“From its colonial origins in Justice Sir William to its consummation in SS Obersturmführer Wüst [a Nazi official], Sanskrit and Indian studies have contributed directly to consolidating and sustaining programs of domination.”
The author, or should I say authority, behind these words is Sheldon Pollock, Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University, and Mentor-Chief Editor of the Murty Library. The Murty Library, with its generous endowment of $5.6 million has, however, been mired in controversy. A petition, signed by several concerned academics, asked for the removal of Mr Pollock from the project, as well as a re-think of its methods and goals.
If Mr Pollock’s condemnation of the Vedic-Shastric tradition as rigid and oppressive was injurious in The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory in Indian Intellectual History (1983), Deep Orientalism (1993), is even more insulting. Here Mr Pollock claims that German Orientalists and Sanskrit not only aided the “colonization and domination of Europe itself,” but in “the ultimate ‘orientalist’ project, the legitimation of genocide.” Sanskrit implicated in the extermination of six million Jews?!
Why should Mr Pollock give such extraordinarily evil agency to India’s “sacred” language, which he is elsewhere at pains to prove “dead”? In his oft-cited paper, The Death of Sanskrit (2001), he doesn’t so much prove that Sanskrit is/was dead. When he fails to “kill” it, he resorts to a strange sleight of scholarly hand: “Sanskrit had never been exactly alive in the first place.” Traditional Sanskrit scholarship in India being already destroyed, this attack on German Orientalism leaves only one powerful competing scholarly tradition standing: American Indology.
Reinhold Grunendahl critiques Pollock convincingly. Deep Orientalism has one unambiguous, if ambitious path: “‘Indology beyond the Raj and Auschwitz’ leads to the ‘New Raj’ across the deep blue sea.” But the “New Raj” of American Indology has one thing in common with the old Raj of British imperialism. Its Rajas and Nabobs, such as Mr Pollock, are increasingly funded by the “sweat, toil, and blood” of Indians, in this case, Indian “cyber-coolies,” who have made companies like Infosys rich. American Indology backed by Indian philanthropy is a lethal combination. It leads us to laud, fete, fund, and award Padma Shris to Mr Pollock and his ilk.
One thing is absolutely clear after the smoke settles in the recent crossfire over the Murty Library: American Indology today occupies an almost unquestionable authority over Indian traditions. Any move to critique its hegemony is met with multiple attacks against individuals questioning its methods and results, both of which are exalted to levels of near infallibility.
In this context, a passing but telling observation in Rajiv Malhotra’s The Battle For Sanskrit is worth recalling. Indian soldiers were recruited by the British colonialists to fight in over 100 battles against fellow Indians, not to mention other “enemies” of the British including the Afghans, Burmese, Chinese, Turks, Germans, and Italians. But they couldn’t raise a single battalion of the Chinese to fight for them, let alone against their fellow-Chinese. This should tell us something of the Indian mentality. Most of Mr Pollock’s “sepoys” are Indians themselves, either trained in elite American universities or sold on images of their past produced by American neo-Orientalism.
Let me offer one more example. In Ramayana and Political Imagination in India (1993), Mr Pollock argues that India’s multiple medieval Ramayanas actually served to create a “political theology” to demonise and attack those who stood outside its “sanctioned polity”. Bringing this theme up to date, Mr Pollock damns the Ramayana tradition as the “mytheme par excellence that reactionary politics in India today” uses “in the interests of a theocratization of the state and the creation of an internal enemy”.
Again, frustrated with the persistence of Ramayana, Mr Pollock concludes, “because of even the Sanskrit text’s instability…there may no longer exist any such thing as the Ramayana, if ever there did.” No surprise that Mr Pollock and his followers want to abolish the very existence of “India” as an academic entity substituting it by the meaningless epithet “South Asia” — south of what and for whom?
How deep an Orientalist Mr Pollock is clear only towards the close of Deep Orientalism. Given that both “history" and “object” of the “field of knowledge” called Orientalism was “permeated with power,” he declares that Orientalists are now at a loss because they “no longer know why they are doing what they do.”
But, apparently, Mr Pollock knows exactly what he is up to. He has re-invented Orientalism so that wealthy Indians endow his professorship, pay him for desacralising Sanskrit and secularising Sanskriti, signing anti-Narendra Modi political petitions, and hectoring the world’s largest democracy how it should conduct itself.
The writer is professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University