Pollock-Murty Classical Library issue: Indian experts back Canadian prof

  • Sudipto Mondal, Hindustan Times, Bengaluru
  • Updated: Mar 03, 2016 15:33 IST
The Murty Library project, the brainchild of Rohan Murthy, son of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy, aims to translate the greatest literary works of India into English. A petition is seeking the removal of Sheldon Pollock (in picture) as the editor of the classical library.

The petition on Change.org seeking the removal of American scholar Sheldon Pollock as the editor of Murty Classical Library might have received more than 12,000 signatures, but support for the globally renowned Sanskrit and philology expert is also building in the academic world.

Intellectuals accused the petitioners of quoting Prof Pollock selectively and out of context, with some like Ramchandra Guha calling it “frivolous and motivated”, and Kancha Ilaiah terming it “brahminical and un-intellectual”.

The Murty Library project, the brainchild of Rohan Murthy, son of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy, aims to translate the greatest literary works of India into English. The Change.org petition, signed by 132 Indian academics, most of whom hail from various Brahmin sub-castes, says that Pollock lacks “respect and empathy for the greatest of Indian civilizations”.

“This is the same mentality that leads people to call for bans on books. If these Right Wing scholars are interested in promoting their version of Indian culture, they are welcome to start their own projects. Why don’t they approach the HRD ministry or other like-minded philanthropists for sponsorship?” challenged Guha.

Biocon chief Kiran Mazumdar Shaw too put her weight behind Pollock and tweeted, “Ridiculous demand from those not paying the bills! (for the Murty Library project)”.

Started on February 26 by K Ramasubramanian from the humanities faculty of IIT-Mumbai, the petition states that Pollock “echoes the views of (Thomas) Macaulay and Max Weber that the shastras generated in India serve no cotemporary purpose except for the study of how Indians express themselves”. The quotation is paraphrased from a 2012 lecture that Prof. Pollock gave at the South Asia Institute in Heidelberg, titled, ‘What is South Asian Knowledge good for?’

The petition also accuses Pollock of “disrespecting the unity and integrity of India” for criticizing the policies and actions of the Narendra Modi-led Indian government. Claiming that anti-India slogans were raised at JNU, the petition says that Pollock supported “separatist groups who are calling for the independence of Kashmir, and India’s breakup”.

Dalit historian Kancha Ilaiah, noted for his critical view of the Hindu caste system, countered the charge, saying, “It is not correct to link Prof. Pollock’s professional competence and scholarship to the stand taken by him on the JNU issue. The Murty project is basically a translation exercise which relies on accuracy and not interpretation of the texts. What do Pollock’s political views have to do with his knowledge of Indian languages, particularly Sanskrit?”

Stating that many top US academics continue to oppose that country’s international policies, Illiah added, “That does not in any way diminish the stature of these intellectuals. In fact, it further embellishes their stature and conscience keepers of society.”

International experts also came to Pollock’s defense, with noted Canada-based Indologist Dominic Wujastyk saying that Ramasubramanian misquoted Pollock who, in fact, is a critic of colonial historiographers such as Thomas Macaulay and Max Weber.

Quoting from sections of the same 2012 lecture that Ramasubramanian did, albeit with some omissions in his petition, Wujastyk said, “Prof. Pollock’s central argument is that the special, unique knowledge systems developed in India, mainly recorded in Sanskrit, are of great value, and that this fact is not recognised by “universities and foundations” who, like Macaulay and Weber, think that Indian knowledge systems have been superseded by Western ones.”

“It is regrettable that Prof. Ramasubramanian has misunderstood Prof. Pollock’s views by 180 degrees. Prof. Pollock is a champion for the same values of Indian culture as Ramasubramanian. That is why Prof. Pollock devised and brought into being the Murty Classical Library,” he said.

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