April 04, 2020
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‘Nobody In Rome Will Mind A Videshi Translating Aeneid’

Indians take the interpretation of their past with a degree of seriousness found virtually nowhere else in the world, says Sheldon Pollock, one of the world's most eminent Sanskritists, in a exclusive interview withOutlook.

‘Nobody In Rome Will Mind A Videshi Translating Aeneid’
Photograph by Jitender Gupta
‘Nobody In Rome Will Mind A Videshi Translating Aeneid’

Sheldon Pollock, one of the world’s most eminent Sanskritists and founder-editor, Murty Classical Library, was in the eye of a storm a few seasons ago. In India for a talk at Ashoka University, he reprises the themes in an interview with Sunil Menon. Excerpts:

There are two tracks we can go down here. One is to stay in the deep, if not entirely still waters of the academic. But when a scholar emerges from the silence of the library, it’s a noisy world out there. The world of petitions. How did you negotiate this recent turbulent phase?

I knew that would be your first question! You see, for an obscure scholar of Sanskrit from a distant country to be invited to a briefing with the press is on the face of it very odd. Imagine an American scholar of Virgil who comes to Rome and is queried by the press about his attitude towards Aeneas! The good side is that people take the classical past in India very seriously. People care. I see this in many areas. Think how many rapes happen in the US every single day, but when something of that tragic sort happens in India, as we’ve seen in these months, Indians show a degree of empathy and collective sorrow that’s extraordinary. So there’s a sense that you are dealing with a polity, a collectivity, of people who are emotionally deeply eng­aged with the world. However tragic the circumstances, I find that amazing. This is something I’ve been thinking about.

Do you think this tendency is new?

I have no idea. I raise this in the context of that question. There’s a side of the events of the last few years, and it obviously doesn’t just concern me, it concerns many scholars in the field of classi­cal studies. The bottomline is that Indians take the interpretation of their past with a degree of seriousness found virtually nowhere else in the world. I can’t see the Chinese…you know, three new series have appeared in the last five years in the West. The library of Arabic literature, the library of Chinese humanities and one more…. But the Chinese and the Arabs, they don’t care it’s being edited by somebody in New York or Harvard. They are just delighted to see these books produced. But there’s a degree of passion and engagement on the part of Indians that I find marvellous and fascinating. The problem is the degree of ignorance and toxicity, meanness and vituperation that has accompanied this otherwise entirely legitimate interest.

This claim to ownership through inheritance, how does a scholar who is not native-born tackle this? How do such questions come about in the first place? Scholars were always studying something else, Buddhist texts were being translated by the Chinese et al.


How do you contest this kind of nativist claim to ownership?

That’s a hard one to answer. Several ideas flow into my head…. Take the Chinese. Now, neo-Confucianism does play a role in contemporary Chinese thought but there’s nothing per se religious in the recovering of its past. There’s national pride but no religiosity. With the Arab world, of course the Quran is a special case, but most Arabic literature appearing in the library is secular and has nothing to do with the current passions about Islamic identity or theology or law. I mentioned the Aeneid. To what degree had Aeneas ever been a figure of religious devotion in ancient Rome? Probably zero. No part of that ancient Roman religion has survived. So nobody is going to take out a black flag march in Rome against some ‘videshi’ who has translated the Aeneid! Hegel said in his Lectures on Aesthetics that the thread to the mythical past in Europe has snapped. It’s no longer alive. In India, it’s alive. So one answer is that the past lives in India in a way it doesn’t live elsewhere. Which is something we need to acknowledge and be sensitive towards. For some Indians, some of the figures in the books I and others have read and translated are matters of living faith and, if we want to be treated with respect, we have to treat others with respect, as simple as that.

Another thought that comes into my head is the residue of post-colonial resentment. Now, one can have various interpretations of the breadth and depth of the colonial impact on India. But there’s a response to science that says, ‘We had it too’, ‘We had jet airliners in the Vedic age’, ‘We performed plastic surgery...look at Ganesha’. All of this mytho-mania that you find, Aldous Huxley once described it as the melancholy product of a subject people’s inferiority complex. I think to some degree that’s true. But this is no longer a subject people. Why is there this residuum of anxiety and wounded narcissism on the part of some people in India? This is very hard for me to understand.

Maybe half a century is not sufficient...

Maybe not enough to remove...

It’s a civilisation that claims the rhythm of deep time….

You may be right... What is seventy years? It’s but a second in....

"India takes the interpretation of its past with a seriousness found nowhere else. But why this wounded narcissism?”

