Reflection'” delivered at Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune on 27 December 2017.

There is a certain level of complexity attached to the idea of ‘reflection’ in Abhinavagupta (fl.c. 975-1025 CE) and it is discussed by him at various intellectual platforms. At one level it is a debate between the realists and the absolute idealists where Abhinavagupta is obviously seeing ‘reflection’ as an absolutely idealistic notion. However, realism is not rejected by these Śaiva non-dualists. Following the tradition of his masters Abhinavagupta is attempting to establish the ‘realism of idealism’ or as K.C.Pandey (1963) would call it ‘Realistic Idealism’. Abhinavagupta uses mirror-trope to explain away this fundamental idea. His idea of reflection should be understood as a subjective idea of self-reflexive awareness that has the autonomous potential to exist or manifest by itself. It does not need external support like, for instance, an image of face cannot exist in a mirror if there is no face in front of it. To put it in other words that even the so called illusory objects are understood to be as real as the real objects themselves.

At another level it becomes the problem of subject and object where apart from radically shifting the hermeneutic reins into the hands of ‘a’ subject there is a strong attempt to establish the absolutely autonomous and self-sufficient nature of ‘the’ subject that should be understood as beyond the binary of the realistic notion of both subject and object. From the absolute point of view it is the undifferentiated Consciousness alone that is beyond the notion of subject and object yet containing within itself the differentiated nature of both.

The question I have posed is if at all we should ignore the novelty of Abhinavagupta’s Śaiva theory of reflection in his works other than those related to the Pratyabhijñā epistemology of recognition where only the pure analytical justification for reflection is discussed. As I have argued that Abhinavagupta’s basic philosophical intuition is embedded in the Krama tradition. His vision of reality is both mystical and erotic following a deep symbolic-ritual scheme. And this depth can only be overcome when Abhinavagupta is studied across the scriptural traditions that he is a part of.

Whose Hindi is it anyway?

merā azm itnā buland hai ki parā.e sholoñ kā dar nahīñ,

mujhe ḳhauf ātish-e-gul se hai ye kahīñ chaman ko jalā na de.

(Translation: My conviction is so strong that I do not fear the blaze of others, but indeed I am dreaded by the flame of a flower (of my own garden) lest it should not ablaze the garden (itself)).

I have often been reciting the above lines of the famous poet Shakeel Badayuni in my head in past some time thinking if in our wildest imaginations there is a Bharat Mata (Mother India), this is what she must be lamenting. Her adamant and unruly children have been innocently robing her of her multifaceted glory by imposing on her a certain uninformed and ridiculous linguistic monism. A mammoth is being reduced to a mink. We never really think beyond the political maps of South Asian countries. We never really imagine or explore the linguistic or cultural maps of South Asia and we misinterpret the political as cultural. It is really hard to kill a language. The South Asian cultural maps are fading to a mono-colour and the linguistic maps are shrinking too. Just imagine a multilingual landscape as variegated as South Asia becoming monolingual one fine morning. Think if everyone can speak and understand only one language—Hindi or English or Urdu.

            I grew up speaking Kashmiri. I think in Kashmiri because that is how I grew up in my family. I have Kashmiri friends and relatives who speak better Kashmiri than I do and yet others who speak awfully terrible Kashmiri. I do not know when I picked up Urdu growing up in Kashmir valley. When I came outside the valley as a child for the first time, I realised I was speaking to people around me in Urdu that they called Hindi—it was same. However, when I came across the people from the Hindi belt, I initially kept wondering why they spoke like how those characters on the television from the Ramayana of Ramanand Sagar or the Mahabharata of B.R. Chopra spoke. I used to laugh at some of my friends and ask why they couldn’t talk in normal language not realizing probably this is what was normal for them. And they in turn kept taunting me that my language sounded like Farsi (Persian) and thus very foreign to theirs. It was all linguistic fun and we would all enjoy it.

            In a few years’ time I was to be trained as a Sanskritist, and now since I was dealing with the idea of languages professionally, it all meant business to me. I was gradually unfolding the ‘power’ dynamics and ‘identity’ issues related to languages. I do recall a couple of times I felt severely discriminated along with a few other friends while walking at Connaught Place in New Delhi at the hands of a few street vendors because we were talking in Kashmiri. I also gradually became aware about how Kashmiri language had suffered in its land of birth because it was always made to be oppressed by the dominance of Urdu (which is the state language) exactly how so many other South Asian languages are made to be oppressed by the dominance of Hindi. The problem is not Hindi or Urdu or their marvelous literary traditions or the native speakers of these languages, but the problem is that on the name of the romantic notion of ‘one nation, one language’, the power that is being exercised through the imposition of a certain language of a certain large geographic zone of South Asia on to the lengths and the breadths of this multi-linguistic landmass.

            The line between love and hate is very subtle, but rather simple as well. I love languages out of my absolute free will and according to my taste, but I would begin hating them if they are imposed upon me. I love my Urdu, but I hate the Urdu that has been made to kill my mother-tongue. One of the main reasons of partition between Western Pakistan and Eastern Pakistan was that the former was imposing Urdu on the latter. Ironically former was predominantly a Punjabi speaking area and the latter was a Bengali speaking territory and Urdu as a concocted Islamic category was made to mediate between the two completely distinct cultural zones trying to unify them under the single imaginary Islamic linguistic umbrella. It had to be a miserable failure. In other words, the idea of a national language sounds wonderful, but only on a Wikipedia page. Language is not a representational symbol like a flag, but it is a dynamic reality. Even if one fine morning a certain multilingual nation like India becoming monolingual, over a course of time it will gradually create as many completely distinct dialects of that one single imposed language. This is a linguistic reality. Funnily India will land-up having hundreds of Hindi-s, but all unique in themselves.

            India should have a robust language policy that should emphasize on the quality of language learning rather than running meaningless language departments, both classical and modern, in almost all of its public universities those are not able to offer any contribution to scholarship at large. The question is always hijacked by how many or which language. There is never a sound focus on how to do a language structurally and systematically. There can be no bigger irony than this for a multilingual landscape like South Asia. I still love linguistic jokes, but I do have problems with linguistic hegemony—my mother-tongue has succumbed to it.