CRISIS IN THE CLASSICAL LIBRARY: An Interview with Sheldon Pollock

Sheldon Pollock is the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. He was the general editor of the Clay Sanskrit Library and is the founding editor of the Murty Classical Library of India. A famed Indologist, his scholarship focuses on the hermeneutics of Sanskrit texts. He was awarded the Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian honors bestowed by the Republic of India, in 2010. His involvement with the Murty Classical Library has spawned a petition demanding he be removed from his post as editor-in-chief.

GAYATHRI RAJ: This issue is on myth, all kinds of myth, so I wanted to talk about national myths, given current events. I’ll start with the first question: the big pink elephant in the room, the petition that has been written on demanding to remove you from Murty Classical Library…

SHELDON POLLOCK: I was very tempted to sign that petition myself.

GR: [laughs] Why is that?

SP: My first reaction was, “Thank god, finally a way to get out from under all the crushing work of this project! [laughter] Then my second reaction was, are these people deranged? The suggestion that an obscure professor of Sanskrit off in the middle of nowhere could be a threat to the integrity of the great nation of India, simply because I signed a letter in support of students who have been arrested for nothing more than demonstrating their freedom of expression—I thought that was utterly delusional. The third reaction has come slowly, and it’s more serious. It’s a little more nuanced and complicated. What is it in contemporary India that could produce such an ignorant, hostile document?

I’m very concerned about the sources of this hostility and ignorance and how to address it in a manner that is progressive and salutary, that produces not more conflict but cooperation. So I’m not angry. I’m intrigued and worried about the cultural and psychological sources of the anger and shame that are evident in that document. When I refer to shame, I mean shame among people about the loss of their own cultural knowledge. Shame that it is virtually impossible to produce in India. a series of the quality of the Murty Classical Library. That fact is the result of a deep historical…I don’t want to say robbery, but loss. There is the shame of, “Oh, here’s this guy talking about power, domination, inequality, and hierarchy, and we don’t want to talk about that, we want to just talk about flying saucers in the Vedas and ancient plastic surgery, but here comes along this mean Orientalist.” But my sense is that the true shame that is motivating and empowering the document is the ignorance of things that people’s grandfathers and grandmothers knew which they no longer know. They’ve lost it, and how can they possibly get it back? I may be wrong: maybe too much psychology. But that is my sense of things.

GR: You say you’re worried about what kinds of ignorance are driving this kind of document. I was reading the petition and going through the signatories, and a lot of them are associated with IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] and IIM [Indian Institute of Management], which I find interesting, almost obvious—but it brings me back to something that George Packer wrote about in the New Yorker about Tunisia and the Arab world in general, that “The most likely radicals are people in technical or scientific fields who lack the kind of humanities educations that fosters critical thought.” This is something you bring up in Crisis in the Classics, where you note that the number of humanities PhDs being produced in India are nowhere close to what Western universities aspire to.

SP: I think that’s absolutely true. A footnote to the Packer quote: I think it’s interesting—and this gets back to my shame comment—that India leads the world in forms of computational thinking because young people in India are the heirs of centuries-long traditions of high literacy fostered by the cultivation of the Sanskrit and other great forms of learning. I think the other, more telling point is that the nature of humanities education in India today is disastrously mediocre. And that is a bizarre development for a culture which for centuries led the world in humanistic production. Literature, philosophy, critical thinking, civil debate, interactions across community lines—that all that has dissolved today is a result, not a direct result of the collapse of humanistic education, but that has contributed to it. And this is not the case only in India, it’s the case in Pakistan, it’s the case in much of the Arab world, the case in much of Africa, the only exception may be China. But China is peculiar insofar as the state has appropriated the project of the humanities. I’m not so sure that’s a very good solution, frankly.

GR: So where do you see humanities education going in India or, what can be done to redress and reform it?

SP: A lot of people I think very highly of, including Rohan Murthy, the donor of MCLI [Murty Classical Library of India], and Pratap Bhanu Mehta in Delhi, who’s a good friend, are thinking long and hard about the reforming of Indian education. I have always thought about India and Sanskrit culture as part of the real world, part of the world of women and men and their interactions with other women and men in domains of power in which they are enmeshed. But I think the events at JNU, Central University of Hyderabad, the Film School in Pune, Jadavpur…across the board there have been the beginnings of a powerful student movement. And I think if it’s not crushed, and if it is sustained, there’s a potential here for something very innovative. I am not just talking about student politics or reservations, or alliances between dalit/bahujans and Marxists, or any of that, I am thinking about a transformation in the structures of knowledge, where students will begin to demand educational structures that will empower them with the instruments of critical thought that are now being denied them. The short answer to the hard question is that first, there are a lot of good people thinking about these questions, and second, the students themselves seem to be taking matters into their own hands in a way that I find deeply inspiring. I hope the agitations and slogans are sustained until the universities are seriously reformed so that critical thinking becomes a central part of education. And that would mean bringing back things like the humanities in general, and what I call “critical classicism” in particular.

