The problem with Pollock

Why the Murty Classical Library of India needs a rethink.

Written by Makarand R. Paranjape | Updated: March 21, 2016 4:22 am
 sheldon pollock, rohan murty, murty classical library of india, indology, study of indian culture, south asian studies, sanskrit language reseach Sheldon Pollock

I signed the petition for the removal of Sheldon Pollock as mentor and general editor of Murty Classical Library, first of all, because the project did not seem to score well on the commonsensical scale of home economics. Handing $5.6 million to elite US universities reverses the very logic that made Infosys rich. If brainpower, not to mention manpower, is at least five times cheaper in India, wouldn’t we get more bang for the buck here? The annual income from the bequest works out to a very substantial $2,80,000 per annum at the modest rate of 5 per cent returns. This is the equivalent of almost Rs 2 crore. If this is how much it costs to produce the reported five volumes per year, then the cost per volume is a whopping Rs 40 lakh. Until the details of the spends are known, we can’t verify the math, but it seems likely that we could have ensured greater cost-effectiveness in India.

The second reason is more ideological and anti-colonial. In the heyday of imperialism, the West’s study of the rest was not always benevolent nor impartial.

Instead, it was involved in the West’s agenda to conquer, subdue, exploit, and even exterminate several nations, societies, and cultures. We Indians need to remember, as Bernard Cohn famously put it, that “The conquest of India was a conquest of knowledge”. No wonder, the cultural and historical memory of our own struggle against foreign domination is still fresh. What is not equally obvious is that the battle to regain India’s civilisational poise, equilibrium, and self-confidence is far from over. In matters of culture, education, and thought, we are still largely colonised and subservient. The Indian mentality, particularly that of the elites, remains a prisoner of Western categories. Not just the clash, but the clasp of civilisations, is as much a struggle over epistemic categories and representations, as it is over economic and political interests.

Paradoxically, even as India has powered ahead in the latter spheres, its educational and cultural institutions have deteriorated. Regretfully, the politicisation of academics by caste, language and regional lobbies has eroded the credibility of our universities. The possibly related emigration and relocation of lakhs of gifted Indian intellectuals to Western countries has only exacerbated our sense of inferiority. Indian knowledge production, especially in humanities and social sciences, lacks global recognition. No wonder, Rohan Murty preferred the prestige and brand value of Columbia and Harvard for his Library. He is not the only one; many Indian business leaders have chosen similarly to endow foreign universities rather than Indian ones.

In a recent article, Murty laments that we have allowed “our institutions, manuscripts, and scholarship… to fall into a state of disrepair. And this I am going to help rebuild.” How? By giving $5.6 mn to the likes of Pollock at Columbia and Harvard? How will they help rebuild Indian scholarly institutions and traditions? Murty could have been visionary and courageous, trying to set up an editorial collective in India itself, even if it were not housed at a conventional university. Such a move might have been a game-changer in Indian academics, perhaps inspiring copycat endowments, in addition to instituting best practises in Indian critical and cultural production.

To reverse the situation for argument’s sake, suppose a library of 500 best books of American culture, with an endowment from, say, Bill Gates, was handed over to Chinese scholars to produce, wouldn’t interested Americans protest? The analogy may not be entirely apt, but shows Murty’s lack of confidence in our own abilities to read, translate, and publish books of our culture. There could have been other models, more participatory and collaborative than the present, which I am not sure were fully explored.

Moving to the more controversial demand to sack Pollock, in his 1985 essay, “The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory in Indian Intellectual History,” the learned professor damns the entire shastric tradition, which he considers co-extensive with Sanskritic culture, as authoritarian.

The basis for such a sweeping indictment is a reductive misreading of the Vedas not only as fixed, transcendental signifiers and authorisers of chaturvarga, but as also responsible for the wholesale and systematic blocking of critical thinking through the entire course of Indian civilisation. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of India would balk at such an egregiously arrogant impeachment.

From such a perspective, pre-modern India becomes an object of modern rectification, if not rejection. We did nothing for thousands of years except oppress one another: Now “a great white man” must, messiah-like, take charge of our tradition to rescue us from our own oppressive legacies. Isn’t it obvious how such demonisation of Indian pasts serves to re-authorise neo-Orientalism, almost requiring an outsider from the dominant Western academy to help set us right? And doesn’t our history demonstrate that where scholars lead the charge against Indian culture, missionaries are only too ready to follow through?

Indeed, Pollock has increasingly identified himself with left-liberal, even Hindu-phobic causes, signing various petitions, working to nix positions in Indic studies that diaspora philanthropists wished to endow in the United States, in addition to advising the government of India reportedly to end “its authoritarian menace” on Indian campuses. This smacks of politically motivated hegemonic practices, which are ideological rather than academic. Aren’t such attitudes bound to influence the content, translations, and outputs of the Murty Library?

