The surprising un-Indianness of BORI’s course on Indian heritage

The surprising un-Indianness of BORI’s course on Indian heritage

The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) is one of the biggest paradoxes in Indology. On one hand, there is no doubt that it has made seminal contributions to the field. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the formal study of Indology was dominated by Europeans. BORI’s establishment in 1917, was ground-breaking because it was setup by Indians to give an impetus to Indians studying Indology. During one of the preliminary meetings for setting up the institute, it was pointed out how the lack of scientific rigour was putting Indian Sanskrit experts at a distinct disadvantage on the world stage.[1] In the following decades, BORI’s magnus opus, The Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, has lent considerable firepower to busting specious Western claims about the epic. Another important contribution of BORI has been to house rare manuscripts and provide an opportunity for Indian research scholars to study them.

              And yet there is another reality to BORI – the wholesale adoption of the European viewpoint of looking at India and its traditions. Western Indologists often had a jaundiced, prejudiced view of looking at Indian texts, whether because of political motives, their constrained worldview or simply their specific cultural contexts. Even the person after whom the institute was named – Sir R.G.Bhandarkar himself – echoed the European framework of looking at India as a degenerate culture[2]. Now, how does this play out, more than a century later?

              I was part of an online course held by BORI – ‘Introduction to Indian Heritage’. One part of the course was factual – History of ancient India, its geographical heritage, natural heritage, architecture, food, and medicine. Here, the course was stellar and exceptional, opening entire vistas of knowledge.

The second part of the course was interpretative – Literature, Religion and Culture – elements with large subjectivity. The same text can be examined from different viewpoints, with vastly different interpretations. An Indic lens of viewing the Mahabharata, understands it to be a text on Dharma and gives ample context for interpreting it in that manner, whereas a Western lens would condescendingly, reduce it to a mere story of two warring factions.

In the Indian tradition, there is a specific way in which these epics were meant to be understood, which also forms an integral part of our heritage. Heritage does not mean merely the literal lines in the text, but also the accompanying traditional way of interpreting these texts. There is a traditional Dharmic lens of viewing, which established the context under which the lessons in those texts are revealed. The faculty at BORI ignored this part of the heritage. They almost wholly propagated the Western viewpoint and did not even see fit to inform participants of this.

Adopting this alien viewpoint led to many egregious moments. For example, the Ramayana and Mahabharata were compared to Dan Brown’s novels. As per the faculty, both contain a kernel of truth with a large degree of “fancy”. And in both, separating truth from “fancy” is difficult! This particular faculty completely missed the point of our ancient epics, where narrative storytelling was employed as a powerful tool to deliver Dharmic (spiritual, behavioural or philosophical) lessons and were not to be taken in a narrow historical context.

The course was riddled with such objectionable content, with an almost complete absence of the Indic viewpoint. Their preference for the Western approach of storytelling was stated – where the story is linear with conspicuous heroic deeds of the protagonist, while the complex and layered storytelling of the Ramayana and Mahabharata was heralded as a poor cousin. While discussing literary works with Lord Rama and Lord Krishna, we were encouraged to look at them as mere characters in the story, and not as divine characters – which the original authors of the works certainly didn’t intend us to do! Upon being questioned about this, the faculty made it a point to express her[3] ‘history and fact-centred’ interpretation. She went on to term the ‘Jal-samadhi’ of Lord Rama as a ‘suicide’, ascribing the ill-treatment of Sita Mata as a possible reason for the suicide. This Western reductionist mindset was also displayed when the apparent ‘contradictions’ between the deities was discussed, without emphasizing the explanation of Brahman as the common binding theme.

Similarly, a ‘feature’ of Hinduism – the ability to change, and evolve Dharma and its texts with time- was instead turned into a ‘bug’. The ‘later superimposition’ of divinity on Ramayana and Mahabharata was seen as a corruption, rather than an evolution. As we know, one theory holds that over the centuries, the Mahabharata expanded from an “original” 8000 shlokas called ‘Jaya’ to todays 90,000+ shlokas. A German Indologist called Oldenberg, who was unable to grasp this evolving nature, derogatorily referred to the Mahabharata as a simple narrative that had become a monstrous chaos[4].  This view was echoed by the faculty, when she talked about growth of the Mahabharata becoming a swelling. The same faculty also talked about the ‘clever editor’ of the Mahabharata, who was obsessed with the number 18. The supposed historicity and timelines of various religious texts was discussed without explaining why it is inconsequential to Dharmic religions and only of consequence to history centric religions[5]. The difference between ‘itihas’ and history was not explained, leaving students much-the-poorer for it. Without an understanding of this, Indian literature can never be comprehended correctly. Perhaps that is why, we were told that the Mahabharata is nothing but a way of explaining genealogy to a descendant of the Pandavas – a view that erodes the significance of the Mahabharata.

Another major error was repeatedly referring to the disproved Aryan Invasion Theory. Shockingly, we were told that the Aryan Invasion theory was reflected in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata too! This theory was also discussed during the decline of the Indus Saraswati civilization and their subsequent migration. This could have been expected from a lay reader, but an esteemed faculty of BORI considering this as the truth, and teaching her students was horrifying and unworthy of the institute.

It was further disheartening to see the esteemed faculty letting personal passions distort the understanding of the texts. One of the lecturers spoke about her own non-ritualistic idea of devotion, and portrayed the Samveda and Yajurveda in a negative light for being too ritualistic. It was stated that the Vedas merely told of ‘life, rituals and traditions’ from that era, not in a scientific way, but in a ‘religion-coated’ way. A basic tenet of NOT judging ancient incidents by today’s standards was completely ignored by the faculty. Thus, we saw the faculty’s ideas of modern feminism being overlaid on the ‘Agni Pariksha’ or trial by fire of Sita Mata. Throughout the course, the usage of Sanskrit non-translatables was almost absent, adding to our angst. One would expect that such esteemed researchers, would know the belittling context of the word ‘idol’, and instead use Sanskrit non-translatables like “murthis”.[6]

To sum up, such teaching would end up hampering people from getting more interested in Indology. After all, why should someone care about the Mahabharata, if it is just a way to tell Janmajeya about his family history? Why would someone be interested in studying the Vedas deeper, if they are just a description of the life of those times? If there are no deeper spiritual, religious and metaphysical secrets to the Mahabharata, why would students be interested in studying it further?

BORI has great potential, and there is tremendous respect for their work. As I understood, a lot of the work that happens at BORI, is done purely for the love of it. Undoubtedly, BORI enjoys a good brand name because of a century’s worth of efforts. This was evident when their course reached the full subscription in a mere 4 days, and by their launch of new batches. This digital initiative has easily allowed them to scale their reach to at least a few thousand people, an enviable number. However, with great power comes great responsibility. BORI comes from a place of adhikara, and hence, their propagation of a non-Indian, Western framework has far reaching repercussions. Adopting an Indic framework along with their modern rigour, would enable students to understand and appreciate Indian heritage better and contribute to furthering BORI’s mission.


[1]Dr. S. K. Belvalkar, Professor of Sanskrit, Deccan College Preliminary meeting to discuss the setting up of BORI on 6th of July 1915

[2] Swarajya : Indian Studies After Indology: An Interview With Vishwa Adluri And Joydeep Bagchee

[3] The pronoun ‘she/her’ are used to refer to faculty wherever it is needed, rather than he/she or his/her, for the sake of convenience

[4] V S Sukhtankar, ‘The Mahabharata and its Critics’ in the book ‘On the meaning of the Mahabharata’

[5] For further understanding of history centrism, please see: ‘Being Different’ by Rajiv Malhotra, Chapter 2 “History-Centrism”


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