The Many Strands of Indian Identity
When President Barack Obama visited India in late January, there was much talk of the liberal values shared by the world’s great democracies. His host, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, spoke of India’s “huge diversity” and “faith in coexistence.” But such platitudes cannot disguise the growing threat to freedom of expression and cultural diversity in India today, in part because of the aggressive nationalist ideology of Mr. Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party.
Since Mr. Modi’s election in May, many activists associated with the BJP have rededicated themselves to the party’s long-standing aim to turn India into a “Hindu nation.” In an attempt to end what Mr. Modi has called “1200 years of slavery” under Muslim and British rule, they have converted Muslims and Christians “back” to Hinduism and refashioned Christmas into the birthday celebration of two revered Hindu nationalist leaders. A year ago (before Mr. Modi’s election), a Hindu nationalist called Dina Nath Batra waged a campaign against the American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” and managed to pressure Penguin Books India into withdrawing it from publication.
For culture warriors like Mr. Batra, Sanskrit, the language of many literary and philosophical texts of classical India, embodies a high Hindu culture uncontaminated by Islam or the West. There is no credible way to ignore, however, the evidence of India’s irrevocably plural cultures, and the perfect reminder of this reality has recently begun to appear under the auspices of Harvard University Press. The new project, called the Murty Classical Library of India, will consist of modern English translations (and original texts, on facing pages) of classical Indian literature—not only in Sanskrit but also in Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Pali, Panjabi, Persian, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and other languages.
Indian literature is still primarily known to the world in an attenuated form, through either translations from the Sanskrit or fiction in English. The new volumes in the Murty Library promise to reveal the depth and range of the vernacular literatures that emerged in India in the previous two millennia. India, the poet and critic Rabindranath Tagore wrote in 1919, is “many countries packed in one geographical receptacle.” The first volumes alone, which include a chronicle of Akbar, the 16th-century secularist Muslim emperor, and poems by the first Buddhist women, hint at this awe-inspiring variety of political, literary and philosophical traditions.
In 19th century India, the humiliations of British colonialism forced many upper-caste Hindu nationalists to seek flattering self-definitions in the past. Ironically, they used European scholarship on India’s Sanskritic heritage to bolster their self-esteem. Though barely spoken in India, Sanskrit, the “language of the gods,” seemed to sum up the range of virtues that exalted India above inferior, even barbaric, civilizations. The inconveniently substantial non-Sanskritic and folk traditions of India—those followed by a majority of Indians and described by Prof. Doniger in her “alternative history—were a source of embarrassment to Western-educated upper-caste Hindus.
This elite’s fossilized notions of India’s Sanskritic past came to obscure the vitality of the country’s many other old and still existing cultures. Created as a supposed antidote to soul-destroying Western influence, cultural nationalism in India ironically turned into an exercise in suppressing Indian traditions.
The Murty Library doesn’t only repair a devastating breach in India’s cultural memory—one akin to the disappearance of Greek learning from Europe in the Middle Ages. It also facilitates a continuing and potentially revolutionary reassessment of how we understand the world’s political as well as literary history.
The scholarly archive of an old and sophisticated civilization like India can help us to enrich modes of intellectual inquiry that mechanically assume the Western experience to be a norm. Instead of yet again analyzing the secrets of the West’s progress—in the epic poem as well as statecraft—and India’s success or failure to match it, we can now ask, as the Columbia University scholar Sheldon Pollock, the animating intellectual spirit of the Murty Library, puts it, “How did India develop, and what might this tell us about the West (and other places)?”
The Murty Library embodies the kind of intellectual endeavor that is increasingly besieged by the vendors of a purified collective identity—and not only in India. As Tagore wrote presciently in 1919, India’s problem is “the problem of the world in miniature.” Though innocent of polemic, the volumes in this series remind us that monolithic notions of religion, language, literature, race or nation are man-made forgeries, and that pluralism is an ineradicable fact of our existence.
— Mr. Mishra’s most recent book is “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia.”http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-many-strands-of-indian-identity-1423850509