GR: What do you have to say about the textbook controversy, where Twitter had a trending hashtag called #removemughalsfrombooks which was an attempt to rewrite history textbooks at the middle school and high school level?

SP: I’m a lowtech guy in a hightech world. Where did this hashtag originate? In California or in India?

GR: This was in India.

SP: I see, because a big textbook controversy has been happening in California, and to some rather extent I was involved with that. I think in general there have been excesses on both sides, to be quite frank. But I think the greatest excess has been in the state of California itself,  which insanely opened up the textbook review process for public approval. I think they should now consider opening up brain surgery practices for public approval. They should allow everybody in every community to offer an opinion on how neurosurgeons open up the cranium—you know I really think that’s the next step.

GR: What people would like to be a solution to that is to remove Mughals from the history textbook and to present India as a Hindu state that has existed since time immemorial.

SP: Another delusional step, and completely self-negating. This history cannot be sanitized. History cannot be stopped. I mean these people can produce their own textbooks for a year or two or five or 10, but they will be ultimately overthrown. The Indian textbook controversy has been going on for 30 years if not longer, since the revisions in the textbooks in the ’80s. The process of historical contestation is unending, and that’s the way it should be.

What I myself would like to see is the problem of truth multiplied. I want to start talking about multiple truths and discuss collectively the controversies, teach the controversies. It’s an old idea that I learned from a colleague at the U. of Chicago—teaching the controversies does not skirt the problem, but puts the problem—here, of truth and historical veracity—right in the center of the conversation.

I would like to see a history book that teaches the struggles over history, one that might begin the section on Mughal history with a statement from the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, National Volunteer Organization] demanding that 300 years of Indian history be erased from the textbook and give their reasons for doing so. Teach that controversy. That’s where I would like to see scholarship go. I don’t want to see monological scholarship. Let’s let 100 schools of thought contend. I know that that sounds slightly bizarre, but history is an ongoing struggle and it’s very important that people understand that history is always written from the interests of the present moment and all of us are going to do so from a very interested and partial perspective. Teaching the controversies is one way to show people the fragility of historical truth. That may not be the answer you want to hear. The answer people want to hear is, “These people are insane and we should just kick them to the curb.”

But you know, India is now a state run by the RSS. How do you deal with that? It’s a very worrisome situation. The kind of expressions of rage and delusion that one finds almost every day in India is a result of the space that’s been opened up by the RSS coup. It allows people to say things that they never would have said 20 years ago. It’s sort of like the Trumpian revolution. Hundreds of thousands of members of the Sangh are drilling every day with khaki shorts and saffron flags. This is no joke. The textbooks are just a front in the culture wars that are taking place.

GR: In your “Future Philology?” essay you criticise Edward Said for saying that he understood studying literature as separate from his political commitments. The petition criticises you for signing petitions [in support of the students at JNU]  which it says are purely political in nature and have no academic merit. So with the movements at JNU or Hyderabad happening the question becomes, what is the role of the confluence of the academic and the political, and why is it that the two of them have been so separated in contemporary india?

SP: First the Said question. What bothered me with his statement (this is not a direct quote): “My politics is one thing but scholarship is separate, please don’t be angry with me” was I thought that was totally disingenuous. Now signing petitions in solidarity with students who are arrested for exercising their freedom of speech has nothing to do with my scholarly work whatsoever. The challenge that a person cannot be political while having another profession, like dentistry…I mean how dare a dentist sign a petition, how can he actually care for teeth if he signs a petition? Any suggestion that one can be debarred from political action by reason of affiliation to any given profession is utterly absurd and not worth talking about.

But then there is the deeper question of the relationship between one’s political view of the world and one’s sense of power in life and in culture throughout history, on the one hand, and the products of culture which one deals with as a scholar, on the other. There’s a serious question in there of theory and method among other things, and you know the famous line of Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History, ” that “every document of civilization is at the same time a document of barbarism.” The beautiful things that we study in Greek poetry or Italian renaissance painting or Chinese philosophy, all of these beautiful parts of culture emerge out of a matrix of inequality and domination. And the question to what degree is the exploration of that matrix necessary to understand the product is a theoretical one. In some cases, the degree is very small, and in some cases it’s front and center. I mean, we could talk about the origins of nyaya in Sanskrit and the study of the vidyasthanas [disciplines of knowledge] without reverting to issues of inequality. They’re not really pertinent to that set of issues.

