The Stoning of the Scholars

BY VAMSEE JULURI| IN Media Practice | 17/12/2016
When a scholar’s lifelong study of ancient knowledge systems is reduced to slogans, it means the media is imposing its own preconceptions on his work.
VAMSEE JULURI laments this travesty

What the headlines said. 


Here is a hypothetical reporting assignment. A scholar is giving a talk at a university campus. For several hours he speaks about an extremely complex and difficult system of intellectual classification, a topology of all knowledge of the time as elaborated in ancient texts written in a difficult language whose vocabulary, grammar, and nuances are known only to very few scholars in the world today.

The scholar can talk about this subject beyond the broad generalities known about this ancient body of work to modern English readers only because he has dedicated several years of his life to rigorous study, indeed to impeccable mastery, over an elaborate curriculum few modern students or scholars have the patience and commitment to pursue. The curriculum is elaborate. Let us consider the steps of study this scholar went through:

1. He began his study by internalizing something called Siksha sutras (phonology) and then approximately 4,000 sutras of Vyakarana (grammar) from Panini's extremely difficult work Astadhyayi along with the auxiliary works of dhatupatha, unadipatha, linganusasanam (roughly, etymology), and the whole 86 ahnikas or chapters of Patanjali's Mahabhasya (commentary on Astadhyayi).

2. Next he continued his studies in Nirukta (interpretation and word analysis from an elaborate ancient text that defines meanings of words in this language, and a whole system of practice to preserve meanings, while also enabling innovation and creativity in its vocabulary), Chhandas (prosody), Jyotisha (astronomy) and Kalpa which includes various texts related to Dharmasutras (customs, duties and law) and other texts.

3. Then he studied, again in the original form and language, all six systems of Darsanas (philosophy) along with their foundational texts (sutras) and elaborate secondary texts – Vaiseshika and Nyaya (logic, ontology, epistemology, methodology and natural philosophy), Mimansa (hermeneutics and linguistic interpretation), Yoga (study of mind and its control), Samkhya and Vedanta (metaphysics and soteriology).

4. Finally, he studied various Sastras (sciences) including Arthasastra (economics and political governance), Dharmashastras (law), Siddhantas (astronomy), and two of the Vedas with interpretative commentary.


This curriculum takes about eight to ten years of full-time year-long study for the first two steps to be completed, and another eight to twelve years of part-time study for the rest, involving complete memorizing and deep analytical study of scores of texts.

A scholar with more than 15-20 years of intense training (after a master's degree in engineering at that) comes to a modern, prestigious university in Mumbai to speak about this ancient knowledge system.

How does one frame this event in the news? That is the hypothetical question I ask The Hoot’s community of distinguished readers to consider.

"What if the scholar had come from an American university and was a distinguished Western scholar of ancient India?"


Should the report summarize his presentation (after having attended it, with all due attention, that is) in a tone of respect and objectivity? Maybe, even let the tone of the report celebrate the life of the mind, past and present, and welcome the fact that an institute known for science and technology is actually broadening the horizons of the STEM universe and welcoming a talk on history, philosophy and science for its students?

Let’s make the exercise a little more concrete. What if the scholar had come from an American university and was a distinguished Western scholar of ancient India? How would the headlines have played out - and all the more so if the talk by this learned scholar was disrupted because a group of students protested?

“Distinguished Scholar’s Visit Protested by Right-Wing Goons"?

“Saffronization Silences Eminent Sanskritist”?

Well, that isn’t what happened recently. The scholar wasn’t an American. He was Indian. He looked Indian, and he wore white robes, because he is a member of a monastic order dedicated to learning and service. He is an Arya Samaji. He is a Telugu speaker but based in Haryana where he works in villages trying to encourage natural farming and self-sustainable practices, while also passing on his formidable (and formidably acquired) knowledge of Sanskrit and ancient Indian philosophy and sciences to his students.

His name is Acharya Ravindra. I can picture him vividly as I write this because I had the privilege of participating in one of his workshops in India last year. There, I appreciated, finally, closely, and intimately, what it takes in human-years and intellectual application, to be an Indic scholar. He spoke for two whole days on traditional systems of knowledge-classification as mentioned in Arthashastra, the traditional Sanskrit curriculum, the Shastras, and the Vedas. For the sake of us simple, modern listeners, he spoke mostly in Hindi and English. But he made every word in Sanskrit count, come alive with its presence and history. No one who loves learning could disrespect an event like that.


Degrading a serious subject to cows and other lies

Now, Acharya Ravindra has made headlines. I wish it meant that journalists were taking education seriously. Unfortunately, it was not. It was only the sensationalism that sold itself and all the usual stack of innuendo, distortion, misinformation, and yes, lies.

Acharya Ravindra was invited to speak at IIT Mumbai recently by a group of enthusiasts which included research scholars and professors. His talk was about ancient Indian knowledge systems, not "let's try and pretend that planes and cars and electronic gadgets were invented by the Vedic people."

Yet, these, sadly, are the headlines about his visit that will now infest that unforgiving cached page:


“Exploitation of cows led to our downfall – Gujarat seer tells IIT-Bombay students.” (Hindustan Times). 


