Consideration of Indian (literary) Classicism as depicted by Professor Sheldon Pollock and identifying some of its implications

Professor Sheldon Pollock’s agency to redefine, and thereby attempt to limit, what will be seen as ‘classical’, ’classic’ about India’s literature, and his centrality to the grand mission of presenting it to ‘…the largest readership of the world’1, are both astonishing and terrifying: astonishing, because such a ‘coup’ has been boldly envisioned and converted into a very concrete mission; terrifying, because one very significant part of that vision’s implementation – Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) — is being funded by a well-educated son (Rohan Murty) of the very land (Bharat, i.e. India) whose literature and languages are being (mis)used, in the garb of their preservation and revitalisation (both of which may no doubt be achieved to some extent through MCLI), to further a discord-inducing Indian-classicity-narrative of Pollock, who:

    • is seen even by non-Indian, non-Hindu academicians, as a contributor to ‘…hermeneutics of suspicion that has become influential in Hindu Studies’2
    • is, if not Hindu-phobic, at the very least seen as Veda-phobic and Shastra-phobic in ‘…rejecting the Shastras as Vedic dogma’3
    • has theorized the need to consider a ‘…“pre-form of racism”4 in early India’, which, along with other evidence, has been perceived as, ‘…blaming Sanskrit for Nazism’5, making therefore a deeper understanding — purva-paksha — of implications of his influential scholarship an urgent need for those who see through the (perils of) anachronism resulting from attempting to frame Indian classicity by viewing it solely from (Marxist-Secular) lens.

While a comprehensive purva-paksha of Sheldon Pollock’s academic works is beyond the scope of this effort, this piece is an attempt at a purva-paksha of his (re)definition of ‘Classical’ and ‘Classic’ (as applicable, per him, to the Indian literary context); more specifically, an attempt to do the following five things:

  1. Collate (from various sources) and enlist some of Sheldon Pollock’s extant notion/s of ‘Classical’ and ‘Classic’ (as applicable, per him, to the Indian literary context)
  2. Compare and analyze Pollock’s notion/s of ‘Classical’ with the generic (dictionary) meaning of ‘Classical’ and with the notion/s of ‘Classical’ from the word’s own tradition
  3. Summarize some of the implications that follow from the above comparison and attempt to justify the usage of the phrase ‘…attempt to limit’ in line 1 of this paper
  4. Instantiate inconsistencies in Professor Pollock’s scholarship (and supporting expressions) vis-a-vis his own redefinition of ‘Classical’ for the Indian literary context.
  5. Close with a hypothesis about the (not-explicitly-stated, not-immediately-evident) potential motive for his redefinition of  ‘Classical’, based on the evident implications

Task 1 Collate: Output of Task #1 is summarized in three separate columns (one each for three-different-sources6 of the notions of ‘Classical’) of Table 1 immediately below:

Table 1:

 Column 1: ‘Classical’ as found in Oxford Dictionary  Column 2: ‘Classical’ as found in the guidebook ‘The Classical Tradition  Column 3: ‘Classical’ and ‘Classic’ as found in Sheldon Pollock’s scholarship
1. Relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art, or culture: ‘classical mythology’, ‘classical Latin’

1.1 (Of art or architecture) influenced by ancient Greek or Roman forms or principles: the classical house at Buscot Park

2. Representing an exemplary standard within a traditional and long-established form or style: classical ballet

2.1 Relating to the first significant period of an area of study: classical mechanics

3. Physics: Relating to or based upon concepts and theories which preceded the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics; Newtonian: classical physics

 …There is a privileged connection between classical and the realm of Graeco-Roman culture that admits of three converging explanations:

1. the exemplary value that Graeco-Roman civilization long enjoyed in the education of elites

2. the fact that the word classicus is Latin

3. the fact that the retrospective cult of antiquity that characterises “classical” education derives from Graeco-Roman antiquity itself

Wladislaw Tatarkiewicz (1958) distinguished four meanings of classical in current use:

1. To denote value: first-class, perfect, to be used as a model (as opposed to imperfect, mediocre)

2. To denote chronological period, as a synonym for Graeco-Roman antiquity (or even just the apogee of Greek civilisation…)

3. To denote a historical style, with reference to moderns who have imitated ancient models

4. To denote an aesthetic category, with reference to authors and works that possess harmony, measure and equilibrium models

