Narayan Murthy appoints Pollock and Pollock calls Hindu-Sashtras a problem!

(By: Shreepal Singh, Navita Vashist and Surya K.)

                                       By: Shreepal Singh (1)

Sometimes very important events take place and, by and large, general public remains unaware of them, and when later on, as the consequence of those events, momentous changes occur around us – that are too apparent for us to remain oblivious of them – we feel amazed how that all happened in the first place.

One such event of momentous importance is the appointment of Sheldon Pollock – an American Indologist – by Narayan Murthy and Rohan Murthy (of Infosys fame) to be in charge of their ambitious project. Who is this gentleman Sheldon Pollock? And, what is that ambitious project of Murthys?

The project contemplated by Murthys is the setting up of a Foundation to undertake the work of translating “all ancient Sanskrit sacred works of Hindus into English” and Sheldon Pollock has been picked up by them to be the editor-in-chief or director of this project.

It is wonderful idea of Murthys and all Indians would welcome it. Why should on earth anyone have an objection  to such a wonderful idea?

The question is: What are the credentials and qualifications of Pollock to undertake such a job of far-reaching consequences?

We shall see this just now. But before that, first a few words about Murthys.

Firstly, it is Murthy’s money (millions of dollars), which they would be spending on the project; how can anybody have an objection or a say as to who is appointed by them and who is not? Secondly, it is laudable work and everybody should welcome it.

The question put to Murthys is this: Do Murthys  have a right to distort the sacred Hindu Sanskrit works or Shashtras, may be with their own money, with the assistance of a person who is known – as the readers of these lines on perusing what follows next would be able to find for themselves – for advancing a thesis that is logically untenable, pseudo-scientific and ill-motivated anti-Hindu subtle jargon.

Sheldon Pollock had propounded a thesis on the subject long back in 1985, which is available for everyone to see in his 1985 paper.

We shall refer here to a few lines taken from this paper to show how he is illogical and pseudo-scientific in his approach.

“‘Sastra is one of the fundamental ….. problems of Indian civilization ……. “. (We have intentionally omitted secondary clauses in this sentence; and the meaning of this sentence is clear even without those clauses.)

  1. “Sashtra is a fundamental problem of Hindu civilization” – is a priori statement. It is an assumption. Entire thesis proceeds from this assumption.
  2. The thesis, instead of examining how the Sashtras are problematic, is built by judging everything contained in these Sashtras on the anvil of this a priori.
  3. It says “Sashtras are problematic”. They are problematic to whom? To Pollock? But Shashtras are not problematic to Indian sacred-Sashtras-scholars. Who is to judge in such a situation? For Pollock, only the Western scholars like him – Pollock – could be the judge. But why not the others – these Indians?
  4. Are people like Pollock better and more qualified philosophers or social scientists than those Indians who are experts of these Sanskrit works to find out their intellectual worth or a problematic strain?
  5. What is the criterion to judge who is more authentic to conclude whether Sashtras are or are not problematic? If Pollock or his ilk flaunt “US University degrees” to buttress that they, for that reason, are more qualified than the other, is it scientific approach? There is an Indian proverb: “Are there no ass in Oxford?”
  6. In the modern scientific age of “Relativity”, it is possible that Sashtras are not problematic to Indian civilization – that has organically evolved them – and they are at the same time problematic to those who live in different civilization and have different values. Is it not more scientific approach than of Pollock, which can see things only with one “frame of reference” to judge them and put a value thereon?
  7. “The black cats are problematic to the white dogs” (or, you can put it vice versa also; it remains the same thing). But these black cats are not problematic to the remaining black cats; and, so too with the white dogs. Pollock is an intellectual and is supposed to know this simple fact that the Buddhist civilization, Hindu civilization, Christian civilization etc. are all built on their own peculiar “frame works”; that the Buddhist civilization is not problematic to Buddhists; and, ditto for others. The “frame-work” of Hindu civilization is its Shashtras. Hindu civilization has no problem with its Shashtric frame-work; but Pollock is not a Hindu and he is – scientifically speaking – supposed to have a problem with Shashtras. There is no problem – fundamental or otherwise – in Shashtras being the base of Hindu civilization; the problem is with the person who looks at them with his own – particular, so-called Western – frame of reference. More than this, there is no substance in the Pollock’s thesis that Shashtras are one of the fundamental problems of Hindu civilization.
  8. Adding more voices to this thesis – voices of all who are stationed like Pollock and voices of people who are enjoying motivated pecuniary benefits in Western countries (e.g. Ananya Bajpayi) – which Rajiv Malhotra logically terms Sepoy – does not add more weight in intellect or substance. We think, for now this much is enough.

