ReClaiming Sanskrit Studies

Western Indology & its Quest for Power

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Infinity Foundation India conducted two conferences in the recent past (in July 2016 and February 2017) which examined the impact of some of the writings of Prof. Sheldon Pollock of Columbia University. While the first conference had four themes, the second had six more; and all these ten topics pertained to the interpretations proffered by Pollock.

While there is no intention of, or point in, targeting particular individuals, the focus on Pollock was due to the fact that he is the most formidable of the American Orientalists today, and his views and interpretations appear to Hindus to be most pernicious, nevertheless most pervasive in influence: a good many contemporary scholars, especially in the West build on his pet ideas.

Pollock is obsessed with the notions of power and politics. As Malhotra points out, the word “power” occurs 600 times in his 2006 book The Language of Gods…; and the words “political” and “politics” occur 900 times! There is no event or utterance, be it the most innocuous, where he cannot see some vicious play of power. Pollock cannot be too proud of this idiosyncrasy, for he has lucid company in Prof. O’Flaherty for whom the most innocent of moves can reek of sexual ramifications. (We promise our readers to reserve a couple of volumes for her too).

Eight volumes are being presented now for dealing with the ideas of Pollock: six volumes of around 250 or more pages each and two monographs authored by two young Sanskrit scholars. Of these eight, Volume 1 is being presented now.

A conspectus of the various papers in this volume is quite in order here. This volume presents eight papers in two parts – three on what is perceived by the ilks of Pollock as the diabolical influence that Sanskrit and the Śāstra-s have had, directly or indirectly, on Nazism; and five on the vile theme of the putative death of Sanskrit.

Part 1 of the book is devoted to the treatment of the supposed Sanskrit springs of the Nazi holocaust: the weird and convoluted links Pollock belabours to manufacture between the two stand exposed here.

The first paper authored by K Gopinath (Ch. 1) exposes the propagandist designs evidenced in Pollock’s 1993 paper “Deep Orientalism: Notes on Sanskrit and Power beyond the Raj”. Gopinath’s paper shows how Pollock subtly brings in extraneous elements, invokes selective evidence that can suggest his own prefixedconclusions, and employs other devices – all typical protocols of propagandism. Pollock supposes a trans-mogrification of German Indologists into supporters of Nazism, blatantly ignoring all the same, how, for example, famed German physicists and philosophers too vouched for their Nazi sympathies. Gopinath musters evidence from writers such as Grunendahl to show how Pollock is a past master in the suppression of inconvenient facts, and thus proves himself a prevaricator par excellence.

The second paper by Ashay Naik (Ch. 2) makes a pūrva-pakṣa of Pollock’s 2001 paper “Deep Orientalism?”. Pollock endeavours to establish therein a link between German Indology and the notorious Nazi ideology. The Nazis indulged in the worst of horrors, and linking Sanskrit with the Nazis can easily make Sanskrit culpable: is not an abettor a partaker of crime, after all? Naik organises his paper under the four labels of Orientalism viz. the British, the German, the Sanskrit, and the American. Pollock has sought to implicate Sanskrit knowledge as a factor in the development of Nazi ideology. Equipped with pertinent facts and cogent logic, Ashay shows how Pollock’s comparative morphology of domination, for all its polemic, remains untenable.

The third paper by Koenraad Elst (Ch. 3) closely considers the claims of Pollock only to find them “surprisingly weak or simply wrong”; Pollock is not, of course, the first person to exploit the links between racism, Nazism, and the study of Indo-European culture on the one hand, and Sanskrit on the other. The counterpoint viz. Adolf Hitler’s contempt for Hinduism, though well known, is cautiously concealed by Pollock, and blatant lies are made use of so as to subserve his own polemical writings. While there is, of course, a general animus againstHinduism in American academe, Pollock’s deliberate and concocted links between Hinduism and National Socialism suggest “a rare animosity against Hinduism”. Again, Western Indologists spare no efforts to depict the Indian caste-system as slavery and racism, for which they invoke the discredited yet handy AIT (Aryan Invasion Theory), and fantasize a Nazi parallel, notwithstanding the fact that nowhere in the long history of India do we find even a faint hint of genocide in connection with the varṇa system. He who makes public allegations, and cannot prove them, is guilty of slander, which Pollock patently is. The author of the paper asks the rhetorical question, finally, as to whether Pollock is at all fit to be trusted to preside over the publication of Indian classics.

Part 2 of the book is devoted to the projection of the “death” of Sanskrit. The discovery non pareil of Pollock is that Sanskrit has died multiple times, even though it was still-born (his own naive fancy, again!) Fallacies galore of Pollockian polemics are well laid bare here.

The first paper in this part by Naresh Cuntoor (Ch. 4) prepares for us a decoction of Pollock’s concoctions. To sample but three: Sanskrit had a symbiotic relationship with royal power; Sanskrit grammar and śleṣa (paranomasia) enhanced the political status of kings; royal patronage favoured Sanskrit over vernacular language. Extraordinary is Pollock’s sacrifice of empirical data at the altar of his own brand of narrative building. What comes handy as a powerful tool for butchery of facts is the complicated style of writing Pollock meticulously deploys. Unfortunately for Pollock, opacity of diction cannot always shield the deviousness of his designs. Pollock freely posits theories that never once make even a pretense of being at first a hypothesis that may naturally need to be justified. All the accoutrements of posturing are well in place: like a conscientious author, Pollock starts with meticulous and detailed enumeration of various caveats; one however has only to wait to get to the section of his conclusions to realise that all those caveats are thrown into winds unceremoniously. Pollock draws, again, analogies of Sanskrit with the truly dead languages, but only fallaciously.

