The Straw Man Fallacy and the Battle for Sanskrit

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Kalavai Venkat

Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based writer, an atheist, a practicing orthodox Hindu, and author of the book What Every Hindu Should Know About Christianity. Follow him on Twitter: KalavaiVenkat

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The Straw Man Fallacy and the Battle for Sanskrit

Kalavai Venkat

The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive? (TBFS) is Rajiv Malhotra’s latest book, in which he offers a much needed analysis of a subversive and pseudoscientific variety of scholarship epitomized by the likes of Sheldon Pollock. The traditional Saṃskṛta scholar and polyglot, R. Ganesh, critiqued TBFS – click here to read it. As a critical reviewer, Ganesh highlighted its positives as well as its flaws. Ganesh’s critique elicited a far from edifying response from Malhotra.

In this article, I will summarize Ganesh’s key arguments, examine Malhotra’s response, and articulate why Malhotra rather set up a straw man and triumphantly knocked it down than substantively respond to Ganesh’s critique even where such a response was possible.

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I will begin with a paraphrase of the gist of Ganesh’s key arguments. At the very outset, Ganesh declares that he considers Malhotra’s intent noble and shares it. Malhotra’s analysis of European Orientalism and its offshoot which Pollock epitomizes is reasonably accurate. The tendency to view India through the western lens has resulted in many erroneous conclusions which Malhotra demonstrates throughout the book. He gives credit to Malhotra for attempting a pūrva pakṣa of Pollock’s methodology and unhesitatingly states that such an attempt makes TBFS invaluable. However, Malhotra fails to establish the pramāṇa (instruments of knowledge) necessary for such an exercise. Malhotra’s attempt at siddhānta (rebuttal of Pollock’s theses) is inadequate except where he summarizes other scholars’ works. Malhotra’s understanding of the Saṃskṛta language and literary conventions is insufficient. Malhotra fails to recognize the contributions of traditional Saṃskṛta scholars who have systematically rebutted distortions of Hindu traditions and gives the reader the impression that he is the first one to embark on such a journey. He portrays traditional Saṃskṛta scholars as lazy, apathetic, or even colluding with the enemy.

Ganesh then cites several examples of traditional Saṃskṛta scholars systematically refuting western distortions of Hindu texts and traditions. One such is the example of Pollock’s portrayal of the Rāmāyaṇa as a tool of oppression. Ganesh points out that this trope is not Pollock’s invention but an adaptation of a trope which is at least a century old. He then references the rebuttals of this trope by several traditional scholars. Ganesh concludes his critique with four appendices in which he summarizes 15 instances where Malhotra has erred in his book or his arguments have been untenable. He also summarizes the 22 critical points which Malhotra missed out to counter Pollock.

I will now summarize Malhotra’s key contentions (underlined) against Ganesh’s critique and evaluate those.

  1. Ganesh trivializes the pūrva pakṣa methods Malhotra employs.

This is not true. Ganesh actually writes that Malhotra deserves credit for attempting pūrva pakṣa (a summary and evaluation of what Pollock says) and states that the attempt renders TBFS invaluable. However, there are serious flaws in Malhotra’s approach, e.g., the imperative first step of establishing the pramāṇa (instruments of knowledge) is entirely missing in TBFS. I will illustrate the importance of establishing the pramāṇa with an analogy. Scriptural testimony is not a pramāṇa for an evolutionary biologist who studies biological evolution whereas it may be very important for a Christian believer. The two cannot have a discourse where the biologist cites empirical evidence but the believer quotes the Bible. This is precisely why scientists agree upon naturalistic explanation as the framework in any scientific discourse. In Indian traditions too, pūrva pakṣa was only limited to those darśana (doctrinal systems) which agreed upon a common set of pramāṇa. Some schools such as the Lōkāyata discounted most forms of pramāṇa except pratyakṣa (apprehension by the senses). Therefore, rival schools which valued other pramāṇa such as anumāna (inference from a set of premises) did not attempt pūrva pakṣa on the Lōkāyata School. So, although Malhotra’s attempt is admirable his approach to pūrva pakṣa is flawed.

Siddhānta (rebuttal of Pollock’s arguments) is the closing part of Malhotra’s exercise. Ganesh states that while attempting siddhānta Malhotra fares well wherever he borrows from other well-known scholars but falls short when he puts forth his original conclusions. Ganesh argues that the siddhānta section of TBFS could’ve been reinforced had Malhotra brought in some of the cited experts as coauthors.

