The Unscholarly Dishonesty of Audrey Truschke

The objections to Truschke’s tweets were never about interpretation.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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It is nothing short of poetic justice that the final blow to claims made by Audrey Truschke about Sitaji’s use of the phrase “misogynist pig” in Valmiki’s Ramayana came on Sita Navami, the day the goddess’ appearance is celebrated.

On that day (April 24), Swarajya magazine published an email by American Sanskrit scholar Professor Robert P Goldman, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, The University of California (Berkeley, US), in which he summarily dismissed Truschke’s “loose translation”.

Four days earlier (April 20) Truschke’s claims had surfaced on social media — in another coincidence of sorts, her tweets came close on the heels of poet Allama Iqbal’s death anniversary that is marked on April 21. In a homage to Lord Ram, Iqbal wrote:

Hai Raam ke wajood pe Hindustaan ko naaz

Ahl-e-Nazar samajhte hain us ko Imam-e-Hind

(India is proud of the existence of Ram,

People with vision consider him prelate of India)

That, however, shouldn’t make it a case of reverence — something for which there can’t be any expectation of or demand for. Where Truschke failed is something very basic to scholarly work: honesty while quoting/translating (even if “loosely”) words of your “sources”. (This is very different from the act of interpretation — something she cites as an excuse in her defence).

Professor Goldman’s email clearly repudiated Truschke’s tweet, which had claimed that his translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana contained abusive words used by Sitaji against Lord Ram. It’s not that such claims needed any more refutation than seeing how false they were when verified with Valmiki’s original version. What Professor Goldman’s  email, however, did quite clearly is that it exposed Truschke’s act of passing the buck of a blatantly flawed translation of a specific shloka to another scholar.

In many ways, what Truschke did on social media was actually an academic equivalent of spreading fake news (attributing words to Valmiki and Professor Goldman that they never wrote). It went like this. On April 20, Trustchke tweeted this:

When challenged to provide the exact Sanskrit verses in Valmiki’s Ramayana (because she had cited “Valmiki’s telling”), she didn’t quote the shlokas from the text. Instead she tweeted a reference to “3.43 and 6.103 respectively, of the Sanskrit critical edition” translated by Professor Goldman.

To begin with, the reference was wrongly numbered and later corrected in a subsequent tweet in which she again based her claims on Goldman’s translation along with a hashtag for her critics, #RamayanaGate.

At that point even if one were to believe that Goldman translated it in the words Truschke attributed to him, it could be easily refuted by going back to actual shlokas in Valmiki’s Ramayana. Many Sanskrit scholars were quick to point it out in a country where Ramayana’s verses are recited daily by millions. The presence of words like “misogynist pig” was also firmly denied with evidence by the translator Truschke cited. In his reply to a request for clarification by an IT professional, Professor Goldman nailed Truschke’s false claims.

A refutation by the source wasn’t merely a disagreement, as Truschke later tried to state in her defence, it was a clear indictment on how dishonest she was in attributing to him words he never wrote. Here is Professor Goldman’s mail published in Swarajya (by “we” he is referring to his co-translator and himself):

“I find it extremely disturbing but perhaps not unexpected to learn that AT (Audrey Trushcke) has used such inappropriate language and passed it off as coming from Valmiki. Neither the great poet nor we (referring to his co-translator and himself) used anything like such a vulgar diction and certainly Sita would never have used such language to her husband even in the midst of emotional distress. Nowhere in our translation of the passage do we use words such as you mention AT as using.

When she refers to the ‘critical edition’ she is referring to the Sanskrit text of the Ramayana as reconstructed by the scholars at the Oriental Institute of Baroda. We have, of course translated the whole text but she is in no way quoting our translation but giving her own reading of the passage in her own highly inappropriate language.

