Why Sheldon Pollock matters

In February, a group of academics and others petitioned Rohan Murty to remove >Sheldon Pollock, professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University and the world’s foremost Sanskrit scholar, from the general editorship of the >Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) . The MCLI is a series of classical texts taken from a range of Indian languages, in their original scripts together with English translations, published by Harvard University Press. Each volume is critically edited, introduced and translated by a competent scholar of that language, without any reference to his or her nationality. Prof. Pollock is the initiator and the overall editor of the entire Murty Library, so named because Mr. Murty, son of the Infosys founder and IT magnate N.R. Narayana Murthy, personally made an endowment of $5.2 million to launch the series, which put out its first five volumes (in Pali, Telugu, Persian, Punjabi and Braj) in 2015.

Almost none of the petition’s 132 principal sponsors and backers, or the thousands of signatories, are experts of Sanskrit, other classical languages, literature, history or the humanities, or indeed scholars at all. They claim they want Prof. Pollock removed from the driver’s seat because he acts against Indian interests, he is himself not Indian and he does not respect Indian knowledge traditions. They say the role he plays at the MCLI should be given to an Indian.

The evidence that according to the petitioners indicts >Prof. Pollock is his public support for the students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) , including Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and others, who have been called “anti-national” and “seditious” by the Modi government. According to the champions of the petition, it’s a good thing for an Indian (Mr. Murty) to endow the series, but it would be even better if he gave his money to an Indian publisher and handed over editorial charge to an Indian scholar. Mr. Murty has since clarified that he plans to do no such thing, and that the MCLI will proceed exactly how it was conceived and has run thus far. Since there would be no such project without Prof. Pollock, and since no one has raised any complaints about the content or standards of the Murty volumes, the question of removing him does not arise.

Culture wars and the Sangh Parivar

Those demanding Prof. Pollock’s exit might have noted that he not only stands with JNU. In fact, late last year he also signed a public statement supporting Indian writers and artists who returned state awards in large numbers. Before that he opposed the government’s proposal to rename the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) as “The Museum of Governance” and condemned the removal of the NMML’s former director. In 2014 he led a campaign demanding that Penguin Books India continue to publish Wendy Doniger’s work on Hindus and Hinduism rather than withdrawing and pulping her books because of pressure from Hindu nationalist groups.

Had Prof. Pollock’s critics done their homework and looked at earlier decades, they would have found him unequivocally condemning state-sponsored violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, as well as vociferously opposing the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. His path-breaking essay of 1993, “Ramayana and Political Imagination in India”, was already a call to arms against the violent and authoritarian religious nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In India’s own ‘Culture Wars’ of the past 25 years, Prof. Pollock and the Sangh Parivar have always been on opposite sides. But to expect his self-appointed enemies to know this fact would be to ask too much of them.

Ever since the original petition was put out, it has garnered unanimous opposition from the scholarly community and ridicule in the press, both within India and internationally. So much so that the wording of the petition was subsequently changed online, and several of the original authors disavowed it altogether. All pretence of substantive criticism of the choice of texts or the quality of translations was dropped; what remained was only an ad hominem attack on Prof. Pollock for defending the freedom of expression and the right to dissent, most recently threatened at JNU.

The ill-judged and badly botched propaganda against the MCLI launched by a handful of professional instigators in the Hindutva camp has brought the rarefied discipline of philology (the study of texts) and the name of Sheldon Pollock, an intellectual’s intellectual, into the wider public debate on the limits of free speech, the ideology of nationalism, the university as a home for critical reflection, and the shrinking space for diversity and disagreement in an era of majoritarian politics. Very few of those rushing to take sides on the question of Prof. Pollock’s engagement with India are actually aware of the range and depth of his achievements over a scholarly career of four decades.

A scholar’s work

Prof. Pollock’s most enduring contribution is surely his argument about the historically unique “cosmopolitanism” of Sanskrit, that allowed it to become the principal carrier of widely shared ideas about morality, sovereignty and beauty across a huge swathe of Asia throughout the first millennium, without any of the propellant fuels of empire and imperial dissemination — neither an army, nor a religion, nor capital (naturally, in the pre-modern world). Related is his model of the “cosmopolitan vernacular”, where he shows how several vernacular languages in South Asia and beyond became cosmopolitan. Kannada, for example, transcended its own locality by imitating and adapting the semantic structures and textual strategies of Sanskrit. A similar process unfolded for language after language from about the beginning of the second millennium, continuing up to the eve of colonialism.

