Response to Prof. Sheldon Pollock’s Interview

Response to Prof. Sheldon Pollock’s Interview

A response by Prof. Girish Nath Jha, Dean, School of Sanskrit and Indic Studies, JNU to a recent interview of Prof Sheldon Pollock published in Indian Express.


Once again Prof Pollock has courted controversy by broaching sensitive topics in an insensitive manner. His interview as published in the Indian Express on May 31, 2018 has raised eyebrows and led to social media wrangling. I was blissfully ignorant of this interview until I found myself tagged in a Facebook post on the topic. Then came a call from a friend in the US prompting me to respond. Upon reading the Pollock interview, I decided to respond for at least two reasons:  his mention of the JNU controversy of student unrest, and his mention of the Sanskrit studies at JNU.

Let me begin by saying that I have a lot of respect for Prof Pollock, and for his scholarship which is very different from the traditional Sanskrit scholarship in India. Sanskrit scholars have a deep binding focus to their discipline unlike the broad approach of the India studies scholars outside India. It is another matter that the number of serious Sanskrit scholars may be dwindling in India despite an increase in the number of Sanskrit institutions in India. In my view, Prof Pollock belongs to a genre of India Studies scholars who cast their nets wide but not focused to one ranch of study involving primary Sanskrit shastraic texts. In this respect, I would like to contrast him with the likes of Prof Cardona who focus keenly on a particular shastraic discipline.

Though I agree with Prof Pollock’s argument about Sanskrit’s cosmopolitan inclusiveness, it is unfortunate that he must time and again talk about ‘miseries of the caste’ and in some way hold Sanskrit responsible for it. His suggestion linking Sanskrit with caste-based discrimination is incorrect. He also seems to be effectively contradicting himself with his claim that Brahmins did not control Sanskrit. The Sanskrit texts are replete with references to who is a ‘brahmana’ – as one who possesses all the good qualities of truthfulness, generosity, compassion etc. In fact, the impact of Sanskrit is such that whosoever adopts it becomes a brahmana.

Prof Pollock is wrong in claiming that the only job that a Sanskrit student would get is that of a ‘pujari’. I am sure he knows that this is just another occupation that Sanskrit scholars can take. There are more than 18 universities exclusively devoted to Sanskrit studies, more than 150 departments offering Sanskrit at graduate levels, and hundreds and thousands of schools all over India that offer Sanskrit to students from primary to high school levels. Where does he think these institutions get their teachers from? The Indian language technology industry benefits from the immense insights from Sanskrit grammar, and many of my students are working in the language technology industry. These are just some of the opportunities that Sanskrit students have in India. With 80 percent of the Indian population being Hindu, and an affluent Hindu Diaspora worldwide, there is an increasing need for good priests and demand for courses which train Hindu priests today. Then why is JNU wrong in planning to start such a skill and job-oriented diploma course? I think Prof Pollock knows how temples in India, to this day, are centers of economic activities and basic education. Therefore, his ridiculing of the ‘pujari’ profession and calling, and of JNU in starting such a course is in bad taste.

His contention that good Sanskrit scholarship is not to be found in India anymore has been often quoted by many outsiders (those not familiar with the Sanskrit tradition). I think he needs to do a little more digging and get hold of a directory prepared by Sanskrit Sansthan and perhaps visit some of the departments whose website he has looked up. I extend my invitation to him to visit the School of Sanskrit and Indic Studies in JNU and engage in discussions with scholars who are deeply concerned with specific branches of study in Sanskrit shastraic tradition. Scholars like me have nothing against the Murty Classical Library of India project given to Prof Pollock. However, in my opinion, the same project could have been done at a  lesser cost and with much more authority and efficiency in India for the simple reason that there are more Sanskrit scholars in India and they can be hired to work for much less. A university like JNU could have very efficiently managed such a large project and with much less cost and could have produced much more authoritative translations of texts of India’s scientific and cultural heritage. Also, Indian language translations should probably be a priority. Besides cost and efficiency, the more serious aspect is the underlying intention in selecting certain kinds of texts and interpreting them from a certain colored vision of India. Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan’s book “Breaking India” captures well and catalogs such individuals, institutes and agencies whose agenda seems to be to paint Hindu black.

I am surprised by Prof Pollock’s attention to JNU reflected by repeated references. Whether our students have a right to say anything is to be seen by our administration, our constitution, laws, and judiciary. A student on the US university campus Prof Pollock teaches, for example, may have a right to burn the US flag and talk about splintering the great nation that USA is but would the police and university administration not intervene if such protests lead to violence and harm? How many petitions has Prof Pollock signed guaranteeing such ‘rights’ for US students? Did the Chinese students not have a right to free expression when several hundred of them were gunned down and run over by Chinese tanks in the Tiananmen Square protests? Did he or any of his fellow scholars sign a petition in support of Chinese students and freedom of expression? The freedom of expression guaranteed to every citizen in India comes with certain well-defined constraints. India has an elaborate judicial system to ensure legitimate freedom and good behavior that is expected from its citizens. Every nation has its share of problems which is best understood and appreciated by its citizens. Prof Pollock is advised to focus on well-known issues concerning the US socio-cultural scenario than worry about India too much.

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(Originally published on June 2nd 2016)


Dr. Girish Nath Jha

The author teaches Computational Linguistics at the School of Sanskrit & Indic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). His research interests include Indian languages corpora and standards, Sanskrit and Hindi linguistics, Science & Technology in Sanskrit, Lexicography, Machine Translation, e-learning, web based technologies, RDBMS, software design and localization. Details on his work can be obtained from Prof Jha has done collaborative research with the Center for Indic Studies, U. Mass, Dartmouth, USA as "Mukesh and Priti Chatter Distinguished Professor of History of Science" during 2009-12. He was awarded DAAD fellowship in 2014 to teach in the Digital Humanities department at University of Würzburg, Germany and has been a visiting Professor at the University of Florence in the summer of 2016.