Twenty statements from Sheldon Pollock on India, Hinduism and Sanskrit

Twenty statements from Sheldon Pollock on India, Hinduism and Sanskrit

The Murty Classical Library of India was launched with quite some fanfare recently by Rohan Murty, son of software czar and founder of Infosys Narayan Murthy. The Murty Library under the general editorship of Sheldon Pollock, is part of a $5.2 million endowment that Rohan Murty gave to Harvard University, attracted some controversy from within the India scholarly community. The crux of their objections is centred on giving control of the discourse and scholarship of Indic, classical and Sanskrit studies and more broadly, Hinduism to Sheldon Pollock/Westerners. In view of this, the IndiaFacts team researched some notable works of Sheldon Pollock and compiled the following list of his statements/writing about Hinduism, India, Sanskrit and related areas.


  1. In the age of Hindu identity politics (Hindutva) inaugurated in the 1990s by the ascendancy of the Indian People’s Party (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its ideological auxiliary, the World Hindu Council (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), Indian cultural and religious nationalism has been promulgating ever more distorted images of India’s past. Few things are as central to this revisionism as Sanskrit, the dominant culture language of precolonial southern Asia outside the Persianate order. Hindutva propagandists have sought to show, for example, that Sanskrit was indigenous to India, and they purport to decipher Indus Valley seals to prove its presence two millennia before it actually came into existence. In a farcical repetition of Romantic myths of primevality, Sanskrit is considered—according to the characteristic hyperbole of the VHP—the source and sole preserver of world culture.
  1. Some might argue that as a learned language of intellectual discourse and belles lettres, Sanskrit had never been exactly alive in the first place. But the usual distinction in play here between living and dead languages is more than a little naive. It cannot accommodate the fact that all written languages are learned, and therefore in some sense frozen in time (“dead”); or, conversely, that such languages often are as supple and dynamically changing (“alive”) as so-called natural ones. Yet the assumption that Sanskrit was never alive has discouraged the attempt to grasp its later history; after all, what is born dead has no later history. As a result, there exist no good accounts or theorizations of the end of the cultural order that for two millennia exerted a trans-regional influence across Asia-South, Southeast, Inner, and even East Asia- that was unparalleled until the rise of Americanism and global English. We have no clear understanding of whether, and if so, when, Sanskrit culture ceased to make history; whether, and if so, why, it proved incapable of preserving into the present the creative vitality it displayed in earlier epochs, and what this loss of affectivity might reveal about those factors within the wider world of society and polity that had kept it vital.
  1. In the memorable year of 1857, a Gujarati poet, Dalpatram Dahyabhai, was the first to speak of the death of Sanskrit:

All the feasts and great donations King Bhoja gave the Brahmans

were obsequies he made on finding the language of the gods had died.

Seated in state Bajirao performed its after-death rite with great pomp.

And today, the best of kings across the land observe its yearly memorial.

The poet sensed that some important transformation had occurred at the beginning of the second millennium, which made the great literary courts of the age, such as Bhoja’s, the stuff of legend (which last things often become); that the cultivation of Sanskrit by eighteenth-century rulers like the Peshwas of Maharashtra was too little too late; that the Sanskrit cultural order of his own time was sheer nostalgic ceremony.

  1. The later history of Latin shows striking commonalities with Sanskrit. Both died slowly, and earliest as a vehicle of literary expression, while much longer retaining significance for learned discourse with its universalist claims. Both were subject to periodic renewals or forced rebirths, sometimes in connection with a politics of trans-local aspiration (Carolingian, Ottonian, Humanist; fifteenth-century Kashmir under Zain-ul-‘abidin, eighteenth-century Maha- rashtra under the Peshwas; the Wodeyar court of early-nineteenth-century Mysore). At the same time, paradoxically (this is certainly true for India, at least), both came to be ever more exclusively associated with narrow forms of religion and priestcraft, despite centuries of a secular aesthetic. Yet the differences between the two are equally instructive.
  1. For one thing, Sanskrit literary culture was never affected by communicative incompetence, which began to enfeeble Latin from at least the ninth century. The process of vernacularization in India, in so many ways comparable to the European case, was nowhere a consequence of growing Sanskrit ignorance.
  1. One causal account, however, for all the currency it enjoys in the contemporary climate, can be dismissed at once: that which traces the decline of Sanskrit culture to the coming of Muslim power. The evidence adduced here shows this to be historically untenable. It was not “alien rule un- sympathetic to kavya” and a “desperate struggle with barbarous invaders” that sapped the strength of Sanskrit literature. In fact, it was often the barbarous invader who sought to revive Sanskrit.


