An Interview with Simona Sawhney

Simona Sawhney is the associate professor of South Asian literature and critical theory at the University of Minnesota.  Her book, The Modernity of Sanskrit, considers diverse readings of the Sanskrit canon in modern India in an attempt to contest the appropriation of Sanskrit by Hindu nationalists in India.  Rejecting one-dimensional readings, Simona prefers a literary approach.  She talks to Venetia Ansell about why a more nuanced reading of these texts is so important for India’s past and future.

8th April 2009

How have Hindu nationalists appropriated Sanskrit texts?

Hindu nationalists have frequently been positioned as privileged heirs of these texts.  They are the ones who, at least in the public sphere, seem to be the most interested and the most passionate about Sanskrit texts. This interest stems partly from a desire to present a particular image of India’s past.  The Hindu nationalist focus is usually on a very small group of texts – predominantly the two epics – and for the most part their aim in invoking Sanskrit texts is to establish the Hindu community as the prior, the most legitimate, the most natural inhabitant of modern India. It is a push for exclusivity.

The Ramayana is perhaps the most obvious example: every attempt to look at it differently provokes a reaction from the Hindu Right.  Last year there was a violent reaction to the inclusion of an essay by AK Ramanujan about retellings of the Ramayana on the recommended reading list for BA Hons students at Delhi University.   The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP – the student wing of the BJP) predictably protested in Delhi. Now a protest in itself need not be a problem—it can even be the sign of an engaged and  active student body—but when such protests take the form of intimidation they become part of a violent political space, where minority voices are often quite ruthlessly suppressed. The message essentially is that you can’t discuss the Ramayana unless you do so with complete and utter veneration of the text, and unless it is approached in exactly the way that the Hindu establishment dictates.

So at the risk of being simplistic, I’d say that there is a difference, a very important difference, between respect and veneration for a text.  Respect means being attentive to the text and being careful about how you discuss it; in this regard, Ramanujan is, I think, completely respectful.   Veneration on the other hand leaves no room for historical or speculative discussion of the text.

For me this is the most troubling aspect of how some groups have appropriated certain texts; they allow no approach other than the one that they have determined. My argument is that only by way of an engagement can these texts have a life in modernity beyond the nationalist and the Hindu nationalist vision of India.


Why has the rest of India allowed them to do this?

The English speaking classes are deeply implicated in this. At times it seems that they—we—have simply let this happen, we have ceded ground without protest, perhaps because we have for a long time harboured a kind of anxiety about Sanskrit and what it represents. To that extent I think we have worked within the same code as the Hindu nationalists, in so far as we have also associated English with modernity, with liberalism and so on, and have perceived Sanskrit and perhaps, in a different way, even modern Indian languages as languages that are somehow not adequate for our times, as languages and codes of thought that have to be surpassed.  We have internalised the violent logic of colonialism and globalisation. I should say that though I am talking about these different groups as active agents—Hindu Nationalists, English-speaking secularists—and though of course agency is involved here, it may be more useful to think of these problems and questions in structural terms. The anxieties of those we are calling “Hindu nationalists”—too broadly and too crudely, it may even be a term we should let go of—in any case, these anxieties arise from the same matrix of historical and political structures that have produced the drive for westernisation in the English speaking elites. Both are twin sides of the same phenomenon, which has to be seen, I think, in the context of colonial history.


Sometimes these groups also mirror one another in practice. For example, where academia or the liberal secular voices are concerned, there is often a reluctance to recognise that others also have powerful stakes in these texts—that others might relate to them differently. It is a complicated situation. I would say that if Hindu groups cannot dictate how these texts are to be read, neither can academics or liberals. Of course, the ways in which a country’s cultural past is read determines how the future is envisioned, or indeed how the future will be shaped. So the stakes are very high, but precisely because the stakes are so high, there has to be some room for different kinds of negotiations. In the book I draw attention to those modern readings of Sanskrit texts that did attempt, in different ways, such negotiations—my concern is that the space for those kinds of negotiations has been steadily shrinking.


How can the balance be redressed?

