Sheldon Pollock, general editor of Murty Classical Library of India  and the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University. With liberal arts education very much in vogue, he makes a case for Indian classical texts. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Sheldon Pollock, general editor of Murty Classical Library of India and the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University. With liberal arts education very much in vogue, he makes a case for Indian classical texts. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

India is the great linguistic bazaar of the world: Sheldon Pollock

Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock says a collaborative effort is needed to make classical languages attractive to the younger generations

New Delhi: Sheldon Pollock still sounds dazed at being made the villain of the piece two years ago for taking on the job of translating classical texts in various Indian languages as part of the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) where he is the general editor. Rohan Murty, computer scientist and son of Infosys co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy, founded MCLI with a $5.2million grant to Harvard University. Pollock, Arvind Raghunathan Professor of Sanskrit and South Asian Studies at Columbia University, US, still believes anything he says “will bring out the trolls; the crazy people who will come after me again saying a videshi (foreigner) is stealing our culture, is butting in, is making noise. They will question who am I to speak about Indian culture". Though this has not deterred Pollock from coming back to India, he does wish to be treated as scholars of Greek and Latin are in Greece and Italy: with indifference. Pollock was in India to attend the Ashoka University convocation last week and talked about why Indian classical texts are treasures which should be available for everyone. Edited excerpts:

Two years ago some Indians were unhappy about your work with MCLI...

A person has a treasure. He is never interested in that treasure until somebody comes along and says look at that treasure. That’s when all of a sudden the person realizes that he or she has a treasure. Is that what’s going on here? I don’t know. I am just baffled by the situation of classical studies in India today and astonished at the virulence of the rage at somebody who dares to point that out. I am quite dumbfounded by it.

Sometimes I wonder if I am completely misinterpreting the situation? Are there vast areas of productivity and deep knowledge about classical languages within India that I simply don’t know about? I have written and consulted enough with people about some of these questions. When Kannada was named a classical language, I had written a piece on how everyone wants it to be a classical language but nobody wants to study it. That’s the real problem. Who cares if it is a classical language or not, if you are letting it die?

Looking from a very distant perspective at this great culture with a most distinguished literary history in the world, and all I see is a kind of wasteland. I call attention to that and I am slammed. I put together a library whose main purpose is pedagogical—it is not designed to sell books in large numbers—and I get trolled. The purpose is to get the books into the hands of young people who should wonder, if they are say Kannadiga, how come they can’t read these letters on the left side of the page. Why would someone who cares about that be the object of such vituperation?

There is now a new library of Arabic literature being published by New York University Press, edited by an Englishman. There is a new library of Chinese Humanities being edited by a man at Harvard who is not Chinese. There is nothing but clear sailing, no problems, just hooray, no pushback. The only pushback is here in India.

In your speech at the Ashoka University convocation you said Indians are heirs to knowledge that no one has access to and this can be used to find solutions to big challenges like climate change?

We are who we are because something in the past brought us here. What I was trying to suggest was that this past that Indians have has special characteristics of enquiry, of imagination, of decency, of openness, of variety, of freedom. These are the values and skills that will be required to solve problems like climate change. All Indians may not be able to read old Tamil or old Bangla, or Sanskrit where some of this material may be more explicitly available but these children are the heirs of this civilization just as I am an heir of the Eastern European Jewish tradition. It does empower me in some way.

I try to suggest from my reading of the Indian past that there are things that have happened to you that are absolutely unique. The young kids in that convocation hall have in their DNA the deep tradition which respects knowledge. In fact, all the Indian kids I have ever taught, they evince that.

I want every kid to do four years of a classical language, doesn’t matter what it is. It is a yoga, a very powerful yoga. It is a discipline of analytical thinking-

I mean look, why are the best people who write code from India? Why? I can’t give you an absolute answer but I have often thought it’s generations and generations of grammatical learning. These people often don’t know Sanskrit grammar but why are they so good at what they do? It’s because they have inherited a respect for analytical, almost grammatized thinking. That 2,500 years, that sort of investment in consciousness does not pass without leaving a trace.

