[INDOLOGY] Against the petition against Prof. Pollock

Dominik Wujastyk wujastyk at gmail.com
Sat Feb 27 15:52:15 UTC 2016

I discovered yesterday that there exists a petition
launched by Prof. K. Ramasubramanian that asks for Prof. Sheldon Pollock to
be removed from his editorial leadership role with the Murty Library.

The argument against Pollock is based on the idea that, "he has deep
antipathy towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practiced in
our civilization." The most prominent evidence given to support this
assertion is a quotation from a 2012 lecture that Prof. Pollock gave at the
South Asia Institute in Heidelberg, titled, "What is South Asian Knowledge
Good For?"  Prof. Ramasubramanian states that Prof. Pollock "echoes the
views of Macaulay and Max Weber that the shastras generated in India serve
no contemporary purpose except for the study of how Indians express
themselves."  Unfortunately, Prof. Ramasubramanian has not correctly
understood these passages in Prof. Pollock's paper, nor the meaning of the
2012 lecture as a whole.

Prof. Pollock cites Macaulay and Weber as पूर्वपक्ष positions to his own,
opposite view.  Prof. Pollock presents Macaulay and Weber as examples of
the worst kind of misunderstanding of Indian wisdom.  He does this in order
to build his own argument that there is a deeper knowledge in India than
Macaualy or Weber realized, the knowledge that is the "South Asian
Knowledge" of his title.  This is the knowledge of the Indian शास्त्राणि,
the Indian knowledge systems that Prof. Pollock is defending.

Prof. Ramasubramanian then cites a passage in which Prof. Pollock says,

Are there any decision makers, as they refer to themselves, at universities
and foundations who would not agree that, in the cognitive sweepstakes of
human history, Western knowledge has won and South Asian knowledge has
lost?  ...That, accordingly, the South Asian knowledge South Asians
themselves have produced can no longer be held to have any significant
consequences for the future of the human species?

In this passage, Prof. Pollock is *criticising* the administrators of
western universities who do not give proper recognition and value to Indian
knowledge systems, and only view India as a place to make money or to make
practical applications of knowledge systems of the West.  Again, this is
the पूर्वपक्ष.  Prof. Pollock's central argument is that the special,
unique knowledge systems developed in India, mainly recorded in Sanskrit,
are of great value, and that this fact is not recognized by "universities
and foundations" who, like Macauley and Weber, think that Indian knowledge
systems have been superseded by Western ones.   Prof. Pollock's point of
view is that the शास्त्राणि , representing South Asian Knowledge, are
precious, worth studying, and still have much to offer modern cultural
life.  On pages six and seven of his lecture, he gives the examples of
व्याकरण and the theory of रस as forms of knowledge that were developed to a
uniquely high degree in early India, and that still have the power to
enrich thought today.  On the subsequent pages, he begins to make the even
more difficult argument for finding modern value in even more
internally-oriented Indian sciences such as मीमांसा, अलङ्कार  and

The larger point of Prof. Pollock's article is that the institutions of
higher education in America and elsewhere have found it difficult over the
last fifty years or more to develop institutional structures to support the
study of *Indian* knowledge systems, and that the South Asia Institute in
Heidelberg is a model of success in allowing those who develop knowledge *about
*India to work in harmony alongside those who deepen their appreciation of
the knowledge that was developed *by *India.

It would be possible to make similar arguments for the other evidence
referred to by Prof. Ramasubramanian, e.g., Prof. Pollock's 1985 paper on
the character and importance of शास्त्राणि, of South Asian knowledge
systems.  In that paper, Prof. Pollock says that, "Classical Indian
civilization, however, offers what may be the most exquisite expression of
the centrality of rule-governance in human behavior" and that śāstra is "a
monumental, in some cases unparalleled, intellectual accomplishment in its
own right."  One could discuss this paper further.  But to cite it as an
example of a criticism of India is the opposite of the truth.

It is regrettable that Prof. Ramasubramanian has misunderstood Prof.
Pollock's views by 180 degrees.  Prof. Pollock is a champion for the same
values of Indian culture as Prof. Ramasubramanian.  That is why Prof.
Pollock devised and brought into being the Murty Classical Library.

Many people have signed Prof. Ramasubramanian's petition, presumably
without having read Prof. Pollock's work for themselves, or having failed
to undestand it.  The damage done by this misunderstanding is likely to
last a long time, and hamper the efforts of Prof. Pollock and others who
seek to bring the glory and subtlety of ancient Indian knowledge to the
attention of the modern world.

Professor Dominik Wujastyk* <http://ualberta.Academia.edu/DominikWujastyk>
Singhmar Chair in Classical Indian Society and Polity
Department of History and Classics <http://historyandclassics.ualberta.ca/>
University of Alberta, Canada

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