Now to Murthys.

By now all, and certainly Murthys, know that this motivated distortion by Pollock has been minutely examined and discussed by Rajiv Malhotra in his latest book “The Battle for Sanskrit”. He may have read or not this book himself but the fair chances are that he must have heard of it. There is a reported statement of senior Murthy that in India there are not competent Sanskrit scholars available who may undertake such translation work; and that at least nobody has yet approached him for undertaking this work.

If he is not arrogant with his money, may we say that it was his work to make a search in India and find out competent persons for the job. Did he do that? No. Secondly, it seems more probable that in your present project, you invited Pollock to undertake your job and not that Pollock requested you the directorship. If it is wrong, you say so publicly! Again, how can you say that in India there are not competent Sanskrit scholars / translators. Sanskrit is taught in various universities in India; Shastras are daily read and understood in innumerable Matthas / Ashrams in India; and, of course, Indians know English.

Murthys before being instrumental in such distortion of sacred Sanskrit works, need to answer India his adamant proceedings.

In a democratic way to express Indian community’s resentment, more than 5000 people have signed a petition imploring Murthys to see the reason and rethink of the appointment. But in vain.

This article is one more effort in the same direction.

By: Navita Vashist (2)

A.      Pollock’s negative pre-disposition towards Sanskrit and Sanskriti. This is quite apparent in his 1985 paper that it beggars belief how some argue otherwise. Some examples :

1.       The very first sentence is a clue to the lens being used : ‘Sastra is one of the fundamental features and problems of Indian civilization in general and of Indian intellectual history in particular ‘  At the very outset Pollock categorically problematizes an entire civilisation before the reader has even had a chance to consider his thesis.

2.       ‘In light of the major role it appears to play in Indian civilization, it is surprising to discover that the idea and nature of sastra in its own right, as a discrete problem of intellectual history, seem never to have been the object of sustained scrutiny.’ Ironically Pollock himself is the first to construct that the Shastras are a ‘problem’ and then proceeds to be surprised that no one else has seen it that way! Since there have been plenty of competing ideologies over time, one could also reasonably expect that such dissenting views would have arisen organically out of the tradition itself had the Shastras really been a ‘problem’. That this did not happen suggests that the practitioners did not feel the ‘problem’ that he alludes to and that Pollock is first applying an entirely  Western lens and then proceeding to craft a ‘problem’.

3.       ‘It was this attitude that prompted me to further study in the area of shastric regulation, conceived accordingly as an analysis of the components of cultural hegemony or at least authoritarianism.’ The words ‘hegemony’ and ‘authoritarianism’ in this context are Western concepts that ought not to be applied with such abandon as it is clear that in that era one was free to disagree and set up alternative schools of thought (evidenced by the many competing philosophical systems that co-existed harmoniously, at least non-violently).

4.       ‘Besides the extraordinary taxonomical interests and procedures of the metrical texts, what struck me most forcefully was the nomological character of the handbooks….’ The use of the word ‘nomological’ appears to be a function of Pollock’s lens and understanding.

5.       ‘The question of domination remains in my view important for several areas of pre-modern India, the realms of social and political practices, for instance.’Another indication of the ‘lens’ being used and the hidden agenda.

6.       ‘What both Manusmriti and Amy Vanderbilt’s Everyday Etiquette articulate for us is practical cultural knowledge, mastery of which makes one a competent member of the culture in question. Such cultural grammars exist in every society;’So Manusmriti just did what all societies do and whilst Pollock then goes on to say the Classical Indian civilization was the most exquisite expression of this, he completely ignores the even more remarkable point that Western society only got round to codifying such practical cultural knowledge in the 1950’s (as per his quote) while Manusmriti did this millennia earlier ie. the Indians had reached that civilizational stage thousands of years earlier.

7.       The second concerns the implications of this relationship for the conceptual possibilities of cultural change and development. While I believe the degree of actual influence of shastric models on cultural practices and beliefs in pre-modern India to be a far-reaching issue of the utmost importance.There is a hint of setting up a framework for ‘indirect intervention politics’ ie. stirring up one side against the other whilst pulling unseen strings ….why else is the influence of shastric models on the culture such a far-reaching issue of utmost importance? One senses urgency here.

8.       ‘Sastra, the Sanskrit word for these grammars, thus presents itself as one of the fundamental features and problems of Indian civilization in general and of Indian intellectual history in particular.’Why a problem? The shastras only prescribed a way of doing things, perhaps an ideal way that would lead to the best functioning of society and highest transformation of the individual. One was still free to do things their own way given all the competing schools of thought and ideologies that existed at the time. There were no prescribed be-headings for not following, only that one would not get the full benefits of a particular action if not performed correctly. The fact that the public followed the shastric norms of their own volition could be interpreted as being due to their lived experience of the benefits.

