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Battle For Sanskrit: Rajiv Malhotra At MIT

Santhi Pasumarthi

MIT witnessed a well-attended talk by Rajiv Malhotra, an Indian American author, researcher and founder of Infinity Foundation on April 2nd. The event was jointly organized by MIT Samskritam, MIT Hindu Students Council and Samskrita Bharati Boston as a book tour of Malhotra’s latest book, ‘The Battle for Sanskrit’.


Jaichander Swaminathan of MIT Samskritam welcomed the gathering and Giri Bharathan of Samskrita Bharati and Mukesh Chatter a prominent community leader in Boston introduced Rajiv Malhotra’s work.


Rajiv Malhotra took over and outlined various challenges in Indology and philology and how he thinks some prominent Indologists go about with a colonial-masters attitude trying to tell us what is wrong with our past.


Explaining on the insider-outsider terminology used in the book, he elaborated on the need for people with empathy to the culture and values to take over Indology, the need to critique Western Indologists and build a ‘Grand Indian Narrative’ on their own terms. He pointed out that this was not something new and explained how African-Americans, women and Chinese took over their respective studies.


Calling American Orientalism 2.0 a new and improved version of European Orientalism, Rajiv Malhotra went into detail on the work of prominent Sanskrit academic in US, Sheldon Pollock. He highlighted some of Sheldon Pollock’s theories which include divorcing sacredness as it is unimportant and oppressive, how Sanskrit has inherent structures that support this, the terms ‘Political philology ‘,’ Liberation philology’, ‘aestheticization of power’ and how these are selectively applied to Indology. 


He went on to explain why he thinks scholars rooted in tradition are not in a position to counter these arguments as they are strangers to the idiom, terminology and lens used by American Orientalists, he said. He stressed the need to bridge the gap by involving people with knowledge of English and these methodologies who can work with these scholars.


Ancient India had a glorious tradition of Purvapaksha (knowing and understanding the other side) and debate where opposing theories were discussed and critiqued in a polite manner. He pointed out the lack of that counter-argument in Hinduism whereas Tibetan Buddhists follow it even today.


The talk resonated very well with the audience. While he has given many talks on this, what made it different was that he quoted many examples unique to the American setting to drive home his point. There was an interesting and elaborate Q&A session where the speaker answered a lot of questions on reasons for writing this book, the way forward and the bottlenecks. T.R. Venkatesh of Samskrita Bharati proposed the vote of thanks.

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