Prof. Pollock’s discussion of the “ways of literature” — the marga and the deshi — shows how literary cultures and linguistic ideologies in precolonial South Asia allowed practitioners to simultaneously use different languages — trans-regional and local, refined and popular — for various purposes (some more transcendental, others relatively pragmatic) without generating terrible conflicts or irreconcilable contradictions in their oeuvre. His careful hermeneutics of some of the principal genres of literary Sanskrit — kavya (poetry), shastra (disciplinary knowledge) and itihasa (narrative history) — remains indispensable for explaining how strictly regulated forms of discourse that were composed so massively in India’s pre-modernity, could have “truth effects” in the real world.

In the 1980s, Prof. Pollock translated two books, “Forest” and “Ayodhya”, of Valmiki’s Ramayana, in which he made the apparently simple yet brilliantly insightful case that Rama’s character, deeds and appeal cannot be understood unless he is taken to be both human and divine. Subsequently he showed that the Ramayana is a text that has been rendered and interpreted in multiple languages, regional settings, time periods and courtly cultures (not only on the subcontinent but also in Southeast Asia) because it so vividly narrates a compelling saga about ethical values and kingly conduct, about duty and power, a story with universal resonance. He then looked carefully at the Mahabharata, to explore the production of “epic space” as a field that superimposes political imagination upon territorial imagination, giving us the very “Bharat” that eventually becomes synonymous with an influential version of the idea of India.

The future of Sanskrit

Prof. Pollock is the first modern Sanskritist to scrutinise the relationship between the discipline of Indology and the operations of power-knowledge that we know as Colonialism and Orientalism. It is thanks to him that we now have a postcolonial Indology: the study of the most self-reflexive language, Sanskrit, has at last begun to be self-critical as well. He has also provided strong evidence from the vast archive of Sanskrit to bolster an important thesis of his > fellow historians , that had India not been colonised by the British Empire, its knowledge systems were already beginning to show signs of “early modernity”. India’s encounter with Europe caused what Prof. Pollock famously called the “death of Sanskrit” as a living medium through which new arguments and ways of thinking could enter the world. Of late he has called for the reinstatement of philology — literally “the love of learning” — as the centrepiece of humanistic scholarship and the core of the liberal academy.

Apart from his original and innovative contributions, Prof. Pollock has also undertaken some of the largest and most successful collaborative research projects in contemporary academia, working with colleagues on the literary histories of more than a dozen major Indian languages, on digital humanities, and on India’s relationship with other significant pre-modern civilisations, including the Greco-Roman, the Persianate, and the Chinese. He also launched and ran the Clay Sanskrit Library for several years prior to his current undertaking, the even more ambitious, complex and multilingual Murty Classical Library of India. For the past decade, he has been warning of a “crisis in the classics”, pointing out that South Asians are losing the linguistic and analytic skills necessary to read, comprehend, preserve and value their astounding textual heritage, the largest and most varied in the world.

Prof. Pollock has won the highest awards and honours in the U.S. and India; he has secured funding for the study of Sanskrit and other Indian languages from American and Indian donors; he has trained students of many nationalities, who teach, write, publish and do research on India and South Asia all over the world. He not only speaks fluent Sanskrit, he has studied Tamil, Kannada and Hindi seriously as well. Pollock has instituted a scholarship for Dalit youth to be able to study at Columbia University, just like B.R. Ambedkar once did. His next book will be a Reader on Rasa, which goes to the heart of the theory and practice of aesthetics in Indian intellectual history.

To challenge such unparalleled erudition and to impugn such unflagging commitment to the study of India’s pasts is only to betray a profound ignorance of the field, and to deny the stakes and the urgency of scholarship in and about South Asia.

(Ananya Vajpeyi is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, and was a doctoral student of Sheldon Pollock at the University of Chicago, 1996-2004.)

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