I think we have to learn to keep open the question of the “meaning” of these texts. While it is important that academics, both in India and abroad, take up this challenge, the more urgent need is for more openness in the broader cultural and political sphere. 

The biggest challenge, for all of us, is the following: how to talk about these things so that we don’t replicate or produce violence. That has to be something we constantly keep in mind. It would mean letting go of some old suspicions perhaps? Secularists are often suspicious of anything that is ‘religious’, the other side are suspicious of anything that doesn’t take religion seriously—that is to say, is not oriented toward the question of religion in the way that the establishment dictates. The cultural sphere then begins to assume a strange shape. For example, it is sad that a remarkable artist like MF Husain—someone who actually does take Sanskrit texts very seriously— is in exile today because some people don’t like his work, or because his work provides a ready excuse to push a certain electoral agenda.


Our education system also bears a great deal of the responsibility here, although there have been some significant efforts recently to redress the balance.  My generation, the English educated middle class, grew up with a sense that English was somehow close to us—in the sense that it would be the most suitable vehicle for our movement into the future, but also in a more aesthetic way, in that it shaped our sensibilities in many ways. In shorthand, I’d say we were still part of a colonial, not a postcolonial world, though the British had left. Most of us read English novels when we were teenagers—those novels were closer to us at that time than modern Indian literature, though the landscapes and people they spoke of were quite removed from our lives. It seems to me that in urban English-medium schools, Sanskrit existed then, and still exists today, almost as a caricature. Students take it mostly to score high marks. Perhaps for some there is a “virtue” associated with it as well, or some kind of nostalgia. Sanskrit textbooks seem to be written in a very simplistic moral code—it’s as though that’s the only code they could possibly be written in.  But Sanskrit could be taught in a very different way, in a way that introduces students to the philosophical and literary diversity of Sanskrit texts, to the very complex political and historical contexts of this work, to the particular eroticism of Sanskrit poetry, and so on. Instead it’s treated like an old patriarch you have to respect and bear with.  Sanskrit may become most interesting if its study is closely integrated into the teaching of the history of early India, in a way that allows students to engage with problems of interpretation and actively demonstrates the political stakes of reading and of thinking historically.


How should ancient texts be read? How can we read them without allowing our own beliefs to colour that reading?


We can’t not allow our own beliefs to interfere – we always bring something to a text, our interests, our passion – nor should we  try to ward against it.  This is part of the condition of reading and it is this that keeps texts alive – every new generation, every individual brings their own world to the texts they read. Texts don’t exist in a pure unchanging space, or a vacuum.

The important thing is that we should try not to read the text only in terms of our own beliefs, we must make an effort to educate ourselves about the text and open ourselves to it and what it’s saying. The text says many things, often many contradictory or conflicting things. Some voices are dominant in it, others are silenced or marginal. Being attentive to this difference and tension within the text—to the uneven and differentiated world of a text—can also affect the reader. The text can also change the reader—that possibility must be kept open. 


Are we ever going to be able to read a text as it ought to be read if we read it in translation?

To read a text in the original is a very different experience.  Especially with a language like Sanskrit, where the literary language is extremely self-conscious and allusive, in a way entirely untranslatable. But it is not an easy language to learn. So if you can’t read in the original then you should read in translation. Not being able to read in the original language shouldn’t become an excuse for not reading at all. In a way, every reading is a reading in translation, because in reading we “translate” the text into different terms, into the terms that make most sense to us or are the most attractive for us.


With the Ramayana, many Indians believe that they know the text but in fact the version they know is Tulsidas, not Valmiki.  Is this a general problem? 

Yes, this is an interesting problem, again primarily because of the role these texts play in contemporary India. It is clear why Tulsidas would  have a broader appeal: his language is more accessible, and he speaks as a true devotee—his work is a work of love, in a way that is not so clear with Valmiki. In itself Tulsi’s popularity is not a problem at all. It is only a problem when the Tulsi Ramayana is taken to stand for the Valmiki Ramayana. Then it shows us that something about “Sanskrit” is being systematically repressed—because people want to trace a continuous line from the Sanskrit texts to the present day, they are forced to overlook everything about these texts that cannot be so easily accommodated within modern morality or aesthetics. People have an image of what the Vedas or Upanisads are like but I suspect many people would be shocked if they actually read a work like the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad. These are some of the issues I try to discuss in the book, especially with regard to literary adaptations of Sanskrit texts—for instance in modern Hindi theatre.


