Analysis of Pollock's position on shastras by Divya J

This is an analysis of Pollock's position by Divya J, a member of the Rajiv Malhotra discussion forum

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.

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