Who is Sheldon Pollock?

A leading Sanskrit scholar with intellectual weight and infectious energy

Professor Sheldon Pollock, general editor of Murty Classical Library of India. Photo: Priyanka Parashar
Professor Sheldon Pollock, general editor of Murty Classical Library of India. Photo: Priyanka Parashar

In January 2015, the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI), which started with an endowment of $5.2 million from Rohan Murty, a computer scientist and son of Infosys founder N.R. Nayarana Murthy and aims to provide scholarly translations into English of classical works in various Indian languages, published its first five books—Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition by Surdas; The History of Akbar by Abu’l-Fazl; Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women; Sufi Lyrics by Bullhe Shah; and The Story of Manu by Allasani Peddana.

During an interview with Mint Lounge prior to the launch, Professor Sheldon Pollock, the general editor of MCLI, was asked about the difficulties of finding able translators, especially in India, considering that the five volumes were translated by scholars outside India. In his reply, Pollock said, “There was a great poet and intellectual in early ninth century Kashmir who wrote a very famous verse (which, translated, means) it’s only small-minded people who say this person belongs to us and that person is an outsider/the noble people say that the whole world is a family.”

This could well be an appropriate response, too, to the academics who, in the past week, have sought to oust Pollock from his position at the MCLI on the basis of his “outsiderness”. A petition, addressed to Narayana Murthy and Rohan Murty, stated that the project should be led by someone “deeply rooted and steeped in the intellectual traditions of India” and “imbued with a sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilization”.

They objected, too, to the fact that Pollock is a “very political animal”, and has been a signatory, at various times, to “statements that have condemned the politics and actions of the Indian government”, including the recent charging of students of Jawaharlal Nehru University with sedition.

So why is this sudden attention being paid to Pollock? He is, after all, not the only academic raising his voice against the actions of the Indian government, and certainly has not been the most prominent among them.

The jovial Pollock has a mouthful of an official title—he is the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University. Educated at Harvard University in the 1970s, he received with distinction his undergraduate degree in Classics (Greek) and then a Masters and Ph.D on Sanskrit and Indic Studies. Over the decades since, he has come to be acknowledged as one of the foremost philologists and scholars of Sanskrit texts. Pollock received the President’s Certificate of Honour for Sanskrit in 2008, and the Padma Shri in 2010.

As for the MCLI, the project in the eye of the current storm, this had its origins in the Clay Sanskrit Library (CSL), of which too Pollock was the general editor and which was set up to translate Sanskrit texts into English. This publishing project had an abrupt halt in 2008 when John Clay, the benefactor of the CSL, diverted his attention to other philanthropic activities. A series of circumstances brought Pollock and Rohan Murty together, and together with the Harvard University Press, the MCLI started its work. Murty has this week spoken up in support of Pollock, stating that he was critical to the success of the library.

Pollock brought in some changes from the way things were done at CSL: Here, the translation is published alongside the Indic original in the appropriate regional text. Pollock’s idea, in this as well as the SARIT project that is digitizing classical Indic texts of which he is principal investigator, seems to be to make them available, and accessible, to an entirely new generation of readers.

Pollock’s credentials and intellectual weight presumably makes his detractors somewhat uneasy. The petition against him mentions Rajiv Malhotra, whose book, The Battle for Sanskrit, takes on Pollock for “misrepresenting our cultural heritage”. In his blog, Malhotra states that he focuses his attention on Pollock mainly because of his achievements and influence. “These awards and recognitions have sealed his status in the eyes of most Indian intelligentsia as one of the few remaining scholars with the authority to interpret and speak about Sanskrit texts,” Malhotra writes.

Pollock, who is the author, among others, of The Language of Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India, has never been wary about making his views known about the divisive politics practiced by the far right. These feature too as the context for two of his essays—Ramayana and Political Imagination in India (1993); and The Death of Sanskrit (2001)—and delegitimise some of the claims of the Hindu right.

In the latter, Pollock looks at the death of the Sanskrit literary culture through four cases: the disappearance of Sanskrit literature in Kashmir after the 13th century; its diminished power in 16th century Vijayanagara; its short-lived revival in the Mughal court in the mid 17th century; and its ghostly presence in Bengal on the eve of colonialism. What may have miffed the Hindutva forces in this historical positioning of the Sanskrit as a creative force under decline are the views he opens with on contemporary Hindu identity politics: “Few things are as central to this revisionism as Sanskrit, the dominant culture language of precolonial southern Asia outside the Persianate order. Hindutva propagandists have sought to show, for example, that Sanskrit was indigenous to India, and they purport to decipher Indus Valley seals to prove its presence two millennia before it actually came into existence.” And later in the text, on a subject that seems relevant even today: “The state’s anxiety both about Sanskrit’s role in shaping the historical identity of the Hindu nation and about its contemporary vitality has manifested itself in substantial new funding for Sanskrit education...”

His essay on the Ramayana was written soon after L.K. Advani’s rath yatra and the demolition of the Babri masjid in Ayodhya. In this, he looks at the “long history to the relationship between Ramayana and political symbology”. He argues that the epic moved from occupying a purely literary space to the political sphere from the 12th century when it became necessary to “demonise the Other”, especially after the establishment of the Sultanate. “A dominant scholarly opinion holds that ruling elites in the eleventh and following centuries often met the challenge posed by the new political presence in the subcontiment not just by a militarization of the structure of the Hindu realms but also by a renewed emphasis on religious prestige and the legitimation of the ruler via his unique relationship with divinity.” That is, the ruler defending his kingdom as Lord Rama and the enemy as Ravana.

Is Sheldon Pollock a political animal? Sure. Who isn’t? But this shouldn’t distract from the valuable work he is doing. Right before the launch of MCLI, Pollock was in Kerala. “I have just taken a digital archive of material that had disappeared from Kashmir, and is now found only in Kerala,” he said. His energy and excitement was infectious.

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