A historian’s response to the petition against Sheldon Pollock: Janaki Nair

Guest post by JANAKI NAIR


A petition, signed by 132 “academics” asking Rohan Murty and Narayan Murthy to dismiss Prof Sheldon Pollock from his role as Editor of the Murty Classical Library Series, is receiving attention that the signatories did not anticipate.  I put the word “academics” in quotes because the commitment of the signatories to an academic evaluation of Sheldon Pollock’s intellectual leadership is nowhere in evidence, since a quotation from Pollock was changed mid-way through the signature campaign. Nor does it seem as if the signatories have ever held any one of the hot- pink,  beautifully produced volumes in their hands, where   as much attention has been paid to looks and fonts,  as to the quality of translations.

Had they done so, they too would have appreciated the significance of this effort, in bringing to the wider reading public the oceans of literary texts and traditions, in a mind-boggling array of languages,  from a period covering two and a half millenia.  The individual translators and editors are among the best in the field. Thanks to this series, so many more Indians and others will learn of the sheer beauty and anguish of Punna, a  Therigatha poet (translated from Pali, 3rd century BCE).  People of the south will hear the voice of Bulle Shah, translated from Punjabi, and those from other parts of India will read Allasani Peddanna, translated from Telugu.  True we will miss the mellifluous chanting, or the energetic sounds of performance: for now, we will have to make do with the books on hand.

The  “academics” deserve attention for another reason. In their unseemly haste to oppose Pollock, they did not read the lecture from which the quote they first cited was taken. In this lecture delivered at Heidelberg, Sheldon Pollock had provided a very useful history of the trajectory of Indology and South Asian Studies in the US, (in particular) as a way of acknowledging the achievements of the Heidelberg Center for South Asian Studies.  Were South Asian ways of thinking, as opposed to more instrumental forms of knowledge production about South Asia, given short shrift by the administrators of the programmes in US universities and indeed the State Department? Can a case be made for strands of Indian thinking as holding continued relevance in our modern world? Pollock, a man who enjoys a formidable reputation of being extraordinarily gifted in his knowledge of  several Indian and other languages, has frankly declared that while he does not uphold the view that  South Asia be valorised as exceptional,  there are sub-continental ways of thinking that deserve attention even in a modern world dominated  by the laws of the market and the methods of science. (At the same time, neither the new marketplace dominated by immaterial labour nor the laws of aerodynamics will be adequately served by our rich literary cultures.)

This inattentive reading of Pollock is a symptom of what the “academics” really wish to save India, Infosys, and the reading public from. It is extremely unusual for  a petition, which receives thousands of endorsements from amongst the hyperactive denizens who trawl the internet,  to   alter  the quotation from the man they vilify, to substitute one statement for an even more innocuous statement?  In their revised petition, the new quote has been defended as “more appropriate”.

Here are the two quotes:

Are there any decision makers, as they refer to themselves, at universities and foundations who would not agree that, in the cognitive sweepstakes of human history, Western knowledge has won and South Asian knowledge has lost?  …That, accordingly, the South Asian knowledge South Asians themselves have produced can no longer be held to have any significant consequences for the future of the human species?

This was replaced by the “more appropriate” correction

The theoretical discourse of sastra becomes in essence a practical discourse of power.

It is not at all clear what the objection to the second, unexceptional quote is. But we soon get to know the reasons for the lack of trust in a well acknowledged scholar, in India as elsewhere.

A project such as Murty’s Classical Library series, we are told,  must  “be imbued with a sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilisation.”  Since no examples are given from the published works of any disrespect for such greatness, we can only speculate: might it be that Buddhist women poets have been allowed to be heard? That Sufi singers have found new audiences? That Akbar’s life and times are being read by more than medieval historians?

Proceeding further, the petition then states that Pollock’s  approach to the (Sanskrit) sastras is not respectful enough, citing an article from which the second quote is taken from. Once we know that it is Pollock’s alleged “disrespect”, (no evidence is forthcoming) and not his scholarship, that is unacceptable to the self-authorised custodians of Sanskritic knowledge, we understand the real anxieties of the signatories.

