Sheldon Pollock's Scare mongering about "Crisis in the Classics"

Sheldon Pollock has written a scare mongering piece here:

The following is a humble attempt to rebut the article:

"“India is confronting a calamitous endangerment of its classic knowledge, and India today may have reached the point the rest of the world will reach tomorrow. This form of knowledge, under the sign of a critical classicism, must be recovered and strengthened not for the mere satisfaction of those outside of India who cultivate the study of its past but for the good of the people of India themselves.”

   The article starts with Sheldon Pollock (SP) saying that what he says in the article is not backed by statistics but out of personal experience and anecdotes.

   The above said, let us analyze the alarm!
1. "Calamitous endangerment of its classic knowledge." : According to SP, classic knowledge is knowledge "about" classics and not knowledge of the classics. Knowledge about classics is analyzing abhij~nAna shAkuntala in the light of post modern, post colonial, post defecatory theories of society and people. One wonders whether this sort of analysis will lead to more students joining universities. In my opinion it will not.
2. "reached the point the rest of the world will reach tomorrow": what this this point? Throwing of "literary studies, hackneyed humanities etc." of the SP kind out of the window? We are happy to be the pioneers in this.
3. "critical classicism": one which analyzes abhij~nAna shAkuntala in the light of feminism etc. phew!!! Do we really need this? Does he also mean that the "classicism" practiced by scholars in India is uncritical classicism?
4. "good of the people of India themselves": hahahahahaha... a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that power seems to be shifting from the western universities to Indians and persons of Indian origin. Many of these fat cats are sustained by donations from NRIs. Why will they support him if he doesn't give them their due?

“…from the structure of the nineteenth-century university to the erosion of reading with the rise of the Internet”"
   What he is suggesting as a remedy is much worse.
university learning of India is producing just local rowdies, goons etc.
What SP is proposing will lead to Big mafia dons like what comes out of JNU, DU etc. Interact with his students (i have) and you will know.
   He doesn't see himself as part of the problem. He isn't proposing Indian professors study classics, he wants them to study "about" them (in the prisms of feminism, subalternism, post modernism, post colonialism etc.). Please see his exhortation to Indian Vidvans to study English so that they can converse with their "peers" in western academia. What he is proposing is worse than condescension.

2. Dr. Pollock’s enumeration of the purpose of classical studies:
1) promotes real pedagogy, especially and perhaps unexpectedly radical pedagogy;
2) stimulates care for memory and helps shape a usable sense of the past, preserving memory from those who would abuse it and opening the past to responsible critique;
3) enables us to acquire new “tools for living”;
4) makes possible an encounter with the enduring beauty and intellectual excitement created by the vast labor of several thousands years of human consciousness. “"
   As far as I know, prayojana catuShTaya means "viShaya, adhikArii, sambandha, phala". What is enumerated above is just the purported phala (the sort of phala that a salesman promises), that too through his prism. Let us still analyze his drivel.

1. Pedagogy:

Just because people start reading "about" classics (note the word "about", this means: reading about classics through the glasses of feminism, post modernism etc.), there will not emerge any new pedagogy. What is the problem with the old pedagogy? Has SP explained? NO. No one should start mending a system just because one perceives "problems", one needs to be specific about them.

2. huge list, lets break it down:

  • "stimulates care for memory" : intellectual jargon which doesn't mean anything. The way I understand it is: If people study "about" classics (in various prisms, subaltern, feministic, post-modern etc.), it will help us preserve our "civilizational memory". I have taken the liberty to interpret it in this way because SP doesn't explain this. Now, tell me, aren't the two independent? If there is a will to "care for memory", the civilization will study its history and it will read it in its own way. It doesn't need SP and his instruments.
  • "shape a usable sense of past": What the heck??? On one hand he wants the study of classics to have no hindrances of money (sarasvati of socialistic era replaced by lakshmi of the present era as he is lamenting somewhere else), and on the other he wants a "usable sense of the past" how contradictory??? But then all this is to be expected because he wants to do some "bELEkALu beyskOLifying" (cooking one's cereals). He has written this whole tripe as a marketing catalogue.
  • "preserving memory from those who would abuse it": His cohorts have been culpable of this crime (DD Kosambi is the worst example of this), hence his words ring totally hollow.
  • "opening the past to responsible critique": the insinuation being that he and his cronies alone are "responsible". Which many, in their naivete and "hamsa"ness (a "hamsa" or a white swan according to Indian poetic convention has the capability of filtering out just milk from a mixture of water and milk, there are some with whom I have interacted who want to give the benefit of doubt to SP and take the "good" points out of his article) will never be able to glean.