 1. I want to try, however, proceeding by way of a brief reflection on the idea of the “classic” itself, which might lead us toward the beginning of an answer to the question why anyone should care. I have been using “classic” in the context of India to refer to any and all literature written before c. 1800. That moment did mark a profound transformation: colonialism would not only eventually render the literary past unreadable to most Indians: it would remake the literature of India according to its own image (whatever indigenization would eventually occur). It is this rupture, for me, that defines the classical. (p. 33)

2. For virtually everyone who has written on the “classic” in the West…it has been the supposed capacity for universalization that grounds the category….I follow an entirely different logic, abandoning the “normative significance” of “classical” and the subjectivism and illegitimate generalization of the present that such normativity always smuggles in. To me “classic” means precisely the opposite of what my predecessors understood: a work is classical by reason of its resistance to contemporaneity and supposed universality, by reason of its capacity to indicate human particularity and difference in the past epoch (p. 36)

Table 1 Column 3 continued: (‘Classical’ and ‘Classic’ as found in Sheldon Pollock’s scholarship)

3. In this brief overview, I want to first to revisit some of the data concerning the interactions between India and Greece, before turning to a sketch of some of the distinctive and durable values produced in India – both those that are explicitly enunciated in the tradition and those that, more elusively, are embodied in practice — that constitute a certain alternative classicity. (p. 1)

4. The whole of dramaturgy and especially the theory of aesthetic response (rasa is the Sanskrit term), which represents one of the defining traits of Indian classicism, pivots on the paradigmatic: what is always going to be true of human beings. (p. 6)

5. From an early date thinkers appeared on the scene – Buddhists, Jains, materialists, radical renunciants of every stripe — who rejected the very foundations of what (in hindsight) appears to us to have been a dominant view of the world, as found in Brahmanism; thinkers who were really other and who attacked the scriptural heritage, the ritual practices, the social hierarchy… ultimately everything in that philosophy from its ontology to its theology. The classicity of Indian philosophy lies precisely in the development of reasoned argument in the face of wholesale conceptual assaults — of the sort that never occurred in the Greek world since Greeks never philosophized with those, above all non-Greeks, who could have delivered such assaults. (p. 7)

6. A longer essay would explore some of the negative virtues of Indian classicity: the absence of any absolute state, of censorship, of a state religion, of excommunication, of inquisition or any other sort of systematic religious persecution. And, to be sure, since as Walter Benjamin famously declared, ‘no document of civilisation…is not at the same time a document of barbarism’, Indian classicity shows some positive vices: extreme hierarchy, for example, and forms — sometimes astonishingly inhuman forms — of social inequality such as untouchability. (p. 8)

7. What the study of the Indian classical past offers in the main, however, are instances of how to be human that seem all but inconceivable in the contemporary world. Voluntaristic vernacularism and non-coercive cosmopolitanism, along with transcendental paradigmatism and argumentative pluralism, will convince some that Macaulay was right when he declared India to be the ‘strangest of all possible anomalies.’ (p. 8-9)

8. The Murty Classical Library of India aims to make available the great literary works of India from the past two millennia…the great sources of this pool are the Sanskrit tradition, beginning in the last centuries of the first millennium BCE, and the Persian, from the early centuries of the second millennium;…The transformation of Indian languages in the modern period and the ever-increasing gap in knowledge of their premodern varieties explain MCLI’s cutoff point of 1800…The key characteristics of their “classic,” namely “universality” and “perpetual contemporaneity,” turn out, unsurprisingly, to be Western, and hence not so universal or contemporary after all. What do we think makes Indian works “classic”? It might in fact be their very resistance to contemporaneity and universality that is, their capacity to communicate the vast variety of the human past.

Task 2 Compare: Before we get to (that is, analyze and compare) Sheldon Pollock’s notion/s of ‘Classical’ a comparison of Columns 1 & 2, that is the notions of ‘Classical’ as found in a Dictionary and as found in “The Classical Tradition” respectively, yield several self-evident commonalities, that include a:

1. “Place and Source” connotation: ‘Relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art, or culture…’, ‘…privileged connection between classical and the realm of Graeco-Roman culture

2. “Time and Chronology” connotation: ‘Relating to the first significant period of an area of study: classical mechanics’; ‘To denote chronological period, as a synonym for Graeco-Roman antiquity’;

3. “Quality and Tradition” connotation: ‘Representing an exemplary standard within a traditional and long-established form or style’; ‘to denote value: first-class, perfect, to be used as a model (as opposed to imperfect, mediocre)’; ‘to denote a historical style, with reference to moderns who have imitated ancient model’.

In sum, the “Primary axes of Classical” (Figure 1 below; henceforth “Western-Classical-3D-lens”) could be one way to summarize the above-mentioned key commonalities: what could perhaps be considered constitutive of the notions of ‘Classical’ for the average English reader.

