Sheldon Pollock

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T. V. Venkatachala Sastry with Indologist Sheldon Pollock

Sheldon I. Pollock (born February 16 1948) is a scholar of Sanskrit, the intellectual and literary history of India, and comparative intellectual history. He is currently the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. He was the general editor of the Clay Sanskrit Library and is the founding editor of the Murty Classical Library of India.


  • “How, concretely, does one do Indology beyond the Raj and Auschwitz in a world of pretty well tattered scholarly paradigms?”
    • (Pollock 1993:114), quoted in Elst, Koenraad (2018). Still no trace of an Aryan invasion: A collection on Indo-European origins.
  • “An example of this more sophisticated orientalism is the work of Paul Thieme”... esp. his “analysis of the Sanskrit word ārya, where at the end he adverts to the main point of his research: to go beyond India in order to catch the ‘distant echo of Indo-germanic customs’.”
    • S. Pollock 1993:91 , quoted in Elst, Koenraad (2018). Still no trace of an Aryan invasion: A collection on Indo-European origins.
  • “Moving beyond orientalism finally presupposes moving beyond the culture of domination and the politics of coercion that have nurtured orientalism in all its varieties, and been nurtured by it in turn.”
    • (Pollock 1993:117), quoted in Elst, Koenraad (2018). Still no trace of an Aryan invasion: A collection on Indo-European origins.
  • “In German Indology of the NS era, a largely nonscholarly mystical nativism deriving ultimately from a mixture of romanticism and protonationalism merged with that objectivism of Wissenschaft earlier described, and together they fostered the ultimate ‘orientalist’ project, the legitimation of genocide.”
    • (Pollock 1993:96), quoted in Elst, Koenraad (2018). Still no trace of an Aryan invasion: A collection on Indo-European origins.
  • “The Ŗg-Veda as an Aryan text ‘free of any taint of Semitic contact’; the ‘almost Nordic zeal’ that lies in the Buddhist conception of the marga [way]; the ‘Indo-Germanic religion-force’ of yoga; the sense of race and the ‘conscious desire for racial protection’; the ‘volksnahe kingship’ such is the meaning of the Indo-Aryan past for the National Socialist present, a present that, for Wüst, could not be understood without this past.”
    • (Pollock 1993:89) quoted in Elst, Koenraad (2018). Still no trace of an Aryan invasion: A collection on Indo-European origins.
  • “From among the complexities of NS analysis of the Urheimat question it is worth calling attention to the way the nineteenth-century view expressed by Schlegel was reversed: the original Indo-Europeans were now variously relocated in regions of the Greater German Reich; German thereby became the language of the core (Binnensprache), whereas Sanskrit was transformed into one of its peripheral, ‘colonial’ forms.”
    • (Pollock 1993: 91-92), quoted in Elst, Koenraad (2018). Still no trace of an Aryan invasion: A collection on Indo-European origins.
  • ... there exist no good accounts or theorizations of the end of the cultural order that for two millennia exerted a trans-regional influence across Asia-South, Southeast, Inner, and even East Asia- that was unparalleled until the rise of Americanism and global English. We have no clear understanding of whether, and if so, when, Sanskrit culture ceased to make history; whether, and if so, why, it proved incapable of preserving into the present the creative vitality it displayed in earlier epochs, and what this loss of affectivity might reveal about those factors within the wider world of society and polity that had kept it vital.
  • For one thing, Sanskrit literary culture was never affected by communicative incompetence, which began to enfeeble Latin from at least the ninth century. The process of vernacularization in India, in so many ways comparable to the European case, was nowhere a consequence of growing Sanskrit ignorance.
  • The Veda, the transcendent śāstra, subsumes all knowledge.
  • ‘Such voices … in any case are pretty much in the minority. The dominant ideology is that which ascribes clear priority and absolute competence to shastric codification.’
  • We may in fact characterize the ideological effects of the shastric paradigm more broadly as follows: First, all contradiction between the model of cultural knowledge and actual cultural change is thereby at once transmuted and denied; creation is really re-creation, as the future is, in a sense, the past. Second, the living, social, historical, contingent tradition is naturalized, becoming as much a part of the order of things as the laws of nature themselves: Just as the social, historical phenomenon of language is viewed by Mīmāṃsā as natural and eternal, so the social dimension and historicality of all cultural practices are eliminated in the shastric paradigm. And finally, through such denial of contradiction and reification of tradition, the sectional interests of pre-modern India are universalized and valorized. The theoretical discourse of śāstra becomes in essence a practical discourse of power.