Issues of gender, exclusion, and silencing—every culture evinces those, but sometimes they have to be brought into the analytical mix. One more thing: even were that barbarism to become an object of one’s scholarly analysis, it does not require that one give up objectivity. Objectivity remains a non-negotiable value in scholarship, but objectivity does not entail neutrality, as Thomas Haskell said 20 years ago. We want to produce scholarship that is honest, and is as fair to the evidence as it can possibly be. You can’t make up evidence, you can’t cherry-pick evidence, you can’t suppress evidence, you can’t willfully mistranslate, you can’t lie. You must be as objective as possible, but that does not mean that you have to celebrate structures of domination. You can critique it, you can take sides. Neutrality is not a requirement, nor is advocacy not a legitimate and important academic value.

When I write about forms of exclusion and silencing in Sanskrit tradition, I feel that I can state clearly and plainly that those forms of domination have had very deleterious effects in the long history of Indian culture. I feel that the evidence and the data permit me to make that sort of argument. It is part of one’s obligation, as a global citizen to participate in an oppositional way when one sees oppression. In scholarship one may or may not feel a similar reaction to historical structures of oppression and domination, but the key thing is that if you deal with such materials you must adhere as closely as possible to the highest standards of scholarship. That doesn’t mean that you have to remain neutral in analyzing the construction of inequality.

GR: How does this speak to your earlier quip about the construction of multiple truths? If we’re all objective and objectivity means that we cannot cherry pick evidences and also means you have to adhere to your critical thinking processes, how do we then arrive at multiple truths?

SP: So we read the Valmiki Ramayana—we are very objective and honest. We look as carefully as we can at the text, and we look at the context, and we wonder “what is going on in this work?” We look at the inscriptional data, we look at the history of writing in India, and since the epic’s history is partially oral, we look at the nature of its earliest transcriptions, which we have before us in the various versions of the work that have been printed in the critical edition. We the come to the conclusion, at least it is my conclusion, that given the political ideology and theology of the work the Ramayana must have been composed in the era after the reign of King Ashoka (c. 250 BCE). That at least is my objective truth about the work, based on all the evidence I could possibly gather.

Fast forward to year 1400. You go down south [of India]. You go to Tamil country. You find people reading the Ramayana, and what is their understanding of the Ramayana? Their understanding is that it is a text that was created in the Dwaparayuga that tells the story of God’s presence on earth, and is really an allegory about the soul’s progression by way of a teacher to self surrender to God. That’s what that work is really about. What do we say to those Vaishnava people [who think this]? People from Ashoka’s time would think, these guys are morons, and don’t know anything about the Ramayana; nineteenth-century orientalists said the same thing. I say that these people have a truth about the Ramayana—I want to understand their understanding.

So now we have two truths—or, if not truths, then readings, understandings, ways of making sense of the text, of using the text. We don’t have to use the honorific “true.” Fast forward 1990, when Advani is making his Rathyatra, and to 1992, with the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya is destroyed. Mr. L K Advani sees the Ramayana as a living work, providing a political blueprint, for a Hindu Rashtra, a Ramrajya. It is an understanding. You can call it specious, duplicitous, anti-Muslim, opportunist—but he is using and thinking through and understanding the Ramayana in a particular way, just as the Shree Vaishnavas were, just as I was, in my post Ashokan way. I want to look at this multiplicity as ways people have come to understand this work and make use of it.

You might want to rank these interpretations and say Advani is wrong, people got killed [as a result of his ideas], let’s kick them to the curb, the Shri Vaishnavas were theologians and possibly making it all up, kick them to the curb as well, and this leaves me, the real historian who has really cracked the code to the Ramayana. The view that I am the only one who fully understands the Ramayana is not going to get you anywhere. I want to take all three levels of textural usages very seriously and find a way to think about all of them together. I feel the same way about the RSS. So I don’t think a pragmatic account of the shifting meanings of culture stands in any fundamental contradiction with my presence as a scholar on one hand, and on the other hand as a citizen who wants to think about global culture and address inequality at the same time.