Figure 1:


The above three dimensional lens when applied to non-Graeco-Roman topics [for instance, to Bharatiya (i.e., Indian) or Chinese literature], should logically transform to being two-dimensional (hereafter Western-Classical-2D-lens), while still being an etic lens.

Figure 2: 


Based on the above analyses, it would perhaps not be a stretch to hypothesize, that an any average English- educated reader anywhere in the world, is perhaps not unlikely to think of the above specified three (or two, as may be the case) characteristics, when he hears of the word ‘Classical’; especially, when the word has not been explicitly and clearly prefaced to carry any other specific notion/s.

For such an average English-educated reader, the Loeb Classical Library, the only one-of-its-kind, which was reinforced recently with a search-friendly digital version launched in 2014, would present no exception to all three dimensions, and therefore leave no room for confusion for the reader and thereby resulting potentially in preservation and reinforcement of what is considered Graeco-Roman classicity.

The same average English-educated reader, if he happens though, to come in touch with India’s classicity (as purported by Sheldon Pollock et al), through a hard-copy version of MCLI books (none of which, unlike the MCLI website, have included till-date, a specific explanation about the notion/s implied by the word ‘Classical’ in the title, anywhere in the books), is likely to, one could perhaps safely hypothesize, expect that this series would not exclude oldest known extant works of Indian literature, especially those that have been and are still considered exemplary in some of India’s traditions. The above-specified (underlined) expectation, in case of MCLI, will though, not be met, courtesy some of Sheldon Pollock’s notion/s of ‘Classical’ and ‘Classic’—eight of them—specified in Column 3 of Table 1 above.

For greater readability, Table 2 (below) attempts to present more simply, the notion/s of ‘Classical’ and ‘Classic’ one encounters in the eight points listed in Column 3 of Table 1 (above):

Table 2:

 From Pollock’s paper “Crisis in the Classics” (2011):

1 Before c. 1800

2a Abandon normative significance

2b Resistance to contemporaneity and supposed universality

 From Pollock’s paper “The alternative classicism of Classical India” (2015):

3 Alternative classicity

4 One of the defining traits of Indian classicism, Rasa, pivots on the paradigmatic

5a Brahmanism was the dominant view

5b Buddhists, Jains, materialists, radical renunciants of every stripe rejected the foundations of Brahmanism

5c They attacked everything in that (Brahmanism) philosophy, from its ontology to its theology

5d Classicity of Indian philosophy lies in the development of reasoned argument in the face of wholesale conceptual attacks. To paraphrase this point: As per Pollock, Classicity of Indian philosophy, chronologically speaking, begins only after and as a result of Buddhism, Jainism etc.

6 Indian classicity has the following negative virtues (Oxford dictionary definition of negative virtue being ‘absence or lack of a vice or undesirable quality’): the absence of any absolute state, of censorship, of a state religion, of excommunication, of inquisition or any other sort of systematic religious persecution

7 Voluntaristic vernacularism and non-coercive cosmopolitanism, along with transcendental paradigmatism and argumentative pluralism

 From the introduction “Why a classical library of India” on MCLI website:

8a MCLI aims to make available the great literary works of India from the past two millennia. To paraphrase this point: The chronological start point for MCLI, a library that is supposed to represent the breadth and depth of Classical Indian literature, is around beginning of 1st millennium BCE, thereby excluding extant works from before that period.

8b Sanskrit tradition, which is one of the great pools of Indian literature, begins only at in the last centuries of 1st millennium BCE

8c Year 1800 is the end cut-off point for Classical Indian literature

8d Resistance to contemporaneity and universality makes Indian work classic

Before moving on to the next task – Task 3 (of Summarizing implications) — a quick observation which we will come back whilst in Task 4 (on Inconsistencies): While one sees some of Professor Pollock’s notions of ‘Classical’, ‘Classic’ as articulated in his 2011 paper “Crisis in the Classics”, particularly that of ‘resistance to contemporaneity and supposed universality’ (point 2b above), reflect in his introduction on the MCLI website (point 8d above), these notions are all together absent in a subsequent (2015) paper “The alternate classicism of Classical India”, which is focused on the classicism of Classical India.

