Why Sheldon Pollock

Plates from Sheldon Pollock, "Ramayana and Political Imagination in India" The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 261-297
Plates from Sheldon Pollock, “Ramayana and Political Imagination in India” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 261-297

The struggles at JNU are now reaching other institutions in India– the Lok Sabha, the courts, the media channels. Though, to be fair, the struggles at JNU were first troubles at University of Hyderabad, and before that at IIT Madras. Certainly, before that at Kashmir University. The world outside Delhi, Hyderabad, Madras, Srinagar has stood in solidarity with these struggles. Across South Asia, in UK, in America, hundreds of thousands have stood up, spoken, signed their names to be counted in the struggles. There are numerous vectors coinciding in this– anti-caste, pro-freedom of speech, pro-academy, anti-Modi and more. Sheldon Pollock, the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University is one such supporter– having signed a petition for JNU. Presumably for this support, Pollock is now the target of a petition against him– demanding that he be removed from his editorial role at a series he founded. You can read about the petition here and a rebuttal from Dominic Wujastyk here.

Given that this petition is a publicity effort aimed at harassing a scholar, I was tempted to ignore it. However, as the news of this petition has circulated, I realized that people are largely unaware of both Pollock’s scholarship, and the history of why scholarship– such as his or Wendy Doniger’s– is consistently under attack by the Hindu Right parties. Unaware of either, I see the danger of people jumping to conclusions about the validity of the slur against Pollock or why it matters that we speak up for him. It is important, I think, that we properly contextualize the intellectual work of Pollock’s career but also the claims behind his detractors. This attack on Pollock has a genealogy, more precise and more general, than what is readily evident– the Hindutva Right has long targeted historical production on Indian past that was anti-caste, anti-communal or feminist, and it has long targeted Sheldon Pollock for articulating how political imagination frames historical thinking.

This is a struggle for the right to narrate–connecting JNU and Pollock. Pollock, too, is charged as an “anti-national” because slogans were reportedly chanted for Kashmir or Pakistan at JNU. The text of the petition requires that we see the Indian nationalist state as strictly Hindu, strictly masculine, and strictly aggrieved. The Petition’s effort to ask for “native” (read Hindu) Indologist has consumed Indian politics for a while now.

Today there is a call to #removemughalsfrombooks— and it perfectly encapsulates my contention. Books, written texts, need to be cleaned out; British histories, and colonial readings of Mughals eliminated; a Hindu history written in.

That history– written history– erased Hindu pasts is a long-standing argument of the Hindu right. M. S. Golwalkar, whom the Wikipedia notes is one of the inspirations for Modi and who was a founding member of Rashtriya Swayanmsevak Sangh (RSS), condemned textbooks in his 1938 pamphlet, “We, or Our Nationhood Defined”. The very first footnote begins:

It is interesting to note the colossal ignorance of Historians of the West, about ancient History. Every child in Hindustan knows that Ramayan is the work of the father of Sanskrit poetry Valmiki and the first piece of literature in Sanskrit. … Unfortunately such misconceptions are stuffed into the brains of our young ones through text books appointed by various Universities in the country. It is high time that we studied, understood, and wrote our history ourselves and discarded such designed or un-designed distortions

The child that naturally knows better than any “Historian of the West” is the child whose mind is later filled with distortions– distortions introduced by the same Historians via textbooks; textbooks taught in schools and universities.

I merely hint at the presence of this reading of textbooks at the heart of seminal RSS texts. The nationalist and anti-colonial struggles of those decades notwithstanding, textbooks became a primary site to war over the right to narrate in South Asia.1 In India, textbooks (and schools and universities and History) was a battlefield during the Ayodhya movement to replace Babri Masjid. At the forefront of that struggle were historians– Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and many more– who published petitions, open letters, articles in defense of a better understanding of the past. Neeladri Bhattacharyya, who was himself involved with the NCERT, wrote a full account of this struggle in his “Teaching History in Schools: the Politics of Textbooks in India2:

The narratives of the Hindu right are constructed around two parallel, yet contradictory, claims: one, that Hindus have a pure Aryan descent, the other, that Hindus are the original inhabitants of India. Only through such claims could the Muslims be represented as outsiders, foreigners who came and imposed their oppressive rule in India. But such an argument could only be made through a series of other assertions. If Hindu descent was to be traced back to the Aryans, and if they were to be presented as the original inhabitants, then it was not possible to accept that Aryans came from outside, or that they were pastoralists, or that there were flourishing local cultures within India before the coming of the Aryans. Within this narrative, the Indus valley civilization (also termed Harappan civilization, from Harappa, the first of its cities to be excavated) could not be celebrated and seen as pre-Aryan at the same time. It had to be presented as contemporary with Vedic times (when the sacred Hindu texts were written), or, part of the Aryan culture.