Quotes about Pollock[edit]

  • Pattanaik makes a good observation when he writes that high-profile India-watching academics “need to indulge America’s saviour complex if they need a share of the shrinking funding. The objective of the research needs to alleviate the misery of some victim and challenge a villain. And so, Doniger will provide evidence of how Puranic tales reinforce Brahmin hegemony, while Pollock will begin his essays on Ramayana with reference to Babri Masjid demolition, reminding readers that his paper has a political, not merely a theoretical, purpose.”... Sheldon Pollock, a very good Sanskritist at least in a purely linguistic sense, is more explicitly involved with the anti-Hindu discourse promoted in India by the missionaries and the Ambedkarites, and their first line of attack, the “secularists”. He has pioneered some valid insights into the Sanskrit “cosmopolis”, which did not oppress vernacular languages from Gandhari to Javanese but fruitfully coexisted with them to their mutual benefit. But at the same time, he has helped greatly in belittling and politicizing the Ramayana and in promoting the “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good” thesis. This is not very original, in fact it is only a sophisticated formulation of widely-held views. ... But in this discourse of hate, which instrumentalizes Buddhism as a bludgeon to beat Hinduism with, Pollock has gone farther than all others. In 1993 he published a paper arguing that Hinduism (particularly the Mimansa school, Brahminical par excellence) sits at the centre of Nazi doctrine. Yes, it is long ago, and partly explainable from the war psychology emanating from the Ayodhya controversy, in which he explicitly sided with the negationist school denying Islam’s well-documented destructive role in Hindu history. But he has never retracted this position and has remainthis position and has remainthis position and has remained a leading voice in anti-Hindu and anti-Brahmin discourse.... “Being placed on a high pedestal is central to both strategies. Criticism also evokes a similar reaction in both sides – they quickly declare themselves as misunderstood heroes and martyrs, and stir up their legion of followers. Doniger and Pollock have inspired an army of activist-academicians who sign petitions to keep ‘dangerous’ Indian leaders and intellectuals out of American universities and even American soil”: Subramanian Swamy, Narendra Modi, and in similar controversies Rajiv Malhotra, the Dharma Civilization Foundation and others. Indeed, the Indological community’s touching (occasional) concern for freedom of speech is not erga omnes... “Despite their deep knowledge of Hinduism, neither Elst nor Frawley, neither Doniger nor Pollock, believe in letting go and moving on, which is the hallmark of Hindu thought, often deemed as a feminine trait. Instead,... Doniger and Pollock keep reminding their readers that Hinduism’s seductive ‘spirituality’ must at no point distract one from its communal and casteist truths.”
  • I am not alone in making this point. At least one European Indologist accuses Pollock of relocating Orientalism 'to the "New Raj" across the deep blue sea'... He [Grünendahl] says Pollock's narrative 'is not an evidence-based study of Orientalism or Indology in Germany, but a sophisticated charge of anti-Semitism based largely on trumped-up "evidence".... Pollock's post-Orientalist messianism would have us believe that only late twentieth-century (and now twenty-first century) America is intellectually equipped to reject and finally overcome [‘Eurocentrism’...] The path from the 'Deep Orientalism' of old to a new 'Indology beyond the Raj and Auschwitz' leads to the 'New Raj' across the deep blue sea.... Thus, Grünendahl has noted Pollock's tendency to develop broad narratives without any supporting evidence. Moreover, he draws attention to Pollock's messianism in promoting American scholarship.... , casting doubt on Pollock's attempt to analyse Sanskrit objectively. He raises the pertinent question as to whether Pollock is providing the intellectual foundations for America's 'New Raj', to replace the dead British Raj - i.e., whether American imperialism is replacing the dead British imperialism.
  • “As was the case with the 1933/34 volume and Rhys Davids’s paper of 1904, none serve to corroborate Pollock’s presumptions. The same holds for recent evidence-based studies that in any way pertain to such issues […], all of which confirm that Pollock’s deep ruminations on ‘the political economy of Indology in Germany in the period 1800–1945’ (1993: 118n5) are entirely unfounded. Nevertheless, his attendant admonition that this is an ‘important question’ awaiting ‘serious analysis’ (118n5) has become a kind of gospel, recited by others […] with increasing confidence, but with very little to show as yet in terms of substantiation. Yet, all this while, dozens of ‘histories of German Indology’ are built on the—still unfulfilled—promises of that gospel.”
    • Reinhold Grünendahl (2012:95), quoted in Elst, Koenraad (2018). Still no trace of an Aryan invasion: A collection on Indo-European origins. Sheldon Pollock's Idea of a "National-Socialist Indology"
