The desperate urgency to get more Indians to study India’s classical period

I've come recently to the realisation that I should perhaps have spent more time studying India's history and classical past. When I try to bridge the link between the basic fundamental concept of liberty and India, I find it increasingly necessary to weave India's history and culture into the story. That's why the Hindu Capitalism project.

But like most other middle class students in India in the 60s and 70s, I was put off badly by the caste system, the corruption, the hypocrisy, dowry deaths, spitting on roads, the smell of urine everywhere, Pandas in temples chasing you to make a quick buck. These things put me off Hinduism from a very young age, apart from my own independent philosophical quest which is still unfinished.

In that process my only exposure to Sanskrit was in class 8. I did poorly in it (it was taught badly: we were learning painful grammar instead of stories in Sanskrit) and decided to stop any further study of this "subject". Even Hindi was more of a formality – to get a first class in AIHSC, and to make sure one passed the Civil Services Hindi exam. That's it. There were some nice Hindi writers, but I was a student of science, and there was little that Hindi could offer for higher studies in science.

Today I realise that learning about India must be taken more diligently. It must be done with an open mind towards India's past. And there is some good in India's history, I can assure you of that. Despite Katherine Mayo's Mother India.

Let me reproduce key sections of Gurcharan Das's article today. Gurcharan has hit the nail on the head. I propose to contribute to this goal (of recovering India's inheritance) in the field of economics and politics. To me this has direct practical implications.

The loss of inheritance

Gurcharan Das, 09 September 2012

Akhilesh Yadav, the young chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is typical of this generation. … What will shock Akhilesh Yadav and his friends in the political class is the sobering truth that an Indian who seriously wants to study the classics of Sanskrit or ancient regional languages will have to go abroad. “If Indian education and scholarship continue along their current trajectory ,” writes Sheldon Pollock, the brilliant professor of Sanskrit at Columbia University, “the number of citizens capable of reading and understanding the texts and documents of the classical era will very soon approach a statistical zero. India is about to become the only major world culture whose literary patrimony, and indeed history, are in the hands of scholars outside the country.”

This is extraordinary in a country with dozens of Sanskrit departments in all major Indian universities, along with network of maths, pathshalas , and vidyapeeths. The ugly truth is that the quality of teaching in these institutions is so poor that not a single graduate is able to think seriously about the past and critically examine ancient texts. They are parrots who can only repeat words without converting them into true knowledge . Politically motivated appointments have also ruined the few centres of excellence that once existed at Pune University, Deccan College, and the. Fifty years ago, India had great scholars like P V Kane, V S Sukhthankar , S N Dasgupta, S Radhakrishnan and many more. The tradition of pandit learning is also disappearing.

[Sanjeev: I spent two years visiting Deccan College on a regular basis in 1980-82, and can assure you that the standard of that college was stupendous. I wrote an extensive article which was published in a major Pune newspaper: Elegant Eminence of Deccan College 1 | 2 | 3]

Where is India’s soft power when there are fewer and fewer Indians capable of interrogating the texts of Kalidasa or the edicts of Ashoka?

The gift of economic growth is that for the first time parents are beginning to be freed from earlier middle class insecurities and their children are beginning to take risks in the pursuit of unusual careers. One of these is driven by a natural curiosity about one’s past. The proud discipline of making sense of ancient texts is called philology which is practically dead in India. But as academic salaries have improved in recent years, it is increasingly possible once again to make a scholarly career. No one, however, will be able to study in India unless our institutions improve.

To be worthy of being Indian does not mean to stop speaking in English. It means to be able to have an organic connection with our many rich linguistic pasts.

What separates man from beast is memory and if we lose historical memory then we surrender it to those who those who will abuse it.

[Sanjeev: This last bit is very important. I believe the lack of serious study by dispassionate scholars has allowed amateurs with a political axe to grind to enter the space. My cousin Arun Sabhlok, who got his doctorate from Deccan College and is a full professor in Raipur University, was telling me recently (in Delhi in February) about the huge distortion of India's history by BJP. Appointments are made politically, as well. Merit counts for little in India today.]