“Amidst protests, IIT switches ‘workshops’ to ‘lectures’”

(India Today)


“IIT-B cans 7-day Vedic science workshop”



“IIT Bombay converts Veda ‘workshop’ to lectures after opposition”

(Indian Express)


“Workshop taking place in temple inside IIT without director’s permission”

(Mumbai Mirror)


None of these reports seem to even bother about what was actually taking place in this suddenly controversial workshop. The innuendo is all we see in them (apart from a lot of confusing and contradictory claims about procedures and permissions). References are made to "flying chariots" at scientific congresses in the past, and other insinuations that this whole event was a smear on the rational values of the IIT. A whole headline, and a cow-baiting one at that, is devoted to a "Gujarat seer" who was just a speaker at the inauguration, but no report addresses the topics in the entirety of the program, or what was actually said there.

Acharya Ravindra, as I understand it, was the main speaker in as many as two thirds of the sessions presented. And knowing him, I can say that the impression conjured up by these confused reports of an irrational assembly of inferior minds hung up on myths is completely wrong.

While I cannot presume to comment what exactly happened in terms of the organizers having followed the right procedures to organize an event on campus or not, I can say that a great injustice is being done to students and readers if the knowledge of traditional scholars like Acharya Ravindra and others is dismissed as mere "myth."


Pre-conceived frameworks that distort the truth 

The key “premise” of the complaint and the controversy after all seems to be the lament that “we are in the 21st century in a technology institute” and talking about “vedic science and other myths on such a campus is a sham” (quoted in Mid-Day). That statement tells us so much about how limited and crippling our present-day discourse is, in the media, and in educational institutions. Well-meaning students and reporters, stuck in colonial and Nehru-era teleological narratives about a primitive past and glorious tech-future, end up doing the very opposite of what they think they are doing with their ignorance. How is a talk on “Ancient Indian Knowledge Systems” in anyway an attempt to peddle “myth” in a technology institute?

People seem so glazed over with righteousness and certainty about what is standing before them that somehow even a neutral and accurate statement like “Ancient Indian knowledge” is somehow seen by them as “myth.” Even a little more awareness of the latest debates in historiography, and of reforms in education (started in the UPA era, by the way, and not by the Modi government, on the inclusion of Ancient Indian knowledge systems curriculum for school students under the auspices of IIT Gandhinagar Professor Michel Danino) would have perhaps prevented such an presumptuous attack on the truth.

"People seem so glazed over with righteousness and certainty about what is standing before them that somehow even a neutral and accurate statement like “Ancient Indian knowledge” is somehow seen by them as “myth.”"


Imagine the reverse situation....

And as far as reporting on this event goes, it is sad that eminent news organizations are so eager to buy into this sensationalistic and cliche-infested narrative. It may well be the case that you don’t see any value to Acharya Ravindra’s experiences in traditional Indian education and sustainable agriculture, and that is fine. But would you, in the spirit of objectivity, have taken the perspective of one student group that effectively scuttled or at the very least belittled the presence of a scholar on its campus so uncritically at face value if the shoe was on the other foot? If this had been a Hindu or “nationalistic” student group that had written a letter complaining that a visiting American Hinduism studies scholar was a chronicler of dirty jokes in outdated and obscure ancient Sanskrit texts and had no place in a modern, forward-looking technology institute, would you have accepted its version and published a story with the same mocking tone about the speaker?

How far will journalism stretch its imaginativeness in trying to make reality force-fit a preconceived ideological narrative, however well-intentioned?

Does the work of a scholar like Acharya Ravindra as I have described it here flee from the purview of reason and respect so far out that it deserves to be misrepresented as superstition and propaganda?


Acharya Ravindra's real purpose

I paste below a short statement that I invited from Acharya Ravindra with the hope that the journalistic community can understand who he is and what he is trying to do. It is my sincere hope that journalists and scholars will find the honor that is due to them in India, and break free of this wretchedly polarized atmosphere.

"It is saddening to see how the event got reported. The intent, it appears to me, is to show that any traditional learning is necessarily irrational. This is wrong. I have no space in my mind for anything irrational, just as the long line of great thinkers of our nation who have made great advances in various fields. In some fields like linguistics and consciousness studies even the modern scientists are still learning from the works produced more than 2000 years ago. This may seem preposterous to those who have no knowledge of the history of science in India. The very purpose of the workshop was to set right this lacuna. In our times, anything and everything in India’s civilizational past is pigeon holed into the category of religion which is then equated with irrationality. This is  why we designed the course to present the architecture of traditional knowledge categories and then provide more than a mere superficial look into each of the categories of knowledge. It is my sincere wish that our desire for uncovering this view into the traditional knowledge systems is not seen through a political lens." - Acharya Ravindra


Vamsee Juluri, Ph.D. is Professor of Media Studies, University of San Francisco and author of Becoming a Global Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television (Peter Lang), The Mythologist: A Novel (Penguin India), Bollywood Nation: India through its Cinema (Penguin India), Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence (Westland, 2015) and The Guru Within (Westland, forthcoming).



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