GR: As someone who fancies themselves as a person who studies Indian civilization, a question that I always struggle with is that of, and I borrow here from the text of the petition, instilling this “sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilization”. Are pride and respect for cultural tradition, for historical texts, necessary for scholarly work? How is pride and respect for a certain thing implicated in the type of scholarship you produce, or is it at all?

SP: I think the way knowledge about places like India gets organized at Western universities, which is largely based on the area-based approach to knowledge (at least when it comes to literature and thought), which is generally the area organization of knowledge, does have the tendency to segregate or to silo traditions like Indian Studies or Chinese Studies. This segregation does tend to stimulate a sense of proprietary control over tradition, and to some degree pride in tradition, and that can be a good thing. You can’t very well spend 45 years of your life reading stuff you think is worthless. In fact, that’s very difficult. I wrote a big piece about Nazi scholarship once, and I had to read a lot of Nazi material, and it’s very difficult to read stuff if you think it is worthless. So I think my work—I don’t know what these people have read about it, or know about it—adequately evinces my respect and pride in dealing with Indian studies.

But there’s another way of organizing knowledge that’s more disciplinary, and that’s what we’re missing today. That disciplinary organization of knowledge would insulate us far more from feelings of pride or pity or piety around these traditions, and that’s an essential component. I don’t want anyone to tell me that I have to produce scholarship that will celebrate India or ensure the endurance of the Indian nation. Of course, nobody goes into Indian studies, if there is such a thing, without having this national pride. But part of the problem in India is that traditional studies have now been captured by the RSS. The people who trained me, the true scholar practitioners, are all gone, and what’s left are these ideologues and opportunists who know little about the past, who can barely read this stuff, and if they read it, they have nothing interesting to say about it. The excess of pride in India, the demand that everyone show pride, is astonishing. In the Western academy, pride is important but needs to be balanced by science. I have no problem using the word science in the humanities. I want to be able to study this material as an object of scientific study.

GR: One more prophetic question. To give some context – Smriti Irani, celebrated HRD [Human Resource Development] minister of India, recently said that Sanskrit should be taught at IITs. Given this appropriation of Sanskrit by the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party, Indian People’s Party], RSS, etc., and the tension between studying Sanskrit at Western universities versus studying Sanskrit at Indian universities under pundits, where it’s been couched in the Brahminical traditions of thought and political power, where do you see the future of Sanskrit as a language that is taught and learnt lying ahead?

SP: That’s an interesting problem with India, and where India goes from this point on: for several thousand years, there was a great tradition of indigenous learning organized around gurukuls and family structures and all sorts of small-scale institutions. Sanskrit knowledge was very effectively transmitted over several thousand years through this educational structure. In 1857, with the founding of the three new universities – Bombay, Madras and Calcutta –  Sanskrit traditional learning was basically left out in the cold. You couldn’t have pandits teaching at those universities [at the time]. This is a deep question for historians of education—I think it was some part of the long, slow descent towards our present predicament.

I think the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan [National Council of Sanskrit] needs to be radically overhauled to help transform higher education in Sanskrit studies. From what I can see, the Sansthan is a failure. To my knowledge, they have not produced one single Sanskrit project in 20 years, or trained very many scholars who have edited difficult texts or published serious books. What have they done? Into this mess along comes the minister of human resource development, who has very little familiarity with university culture, who is going to dictate the future of Sanskrit studies by attaching them to institutes of technology. You have the money and you’re going to throw it away? Throw it away. It’s quixotic and silly.

I think the whole IIT thing is pure grandstanding. If people in India were serious about teaching young children classical languages in such a way that they could produce citizens who were in power to read the texts of their past, they would do it. I would love to cooperate on finding a way.

I often suggest to colleagues in India that there should be an institute or set of institutes dedicated to the cultivation of classical knowledge with the same kind of funding and seriousness of purpose as the IIMs and IITs—an Indian Institute of Classical Studies. I’m worried that with an RSS government such an institution would be immediately polluted with ideologues and people who do not possess the requisite scholarly values. Since 1925,  from the founding of the RSS till now, they have been attempting to capture Sanskrit tradition as its possession, and it is slowly achieving that. What does this great nation-state do with its classical heritage? How does it effectively create scholars who embody the kinds of values we talked about earlier—respect for evidence and for argument, objectivity, historical sensitivity, theoretical depth, sincerity, thoughtfulness, civility? It’s a very tough but very pressing question.

Gayathri Raj is a senior at Columbia. She does not want you to know what her major is, but sometimes she reads Sanskrit. She enjoys enjoys listening to M S Subbulakshmi and Oum Kalthoum.