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From: S G Naravane
From: S G Naravane
'American Orientalism' As The New Macaulayism, And What We Need To...R Jagannathan26 Jan, 2016
American Orientalism is a product of American history, where European settlers battled previous settlers – the American Indians – before finally decimating them, both through violence and internal emasculation by pretending to be their friends.
Edward Said made the idea of "Orientalism" famous – and a pejorative word in western academia. His critique about western scholars using only European lenses to view non-European cultures is today widely accepted as valid. However, there is only one kind of Orientalism that is still not being called that: the capture of Indian history and cultural studies by powerful American academics with little respect for the sacred traditions of India and Hinduism, even while pretending to be well-wishers of all things Hindu or Indian. Rajiv Malhotra is finally calling it what it is – American Orientalism – in his new book The Battle For Sanskrit. The book's sub-title explains what the battle is about: Is Sanskrit Political Or Sacred; Oppressive Or Liberating; Dead Or Alive?
Malhotra's is the most important critique of the new form of Orientalism that has taken root in American academia, now the European academia is no longer calling the shots on Indic studies. The reason why American Orientalism is dangerous for Indic culture is because of the sheer sophistication it brings to the idea of hollowing out Indic culture and studying Sanskrit by decapitating the head from the body. It is about studying a carcass, not a living tradition or idea.
American Orientalism is a product of American history, where European settlers battled previous settlers – the American Indians – before finally decimating them, both through violence and internal emasculation by pretending to be their friends. This is exactly the attitude American Orientalists bring to the study of Sanskrit, by pretending to be lovers of the language, and then trying to delink it from its sacred roots in Hindu tradition and thought.
Malhotra views American Orientalism as more dangerous than European Orientalism precisely because it is a frenemy – helpful to Indian scholars who have lost control of their own traditions and narratives, and yet fundamentally opposed to putting Sanskrit on the pedestal that learned pandits would normally do. We have now developed such awe for the sheer effort and resources American Universities have poured into Sanskrit studies that we are willing to treat them as sympathetic to our cause, and even give them millions of dollars to tell us about our own heritage. We end up giving them Padma Shris, while our own pandits languish without resources or recognition. We are too naïve to be able to wrest back control of our heritage from its real enemies.
The technique used by American Orientalists – of whom Malhotra names Sheldon Pollock as chief frenemy – is the good-cop-bad-cop routine. The existence of some American scholars with a genuine interest and concern for preserving our Sanskrit heritage tends to make us believe that they are fighting on our side; on the other hand, there are the Sheldon Pollocks who seek to separate the soul of Sanskrit from its body, by separating the sacred aspects of the language from its secular usage – the paramarthikafrom the vyavaharika. The idea is to embed a degree of self-hate in Hindus, so that they begin to view Sanskrit as the language of oppression, and only some aspects of the language – the kavya and secular literature – as worthy of respect. Pollock would like sacred Sanskrit as essentially oppressive – and many western-educated Indians have internalised this critique.
Let's be clear, Malhotra is no Hindutva extremist trying to pretend that everything about Hinduism or Sanskrit is holy or beyond critique. Far from it. What he objects to is the western effort to become the final arbiter in Sanskrit studies by ignoring the insider's (ie, the Hindu practitioner's) views on this language, which embodies the soul of India and its many daughter languages. He would like Indians inside the Sanskrit tradition to understand where the Pollocks are coming from and how they can both accept the outsider's views even while developing a robust defence of tradition minus its negative aspects. Malhotra is not at all opposed to internal reforms.
Unfortunately, given the fundamental fault-lines in Indian society (caste and religion), and also given the Leftist control of most academic and cultural institutions in independent India, there are many takers for American Orientalism among the Indian elite, even those who do not mind being called Hindus, whether at home on in America. There are many reasons why Hindus themselves seem unaware of the machinations of American Orientalists: as a people, we have developed an inferiority complex where we place a higher value on what the west thinks of us than what we know to be true ourselves; we have also lost track of our own traditions, where we feel embarrassed that we need to read our own itihasain English books written by foreigners to understand our past.