This is hardly a trivializing of the pūrva pakṣa methods which Malhotra employs. This is a damning assessment of his usage of the same after recognizing its importance. Malhotra could’ve either accepted the constructive criticism and worked on improving the methodological approach in the next edition of TBFS or attempted a substantive rebuttal of Ganesh’s arguments. However, he took the escape route by falsely accusing Ganesh of trivializing his effort.

  1. Ganesh lacks familiarity with Pollock’s works and methodology firsthand and relies upon Malhotra’s summary. Ganesh has limitations in his understanding of Indology which must be constructively discussed. Ganesh has not created a home team to analyze and critique western Indologists’ writings as Malhotra has done.

This is a strange argument because Ganesh is evaluating Malhotra’s book and not Pollock’s. This argument could only have been valid had Malhotra substantively critiqued a work of Ganesh in which he attempts a pūrva pakṣa of Pollock’s writings. However, that is not the case here. Besides, Ganesh agrees with Malhotra’s assessment of Pollock’s scholarship and interpretations! I will quote him verbatim: “Malhotra’s analysis of European Orientalism and its latter variant, what he terms ‘American Orientalism’ is reasonably accurate. … Malhotra makes a thorough analysis of the evolution of American Orientalism, showcasing their strategy of creating atrocity literature against the people they wish to dominate. … The assiduous efforts of Malhotra in writing The Battle for Sanskrit bears fruit in one department – a meticulous analysis of the works of Sheldon Pollock.”

Malhotra’s attempt at dissing a critic on those points where he agrees with Malhotra gives one the impression that he is unable to handle Ganesh’s critical feedback given elsewhere in the critique, has no substantive response to offer in rebuttal, and hence desperately attempts to discredit the critic by employing dirty tricks. Did the substantive critique leave Malhotra so exposed that his only escapist option is to deflect the attention to the critic?

Malhotra had invited Ganesh to be a speaker in the book release function of TBFS. Should we presume that Malhotra wasn’t aware of Ganesh’s alleged limitations in comprehending the works of Indologists including Pollock then? Or, shall we conclude that those alleged limitations were imposed upon Ganesh through a retributive curse for writing that critique? How much more vindictive can one get? It is arbitrary to insist that a critic should first create a ‘home team’ before critiquing Malhotra’s work. Why doesn’t Malhotra impose this precondition on those who eulogize him in book release functions?

Note: I would paraphrase the words of a well-informed scholar (vide personal conversation), who has systematically followed Ganesh’s writings, lectures and seminars over many years. I recognize that this paraphrase entails the risk of letting the spotlight shine on the critic. However, this side note would illustrate that Malhotra’s diversionary tactic is based on falsehood. So, I would go ahead with the paraphrase.

An impartial reader who wants to familiarize oneself with Ganesh’s nuanced criticism of the various Indological works including Pollock’s writings over the last many years may follow his lectures on rasa, dhvani, and aesthetics delivered at the Gokhale Institute where Ganesh dissects, among others, Pollock’s dismissive stance. A few years ago, in an address delivered in a seminar, Ganesh had refuted Pollock’s theses when an attempt was made to translate one of Pollock’s works into Kannada. Or, one may invoke Ganesh’s critique of the misinterpretation of the Kavirājamārga. In his extensive writings on aesthetics in the Kannada Prabha, Ganesh has systematically deconstructed the interpretations of various Indologists.

  1. Ganesh is manipulative and creates discord between Malhotra and traditionalists by alleging that “Malhotra directly accuses Indian scholars of either being unwillingly complicit with the enemies (p. 68), or being irresponsible (p. 15), or being uninterested (p. 44), or being unaware of Western scholarship (p. 1). He lacks empathy for the numerous scholars who are deeply involved in their own research.”

Oh, really? Ganesh must have unleashed paranormal forces to manipulate Malhotra’s mind and made him write these sentences (click here to read; watch 1:19:00 of this video where he levels a similar charge) about traditional Saṃskṛta scholars most of whom live under conditions of abject poverty!

  • Many top Indian scholars of Sanskrit enjoy Western – most notably American – patronage in one form or another.
  • Their careers are often underwritten by American largesse.
  • Consequently they become even more loyal to their Western sponsors.
  • These individuals (i.e., traditional scholars) tend to close ranks with the Americans.
  • They proudly parrot the Americanized discourse as a way to appear more sophisticated than their fellow Indians.
  1. Ganesh does not listen well but articulates a lot. …  His review of TBFS is more a personal criticism of Malhotra than an analysis of the book’s thesis. … He accumulates data but lacks knowledge or wisdom.

