What the Petition against the Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock Is Really About

The petition to remove Pollock from his position as editor of the Murty Classical Library of India not only makes ridiculous claims, but also shows an alarming intolerance towards the very spirit of intellectual inquiry

Sheldon Pollock, and the first set of volumes from the Murty Classical Library that he edited. Credit: Columbia Universityu

Sheldon Pollock, and the first set of volumes from the Murty Classical Library that he edited. Credit: Columbia Universityu

In another event that revolves around the issue of what qualifies as ‘truly’ ‘Indian,’ 132 people from assorted Indian institutions have signed a petition demanding that Professor Sheldon Pollock be removed as editor of the Murty Classical Library of India series. The series publishes English translations of South Asian classics. So far, nine volumes have been published. It is funded by Rohan Murty, junior fellow at Harvard University and son of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy.

Most of the signatories of the petition are professors and administrators at universities. Thirty-two of the 132 petitioners are from IITs across India, and some are former and current government officials, including N. Gopalaswami, former chief election commissioner who is now head of a new human resource development ministry committee on the promotion of Sanskrit.

Pollock is a leading Sanskritist and philologist who teaches at Columbia University in the United States. But the petition contends that Pollock does not fulfil certain qualifications that should be required for the post of editor of the MCLI.

What are these qualifications? According to the petition, only scholars who are “deeply rooted and steeped in the intellectual traditions of India… [as well as] imbued with a sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilisation” should undertake such a project as the MCLI.

Petition’s claim faulty

Is the claim that Professor Pollock is unqualified, according to the petition’s own criteria, correct? Even an initial reading of the petition makes clear its dodgy rationale and slippery logic.

The petition states, first of all, that while “Pollock has been a well-known scholar of philology, it is also well-known that he has deep antipathy towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practiced in our civilisation”.

As evidence for this “deep antipathy”, the petitioners quote from a lecture by Professor Pollock at the University of Heidelberg in 2012, entitled ‘What Is South Asian Knowledge Good For?’ He says:

“Are there any decision makers, as they refer to themselves, at universities and foundations who would not agree that, in the cognitive sweepstakes of human history, Western knowledge has won and South Asian knowledge has lost?  …That, accordingly, the South Asian knowledge South Asians themselves have produced can no longer be held to have any significant consequences for the future of the human species?”

In fact, had the petitioners quoted the sentences preceding this paragraph, it would have been clear that Pollock was not stating his own position but critiquing the position of others.

Alarmed at the manner in which Pollock’s position is being misrepresented, another Indologist, Dominik Wujastyk at the University of Alberta, Canada, noted on an Indology listserve that

“In this passage, Prof. Pollock is criticising the administrators of western universities who do not give proper recognition and value to Indian knowledge systems, and only view India as a place to make money or to make
practical applications of knowledge systems of the West. Again, this is the पूर्वपक्ष (purvapaksha) Prof. Pollock’s central argument is that the special, unique knowledge systems developed in India, mainly recorded in Sanskrit, are of great value, and that this fact is not recognised by “universities and foundations” who, like Macauley and Weber, think that Indian knowledge systems have been superseded by Western ones. Prof. Pollock’s point of view is that the शास्त्राणि (shastrani), representing South Asian Knowledge, are precious, worth studying, and still have much to offer modern cultural life. On pages six and seven of his lecture, he gives the examples of व्याकरण (vyakaran) and the theory of रस (rasa) as forms of knowledge that were developed to a uniquely high degree in early India, and that still have the power to enrich thought today. On the subsequent pages, he begins to make the even more difficult argument for finding modern value in even more internally-oriented Indian sciences such as मीमांसा (Mimansa), अलङ्कार (Alankara) and नाट्यशास्त्र (Natyashastra).

When Dheeraj Sanghi, a professor at IIT, Kanpur quickly noted on his blog that the petitioners had distorted the meaning of Pollock’s quote, they deleted the passage from their petition.