It’s as if the wounds are only now being discovered….

Maybe so. But a proud civilisation does not have to stoop to this pathetic...I mean, there’s so much to be proud of in India.

Instead, we have this chest-beating, itself a sign of doubt.

Of doubt, insecurity... And you now, one thing not peculiar to India is the difficulty that cultures (to use this insufficient word for complex groups of people who share certain ideas) have in acknowledging Benjamin’s great insight: that every document of civilisation is at the same time a document of barbarism.

No dearth of that here.

Benjamin was thinking about the oppressed human labour that goes into the great monuments of the past, but look at culture more generally. I’m a great admirer of classical shastra—Indian classical systematic thought, some of which I studied with the greatest proponents like Pattabhirama Sastri in Banaras. So I’d read these brilliant scholars and occasionally they would talk about asparshya people—that somehow, if your dhoti is touched by such a person, what you have to do. It was embedded in the very logic of the culture. So you have this magnificent philosophical edifice—the nature of divine injunction, sacred injunction, complex hermeneutics—and built into this is the barbarism of untouchability. Now why can a proud culture not say, ‘Look at this magnificent edifice, there is this small, broken piece of social inequality we need to recognise and get rid of’.

Not small...

I know, not small when you have 200 million people categorised this way. You know the textbook controversy in California (over caste). If my granddaughter came home and said they made me learn all this terrible stuff about how the ancient Jews drove the Canaanites out and killed them with fire and brimstone, I’d sit her down and talk to her about the difficulty of being a Jew who has to read a sacred text where god seems like a real estate agent. It’s like a land grab in contemporary Delhi! But divinely sanctioned. I’d sit her down and say this is a part of heritage we must overcome. Indian parents can’t say to the California Board—‘No discussion of caste’, or ‘caste was just a social organisation, div­ision of labour’.... It was a form of deep oppression.

Photograph by Jitender Gupta

It was apartheid.

So there was that wounded post-colonial psyche, the high sensitivities that are understandable. But the inability to work through the past...it hasn’t happened successfully in most cou­ntries, certainly not vis-a-vis race relations in the US. Working through the past… Aufarbeitung der vergangenheit is what German philosopher Theodore Adorno called it. He was referring of course to the post-war German people’s need and obligation to work through the Nazi past, to find a way to live.

That’s why classical studies is so important to me. It’s not just Kalidasa and the Golden Age. It’s the tools of working through the past. You can’t just go around these ancient structures of opp­ression by legislation or violence. You have to go through them with study, analysis—this was one of Ambedkar’s great gifts. He didn’t put it quite this way, but a careful, systematic, working through the civilisation and barbarism of the past....

Almost like a truth and reconciliation process...

Exactly! Here, I have to get down to the nub of the matter. There are some people who are raising their very mean-spirited voices (and I have to say this bluntly)...they are liars, plagiarists and libellous. I use those words advisedly because I know of cases of absolute lies, absolute plagiarism, absolute libel. You know, as somebody said, you don’t come to a gunfight with books. If people use those sorts of weapons, it’s very difficult to engage.

You signed a petition for JNU, and then came their rather hilarious petition against you. It first quoted a speech you gave at Heidelberg about Macaulay...perhaps Weber. They withdrew it hastily when they realised post facto that...

That I was denouncing Weber! I said Heidelberg, the Institute of South Asian Studies, shows how totally wrong Max Weber was.

Could you elaborate?

"Weber’s prashasti was the worst kind of Western triumphalism and exceptionalism. To read that today fills me with rage.”

I have very mixed feelings about Weber. I consider him one of the social theory geniuses of the twentieth century, who in his own way opened up a project of comparativism that I consider very important, that I try to do as best as I can, I mean his work on China, the Islamic world and India, his comparative religion project…it’s pretty astonishing even a hundred years later.

But the second edition of Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism begins with a prashasti of the West. Only the West has A, only the West has B, only the west has C...down the alphabet. To read that today fills me with rage! Since WWII, when universities began to establish departments, to study as honestly as we could the world outside the West, with new tools, real language skills, real theoretical sophistication, we could show that Weber and that passage was wrong at every step of the way, was the worst kind of blinkered view of European triumphalism and exceptionalism, superiority and privilege.

If they had so much as read what you wrote...

