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Vandalism and preservation

By Michael Witzel

Indologists' motives are increasingly misunderstood, if not intentionally maligned for political purposes.

THE RECENT attack on a member of the Bhandakar Oriental Research Institute at Pune by an ill-informed mob of one section of nationalists (Shiv Sena), and the subsequent rampage and destruction of the BORI offices and library by another (Sambhaji Brigade), have rightfully drawn strong local, national, and international criticism. This is also the second time that an Indian publisher has — publicly — caved in and has withdrawn a book that has recently irked certain small sections of the public (Motilal Banarssidass, Oxford University Press, India). These acts of timidity, albeit understandable, pave the way for more threats and actions, some already announced publicly. Beware of the beginnings!

Since a few quotes in scholarly books are all that is needed now to enrage a section of the Indian public, we Indologists may as well refrain from printing in India or turn our activities to activities like writing computer programmes for word and sentence recognition. However, this will not help much in understanding Indian culture and its impact on other parts of the world. Such a public climate simply runs counter to the growing worldwide exchange of ideas. Vigorous exploration of each other's views, and keen, even contentious debate is the need of the hour, not book burning.

The barbaric acts at Pune can only be compared to the systematic destruction of Croatian and Bosnian cultural assets by the Serbs, the looting of the Baghdad Museum, or the recent burning down of the Sanskrit University at Dang, Nepal by the Maoists. In stunning contrast, the Sanskrit manuscripts in the Panjab University Library at Lahore are well preserved and can be used by scholars. This is not always the case in certain Indian libraries. Markedly different from the collaboration I got at some other libraries, I made three visits to the Benares Sanskrit University Library in 1973-74 to ask for films of a few Vedic manuscripts, paid all fees, even supplied the film and the chemicals — but I am still waiting. Luckily, BORI was more open-minded then (though much less so recently). I could then microfilm a few manuscripts, among which a unique manuscript of the Rgveda on brittle birch bark, brought from Kashmir by Georg Buehler in 1875.

These recent acts of vandalism underline the necessity of filming or scanning such documents of the cultural past. A small beginning was made in India by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation some 35 years ago, and more recently by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts at New Delhi, with a nationwide project initiated by its ousted energetic director, Kapila Vatsyayan.

All of this is quite late in the day. The German Oriental Society had offered a similar project to India way back in the 1960s but was rebuffed. Instead, we have done so in Nepal for 32 years, 1970-2002. (Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project: http://www.uni-hamburg.de/ngmpp/). Incidentally, this has created a whole generation of Indologists, including me, who now are cultural ambassadors of Nepal. We have filmed all public and private manuscripts available, running to well over a lakh and including some 2,500 of the oldest in the subcontinent (c. 1000-1500 CE), and often not found elsewhere. In the summer of 1973, the central government building was burnt down, allegedly by the Nepal Congress Party, destroying 40,000 photos of the Department of Archaeology but luckily not the 24,000 old manuscripts stored half a mile away. Need one recall the sabre rattling, just two years ago, advocating the dropping of atomic bombs here and there?

The films of the NGMPP are stored in two locations, and thus are virtually immune from accidental or intended destruction. Nothing short of a simultaneous strike on Kathmandu and on Berlin can now destroy that country's written heritage. The same should be done with the laudable IGNCA initiative: storage of copies not just in Delhi but in the four corners of India and, better, also in some UNESCO centres abroad.

The NGMPP films in Berlin may be freely used, as a late concession of Nepal, by German-speaking scholars. This requires an openness to international scholarly research that is hardly felt at present in the midst of misunderstood patriotism. However, it was foreigners, mostly Germans, who first published the Vedas in Nagari characters and who first compiled a comprehensive and so far unrivalled Sanskrit dictionary, way back in the 19th century. Yet, Indologists' motives then and now — the comprehensive study of India based on its texts, etc.— are increasingly misunderstood, if not intentionally maligned for political purposes. We also are subject to increasing Government restrictions. India is making progress — in losing its cultural ambassadors abroad. This rising tide needs to be stemmed.

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