In January last year, a few minutes before the launch of the Murty Classical Library of India in Delhi, Rohan Murty was animatedly talking about his love for literature. Murty talked about how philosophy in ancient India was his major area of interest, but since the texts were in Sanskrit, he had to rely on one-off translations, which led him to think about a translation-based project.
Then in 2008 he met Sheldon Pollock, a Sanskrit scholar who had already worked on a similar project, the Clay Sanskrit Library. As luck would have it, Pollock too was looking for a fresh start in the game after the Clay Library had shut unceremoniously.
Pollock's vision was an expansive one, Murty said in a hotel lobby as his parents, Sudha and Narayana Murthy, patiently waited for their son. "Why don't we go beyond Sanskrit? There are several classics in vernacular and medieval languages in Indian literature," Pollock had told Murty when they first met.
And, as Murty continued talking about how literature should be celebrated and not politicised, his public relations agent hurriedly told him the guests were arriving and it was time to go in. The guests she was referring to included Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia.
Before taking his leave, Murty handed over a paper bag; it contained five beautiful rose-tinted hardcovers. For many, including my friends and me, it was the first time we had a chance to read something like Therîgâthâ: Poems of the First Buddhist Women (Pali) and The Story of Manu (Telugu) with their English translations faithfully beside the original text.
With a $5.2 million grant from Murty and Pollock's vision of broadening the reach of the library, it was the beginning of a monumental task.
So when a petition to remove Pollock as mentor and chief editor of the Murty Library made its way to Change.org with 15,830 supporters, it immediately polarised not just academicians and the literary community, but also brought to the forefront those who felt Indian classics were in danger if "outsourced wholesale to American Ivy Leagues".
Addressed to Murty and Narayan Murthy (who has absolutely nothing to do with the Library, except being Murty's father), the petition said that Pollock "has deep antipathy towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practiced in our civilisation". It said that for a project of this magnitude, we need a "team of scholars who not only have proven mastery in the relevant Indian languages, but are also deeply rooted and steeped in the intellectual traditions of India". And, these scholars need to be imbued with a sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilisation.
This is the same Pollock who for months stayed with scholar T V Venkatachala Sastry in Mysuru to study classical Kannada; the same Pollock who's the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University and has been visiting India since 1973. He's a man who has spent much of his life studying Indian texts.
Apart from errors, some of which were later rectified, the petition says since Pollock is one of the signatory members to support the protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, he has shown disrespect for the integrity of India, and thus he doesn't have the "objectivity" for this historic project.
"Pollock does not complain about the Patriot law and about the Iraqi invasion, but is consistent in signing petitions that question the integrity of India, including a recent one supporting the activities at JNU, which were found to be disrespecting our judiciary, our government, and the Office of the President of India," says Ganesh Ramakrishnan, a professor of computer science and engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay.
To top it, the petition says that Pollock subscribes to a view that the shastras generated in India serve no contemporary purpose except for the study of how Indians express themselves.
Scholars at the University of Heidelberg, where Pollock originally gave the lecture he's quoted from in the petition, have since then signed a declaration expressing shock at the "deliberate misrepresenting" of Pollock's speech, saying that Pollock had actually spoken in favour of the "value of Indian traditions and knowledge system".
The petition has been modified after reports of inaccuracies, and people have begun to take a closer look at the 132 individuals who originally signed it.
It's pretty clear the petitioners haven't read any of the Murty Library publications, or if they did, didn't find anything to complain about, says author and journalist Raghu Karnad. "So, the petition is completely trivial on the matter of scholarship, which is what made me wonder about the petitioners themselves. Let's just say I was amused but I wasn't surprised," he adds.
Karnad spent an evening looking at the credentials of those who had signed against Pollock, and wrote on Facebook how he skipped engineers and natural scientists, and instead chose to focus on those working closer to Pollock's field. He found one described as a well-known astrologer who carried out a horoscope-reading session on laptops, "marking a perfect match of a traditional science with a modern tool". The petition does have a few distinguished names, though, like IIT Bombay's K Ramasubramanian.
Canadian Indologist Dominik Wujastyk emphasises that context is critical in cultural and humanistic studies. "The misrepresentation of the meaning of Pollock's writings is so obvious that it leaves one wondering about the causes for this, and how so many good academics would be willing to lend their names to such a petition," he says. "I think the whole affair points to the importance of networks of trust, a subject that has been studied under the name Social Network Theory."
