Pollock: The sophistry of Scholarship

Sanskrit/Dharmic studies today are largely dominated by Western academia. Academicians like Wendy Doniger, Sheldon Pollock, Jafferlot, Goldberg etc. are being regarded as experts on Hinduism. Their work has found favour not only with western audience but also with a significant section of Indian elite. In recent times, we have also seen renowned Indians like Rohan Murthy sponsoring them (Sheldon Pollock). In fact there is a huge debate going on about capability and suitability of Pollock to lead the Murthy Classical Library initiative.

That we Indians are finally realizing the importance and need to support such Scholastic initiatives regarding Sanskritic studies, is indeed encouraging. But when I read essays/books by these western experts on Hinduism [e.g. Wendy Doniger and her students] interpreting Shiv Ling as erotic phallus, Shiva as a sex maniac, Ram Krishna Paramhans as a pedophile and by extrapolation Hindus as sexually unsatisfied or even impotent, I tend to question whether encouraging such studies would do us any good. As a practicing Hindu, I do not seem to relate to such “alternative interpretations” given to me about my own psyche. Whether these “alternate” versions have any scriptural backing, or are figments of imagination of the author or simple misrepresentation/mistranslation of texts, no one seems to ask. The few who do are quickly labelled “Hindu fanatics”.

Not to say that we should not support Dharmic studies, we absolutely should – this trend ought to continue and grow. But shouldn’t we do thorough due diligence on the person whom we chose to support, like we do even before making a small investment or hiring a domestic help? After all, such studies go a long way in making stereotypes of communities, making them vulnerable to motivated political/social propaganda. We already know, how since 17th century, Christian missionaries have been deliberately misconstruing our texts for converting ignorant masses.

At such times, I am reminded of this verse from the last chapter of Gita, in which Sri Krishna makes a seemingly odd statement. He says

इदं ते नातपस्काय नाभक्ताय कदाचन । न चाशुश्रूषवे वाच्यं न च मां योsभ्यसूयति

“This (knowledge) should never be spoken by you to one who is devoid of austerity, who is without devotion, who does not desire to listen, or who speaks ill of Me. (18.67)”

The very objective of Gita, is to make Shrutis more accessible to masses. They why would Sri Krishna say that do not share this knowledge with “person without devotion/austerity”. Every verse of Gita has a pertinent message and this one too needs to be understood well by us. Dharmic texts give no commandments unlike Bible or Quran. The stress is on Shravan, Manan and Nidhidhyas (Listening, contemplating and understanding). So also, Sanskrit literature can never be understood by reading and translating texts verbatim. Every word has profound symbolism. A person who is not mature enough to understand this symbolism of Dharmic expositions, or doesn’t have the right context and state of mind, is highly likely to misconstrue the meaning.

It is therefore only appropriate we rigorously investigate the “Experts’” aptitude and intention before choosing to bestow sponsorships for Dharmic studies. Aptitude can be inferred from their prior works – essays, books, interviews. Intention can be judged by their affiliations, prior sponsor in addition to his work.

Thanks to the efforts and tapasya of Rajiv Malhotra, the agenda and propaganda of such “experts” is being exposed. In “Invading the Sacred”, he along with other scholars do an expose on Doniger’s and her students’ skewed scholarship of “alternate interpretation”. In “Breaking India”, he presents data backed facts of how missionary funding is attempting the balkanization of India by exploiting ignorance and poverty to create faultlines. In “Being Different” (the one I regard as RM’s most influential works), he clinically analyses the key differences in reference frame of Dharmic and Abrahamic belief systems.In Indra’s net, he presents the philosophical unity of Dharmic Traditions and debunks the “Neo-Hinduism” promoters of western academia who claim Hinduism is an artificial construct imposed on the people of the subcontinent. And now in “The Battle of Sanskrit”, Rajivji challenges claims made by Pollock about Sanskrit and Sanskriti.