Finally, but most importantly, the petition turns with a flourish to the crux of the objection, which explains why it has been made now, and not when the volumes were released. We are confronted (once more!) with the two strings of words which have coursed the length and breadth of our republic since that fateful  February 9, 2016, thanks to the extraordinary zeal of writers, TV anchors, parliamentarians, lawyers, and other “patriotic” and tech savvy Indians. At last we have it,  that it is Prof Pollock’s signature of support for the students and teachers of  a reputed Indian university,  (to which some of the signatories belong), that has disturbed  these academics.

Having created a menacing aura around a man who endangers the very literary history of India ,  the petition itself takes on a menacing tone, speaking on behalf of the possible hurt sentiments of “those who practice these traditions” the Indian subcontinent.  Here again, we are baffled. Who exactly will be disturbed by the poems of the first Buddhist women? Who is practicing Sufi music from among the grey eminences who have signed this petition? Who “practices” Abul Fazl’s Akbar?

Just  as we are led to think that this petition may  after all only be a thinly disguised  application from AADHAR card carrying  intellectuals  to the Infosys Foundation for funds  to  “develop an ecosystem of  India based research,” we are once more turned to the final and deep concern of the signatories. What if, they speculate, a word is untranslatable into English? What diabolical strategy will the American professor  then adopt to undermine, disgrace and cast asunder the great Indian civilisation? Worse still, will he use his authority to comment on “The Foreign Aryan Theory” and other such lines of thought?

Now we need not wonder why Rohan Murty chose Sheldon Pollock, Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University, as Editor of the series.  As the petition reveals, we are currently inhabiting a republic of hurt sentiments, which, once it has exercised its labours of being  vigilant,  will leave us clutching at a few strands of what is a truly resplendent  tapestry  of Indian literary culture of which we have been given a sample. We wish that the illustrious scientists, scholars and Sanskritists, who have not only laid claim to the texts and literary cultures of the subcontinent, but demand that it remain the preserve of a cloistered few,  read just one song of the heart taken from the what the book calls  the first anthology of women’s poetry in the world:

Who told you that,

Like a know-nothing speaking to a know-nothing,

That one is freed from the fruits of an evil act

By washing off in water?

Is it that frogs and turtles

Will all go to heaven,

And so will water monitors and crocodiles,

And anything that lives in water, (…)

But these rivers might carry away all the good done too,

you’ll be besides yourself about that,

aren’t you afraid of that, Brahman,

each time you go down into the water?

 And at the end of the dialogue the Brahman expresses gratitude  to Punna for her advice which changed him.

Janaki Nair is Professor at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU

8 thoughts on “A historian’s response to the petition against Sheldon Pollock: Janaki Nair”

  1. Thanks for this. Very well argued, as always. Two tangential things stand out for me, though. First, thank you for that beautiful quotation. Two, thank you for correctly using the word ‘academics’, whether in double quotes or not, because all of India is using ‘academician’ ad nauseum. The latter word means a member of an academy, the first the more general usage, of course, but for some reason everybody now uses ‘academician’ for ‘academic’. Sorry to hold forth, but it’s been very annoying.


  2. Well explained for all, including the signatories. Even if these “academicians,” don’t revise their opinion, hope that Rohan Murty and the Trust, do not fall prey to the bullying. Thank you, Janaki Nair.


  3. Such wonderful articles should not be read only by the converted. I wish Kafila could find a way to have some of its pieces read by and engaged in debate with those who sign such petitions. I am sure at least some of those thoughtless signers will rethink their positions and change sides. Look at the example of the JNU ABVP secretaries and the Zee TV producer.
    And if we can get more people to read that lovely, clever poem at the end (can one have the complete reference for that please) we can also take some small steps towards a more questioning and literary (and not just literate, if that) society that our past education system did too little to create and the present one is bent upon destroying even more fully.


  4. this may interest you people:

    Sheldon Pollock on Hindutva and the Life and Death of Sanskrit – Part 1

    Sheldon Pollock on Hindutva and the Life and Death of Sanskrit – Part 2


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