Sita is, or course distressed by Rama’s words when she is first reunited with him after her captivity. But her speech is dignified and moving. We have tried to capture her level of diction in our translation which nowhere uses either an anachronistic term like ‘misogynistic’ or the utterly vulgar and wildly inappropriate term ‘pig’. Quite shocking, really. It seems as if she is superimposing her own feelings on the poetry of the Adikavi. It has nothing to do with our translation.

For your information I am attaching a copy of our published translation of the relevant passage.”

This mail further refuted Truschke’s claims (as she was relying on Goldman’s translation) what Sanskrit scholars could easily do after reading the relevant shlokas  in the Yudh-Kand. The passage expresses the agony of Sitaji  and her subsequent criticism of Lord Ram for willing to abandon her. However, in Valmiki’s words, the monologue is dignified and never resorts to abusive words which Truschke somehow imagines in Valmiki’s text.

Anyone with a reasonable command over Sanskrit wouldn’t find such  phraseology in the relevant shlokas given below and a few more that followed in the sarga.

ततो बाष्पपरिक्लिष्टं प्रमार्जन्ती स्वमाननम् |

शनैर्गद्गदया वाचा भर्तारमिदमब्रवीत् || ६-११६-४

(Then, wiping clean her face, which was bathed in tears, she spoke the following words slowly, in a stammering voice to her husband.)

किं मामसदृशं वाक्यमीदृशं श्रोत्रदारुणम् |

रूक्षं श्रावयसे वीर प्राकृतः प्राकृताम् इव || ६-११६-५

(“O valiant Rama! Why are you speaking such harsh words, which are violent to hear for me, like a common man speaking to a common woman?”)

न तथास्मि महाबाहो यथा त्वमवगच्छसि |

प्रत्ययं गच्छ मे स्वेन चारित्रेणैव ते शपे || ६-११६-६

(“O the long-armed one! I am not the one in the way you understand me. Have a faith in me. I swear to you by my own character.”)

पृथक्स्त्रीणां प्रचारेण जातिं त्वं परिशङ्कसे |

परित्यजेमां शङ्कां तु यदि तेऽहं परीक्षिता || ६-११६-७

(“By the conduct of vulgar woman you distrust the entire race of women. Give up this doubt, if I have been actually tested (and found trustworthy) by you.”)

यद्यहं गात्रसंस्पर्शं गतास्मि विवशा प्रभो |

कामकारो न मे तत्र दैवं तत्रापराध्यति || ६-११६-८

(“O lord! It was not my willfulness, when I came into contact with the person of Ravana. I was helpless. My adverse fate was to blame on that score.”)

मदधीनं तु यत्तन्मे हृदयं त्वयि वर्तते |

पराधीनेषु गात्रेषु किं करिष्याम्यनीश्वरा || ६-११६-९

(“My heart, which was subservient to me, was abiding in you. What could I do, helpless as I was, with regard to my limbs which had fallen under the sway of another?”)

सहसंवृद्धभावाच्च संसर्गेण च मानद |

यद्यहं ते न विज्ञाता हता तेनास्मि शाश्वतम् || ६-११६-१०

(“O bestower of honour! If I could not be fully known to you, in spite of our love having simultaneously grown and despite of our having lived together, I am ruined permanently by such ignorance.”)

प्रेषितस्ते यदा वीरो हनूमानवलोककः |

लङ्कास्थाहं त्वया वीर किं तदा न विसर्जिता || ६-११६-११

(“O king! Hanuma, the great hero, was sent by you as your search-agent. Why I, who was still in Lanka, was not abandoned then itself?”)

प्रत्यक्षं वानरेन्द्रस्य त्वद्वाक्यसमनन्तरम् |

त्वया सन्त्यक्तया वीर त्यक्तं स्याज्जीवितं मया || ६-११६-१२

(“O hero! Life would have been given up by me, when deserted by you; immediately on hearing the message (conveying your desertion) before the eyes of the monkey.”)

