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Mind Your (Ancient) Language

Sheldon Pollock on meaning of ‘classical’ and how an inclusive political environment is essential for Sanskrit

Written by Anushree Majumdar |
Updated: January 25, 2015 12:40:53 am
Sheldon Pollock at Jaipur Literature Festival 2015. (Source: Express Photo by Oinam Anand) Sheldon Pollock at Jaipur Literature Festival 2015. (Source: Express Photo by Oinam Anand)

In his 2001 paper titled The Death of Sanskrit, American Sanskrit scholar and founding editor of the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI), Sheldon Pollock attempts to “understand the death of Sanskrit literary culture as a historical process”. He looks at the disappearance of Sanskrit literature in Kashmir, the last days of the language in 16th century Vijayanagara, its near-nonexistent presence in Bengal and a final gasp at Delhi’s Mughal court in the mid-17th century. “That was a grossly misunderstood piece. I was attempting to provide a history of the language. I was trying to look at what political and social conditions are conducive to a vibrant, creative and joyful world of Sanskrit,” says Pollock, looking like Father Christmas as he moves gamely from one interview to the next at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival.

But the question Pollock raised in the paper 14 years ago remains as pertinent, if not more so, today as it was then. “What kind of political institutions and civic ethos is required to sustain Sanskrit literary culture in India today? For Sanskrit to prosper here today you need a political environment that is open, inclusive and not a divisive, exclusionary, majoritarian government. It can’t come out of a sense of humiliation,” he says.

“Sanskrit was the builder of bridges, not a divider, to Buddhists, the Jains, to every vernacular language in South Asia. A language of cosmopolitan inclusiveness, not reduction. So in this post-colonial world, who owns ‘classical’ and Sanskrit,” he asks.

The former general editor of the Clay Sanskrit Library has signed up 36 authors to produce 40 books. By the year 2115, Pollock hopes the MCLI will have an impressive list of 500 titles, spanning over 12 languages in South Asia. Last week, four titles were released — Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women; Abu’l Fazl’s The History of Akbar; Bulleshah’s Sufi Lyrics; Allasani Peddana’s The Story of Manu and Surdas’s Sur’s Ocean.

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“These books are not just for rasikas or lovers of poetry or the professional historian. If you look at the definition of ‘classical’ in the Western tradition, they use the phrase ‘perpetual contemporaneity’. The classical is always what is already familiar to us. It’s as if you go to the classical because you want to rediscover yourself,” says Pollock, who aims to reverse that definition. “At Murty, you will discover your ‘non-self’. You will discover possibilities of being human that have disappeared, that have been shut off by colonialism, globalisation, modernity, forms of hatred, division that now defines our lives,” he says.

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