Scholars of philology, work heroically to understand long dead languages… in a way, they work to save the past from being lost… But is there something in their work that can, in turn, save ‘the present’ from an essential loss of richness and complexity of thought and understanding? Thomas Crowley, in praise of Sheldon Pollock’s Liberation Philology…
By the time you read this, the furor over the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History will have long passed. Even at the time of writing this (Holi, to be precise, as I hide from the revelers), the controversy seems largely forgotten. The media – both mainstream and alternative – have moved on from the Doniger affair, as election antics crowd the headlines.
Indeed, I don’t have much to add to the already-exhausted debate surrounding Penguin’s decision to withdraw the book from the Indian market after pressure from the Shiksha Bachao Andolan. I don’t say this because I find the issue unimportant, but because the relevant points have already been made, eloquently and angrily, by a host of commentators. Some of the sharpest – not to mention funniest – critiques of the decision can be found on the website Kafila, with sterling contributions on the issue from Nivedita Menon, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Janaki Nair and others.
Their points bear repeating: that Penguin’s decision was cowardly and short-sighted, especially since the courts had not yet given their final say; that the view of Hinduism advocated by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan and its convener Dina Nath Batra is severely constricted, patriarchal and casteist; that ideas and texts should be countered not with bans and thinly-disguised threats of violence, but with other ideas and texts; that the Indian Penal Code makes it all too easy for regressive forces to curtail freedom of speech. But beyond this brief recapitulation, I don’t think I can improve on the arguments already given by many others.
Yet, I still feel there is more to say – perhaps not about the particulars of the Doniger case, but about broader, historically- rooted issues of language, politics, religion and tradition. And an ideal guide to these issues is Doniger’s erstwhile colleague from the University of Chicago: the Sanskrit-ist, classicist and philologist Sheldon Pollock (now a professor at Columbia University). Both Doniger and Pollock studied under the Sanskritist Daniel Ingalls at Harvard, and both have devoted many decades to the study of India’s past (among many other things). And, unsurprisingly, Pollock – along with several other prominent academics – signed a petition protesting Penguin’s decision and demanding a reform of India’s laws regarding intellectual and artistic expression.
Pollock has described his own intellectual project as ‘liberation philology’, and it is precisely this philology that can help us make sense of – and combat – the Hindutva reading of Indian religion and history promoted by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan.
But the careers of the two scholars have taken divergent paths. Doniger’s focus is firmly on Hinduism, and her style is provocative and digressive, as she jumps from story to story and makes suggestive comparisons to American pop culture. Even colleagues who appreciate her work are often slightly exasperated by it. A good example of this comes from David Shulman (incidentally, another signer of the petition mentioned above), who reviewed The Hindus when it was originally published, and had this to say: “Experts on India and professional historians of South Asia will, no doubt, find something to disagree with on every page; but they will also, I think, be charmed by Doniger’s scintillating and irreverent prose (perhaps against their better judgment).”
Pollock, on the other hand, employs a dense academic style, and he is a stickler for precise intellectual argumentation. Further, as an academic, he has little interest in India’s religions; his passions are literary, historical and political. Yet the theoretical arguments he builds, along with the philological analyses he conducts, shed important light on Doniger’s writing and its reception. If Doniger’s works reveal a more playful, erotic, subversive side of Hinduism, Pollock’s sweeping historical and linguistic analyses help explain why the reaction to Doniger’s books has been so volatile in present- day India.
Pollock has described his own intellectual project as ‘liberation philology’, and it is precisely this philology that can help us make sense of – and combat – the Hindutva reading of Indian religion and history promoted by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan. The term, though, needs some explaining. ‘Liberation philology’ is clearly a play on words, a reference to the tradition of ‘liberation theology’, a left-wing interpretation of Catholicism that emphasised economic and political justice, and which was widely popular throughout Latin America, especially in the 1960s. With liberation philology, Pollock is putting his own left-wing spin on the practice of philology, emphasising that the academic discipline needs to be applied critically in order to effect social change and, in his words, to bring about an “inclusivist, species-wide community” to replace the divided, nationalistic, economically and socially unjust world we live in now. In a speech he delivered last year in Delhi, Pollock remarked that he could just as well have replaced ‘liberation philology’ with the term ‘post-capitalist philology’.
So that explains the ‘liberation’ part of the phrase. But what about ‘philology’? Until I encountered Pollock’s work, I had some vague inkling that an academic discipline called philology existed, but thought it was as dead and defunct as the languages it studied (Sanskrit, Latin and so on). But Pollock is intent on giving philology a makeover. The discipline was once considered the ‘queen of the humanities’, and the foundation for all other humanistic disciplines. In Pollock’s words, it has plummeted from the top of academia’s great chain of being to the bottom. By introducing a critical, liberating philology, Pollock is hoping to change this.