न वृथा ते श्रमोऽयं स्यात्संशये न्यस्य जीवितम् |

सुहृज्जनपरिक्लेशो न चायं निष्फलस्तव || ६-११६-१३

(“This wasteful endeavour (in the form of crossing over to Lanka and waging war against the mighty Ravana, keeping your life in jeopardy), would not have been there, nor would have your friends been put to such fruitless hardship.”)

त्वया तु नरशार्दूल क्रोधमेवानुवर्तता |

लघुनेव मनुष्येण स्त्रीत्वमेव पुरस्कृतम् || ६-११६-१४

(“O excellent king! You, however, like a feeble man, gave priority to womanliness, conforming yourself to just an emotion of anger.”)

अपदेशेन जनकान्नोत्पत्तिर्वसुधातलात् |

मम वृत्तं च वृत्तज्ञ बहु ते न पुरस्कृतम् || ६-११६-१५

(“O knower of virtuous conduct! My birth was from Janaka in disguise; but was actually from the earth. My sacred birth of such a high degree, was not honoured by you.”)

(As translated by Ramayana scholar KMK Murthy. Professor Goldman’s translation can be seen in the link to his email. He uses slightly different words in the critical edition he has referred to, but quite different from  what Truschke quotes him of having written.)

The objections raised on Truschke’s tweet were never about her “interpretation” — there can be many interpretations and indeed many of them exist. Ramayana and Lord Ram have grown strongly with various ways of being told (including critical ones). Among other things, the scope for multiple ways to tell Ramayana has been provided by the interplay of anthropomorphism and divinity in the epic.

Truschke’s dishonesty pertains to mixing subjective interpretation with “loose translation” of the great poet’s work. This is what economist, Sanskrit scholar and translator Bibek Debroy, whose translation of Valimiki’s Ramayana was published last year (The Valmiki Ramayana, Penguin Random House, 2017), said in a tweet:

In her meandering  response to criticism about such academic impropriety, Truschke resorted to that overused defence strategy: playing the victimhood card. This rests on the belief that if your voice isn’t important or authentic enough, creating a perception of it being muzzled will make it one.

With a series of obfuscations, Truschke evaded some key questions: how can interpretation be an excuse for what she had claimed in her tweet to be a “loose translation”? What type of translation allows a scholar to add colloquial words to the original text — words that neither existed in Valmiki’s Ramayana or in Goldman’s translation? She neither had any answer to these questions nor did she accept the blunder. Instead she accused the “Hindu Right” of stifling “interpretation” and earlier highlighted abusive trolling on social media. The latter is an ugly (and unfortunate) side of online combats, and must be categorically condemned. However, the former charge doesn’t pass muster.

In a well-argued rebuttal to Truschke’s assertions, Nityanand Misra and Shankar Rajaraman have countered Truschke through various perspectives, including that of Sanskrit poetics. The piece should be read for its clinical demolition of her claims as well as its invitation for a debate in Sanskrit on the issue.

Many of Truschke’s critics did not resort to abuse and the issue for them was never about “hurt sentiments” but about lack of scholarly honesty, not about interpretation but “trans-creating”. Indeed Professor Goldman can by no stretch of imagination be considered a part of what Truschke calls the “Hindu Right”.

Besides that there is also a need to see the overall narrative context, while referring to epics like Ramayana. Seven years ago, in a piece occasioned by the exclusion of AK Ramanujan’s essay from the syllabus of the Delhi University, social scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta had argued in The Indian Express for broadening our understanding on different meanings of Ramayana. In doing so, he cited Hindi poet Surayakant Tripathi Nirala’s poem Ram Ki Shakti Puja. In this poem, Nirala brilliantly portrays Lord Ram’s spell of self-doubt and predicament before he realises that “sustaining dharma requires making your life itself the offering”.

In a way that also reminds us that the passage on Sitaji’s critical remarks against Lord Ram in Valmiki’s Ramayana has to be read in the context of the high respect and deep love that the epic depicts them as having for each other. Sitaji deep love and devotion to her husband can be seen in this verse from the Ayodhya Kand :

शुद्ध आत्मन् प्रेम भावाद्द् हि भविष्यामि विकल्मषा |

भर्तारम् अनुगच्चन्ती भर्ता हि मम दैवतम् || २-२९-१६

(Oh, the pure-minded, following my husband with loving devotion, I shall become sin-less; for husband is the supreme deity to me, as translated by KMK Murthy).

