Scholarly reply to Swadeshi

Citing JNU, academics target leader of landmark project

By Basant Kumar Mohanty and K.M. Rakesh
  • Published 2.03.16
Sheldon Pollock (right) with Rohan Narayana Murty

March 1: Sheldon Pollock, a renowned Sanskrit scholar piloting what many academics consider one of the most complex publishing projects ever undertaken in the world, has come under attack for the past few days after he signed statements condemning the crackdown in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Now, Rohan Narayana Murty, after whom the landmark publishing initiative is named, and several academics have stepped forward to point out how information was being distorted to hound Pollock, the general editor of the Murty Classic Library of India.

The Murty Classic Library of India has started to publish the greatest literary works of India in Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindi and other languages from the past two millennia. Supported by an endowment of at least $5.2 million from Rohan, a computer scientist and son of Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy (the two spell their surnames differently), the series will provide English translations of classical works alongside the Indic originals in the appropriate regional script.

On February 26, over a hundred academics, mostly from India, wrote to Rohan that Pollock was not "politically neutral" as he had been a signatory to "political" statements about JNU.

Pollock, who has a PhD in Sanskrit and has learnt Kannada, is the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies and Chair of Middle East, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University.

An element of "Swadeshi Indology" was also injected into the petition that was addressed to Rohan and his father, which said "the project must be part of the 'Make in India' ethos and not outsourced wholesale to American Ivy Leagues. Just as your (Murthy senior's) visionary role in Infosys showed the world that Indians can be the top producers of IT, so also we urge you to champion the development of Swadeshi Indology."

The petition was signed by 130 academicians such as K. Ramasubramanian from IIT Bombay, Ramesh C. Bhardwaj from Delhi University and Sanskrit scholar V. Kutumba Sastry. The other signatories include N. Gopalaswami, the former chief election commissioner and current head of the HRD ministry's committee on Sanskrit promotion.

The petition claimed Pollock had deep "antipathy" towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practised in Indian civilisation. "He echoes the views of Macaulay and Max Weber that the shastras generated in India serve no contemporary purpose except for the study of how Indians express themselves".

The contention appears to be based on a speech delivered by Pollock on May 8, 2012, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Heidelberg University's South Asia Institute.

In an email response to The Telegraph, Rohan forwarded the text of the 2012 lecture titled "What is South Asian Knowledge Good For?"

"This is the data that will demonstrate the truth. Please read the actual speech to see what was actually said," Rohan wrote in the email.

The full text of the speech suggests Pollock was disagreeing with the stand attributed to Macaulay, not echoing him as the "Swadeshi" petition suggests.

"As the Heidelberg South Asia Institute has been demonstrating for 50 years, however, while we desperately need to know about climate change and global epidemics and the rest of the problems that knowledge about South Asia can help us solve, knowledge of South Asia, knowledge that South Asians themselves have produced, has a critical role to play in our lives," Pollock had said.

"A century before Weber, the English statesman Macaulay, author of the Minute on Indian Education - the longest minute in Indian history - denounced Indian languages as 'useless', with 'no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own'; regarded as 'exploded' all Indian sciences, 'which, by universal confession, whenever they differ from those of Europe, differ for the worse'; spoke of India's 'false History, false Astronomy, false Medicine [...] and false religion.' If our understanding of 'usefulness' and 'truth' has grown substantially in the time since Macaulay and Weber; if we have learned that they are no longer to be judged by the metrics of colonialism and capitalist modernity, this is in no small measure thanks to centers like Heidelberg's South Asian Institute," Pollock had said.

Several academics like Dominik Wujastyk from the University of Alberta, Canada, and Ananya Vajpeyi from the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, have also contested the claims made in the petition, saying the scholars have not correctly understood Pollock.

"Prof. Pollock presents Macaulay and Weber as examples of the worst kind of misunderstanding of Indian wisdom. He does this in order to build his own argument that there is a deeper knowledge in India than Macaulay or Weber realised," Wujastyk wrote in a letter to a few other scholars after reading the petition.

Wujastyk said Pollock criticised administrators of western universities who do not give recognition and value to Indian knowledge systems and view India only as a place to make money or to make practical applications of knowledge systems of the West.

In his speech, Pollock had given details about the tools for linguistic analysis developed in South Asia. In many languages, sounds change when words come into proximity; in many languages, the structure of words changes over time by means.

"But no western language I am familiar with ever developed a precise vocabulary to make sense of these phenomena. It was only in South Asia that an adequate terminology... was developed and eventually adopted in scholarly discourse worldwide, a terminology that in a sense made these phenomena knowable for the first time," Pollock had said.

The "Swadeshi" petition also quotes Pollock's paper on "The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory in Intellectual Tradition" to contend that he sees all shastras as flawed and "frozen in Vedic metaphysics which he considers irrational and a source of social oppression".

However, Wujastyk said Pollock maintained that "classical Indian civilisation, however, offers what may be the most exquisite expression of the centrality of rule-governance in human behaviour" and that the shastra is a monumental, in some cases unparalleled, intellectual accomplishment in its own right".

"One could discuss this paper further. But to cite it as an example of a criticism of India is the opposite of the truth," Wujastyk said.

"It is regrettable that Prof. Ramasubramanian has misunderstood Prof. Pollock's views by 180 degrees. Prof. Pollock is a champion for the same values of Indian culture as Prof. Ramasubramanian. That is why Prof. Pollock devised and brought into being the Murty Classical Library," Wujastyk said.

Wujastyk said that many people had signed the petition, "presumably without having read Prof. Pollock's work for themselves, or having failed to understand it".

"The damage done by this misunderstanding is likely to last a long time, and hamper the efforts of Prof. Pollock and others who seek to bring the glory and subtlety of ancient Indian knowledge to the attention of the modern world," Wujastyk wrote.

K. Gopinath, a signatory to the "Swadeshi" petition and professor of computer science and automation at the Indian Institute of Science, said of Pollock: "He's like a fly that always looks for dung, while a great scholar would always be like a bee or butterfly that hop from flower to flower and produce something interesting."

Delhi University's Bhardwaj, another signatory, said "like-minded academicians" would oppose any effort to supply the Murty Classic Library's translated books to public libraries in India. "It is our national duty to prevent these books from reaching public libraries. These books give misleading interpretation about Indian heritage," Bhardwaj said.

Published by Harvard University Press, the Murty Classic Library has so far brought out nine volumes, including Sufi Lyrics of Bullhe Shah, The History of Akbar (two volumes) and Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women.

Some universities, including Calcutta University, prescribe Pollock's The Language of the Gods in the World of Men - Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Pre-modern India as recommended reading material for students of ancient Indian history.

Bhardwaj said they would request the universities to drop such books.

In January 2015, while commenting on the Murty Classic Library project, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, a poet and a professor who retired from the University of Allahabad, had told The New York Times: "Everyone here will praise this library and talk about the glorious civilisation it represents. But then Indians will wake up and realise they've done very little to preserve or translate their own texts."