As the Hindu right consolidated from the mid 1970s, the secular textbooks became a target of persistent attacks. The secular historians were condemned as anti-Hindu, keen on sanitizing Muslim wrongs, erasing their misdeeds. The newspaper columns of the Hindu right suggested that these secular historians should migrate to Pakistan, and settle in a Muslim country. Many of the authors regularly received anonymous letters and death threats. In 1977, after the emergency years, a coalition of parties came to power in New Delhi. Under pressure from the right within the coalition, one of the first measures of this government was to withdraw these NCERT school books from circulation – an act that led to widespread protests. In 1999, when the Hindu right came to power at the centre, the textbooks were once again the site of intense controversy. ‘Objectionable passages’ from the books (especially any that referred to beef-eating in Ancient India) were deleted as hurtful to Hindu sensibilities.7 Then the textbooks themselves were withdrawn and a new set of texts introduced – texts which for the first time actually contained many of the communal ideas that till now had only circulated in the popular press or been taught in communal schools.

Neeladri Bhattacharya, a Professor at JNU, has long been a member of this struggle and JNU a long-standing site where this struggle is enacted. In 2007, I remember Professor Bhattacharya’s visit to University of Chicago where he presented this paper. In attendance were Professor Muzaffar Alam, Wendy Doniger and others. The University of Chicago’s South Asian Languages and Civilizations department had also long been a site of struggle to write Indian pasts.

Sheldon Pollock was faculty at University of Chicago when he published, in 1993, his essay “Ramayana and the Political Imagination in India” (Journal of Asian Studies). Pollock’s essay was a direct response to BJP’s rathyātra in 1990 and the riots that followed. Led by Advani this journey through north India’s sacral sites had a distinct purpose of invoking a past to frame contemporary calls for the destruction of Babri Masjid. Pollock, a renowned philologist and Sanskritist, opened the essay with Advani to set forth his intellectual question3:

It is the symbology of these events that I want to examine in what follows. For whatever ideological cohesion the BJP secured, and the primary impetus for political mobilization– in the name of a Hindu theocratic politics and against the Muslim population– derived in large part from the invocation of specific set of symbols: the figure of the warrior-god Rāma, his birthplace temple in Ayodhyā, and the liberation of this sacred site. … There is a long history to the relationship between Rāmayaṇa and political symbology (p.262)

Pollock then provides precisely that history– of how the text and political imagination coalesce in the eleventh to fourteenth century around different imperial formations. The essay, truly a masterpiece in South Asian historiography, bears some attention here. I will skip Pollock’s recreation of how the past was remembered, and Rama interpellated, in those pasts, to concentrate on his last section where he brings us to why the struggle was on the domain of history itself. In that section– Historicist Intervention– he begins:

If the adoption of the Rāmāyaṇa to process the events of the eleventh to fourteenth centuries suggests a complex interplay of culture and political power, equally complex is the problem of the present with which I started, the reappropriation of this imaginary in contemporary India. And, indeed, all that I’ve recorded seems to have little directly to contribute to this question, to making sense of the display of cultural symbols in the pursuit of political objectives in contemporary India. There are at least two questions here, both difficult to answer: What possible relationships, if any, can be posited between the reemergence of Rāma– the Rāma of L.K. Advani of the BJP– and an earlier political semiotics of Rāma– the Rāma, say, of Pṛthvīrāja III? And what does it mean to seek to intervene in the present via an archeology such as I have presented; what is the role of history in the current contention? (p. 288)

The critique Pollock presents pivots on the foundations of objectivist history, Hegel’s “historical History”, which Pollock writes:

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. Ayodhyā would hardly have assumed the dimensions of the present problem were it not for the scientized historicity 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. (emphasis added, p. 292)

For Pollock to counter BJP’s utilization of sacral symbols, in 1993, was to present the construction and social function of history’s political imagination. Pollock followed up with influential texts, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India (2006), and set the agenda for a new historically situated world philology, “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World” (2009).4.

Since 1993, Pollock has remained a target for the Hindu Right in the US, especially for Rajiv Malhotra and his Infinity Foundation. Malhotra, and his various foundations, target Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock as being “Historians of the West” whose works introduce “distortions” into the minds of the “Hindu child”. Malhotra’s long effort to criminalize and ban Doniger for introducing “perversity” into Sanskrit is now moved into criticizing Pollock as a Swadeshi Orientalist.

