World Sanskrit Conference shows that Sanskritic scholarship in India remains afraid of gender and caste

As a rule, story and scholarship do not bode together. It is said that the romantic sway of story-telling dilutes the seriousness of scholarship, an enterprise identifiably divorced from personal narrative. Yet, at the Seventeenth (17th) World Sanskrit Conference (2018) at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, something as audacious was attempted.

Tucked away but into the repertoire of serious scholarly presentations on philology and textual analysis was a public forum on Gender and Caste in Sanskrit Studies narrated through the personal, eliciting the title, The Story of Our Sanskrit. This discussion, as vaunted as contentious, featured Ananya Vajpeyi, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Kaushal Panwar, an assistant professor at Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi who, as a Dalit scholar of Sanskrit, has been the subject of both radical laudation and conservative castigation.

Panwar, of the Balmiki caste by social location, has defied several orthodoxies and tribulations to become a scholar of Sanskrit, including working as a manual scavenger to fund her education and bearing trenchant discrimination at the hands of her teachers, friends, and colleagues. For Panwar, Sanskrit remains an act of affirmative sabotage using which she can decipher and deconstruct the literary tonalities which prefigure her socio-political struggles as a lower-caste woman.

The 17th World Sanskrit Conference was held in Vancouver, Canada between 9-13 July 2018. Image courtesy: Twiter/@IndicAcademy

The 17th World Sanskrit Conference was held in Vancouver, Canada between 9-13 July 2018. Image courtesy: Twiter/@IndicAcademy

For Vajpeyi, negotiating the stifling confines of Sanskritic scholarship in India has been a similarly tumultuous course. “Nothing in my experience or education up to that time had prepared me for the sheer wall of prejudice,” she writes of her experience with Sanskritic scholarship in India, “that blocked the access of someone like me to the particular aspects of the history, ideology and politics of Sanskrit that I was interested in. Here I was — female, a north Indian in south India, a student enrolled at a foreign university, a Hindi-speaker, and only tenuously and dubiously of a caste that pandits considered acceptable. My teachers and I struggled to communicate, but in the end, most things were lost in translation. A well-known Sanskrit professor in Maharashtra told me that only ‘perverted women’ became scholars, a pronouncement that brought several months of our readings to an abrupt close one afternoon, and ensured I never again returned to meet him.”

In a re-phrasing, in featuring two women, one of whom Dalit, the panel furnished critical space to two groups historically and traditionally prohibited from the exercise of Sanskrit, whether in reading, writing, or even speaking it. In narrating their stories of navigating a language tailored to their social exclusion, Vajpeyi and Panwar opened and traversed a faultline in Sanskritic scholarship whose very acknowledgement is a courageous act.

Such courage, however, was lost on the august audience of Sanskrit scholars from India and Vajpeyi reported (in a private Facebook post) encountering a boorish audience unwilling to listen, let alone accept, their story of Sanskrit, exhibiting, in her words, “the worst reactionary tendencies in the field”. Yet, for anyone familiar with the operation of Sanskrit scholars in India, although one is wary of making a monolithic representation of the purva-paksha, this is but unfamiliar.

In 2016, to take merely one example, an assortment of ‘experts’ had petitioned Rohan Murty to revoke philologist Sheldon Pollock’s editorship from his Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI). The premise of the case was grounded in Pollock’s politics, particularly worrying about which, the petition detailed, was his support for seditious students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and his “deep antipathy” towards Indian intellectual traditions and knowledge systems. The petition, as it goes without saying, was a condemnation of the outsider, a practice that Sanskritic scholarship has never perfectly eschewed and only extended from women and the Dalit to the foreigner engaging with its traditions.

It is undeniable that the Sanskrit intellectual system has much to be valued and of use to address concerns of the contemporary, a fact that both Vajpeyi and Panwar acknowledge, but it is also truthful that the Sanskritic intellectual tradition has been complicit, through its historical practitioners, in the subordination of women and the lower castes, or those not dvija. Vajpeyi and Panwar, in highlighting their stories of Sanskrit, punctured any romantic idealisation of the Sanskritic world, further bemoaning that the Sanskritic academy remains insulated and exclusionary to this day.

In their furore, attendant Sanskrit scholars from India at the conference seemingly validated the grievance and revealed its ramifying manifestations in startling practice; this, in turn, renders the cultural glorification of the bygone world of Sanskrit, a political habit in increasing parlance since the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in 2014, patently hollow.

Such a close-mindedly egregious zeal to keep the outsider out is a script of the Sanskritic past, but it also militates against the historical cosmopolitanism of Sanskrit which we know of to the debt of Sheldon Pollock. As her student, and panelist at the forum, Vajpeyi wrote, “Prof Pollock’s most enduring contribution is surely his argument about the historically unique ‘cosmopolitanism’ of Sanskrit, that allowed it to become the principal carrier of widely shared ideas about morality, sovereignty and beauty across a huge swathe of Asia throughout the first millennium, without any of the propellant fuels of empire and imperial dissemination — neither an army, nor a religion, nor capital (naturally, in the pre-modern world). Related is his model of the “cosmopolitan vernacular”, where he shows how several vernacular languages in South Asia and beyond became cosmopolitan.”

Perhaps the story of “our” Sanskrit, then, will have to be told and retold till the birth of scholarly reflexivity, and its reorientation to the purpose that Sanskrit was always, in Pollock’s vein, meant to serve.

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Updated Date: Aug 22, 2018 16:02:54 IST

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