Protests in BHU against hiring of a Muslim Sanskrit professor speak of dismal times

Rajesh Kochhar
In an earlier era, access to Sanskrit was severally restricted. Sacred texts were the preserve of select Brahmin groups, while classical Sanskrit could be taught to upper-caste Hindus.

It is a measure of the hatefulness and narrow-mindedness that has come to permeate the national atmosphere that the appointment of a young Muslim Sanskrit scholar, Firoz Khan, as an assistant professor in the literature department of the Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vijnan at Banaras Hindu University has brought forth protests from his to-be colleagues as well as the department’s PhD students, demanding a cancellation of the appointment.

The vice-chancellor has clarified that the appointment was made by a duly-appointed selection committee in accordance with applicable rules and regulations.

Rajasthan-born Khan has been educated at the Jaipur campus of the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, which is a deemed university under the Ministry of Human Resource Development. After completing his studies, Feroze served here as guest faculty for three years. This year, he has been awarded the Sanskrit Yuva Pratibha Samman by Rajasthan government.

The protesters know that the selection committee could not possibly have said that even though Khan was the best candidate for the position, he should not be offered the job due to communal considerations. If the selected candidate was, say, European, nobody would probably have raised any objection.

Admittedly, in an earlier era, access to Sanskrit was severally restricted. Sacred texts were the preserve of select Brahmin groups, while classical Sanskrit could be taught to upper-caste Hindus. That is how Raja Bhoja and Raja Bharthari emerged as Sanskrit scholars in their own right. It was, however, forbidden to teach Shudras Sanskrit. The Skanda Purana explicitly states that any Brahmin who teaches Sanskrit to a Shudra would lose his caste.

British and European interest in ancient India punctured Brahmin orthodoxy. Brahminical learning became an internationally-marketable commodity. For considerations of money, employment and patronage, Brahmins sold their old manuscripts to Europeans, went to their residence to teach them Sanskrit, admitted them into their homes, discussed sacred texts with them, and collaborated with them to prepare bilingual dictionaries. The very definition of mlechchha was modified to accommodate Europeans. The mlechchha was now not a despised foreigner as before but one who could not pronounce Sanskrit words correctly.

Brahmins appreciated Europeans’ respect for their learning and Hindu society in turn considered European scholarship to be authoritative. When a dispute arose between the Sanskrit professors at Oxford and Cambridge on the correct pronunciation of a particular Vedic rcha, two experts from Benares Sanskrit College were sent to Calcutta to record their recitation, which was forwarded to England.

Once Brahmins agreed to admit mlechchhas into the Sanskrit fold, they could not have kept the Shudras out. Raja Radhakanta Deb emerged as the most celebrated Sanskrit scholar in 19th century Bengal. In the pre-Plassey days, Brahmins would not even have accepted drinking water from his ancestors.

The British opened three Sanskrit Colleges: Benares (1791), Poona (1821), and Calcutta (1824). In 1832, a brilliant former student of Sanskrit College Calcutta was appointed a professor. His selection was opposed by the Brahmin professors and students on the ground that he was a Shudrayaji Brahmin (one who administered rituals to lower castes). The colonial administrator who oversaw the college imperiously told the objectors that they could leave if they so wished. Of course, nobody did. To begin with, the Sanskrit Colleges were exclusively meant for Brahmins, but as the British became entrenched they cautiously opened up these institutions.

Even in the Mughal era, Brahmins had compromised on their exclusivity. Taking note of Prince Dara Shikoh’s exalted position and love of learning, the learned pandits of Benares instructed him in Sanskrit and sat with him to translate the 52 Upanishads.

If Brahmins could teach Sanskrit to a Muslim, why can’t a Muslim teach Sanskrit to Brahmin and other students now? Although Khan is legally safe, questions remain. A quick glance at the list of teaching staff of the Sanskrit literature department shows that most, if not all, members have Brahmin surnames. Will the newcomer find the workplace congenial and conducive to professional advancement? Or, will the atmosphere be made so hostile for him that he is forced to resign?

Classical and sacred Sanskrit texts are a part of world heritage. We take great pride when Europeans take an interest in them. There is a glorious tradition of Muslim musicians’ respect for and contributions to Hindu temple traditions. Such respect and contribution should be welcomed and encouraged in scholarly studies as well.

Kochhar is author of The Vedic People: Their History and Geography