La conoscenza è come una prostituta

More than a decade ago, in an interview with Inlaks Scholarship committee, the chair, who was supposed to be one of the top scientists in India working on Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, very arrogantly challenged me if I answered his question correctly (obviously what he thought to be correct) he would guarantee me the scholarship. Since I had also mentioned in my proposal that I was collaborating with a Sanskrit professor from Italy, the question was: “Why do foreigners study Sanskrit? Why do Italians study Sanskrit?” As stupid as I might have sounded to him, I was innocently practical and I started telling him the historical tale narrating a long story that started with Giuseppe Tucci and ended with Francesco Sferra. Very boring indeed. Unfortunately, this is not what he was looking forward to. As I look back, with a certain amount of conviction, I can say that he wanted me to talk about Orientalism. Perhaps he wanted me to quote Colonial Orientalists and explain to him how they feminized the Orient. I hardly knew what the word ‘Orient’ meant then. However, I had often come across ‘Oriental’ while looking for ‘Sanskrit’ on the websites of Oxford and Cambridge universities. There are still a few ‘faculty of oriental learning’ in some Indian universities too. Once in a college book-fair, when I was an undergraduate student, I caught the sight of a book titled ‘Orientalism’ by some Edward Said. I was curious to know what this word meant, but Sanskrit classes in Indian universities hardly touch anything else than Sanskrit as a result of which one ‘may’ know something about ‘Sanskrit culture’ without being able to intellectually talk about it and without developing a skill of being able to think through one’s own thinking and the knowledge one has cultivated over a period of time.

To come back to our topic, the chair of the committee also sounded quite anti-fascist to me. Since the right-wing political party BJP was in power in India back then and the then education minister was glorifying Sanskrit with more emphasis on ancient scientific literature written in the ‘language of Gods’, and since my proposal had the word ‘Sanskrit’ used innumerable times, the chair probably mistook me as a supporter of BJP ideology. As I left the interview room he said to me that I should not have been wearing a tie since I studied Sanskrit. I don’t know what he meant and I still do not understand why he said what he did. Perhaps my modern attire and ‘antique’ brain was an unbearable contradiction to him. How is a man who is supposed to study something traditional, supposed to be wearing a modern dress, he must have thought. Perhaps what he was studying was supposed to be modern enough and what I was studying was labelled as more traditional.

Moreover, it was in itself interesting that my interview panel constituted of lawyers, industrialists, general academics and scientists, but not a single specialist in social sciences or humanities, or if not asking for anything more, but an Indologist. A lawyer asked me if I ever though of comparing the ideas of the theory of relation (I had mentioned of focusing on the Sambandhasiddhi of Utpaladeva and also Abhinavagupta’s ideas on the concept of sambandha in my proposal) as discussed by Utpaladeva with that of Einstein’s theory of relativity and if I ever tried thinking of a possibility that the former could have been influenced by the latter. The only problem, according to me, I said, was that the former existed a bit earlier than the latter. A little difference of almost nine-hundred years is not too much. However, I did say I could try a reverse method.

After spending so many years in Indology I think I do identify with the feeling of the committee chair. On the one hand he wanted to support someone like me who was doing classical studies, more importantly focusing on Sanskrit that in itself was not very usual. But on the other hand he was forgetting that he himself was lacking a social scientific sense. Perhaps he would have been happy if I had said all past Orientalists had the nefarious mission of intellectually subjugating India, (which no doubt many of them did) and the process is still continuing. Fortunately, this is not the case anymore. What we call Indology or Oriental Studies today is not what it used to be a couple of centuries ago. The discipline (object) remains the same while the methodology (subject) has changed completely. So an Indologist or an Orientalist sitting somewhere in Europe today is not studying Indology because s/he wants to colonize the minds of South Asians, but because s/he is passionate about his/her discipline, s/he wants to learn and contribute to our scholarly and scientific understanding of South Asia, its history and philosophy, both pre modern and modern. We live in a post-colonial and post-modern world today. We want to learn from each other and experience each other’s culture of learning. While someone might want to think with a little amount of cynicism that one can sufficiently see the Western influence on everything that we do today, and thus South Asia has lost its ‘cultural moorings’ to the West, I would like to argue otherwise. Is West the same as it was two or three hundred years back? It also has ‘lost’ its ‘cultural moorings’ to the ‘cultural change’. We need to understand that ‘cultural’ is a dynamic concept. If a culture cannot change, it will seize to exist. Civilizations come and go. They are born and they die, but cultures continue to ‘be’ while changing their textures.