  1. I suggest in what follows that the Ramayana came alive in the realm of public political discourse in western and central India in the eleventh to fourteenth centuries in a dramatic and unparalleled way. I believe the text offers unique imaginative instruments-in fact, two linked instruments-whereby, on the one hand, a divine political order can be conceptualized, narrated, and historically grounded, and, on the other, a fully demonized Other can be categorized, counterposed, and condemned. The makers of elite culture in medieval South Asia chose these instruments for the work of divinization and demonization at this historical moment because of the emergence of two enabling conditions. One was the peculiar salience that a far older political theology now seems to have achieved in the service of the legitimation or enhancement or perhaps just self-understanding of kingship. The other was the appearance of Others who-whether, in fact, they presented an unprecedented unassimilability or could opportunistically be represented as such-were especially vulnerable to the demonizing formulation the Ramayana made available.
  1. At the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries, several major cultic centers devoted to Rama are created or reinvigorated.
  1. To infer from temples bearing Rama reliefs that a cult of Rama existed in the ninth and tenth centuries is not possible
  1. I am not asserting, then, that Rama was never the object of cultic worship prior to the period with which I am concerned here. Even less am I claiming that the Rama cult, when it did arise, superseded all others….. What is certain, however, is that the cult of Rama has a history. At first extraordinarily restricted in time and space, it exhibits striking efflorescence and assumes a prominent place within the context of a political theology from the end of the twelfth century onward, achieving in some instances a centrality by the middle of the fourteenth……..
  1. The Ramayana supplies serious material to the political imagination of premodern India as coded in the inscriptional record only from the later medieval period on; references in the first millennium are remarkably few but gain in frequency and complexity especially after the twelfth century.
  1. The public discourse of major dynasties for centuries made virtually no appropriation of the Rama theme. In the records of the Gurjara-Pratihara empire for example, it seems that reference to Rama is altogether absent (Puri 1986:211). There is one exception, however: the ninth-century Gwalior prasasti of King Bhoja. This record, commemorating the construction of a domestic Visnu shrine, reads in vs. 3, “In their family [i.e., the family of the solar kings], [in which] the luster [of Visnu…eventually set foot, Rama of auspicious birth made a war of destruction and slaughter against the demons . . . in which Ravana was killed.”
  1. Whereas the Ramayana may certainly have played a substantial role, in some instances a central role, in the political imagination of earlier India, it comes to be deployed with a fuller and more referentially direct expression-in royal cultic, documentary, and textual representations-from the twelfth century onward. The temporal trajectory of this development, especially plotted against the spatial, suggests compellingly that it was in reaction to the transformative encounter with the polities of Central Asia-with Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Khaljis (and perhaps even earlier, with the Arabs, as the Gwalior prasasti cited above suggests)-and the resultant new social and political order instituted by the establishment of the Sultanate that the Ramayana lived anew in royal discourse.
  1. The Ramayana narrative seems to me to offer special imaginative “resources,” which though perhaps shared to a degree by other mythopolitical narratives, are present in distilled form in this particular story. They are constitutive of it and remain stable, as semiotic slots, however differently interpretive communities will specify their contents. I think these can be categorized under the two broad headings of divinization and demonization. The first points to the fact that, although the political as in so many other Indian texts is at the heart of the narrative, this text offers for the first time a special assessment, or resolution, of the paradox that the political comprises in premodern India. It does this by way of what I think is a new mediation of the religious, that is, the divine or numinous, and the political, by which I mean the nature of life in the human polity. The second heading, the demonization of the Other-a shopworn yet still indispensable phrase-relates to those who stand outside this theologically sanctioned polity. Not only are these two thematics the defining thematics of Valmlki’s epic, they are two of the most powerful conceptions of the social-political imagination.
  1. In the face of substantial political uncertainty, then, and consonant with other kinds of cultural representations, the Ramayana was repeatedly instrumentalized by the ruling Indian elites of the middle period to provide a theology of politics and a symbology of otherness.
  1. If the Ramayana has served for 1,000 years as a code in which proto-communalist relations could be activated and theocratic legitimation could be rendered-if it constitutes an imaginary within which the public sphere is not sundered from the religious, and at the same time cannot be conceptualized without a concomitant demonization of some other-it makes sense that it would be through this mytheme par excellence that reactionary politics in India today would find expression in the interests of a theocratization of the state and the creation of an internal enemy as necessary antithesis.
  1. For one thing, the deity Rama in his abstract (nirguna) form had intervened, occupying in different degrees and for some four centuries starting with Kabir, a focal point of almost supracommunal religious devotion. This is a phenomenon difficult to correlate with a communalist coding of the personalized form (saguna) of Ramacandra, although I don’t think impossibly so (it is not clear that “Ram” ever means Ramacandra for Kabir; Vaudeville 1974:115). A rather stronger reason for caution is that the Ramayana-a work whose fluidity and linguistic variability I alluded to at the beginning of this essay but have a priori bracketed- is, to be sure, more than a single text. For some scholars it rather approximates a literary genre, library, or language, added to, reworked, rewritten in every region and every community, and in every century for perhaps the last twenty; the tradition of the Ramayana, it is often argued, has been a tradition of contestation rather than a tradition of canonicity, starting at least with the Jain Palmacaria in the fourth or fifth century. For this reason, and because of even the Sanskrit text’s instability (often exaggerated, though), some hold that there may no longer exist any such thing as the Ramayana, if ever there did.
  1. The very conceptualization of the JNU scholars-of “the political abuse of history”-ignores the fact that objectivist history has been one of the principal knowledge-forms in which post-Enlightenment politics has expressed itself. The very subject-matter of history is the state, as Hegel put it, which “involves the production of such history in the very progress of its own being.” One can sooner argue that, far from enabling emancipation, historical writing itself-the positivist-objectivist historiography of Western science, what Hegel might call “historical History”- bears a substantial measure of responsibility for the reactionary politics and the romantic historicism driving them for the past century, in Europe as well as Asia. Ayodhya would hardly have assumed the dimensions of the present problem were it not for scientized historicality itself (objectified in such texts as the archaeological reports and colonial gazetteers constantly cited by the parties to the dispute) and the pursuit of origins it delusively inspires. When we consider parallel if more apocalyptic cases such as the role of historicist nostalgia in postcolonial Cambodian politics-the link between modern French historiography of precolonial Cambodia and the political program of the Khmer Rouge it is difficult not to wonder how a mode of inquiry partly responsible for the problem can be expected to solve it.