Malhotra relies on a vast array of listserv-driven, twitter-fueled, IT-based Hindu diaspora community that writes petitions, emails, and denounces these scholars. In 2014, Malhotra began targeting Pollock over his efforts to strengthen the teaching of Sanskrit at Columbia.

On January 17, 2016, Malhotra published his call to arms, again, to target Pollock– on his blog, “Why Sheldon Pollock is a very important Indologist to engage“. Malhotra cites as a particular target, “the most prestigious feathers in his cap”, the Murty Classical Library. This attack is thus, by design and plan, and it is aimed to both boost Malhotra’s own books and rile the twitterati against a scholarly target. At his behest, and follow Malhotra’s twitter feed to see this in real action, the desh-bhakts take aim at Pollock’s position at the Murty Classical Library.

It bears stating, without too much exaggeration, that Harvard University Press’ Murty Classical Library is one of the most important and consequential projects for South Asian pasts. As Pollock was quoted in NYT’s cover on the launch last year, “The Murty will offer ‘something the world had never seen before, and something that India had never seen before: a series of reliable, accessible, accurate and beautiful books that really open up India’s precolonial past'”.

Pollock’s vision for the project is clear from that 1993 article itself. Why put new, scholarly secure, Indic texts in the hands of everyone who wishes for them? What effect does a direct access to critically edited and produced text, and its English translation have on contemporary reader? At its most basic, it reveals the space within which the political imagination operates. The MCL will, or does, have volumes from Buddhist, Sufi, Bhakti, Vedic, Courtly pasts from Tamil, Sindhi, Prakrit, Marathi, Apabhramsha, Sanskrit, Persian, Punjabi, Telegu, Pali, Old Hindi. These scripts, as they defuse through the social, will create a set of new readers who shall have the power to articulate their political as textually grounded not merely historicist. The valorization of Sanskrit as the language of Gods is precisely to remove it from our world– to envelop it in gloss.

The textbook is one particular gloss. A critical absence in education, visible to me from Pakistan and from United States, is the availability of primary Indic texts, available in English. For a student to understand the social function of a given text, it is incumbent that they articulate their way through that text– that they directly experience its structure, its texture, its illusions and its narrative. Pollock’s 1993 essay remains a classical example of such articulation. In my estimation, the greatest impact of Murty Classical Library will be felt precisely in the classroom.

I am a student of Sheldon Pollock and a graduate of University of Chicago. I am now a colleague of his at Columbia. While I was in Berlin, I worked, alongside other colleagues, to launch a project Zukunftsphilologie which built upon and situated Pollock’s work in German academy. I write today to support my teacher and colleague, and to acknowledge that his intellectual and institutional contributions have shaped the study of South Asia in this present century. No number of signatories to any petition can un-write that fact.

———
  1. In Pakistan, textbooks were sites of forgetting and erasures, whether of Hindus, Bengali, Baluchi or Sindhi. Some historians– mainly Mubarak Ali and K.K. Aziz– tried to combat such erasures but the state of Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s carried out a whole scale erasure of history programs– and historians– and that battle was quickly over. []
  2. Neeladri Bhattacharya, “Teaching History in Schools: the Politics of Textbooks in India” History Workshop Journal(2009) 67 (1): 99-110 []
  3. I should note that Pollock was joining a large number of Indian social scientists and historians who had been writing on the issue of Babri Masjid since the mid 1980s. For an overview, see Gyanendra Pandey, “Modes of History Writing: New Hindu History of Ayodhya” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 29, No. 25 (Jun. 18, 1994), pp. 1523-1528 []
  4. The project to understand the “pursuit of origins” remained unfinished; though I am hoping Cynthia Talbot’s new book The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Indian Past, 1200-2000 and my forthcoming book re-starts that conversation []

10 Replies to “Why Sheldon Pollock”

  1. These comments by hindu ‘upper’ caste folk are as illiterate as the petition letter which quoted Professor Pollock not incorrectly, but in direct opposition to what he had, clearly, intended! And it was not some very subtle matter, it was just that the epsilon-minus author of the petition was unable to understand elementary English! Such is the level of ‘scholarship’ in Indian academia! But to return to the cause of the attack, Professor Pollock has always made clear his principled stand on human rights issues, especially the violent denial of it to 250 million Dalits and Tribal Peoples in India. This is perhaps the biggest human rights violation in the history of the world. Dalits are beginning to fight back, and the world is beginning to notice. All these brahmin/’upper’ caste folk, who are so voluble about racism, apartheid, the genocide of American Indian Peoples … are getting really uncomfortable because the genocidal violence against Dalits is rooted in, and sanctified by, their toxic faith. Dr.Ambedkar wrote ‘”I shall be satisfied if I make the Hindus realize that they are the sick men of India and that their sickness is causing danger to the health and
    happiness of other Indians.” This is an elementary truth which ‘upper’ caste hindus are unable to see.