Issues Pollock raises

Sheldon Pollock with the renowned Kannada Writer T. V. Venkatachala Sastry. Credit: Sathyavrath/Wikimedia

Sheldon Pollock with the renowned Kannada Writer T. V. Venkatachala Sastry. Credit: Sathyavrath/Wikimedia

So how could the drafters of this petition have been so careless? Anyone reading even just the introductory sections of Pollock’s impugned lecture will realise its agenda  is to discuss the dichotomy between knowledge about South Asians produced in the Western university and knowledge produced by South Asians” and to then “argue for the importance of the latter to human well-being no less than to true education.” (emphasis added)

It is in this context of discussing the dichotomy between knowledge about South Asia produced by the West and within South Asia that Pollock poses the questions which the petitioners say are – to use the fashionable allegation – anti-national. Far from representing his opinion, the questions capture ideas about South Asian knowledge – made all the more complex because they are framed as questions – that his lecture very consciously and self-reflexively refutes. This refutation is clear in the many examples and arguments that unfold. In fact, the suggestion that the questions come from Pollock’s perspective is rather laughable, because it is he who manipulates the interrogative form in order to drive home the contrary argument – that South Asian knowledge is indeed vital.

What is quite obvious is that the petition quotes Pollock completely out of context. That his lecture proves “deep antipathy” towards India is not just a weak claim, it is entirely faulty. And the petition cites no other evidence to back up its charge.

As to why the signatories of the petition allowed for such a glaringly faulty claim is somewhat mysterious. Did they not read the lecture for themselves before signing their names – which demonstrates carelessness and irresponsibility not expected of those who are themselves educators? Are they incapable of grasping an argument about South Asia and the West, knowledge and modernity that is more complex than the one that simply suggests “India’s traditions are great and sacred and the West continues to show them down”?

Small idea of India

But, in Pollock’s own spirit of getting to the real issue at hand, it is worth asking what this petition is actually about.

After misleadingly quoting from his lecture, the petition goes on to give a second reason why he does not qualify for his editorial position. The professor, it points out, has been a signatory to statements that have “condemned various policies and actions of the Government of India” including “two recent statements released by US academicians condemning the actions of the JNU authorities and the Government of India against separatist groups who are calling for the independence of Kashmir, and for India’s breakup.”

According to the petitioners, Pollock’s decision to sign these statements demonstrates “disrespect for the unity and integrity of India”.

So here we have the real issue behind the petition. We return to the question that has been occupying us all with particular urgency not only since the JNU controversy began last month but, in some sense, ever since the BJP came to power: does loyalty to India require loyalty to one particular idea of India over other ideas? Who has the power to decide the legitimacy of ideas and loyalties? And does loyalty to India mean no dissent, no debate, no disagreement?

The petitioners’ attempt to question Pollock’s credentials, when in fact one could call him (to use the simplistic language of the petitioners) one of India’s main ‘advocates’, speaks to an extreme and dangerous narrow-mindedness, because it shows a fundamental inability to participate in the process of intellectual questioning and reflection. The fact that individuals and institutions that pursue true knowledge are targeted – as also in the case of the JNU controversy – reveals the insecurity that necessarily accompanies the narrative that is weak and incomplete but that pretends to be strong and whole and attempts to dominate.

The question of ‘lineage’

The shaky ground on which the petition stands is further apparent in one of the suggestions it puts forth, as to how the MCLI project should be carried out from now on (once Pollock has been sent packing). It says:

“There must be a fair representation of the lineages and traditional groups that teach and practice the traditions described in the texts being translated. This would ensure that the sentiments and understanding of the millions of Indians who practice these traditions are not violated.”

Clearly, the signatories do not understand that there is an important difference between an actual practice and its practitioners, on the one hand, and the intellectual study of the practice and the practitioners – which can be undertaken by anyone regardless of their civilisational ‘lineage’.

They also clearly don’t understand the fundamental idea behind the MCLI, which is not to make ‘millions of Indians’ feel good about themselves, but to carry forward the complex intellectual project of investigating what ‘South Asia,’ along with other categories and definitions, has meant and means. How ironic that in his lecture and his work as a scholar, Pollock points out that ‘South Asia’ is itself plural – a prism for evolving narratives of power and knowledge. That is something the petitioners would do well to remember.

Note: The Foundation for Independent Journalism, the not-for-profit company that publishes The Wire, received a donation last December from Rohan Murty for its coverage of science.