Newsletter 51: Quoting the enemy

This is going to be a short newsletter, and a very late one. I was out and away for much of last week with minimal access to electronics and am now facing a mountain of messages and tasks. Death by email, as they say.

Meanwhile, a little storm has broken out in a corner of the woods that I peek into occasionally. If you have heard of Rajiv Malhotra, you probably know what I am talking about already. If you haven’t heard the name, this isn’t the time to google the phrase.

Anyway, RM came to prominence in the late nineties when he started writing about the appropriation of Hindu (and more generally, Indic) ideas, philosophies and traditions by western academics. At that time he had some money, so he organized conferences around this theme, inviting prominent scholars and achieving a measure of intellectual recognition for his activities. I should say at the outset that I am sympathetic to his overall argument - the history of the western encounter with other traditions is a sad one, dominated by evasion and outright destruction.

Be that as it may, there's a reason why RM came to prominence in the late nineties during the previous BJP regime and his following has mushroomed in the current dispensation. There's a particular kind of technically trained but otherwise undereducated person who finds the cultural victimhood line appealing. There's no doubt that they're victims - they have chosen a professional path that has nothing to do with their own cultural traditions and the nature of the Indian educational system is such that they have no other means of access to their traditions either. The real tragedy is this: it takes extensive training and cultural immersion to engage with texts by Nagarjuna or Sankara. That sensibility has vanished, leaving behind people who only know of their own ground and don't know where to look or whom to approach if they're interested in a deeper engagement.

RM has found himself a spot of trouble, because it looks like he has been lifting passages from other people's books and passing them off as his own. Of course, proper citation is itself a western imposition. I am no fan of the extensively footnoted humanities text, but my understanding is that respect for one's sources is as much a feature of the Indian textual tradition as it is of the western one. Whether by chance or by design, RM and others like him have found an easy target, for the western scholar who studies these texts is a beleaguered species. First, there's the matter of envy: how could a bearded white man in Chicago have access to my texts in a manner that I don't? Second, the bearded white man uses interpretive tools that can be easily discredited, such as psychoanalysis and postmodern hermeneutics. Third, there's the superiority complex of the technically trained person: of course an engineer is superior to a historian, we make more money and we build cars and rockets while that guy sits in a library and reads. How can a bearded white man's access to Sanskrit combat our wizardry?

The third reason is the saddest of the three, for the irony of Indians with some skill in a quintessentially modern western discipline (engineering/programming/science) frothing over the work of westerners having some skill in a quintessentially classical Indian discipline is lost on all concerned. It also lays bare a basic truth: that both the Indian techie and the western Indologist accepts the superiority of modern technical training. That psychological defeat is what leads to the "discovery" of spaceships in ancient texts. All of us know where the real sources of power and fame are today and blaming bearded white men in Chicago will not change that fact one bit.