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The Challenge Of Understanding Sheldon Pollock Part 1: How to make sense of Sheldon Pollock? By Rajiv Malhotra

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A generic purva-paksha of a diverse group is not sufficient

Imagine there’s a person who assumes that his knowledge of purva-paksha of one specific school of Vedanta is enough to critique all of Vedanta. The superficiality of his study might impress someone who is ignorant of Indian thought. But to any Vedantin, such a purva-paksha would be considered shallow and inadequate to address the numerous schools and commentators of our vast traditions.

Likewise, to do purva-paksha of a towering Western Indologist like Sheldon Pollock, one must develop an appreciation of what is new, unique and challenging about his works. Just as Indian knowledge advances and evolves with new schools and commentaries, so also western thought systems are very diverse, complex and evolving with time. In fact, aspects of Pollock’s ideas that align with other westerners are less important to critique, because they are repetitious.

Our purva-paksha tradition requires that we critically study each of our main opponents to understand their assumptions, lenses, doctrinal beliefs, and ensuing arguments. We cannot simply apply some generic knowledge we have for a group of persons with similar views (in this case, Orientalists in general).

One of the most revealing statements by Pollock is cited below, in which he asserts that to defeat a tradition one must go through it and not around it. This is the strategy he is fructifying, when he tells his students to first go through the study of Indian sanskriti. He considers Vedic culture to be dominant over shudras and women, and he wants to help the masses overcome its inequality. Only by mastering it (through study) could his team of liberators “overmaster” (i.e. outsmart) it. He writes in this regard:

… you transcend inequality by mastering and overmastering those discourses through study and critique. You cannot simply go around a tradition to overcome it, if that is what you wish to do; you must go through it. You only transform a dominant culture by outsmarting it. That, I believe, is precisely what some of India’s most disruptive thinkers, such as Dr Ambedkar, sought to do, though they were not as successful as they might have been had they had access to all the tools of a critical philology necessary to the task. (Pollock, Sheldon. ‘Crisis in the Classics.’ Journal of Social Research, 78 (1). Page 39. Italics mine)

Pollock considers Ambedkar’s success inadequate in disrupting Indian sanskriti because Ambedkar did not learn “all the tools of a critical philology necessary to the task”. Pollock is referring here to the tools that he (Pollock) has developed for the critical analysis of Indian traditions.

We must do the same thing in the reverse direction: Before we can respond to Pollock’s conclusions, we must first understand his critical analysis. But even before being able to understand his critical analysis, we have to study the assumptions and lenses he uses to view our traditions.  This requires us to study his writings critically. There are no shortcuts.  As Pollock says in the above quote, “one simply cannot go around” the opponent’s work, and one must go “through” it.

Our purva-paksha tradition demands such a critical study to arrive at a deeper understanding of an opponent’s arguments.  Given that Pollock is unlike the Orientalists who came before him, the lazy approach of relying upon one’s preconceived “opinions” of previous Orientalists leads to wrong conclusions. My book, The Battle For Sanskrit (TBFS) highlights his major tools, ideological beliefs and biases, thus paving the path for a comprehensive purva-paksha of his works.

Interestingly, Pollock’s former colleague at University of Chicago, Richard Schweder, is well-known for championing the approach now called “thinking through cultures”. This was based on Schweder’s anthropology research studying Hindu sacred sites and activities in India. The strategy being promoted by him and Pollock is for westerner scholars to first immerse themselves in a foreign culture in order to develop a psychological map of how they think. Only after they have mapped it in their own western framework can they succeed in “outsmarting it”.

There is also an interesting parallel with Al Biruni whose writings on India, Indians, and their manners and customs were in the form of a purva-paksha that he had carried out for his master—Mahmud of Gazni. Yet, many Indian scholars love Al Biruni because he, like Pollock, praised certain aspects of our culture.

Some novel and key ingredients of Pollock’s lens

TBFS explains some of the signature theories of Pollock that must be understood before any purva-paksha is attempted on him. These theories and interpretations include the following:

1. His interpretation of paramarthika and vyavaharika: Pollock builds on the foundation of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), an Italian thinker who influenced many great westerners including Karl Marx. Pollock translates ‘paramarthika sat’ as Vico’s idea of ‘verum’. He translates ‘vyavaharika sat’ as Vico’s ‘certum’. I was unable to find any publication (certainly not by any Indian traditional scholar) that pointed out the consequence of these deliberate mappings of Indian thought onto Western notions, leave alone identifying serious misinterpretations which follow from such mappings. From this mapping follow many of Pollock’s sweeping conclusions about the nature of transcendence in Indian systems. (See TBFS, pages 102-105, for my analysis.)

