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Playing Jekyll and Hyde – The academic pathosis of Sheldon Pollock

 “She had an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy; but her manners were excellent.”

        — RL Stevenson describing the housekeeper of Mr. Hyde

Few books in recent Indian history have stirred up such a controversy, polarised debates, stirred up Indian academia and general masses alike. Amongst those books, Rajiv Malhotra’s books are pre-eminent. His latest magnum-opus ‘The Battle for Sanskrit’ explores the not-so-noble movements in the field of Indology. He unearths, consistent with his other works, the nefarious personalities involved who are scheming to hijack Sanskrit and Samskruti and thereby influence the academic, political and religious narratives in India.

The central character of this book is Sheldon Pollock who is a leading figure in Sanskrit studies. Reading through the book has sparked the author’s curiosity on Pollock. This led the author to follow Pollock and his works which are available in public domain. Inspired by ‘The Battle for Sanskrit’, these pursuits soon revealed an interesting dichotomy in Pollock’s presentation of his views. This article is brief compilation of the glaring discrepancies between Pollock’s academic works and his public appearances.

Jekyll and Hyde

The strange personality of Pollock displays irreconcilable and incoherent attitudes towards Sanskrit. His academic anthology is diametric to his utterances in his public appearances. One would associate epistemic virtues like honesty, humility, truthfulness, integrity from intellectuals. Instead, Pollock seems to carry obverse facades to suit the setting which we usually associate with politicians.

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For the masses, Pollack portrays himself as a genuine and honest scholar who is at pains to rescue and resuscitate the grand narrative of Sanskrit from its indisputable death. He wants to be seen as someone who is in anguish over India’s indifference and ignorance at their colossal and magnificent Sanskrit heritage. He misses no chance to dish out his frustration at Indian’s own apathy towards Westerner Scholars like him who are spending their lifetimes to bring back the glory of Sanskrit. I call this facet of Pollock as “Jekyll Pollock”.

Contrast this with his academic works, where he demonises Sanskrit for its oppression, racism and divisiveness which still continues to be the tool of Hindu communalism in modern India. He hypothesises that Sanskrit has caused problems wherever it spread, therefore, it needs to de-fanged by secularising it. I call this academic doppelganger as the “Hyde Pollock”.

Sanskrit – Splendid or Sinister

Mr Jekyll Pollock at Jaipur literary Festival 2015 on Classical Texts sponsored by Murthy Classical Library (MCL), goes at length to praise Sanskrit– that it ‘made bridges’ with Buddhists, Jains and most languages in South-East Asia. According to him Sanskrit was a world of ‘cosmopolitan inclusiveness’ and goes onto quote Sanskrit phrase ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’. Again during the same year, he appeared for a sales pitch interview for MCL in NDTV. There he was oozing concern for India’s ‘cultural ecocide’ (cultural suicide) that is leading to ‘dramatic moment of discontinuity’ in Indian competencies to conserve, preserve and nurture its classics. In an interview to Tehelka in 2011, he praises Sanskrit as ‘expression of 2000 years of some of the most sophisticated consciousness’. In 2014 accepting the Friend of Indian award he voiced his concern at ‘extraordinary luminous tradition we are possibly about to lose’.  For a layman, Jekyll Pollock appears to be a godsend – his missionary zeal to preserve dying language is unparalleled even within its own scholars.

Hyde Pollock, in contrast, when he is in safe confines of his academic burrows has a different narrative to weave. He denigrates Sanskrit as the ‘principal discursive instrument of domination in premodern India’. He insinuates that Sanskrit promotes political hegemony and it has a strange pernicious influence on all the societies it spread – whether Indian, British or German.  The class oppression finds in roots in the strict grammatical structures and ‘traditional domination as coded in Sanskrit’. He has gone where no Indologist has gone before by claiming that Sanskrit literature directly influenced Nazism. He believes that the Sanskrit’s history has not been sufficiently been critiqued enough that the ‘stored energy’ (of traditional domination) is still surviving in various harsh forms. He proclaims that it is his ‘compelling project’ to neutralise such forces.

Pithless Rama – Benevolent Samkara

Malhotra devoted an entire chapter to document how Pollock vilified Ramayana and its characters. Hyde Pollock declared that Ramayana supplanted Buddhist Jataka tales and that Valmiki weaved a bardic tale to reinforce political hegemony of Hindu kings which is craftily legitimised by cunning Brahmins. Le motif of Valmiki, according to Pollock, is no more than to consolidate the doctrine of raj dharma. He lampoons Lord Rama as one with no free will or choice and that Ramayana is the cause of all current Hindutva strife in the country.

