In a widely noted essay of 2011, renowned Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock sounded an alarm for what he called a “crisis in the classics.” At the time of independence, he wrote, great Indian scholars of classical literature, “heirs of the longest continuous multicultural tradition in the world,” produced unsurpassed studies of their collective heritage. Within two generations, a variety of national and international forces had created conditions under which the number of Indian citizens able to read and continually revitalize the documents of the classical era “will very soon approach a statistical zero.”
Such a development would be a great global loss, he argued, and time to prevent it had grown short. He concluded his piece by making matters plain:
India is confronting a calamitous endangerment of its classic knowledge, and India today may have reached the point the rest of the world will reach tomorrow. This form of knowledge, under the sign of a critical classicism, must be recovered and strengthened not for the mere satisfaction of those outside of India who cultivate the study of its past but for the good of the people of India themselves. I may not have ready to hand an institutional solution to the crisis in the classics, but I remain hopeful that one can be found. Achieving this solution will require a collective public conversation on the problem—and the conversation must be insistent and loud.
Not long thereafter, one element of a solution presented itself when Rohan Murty, acutely aware of the potential for vast stores of knowledge to be lost, founded the Murty Classical Library of India, with Pollock as General Editor. Together they laid the groundwork for a series that would tap the world’s most qualified scholars to present the greatest literary works of India from the past two millennia to the largest readership in the world. The first five books arrived in early 2015, four more followed this year, and none involved see any limit to the library’s potential growth in time.
Recently, Sheldon Pollock joined scholars and institutions around the world in a show of solidarity with students, faculty and staff of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, who’ve seen their political expression cast as anti-national sedition. Pollock’s action in doing so has been received by some as a political intervention unbefitting his post with the Murty Library, and put forth as evidence that such a project could be properly guided only by Indian scholars themselves. This past weekend Rohan Murty addressed those concerns, reiterating his intention to aggressively counter the crisis he and Pollock saw, and his willingness to work alongside any honest scholars who shared that goal:
I am proud to have such a diverse mix of scholars contributing to MCLI, as ancient Indian classics ought to have universal appeal. They are as much a part of world heritage as Greek, Latin, or Chinese classics. Hence I do not agree with the view that classical Indian scholarship is the sole purview of Indians, no more than I believe that the study of Shakespeare ought to be exclusively left to the English. In fact, some of the best-known scholars on English literature are Indians! On this note, I am inspired by what the Mahatma said: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” Sadly, as a society today we have let our institutions, manuscripts, and scholarship in these areas fall into a state of disrepair. And this I am going to help rebuild.
Around the time when Pollock wrote of the crisis in the classics, we at HUP published The Classical Tradition, a thousand-page guide to the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome. In a Preface, editors Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis addressed their use of the definite article:
Ideally, this Guide would have been entitled not The Classical Tradition but rather A Classical Tradition, for one of the things we have all learned from our recent history is that Europe is only one part of a complex and interlocking world. Europe’s cultural heritage can be understood fully only when it is replaced within the larger context of other cultures with which it has always been in dialogue. The Graeco-Roman classical tradition is only one of the limited number of classical traditions that define the history of world culture, and its important affinities and divergences with such other classical traditions as the Islamic, Judaic, Chinese, and Indian ones mean that it cannot be fully understood without systematic reference to them. Ultimately, we have had in mind as potential readers for this volume not only the direct beneficiaries of the Graeco-Roman classical tradition but also interested members of other cultures. Our hope is that scholars who understand those other, non-European cultures better than we do will be stimulated by work like ours to explore, together with us and with those who we hope will follow us, the similarities and differences between all these traditions, so that we will someday be in a position to understand better what it is that makes a classical tradition classic. To what extent are ideas of the classical throughout our world the fruit of interaction between various cultures, to what extent are they indigenous products? What if anything differentiates the classical tradition in the West from the histories of other canons? Toward the remote but not unimaginable goal of a truly comparative history of all classical traditions, our volume is intended as an invitation and as a preliminary contribution.
We’ve been—and we remain—extremely proud of and gratified by our work with Rohan Murty, Sheldon Pollock, and scholars the world over both to invigorate the study of Indic classics in their own right and to facilitate a more capacious understanding of our collective classical tradition. Indeed, none involved see any limit to its potential growth in time.