A humble response to Shatavadhani Ganesh’s article “The Bhagavad Gita before the battle”

First published: Mach 25, 2016

One of the more thought provoking articles I have read recently is the Mar 25 one by Shatavadhani Ganesh titled “The Bhagavad Gita before the battle“, which begins with “Before the Great War, Arjuna developed cold feet and Krishna counselled him to lift up his weapons and fight” and goes on to include, curiously, a statement from Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniyam (Canto 2, Verse 30):

“Act not in haste! A loss of sagacity (viveka) is the worst calamity. Fortune and prosperity comes to one who analyses and calculates.”

Yet, when one considers the title (which includes the Gita), when one considers the first line (which includes that “Arjuna developed cold feet and Krishna counselled…”) and when one considers some other points of focus in this article (which we will get to in Excerpt 2 section later) my mind wandered to and recalled, not Yudhishtira and his words, but to Shri Krishna and what are considered his first utterances in response to Arjuna (in Srimad Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2 Verse 11):

श्रीभगवानुवाच ।

अशोच्यानन्वशोचस्त्वं प्रज्ञावादांश्च भाषसे ।
गतासूनगतासूंश्च नानुशोचन्ति पण्डिताः ॥ २-११॥

Translation: The Blessed Lord said You grieve for those who are not to be grieved for; and you speak words of wisdom! The learned do not grieve for the departed and those who have not departed. (2.11) [Translation by Swami Gambhirananda]

Before we get to the rationale for the inclusion of that verse, first things first.

At the outset, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the author for a piece that includes many gems, this articulation being a case in point: “To ably carry out such an assessment, we must understand Hinduism’s underlying philosophy. The Hindu worldview is that of using a (scriptural) text and then transcending the text (see Rgveda Samhita 1.164.39). On the one hand we have a tradition of the “ever-growing text” and on the other we have a tradition of “transcending the text.” The growing body of knowledge (made possible by the varied and original commentaries of scholars, e.g. Shankara) helps prevent the text from getting outdated. Going beyond the text (as demonstrated by avadhutas, e.g. Ramana Maharishi) helps prevent the text from becoming an imposition.”- Resonates and educates with such brevity – a sincere thank you!

While the article includes many statements of quality, in my humble worth-very-little opinion, comparable to the one immediately above (in quotes) and which many may find hard to refute/fault and easy to appreciate, a few statements appear, to be of a nature oddly incongruent to qualities just mentioned and the remainder of this piece will attempt to focus on a few of those that appear incongruent amidst facts and truths.

Excerpt 1 from the article:

1.1 Malhotra’s intent is noble (and something that we too share) but his understanding of the nature of sanatana dharma as a transcendental system is flawed.

1.2 He aims to show that Hinduism is exclusivist in its own way and its exclusivism is somehow better than other exclusivist faiths like Christianity or Islam (see his previous book, Being Different).

Response to Excerpt 1 from the article:

1.2 above seems to implicate Rajiv Malhotra of showing “that Hinduism is exclusivist in its own way…” and advises the readership to refer to Malhotra’s book Being Different as his evidence for that point.

I revisited Being Different to search for evidence that support S Ganesh’s point, to search for statements where Malhotra calls Hinduism exclusivist.  Below is one way to summarize what I found:

In Malhotra’s Being Different, the word “exclusivist” can be found appearing 10 times:

  • 8 times, as an attribute of Abrahamic (non-Dharmic) religions:
  1. Loc 326: I pointed out that this notion of tolerance has emerged from religions built on exclusivist claims according to which other religions are false.

  2. Loc 2564: Although a few Western thinkers have opposed or rejected exclusivist logic, they have been overshadowed, if not dismissed outright, by the force of secular absolutism.

  3. Loc 2565: It is one of the two foundations of Judeo-Christian exclusivist ethos…

  4. Loc 2565: …the other being the exclusivist nature of history-centrism.

  5. Loc 3071: Such recurrent crossovers, collusions, and reversals serve to overturn and undermine the western attitude towards chaos, which is dualistic and exclusivist: order vs chaos, insider or outsider.

  6. Loc 4181: Many Christians do not look the idea that their concept of soul or spirit is limited in comparison with the atman, yet they are unwilling to relinquish their dependence on this exclusivist history, which is the underpinning of precisely those limitations.

  7. Loc 4444: Christianity’s exclusivist claim that Jesus was the only incarnation is unacceptable to dharmic religions.

  8. Loc 5435: India’s secularism was imported from the West, where religions are exclusivist and heavily institutionalized, but the history and circumstances of Indian society are vastly different.

  • 2 times as an attribute of Dharmic religions, but crucially, in its “non” form:
  1. Loc 2335: The pluralistic ethos of the Mahabharata, for instance, is grounded in a non-exclusivist framework including multiplicity of beliefs, concepts and ideas.

  2. Loc 6070: All these varieties of logic are comprehensible only with a non-essentialist and non-exclusivist framework (in section titled “Four-way Logic” which expands on Nagarjuna’s approach).

S Ganesh would like his readership to believe that Malhotra “aims to show that Hinduism is exclusivist…” but includes no direct evidence in his article (atleast none that I could find). In light of above 10 statements that actually have the word “exclusivist” from the very book that S Ganesh alludes to, would not the predicament of reconciling the factualness and quality of this statement with other genuine gems (like one included above (in blue)) be a non-partisan, truth-finding, legitimate one?

