A limited response to Ananya Vajpeyi’s article “Why Sheldon Pollock matters”

First published: March 22, 2016

On Mar 17, a leading Indian national newspaper carried an article ”Why Sheldon Pollock matters“, attributed to Ananya Vajpeyi who is described as “…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.″

The four-section article, commences with an untitled section followed by three sections named “Culture wars and the Sangh Parivar”, “A scholar’s work” and “The future of Sanskrit”. 

Given Ananya’s credentials include the fact that she “…was a doctoral student of Sheldon Pollock”, it may perhaps not be too much of a stretch to assume Ananya is not deeply unfamiliar with Sheldon Pollock’s scholarship and therefore the focus of this limited response is on the section she has chosen to call “A scholar’s work”, more specifically on 3 (in blue) of 8 statements in the section (reproduced below):

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. A similar process unfolded for language after language from about the beginning of the second millennium, continuing up to the eve of colonialism.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

Excerpt from Line 1 and a response to it:

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…”

Ananya appears to be making the following points in the above excerpt:

  1. Prof. Pollock’s most enduring contribution is his argument about the “cosmopolitanism” of Sanskrit
  2. Argument about the “cosmopolitanism of Sanskrit” is historically unique
  3. It is the (Prof. Pollock’s notion of) ‘cosmopolitanism’ of Sanskrit that allowed it to become the principal carrier of widely shared ideas of about morality, sovereignty and beauty…

What is Prof. Pollock’s argument about “cosmopolitanism” of Sanskrit?

In Prof. Pollock’s book ‘The Language of the Gods in the World of Men’ (hereafter THE BOOK), while the word “cosmopolitanism” seems to appear atleast 60 times (and in atleast 40 pages), a clear, succinct definition of “cosmopolitanism of Sanskrit”, if there exists one, eludes me (atleast).

However, in THE BOOK, an answer to the question of what comprises a constitutive feature of the Sanskrit Cosmopolitan order – the ‘main point’ (to use the author Prof. Pollock’s own words) can be found (included below):

Further amassing of data would only be redundant; the main point should be clear: that power’s concern with grammar, and to a comparable degree grammar’s concern with power, comprised a constitutive feature of the Sanskrit cosmopolitan order.” (p. 176)

Does it not appear that ‘Power’ is core to the main point of Professor Pollock’s “Sanskrit Cosmopolitan Order” or, as Ananya put it, of Prof. Pollock’s most enduring contribution – his argument about the historically unique “cosmopolitanism of Sanskrit”?

Atleast Professor Jessica Frazier and Professor Gavin Flood appear to think so, when one considers the observations on Professor Pollock’s “Sanskrit cosmopolitanism” and the warning with regard “to unmoderated reductionism to power” in the ‘The Continuum Companion to Hindu Studies’

“Contemporary South Asian studies  have applied the analysis of power to issues in the subcontinent such as ethnicity, caste, gender, kings and their empires and nationalism; Sanskrit  has mainly been linked to the prestige of the Brahman castes and pan-Indian culture.One of the most influential scholars applying this approach to the interpretation of Sanskrit literature is Sheldon Pollock. In his studies of Sanskrit cosmopolitanism, Pollock characterizes academic texts (śāstras), including philosophical works, as efforts to define eternal models of knowledge with prescriptive force for all cultural practices, through which the‘sectional interests of pre-modern India are universalized and valorized‘.”(p. 142)

“ The problem encountered in the reductionistic application of power theory  illustrates more broadly the danger in assuming from the outset that someone else’s views are entirely generated by one’s disciplinary set of non-epistemic factors.” (p.143)

An unmoderated reductionism to power may itself becomeironically, ahegemonic expression of a globalized cultural system obsessed with profit,political world order, marketing and media spin.” (p. 142)

(Also see Makarand Paranjpe’s Mar 21 article ‘The problem with Pollock’ which includes “this smacks of politically motivated hegemonic practices…”)

Furthermore, in calling out what she thinks is Professor Pollock’s most enduring contribution – his argument about “cosmopolitanism of Sanskrit” – what Ananya misses informing the readership is the ‘alternativeness’ of Professor Pollock’s notion of cosmopolitanism as applied to Sanskrit, which is tucked away in page 571 of THE BOOK:

…the fact that Sanskrit never sought to conceptualize its own universality is indeed entirely consistent with its historical character as a cultural-political formation, an alternative form of cosmopolitanism in which “here” was not made “everywhere,” but remained “nowhere in particular.” (p. 571)

Another reason why the above statement is important is because a modified version of an excerpt of the above statement –  ”…the fact that Sanskrit never sought to theorize its own universality” (Ibid, p. 12) – is attributed atleast in part (by Prof. Pollock himself) as the reason he is “obliged to invent” his own expression: the ‘Sanskrit Cosmopolis’.

