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Analysis of Pollock’s position on Shastras

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TV summary: Sheldon Pollock writes, “All Indian learning … perceives itself and indeed presents itself largely as commentary on the primordial sastras.” … “We ourselves do not “create” knowledge, but merely bring it to manifestation from the (textual) materials [Vedas/Sastras]” and concludes that since “all knowledge is pre-existent”, “progress can only be achieved by a regressive re-appropriation of the past.” Therefore, “there can be no conception of progress of the forward movement from worse to better, on the basis of innovations in practice”. “If any sort of amelioration is to occur, this can only be in the form of a “regress'” a backward movement aiming at a closer and more faithful approximation to the divine pattern [Vedas/Sastras].”

Question: Do Hindus (“traditional Indians”) believe that all knowledge is sourced from Vedas and Sastras?
Sheldon Pollock says so emphatically. In fact, he is convinced sufficiently to write an entire article towards this conclusion titled “The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory in Indian Intellectual History”. This paper was published in the prestigious Journal of the American Oriental Society in a special issue in honor of Pollock’s teacher, the famous Harvard Indologist, Daniel Ingalls.

In that paper, Pollock draws the damning conclusion that Hindus believe that all knowledge is sourced from Vedas/Sastras and hence failed to make progress in sciences (vyavaharika or this-worldly knowledge) because they saw themselves limited to merely extracting knowledge of the Vedas: theory (rules or “grammars”) of the Vedas always preceded the practice of science. West, on the other hand, is diametrically opposed to it and held experimentation and practice as the means to developing knowledge of science.
Summarizing his conclusive views on Indian intellectual history, Pollock writes,

“The understanding of the relationship of sastra (‘theory’) to prayoga (‘practical activity’) in Sanskritic culture is shown to be diametrically opposed to that usually found in the West. Theory is held always and necessarily to precede and govern practice; there is no dialectical interaction between them. Two important implications of this fundamental postulate are that all knowledge is pre-existent, and that progress can only be achieved by a regressive re-appropriation of the past.

Pollock arrives at his thesis as follows:

1. Epistemology of Hindus points all knowledge to be divine in origin as with all of material Universe (Satkaryavada cosmogony); there is no knowledge creation, only uncovering concealed preexisting knowledge. Pollock writes, “First the “creation” of knowledge is presented as an exclusively divine activity and occupies a structural cosmological position suggestive of the creation of the material universe as a whole. Knowledge, moreover – and again, this is knowledge of every variety from the transcendent sort “whose purposes are uncognizable (adrstartha) to that of social relations, music, medicine (and evidently even historical knowledge) – is by and large viewed as permanently fixed in its dimensions.”

2. Vedas and Sastras are of a divine origin. Moreover, all divine knowledge has been transmitted through and only through Vedas and Sastras. Therefore, all human exploration of knowledge is limited to uncovering concealed knowledge in Vedas and Sastras. Pollock writes, “Knowledge, along with the practices that depend on it, does not change or grow, but is frozen for all time in a given set of texts that are continually made available to human beings in whole or in part during the ever repeated cycles of cosmic creation.”

3. Sastras provided rules (or grammars) to govern many aspects of non-ritualistic human behavior. Grammars of Sastra had a strangle-hold on practically all aspects of secular human behavior in traditional India. Pollock writes, “These grammars were, by a process to be discussed, invested with massive authority, ensuring what in many cases seems to have been a nearly unchallengeable claim to normative control of cultural practice.”

4. Even when (vyavaharika) knowledge of this world – such as medical, surgical, ayurvedic, astronomical/astrological, art – was developed in traditional India, Indians viewed such knowledge to be necessarily originating from but concealed in preexisting Vedas/sastras. Pollock writes “All Indian learning, accordingly, perceives itself and indeed presents itself largely as commentary on the primordial sastras.”

5. Believing that Vedas are eternal and perfect, and that all knowledge, ideological and of practice, is in the Vedas has limited Hindu minds to Vedas for seeking knowledge and eliminated any change of civilizational progress. Pollock writes, “The eternality of the Vedas, Sastras par excellence, is one presupposition or justification for this assessment of Sastras”. Pollock adds, “From the conception of an a priori sastra it logically follows – and Indian intellectual history demonstrates that this conclusion was clearly drawn – that there can be no conception of progress of the forward movement from worse to better, on the basis of innovations in practice. … it is clear that in traditional India there were at all events ideological hindrances in its way. If any sort of amelioration is to occur, this can only be in the form of a “regress'” a backward movement aiming at a closer and more faithful approximation to the divine pattern.”

Pollock’s conclusion is nothing short of a sweeping judgment on the entire Indian civilization and knowledge development. He summarizes this moribund predicament when he writes, “Logically excluded from epistemological meaningfulness are likewise experience, experiment, invention, discovery, innovation. According to his own self-representation, there can be for the thinker no originality of thought, no brand-new insights, notions, perceptions, but only the attempt better and more clearly to grasp and explain the antecedent, always already formulated truth. All Indian learning, accordingly, perceives itself and indeed presents itself largely as commentary on the primordial sastras.”

If Sheldon Pollock’s pronouncements are true, Indian civilization amounts to becoming a victim of its own creation by jailing creative minds of generations of intellectuals within the restrictive confines of cultural rules enunciated in Sastras over multiple millennia. This is not only a damning narrative of India’s past, but also a damning foreboding for those who follow tradition in India.

To summarize Pollock, give up your traditions and progress the way of the West or be damned.

By: Surya Kachivuk