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Retrieving Hidden Jewels of the Sanskrit Deep


Arjun Mahey

THE LANGUAGE OF THE GODS IN THE WORLD OF MEN: SANSKRIT, CULTURE AND POWER IN PREMODERN INDIA
By Sheldon Pollock
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 684, Rs. 895.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 3 March 2007

The foundation of empire is art and science. Remove them or degrade them, and the empire is no more. Empire follows art and not vice versa… (William Blake)   In the great books of India, an empire spoke to us... (Emerson)   In 1988, the then newly inducted Bobrinskoy Professor at the University of Chicago, Sheldon Pollock, delivered a short, inaugural talk on Sanskrit with the arresting and promising title, ‘The Language of the Gods in the World of Men’. It was a lively academic exercise—the audience was non-specialist—but it catalogued, quietly and forcefully, a preliminary number of the more important desiderata that have riddled Sanskrit studies over the decades. More quietly still, it seemed to convey a covert pledge: of more substantive explorations (in the future) of some of these baffling obscurities in the study of ancient India.   In the event, this did not happen. Pollock went on over the years to demonstrate, instead, a Parasurama-like prowess in the systematic slaughter of the sacred cows of Indology. Through that powerful interrogative mechanism, the academic monograph, he questioned the authority of established Indological truths and posited some alternatives of his own: that India was not ahistorical in its self-image: the early mimamsikas had intentionally crafted and naturalized the image of an unchanging India; that the past had produced an ethnology analogous to biogenetic determinism; that the Ramayana had no interpolations apropos of Hermann Jacobi’s suggestion that the beginning and end of the text were tacked on postscriptum; that Sanskrit inscriptions and political texts, hitherto ignored, made feasible the reconstruction of a hitherto invisible civilizational cosmopolitanism; that the instantiation of Muslim polities in late medieval India was not responsible for the slow demise of political and hegemonic Sanskrit; and so on. For two decades or so, along with critical editions of texts, reviews, edited collections of (others’) essays—in short, of the customary commodities of a standard academic career—Pollock seemed to sail along the surface of the intellectual life with measured ease, diving deep very rarely, as if to demonstrate, now and then, that depth did, in fact, continue to exist. In all fairness to him it is necessary to add that pre-modern Indology has been better served by the essay form than the summary overview, and in this Pollock has been no exception. With very few, very rare, good synoptic summations which absorb and disseminate specialist information, Indology tends ...


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