These are not the only ad hominem remarks Malhotra hurled at Ganesh. Elsewhere, he contemptuously reduces Ganesh’s prowess to a mere ability to recite without understanding and equates him with an iPod. He also condescendingly tells a towering polyglot like Ganesh to “stop feeling threatened by (Malhotra’s) call to action by traditional scholars to do their job” in pūrva pakṣa. He also accuses Ganesh of being motivated by jealousy and pettiness (because Ganesh declined to be a speaker in the TBFS book release event). In this video (1:04:00 of this video) too, Malhotra alleges that Ganesh felt threatened by his work. An anonymous blogger wonders whether Ganesh is capable of reading a single paper of Pollock’s, calls Ganesh’s English kitchen-grade which is allegedly what 90 percent of English-speaking Desis are best capable of, and calls Ganesh a deeply peeved drunk scholar. Malhotra approvingly tweeted the denigrating blog. Another Malhotra admirer accuses Ganesh of displaying passive aggression and calls him a self-serving scholar. She then taunts him for not doing a pūrva pakṣa of Pollock’s works (I’ve already explained the absurdity of this charge), and challenges him to walk the talk by joining Malhotra’s ‘home team.’

In summary, one notices a stark contrast between Ganesh’s critique and Malhotra’s response. Ganesh carefully examined TBFS and offered a detailed analysis. As a critic, he pointed out the flaws in the book. He didn’t attack or abuse Malhotra personally and limited any personal references to pointing out Malhotra’s flawed scholarship and misuse of methodology. This is exactly what a critic must do. The job of a critic is not to eulogize the author but to provide honest feedback. This would enable the author or future authors to amend and improve the body of knowledge. Ganesh provided 22 critical points which Malhotra missed out to counter Pollock. An author embarking on a similar initiative in the future would benefit from Ganesh’s recommendation. If one were to analyze Pollock’s writing by using those 22 points as reference that alone would be a substantial work. Ganesh the critic is an author’s dream. His critique may not always please the author. However, his sincerity and the depth and breadth of scholarship he brings to the table through his critique would benefit an open-minded author. An author who listens to such a critic would produce future works of exceptional quality.

Malhotra, on the other hand, has studiously avoided responding to any of the 15 specific errors which Ganesh has pointed out in TBFS. At the time of writing this article, 12 days have passed since Ganesh published his critique. Likewise, 11 days have passed since Malhotra promised to come back with a substantive response. All he has done is to write lengthy articles and posts which are free of substance and full of personal attacks. One wonders why he couldn’t have at least responded to a few of the errors which Ganesh pointed out in the last 11 days instead of indulging in aggressive posturing and diversionary tactics. He has also not responded to Ganesh’s highlighting of the 22 points which Malhotra missed out to counter Pollock. This is strange because any author who values truth and scholarship would rejoice at such an opportunity which would help improve the quality of the next edition.

Instead, Malhotra and his uncritical followers have only invoked one straw man argument after another to triumphantly knock it down. They have only filled one blog or article after another with insults and condescending remarks hurled at one of the finest scholars of our times. It is time they realized that they are indulging in unscrupulous behavior and committing logical fallacy.

Conclusion

You perhaps wonder whether Ganesh could’ve provided his feedback to Malhotra in private. This would’ve saved Malhotra all the embarrassment and prevented Ganesh’s pointers from falling into the hands of the enemies of dharma.

This entirely depends on whether Malhotra takes critical feedback constructively or not. My experience with him tells me that he does not. In Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, Malhotra had committed some serious mistakes in his portrayal of Jesus, evolution of Christian doctrinal orthodoxy, kunḍalinῑ, etc. I had originally shared my review with Malhotra in private and followed up with a lengthy telephonic discussion. He concurred in many of my concerns and said that sections of the book could’ve been edited more tightly to reflect his position more accurately. My intent was not to run down a scholar who is defending dharma. Therefore, I wrote a critique which was overall positive and only toward the end highlighted the areas of disagreement where Malhotra had erred. Even then, my language was so subtle that only those with a reasonably deep knowledge of these systems would understand it. This was on April 16, 2012 and one could read the review here. It has been four years since then. Has Malhotra corrected any of those errors? No. Did a section of his readers walk away with a flawed understanding as a result? Yes. Who gains when we treat a fellow writer with kid gloves? Neither dharma nor the readers benefit from it especially when the author doesn’t show willingness to correct his erroneous stances despite being made aware of. On the other hand, when one engages in public criticism, the author is compelled to take corrective measures. Even if the author doesn’t, his readers would learn to evaluate his writings more critically.