Thanks to pointers about Pollock from Rajivji, I decided to go through some of the works of Pollock myself. Sheldon Pollock, unlike Doniger’s extremely outrageous claims, is more subtle in his approach. His commentaries and conclusions however succumb to the same biases that most western Indologists tend to fall into knowingly or unknowingly, arriving at flawed and even dangerous conclusions. These biases can be broadly classified as

  • Analyzing Indian values from a western frame of reference
  • Cherry picking of “historical proofs” to establish a preconceived inference

Let me explain with a few examples

Analyzing Indian values from a western frame of reference:

  1. In “Ayodhya” – a translation of Ramayana, Pollock comments on the social structure of the then Indian society. He says –“The first role is of Rama’s absolute hegemony… The status of the junior members in the household was, historically, not very dissimilar to that of slaves, both with respect to father and again hierarchically, among themselves”

    In India, respecting elders is a virtue; it is a value aimed to keep families together, a value that promoted community welfare and let experience guide decision making. Younger siblings/family members follow the elder’s words out of reverence, not out of any fear of torture. So where does Pollock get his idea of  “absolute hegemony”?  Absolute hegemony , in fact, is the very core of Semitic religion, where God demands unquestioning loyalty and becomes angry when questioned. In response, to this “hegemony” the western concept of individualism – self over society, came into being. Hence, in the western scheme of things, it is unimaginable that anyone would willingly sacrifice his personal lust and happiness for another person. When that frame of reference is super imposed selectively on an eastern value, it ends appearing as “slavery” . That said, there is one other flaw in the argument. In the same epic, Vibhishan and Sugriva are pretty vocal about their differences with their respective elder brothers. And neither is lambasted for “not taking orders from brothers”, they are praised for siding with the “Dharma”.

  2. Pollock further writes“Since Greek hero in large measure makes his own fate, fate carries with it a substantial element of justice. The fate of Rama and others is prepared for them, at some plane beyond their intervention or even comprehension. “Justice” never enters the picture….”
    “In Ayodhyakanda, man is prohibited from making his destiny, and cannot fully comprehend the cause of his suffering….Rama has no choice, no one does. Choice is replaced by chance, and action, is nothing more than reaction”

    Once again, this inference stems from the Semitic principle of “born sinners” – where a person becomes a sinner because of the mistake of his forefathers- Adam and Eve, or Ham the son of Noah. Dharmic philosophy talks about Karma. There is no philosophy where the concept of Justice is as strongly rooted as in “Karma”. Dharma says every person has to face the consequence of his actions both good and bad, in this birth or the next. Any living creature is what it is, due to his/her past karmic actions. There is no balancing out good and bad deeds, like Semitic belief, rather every action has a consequence which has to be faced. Hence, defining once own destiny is very much in the hands of the person himself, because his actions shape his destiny.
    Those who know Ramayana, are aware that both Bharat’s and Lakshman’s actions were based on their own free will. They were not being forced by Ram to do so. On the contrary, Ram had asked both Sita and Lakshman to not follow him into the jungle, because he alone was responsible to fulfil the promise of his father. Even in case of Bharat, it was not Ram’s but Bharat’s decision to not take over kingship of Ayodhya, but just protect it till Ram came back. The loyalty of the younger siblings and the wife towards Ram is out of reverence, awareness regarding their own responsibilities (Swadharma) and trust in the virtues of Ram. Loyalty is not being demanded, so where is question of “absolute hegemony” or slavery.

Cherry picking of “historical proofs” to establish a preconceived inference:

There are 4 distinct aspects of Pollock’s works in which this bias appears consistently

  1. Harping on the contested Aryan invasion myth
    Pollock, like Doniger, talks about “Aryan” Indian in most of his essays.” Aryan” India corroborates the Marxist notion of oppressor class and the oppressed, and also justifies both Mughal and British rule in India, because after all Aryans were also only outsiders who had invaded India. This only goes to further accentuate the artificial Aryan-Dravidian fault-lines created in India by missionaries to aid conversions. While doing so, Pollock completely ignores all other various rigorous studies which have debunked emphatically Aryan invasion theory.
  2. Whitewashing atrocities of Mughals and Muslim invaders
    • At least in two essays that I have read, Pollock claims that despite the atrocities that Mughal/Turkish historians have themselves chronicled, Mughals were actually re-conciliatory towards the native Hindus, and that they also promoted Sanskrit studies. He also goes on to give examples of the noble “conciliatory efforts”. In the essay, Ram Janmabhoomi and political imagination, he writes