This is how the theory works: one person implicitly trusts another, for social and professional reasons, and is therefore willing to endorse his view, regardless of its content. Networks of trust build up, and these are not necessarily strongly determined by the intellectual content of the issues at stake.
Wujastyk explains how this behaviour is most obvious in politics, where families and regions will traditionally vote for a particular party out of loyalty, habit and tradition, more or less independently of the political content of a party's manifesto at any particular time.
Here, leading this social network theory's group appears to be Rajiv Malhotra, whose book, The Battle for Sanskrit, has been quoted in the petition.
K Gopinath, a petitioner, believes that the issue has picked up only after Malhotra's new book came out. "As recently as 2014, many were uncomfortable with Pollock's way of interpreting texts but it needed someone with the required fortitude to really study the full corpus of his work to understand the interpretive lens," explains Gopinath, a professor at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
US-based Malhotra, according to the petition, has written about how "Pollock's writings are deeply flawed and misrepresent our cultural heritage". In an email interaction for this piece, Malhotra says traditional Indian scholars are finding their voices muted. "Pollock wields a large stick in India. We need to bring about a balance so that pluralistic world is sustained in India. We need to ensure that original Indian voices remain."
Patrons like Murty should be "sensitive" to this issue, adds Malhotra. "If Murty truly worries that the younger generation is losing touch with ancient Indian texts, then I submit that translations will only worsen the situation if they are injecting certain unsubstantiated assumptions such as the foreign Aryan theory," he says.
Elaborating on encouraging different viewpoints (including Pollock's), Malhotra says, "Let us have no-holds-barred freedom of expression. I believe that this is good for Hinduism. In fact, I have been on record saying that the internet is the best thing that has happened to Hinduism."
Malhotra doesn't feel the need to have read the Murty Library books, being familiar with his earlier work, he suggests. "Besides, my recent book examines in detail numerous other kinds of biases in Pollock's work. We are given no reasons to believe that his translations will be different now," he says.
A project of this magnitude does invite its shares of pitfalls too. When the first five books came out last year, praises for Murty came in torrents. But Bengaluru-based Murty had also received queries asking why he hadn't brought out a Kannada book first. When Pollock and Murty looked into the matter, they found they hadn't received a single Kannada proposal, following which work on The Life of Harishchandra of Raghavanka (Hariúcandrakâvyam) began. The book will be out by next year.
The editorial board thus appears to be open to suggestions. But no one had approached Murty about this in all the years of the making of the Murty Library, and even after the books came out. "It is quite rich to sit in the peanut gallery, pass comments and throw empty shells at those who are actually rolling their sleeves up and working on the ground," Murty said earlier in response to the petition.
It is to be noted that the battle here isn't about Hinduism or religious text - the Murty Library works with Indian classics across a gamut of languages. "The Murty series is not only about Hindu texts. It has already published Buddhist, Sufi and Persian texts. It is a foundational aim of the series to represent the classical works of the whole of India, not just one segment," shares Wujastyk.
These books as translations set out to represent not what the professor thinks, but what the original authors wrote, Wujastyk adds. As editor of the series, Pollock's job includes raising funds, selecting items to be worked on (out of those offered), working with Harvard University Press (the publishers) on organising the printing and publication, and helping the authors in any appropriate way, as required.
"But if the series can be said to have any ideological message, it is the ideologies of the individual original authors, Bharavi, the Buddhist nuns who wrote Therigatha, Tulsidas, Abu'l-Fazl, Allasani Peddana and Bullhe Shah," explains Wujastyk.
Ananya Vajpeyi of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies believes that the Murty Library is doing the greatest service to India and to its culture and knowledge. "There need to be many more such ventures, rather than this totally counter-productive call to shut down what has been created with so much difficulty and what has delivered and promises to go on delivering in the form of new volumes every year into the foreseeable future."
While the Murty Library has welcomed scholars to write to it with proposals right from its inception, it has never been opposed to the creation of more such platforms. As the lead petitioner Ramakrishnan shares, there's already a plan afloat for the formation of a similar library, called the Vande Mataram Library, though it may take some time to come about.