A public criticism is necessary for another reason as well. Malhotra often denigrates traditional scholars in the most demeaning manner. In a lecture delivered before the launch of TBFS, Malhotra accuses many traditional scholars of having sold out to the enemy (watch 14:00 of the video here). He offers no evidence to corroborate this libelous charge. It is an absurd allegation because Saṃskṛta teaching is not a lucrative business and most traditional Saṃskṛta scholars lead lives of penury. However, such allegations unfairly cast a shadow of suspicion on them. It also serves another expedient purpose. If any traditionalist criticizes Malhotra’s interpretations then such person could be accused of selling out to the enemy.

Malhotra denies the stellar contributions of outstanding traditionalists such as Ganesh by indulging in crude mockery while simultaneously trumpeting his own contributions as the most important. His crude mockery of Ganesh, who has single-handedly revived the avadhāna tradition in addition to authoring many seminal works, is a case in point. Malhotra accuses Ganesh of leading a life of glamor all these decades while Malhotra was alone championing the cause of dharma. This is not at all true because Ganesh leads an extremely simple life and has dedicated his life to the pursuit of traditional scholarship. Malhotra also makes value judgments and characterizes Ganesh’s critique of TBFS as a manifestation of his alleged insecurities. How is this behavior different from that of a schoolyard bully who targets a gentle, high-achiever kid? Should one go out of the way to save Malhotra’s reputation when he unscrupulously denigrates traditional scholars? Malhotra should consider himself fortunate that a towering scholar like Ganesh, whose scholarship, intellect, dedication, and analytical skills Malhotra cannot even dream of matching, critiqued TBFS. He should be grateful to Ganesh for providing him important points of guidance. Unfortunately, Malhotra attempted to bully him and acted in the most unscrupulous manner. Why should traditionalists spare their criticism of his public writings?

Malhotra creates the impression that a vast army of traditional scholars support his interpretations. I doubt it. I cannot think of any serious traditional scholar who would prefer Malhotra’s interpretations over Ganesh’s. Malhotra hopes traditionalists would be nameless foot soldiers who are in awe of his ‘after-all-not-so-kitchen-grade’ English. However, traditionalists only support him because they trust his assertions and are unaware of the canards he spreads about them. Would they continue to support him should they come to know of the libelous allegations he levels against them?  I doubt it.

Pollock as well as Malhotra subscribe to the pseudoscientific drivel called postmodernism. A reader may click here and read the physicist Alan Sokal’s hilarious debunking of that pseudoscience. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Weinberg also did the same – click here to read his exposé as did Richard Dawkins – read here. The postmodernist drivel is the very opposite of the traditional Hindu approach to scholarship, which relies upon a rigorous set of pramāṇa to determine the nature of reality and interpret it. Therefore, the traditional approach is at odds with Malhotra’s approach to evaluating texts and traditions. Traditionalists share Malhotra’s intent to preserve traditions and his apprehension of false portrayals of dhārmic texts and traditions. However, their paths diverge when it comes to offering interpretations. A traditionalist has an obligation to publicly critique Malhotra’s interpretations which do not represent the traditional interpretation. This is all the more imperative because Malhotra creates the perception that the traditionalists endorse his interpretations.

All of this warrants a public traditionalist critique of TBFS. Ganesh has shown the way. Interestingly, Malhotra had argued (see 1:12:00 in this video) that Hindus and Hindu organizations shouldn’t fund the academy unless the translations of the academy are reviewed by the traditionalists and conform to the traditionalist position. In the case of TBFS, one such traditionalist, Ganesh, has admirably argued that Malhotra’s interpretations do not conform to the traditionalist stance. In response, Malhotra violated his own prescription and turned abusive! Malhotra or one of his defenders may be tempted to argue that Malhotra’s prescription is only applicable to the scenario where Hindus fund western universities. I would preempt that argument by pointing out that Malhotra’s stance is motivated by something higher than the technicality of funding. He must be entirely convinced that the traditional interpretation is the gold standard and hence worthy of conformance.

I will close my analysis by asking the supporters of Malhotra, especially those who’ve endorsed his book, as to why they are silent when Malhotra responds to a learned critic like Ganesh with abuses. How did you endorse a book when its author denigrates traditional Saṃskṛta scholars? Are you still proud of endorsing TBFS? Do you want to go into battle with a commander who can’t identify and keep the confidence of people who would be his natural allies?


Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based writer, an atheist, a practicing orthodox Hindu, and author of the book What Every Hindu Should Know About Christianity. Follow him on Twitter: KalavaiVenkat

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