Task 3 Summarize implications: In view of all of the above, three implications become self-evident:

Implication 1:

India’s classicity is limited through an etic (outsider7) narrative: From points 5d and 8a in Table 2 above, limits that Pollock’s narrative places on different aspects of Indian classicity, more specifically, on classicity of Sanskrit tradition and Indian philosophy, become evident and could be represented as follows:

Figure 3:

Screen Shot 2016-09-23 at 20.20.27.png

In a radio interview to Tom Ashbrook in the radio show “On Point”, Pollock can be clearly heard talking about applying ‘…Contemporary scholarly judgement of what should be in this library, even if they may not have been part of traditional canonisation’8

Implication 2:

Existential crisis, in the MCLI world, of already known, extant Indian literature dated during or before 1 century BCE: In the same radio interview mentioned above, Professor Pollock can be heard making the point ‘…we are actively commissioning texts on philosophy, literary criticism, even on Science…’9

On that note about ‘actively commissioning texts on…science’ and to make the point about the existential crisis, one question easily presents itself: How will MCLI consider the case of what is considered ’…India’s most extant scientific text (dated to about 1400 BCE)’10, the Sanskrit text Vedanga Jyotisha? Strictly on the basis of the MCLI’s (and Pollock’s) definitions of ‘Classical’ and the chronological limits that are implied as consequence (specified in Summary point 1 above), Vedanga Jyotisha would probably not make it into MCLI. If Vedanga Jyotisha does get included in MCLI without the requisite change to Pollock’s definitions on Indian classicity, it risks being perceived to be a text of a date later than its actual date. Clearly then, an existential crisis for India’s precious and most extent scientific text brought about because of the alternate notion/s of ‘Classical’ as proposed by Professor Pollock. While Vedanga Jyotisha is just one example from the list of many other extant Sanskrit texts that would have an existential crisis in the MCLI world on account of dating vis-a-vis the upper time limit for Sanskrit tradition and history as accorded by Pollock, ‘Western academic critiques of Pollock’11, includes more details of criticism of Pollock’s scholarship on the history of Sanskrit.

Implication 3: 

Misleading the ‘largest readership of the world’1: In the recently (2016) published book “Classical Literature – An Epic Journey from Homer to Vigil and Beyond”, author Richard Jenkyns expands, in the Epilogue on the notion of ’Classical’ that he follows in his book: ’The word ‘classical’ has several common meanings this book has used one of them — a descriptive term covering Greek and Roman antiquity up to somewhere around the first millennium AD’12.

No such clarity exists though, in any of the printed books of MCLI, about what exactly is implied by the ‘Classical’ in the name “Murty Classical Library of India”. Instead, there exist a web of references of Pollock’s notions of ‘Classic’ and ‘Classical’ dispersed in various other mediums: in a note of introduction on the MCLI website, in video recordings of lit-fest appearances of Pollock, in academic papers such as “Crisis in the Classics” and “The alternative Classicism of Classical India”.

The door is hence left open for readers from all over the world to get acquainted to an unnaturally nuanced ‘Classical’ literature of India, while the lens the reader may be wearing, by default, might still be the Western-Classical-2D-lens (refer above), which could result in reinforcement of incorrect notions about the chronology and history of Sanskrit and Indian literature and potentially misleading the readership.

A Harvard University Press link carries Sheldon Pollock’s radio interview about MCLI with the title “A Loeb Library for Indian Literature”. Loeb Classical Library’s introduction, by its General Editor Jeffrey Henderson, begins though with the line: ‘Over a century ago, James Loeb announced the founding of the Loeb Classical Library and his intention to bring the written treasures of the ancient Greek and Roman world “within the reach of all who care for the finer things in life.’13 Is not calling MCLI “A Loeb Library for Indian literature”, especially without including in the MCLI books a clarification on the notions implied by ‘Classical’, misleading (willful or otherwise)?

Task 4 Instantiate inconsistencies: The observation included at the very end of Section Task 2 (i.e., the section on Comparison) made clear one of the inconsistencies between two of Pollock’s academic papers: the absence of his prior definitions in his future scholarship on a closely linked topic. Two more instances of inconsistencies, from his own scholarship and expressions, with his own notion/s of ‘Classical’ and ‘Classic’ are included below. In what is considered his seminal work “The Language of the Gods in the World of Men” Professor Pollock makes the following observation: ‘That a past epic like the Mahabharata can serve transhistorically as a medium for processing every historical present…may raise few serious theoretical problems for us. This, after all, is what makes a classic a classic.’14 Does not Mahabharata’s ability ‘…to serve transhistorically as a medium for processing every historical present…’ make it atleast contemporaneous, if not universal (in its context)? Pollock’s own words ‘…this…’ (as in contemporaneity), ‘…after all, is what makes classic a classic’ is the exact opposite his notion of what he thinks makes Indian works classic, as expressed by him in the “Crisis of the Classics” and his note of introduction to MCLI, namely ‘…resistance to contemporaneity and supposed universality’. Similarly, In the radio-interview by Tom Ashbrook referred to earlier, Professor Sheldon Pollock can be heard mentioning “perpetual contemporaneity” as an attribute of one of the published books of MCLI, Therigatha: ‘…It is true that, there is a kind of, as Sainte-Beuve said, there is a sort of a perpetual contemporaneity in this work; this is a voice that you could hear today — of an oppressed, emotionally shattered widow, jobless mother — and that indeed is part of the classical world of India’15 and yet calling it, in contradiction to his own definition (of resistance to contemporaneity), a ‘…part of the classical world of India’.