2. Literarization: This is one of Pollock’s novel ideas which he uses as a key building block for his theories. The term has an extra ‘ar’ in the middle, and is not to be confused with ‘literization’. Literization (without the extra ‘ar’) is a well-known term that refers to a language being written down, i.e. its users are literate. But Pollock’s signature contribution is his theory that after Sanskrit starts to be written, it passes through a subsequent stage of development called literarization (with extra ‘ar’). This is when Sanskrit gets endowed with certain structures that make it an elite language of power over the masses. Predictably, he finds the Vedas as the source of such structures, and it is this literarization according to him that allows the social oppression of Dalits/women. Only by understanding his view on what these ‘toxic’ structures are can one begin to see what he is up to. (TBFS, pages 213-14)

3. Theory of the aestheticization of power: Pollock borrows an influential theory developed by Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) and the Frankfurt School of Marxism. Its original intended purpose was to interpret the role played by aesthetics in the rise of the Nazis: How could Nazis dupe so many people to vote for them and support them? This theory became an important extension of the original doctrine of Marxism. Pollock makes academic history among his western Marxist peers by applying it to develop his original theory on the oppressiveness of our sanskriti. He uses this theory to explain how and why Sanskrit helped the social elites to achieve their power over the masses. (TBFS, pages 210-17. See diagram on page 216.)

4. Political philology: While philology has been a formal discipline for a long time and has many kinds of approaches that different scholars use, once again Pollock has developed his own original variety. The prefix “political” is what differentiates his method from prior philology. To give an indication of the importance of this building block, Pollock’s book “The language of the gods…” uses the term “power” about 600 times and the word “politics” about 900 times. A central argument he advocates with evangelical zeal is that Indian texts must be studied not for legitimate spiritual/sacred content, but for the purpose of finding the social exploitation and political domination contained in them. Before he can show the texts to be political, he has to devalue (and debunk) the legitimacy of the sacred dimension; then he can substitute the political motive as the reason for the successful spread of Sanskrit. In item (1) above he has identified the tools to remove the sacred. Then, in this item (4) here, we find his tool which he uses to develop his heavily politicized lens.

5. Liberation philology: If one side of the coin of Pollock’s interpretation is political philology, the other side is liberation philology. This is the tool that his followers (such as Ananya Vajpeyi) use to intervene in Indian society and claim to remove the social oppressiveness diagnosed in (4).  Such intervention is consistent with his strategy of going through and not bypassing the tradition. Ultimately, it is such disguised intervention that makes Pollock dangerous to the tradition and its followers. While political philology is used to diagnose, liberation philology is used to liberate the Indian masses from the diseases being carried in their sanskriti for thousands of years.

6. Ecosystem of Marxism and postmodernism: Pollock’s (1) through (5) analytical tool kit is embedded within a broad spectrum of postmodern thinkers. His analysis includes ideas incorporated from Gramsci, Habermas, various feminists, subaltern theorists, among others. These theories are simply assumed by him, with no need felt to elaborate or prove them. Pollock’s work is couched in a veneer of broader Western idiom and theories.

Hardly any Indian traditionalist I came across has an in depth knowledge of his lens. His target audience of readers is clearly the Western Indologist, a term that must also include ethnic Indians who have been trained to think in the same manner as Western Indologists.

Added complexity in decoding Pollock

What is even more challenging than the idioms and theories that Pollock employs is his writing style; it is very opaque, arcane and loaded with jargon that even most English readers with experience will be unable to properly understand. He sometimes contradicts himself, not only between one publication of his and another, but also within the same publication. At times he plays both sides of an issue to seem balanced. But eventually, he quietly assumes one of the postures without explaining why it is superior to the other.

To decode him, one has to read him multiple times. After you understand one theory of his, you need to go back and re-read the prior works you already went through. In places, only after connecting the dots with his other scattered writings can you realize what he wants to say. If his individual points are at times murky, murkier still are the links among the dots to make sense of the big picture. One gets the impression that only a few fellow-travelers subscribing to his ideology are meant to understand him.