9.       ‘Sastra is a significant phenomenon both intrinsically–taken as a whole it is a monumental, in some cases unparalleled, intellectual accomplishment in its own right–and extrinsically, with respect to the impact it has exercised, or sought to exercise, on the production and reproduction of culture in traditional India.’Key point here that Pollock remains silent on is that the Shastras were not physically imposed – It was not authoritarian ie. no capital punishment for failure to comply – it is entirely possible and more likely that people followed the shastras because they experienced the benefits

10.   We are informed further by Patanjali that “Sastra is that from which there derives regulation [definite constraints on usage]”Not sure if the ‘definite constraints’ comment is part of Patanjali’s quote or a Pollock translation. It could also mean that something becomes the norm not because it is strictly imposed but because it is recommended and then found to be the most efficient and pleasant way in practice.

11.   ‘Whatever the number and specific composition of such topics of knowledge, it seems clear that the very notion of a finite set of “topics of knowledge” implies an attempt at an exhaustive classification of human cultural practices.’Finite as per the available knowledge in that era, not finite till the end of time – would be a more generous interpretation, which of course would not suit Pollock’s agenda.

B.      Pollock’s deliberate or inadvertent misunderstandings to suit his argument:

1.       ‘Theory is held always and necessarily to precede and govern practice; there is no dialectical interaction between them.’This is questionable. While there may be no dialectical interaction between Shruti and practice, there can be a dialectical interaction between the understanding of Shruti and practice, the latter’s role being to refine the understanding and interpretation of the former.

2.       ‘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.’The second point is not necessarily an implication of that postulate – but rather that progress is achieved by better and better discoveries / understandings / interpretations of this pre-existent knowledge. Ie. just because certain knowledge is not in our collective consciousness, this does not invalidate its existence. For example, the Earth did not start orbiting the sun only when the Western world discovered that it did so.

3.       Similar to point 2 ‘THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE PRIORITY OF THEORY’ – That the practice of any art or science, that all activity whatever succeeds to the degree it achieves conformity with shastric norms would imply that the improvement of any given practice lies, not in the future and the discovery of what has never been known before, but in the past and the more complete recovery of what was known in full in the past ‘   ‘The fundamental flaw in this seems to be the lack of understanding that it is not about ‘what was known in full in the past’ (because presumably not everything existed     in the collective human consciousness at that time), but what ‘was’ and ‘is’ ever extant, only waiting to be discovered….so although it has always existed, it is still ‘new     discovery’ to the human consciousness.

C.      Pollock lends support to the point that the Abrahamic religions need to be history-centric in order to maintain their power.     ‘The eternality of the vedas, the sastra par excellence, is one presupposition or justification for this assessment of sastra. Its principal ideological effects are to     naturalize and de-historicize cultural practices, two components in a larger discourse of power.’    So the eternality of the Vedas de-historicizes cultural practice and this is a component in a larger discourse of power. The most obvious interpretation of this is that ‘historicity’     enables power-play by giving control to a unique time-stamped and non-replicable event eg. the historicity of Jesus gave the Church its power for centuries. On the other hand, the     de-historicized Vedas enable a more egalitarian playing field where many new ideas can originate over time within the same overarching eternal framework.

By: Surya K. (3)

(Additions within brackets by way of comments/criticism of Pollock’s thesis is by: Shreepal Singh)