Task 5 Close: For serious, objective, contemporary academicians anywhere in the world familiar with India’s most extant literature and history of Sanskrit, criteria that lead to non-inclusion of (by way of examples) Rig Veda or Vedanga Jyotisha in a library meant to be a repository of India’s greatest literary works would be nothing short of preposterous.

For the readership uninitiated about India’s literary past and looking to get a sense of its classicity (as they perhaps might normally understand) from MCLI, the above mentioned non-inclusions would, at the very least be a severe let down if not being a case of being misled.

However, for those looking to sideline Vedas and Shastras, demonize Brahmins and Sanskrit, distort civilizational India’s literary history and Sanskrit’s traditions, induce chronological confusions about India’s literary past, politicize Indian texts, polarize Indians on the basis of political philology, definitions of MCLI’s ‘Classical’ provide enough ambiguity and leverage to further a Marxist narrative of India’s classicity, under the garb of upholding ‘…resistance to contemporaneity and supposed universality’.

In his book “The Battle for Sanskrit”, Rajiv Malhotra points out that when ‘outsiders’7 ‘…use the term ‘classical language’ to refer to Sanskrit, the tacit analogy they proffer is with dead Western languages of high culture namely Latin and Greek16’. As valid as that implication is, this paper has attempted to take that notion further by doing a more elaborate purva-paksha of the word ‘Classical’ in the world of Sheldon Pollock and MCLI.

End Notes

1 Line 1 of the Mission statement of Murty Classical Library of India (that can be found in the “Our Mission” section of MCLI website, of which Sheldon Pollock is the General Editor: ’To present the greatest literary works of India from the past two millennia to the largest readership in the world is the mission of the Murty Classical Library of India’.

2 Jessica Frazier, Continuum Companion to Hindu Studies, (2011; London: Continuum International Publishing Group), p. 325

3 Rajiv Malhotra, The Battle for Sanskrit, (2016; India: HarperCollins Publishers), p. 114-125

4 Sheldon Pollock, Deep Orientalism? Notes on Sanskrit and Power beyond the Raj, In Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament. Edited by Carol Breckenridge and Peter Van Der Veer. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press)

5 Rajiv Malhotra, The Battle for Sanskrit, (2016; India: HarperCollins Publishers), p. 69


Table 1 Column 1: (

Table 1 Column 2: Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, Salvatore Settis, The Classical Tradition, (2010; Cambridge, London: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press Reference Library), p. 205

Table 1 Column 3:

Points 1-2: Sheldon Pollock, Crisis in the Classics, Social Research: An International Quarterly 78 (1):22-48 (2011);

Point 3-7: Sheldon Pollock, The alternative classicism of Classical India, India-Seminar 2015 (http://www.india-;

Point 8: Sheldon Pollock, Why a Classical Library of India,

7 Rajiv Malhotra, Insiders vs Outsiders,

8 Refer to audio starting at 08:22 (08 minutes 22 seconds) in “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” interview titled ‘A Loeb Library for Indian Literature’, that may be found at

9 Ibid.: 33:18-33:38

10 Michel Danino, Indian Culture and India’s future, (First published in 2011, third impression in 2015; D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd), p. 26

11 Rajiv Malhotra, The Battle for Sanskrit, (2016; India: HarperCollins Publishers), p. 300

12 Richard Jenkyns, Classical Literature, (2016; Basic Books, A Member of Perseus Book Group), p. 245

13 Jeffrey Henderson, From the General Editor,

14 Sheldon Pollock, The Languages of the Gods in the World of Men, (2006, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California; University of California Press, Ltd, London, England)

15 Refer to audio starting at 25:22 (25 minutes 22 seconds) in “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” interview titled ‘A Loeb Library for Indian Literature’, that may be found at

16 Rajiv Malhotra, The Battle for Sanskrit, (2016; India: HarperCollins Publishers), p. 41


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