 

The writer is professor, Centre for English Studies, JNU

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  1. C
    Comm.Y.K.
    Mar 21, 2016 at 9:23 am
    Thanks a million Markand Paranjpe for writing an eye opening blog on such an important matter. It is unbelievable Murtys of Infosys will do such a thing,the very people who made India proud of its soft knowledge power!!! Colonial mind set and subjugation is visible in Rohan Murty's decision. Shame ....Shame..... Hope the wise counsel will prevail, there is no dearth of talented scholars in India particularly south of Vindhya
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      Rajesh
      Mar 21, 2016 at 7:34 am
      You admire Indian culture and tradition and have confidence in it. why did you go to US for higher studies? Pollock is not Hindu phobic but Hindutva phobic. The way the attempts are being made to distort Indian history and put in more fictions that facts, it is natural for an engaged scholar for to be concerned. He never forces or dictate how research in India should be carried out. He is against interference of vested interest. The Murthy Project is blown out of proportion. In the work to be produced the original sanskrit texts will be reproduced as it is and will be followed by English translation and editor's comments. So asking for head of Pollock is not a right thing to do.
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      1. S
        Saurabh Parasramka
        Mar 21, 2016 at 1:48 am
        Murthy library is a very brave and noble effort and as Indians we should all support it. The objectives are laudable. I will request the author of this article to be more objective in his criticism and back what he says with references. His opinion may have substance but as a reader I will rather have objective critiquing rather than personal opinion. There are lot of things left to subjective interpretation and personal philosophy. That should not be held against anyone. As far as money part is concerned one has to earn it and should not be demanded.
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        1. K
          K SHESHU
          Mar 21, 2016 at 1:44 pm
          It has become a fashion to dub anyone who analyses the Hindu scriptures in any way other than traditional way as leftist or Hindu -phobic. The scriptures are anti - dalit in nature and must be analysed in that point if view .
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            Aditya Andhalikar
            Mar 21, 2016 at 3:41 pm
            You are comparing a very niche area of academic study with commodified IT outsourcing and saying why we didnt do same. You are also forgetting that regretabbly currently most peer review worthy research on indian history is happening outside india . There are just not many in india with enough academic credibility to handle this.
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              Aditya Andhalikar
              Mar 21, 2016 at 3:41 pm
              You are comparing a very niche area of academic study with commodified IT outsourcing and saying why we didnt do same. You are also forgetting that regretabbly currently most peer review worthy research on indian history is happening outside india . There are just not many in india with enough academic credibility to handle this.
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                Akash
                Mar 21, 2016 at 1:43 am
                "...Pollock has increasingly identified himself with left-liberal....", now I know why Prof dislikes Mr Pollock. You could have just said this in one line/tweet. Why did you bring poor Murty kid into your politics?
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                  anand-m
                  Mar 21, 2016 at 11:21 am
                  I agree to most of the points raised in this remarkble Essay, especially the political/historical objections raised. It is imperative that India have control over its history, language and culture. I too find it sad that India feels the need to fetch "confirmations/certifications" from "experts" in the west; the western atude is, "since the Indians can't do it themselves, we have to teach them what their own language and history is". No doubt, this has to end. Scholars like yourself, Mr. Paranjpe, are the ones who can be the saviours - at best, by exposing Errors, whether unintentional or not, in the works of western "India experts". In effect, India needs to play the same game that the west has over centuries pla with her - first discredit and then rewrite.
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                    Annu
                    Mar 21, 2016 at 4:46 pm
                    A perfect example of racism. Racism is not always of skin color, there is intellectual racism too. Not one of your reasons is about Sheldon Pollock. And yet you and your petty minded colleagues had no qualms in inating Pollock's character. And when that attempt fell through, you are coming up with more..... Your example that Americans would be furious if Chinese scholars wrote about American history sounds very familiar to what a central minister recently said about Osama being praised in American universities. And we all know what President of Princeton University had to say about that. I am not saying the endowment must go to American universities. I would be the happiest if it went to Indian Universities. But the argument for Indian universities is not by attacking foreign scholars, or repeating historical injustices or dollar conversion rates. Please put forward your argument based on who is the most qualified Indian to do the mammoth task. Don't be a dog in the manger. As Rohan Murty said time is running out. This is not the time to bring out your inferiority complexes. This is the time for action. Let MrMurty do his job
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                    1. H
                      heraclitus kapila
                      Dec 29, 2016 at 5:36 pm
                      There is a reason that infosys is not Microsoft or google it is based on doing coolie work for the western world Narayna murthy credits the British for Indian success so a certain amount of genuflection is normal it is unfortunate that he could not and will not get talent like Sundar Pichai and Satya Naldella als he believes in the inferiority of Indianslt;br/gt;Mccauley is smiling in his grave The a Brown Indians serving the white europeans
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                        Arun Maheshwari
                        Mar 21, 2016 at 12:55 pm