In other words, one cannot do purva-paksha of Pollock surgically by random citation; it must be done holistically. But to uncover the entire intellectual quagmire that Pollock is a part of, one must go beyond his own writings and also examine his cohorts. Even more broadly, one has to also study the contextual backdrop of the three layers that make up American culture in order to get the complete picture:

1. At the top is the pop culture layer in which everything is nice, all a part of the so-called global village.

2. Beneath this surface is the middle layer where the institutions lie. The institutions provide continuity, infrastructure assets, and a robust transparency defined within the values of Western Universalism.

3. The lowest of the three layers is what I term the deep culture. Here, the notion of American Exceptionalism is well established and protected. This deep layer comes out publicly and violently at times of duress – such as the xenophobia of white males that Donald Trump has tapped into. The veneer of civility is very thin indeed, and crumbles under duress.

The deep layer is Judeo-Christian. The middle layer of institutions is based on modernity. The top layer of pop culture projects postmodernity. One must understand all this as a unified whole, in dynamic equilibrium. I am trying to convey here that that the methodology to do purva-paksha of Pollock has to be multi-disciplinary. We cannot have narrowly limited experts only. We must build teams across disciplines.

Traditional scholars have not done purva-paksha on Pollock’s school

Traditional scholars in general have not performed any such purva-paksha on Pollock yet. While doing the research for TBFS, I tried hard to get help from some well-established traditional scholars. But in the end, despite sincere efforts by some traditional scholars, not a single one was able to deconstruct Pollock, much less be able to develop a response.

Here is an excerpt from my book on the challenges our traditionalists face. This is not a matter of my opinion but is based on my experience that includes extensive interviews and conversations. Most senior Sanskrit leaders in India that I discussed with have confirmed my views as expressed below:

Unfortunately, many traditionalists live in silos. They tend to dismiss the views of the opposing ideological camp, seeing them as irrelevant to the ‘real’ tradition. They are unaware of, or indifferent to, the fact that they are the objects of study from the ‘outside’. Some of them are so naïve and insecure as to feel flattered when representatives of the Western elite show an interest in them. In addition, the scholars using the ‘outsider’ lens are highly vocal and public in championing their point of view whereas the insiders often prefer to remain private about their allegiances and shy away from defending their tradition even in important forums. […]

I sent drafts and overviews of this book to some persons who I felt would be supportive, only to discover that several of them vehemently opposed the very idea of investigating this new elitist [Pollock] school of Sanskrit studies. Their general attitude is that we should instead be grateful to those Westerners who are ‘taking the time to study us’.

A lot of traditional scholars are oblivious to the fact that their ‘adhikara’ (authority) as experts on Sanskrit is being systematically eroded. Many outsiders have appointed themselves as new authorities for the interpretation of Sanskrit traditions. Their tentacles penetrate deep, not only into the psyches of young scholars but also into several traditional and modern institutions. This book is meant, in part, to serve as a wakeup call for insiders, to force them out of their slumber and isolation.

Chapters 10 and 11 of TBFS go further in discussing the blockages and handicaps that the traditionalists contend with. I explain the nefarious forces at work and what ought to be done to give back the traditionalists their adhikara. Each of my previous four books is also focused on showing that our traditional/insider view is being suppressed in the academy, media and elsewhere. I do what I do because of my immense respect for our knowledge systems, traditions, and civilizational contributions.

I elevate the issue of hitherto lack of purva-paksha by traditional scholars in order to raise their awareness on two matters of utmost importance: (a) the need for their immediate attention; and (b) the need for a team effort.

The real goal of TBFS is not only to alert and awaken traditional scholars to the nature of systematic attacks from outsiders, but also to encourage them to join a collective effort to develop an ecosystem for insiders. Western Indologists do not shy away from getting help from Indian traditionalists. Indian insiders, too, should not shy away from getting help from one another and even from Westerners where applicable. Once such an ecosystem reaches a level of self-sustenance and growth, I would consider TBFS a success. Traditionalists should not shy away from any source of knowledge or help for their shared cause. Tradition weakens when it is not united – as we witnessed in the form of a near-debacle with the Adi Shankara Chair at Columbia University. The existence of an ecosystem would have prevented such a dangerous situation from arising.

My book is a serious initiative, but it is a humble beginning only. It ought to be superseded by writings that will go even deeper. I feel I am providing a guide to undertake purva-paksha of the Pollock school, and my book invites others to join me in developing uttara (responses) to him.

Part 2: Has Shatavadhani Ganesh understood Pollock?