In Chapter 7 Section: ‘Introducing the ‘Sanskrit Cosmopolis’ and sidelining Sanskriti ’(see Rajiv Malhotra, The Battle of Sanskrit, Loc 3687 (Kindle version)), one finds a critical analysis of Professor Pollock’s ‘Sanskrit Cosmopolis’: an analysis which is balanced enough to not “suggest that kings never used Sanskrit and its literary expressions as tools of exploitation” (Ibid. Loc 3797), and “not contest that top-down instrumental use for politics was being made to some degree” (Ibid. Loc 3786) but also call out the fact that reducing “the entire process of cultural evolution to a matter of politics betrays a profound misunderstanding” (Ibid, Loc 3786) and that “not all kings all of the time used Sanskrit” (Ibid, Loc. 3797) in the way purported by Prof. Pollock, i.e. as a tool for “‘aestheticization of the political’ or ‘aestheticization of power’”. (Ibid, Loc. 3471)

[Detailed analysis of Pollock’s “aestheticization of power”, its (marxist) lineage and its application, can be found in Chapter 6 of the book The Battle of Sanskrit (Section: ‘The theory of the aestheticization of power’.]

Can Malhotra’s point about the logical fallacy that Pollock’s “own data show considerable political tension among regions at various times and certainly no homogeneity in political systems or processes” which “makes the single-cosmopolis idea appear strange” (Ibid, Loc 3974) be simply wished away because Professor Pollock’s students, like Ananya, find his theory “enduring”?

Moving on to second part of Ananya’s statement #1 “…that allowed it to become the principal carrier of widely shared ideas about morality, sovereignty and beauty…”

One of Professor Pollock’s views on the “beauty” of Sanskrit can be found in p. 57 of THE BOOK:

Neither Sanskrit nor any other prestige dialect has an inherent capacity qualifying it for tasks of complex expression,  let alone an “inherent beauty and force”… (p. 57)

For a person (Professor Pollock) whose knowledge of Sanskrit is often drummed up as a marker of his motivations, what does the above statement indicate about his position about Sanskrit and its inherent beauty?

Excerpt Line 5 and a response to it:

“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…”

What Ananya sees as Professor Pollock’s  ”careful hermeneutics…”, and as “indispensable”, other scholars have seen (one may even say, perhaps find some aspects of it dispensable) as “hermeneutics of suspicion that have become influential in Hindu studies” (Frazier, ‘The Continuum Companion with Hindu Studies‘, p. 325)

Contributing to the hermeneutics of suspicion  that has become influential in Hindu Studies, Sheldon Pollock has gone on to point an accusatory finger at the language, highlighting its function as a purveyor of forms of authority that are culturally and ethnically exclusive, benefiting the few at the expense of the many. He notes its implicit affiliation with a particular community of origin envisioned as northern and non-Persian, non-Muslim, non-Dravidian, non-Tribal (see Pollock, 2006), and its association with an elite community of use, and an assumed aura of ‘high’ culture, the boundaries of which were policed by knowledge of the language.” (p. 325)

Line 6 and a response to it:

“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.”

Is Ananya aware of and would she be willing to inform her readers, where other western academic scholars (Professors) see Prof. Pollock taking lead, in the matter of Rama:

Many scholars have believed that the divine identities of the heroes, Rāma and Krsna for example, were overlays onto originally human characters; material that is said to be late is sometimes deprecated, as when Johannes van Buitenen referred to the divine identities of the Mahābhārata heroes as ‘inept mythification’ (van Buitenen, 1973, p. xx). Such perspectives may seem to bespeak a failure of textual appreciation, and are perhaps on the wane; Sheldon Pollock has led the way here in the matter of Rāma (Pollock, 1983–1984, 1984). Luis González-Reimann has provided a critique of Pollock’s arguments for the integrity of Rāma’s divinity (González-Reimann, 2006),and his critique has some merit.  But most of Pollock’s arguments may seem to be surplus to requirements in any case, since the Rāmāyana says what it says; and there is no new data in support of the analytic view. (Ibid, p. 94)

While Ananya Vajpeyi is free to use whatever adjectives (unique, enduring, indispensable etc), from the limited responses above to her article, atleast three things should perhaps clear:

  1. Professor Pollock’s scholarship cannot be seen , and is not seen, as the last word or the law and certainly not beyond critique.
  2. Even western academicians have pointed out his contribution “to the hermeneutics of suspicion that has become influential in Hindu Studies” and some of his perspectives with regard to the matter of Rama which have been seen as to “bespeak a failure of textual appreciation”.
  3. Professor Pollock’s expertise in Sanskrit need not necessarily be an indicator of his motivations or sincerity of his appreciation for the language or its heritage: a case in point being his view that “Neither Sanskrit nor any other prestige dialect has an inherent capacity qualifying it for tasks of complex expression, let alone an inherent beauty and force…”.

In view of the above, would any rational individual, even with nothing at stake leave alone “insider” (see Rajiv Malhotra, The Battle of Sanskrit (TBFS)) of the Sanskrit tradition, be comfortable with the annoinment of Professor Sheldon Pollock as the only messiah for restoration of Sanskrit literature, when he clearly seems to see no inherent “beauty” in in the language, to start with?

Ananya Vajpeyi’s article is one response to why Sheldon Pollock matters: it includes some reasons why his scholarship is important and by extension, why he may perhaps be a very important indologist.

Here is another view – that of Shri Rajiv Malhotra – on why “Sheldon Pollock is a very important indologist to engage“. Shri Malhotra can be seen (in youtube videos) articulating to packed audiences (of his best-seller TBFS book events), on the need for an open, respectful engagement with Professor Pollock.

After all, if not for anything else, would open, respectful, frank engagement not be the “cosmopolitan” way – a way to begin understanding differences, in an attempt to see if a resolution may be possible?

 

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