Part 2 of review of TBFS by Shrinivas Tilak

This is a reproduction of the second part of the review of TBFS done by Shrinivas Tilak for the magazine Hindu Vishva

Refutation of Sheldon Pollock on Sanskrit and sanskriti by Rajiv Malhotra

Shrinivas Tilak*

In my review of The Battle For Sanskrit (HarperCollins 2015) in Hindu Vishva (January-March 2016), I discussed author Rajiv Malhotra’s fair and faithful presentation and rigorous examination (Purva paksha) of Professor Sheldon Pollock’s allegations that Sanskrit is dead, politically motivated, and socially oppressive. In this follow up article I present Rajiv Malhotra’s (hereafter RM) spirited and energetic refutation (Uttara paksha) of Professor Pollock (hereafter Pollock) in the form of nirnayas (considered verdicts or decisions) delivered on points of order pertaining to Sanskrit and sanskriti raised in Pollock’s various writings: Nirnaya on Sanskrit and Prakrit, Nirnaya on Shruti, Nirnaya on Kavya and Shastra, Nirnaya on Sanskrit and Sanskriti, Nirnaya on American Orientalism.  

Nirnaya on Sanskrit and Prakrit

Agreeing with Pollock that Vedic Sanskrit was used mainly for ritual purposes, RM explains in his The Battle For Sanskrit (hereafter TBFS) that a simplified form of Sanskrit nevertheless served as a basis for languages derived from Prakrit and spoken by ordinary people. Sanskrit has always functioned as a meta-language for these languages (RM rejects Pollock’s use of ‘vernaculars’ for languages derived from Prakrit) facilitating a bi-directional flow between the two. This interaction has remained a continued source of decentralized and open architecture encompassing unity and diversity in India. Sanskrit has also acted as the template of sanskriti with its various angas (limbs)--architecture, dance, theatre, sculpture, poetry, etc. Rejecting them in favor of modern, westernized cultural practices as demanded by Pollock would alienate Hindus/Indians from their traditional roots. Furthermore, Sanskrit has made available its rich vocabulary for engaging in discourse in sciences and in other fields that are meaningful and necessary in everyday life activities (natural sciences, mathematics, linguistics, medicine, ethics, and political thought). RM laments that Pollock fails to acknowledge this power and potential of Sanskrit. Merchants and monks who travelled long distances for trade and commerce were able to engage in conversations, debates, and lectures with locals spreading in the process Sanskrit (and often some Prakrit-derived languages) across India and beyond. Since Vedic metaphysics held a deeper place in the lives of people it was replicated in different places with local geographies and kingdoms substituted in place of those mentioned in such source texts as the Ramayana.

Nirnaya on Shruti

RM vigorously contests Pollock’s suggestion that mantras, being in some cases meaningless in the conventional sense, could be discarded. RM argues that such action would amount to rejecting the important place the concept of vac has in Hindu cosmology. Such a step would entail loss of a key adhyatmika (inner science of self) resource. Chanting of mantras has also been an integral part in the performance of yajna, which plays a significant role in social cohesion. Discarding the practice of chanting mantras in yajna or in meditation as demanded by Pollock would result in loss of the integrative power of traditional rituals of Hindus rendering them more intellectually dependent on (and subservient to) the West.

RM further clarifies that chanting of mantras from the Shrutis, as part of meditative practices, serves a useful purpose for the sound vibrations (spanda or spandana) that are produced are beyond (or above) the limited literal or conceptual meanings Pollock associates with them. Spanda is the dynamic aspect of shakti, the energy of Shiva, the supreme Self. In Hinduism spanda is not a fantasy or a merely philosophical concept, it can be experienced and felt directly as expounded in the Spanda Karikas, a classic text of Kashmir Shaivism, from the 10th century CE attributed to Vasugupta.

Nirnaya on Kavya and Shastra

While Pollock deliberately breaks shastras from kavya in his deliberations, RM takes them together following the traditional convention. While acknowledging that the kavya and shastra are two distinct types of works, RM insists that this distinction is only a heuristic device and not a clear-cut or absolute boundary as posited by Pollock. Indeed, many kavyas demonstrate keen awareness of knowledge of various types from shastras. Conversely, shastras are often expressed in a poetic format and often display an excellent literary quality. Indeed, Sanskrit spread through its cultural applications via such shastras as ayurveda, astrology, philosophy, mathematics, and performing arts. Pollock selectively quotes from one chapter of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala as an example of the politicization of Sanskrit kavya. Had he added the traditional lens to his gaze, observes RM, Pollock would have recognized that Hindus appreciate such works for their aesthetics independently of (or in addition to) any political motive or framework. Pollock talks about Bilhana’s Vikramankadevacarita, in the eleventh century, as another example of political kavya. But he does not mention Bilhana’s Caurapancashika (The Love Thief), which is appreciated for its romantic aesthetic. One should also consider the reproduction of Ramayana in Tamil (twelfth century, by Kamban) and in Avadhi (sixteenth century, by Tulsidas) as non-political kavyas expressive of bhakti (TBFS endnote # 263).

