Published On: Sun, Feb 12th, 2017

Insiders versus Outsiders: Who speaks for our heritage?

My new book, The Battle for Sanskrit, offers a critique of a category of western Indologists whose work is based on the writings of Sheldon Pollock. I respect Pollock as a hard working scholar, but I am troubled by his approach to the Sanskrit tradition because it undermines some core ideas that most practicing Hindus greatly value. In this blog, I want to touch briefly on some of the substantive points where I disagree with Pollock’s work. I refer the reader to my book for evidence of his positions and my arguments against them.

My book frames these issues in terms of two opposing lenses: the lens of insiders, who are those with loyalty to the Vedic worldview, and lens of outsiders, who are those who dismiss (or at least marginalize) the Vedas and look at the Sanskrit texts primarily through Marxist and postmodernist theories of social oppression and political domination.

Adopting the insider perspective, my main objections to Pollock and other outsiders concern the following methods and views:

  • The methodological separation between the secular and the sacred in studying Sanskrit tradition;
  • The claim that racial and ethnic oppression, class discrimination and gender bias are intrinsic to Sanskrit and its conceptual matrix in the Vedas;
  • The side-lining of the oral tradition as a dynamic part of Indian history and thought;
  • The politicizing of the genre of kavya;
  • The outright dismissal of the positive value of shastra;
  • The insistence on a dramatic split between Sanskrit and the vernaculars;
  • The determination to show maximum split between Hinduism and Buddhism;
  • The distortion of the Ramayana as socially abusive and as harbouring anti-Muslim rabblerousing.


Pollock’s fundamental assumption and the governing methodology of his work involves making a sharp separation between the realm of the sacred, or paramarthika, from the realm of the mundane, or vyavaharika. He sees the transcendental basis of the Vedic tradition primarily as a form of irrational mystification, encoding it its very core hierarchical and anti-egalitarian views and proscription. As a consequence, he sees advances in Indian history as having come about by moving away from this base. Pollock refers to the ‘long prehistory of Sanskrit’ as a period of ‘sacerdotal isolation’, in which he says the Vedic rishis existed in a state divorced from a logical understanding of the empirical world.

This view is indicated in the title of his magnum opus, The Language of the Gods and the World of Men; Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India (2006), a book that should be required reading for anyone wishing to engage with Pollock at a serious level. For Pollock, the defining historical event is what he sees as Sanskrit moving out from the grip of brahmin elitism, which he feels consisted of meaningless rituals and otherworldly fixations, into the world of politics under royal patronage. Once it gets turned into a political device for kings, Sanskrit becomes stultified and regressive because the royalties become decadent due to internal corruption and social injustice.

Pollock simply sets aside the paramarthika dimension of life because he finds it not susceptible to modern, scientific methods of study.  He does not claim to have practiced any Vedic related forms of sadhana, and his work is not based on a Vedic perspective. He calls himself a secular scholar, and thus an outsider to the tradition. The result of this is to make the transcendental perspective subservient in the study of Sanskrit and its texts.

Note that an insider point of view on the history of Sanskrit and on its future is in effect excluded from the very start by Pollock’s method of separating the sacred from the secular. This approach enjoys a growing acceptance in the academy, and this has turned Sanskrit studies into largely a campaign to attack it on issues of social justice in India.

Moreover, he is explicit about the political consequences he wishes to be drawn from his work: that the only way forward for social justice in India lies in relegating Sanskrit firmly to the past (as a ‘dead’ language), where it can be scrutinized for harboring regressive thoughts. This point takes us to my second objection: Pollock’s view that Sanskrit encoded toxic/oppressive views of women, minorities and others from the start, and that its revival today is in service of reactionary and communalist forces.  He writes:

Sanskrit was the principal discursive instrument of domination in premodern India and in addition, it has been continuously reappropriated in modern India by many of the most reactionary and communalist sectors of the population (cited in The Battle for Sanskrit, 140).

This oppressive deployment of Sanskrit continues today, he says:

Traditional domination as coded in Sanskrit is not ‘past history’ in India, to be sure. Partly by reason of the stored energy of an insufficiently critiqued and thus untranscended past, it survives in various harsh forms (intensified by the added toxins of capitalist exploitation by twiceborn classes) despite legislation designed to weaken the economic and institutional framework associated with it (cited in The Battle for Sanskrit 141).