Appendix A of “The Battle For Sanskrit” lays out Pollock’s construction of the political history of Sanskrit
Claim 1: Oral traditions can compose either (a) non-rational thoughts, (b) simple rational thoughts.
(This thesis is wrong and sup[orted by evidence. Alexander, the Great, came to India in the year 326 BC on his expedition to conquer the world. His accompanying historians recorded the events they saw. Some of these accounts survived in later periods and were quoted by other historians. One such book is “Geography” by Strabo, who quoting in his fifteenth book of this Geography from “Indika” of of Megasthenes, says, “….. They (Indian philosophers) discoursed much upon death ….. They maintained that nothing that happens to a man is bad or good, opinions being merely dreams. On many points their notions coincided with those of Greeks. The said, for instance, that the world was created and liable to destruction, that it was a spheroid figure, and that it’s Creator goverened it and was diffused through all its parts…. (vide Q. Curtius Rufus, Ancient India as Described by Arrian, Q. Curtius, Diodoros, Plutarch and Justin – Translated from greek sources by McCrindle. Page 368). Now, Mr. Pollock, are the thoughts like “Nothing that happens to a man is good or bad”; “Opinions are merely dreams”; “The world was created and liable to destruction”; “The Creator of the world was diffused through all its parts” not not complex enough thoughts? We say, Pollock, these thoughts are more complex than your ill-fitting and chained thoughts expressed in these conclusions. Frankly, the thoughts like “Nothing that happens to a man is good or bad” and “Opinions are merely dreams” remind one of the scientific premise of “Relativity” of Einestein, where common opinion is denounced by saying that things are not things but events in space and time!)
Claim 2: Composing complex rational thoughts requires writing.
(Your logic is applied here. The above quoted thoughts are complex and they required writing, which were written in Sanskrit long back before the birth of Buddha. Your logic “that complex thoughts cannot be expressed in oral traditions; there were no complex thoughts before Buddha; complex thoughts were expressed in Sanskrit; and, therefore, writing in Sanskrit started post Buddha” is other way round. Because above thoughts are complex, which were expressed before Buddha and which needed writing, therefore, Sanskrit writing existed much before Buddha.)
Conclusion A1: Oral traditions cannot produce complex rational compositions.
Conclusion A2: All complex rational compositions were produced only after writing was invented.
Claim 3: Vedic hymns lack complex rationality.
(….. wait)
Conclusion B1: Invention of writing was not necessary for composing Vedic hymns.  Oral-traditions were sufficient to compose Vedic hymns.
Conclusion B2: As a result of their oral-only tradition, Vedic-Indians were stuck in a childlike world of Vedic imagination and superstitious rituals. 
Claim 4:  Oral tradition was secretive and restricted access to Brahmins only.
Claim 5:  Access to the sacred before Buddhism was restricted to Brahmins.
Conclusion B3: Secretive Vedic oral-traditions restricted access to the sacred based on social structure.
Claim 6: Buddhists invented writing in India in or around 260 BCE in the Maurya courts.
Conclusion C: Since writing in India was invented by Buddhists, therefore all complex rational texts of Indian origin were composed after Buddha.
Claim 7: Indian literature, including Kavya such as Ramayana, are complex rational compositions
Conclusion D: Ramayana could not have been composed orally.  Therefore, Ramayana had to be composed only after the invention of writing.
Conclusion E: All Hindu innovations needing complex rational thought came only after the Buddha.
Claim 8: Vedic compositions were composed and propagated only in oral Sanskrit.
Claim 9: For the first few centuries of its existence, Buddhists rejected Sanskrit.
Claim 10: Buddhists chose Pali as their language for writing.
Claim 11: Buddha’s position on whether or not to use Sanskrit was ideological and not one of pragmatics. Buddha avoided the use of Sanskrit because he rejected Vedas which were composed in Sanskrit.
Claim 12: A few centuries after the Buddha, Buddhists turned towards Sanskrit as their language of choice for expressing their teachings.   Buddhists assaulted the Vedic tradition.
Claim 13: Buddhism sought to turn the old vaidika world upside down by the very levers (such as Sanskrit) that world provided.
Conclusion F1: Buddhists brought writing to Sanskrit.
Conclusion F2: First Sanskrit writings were Buddhist texts.
Conclusion F3: Buddhist influence started Sanskrit literature and enhanced its grammar
Claim 14: With Buddhism turning to Sanskrit, Vedic thought was challenged by Buddhism.
Claim 15: In the early centuries of the Common Era, there was an explosion in Sanskrit literature.
Claim 16: Explosion in Sanskrit literature in early centuries of the Common Era was not due to a revival of Vedic teachings as Buddhism had sidelined the Vedic rituals during that era.
Conclusion G: In an effort to turn around waning public interest in Hinduism, Vedic brahmins needed to embark on the writing of Itihasa or Maha-Kavya such as Ramayana.
Claim 17:  To revive Vedic Hinduism, brahmins sought support of kings.
Claim 18: Kings sought the help of Brahmins to raise popularity of kings with public, to raise obedience of public to kings.
Claim 19: The symbiotic relationship of the needs of Brahmins and Kings led to political aesthetics in India.  Kings were divine and Brahmins held highly respected positions in their courts.
Claim 20:  Kavya such as Ramayana elevated Brahmins while teaching people to offer their unconditional obedience to Kings.
Conclusion H: Unlike Europe where wars and revolutions led to creation of empires, India managed building empires through Political Aesthetics.  Unconditional obedience of public helped build larger kingdoms and empires in India.  Neither wars nor revolts were required to build the “Sanskrit Cosmopolis”.  

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