  • “The fundamental flaw of Pollock’s narrative is that it hinges entirely on the exact reverse of the ‘Nordic’ notion. This reversal, which provides the basis for the ‘founding myth’ of the entire discourse machinery he set in motion, is enshrined in the grotesque proposition that ‘the Germans… continued, however subliminally, to hold the nineteenth-century conviction that the origin of European civilization was to be found in India (or at least that India constituted a genetically related sibling)’ (1993:77) Even to the Romantic period [end of 18th, early 19th century, when this notion was upheld by Johann Herder], this assertion only holds with considerable qualifications (…) To make it the basis for theorizing any aspect of the NS period is rendered absurd by the above-mentioned texts alone”.
    • Reinhold Grünendahl, quoted in Elst, Koenraad (2018). Still no trace of an Aryan invasion: A collection on Indo-European origins. A Nazi Out-of-India Theory?
  • Wilhelm Halbfass, the late Indologist at the University of Pennsylvania, took such ridiculous statements into strange, speculative areas and wrote: Would it not be equally permissible to identify this underlying structure as 'deep Nazism' or 'deep Mimamsa'? And what will prevent us from calling Kumarila and William Jones 'deep Nazis' and Adolf Hitler a 'deep Mimamsaka'?
  • One of his [Pollock's] goals is to critique and expunge what he sees as deeply entrenched static social hierarchies, barbarisms and poisons. I do not see anything inherently wrong with this intention by itself; most Hindus welcome improvements and the evolution of their culture. The issue worth debating is that Pollock sees these ills as deeply rooted in the Vedas themselves and as requiring the abandonment of core metaphysical and sacred perspectives.
  • Grünendahl cites many examples where Pollock and his defender Adluri manipulate quotations to make past authors witnesses for their accusations. I vaguely knew that Pollock was wrong in associating the OIT with National-Socialism, but not that he was so spectacularly wrong. His thesis is first of all that India was a central concern for the Nazis. This is put forward most emphatically (but only with bluff) by Pollock and, on his authority, generally taken for granted... The Nazi regime’s favourite historian H.K.F. Günther believed the homeland lay in Southeastern Europe. This was the reigning opinion in Europe, challenged only by some Nazis who insisted on Germany or Scandinavia as the homeland. All of them agreed that the Indo-European language family had only reached India through an Aryan invasion... Let us add that Marchand agrees to include among the Nazi Indologists Paul Thieme, the revered teacher of Michael Witzel; and he was, like his more militant pupil, a believer in the AIT.
    • Elst, Koenraad (2018). Still no trace of an Aryan invasion: A collection on Indo-European origins. A Nazi Out-of-India Theory?
  • Pollock’s attempt to even link the Out-of-India Theory with the Nazi worldview is the diametrical opposite of the truth; it was the rivalling Aryan Invasion Theory (which Pollock himself upholds) that formed the cornerstone and perfect illustration of the Nazi worldview. This linking could only pass peer review because of the general animus against Hinduism and Indo-European indigenism in American academe. The whole forced attempt to associate Hinduism with National-Socialism suggests a rare animosity against Hinduism.... Yes, that is how the Nazis saw it because they were racist and anti-Semitic to begin with. But the knowledge of the Sanskrit tradition could add absolutely nothing to that. There was nothing in the Vedas themselves that suggested anti-Semitism, it was entirely in the eye of the beholder. .... But the objective finality of Pollock’s thesis is more specific, viz. to blacken the Indian homeland hypothesis by associating it with National-Socialism. Reality, however, is just the opposite: more even than other Europeans, the Nazis espoused and upheld a westerly homeland and the invasion hypothesis. This invasion happens to be a corner-stone of Pollock’s worldview, with invader castes guilty of expropriating and subjugating the natives, who became the lower castes. Hitler-Pollock, same struggle!... Pollock’s own enumeration of supposedly India-related activities usually confuses “Indian” with “Indo-European”, i.e. “Aryan” or essentially “Nordic”. It is only by confusing those two that an impression of a NS orientation towards India can be created.... That is certainly the NS reading, but from a top Indologist, we might have expected an explanation of whether this was the Indians’ own intended reading. He doesn’t go into this question at all but confidently assumes an indubitably positive answer. To exonerate him, we might take this as merely a logical application of the Aryan invasion scenario, firmly established since the mid-19th century: the Aryans came in, met a different race of aboriginals, and imposed a racial Apartheid on them: the caste system. So, in a way, the case against Pollock is the case against Western Indology as a whole. ... The situation with allegations is simple: either you prove them, or you yourself are guilty of slander. This then can be held against Pollock: he has made a grave allegation, yet has failed to buttress it with proof, though not for lack of trying... The question which Hindus should contemplate, then, is this one. Should the Sanskrit tradition be given in care to a pofessor of Sanskrit who stands by such a grave though false allegation against it?
    • Elst, Koenraad (2018). Still no trace of an Aryan invasion: A collection on Indo-European origins. Sheldon Pollock's Idea of a "National-Socialist Indology"

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