Scholars have ignored all this, he laments. So the goal of Indology today, he says, ought to be to ‘exhume, isolate, analyze, theorize, and at the very least talk about the different modalities of domination in traditional India’. His analysis is based on an interpretation of the social restrictions on the use of Sanskrit in the early tradition. Access to Sanskrit, he points out, was reserved for ‘particular orders of society’. In his view, Sanskrit only became de-monopolized by the intervention of Buddhists, though even then it remained an instrument of political power. Kings used it to stabilize the culture and create a ‘culture-power formation.’ They decided who could study it and for what purpose. He elaborates on this point as follows:

[Sanskrit] was a code of communication not everyone was entitled to use, and fewer still were able to use. It is not just that some people did and some did not employ Sanskrit, but rather that some were permitted to do so and some – the majority, who otherwise might have been able to do so – were prohibited (cited in The Battle for Sanskrit, 140).

Once again, Pollock locates the original source of these oppressive restrictions in a Vedic worldview, one he calls ‘Aryan’. He writes:

Given the nature of the primary sphere for the application of Sanskrit, it is not surprising that this constraint was formulated as a restriction on participation in the rituals and liturgical practices of the Sanskrit speech community, whose members called themselves Āryas (cited in Battle for Sanskrit, 142).

His methodological and ideological program emerges from and reinforces his dislike of Vedic discourse and his investment in Western methods in philology. This stance leads him to sideline the oral tradition in history. The chanting of mantras, the preservation of rituals, and the memorization of large, complex texts represent for him the deadening yoke of the past on an emerging social and political consciousness.

Secondly, his position leads him to see Buddhism as a kind of radical intervention and upgrade in the Vedic tradition, breaking the stranglehold of the brahmin monopoly and creating new forms of cultural production such as kavya. In his eyes, the real intellectual payoff in the study of the language lies in re-interpreting such genres as kavya, and even the great early treatises on Sanskrit grammar, for the light they can shed on a growing public sphere designed firstly to bolster and extend the prestige and power of the royal courts and secondly for their continued encoding of oppressive social views on women, minorities and outsiders. In the service of this view, Pollock sees Sanskrit itself as a language of the cosmopolitan elite, different in origin from the vernaculars and in tension with them.

He also sees the great epics of India, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as justifying the violent suppression of the ‘other’ in Indian politics.

Pollock’s western lens also leads him to a view of shastra that would astonish those who value the huge body of knowledge they represent both intrinsically and for its potential to generate new thought. For him, the constant reference in shastras to Vedic norms and cosmologies and to spiritual wisdom virtually guarantees that they cannot really produce innovation.  They are locked in outmoded and ‘pre-modern’ frameworks from which they cannot break out into the kind of free thought that the west itself only achieved in the enlightenment. Of the famous Sanskrit shastras that deal with linguistic issues, he writes:

Classical Indian civilization, however, offers what may be the most exquisite expression of the centrality of rule-governance in human behavior. Under the influence perhaps of the paradigm deriving from the strict regulation of ritual action in vedic ceremonies, the procedures for which are set forth in those rule-books par excellence, the Brāhmanas, secular life as a whole was subject to a kind of ritualization, whereby all its performative gestures and signifying practices came to be encoded in texts. Śāstra, the Sanskrit word for these grammars, thus presents itself as one of the fundamental features and problems of Indian civilization in general and of Indian intellectual history in particular.

It is easy to miss the real import of statements like this, which are often couched at first in terms that are complimentary to the tradition, like ‘exquisite’.  Later, however, these exquisite texts become the problem: the source of all is backward, premodern, uncritical, unscientific and stultifying in Indian thought.

Here Pollock is clearly exporting onto India the western secular grand narrative of history according to which the medieval church and the Christian faith on which it was based were deadening forces from which people had to break free through the scientific revolution in thought. It follows that Pollock would naturally be deeply opposed to current efforts to revive spoken Sanskrit. For him this revival is no more than saffronization at work; it can only be seen as a tool of the kind of repression and mystified thinking he finds holding Indians back in their long history.

This then is, in brief, a scan of the positions Pollock takes to which I most object, and which I have discussed and refuted in detail in The Battle for Sanskrit.

I want to say in conclusion, however, that Pollock’s positions on these matters are not to be dismissed easily or taken lightly. He is not only extremely learned in Sanskrit, but insightful on its past and its great works at many points. Those who wish to defend the tradition against his reading of it must meet high standards of scholarship, reasoned argument and commitment to a progressive future for India. They need not, however, adopt a western lens or use the tools of western secular theory to do so, nor need they accept the terms proposed by western academic institutions. They have resources closer to home for these purposes, and they are much more likely to be effective because they can speak with the authority of those for whom the Vedic tradition is not only a life commitment but a rich treasury of knowledge of both paramarthika and vyavaharika realms.

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