Let me speak for myself alone. I am simply arguing that when we talk about Indology and Sanskrit studies in South Asia from an academic point of view, we do observe that it lacks critical approach. This is unfortunately true not only in case of Sanskrit, but of Humanities in general and classical studies in particular. A friend of mine told me once that he often used to observe students seeking admission in master’s level Persian course in a prestigious Indian university because they wanted the facilities of hostel, bus pass etc. This is certainly not completely untrue about the departments of Sanskrit either. One of my Sanskrit teachers in Delhi once told me that even a sabzi-wala (vegetable vendor) could teach me an Upaniṣad, but he was forgetting that I did not go to a sabzi-wala and instead came to him. While I do partly agree with my teacher for even a sabzi-wala can tell you something about the basic metaphysical thinking so deeply inherent in South Asian minds, but a sabzi-wala cannot offer me an academic training, and that it why I was sitting in a university class to study an Upaniṣad with him. I quote this example because I want to emphasize the lack of critical training in humanities and social sciences in Indian universities. A student who comes to study an Upaniṣad or some traditional scripture in a classical language in a university is not a ‘spiritual seeker’, but a ‘student’ who should be trained in a scholarly method of understanding and developing a capacity of making others understand what a particular Upaniṣad is talking about and why is it saying what it is saying. It is easy to become a ‘seeker of truth’ than to be an aspiring student who really wants to understand and digest what this ‘truth’ is all about. And for doing this a serious academic approach is unavoidable. Unfortunately, it is truly possible to study also spirituality from purely academic point of view. My teacher was forgetting that I was not in front of him because I wanted to be blessed by the divine revelation of the Upaniṣadic sermons, but was only seeking a little semi-divine knowledge of the methodology with which I could understand the ‘divine revelation’ and I was happy enough doing that. For a long time even my teacher of Sanskrit grammar gave me the impression that even if I did not understand everything in Pāṇinian grammar, still a little saṃskāra (impression) will be left in my head. As a result I never worked hand enough to learn much Pāṇini.

A scholar of Tantra and Āgama-śāstra as renowned as Pandit Vrajavallabh Dwivedi, in his edited work titled Aṣṭaprakaraṇam (1988), all of a sudden mentions on page 3 of his introduction the following:


When I read these words, I wondered about two things: one, why are these words mentioned in bold characters, and two, the embedded concern of Pandit Dwivedi about Indological scholarship in India. As someone who has known Sanskrit scholars both in India and outside India, apart from the uncritical approach with which Indology is dealt with in India, I have been more concerned about the relations between so called traditional and modern scholars of early modern India. I would sound very orientalist if I say that Indian Sanskrit scholarship is all about traditional scholarship, and the non-Indian scholarship is about modern. There are more modern Sanskrit scholars in India than traditional ones. However, I think what is in question is the quality of research and the methodological approach towards a discipline.

Kashmiris are free thinkers, like Mamaṭṭa: (apāre kāvyasaṃsāre kavireko prajāpatiḥ |). So am I. And like so many of my countrymen, I have often imagined knowledge like a prostitute, as also perhaps Kṣemendra would do. It (knowledge) belongs to none while at the same time it belongs to everyone. If you pamper her, she will be yours, and if you do not, she will not. Sanskrit and allied disciplines of knowledge belong to all while not belonging to anyone at the same time. I am not talking of the spirituality of Sanskrit. I am talking about the academic knowledge of Sanskrit, both traditional and modern. Obviously, you can still only find world’s best pizza in Napoli alone for even though pizza has travelled all over the world, it’s traditional form is still only found in its birthplace. If one is looking for traditional Sanskrit knowledge, you can only find it in the best form in places like Benaras etc. But the question is if we can ignore American pizza (what is called Focaccia in Italy) at all.

apūrvaḥ ko’pi kośo’yam vidyate tava bhārati |
vyayato vṛddhimāyāti kṣayamāyāti sañcyāt ||

A traditional Sanskrit scholar would dubiously be frowning at me if I compare Sanskrit knowledge with a prostitute and not unlike him, with Goddess Bhārati.


Author: Mrinal Kaul

I am a Kashmirian Orientalist

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