Those who need more evidence could consider these:

  1. The type of Indian distinctiveness I shall propose is not affected by the problems pose by postmodernists because (i) it is not based on historical exclusiveness or superiority be it religious or otherwise, (ii) it makes no claims of finality of knowledge, and (iii) it has no mandate to impose on others. (Malhotra, Being Different, Kindle Location 767).

  2. The dharma traditions see themselves as free from Western ‘complexes’, do not bear the burden of sin and guilt, and are not shackled by institutional authority, historical precedent or religious exclusivity. (Ibid, Loc. 2174)

  3. Yet, there is one factor within Hinduism upon which India can build, and that is the integrating quest itself. Inclusiveness, not exclusiveness, is the principle of Hinduism. (Ibid, Loc 2162-2172)

Is S Ganesh’s observation that Rajiv Malhotra “aims to show that Hinduism is exclusivist…” tenable?

Excerpt 2 from the article: 

2.1 And more importantly, he fails to mention (or seems to be ignorant of) the luminaries who have categorically rubbished such attempts – A C Bose, A C Das, Arun Shourie, Baldev Upadhyaya, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Chidananda Murthy, D V Gundappa, David Frawley, Dayananda Saraswati, G N Chakravarti, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, K S Narayanacharya, Koenraad Elst, Krishna Chaitanya, Kuppuswami Sastri, M Hiriyanna, Michel Danino, Nagendra, Navaratna S Rajaram, Padekallu Narasimha Bhat, Padma Subrahmanyam, Pullela Sriramachandrudu, R C Dwivedi, Ram Swarup, Ranganath Sharma, Rewa Prasad Dwivedi, S K Ramachandra Rao, S L Bhyarappa, S N Balagangadhara, S R Ramaswamy, S Srikanta Sastri, Shrikant Talageri, Sita Ram Goel, Sri Aurobindo, Sushil Kumar Dey, Swami Vivekananda, V S Sukhthanker, Vasudev Sharan Agarwal, Yudhishthira Mimamsaka… the list is endless.

2.2 Tucked away in the second chapter is a veiled disclaimer – “Both Indian and Western scholars have extensively criticized the European approaches towards India that prevailed during the colonial era.” (p. 52) but this cannot, sadly, absolve Malhotra of his blatant disregard to the past masters (in spite of his ostentatious dedication line to “our purva-paksha and uttara-paksha debating tradition…”)

2.3 On the one hand, he is an activist for the tradition’s cause but on the other hand he ignores past masters and looks down upon traditionalist scholars.

Response to Excerpt 2 from the article:

It is in context of statements in Excerpt 2, that inclusion of verse 2.11 (from Srimad Bhagavad Gita) may not have been too misplaced:

 श्रीभगवानुवाच ।

अशोच्यानन्वशोचस्त्वं प्रज्ञावादांश्च भाषसे ।
गतासूनगतासूंश्च नानुशोचन्ति पण्डिताः ॥ २-११॥

Translation: The Blessed Lord said You grieve for those who are not to be grieved for; and you speak words of wisdom! The learned do not grieve for the departed and those who have not departed. (2.11) [Translation by Swami Gambhirananda]

Kudos to S Ganesh for knowing and quoting Yudhishtira’s statement from Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniayam – kudos, because a) (less importantly) I learnt about this from him courtesy this article and b) (more importantly) perhaps the number of Indians (and Sanatana Dharmis) who may know and can quote this, I opine, may be a very small minority. Without doubt, Sanatana Dharma could perhaps benefit from more people with this (knowledge-depth) attribute of S Ganesh.

But in a piece titled “The Bhagavad Gita before the battle” in which he includes:

> That “…Doubtless there is a battle for Sanskrit”

> That “Without hesitation” he too “shall stand shoulder to shoulder with Malhotra “and fight this war till the end”

> That “he too is “opposed to “those who see Sanskrit as a dead language…”

Does not S Ganesh, who seems (if I may say so in this context) almost as capable as ‘Arjuna’ (with his ability to quote Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniyam et al), appears to be focusing though, like Arjuna initially did, on what seems to be a much smaller (what may appear to some as even personal) ‘context’: lamenting about what he perceives as Malhotra’s “blatant disregard to the past masters” (which again, seems to be a statement that lacks substantiative evidence). Furthermore, Malhotra’s book need not necessarily have references to works’ of people Ganesh would like to see, for the former to be legitimate. Eventually, should not originality, veracity and potential to impact also matter?.

Which makes one wonder about those words considered to be advice from Shri Krishna to Arjuna “You grieve for those who are not to be grieved for; and you speak words of wisdom! The learned do not grieve for the departed and those who have not departed” [Translation by Swami Gambhirananda].

S Ganesh himself articulates “Doubtless there is a battle for Sanskrit” and that he is willing to “stand shoulder to shoulder”. Why, then, any “doubt” without an effort to reconcile?

Would not a home team of “Ganesh and Malhotra” rather than “Ganesh vs Malhotra”, make for a stronger defense of what needs to be defended in what appears to be the larger battle, that both seem to recognize?

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