In the Yudha Kand, there is this verse in which Lord Ram speaks about how he and Sitaji are not different. He uses the metaphor of sun and sunlight to express this feeling.

नेय मर्हति चैश्वर्यं रावणान्तःपुरे शुभा |

अनन्या हि मया सीता भास्करेण प्रभा यथा || ६-११८-१९

(This auspicious woman could not give way to the sovereignty, existing in the gynaecium of Ravana, in as much as Seetha is not different from me, even as sunlight is not different from the sun , as translated by KMK Murthy).

Similarly, when Truschke cites a verse from Aranya Kand in which Sitaji accuses  Lakshmana of lusting after her and setting up Lord Ram, what she fails to see is the context of the agitated mind of a devoted wife concerned for her husband’s safety.

As Lord Ram had instructed Lakshmana to not leave Sitaji and protect her till he returns, Lakshmana wasn’t willing to leave her and go out looking for Lord Ram. When there was considerable delay and Lord Rama didn’t return, an anxious Sitaji used such accusations to persuade Lakshmana to go and see where Lord Rama is. Interestingly, in a commentary offered by eminent Ramayana scholar, there is an observation that in a later verse in Yudh Kand of the epic, Sitaji regrets using harsh words for Lakshmana.

Ramayana scholar and translator Desiraju Hanumanta Rao says, “Later, Seetha repents for her rash talk with Lakshmana in yuddha kaanda, Ch. 113, verses 40, 45-46”.

As argued earlier, such contextual understanding becomes important in an epic where an interplay of human situations can be seen with a blend of anthropomorphism and divinity — frailty and strength, weaknesses and virtue, emotions and a sense of righteous duty. The symbolism of the narrative, therefore, has lent itself to various interpretations and that’s the living splendour of Ramayana .

However, even if we leave contextual understanding for subjectivity, Truschke’s primary failure was a grossly flawed translation. Second, she was as clueless as her online defenders in arguing the basis for what she termed as “loosely translated” from Valmiki’s Ramayana.

Interestingly, Truschke in her book (published last year) had sought to whitewash the legacy of someone who was described by even Jawaharlal Nehru as a “bigot”.

In her work Aurangzeb – The Man and the Myth (Penguin Random House, 2017), she had very thin historical material to support her revisionist attempt at the horrors of Aurangzeb’s rule. As Girish Shahane has pointed out, even Truschke’s argument of not judging the Mughal king by modern standards doesn’t stand historical scrutiny (he was a bigot for his times too).

Ironically, Truschke seems quite keen on applying standards of modern-day feminism to mythological characters and religious texts in Hinduism. Be that as it may, it is her prerogative to do so and she can very well interpret Ramayana as she likes. What, however, isn’t acceptable is that such ideas distort the “translations” she cites and sometimes robs it of the context too.

In the wake of her current distortions, commentators have also seen a reflection of what Edward Said had diagnosed in his 1978 classic Orientalism. Said critiqued the West’s patronising and deeply flawed cultural representation of the East.

Though he was writing this in the context of the Middle East, the parallels aren’t hard to draw. Edward Said wrote, “The acquired foreign language is therefore made  part of a subtle assault upon populations, just as the study of a foreign region like the Orient is turned into a program for control by divination”.

The “Ramayana Gate”, then, is not a case of India’s “distrust” of foreign scholarship and interpretations, but a reminder of why foreign scholars need to engage with more curiosity, cultural understanding and honesty. A degree of accuracy while quoting texts would certainly help in the process. Truschke’s claims reminds one of what George Eliot once said, “Blessed is the man who having nothing to say abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact.” Such people are in short supply, obviously.


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