  2. What is your take on Pakistani textbooks which have taken similar steps to keep an Islamic narrative so much so that most pakistanis consider themselves as Arabs and not ethnically related to Indians.

  3. Professor Pollock is not just an acclaimed scholar, but is a compassionate and generous man! He has initiated scholarships in Dr.Ambedkar’s name to support Dalit students studying Philology at Columbia University. On the other hand, these petition walas: all upper caste, essentially brahmin fellers, what have they ever done to fight the ‘unparalleled social abuse of untouchability (A.J.Toynbee)’? In fact they must be to the last man and woman, the entire 132 of them, manuvadis, supporters of the caste system, people who perhaps even practice untouchability itself.

    1. What an ad hominem attack You did not address any of the issues raised in the petition.

      Pollock, such a compassionate soul, what did he do for the American Dalits, Blacks Nothing. A little bit of kindness for the unarmed colored folks killed by cops who always seem to get away would have been helpful. The fate of Native Americans is much worse, they have been genocide d and still suffer from racism, from the larger society and also Bureau of Indian Affairs. Native American kids and babies were kidnapped by Federal agents and put in institutions till the 70s where physical and sexual abuse was rampant, did Pollock do anything about it. None.

      Instead of trying to save the natives of the far away land, he should look at his backyard and save.

      Or if scholarship is the topic, it is better to stick to issues raised. Ex
      1. Blaming Sanskrit for Genocide of Jews in Europe without any evidence. Common sense would say that if Sanskrit was cause of genocide far away how come there was no antisemitism ever in the land of Sanskrit?

    2. Who is to say who is right and who is wrong? The fallacy in this article is that Mr Pollock is portrayed as all noble and his detractors as all evil. This does not make logical sense.

    3. Seems to me you have amply made the case that Pollock’s is a political scholarship – viewing the Indian past through the needs of his political faction in the present, and as such is not any kind of seeker of truth; and in principle, no better than the Soviet historians, who for political reasons, claimed Russian priority for virtually all scientific discoveries.

      It is there in your own words. It boils down to: if it helps defeat the BJP, then make Valmiki be post-Buddhist, history, evidence and tradition be damned. No number of signatories can undo that fact.

    4. FIrst of all, you label everyone who question Pollock as right wing and this and that. If the same were to be reversed, you scream foul. Let me keep this academic. My opposition to Pollock a) He divorces all paramarthika aspects and mumbo jumbo. Can I claim, if it is beyond his mind, it is mumbo jumbo? There have been many westerners like Paul Brunton who came to India, clinically analyzed and enjoyed the spiritual wealth also. Pollock’s all works aim to cleave and liberate Indian literature of Paramarthika. That will be like taking a photo of a rose plant and killing the plant.

      b) I have read numerous articles of his ramayana butchering. I respect his right to analyze, but I also have my right to defend the traditional ideas of how many bhakts over generations have been elevated. There is a difference between someone like Kalidasa or Tulsidas works and someone who studies and only makes a living criticising them negatively. Go figure which is real scholarship. Just for his anti rama stance, I will defend dharma and oppose it everywhere.

      c) You claim dalit student support etc, where is the support for preserving living traditions, instead he is determined to attack and kill them, with his vicious interpretations. Yes, they have not yet been challenged. I promise it will be, as they are getting increased attention, thanks to Rajiv’s book.

      If you wish to debate, I am game. But only keep your monikers out.

  4. “Pollock then provides precisely that history– of how the text and political imagination coalesce in the eleventh to
    fourteenth century around different imperial formations. The essay, truly a masterpiece in South Asian historiography”

    Pollocks thesis might be precise history for his devoted student but, archeology says otherwise. Ramayana was popular long before Pollocks specified time frame 11 – 14 CE. There is archaeological evidence that it has spread all through the country, from Gujarath to WB to
    Tamilnadu and AP. Inscriptions dating 3 CE, 7 CE alluding to Ramayana are found in the entire nation.

    Pollock was arbitrarily dating Ramayana to suit his political agenda.

  5. Thank you for this article. For long, a very tiny group of Indian individuals (mostly scholars and free activists) have studied and noted this phenomenon of rewriting the Indian history through dialectics and propaganda. Like Edward Said’s monumental work on the obfuscations of the West vis-a-vis the Orient, there is no such systematic study of manipulations of the Hindu right. Will look up your professors books. Cheers

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