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Harvard project aimed at translating ancient text sparks outrage among Hindu right

Harvard Yard, old heart of Harvard University campus, in Cambridge, Mass., on Nov. 2, 2013. (Jannis Werner/iStock)

A group of Sanskrit scholars in India are calling for an American professor working on a groundbreaking project on Indian classics at Harvard University to be removed because of his “deep antipathy” to Indian ideals and culture, according to a petition filed Saturday.

Columbia University Professor Sheldon Pollock, a respected Sanskrit scholar and the author of "The Language of Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India," is the editor of a $5 million project by Harvard University Press to publish dozens of Indian classical texts with English translations.

More than 132 professors from some of India’s most prominent universities -- some of them from the Hindu right -- have signed the petition, which calls for Pollock’s removal as editor and "mentor" of the Murty Classical Library of India series; the project is funded by a Harvard graduate Rohan Murty, the son of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murty.

The petitioners argued that the work of translating the ancient texts should be done in India and “not outsourced wholesale to American Ivy Leagues.”

Ramesh C. Bhardwaj, professor and head of the Department of Sanskrit at Delhi University, said that the issue was an academic one, rather than personal.

Pollock had associated himself with “Marxist” scholars in India, he said, and his work does not “provide the true picture of Indian heritage.” Neither Pollock nor Harvard University Press immediately returned emails requesting comment.

Rohan Murty told the Indian Express newspaper Wednesday that Pollock "has been critical to the success of the library, and Harvard and I look forward to having him on the board for many years to come."

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with the support of Hindu nationalists, has been trying to promote pride in India's centuries-old knowledge systems and to reinvigorate Sanskrit, India's ancient language, with classes and a new government committee to expand Sanskrit in schools and colleges.

College campuses across India have been embroiled in a series of controversies in recent months, with critics charging that Modi's nationalist government has been acting to suppress dissent at left-leaning institutions. The education minister, Smriti J. Irani, vehemently denied this charge in an interview with The Washington Post last week.

Pollock was among a group of Western academics who signed a petition in support of students at the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who were arrested and charged with sedition after they allegedly chanted anti-India slogans at a rally, another strike against Pollock, his critics wrote. The issue blew up into a national debate about freedom of expression and nationalism.

“It is crystal clear that Pollock has shown disrespect for the unity and integrity of India, the Indian scholars wrote, adding that “such an individual cannot be considered objective and neutral enough to be in charge of your historic translation project.”

They also asked for clarification on how Sanskrit words that are non-translatable words would be treated, whether there would be any link between the ancient texts and present day social and political problems and whether theoretical methods in Europe would be used to interpret the Indian texts.

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