He starts by maintaining a broad definition of the subject; it is not just the study of obscure aspects of dusty old manuscripts, but rather the discipline of making sense of language in general and texts in particular. Put in this way, it’s easier to see why Pollock considers philology to be so foundational. How to interpret language, how to read texts: these are essential questions, as much for academic researchers as for people seeking to understand The Hindus and the various readings it has received.
The political dimension of Pollock’s project makes it all the more pressing. Like much of Pollock’s scholarship, his political project is quite ambitious. He seeks to understand, and to upend, the conceptual consequences of capitalism for scholarship. He argues that the age of capitalist modernity has ushered in a particular way of thinking – and a particular way of analyzing and creating texts – that is reductive in the extreme, and that cuts off other, more pluralistic forms of scholarship.
Capitalism has a singularly singular logic. In the realm of the economy, this manifests itself in the commodification of pretty much everything, even those things most crucial to human existence – food, sex, shelter and so on. From a capitalist’s point of view, all that matters is the price of these commodities, and the surplus he (and it’s usually he) can make by selling them. The diversity of the world of objects and relationships is reduced to one baseline: that of profit.
Pollock argues that this reductionist way of thinking has had a pernicious effect on academia, one that started as early as the late 1600s, when the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, which Pollock views as a paradigm of the new, capitalist-influenced way of thinking in the humanities. This new conceptual framework had many features, but primary among these was the belief in one true meaning of a given text. In the reductive logic that came to define capitalism, meaning was always singular; there could not be a range of equally valid interpretations.
This kind of thinking had major consequences for the development of Western thought, especially as capitalism spread around the world through colonial exploits. Bound to one true meaning, European humanists and social scientists often universalised their limited, regional experiences, applying supposedly ‘universal’ concepts to the rest of the world (a topic that has been exhaustively explored by decades of postcolonial research)… There also emerged a distinct predilection for ordering and ranking, with the colonies often seen as a ‘defective’, or lesser versions of the metropolises.
Pollock, of course, is opposed to all this, but he focuses on a more theoretical issue: how might one read a text in a way that escapes the singularity of capitalist logic? His answer is straightforward but radical. He claims, “There can be no such thing as an incorrect interpretation.” More specifically, he points out that every text has three main categories of meaning: its meaning when it was originally created, which includes the historical context of its origin; the myriad ways it has been interpreted by various traditions over the years; and the meaning it has to a present-day reader in her present- day social, economic and political context. If one can speak of a ‘true meaning’ at all, Pollock says, then the meaning of a text is the combination of these three meanings.
Pollock thinks that such an expansive sense of meaning is possible because, he argues, it has happened before. Specifically, it has happened in pre-modern India. Pollock’s magnum opus is Language of the Gods in the World of Men, an enormously complex and tightly argued book that traces the rise and fall of Sanskrit as a language of politics and culture, and the implications of this for modern-day social theory and for radical change. One of his main arguments is that an analysis of pre-modern India can show the hollowness of many so-called ‘universal’ claims made by Western social theorists. The whole concept of ‘one true meaning’ is just one of these claims. (There’s hardly enough space in this article to give even a cursory review of all these claims, but one more deserves mention. Pollock shows that the linking of a vernacular language to ethnic identity or national feeling is totally unknown in pre-modern India. There are no phrases like ‘mother tongue’ and no myths linking language to a ‘people’ until the British arrived; but don’t tell that to the Shiv Sena!)
As Pollock demonstrates, the tradition of reading and interpretation in pre-modern India was remarkably pluralistic. Surely no one in pre-modern India was disturbed that there were 300 Ramayanas (something that clearly drives the Shiksha Bachao Andolan crazy). In fact, many pre-modern commentators lauded this very diversity and saw it as their duty to create yet more interpretations. A more narrow view of Sanskrit texts only came with the development of ‘Indology’ as a largely Western discipline, as European scholars tried to clear away all the complexity of traditional interpretations to arrive at the one ‘accurate’ reading of the text.
Baruch Spinoza wrote the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, which Pollock views as a paradigm of the new, capitalist-influenced way of thinking in the humanities. This new conceptual framework had many features, but primary among these was the belief in one true meaning of a given text. In the reductive logic that came to define capitalism, meaning was always singular; there could not be a range of equally valid interpretations.
Many commentators have pointed out that the Hindu tradition is much more diverse than Dina Nath Batra wants it to be. But the deeper irony, made clear by Pollock, is that the Hindutva vision of history is undoubtedly a legacy of colonial thinking, and of a modern capitalist insistence on the ‘one true way’. Batra’s petition regarding The Hindus reveals his paranoia about Western attempts to demean India, but perhaps his paranoia is not so much groundless as merely misplaced, as the categories that emerged in the West have clearly colonised his mind and his ideology in disturbing ways. If Batra is demanding a ban on Western perversions of the Indian tradition, perhaps his next petition should be against himself.