3) "enables us to acquire new “tools for living”:

 at least here, he is honest. It enables the fat cat SP to have a tool for living for himself. If his department is closed by the egregious "capitalists", he will run out of the greatest tool of his living. On a serious note, all this is undiluted rubbish. Why will classics give us new "tools for living"? Somewhere else he is lamenting the rise of engineering, science etc. faculties which are much better at giving "tools for living". What he is talking is utter fecal matter. Studying classics (and not "about" them) is not for getting "tools of living". It is to give meaning to our life and give us happiness. Something which is too alien to his discourse. Because if he says all this (if at all he knows), then the raison-de-etre of his whole paper will be void.

4. "makes possible an encounter with the enduring beauty and intellectual excitement created by the vast labor of several thousands years of human consciousness.": 

and he will have us do it through his learning "about" classics and not learning the classics.

A well-known but worth-noting statement:

"The possibilities for imagining a different future are sometimes made available by discovering a different past."
   No adharma can project itself in it's own form. It has to take the form of dharma. Ravana had to take the form of a sannyAsi to do siitApaharaNa. Hence, whatever good he has said goes towards a more egregious end.

"A reading style that prioritizes efficiency and immediacy militates against developing the habit of “slow reading,” as Nietzsche called it, upon which literary, especially classical literary, studies depends."
   People's priorities are different. There are people who want fast reading. He is also making the unacceptable claim that slow = efficient. This emphasis on "slow reading" gives away the gameplan. They want money, and they want money on the long term and they cannot produce anything worth "human ends" in a short span of time. This is why they want to call upon Nietzsche to bail them out.


"To be sure, there were larger tendencies at work, with far more discernible impact. Even non modernists like myself know about Nehruvian materialism, and, later, slash-and-burn globalization, where, as many have pointed out, high dams became the new temples, and the image of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, has replaced that of Sarasvati, goddess of learning. The outcome for education of Nehruvian state initiatives has been a concentration on science and reader of the reports of the (recently disbanded) National Knowledge Commission, which was charged with recommending long range solutions to India’s higher education deficit, cannot fail to register the utter indifference with which the humanities in general and premodern studies in particular have been treated."

  1. Nehruvian socialism was "materialism"? By what standards? As far as I know, it was anti-materialism where crony capitalists had cornered all rights to production and people were suffering. It needed 3-12 years of time to get a bajaj scooter in that era. People were driven to starvation because of wrong policies concerning food etc.
  2. High dams were a product of Nehruvian Socialism and not the later "slash-and-burn globalization".
  3. If you give importance to premodern studies and humanities, you will be installing Sarasvati, else, you will be installing Lakshmi.
"It is not necessary to deny that non-Brahmanism had its justification as a movement for social transformation, or that it created a new context of respect for the Dravidian past, to recognize at the same time that it seriously damaged the foundations of classical study. You cannot read classical south Indian languages (or for that matter classical north Indian languages) without strong skills in Sanskrit, but a false equation of the language and Brahmanism turned the study of Sanskrit into an object of derision, if not shame."
   Even here, he is an AShADabhUti (roughly translated, it means "hypocrite"), it is not "non-brahmanism" of the "dravidian parties". It is "anti brahmanism". There is a world of difference between the two ("non" and "anti"). People who do kAji nyAya (equivocation which according to kannaDa poetic tradition is got when one approaches a qazi, i.e. muslim priest for justice. The idiomatic qazi will listen to one side and say that what the latter says is true and listen to the other side and say the same) talk in this way. SP is intelligent enough to know that no matter how much he talks (about importance of sanskrit to classical tamil literature etc.), none of the dravidian parties are going to give him a paisa. Hence his courage is not any super-human courage.

Take home message:

   Friends, in case you are really concerned about samskR^itam and it's literature (its wane etc.), please go to a book shop selling Gita Press books and buy yourself a Ramayana with a translation which suits you. Spend one year in serious study of rAmAyaNa and then your guilt and alarm will go away. You would have become comfortable with samskR^itam and its idiom in the bargain. Ignore self-serving slick talkers like Pollock, you will get nothing out of them, you may end up with a hole in your pocket in the bargain.


Ramakrishnan D said…
Beautifully said, Sir. The only solution to the present problem lies in the leadership of the country. They have to introduce Samskrit and Indian Samskriti in the schools and colleges from primary levels itself.Because of political reasons, the essence of education is not taught to the students, but only the minimum knowledge is imparted to them to earn livelihood by any means without caring for morals even at higher levels like engineers, doctors, administrative studies etc. The science and technology subjects that are preserved in our ancient texts are to be taught to the students, to make them believe that such things are available with us since ages immemorial. The leading of moral life is to be taught to the younger generations, that will bring our nation to the top of the nations in the world in all fields. Thank you.

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