Nirnaya on Sanskrit and Sanskriti

RM is particularly keen to controvert Pollock and company’s sinister attempts to break Sanskrit away from sanskriti. Sanskrit is better studied, he argues, using traditional methods and models that are compatible with its function both as a language of rituals and sacred discourses as well as worldly matters. He denies Pollock’s charge that traditional Sanskrit scholars are averse to the critical study of Sanskrit or to using tools of philology, cognitive science and history developed for this purpose.
People of India or Southeast Asia did not approach Sanskrit exclusively through the lens of politics; rather, they saw it in the context of cultural practices and spiritual realization. This is in conformity with ongoing Indic ethos—an interconnected network of Sanskrit, sanskriti, and dharma. As to Pollock’s charge that women in India are/were denied access to Sanskrit; the fact is that women have internalized Sanskrit, and for many of them, the intimacy with it is based on oral culture rather than written materials. While Pollock et al think of Sanskrit as a 'religious' language, it is fascinating to find out that Indian women have preserved the oral and worldly dimension of Sanskrit to this day.
In Chapter seven of TBFS (‘The Web of Sanskriti as a Potential Alternative Hypothesis’) RM presents the ‘web of sanskriti’ as an alternative approach to the notion of Sanskrit cosmopolis put forth by Pollock.  RM demonstrates how grass-roots spirituality can play a meaningful role in the spread of languages and culture. In Chapter ten (‘The Re-colonization of Indian Minds’) RM suggests ways of correcting the distorted perceptions of Sanskrit, sanskriti, and dharma that have spread beyond academia into media, industry leadership, government, and even among many traditional centers of Sanskrit learning (pithas) in contemporary India.

RM foils Pollock’s attempt to divide and set the people of India against each other through agency of the caste system. RM points out that select elements of Vedic metaphysics, the web of sanskriti, and the Sanskrit language could be replicated in different places because they enjoyed a deep place of respect in the hearts and lives of local populations. Sanskrit and its texts expressed the fabric of cosmic reality and Indians (kings, brahmins, merchants, or farmers) were naturally drawn and inspired to explore, discover, share, and celebrate the manifestation of this reality in their personal and social lives.

Nirnaya on American Orientalism

Pollock’s call to ‘liberation philology’ (designed on the lines of a movement called ‘liberation theology’ that challenged Roman Catholic collusion with oppression in the nineteen-sixties and seventies) for secularizing Sanskrit is an important plank of American orientalism. RM strenuously objects to this allusion because it obscures a significant difference between ‘liberation philology’ and liberation theology, which was a movement internal to Christianity and fully accepting of its fundamental principles. Indeed, this latter was largely a call for a return to these principles. However, Pollock rejects the Vedic roots of the Sanskrit tradition altogether and regards them as no more than relics of primitive thinking or attempts to blind people to their oppression. Furthermore, his liberation philology seriously misrepresents the texts it purports to illuminate, and distorts both the evidence and the function of these texts in the lives of real people, both in the past and the present.

As an alternative to Pollock’s ‘liberation philology,’ RM proposes what he calls a ‘sacred philology,’ [I would prefer to call it ‘sadhana philology’] a philology rooted in the conviction that Sanskrit cannot be divorced from its matrix in the Vedas and Upanishads or from its orientation towards the transcendent realm. RM’s proposed alternative is quite different from the stance of the Western, secular academy that Pollock represents because sacred philology would involve a respect for and a practice of tapasya and meditation that constitutes the basis of all four dharmic pathways to liberation originating in India (i.e. Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism) (TBFS 282-283).

After a fair and faithful depiction and scrutiny of Professor Pollock’s views on Sanskrit, i.e. Purva paksha without bias (puravgraha or pakshapata) and their refutation (Uttara paksha) Rajiv Malhotra provides his own well thought out and crafted plan to preserve and promote Sanskrit and sanskriti (to be discussed in a subsequent issue of Hindu Vishva).  

* Shrinivas Tilak (Ph.D. History of Religions, McGill University, Montreal, Canada) is author of The Myth of Sarvodaya: A study in Vinoba’s concept (New Delhi: Breakthrough Communications 1984); Religion and Aging in the Indian Tradition (Albany, N. Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989); Understanding karma in light of Paul Ricoeur’s philosophical anthropology and hermeneutics (Charleston, SC: BookSurge, revised, paperback edition, 2007); and Reawakening to a secular Hindu nation: M. S. Golwalkar’s vision of a Dharmasāpekşa Hindurāşţra (Charleston, SC: BookSurge, 2008). Contact <>

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