  1. We are still unclear, for example, about the conditions under which Sanskrit emerged as one such literary language. Scholars have long called attention to the fact that the first kavyas derive from self-conscious movements such as Sanskritized Buddhism at the beginning of the common era, but no one has offered a good argument for why this might be so, nor explored the character of the social communities-often, it appears, newly migrating into the subcontinent-that may have contributed to these developments. Another way to express this specific historical problem is not that Sanskrit became literary, but that “literature” as such literature as dominant Indian traditions have defined it, came into being at the moment in question. Evidently, what the self-conscious Indian traditions have identified as “literary” must itself be a subject of critical historical analysis as well. We know little, too, about the use of “counter languages” for making literature among Jains, Buddhists, and others, which may actually antedate and stimulate the emergence of literary Sanskrit. What these developments represent is an early instance of an enduring and constitutive issue in South Asian cultural history, that of language-choice in a multilingual space.
  1. It has slowly dawned on many of us working in Europe and the United States that people in South Asia happen to have interests in the interpretations of the texts that have been produced, and continue to circulate, in their worlds. The study of the South Asian past plays as powerful a role in the construction of present-day post-colonial South Asian worlds-whether nationalist, indigenist, reactionary, internationalist, or other constructions-as it did in the construction of the colonial world, only the locus of dominant agency has changed. And whether one does or does not care about the relationship between scholarship on texts and the people who consider those texts to be theirs, no one can any longer ignore the fact that such a relationship exists.

IndiaFacts Staff

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