                        It is silly to worry about Murthy and Son and their library. They have made their money doing coolie work for Americans so their opinion of what Indians are capable of is based on their own capabilities. Second, their donation is so small that it is hardly going to make a difference one way or another. We should focus on planning what needs to be done and then get it done in Indian universities by Indian scholars who understand Hinduism and are sensitive, sympathetic, and even proud of it. The Government of India certainly can and should provide the needed resources. Perhaps we can take the funds currently being spent on supporting Naxalite professors and students in the JNU and divert them to the study of our old literature and other desirable activities. The culture in India is changing after sixty plus dark years of the Congress rule and I am confident that funding should not be an issue as I believe there are enough rich individuals who are proud of their culture and who would be willing to contribute, in addition to the government.
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                          Ashish Kothari
                          Mar 28, 2016 at 4:04 pm
                          Sign this peion and let Murthy's know your support for the author and all others who signed... source=share_peionandutm_medium=copylink
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                            mitra
                            Mar 21, 2016 at 9:01 am
                            It is proved many times that a westerner will interpret ISHOPANISHAD differently from an Indian even if they have equal mastery over Sanskrit . To emphasis Indian view point in the preservation work, involvement of Indian scholars is inevitable. If Murthy foundation is attracted by the 'Scientific' ways of Westerners then at the least they should have formed a group of editors which included Indians as well.
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                              Avinash
                              Mar 21, 2016 at 6:48 pm
                              GOI should not allow this to happen.
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                                Casteless
                                Mar 21, 2016 at 8:30 am
                                Government has put in crores of Rupees in loss making and inefficient Air India. Why can they not put in money in an Indian project? What about our Birlas, Goenkas, Adanis, Ambanis, Hindujas and super reach Babas, Gurus and Swamis? It is high time Hindus need to put their own house in order which itself is a big task given their inferiority complex. This not to belittle the efforts of people who are working towards it but they may need to get more support from within.
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                                1. শৌনক বসু
                                  Mar 21, 2016 at 1:55 pm
                                  To be honest, all I can only pity these colonial rulers. Look at South America, Africa, Australia or North America - they have completely annihilated the local culture and customs. But in India, the best that they could do is getting us to wear trousers. So, their frustration is understandable. Guys, please have some pity on them ;-)
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                                    Rama Menon
                                    Mar 21, 2016 at 12:46 pm
                                    Good one by Mr. Maka Paranjpe. There are sane people in JNU. A big thumps up for that. Now coming to the matter, I did not in he wildest of dreams ume that Rohan Murthy would stoop so low; Not that i know anything of him but then since he is Mr. Narayana Murthy's son, did not ume he would be found wanting in basic values if not anything else. What he wants to do is a total sell out. These are the kind of people who basically suffer from a lot of inferiority complex being an Indian. Due to tremendous amount of ignorance they do not know how lucky they are that they are born in India as a Hindu. By the virtue of being born as a Hindu these so called pseudo intellectuals do not know how lucky they are to follow their pion with an unconditioned mind. The unconditioned mind, a term often brilliantly used by J Krishnamurthy and a balanced approach is necessarily not the prerogative of a Hindu mind but it is this mindset which one would more often ociate with a Hindu.
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                                      John Rock
                                      Mar 21, 2016 at 4:55 am
                                      Pollock has been trying his luck for the past 35 to 40 yrs. As far as rohan murthy is concerned - "like father" "like son". Narayanamurthy once said to his foreign employees (read white) if they find it difficult to sing Indian national anthem, they don't have to and they can sit. He loves to suck up to his white masters. Narayanamurthy also said that science was a gift from his British colonial masters to India.
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                                        rollingstone
                                        Mar 21, 2016 at 7:40 am
                                        Murty is not the only one in India who has the moolah to fund a project like this. Aren't there hundreds of others who are more 'patriotic' to get Indian scholars to do the job? Why aren't they coming forward? Just trashing someone on the basis of fake arguments will do no good to the cause they claim to espouse. The Adanis and Ambanis are many, many times richer than Murty. Let them put together a team of the best available scholars in Sanskrit and other Indian languages and produce work that can refute the views of western intellectuals and expose their alleged falsehoods and biases. BTW Pollock has said there is a big dearth of scholars who are able to read and interpret ancient texts in India. He was making this comment in the context of hale Kannada or old Kannada.
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                                          Satya Srinivas
                                          Mar 21, 2016 at 6:15 am
                                          Then definitely you need to read the book of Rajiv Malhotra "The Battle For Sanskrit" to understand why the professor is questioning a noble thought of Younger Murthy. The scholarship of Pollock and thought of Rohan is not being questioned. But the lens through which Pollock looks at Hinduism and Hindu texts are being questioned. And the way Rohan is implementing the the project without due diligence.
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                                            Arun Kumar
                                            Mar 21, 2016 at 7:29 pm
                                            A clic example of rescuing our ancient medical treatise to be digested by the Great white man, was done by Mr Mashelkar when a spate of patent claims on turmeric, Basil leaves etc were raised in the US and by painstaking efforts were thwarted by Mashelkar and his team at CDAC. We don't need the white man to reignite us to our own culture.
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