Malhotra in ‘The Batlle for Sanskrit’ reveals that Sringeri Vidya Bharati Foundation (SVBF) USA supposedly had plans to invite Pollock to head the committee to set up a chair of Adi Samkara Chair in Hindu Religion and Philosophy. Now the interesting aspect of the development is that Adi Samkara was, though, philosopher par excellence, he was deeply rooted in bhakti tradition. He is considered as Shiva incarnate himself, who took birth to restore dharma. Adi Samkara wrote countless strotrams on various deities. Among them is ‘Sri Raama Bhujanga Strotram’ on Lord Rama where he says – ‘त्वदन्यं न मन्ये न मन्ये न मन्ये’ – I will not think of any other God apart from thee. Traditionalist would not miss the significance of fact that Adi Samkara repeats ‘न मन्ये’ three times. Further Hyde Pollock’s ignorance is on full display when one reads Adi Samkara’s bhashya on Vishnu Sahasranama. Commenting on name ‘Ramah’, Adi Samkara says ‘स्वेछया रमणीयम् वपुर्वन्हन्वा दाशरधी रामः’ – the one who willingly chose to be an adorable son of King Dasharadha is called Ramah. Now to say that there is no free will in Ramayana is just bogus scholarship.

Again the pattern is unmissable – while Hyde Pollock demonises Rama and Ramayana, Jekyll Pollock seems to have no qualms to head the committee to set up a chair in the name of Adi Samkara whose bhashyas run diametrically opposite to his works.  It is not hard to infer that, currently, Adi Samkara’s followers are blessed with fat purses while poor Rama is still homeless in Ayodhya.

Pandit or Political Demagogue

Impressed by Pollock’s scholarship on Sanskrit literature Indians, generous and gullible as they are, elevated Pollock to the level of ‘The Pandit’.  With veshti and angavastram to match his Sanskrit skills, Jekyll Pollock sealed his position as a distinguished scholar in his field. His public utterances are all about passionate pleas to preserve and share the grand Sanskrit heritage. His reputation is such that our own Jnanapeeth awardee Girlish Karnad, a Brahmin, reached out to Pollock for background material on Vedic India!

A ‘Pandit’ so fervent about reviving Sanskrit should be elated at similar movements in India. Instead, Hyde Pollock finds Samskruta Bharati’s efforts of rejuvenating Sanskrit through its popular speaking courses as ‘nauseating’. His impatience with ‘BJP/RSS/Hindutva and the alphabet soup of forces’ places him on the ‘secular’ side of Indian politics rooting for M3 – Mullahs, Missionaries and Marxists. When he articulates his liberation philology to instigate social activism in India he is not shirking his political ambitions. By attempting to dilute the brutality of British colonialism and manufacture a new narrative of ‘Deep Orientalism’ Hyde Pollock has metamorphosed himself into a political demagogue.

Conclusion

For laymen who hold academia in high esteem because of their objectivity and integrity, Pollock’s public and academic faces appear as contrapositions. Malhotra has done an exemplary job of stripping naked Sheldon Pollock of his pretences. He has methodically unveiled the sinister side of Sheldon Pollock who, otherwise, would have been passed off as demi dieu of Indology. All Indians are truly indebted to his works. He evokes the same spirit as that of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo who woke up and invigorated India from its slumber. Its time all Indians in general and Hindus in particular, heed to Malhotra’s warning of ‘(Pollock’s) attack on spiritual roots of the culture is not only fundamentally wrong but also counterproductive’.  In light of these

  • Do we want this double-dealing, academic rabble-rouser to be the curator of our sacred Sanskrit texts?
  • Do we want this naastika who has neither shraddha nor bhakti nor adhikara nor samskara to represent Adi Samkara chair?
  • Do we let his political philological demagoguery dictate the Indian political, religious and democratic discourse?

These are the questions every Indian need to ask about Sheldon Pollock and It would be interesting to see if Sheldon Pollock would accept if an academic chair were to be set up in name of “Sri Valmiki Chair of Ramayana Studies.

Bibliography

  1. The Battle for Sanskrit [Abstract]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://thebattleforsanskrit.com
  2. Jaipur Literary Festival 2015. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watchv=c1dqWohJWnY
  4. Tehelka Interview – Part1 [Video file]. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXhInNUVZ6U
  5. Tehelka Interview – Part2 [Video file]. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watchv=Mk8WVyyyst8
  6. shrIrAmabhujanga stotra .. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://Sanskritdocuments.org/doc_raama/raamabhujanga.html?lang=sa
  7. Vishnu Sahasranama With The Bhasya of Sankaracharya:Sankaracharya, R.Ananthakrishna Sastry : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/Vishnu.Sahasranama.with.the.Bhasya.of.Sankaracharya    (1999). Sri Vishnu Saharsranaama Strotra Bhashayam (1999 ed., Vol. 7, Samkara Grantha Ratnavali). Tenali, Andhra Pradesh: Sadhana Grandha Mandali. Translated by Sri Varanasi Subramanya Sastri
  8. India Abroad’s Person of the Year 2013. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://issuu.com/indiainny/docs/poy_2013 e=10810770/10966857
  9. Sanskrit Scholar Sheldon Pollock: India Abroad Friend of India Award. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y179Qkz7Uuc Published on Jun 21, 2014 Sanskrit Scholar Sheldon Pollock’s acceptance speech at the India Abroad Person of the Year 2013 event held in New York on June 20, 2014.
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