When you start censoring diversity, a culture of openness what does it do to the people?

I really believe there has been a long tradition of respect for diversity in India. It’s been weakened under conditions for majority and nationalism. But the historical record is very clear that there has been a long tradition of diversity and openness in this land.

Can 2,500 years of tradition of free inquiry and openness be crushed by 50 or 100 years of the opposite attitude? I don’t know.

Meanwhile I really think that governments like the Trump administration (in the US)—the most horrific, depressing, dehumanizing, anti-American government that any of us has ever encountered— will pass away. Things will change. Governments come and go.

What do think about introducing Sanskrit as an elective in Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) or as a compulsory third language in schools? Will this not help us to look beyond English?

It’s a tough question. I was at a conference last year in Paris and it became increasingly clear that the people who spoke in French were speaking to a very, very small group of people. If you did not speak English at that gathering, you would not be heard. There is a kind of imperialism of English which is worrisome but it is extremely important to acknowledge it and live with. Also scientists are never going to abandon that language so that the hegemony of English is probably irreversible but does that mean regional languages have to be second citizens or not even citizens at all?

Are we translating the culture for somebody else? Yes, if the culture in embedded in the text I guess we are-

I live in a monolingual world and India is the great linguistic bazaar of the world. How do you in the 21st century ensure that the lives of languages, which are spoken everyday by people and are intimate to their sense of being, have a future as languages of scholarship and literature? That is for the local governments to think.

I knew there was some brouhaha about IITs introducing Sanskrit as an elective but the question to ask is what is the status of Sanskrit education in India today. I am an outsider but over the years I have had people come up to me and say they have studied Sanskrit in school but they did not really learn anything. Do you know how many crores of man-hours are lost in the transmission of Sanskrit knowledge because of whatever is amiss here. I am not blaming anyone but I think there is a need for a collective effort by scholars of Sanskrit across the world to work with Indian scholars to find better ways to teach the language.

What can we do to bring back interest of students in our languages, in our literature?

I do think a real institute that could assemble real scholars, those who are left, to pass on their skills to younger generations, to develop a new parampara will help. Also there have to be places where these young people can go when they leave the institute. You have to assure them of jobs, some way to earn their living. They can’t just study these languages and texts and then just do havans. You must have a system set up for young people coming out with these precious skills to be able to go into serious academic institutions and pass on their skills. You could ask about the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan with all its crores and crores of rupees what is it doing. You tell me, I am not sure what they are doing.

I want every kid to do four years of a classical language, doesn’t matter what it is. It is a yoga, a very powerful yoga. It is a discipline of analytical thinking. The liberal arts education empowers students in the most effective way to think, to write, to speak, to solve problems and to develop a kind of independent creativity.

Translations of classical texts by foreigners is a problem for some. After all foreigners don’t have the right DNA…

There is some sense that I am not a religious person. That’s true. There is some sense that I am ignorant, at least experientially, of the spiritual and almost luminous quality of these texts in the minds and hearts of contemporary Indians. I think that is true too. But getting back to the core of the question, Indian literature is rich, broad and wide as any other literature, and there are texts that are deeply devotional. As scholars, we are free to do with texts as we wish if we are looking to critique but as translators, we must provide the very best translations we can, utterly abstracted from any political agenda any translator has. Why would we do this otherwise? We are not writing contemporary American broadsides. We are trying to provide as authentic, as historically just translation of an Indian text as we possibly can. Look at the text on the left side of the page of MCLI book and show us where we have politicized it on the right side in the translation.

Translating culture or cultural translation: how would you describe your MCLI work?

We are translating texts. We do so with as much theological, rhetorical, and historical precision as we can possibly can. We try to turn these Indian classics into English versions that are as respectable and respectful as possible. Are we translating the culture for somebody else? Yes, if the culture in embedded in the text I guess we are. If people don’t want to read those translations, that’s fine. They can read the original text on the left side of the book. If they need a little help reading the original by reading it in English that’s why we are here. It is not an attempt to hegemonize, to overpower, to impose, to steal. It’s simply an attempt to give back to the people of India the texts that are theirs and also the ones we love.

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