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<b>Kranti Saran:</b> The mentality of ressentiment

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Kranti Saran
Makarand Paranjape has argued in The Indian Express that Sheldon Pollock, the editor of the Murty Classical Library generously funded by Rohan Murty, ought to be removed. Mr Paranjape charges Mr Pollock's essay "The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory in Indian Intellectual History" with an "egregiously arrogant impeachment" of shastric tradition as authoritarian. (The essay is easily available online. While Mr Pollock considers how shastric texts come to be authoritative and lists their ideological effects, fair-minded readers won't find anything corresponding to Mr Paranjape's charge.) Mr Paranjape also accuses Mr Pollock of aligning with "Hindu-phobic causes" and "working to nix positions in Indic studies" in the United States, in addition to speaking out against government authoritarianism on university campuses. Mr Paranajape sees Mr Pollack's stances as evidence of "politically motivated hegemonic practices". All this is in the midst of an ongoing "battle to regain India's civilizational poise, equilibrium, and self-confidence" in which we are "still largely colonised and subservient". So, according to Mr Paranjape, we have a Hindu-phobic bigot at the helm of the "charge against Indian culture" and as history shows, "where scholars lead the charge against Indian culture, missionaries are only too ready to follow through". In Mr Paranjape's telling, Sheldon Pollock is paving the way for missionaries. Really?

Mr Paranjape's risible argument only merits a response because the mentality behind it is so widespread. That mentality, so accurately described in Frederich Nietzche's On the Genealogy of Morality, is the mentality of ressentiment.

The mentality of ressentiment has three essential components: first, the person desires to lead a life he or she deems valuable; second, the person recognises their impotence to lead that life; finally, the person steadfastly refuses to accept their impotence, even though they recognise it. In the context of Mr Paranjape's argument, he and his ilk desire to lead a life characterised by the poise, equilibrium, and self-confidence conferred by their unquestioned political and social dominance in a Brahminical order. But they are impotent to actually lead that life. Dalits, women and dissenters from the Brahminical fold have a political consciousness, and sometimes political power, that poses an existential threat to the Brahminical order. Add the threat of disruptive social mobility posed by a market-driven economy and globalisation, and a colonial hangover, and you have the recognition of impotence. Finally, instead of reassessing the value of the Brahminical order, or accepting one's impotence to realise it, the mentality of ressentiment refuses to accept its impotence.

The three components of ressentiment form a toxic mix: a self brimming with suspicion and the desire for vengeance, whose powers of creativity become entirely reactive, reactive to an other deemed foreign. Mr Pollack cannot be just a Sanskritist with strong political convictions who happened to team up with a visionary philanthropist to reintroduce the reading public to the depth and breadth of the Indian tradition; Mr Pollock is paving the way for missionaries! The pity is that Mr Paranjape and those who share his mentality think their anxieties about Mr Pollock pave the road to mental emancipation rather than just express their ressentiment.

There are many reasons for the current state of Sanskrit studies in India, but here's one that Mr Paranjape does not consider: caste. The appalling fact is that even today, non-Brahmin Sanskritists are hard pressed to engage with the classical tradition because too many classically trained pandits refuse to teach them. For example, I know of a brilliant non-Brahmin working on Indian philosophy who had to pursue higher studies in the United States because classical pandits wouldn't teach him (though they had no qualms about teaching foreigners). Just think of all the minds denied access to those texts over thousands of years and pause to imagine the scale of our collective intellectual loss.

Mr Paranjape might respond that my argument, since it appeals to the notion of ressentiment, only confirms his claim that "the Indian mentality... remains a prisoner of Western categories". The mentality of ressentiment cannot imagine using Western categories without being enslaved by them. Where the mentality of ressentiment asks "is it Indian?", an emancipated mentality asks "is it true?". The path out of the trap of ressentiment is what it has always been: inquiry aimed at truth. The poise, equilibrium and self-confidence that Mr Paranjape craves are the byproducts of inquiry aimed not at chest-thumping, but at truth.

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First Published: Apr 15 2016 | 9:47 PM IST

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