But you see they don’t want to read. I’m reminded of Syed Shahabuddin, when Satanic Verses was censored. Somebody asked, what do you think of the book and he said, “I don’t have to drink gutter water to know it’s bad.” This is like that. Just something in the air, you know: “who is this guy, he’s a videshi, a Freudian!” I mean, I quoted Freud once in my entire career, only to denounce him. But they don’t read. Like somebody once said, you don’t have to have Jews to have anti-Semitism.

They bracket you with the “JNU historian”, a figure who elicits the same fear and loathing. Paradoxically, you once wrote how scientised history is exactly what fed this whole surge for a literalist search for Ayodhya.

I wrote that in my post-modern period! I’m not sure I’d make exactly the same arguments today. I angered some of my dear colleagues at JNU with it. The rath yatra had just begun and I was—I shouldn’t have been—appalled to see the text I was working on weaponised. I simply couldn’t believe it.

There is a kind of folk view of Sanskrit among people who regard it with a sense of ownership without knowing it. One element that gets parroted: Sanskrit is not just the language of gods, it’s the language of computers...it’s internally so logical that science inevitably flows from it! How do you exp­lain that it’s the grammarians who are great, not the grammar….

(Laughs) A very good question, and a very old one. Very early on in the history of Vedic exegesis, there was a paksha-pratipaksha about the nature of the mantra. People believed you didn’t have to understand what the mantra meant; if the pronunciation was correct, its efficacy would be unharmed. This was a real view of the world, that the aksharas themselves had a certain potency. Look at the recitation of Buddhist sutras in Japan, they have no idea what those mean! It’s liturgy as shabda-brahma….

Could there be, say, a phonoaesthetic explanation for it?

Maybe! I wouldn’t be able to speak to those issues, I’m not so much a scientist as an intellectual historian but your question does have a very old genealogy to it. So there was this sense that Sanskrit had a kind of potency just by its very phonological essence. I am neither willing nor unwilling to deny that. Such a view existed and may have been based on a phonaesthetic view of the world.

Sanskrit grammarians—your insight is absolut­ely correct—take things that look like everyday things, like words, and tear them apart. They take a sentence and tear it apart to figure out exactly how it works. Beyond language, a play: looking at its mood, tearing apart every segment to figure out how it works. This is a most astonishing capacity of classical Indian thought. It’s analysis at the deepest level. They then reconstruct these analytical beejas, so to speak, into something great. Panini’s Ashtadhyayi and Sanskrit grammar generally is the work of scholars who really understood language. I’m thinking of the rishitrayam—Panini, Katyayana, Patanjali. In the history of grammar, no one compares with them. But does this make the language somehow supernatural? No, it’s indeed the grammarians, not the grammar.

Another fantasy: this idea of everyone walking aro­und speaking Sanskrit, when it was always a small knowledge elite, many of them bilingual... Did Panini really speak Sanskrit with his mother?

It’s highly improbable. The early sociology of Sanskrit is very obscure to us. We don’t have the sources to answer some of these questions. My general sense, the sense of many scholars, is that Sanskrit was a liturgical language, then slowly morphed into a language of science and laukika-kavya, and then became a link language among the literati, among the elites and scholars across India.

Even the RSS responds to this pop idea of spoken Sanskrit. Their whole policy is geared towards a dumbed-down, conversational Sanskrit.

It’s just Hindi with some new morphemes added.

With all this textual history, will that do?

“Some people raising their mean-spirited voices, they are liars, plagiarists and libellous. You don’t come to a gunfight with books."

Absolutely not. I have a student, an Indian, doing a deg­ree in philosophy in New York. He’s coming to Delhi for a year, and he said, “I want to continue reading Sanskrit...who can I go to?” What do I mean by reading Sanskrit? I mean sitting with a text, reading akshara by akshara, figuring out the anvaya, the syntactical organisation, the argument, the purva paksha, the aparapaksha, the siddhanta. Can you do that in Delhi? I still don’t have a name to give him. And this is India’s capital city.

Sanskrit had a digvijaya over India for over a thousand years. Did it destroy local languages? It did not. It encouraged them. And to think India would follow the Hebrew experiment when you have India’s glorious multi-linguality. I think it’s retrograde. I don’t think kids read texts any more in India. I lectured in Calicut…there were eighty MA kids in the room, and they just...

Stared blankly?

Blankly. I wanted everyone to have the text...Dasarupaka, a truly magnificent 10th c work on aesthetics. I wanted to show just how revolutionary it was. There was no comprehension at all. They go ‘spoken Sanskrit, spoken Sanskrit, spoken Sansk­rit’....but you’re not teaching kids how to read their texts.

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