      “Despite Al-Bruni, there is an evidence for long, and as far as we can tell, peaceful co-existence with Arab communities in the sub-continent in the beginning of the period …Other evidence show that attempts at communication were made from the other side too…Mahmud Ghazni had dirham struck on Lahore in Sarada script… [which said Unmanifest is one, Mahummad is its incarnation, Mahmud is king]; Shihabuddin Ghori, for a short period, issues bilingual gold coins with image of Lakshmi; The Qutab minar was also interpreted as another victory pillar….these demonstrate a sustained and largely successful effort at intercultural translation”

      “Mahumad is its incarnation, Mahmud is king”. This is re-conciliatory because it was written in Sarada script? So Hindus should have been happy because the script used was “Sarada”, however offensive or reprehensible the content is?

    • In his other work, the Death of Sanskrit, Pollock suggests that post 11th-12th century, the prominence of Sanskrit declined, but sees no relation with muslim invasions, burning down of educational institutions, killing of hindus and mass conversions. Rather, he puts the onus of “death of Sanskrit” on Indian intellectual stagnation. The essay finely traces the sanskrit literature over the last 1000 years. He talks about “effect” – that is intellectual stagnation – but fails to analyze the cause. On the contrary, he gives selective examples of a couple of Muslim Sardars/kings to exonerate whole lot of Islamic invaders from playing a role in causing intellectual stagnation. 
  3. Suggesting that Hindu scriptures are responsible to any disharmony in India
    Pollock can’t hide his contempt for native Hindu sentiment in his writings or his lectures. In his essay “Ramayana and Political Imagination in India”, in order to “scholastically” dismiss the entire Ram Janmabhoomi movement as communal propaganda, Pollock puts forth the following claims

    • Ram as “God and great king” came to be worshiped only from 12th century onward – Pollock goes to great lengths providing examples of non-existence of standalone Ram temples before 12th century. He dismisses paintings on walls of temples and caves saying mere paintings do not indicate Ram was worshiped. When he does find temples in some places, he says, such spattered evidences are not enough to prove that there was a Ram temple cult. Very convenient isn’t it, if a proof doesn’t suit my narrative dismiss it as trivial. See below, excerpts from his essay

      “Although there were inscriptions in other temples/caves before – sole temples of Ram are more visible only 12th century onward…Furthermore, the Ramayana competed with variety of other epic friezes – the Mahabharata, the Krsna cycle – in places like Ellora and indeed in the Cola country itself, which certainly diminishes the position of centrality, some have striven to establish for it…This is of course, not to day that we do not encounter in temple throughout this period, scenes from Ramayana…Yet, not epigraphical testimony attesting to any temple is explicitly found in Andhra until much late…”

    • Ram was invoked by Kings in the 12th century to “demonize” the Islamic invaders, and such invocation only implied xenophobia of natives (towards a more assertive ideology), hence it can be a dangerous tool for “othering” the minorities in India – Pollock is not convinced that Islamic invaders actually “threatened” the existence of the natives, in spite of ample evidence regarding the same presented by the historians of these invaders, who have meticulously noted every Hindu genocide and every destruction of temple. The problem according to Pollock was not Islamic tyranny but closed-mindedness of the Indians.
      But how does Ravan become the “other” is in itself a question that baffles me. He was the son of a Brahmin father, he is amongst the most revered Shiva devotee, he was amongst the most learned men of his time. So also Ram sought him for gyan even when Ravan was dying and Ravan obliged. Ramayan is not the story of “Othering” but of how ego and indiscretion can bring the downfall of even the most learned, if not checked. To position it as such, is either deep ignorance or willful malice.

