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The Sheldon Pollock Hold on Indian Minds


By appointing the American Sanskritist, editor of Murty Classical Library of India, venture head Rohan Murty has contributed to the outsourcing of our Shastric traditions to Western scholars sceptical of our sacred texts

Sheldon Pollock is a scholar and a globally well-connected one. For many students and academicians of Shastric tradition and ancient cultural texts in India, the American philologist’s interpretation carries the stamp of authority. For decades in this country since Independence, when the Left-view prevailed from areas as diverse as politics to history to archaeology to even cinema, he held sway over the minds of many Indians who were brought up to understand their culture from the prism of its ancient scriptures such as the Vedas and theUpanishads and magnum opuses such as the Ramayan. Such is his influence that he has managed to brainwash entire generations here and abroad, into buying his theories that present Hindu texts as casteist, oppressive and gender-discriminatory.

Over the years though, and despite his stature and connectivity, many scholars have begun to seriously question Pollock’s premises. They are no longer willing to let go uncontested, his claims that are based on Western models of social studies which simply do not fit in the Indian context, and are far removed from the lived experiences of the people connected with the ethos of their ancient texts, offering them not just a spiritual path but also a better way to mundane living. Given this background, it is unfortunate that Pollock has been chosen as editor of the Murty Classical Library of India. Worse, organisation head Rohan Murty has contemptuously dismissed an online petition by 132 academicians and public figures (the petition has garnered more than 13,000 supporters worldwide), protesting against the appointment. He said, “It is quite rich to sit in the peanut gallery, pass comments and throw empty shells at those who are actually rolling their sleeves up and working on the ground.”

Rohan Murty’s response smacks of arrogance, and of the kind that Pollock and his sort have nurtured against those who dare to question them. The people that Murty says are sitting in the ‘peanut gallery’ are noted academicians and intellectuals from various walks of life — and their common concern is to do with Pollock’s prejudices and the fear that he will exploit the Murty Classical Library of India assignment to further promote his biases and ram down the throats of Indians the belief that there is little for them to be socially proud of in their classical past. As for ‘actually rolling their sleeves up and working on the ground’, the library founder may be surprised to know that there are quite a few scholars who have been doing just that  except that they either do not catch his attention or that they do not have the benefit of global connect. Moreover, these scholars are not saying things that can be spinned-off to a world audience by way of a condemnatory appraisal of Indian culture and traditions.

Pollock’s credibility as an impartial interpreter of ancient Sanskrit texts and Sanskrit India is further dented by the overt political position he has been taking. It can be argued that his political beliefs should not be used to judge his scholarship, but such a thought would have been credible had Pollock not mixed up his political persuasion with his academics. It comes as little surprise that the Left-leaning lot in this country is the most vocal in its support for the American and for Murty having ticked off Pollock’s detractors. Commentators who have sided with Murty and Pollock are either the Left-liberals or the Centrists who are Leftists in disguise.

While Murty has steamrolled the critical appointment to his venture, he cannot easily wish away the argument of dissent. The online petitioners noted that the historical project ought to be helmed by people who are “deeply rooted and steeped in the intellectual traditions of India”. The petitioners further said that such people “also need to be imbued with a sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilisation”. They believe (and they are not the only ones) that Pollock’s record does not inspire confidence. The petitioners forcefully maintained that the American Sanskritist had “deep antipathy towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practised in our civilisation”.

If all this is water off a duck’s back for Murty and his supporters, it is because the pro-Pollock elements in and outside the country are not just well-entrenched but have also got institutionalised over the years. Like the Left had in its over three-decade rule in West Bengal infiltrated into all walks of life and established their dominance, including over political violence, Pollock’s insidious theories on the use of Sanskrit to marginalise people, of Vedas as tools to oppress masses, of Ramayan as a response to the rise of Buddhism etc, have become inherent thought-processes in thousands of minds  some innocent and impressionable, and others pre-conditioned to absorb the lopsided.

One of the few scholars to have effectively taken on Pollock in recent times is Rajiv Malhotra  an Indian-American author, one-time entrepreneur, and founder of Infinity Foundation, which, Wikipedia says, focuses on “Indic studies”. His new book, The Battle for Sanskrit:  Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive orLiberating, Dead or Alive?, meets Pollock head-on, systematically refuting the latter’s pet theories by his own intellectual might as well as comments and dissertations of experts who have long worked on Sanskrit studies.

The question as to why there haven’t been more voices of the Rajiv Malhotra kind to globally challenge Pollock and his flock, is easy to answer. The first reason is that many genuine scholars in Indic studies within the country simply do not have the resources to take on the darling Indologist of the West. The second is that quite a few of them, although deeply knowledgeable in their area of expertise, are not comfortable with English and thus cannot reach out to a wider audience. The third reason is that some of them are in awe of Pollock’s reputation and cannot even mildly question him even whey are convinced of his misrepresentations. And the fourth is that these ‘traditionalists’ find no traction even within India, where the Pollock net has been cast far and wide.

Having bagged the prestigious Murty Classical Library of India assignment, Pollock must be hoping to seal the deal to head the Adi Shankara Chair of Hinduism Studies at Columbia University in the US. It is this prospect that propelled an alarmed Rajiv Malhotra to write his latest book and launch a fervent campaign within India and outside to pre-empt the appointment. Will it work or will we see a further outsourcing of our Shastric traditions to the West?

Author: Rajesh Singh (Originally Published @ The Pioneer)

Pubished: March 23, 2016

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