Why is it that Sanskrit literary texts in particular have been so long ignored in India?  What’s the best way to rectify this?

Some of this may have to do with this repression I mention—in order for official, nationalist “Sanskrit” to exist, Sanskrit literature itself may have to be marginalised, ignored. But this is a problem that’s also broader than Sanskrit – what space is there for poetry in general in today’s world?  Do we need to re-think what poetry is and why it is important? What is poetry in global capitalism, what can it do? Our old answers, the familiar answers of the literature departments, don’t quite suffice, in fact their inadequacy seems quite evident.

India of course has enormous economic and political problems to contend with, and the question of poetry can seem very quaint and marginal in the context of the very serious struggles of everyday life. The challenge is to make the arts speak to those problems, to relate them to how we think and how we live.  If the arts are seen as leisure activities only, then the battle is already lost. The question of what human life is, and what art or poetry is—these questions may not be dissociable.


What else are you working on at the moment?

I am just beginning work on a project on karuṇā, normally translated as ‘compassion’. It seems to me that karuṇā leads two different lives: It is a rasa, part of Sanskrit aesthetic theory.  And in this sense it is Bhavabhuti who gives it the most significance. And it is also an ethical Buddhist concept.  I want to think about these two together and to consider how a concept like this, which can’t easily be accounted for in terms of rationality and self-interest, came to assume a certain significance, and what it might signal about a possible relation between art and ethics.


The Modernity of Sanskrit was published last year in the US by the University of Minnesota, and is due to be released this month in its South Asian edition by Permanent Black.  More on the US edition here, and on the South Asian edition here.


9 Responses to “An Interview with Simona Sawhney”

  1. 1 Ratak May 11, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    I think you are one of the bests. I rely love your works.

  2. 2 Anand August 25, 2009 at 2:54 am

    I do not agree with the view on MF Hussein in this post.
    He has portrayed hindu gods in such a derogatory manner that no one else except Hindus will keep their mouth shut. Even some muslims felt bad about his loathed paintings. While i agree that freedom of interpretation with respect should be allowed(and it was indeed allowed in traditional circles because we see so many different adaptations of epics in the last 1000 years) people like MF Hussain should be taken to task.

    • 3 Pushpakara March 30, 2012 at 4:14 am

      Then the Mahabharata are also a derogatory depiction of the hindu gods. as well as half of the paintings and mostly all of the pre-colonial sculptures.
      – maybe all these artists indeed burn in the hells for all eternity. we shall never know – at least not until we arrive there ourselves.

  3. 4 isaac October 22, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Unfortunately, karuṇā is decidedly not the same thing as the rasa of which Bhavabhūti speaks, not even getting onto the tangent of what Bhavabhūti’s project was, and what his famous statement actually signifies. I’d be interested to see what she comes up with in her investigation, though.

  4. 5 nilakantha dash November 20, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    I did not know your love and interest in sanskrit. I could not help you in time. I regret that. May your thought be fulfilled. I am ready to be a volunteer in this process.

  5. 6 nilakantha dash November 20, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    If the aim is to understand and experience a sanskrit text, to learn sanskrit is very easy.

  6. 7 Hari Ravikumar August 31, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    Nice interview with insightful points. However, I personally don’t believe the M F Husain fell in the category of “respect”. I think it’s not a nice thing to hurt the religious sentiments of others, however removed they are from your own.

    • 8 Venetia Ansell September 8, 2011 at 10:04 am

      Glad you enjoyed the interview. Her book is certainly worth reading.

    • 9 Pushpakara March 30, 2012 at 4:19 am

      dharma indeed moves one to commit acts beyond nicety.
      hear the lament of bhishma, and think of his toil.
      the dharma of an artist is to bring a however small portion of the divine into the lives of contemporary mankind.
      if this artist failed, then he indeed is already punished beyond imagination.
      such is the nature of dharma.

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