[INDOLOGY] Against the petition against Prof. Pollock

Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi c.ram-prasad at lancaster.ac.uk
Sat Feb 27 16:18:51 UTC 2016

Eloquently put, Dominik.


On 27 Feb 2016, at 15:54, Dominik Wujastyk <wujastyk at gmail.com<mailto:wujastyk at gmail.com>> wrote:

I discovered yesterday that there exists a petition<https://www.change.org/p/mr-n-r-narayana-murthy-and-mr-rohan-narayan-murty-removal-of-prof-sheldon-pollock-as-mentor-and-chief-editor-of-murty-classical-library> 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 नाट्यशास्त्र.

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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