The second paper is by Satyanarayana Das (Ch. 5). Simply entitled “Sanskrit is not Dead” this paper puts Pollock in the dock by presenting a case study – of the Vraja literature of the 16th-17th centuries – that betrayed, against the wishful thinking of Pollock, the remarkable historical continuity and vitality of Sanskrit. The author shows how Pollock does not provide either statistical evidence, or even proper references for his claims. The only point of note in Pollock’s presentation of a “momentous rupture” (post the “vibrant period” 1550-1750), is that it is just sensational-in lieu of being really sensible. As against the whimsical claims of Pollock, the paper of Das makes its own argument sound, buttressed with apt statistical evidence.

The third paper by Jayaraman Mahadevan (Ch. 6) deals with the classic inane statement by Pollock viz. “Government feeding tubes and oxygen tanks may try to preserve the language [Sanskrit] in a state of quasi-animation …. Sanskrit is dead”. The paper sets forth pertinent information in abundance from one of the most important documents of the Government of India (which Pollock knows cannot claim ignorance of) viz. the Report of the First Sanskrit Commission constituted by the Government of India in 1956 with Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterji as its Chairman; Chatterji, by the way, was by no means known for his sympathies with any “Hindutva” philosophy that Pollock is so fidgety about. This was in fact at a time when no “Hindutva force” worth the name was even heard of, much less had been shaping things, and, to speak the truth, it was during the very reign of the government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, “secularism” incarnate, euphemism for allergy to Hinduism, which called all the shots.

The Report was prepared covering a cross-section of India – (the then) 14 states of India, at 56 centres, and interviewing over 1100 persons – thus representing various shades of opinion. A perusal of the Reportshows that the Britishers paid Sanskrit teachers half the salary they paid others, and worse, the hypocritical Nehru Government unabashedly perpetuated it! It was the response from the public – from Maharajas to the ordinary folk including non-Brahmins – that sustained Sanskrit in these adverse times. The paper has ably bleached the p(f)igments of Pollock’s political imagination.

The fourth paper by Kannan and Meera (Ch. 7) scrutinises Pollock’s paper of 2001 on the “Death of Sanskrit”. The paper draws attention to the methodological idiosyncrasies of Pollock that can do no credit to a conscionable author: there is nothing for Pollock, for example, that cannot have a bearing on power. Pollock is aghast that Hindutva propagandists have sought to show – what is an elementary fact, after all – that Sanskrit is indigenous to India. Revival of Sanskrit is to him a mere “exercise in nostalgia”. From the vast canvas of several millennia of the history of Sanskrit, Pollock picks (read cherry-picks) just four tricky points of time – to delineate the degeneration/disappearance of Sanskrit. Pollock indeed “sees things” that few others can: viz. that it is the benign Muslim kings that tried to patronize and protect Sanskrit (and not jettison and jeopardize Sanskrit), while Hindu kings were apathetic towards it! Pollock does not even attempt to camouflage his intense Islamophilia (matched only by his high Hinduphobia) when he makes light of the atrocious burning of libraries in Kashmir as but “fire accidents” – in lieu of speaking of the wanton destruction by the Muslim marauders, which no chronicler has ever made any secret of. Pollock can have few sympathisers even among American Orientalists except, of course, his own intellectual offsprings like Audrey Trushke. The other typical techniques of “List and Dismiss”, “Perhaps…Probably…And therefore”, “divida et impera”, “Selective playing up and playing down”, and the anachronistic and unprincipled superimposition of the frameworks of modern psychology and social science on Indian traditional lore of antiquity, to mention but a few – all illustrative of the contumely of an unchallenged maverick – are tellingly set forth in this paper.

The fifth (and the last) paper by Manogna Sastry (Ch. 8) also deals with Pollock’s “Death of Sanskrit” paper of 2001. Starting with Sri Aurobindo’s note on India’s distinctness from the Occident, Ms. Sastry notes how there is a vast continuum of Western critics – from Sister Nivedita and Romain Rolland, sympathetic and understanding towards the Indian heritage at one end of the spectrum, and, at the other, the pompous and belligerent critics exemplified by Doniger and Pollock. American Orientalism has only spawned a plethora of scholars of the latter type. The facile and puerile assertion of Pollock that Sanskrit is championed just by promoters of Hindutva, is easily repudiated by her by way of citing the numerous independent attempts in support of Sanskrit, of several individuals and organizations that are totally independent of or utterly unaware of the Hindutva movement. And to no small effect has been related by her the research of Hanneder, to show how Pollock is eminently capable of interpreting all evidence to fit just his own pet theses, and by whatever means. Summoning “anecdotal factoids” to suppress key facts staring in the face, or again, reinforcing devious attempts so asto drive a wedge between Sanskrit and vernaculars (which many European Indologists have carefully and consistently cultivated for long) – are all no small feats of Pollock. Very telling are her words towards the conclusion of the paper that the opus of Pollock is not all in vain in that it has actually provided the clarion call to Indians – to resume the stewardship of the creation and organization of their own cultural instruments.

It goes without saying that the opinions expressed in the papers presented here are those of the respective authors. The authors hold themselves responsible for the veracity of their statements.

A survey of all the papers above may be said to reveal one important trait of Pollock. While not one paper here doubts or questions the profusion of Pollock’s scholarship, every one without exception has expressed apprehensions about the integrity of Pollock reminding us thus of the subhāṣita – “vyartham pāṇḍityam guṇa-varjitam” (“What avails scholarship, after all, sans integrity?”)!

Vijayadaśamī
Hemalamba Saṃvatsara
Date 30-09-2017

Dr. K S Kannan
Academic Director
General Editor of the Series


More  Volumes are forthcoming in this Series.