Sheldon Pollock

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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.


  • ... 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.
  • 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.

External links[edit]

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