Murty Classical Library of India: Objections Over Leadership

In News by Dennis Abrams

Despite warnings that “South Asians are losing the linguistic and analytic skills necessary to read, comprehend, preserve and value their astounding textual heritage,” petitions call for the Murty Classical Library’s Sheldon Pollock to step down.
The Murty Classical Library of India is being published by Harvard University Press.

The Murty Classical Library of India is being published by Harvard University Press.

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘Values Cherished and Practiced in our Civilization’
Last year we covered the launch of the Murty Classical Library of India, Harvard University Press’ ambitious effort to translate ancient texts written in Sanskrit, Telugu, Hindi, Bangla and Pali into English, making them accessible to modern readers, some for the first time.

Sheldon Pollock

Sheldon Pollock

But when the Murty’s general editor, Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock, signed two statements that condemned government action against students at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Pollock himself became the target of a petition drive calling for him to be fired.

As reported by Mridula Chari at Scroll.in, 132 scholars and intellectuals signed a petition requesting that projects funder Rohan Murty “invite critics of Pollock for discussion and to align the ambitious translation problems with the goals of the government of India.”

“Such a historical project would have to be guided and carried out by 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,” the petition asserted. “They also need to be imbued with a sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilization.”

And this, according to the petition, cannot be done by Pollock who, it says, is known to have a “deep antipathy towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practiced in our civilization.”

“[It] is crystal clear that Pollock has shown disrespect for the unity and integrity of India,” the petition said. “We submit that such an individual cannot be considered objective and neutral enough to be in charge of your historic translation project.”

In addition, the petition demands that:

“The project must be part of the ‘Made in India’ ethos and not outsourced wholesale to American Ivy Leagues,” the petition’s text said. “Just as your visionary role in Infosys showed the world that Indians can be the top producers of IT, so also we urge you to champion the development of Swadeshi Indology.”

‘To Sit in the Peanut Gallery’

Scroll.in quotes Varadraj Bapt, a signatory of the petition and a professor at the School of Management at IIT Bombay:

“The [Murty Classical Library of India] project is very good, but it should be done by someone who knows our civilisation well. Today modern educated people don’t know Sanskrit, so the right to translate manuscripts should lie with those who really know Sanskrit. Subsequently people will read only the English interpretations, whereas the actual manuscripts will have much deeper meaning.”

But in his first public statement on the subject, Rohan Murty — the son of Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy, was quoted by the Economic Times as saying that Sheldon Pollock will continue to oversee the translation of Indian classics into English for several more years.

Rohan Murty

Rohan Murty

“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…I doubt if these people have read even a single book that we have published.

“I want to hear in which book we have published, in which line or page there is a problem, and in what context, and why,” said Murty, “I think that is a more constructive, positive way, rather than saying that this is a conspiracy theory.”

“What stopped any of these people from getting in touch with me? Not one single person came forward, which is incredible,” he said. Murty, who is also the cofounder of Catamaran Ventures, said the library only commissions the “best possible scholar for that particular language. We will not judge on nationality, gender, race, creed or color.”

The root of the problem, he told the paper, is that there aren’t more scholars in India capable of carrying out such translations from ancient literature. “What can we do to address this? Everything else is just noise.”

At The Hindu, Ananya Vajpeyi  of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, wrote on Pollock’s behalf:

Ananya Vajpeyi

Ananya Vajpeyi

“Apart from his original and innovative contributions, Prof. Pollock has also undertaken some of the largest and most successful collaborative research projects in contemporary academia, working with colleagues on the literary histories of more than a dozen major Indian languages, on digital humanities, and on India’s relationship with other significant pre-modern civilizations, including the Greco-Roman, the Persianate, and the Chinese. He also launched and ran the Clay Sanskrit Library for several years prior to his current undertaking, the even more ambitious, complex and multilingual Murty Classical Library of India. For the past decade, he has been warning of a “crisis in the classics”, pointing out that South Asians are losing the linguistic and analytic skills necessary to read, comprehend, preserve and value their astounding textual heritage, the largest and most varied in the world.

“Prof. Pollock has won the highest awards and honours in the U.S. and India; he has secured funding for the study of Sanskrit and other Indian languages from American and Indian donors; he has trained students of many nationalities, who teach, write, publish and do research on India and South Asia all over the world. He not only speaks fluent Sanskrit, he has studied Tamil, Kannada and Hindi seriously as well. Pollock has instituted a scholarship for Dalit youth to be able to study at Columbia University, just like B.R. Ambedkar once did. His next book will be a Reader on Rasa, which goes to the heart of the theory and practice of aesthetics in Indian intellectual history.

“To challenge such unparalleled erudition and to impugn such unflagging commitment to the study of India’s pasts is only to betray a profound ignorance of the field, and to deny the stakes and the urgency of scholarship in and about South Asia.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.