A purva-paksha of Sheldon Pollock's thesis on Shastras

First post is by Divya J, a member of Rajiv Malhotra's forum, with a followup by Navita V, Arun and other members.
Dear All,

Here are some thought after reading Pollock's paper.  If I understand him correctly, he is basically trying to say that Indian culture is stagnant because it relies heavily on ancient shastras imbued with divine authority that can never be challenged. I am willing to grant that Indian culture is stagnant, if not in a continuous state of degeneration. However, I would theorize that this is because we have neglected our shastras and not because we have relied upon them. As far as theories go, there is more evidence for the latter than for Pollock’s theory. In fact, his entire essay is peppered with evidence that goes against the grain of his own theory, a fact that he even acknowledges but ultimately neglects. A good theory must accord with the empirical evidence and must resonate with the people or culture it describes. I doubt most Hindus recognize themselves or their culture in Pollock’s description. As such, his entire essay lacks explanatory force and can resonate only with people of Pollock’s own ilk.

In fact, Pollock himself appears to be an embodiment of all the elements he imputes upon Indian culture. For starters, he does not look around him for evidence but simply draws upon his pre-existing cultural biases and presents them in the form of a theory. Some of the specific biases of western culture that he imputes upon the Indians are the following: (i) that knowledge is textual; (ii) that values are normative; (iii) that authority (shastra) is some sort of truth that cannot be challenged; (iv) that theory precedes action; and (v) that there is a divine realm starkly different from the secular realm that humans must obey. These are, in fact, the defining prejudices of western civilization, but Pollock cannot see the forest for the trees. Instead he acts like he has discovered something about Indian culture which is in fact quite the opposite of what Pollock describes.

Let’s look at his claim that Indians treat knowledge as if it is textual, implying that knowledge is something that can be put into words or contained in books. As evidence for this he cites numerous passages that assert the authority of the shastras. But this is rendered moot right off the bat because the vedas themselves assert that true knowledge cannot be obtained by relying on the vedas (or any other text). The clear implication is that knowledge can only poorly be put into words, or not at all. Pollock cites a passage from the Gita where Krishna emphatically asserts the importance of shastra. However, he conveniently overlooks the fact that Krishna’s closing words to Arjun were to do as he, Arjun, thinks best, after proper reflection, and not that he must open up his textbooks before he decides what to do.

It is a common lament among most Hindus who live in the West that their parents did not teach them anything about “Hinduism”. This becomes a problem in western culture where you are expected to spout off exactly what your religious beliefs are. This is because in western culture such knowledge is contained in a book and can be described in words and formulated in terms of beliefs. This attitude is all pervasive in western culture, not just with respect to religion. In order to act correctly they believe they must know what the right thing to do is. Not so in Indian culture where action (karma) generates knowledge. Most Hindus cannot articulate the fundamentals of their culture; there are no common beliefs, and no common practices. Yet it is a culture that has thrived, spread, flourished and survived to this day. Obviously there’s some form of knowledge that has been passed along from generation to generation even though most of us cannot put it into words. Surely in his 30-year-long career Pollock must have discovered, just as the British did 200 years ago, that Indians, including the pundits, are mostly quite ignorant of their shastras? How, then, can he claim that Indians cannot act until they consult their shastras since all evidence points to the fact that they have not been consulting them?

At the Kumbh mela I asked a couple of ordinary sadhus what books they relied upon. They looked at me with incomprehension as if I was totally clueless. They said that their lifestyle was mostly about keeping their parampara alive, looking out for each other, networking with others on the same path, and following some basic practices. None of them (the three people I spoke to) relied upon any Shastra and I’m guessing they would have told me if others in their akhada did. However, as Pollock notes, there is even a Shastra for proper sadhu behavior. So who’s reading these Shastras? Clearly it is the likes of Pollock and not the sadhus. Therefore, he is totally and completely wrong to claim that Indians believe that “the practice of all human activity depends on rules accessible to us in a textualized form.” The more accurate statement would be to say that human activity can be described in a textualized form. From here you cannot jump to the conclusion that Hindus believe that knowledge comes only from texts or shastras. In fact, that theory precedes action is closer to the western attitude and not an Indian one.

Pollock's paper is riddled with holes and I meant to take down some other aspects of his accusations but this has become way too long already. He does not strike me as someone seriously looking to solve any problems. It’s a pity he has so much clout.

A followup response from forum member Navita V.

Rajiv ji's analysis of Pollock's 1985 paper in TBFS is brilliant, thorough and very elegantly put. Divya J also did a very impressive analysis...

Here are some lay observations :

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 afar-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

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.

Arun adds:
Since Divya J gave a summary of Pollock's 1985 paper that is pretty much what I would give, let me just add a point.

If Sanskrit was not spoken by the general public, I don't really care how aesthetic the power it had; the mechanism of how some texts, held and kept secret by the brahmins, exerted any influence on the non-brahmin jaatis. The mechanism of this control needs to be explained.

IMO, a possibility which needs to be examined is that the Shastras are primarily like encyclopedias, used to compile all known stuff, and as a reference work; but not consulted for daily living, etc., any more than today we consult the Encyclopedia Britannica. They can't deaden knowledge production because like the encyclopedia, they are the storehouse of knowledge which is generally accepted and has long been available, they aren't the front line of knowledge production. That is, in modern terms again, they are not the research papers published by scientists, they are textbooks or encyclopedias.  


1 comment:

  1. Pollock's pigeon-holing of Manusmriti with a book on etiquette reminds me of Swami Vivekananda's saying that in the West, the tailor makes a gentleman, whereas in India, it is character that makes a gentleman. How can an intellectual like SPollock confuse etiquette rules with rules for the organisation and harmony of society. SPollock has not bothered to delve into the high standards of personal character that Manusmriti insists on... It has excellent points that can be seen in today's mgmt thinkers... and he compares it with a book on etiquette... so much for his analytical mind and decades of Oriental research! comment by Bhoopalan