      “The second point…constitution of this evil – what I’ve called the demonization of the Other. The Ramayana is profoundly and fundamentally a text of the “othering”. Outsiders are made other by being deviant…Ravana is not only “other” in his reckless polygyny – “others” always threaten to steal our women – but is presented without question as a tyrant, perhaps even a kind of Oriental despot..If the grand Ramayana continues to be a language of mythopolitics- not because it is inherently such a language but because now there is a history for doing that specific symbolic work-available for encoding the paired forced of xenophobia and theocracy, one way to begin to neutralize those forces is through analysis of the construction and function of such a meaning system and of its contemporary redeployment”

      While there is no denying that certain political parties got mileage out of Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the fact that they could get political mileage only shows that it is very much an issue on the minds of Indians. That even today Ram symbolizes the faith of millions of Hindus, that there are archaeological proofs of existence of Ram temple which was destroyed by Babur, and that Ram Janmabhoomi has been a bone of contention since 1940s – are points completely missed by Pollock. Such biased work not only whitewashed facts but also assaults native sentimentalities and only deepens wounds. Isn’t it surprising that there is a history of churches converted mosques and reclaimed back as churches all over Europe, but not one scholar has found it “xenophobic or theocratic?”

  4. Striving to “Secularize Sanskrit”, calling it a tool of mass repression
    By his own admission, Pollock wants teach Sanskrit in a “secular” manner. By that he intends to overlook the scientific, cultural and sacred aspect of Sanskrit literature in order to free Sanskrit from “clutches of Brahmins”. This term “secularization” is itself a product of western history where the absolutism of religion needed to be separated from State to allow for diversity and promote study of Science. Indic dharma, on the other hand is inherently plural where there is place for multiple belief systems. This is evident in the vast treasure trove of Sanskrit literature, lot of if churned out while one school of though debated the other.But Pollock states that inequality is encoded in Sanskrit literature itself (also as seen in his interpretation of Ramayana), that it was a primary form of colonization, and that his aim is to give voice to those who haven’t been heard.In his essay, Deep Orientalism, he writes

    “The monopolization of “access to authoritative resources”, the most authoritative of all resources, Sanskrit (vaidika) learning- becomes in itself a basic component in the construction and reproduction of the idea of inequality and thus in what again, can be viewed as a process analogous to colonization in precolonial India…Rather than any singular idea of inequality, it is truer ti speak of plural ideas of inequalities, for there are many forms of difference – gender, ethos, race – constructed in many diverse ways as inequalities….We should construct new perspectives that for Indology as for CLS, would include giving priority to what has been hitherto “marginal, invisible and unheard” Given the radical silencing and screening out of communities effected by “classical” culture”

    Pollock gives examples of certain books of law like Manu Smriti and Krtyakalpataru (written in 12th century) to prove that laws were discriminatory and were coded in the book. But what he doesn’t tell us about the Bhakti related literature both created and consumed by masses, the Upanishadic literature which preached inherent equality of all beings. He doesn’t tell us about verses which appear in every Upanishad that a man’s varna is not decided by his birth but by his attributes and his skills. He completely ignores even the well-known non-Brahmin Sanskrit poets – Valmiki and Ved Vyas. And how can language be inherently oppressive. Can we blame English and Spanish for colonization, or German for holocaust? Isn’t it more appropriate to let everyone study Sanskrit and read the text for themselves, rather than trying to assume control from “so called Brahmins” to determine how Sanskrit should be positioned?

    The intention is not to justify any degradation that happened in Indian society over time, or to paint Hindu society as perfect, but to point out that flawed logic of blaming all ills on the “Dharma” is equally simplistic. Inequality of gender/race was equally prevalent in the West. US till this day hasn’t had a woman President. In most European countries, women got voting right only in the last 50 years. In fact, biblical commandments themselves relegate secondary status to women and slave status to blacks. Would it be acceptable to the Christian society if some Hindu decided to re-position Christianity per his whims, that too if that person was not even considerate of the believer’s perspective?

Cultures evolve, traditions evolve. They should. But when groups of non-natives try to hi-jack that process of change through selective narratives, without understanding the cultural context or native sensitivities, they end up damaging the social fabric. Not only does it create rifts in the native society but also makes the native feel inferior to the “change agent” damaging the self-esteem of the generation.

Summing up, Pollock’s (and his ilk’s) approach to Sanskrit & Dharmic studies is alarming indeed. He is no different from those westerners who assume on their shoulders the “white man’s burden” of emancipating the unwashed brown masses. His approach and objective both resonate perfectly well with those of Christian missionaries. I hope and pray Indians see through the sophistry of such scholarship before it is too late.

Hari Om

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