Pollock and the Indian shastras

Rajiv Malhotra wants to open up  public debate on the issue of Sheldon Pollock's treatment of Indian shastras.

To join and participate in the debate it is however essential to have read Pollock's research paper from 1985 on the subject as well as Rajiv's analysis of his positions.

This is the link to Pollock's paper

And below are the excerpted pages from Rajiv's book The Battle for Sanskrit where he analyses Pollock's position.

The discussion has started on the online forum.

Vineet writes in:


1. "In India, by contrast, they were textualized, many of them at an early date, and had consequently to be learned rather than assimilated by a natural process of cultural osmosis."
No proofs provided. Just a summarized judgemental statement.

2. "Conflict between the essentially "ideological" representation of .sstra's normative influence and historical "truth" is in some areas minimal (ala.mkara,s:astra and the maha- ka\'ya, for example), in some significant (dharmas?astra and the legal practices perceptible in the epigraphical record). But this is a discrepancy that will not be investigated here, where I am interested primarily in exhuming a structure of signification"

Essentially what you said about skipping evidences whcih doesn't suit his agenda.

3. ".stastrai'oni-,"that, the source of our knowledge of which is sa.stra" (that is, the vedas and in particular the Upanisads)"

Thank god! he didn't translated it as vagina of sastra (sic) similar to how shivalinga is translated.

4. " Given this, and the comprehensive nature of Rajasekhara's list, we would naturally infer that virtually any organized activity known to a pre- modern society is amenable to treatment in s'stra."

So does modern epistemology.

5. "discuss further below the dichotomy between human and transcendent... is thoroughly undermined by the self-valorizing claims of secular.sastra"

terribly condescending.

6. " There are speech items that, while not provided for in theory, are found in actual use. Panini himself allows these items to be considered acceptable if the "learned" employthem. But how isthe category "learned" to be defined'? ...But if "learning" depends on theory, and the theory itself (with respect to unregulated speech items) is shown to depend on "learning," our reasoning becomes intoler- ably circular. This problem is avoided if we identify the learned as brahmans of Aryavarta....The purpose of the grammar itself is that it enables us to identify such men.Without having studied theory they can be recognized as having mastered it by one who has studied, and who may therefore infer that they are authorities for matters not included in the theory."

There we go fellas. He somehow (by a convoluted logic) puts class struggle in Grammer Theory!

After this point he just extrapolates this idea of his into various nooks and corners of Vedic society. By equating the word (isisa) 'learned' to Brahmins he maliciously but successfully believes the readers that sastras are a means to maintain and propagate Brahminic hegemony.

7. "..effectively dismiss "the practices of the learned" as a source of cdharma altogether, by their restricting the categoryof"learned"to "Manu, the seven sages, and other similar great rsis in each aeon . .who settle the rules of conduct for succeeding ages."

Basically reiterates the same point nb 6 by selecting various examples but now simply using his 'translation' of the word learned as Brahmin.

8. importance given to kamasutra. Pollock has written 3-4 paragraphs about Kamasutra.

My observation: Was kamasutra of such great import? Was it even considered anything more than a passing Sanskrit text?

9. "All knowledge derives from sastra;success in astrol-ogyor in the training of horses and elephants,no less than in language use and social intercourse, is achieved only because the rules governing these practices have percolated down to the practitioners - not because they were discovered independently through the creative power of practical consciousness - "however far removed" from the practitioners the shastra may be. "

Probably he fails to appreciate the fact that even with sexual art, Kamasutra wasn't the only one text. There were numerous texts before Kamasutra and numerous ones after that. And hyperbole as an instrumental tool for Sanskrit, most authors exalted their own work. The newer authors incorporate the additions and appends newer knowledge in their work.

Bijoy writes:

Somebody did post Prof. Pollock's 1985 paper on "shastra"..Here is the first sentence in the abstract:
"Shastra is one of the fundamental features and problems of Indian civilization in general and of Indian intellectual history in particular."

This is the problem of his style. I am not sure if it is deliberate. Certainly it is unscientific and superficial. He may have a audience somewhere. I read today. My daughter might have gone through this "fact' in college.

Some scholars in India might like to examine him more in case they think he has merit on his essays. His sweeping generalizations would be unacceptable to most immigrant parents from India. On the poetry and translation side, he must be substituted in respect of the authors of the great Indian literature.

The entire abstract of the paper "The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory in Indian Intellectual Histor" by Sheldon Pollock​, ​Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 105, No. 3, Indological Studies Dedicated to Daniel H. H. Ingalls (Jul. - Sep., 1985), pp. 499-519​:​

​"​Śastra is one of the fundamental features and problems of Indian civilization in general and of Indian intellectual history in particular. But the idea and nature of śāstra in its own right have never been the object of sustained Indological scrutiny. This preliminary sketch of the problem of śāstra focuses on three connected questions: How does the tradition view the relationship of a given śāstra to its object; what are the implications of this view for the concept of cultural change; is there some traditional presupposition, or justification, for the previous two notions. The understanding of the relationship of śāstra ("theory") to prayoga ("practical activity") in Sanskritic culture is shown to be diametrically opposed to that usually found in the West. Theory is held always and necessarily to precede and govern practice; there is no dialectical interaction between them. 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 eternality of the vedas, the śāstra par excellence, is one presupposition or justification for this assessment of śāstra. Its principal ideological effects are to naturalize and de-historicize cultural practices, two components in a larger discourse of power.​"

​Here is the second part of the third sentence:

"How does the tradition view the relationship of a given śāstra to its object; what are the implications of this view for the concept of cultural change; is there some traditional presupposition, or justification, for the previous two notions."

There is an inbuilt assumption that the "shastra" is expected to create "cultural change" on the "tradition". This assumption is based on another assumption that "political elements" like "the kings" or "the Brahmins" commission these texts to cause such influence.

Having made these assumptions, he would proceed to "prove" them through sketchy readings. Analytic literature in Indology is in real poor state. I am new to these readings, but these broad generalizations without enough qualifiers disturb me. It is possible that it is a novice science, but we are in the twenty first century! Objective statements are required.

I will read more, but the writings are loaded with unfounded assumptions. The students in the field might have been seasoned with these, since it has been active for decades. Rather unfortunate!

This post will be updated as the discussion grows.

1 comment:

  1. Ohho ISr, this is marvelous. I really find it very interesting. Enjoyed as well as u introduced us with a number of new things,,,,