Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Sheldon Pollock's heteronomous Rama.

Sheldon Pollock views the Rama of the Ayodhya Kanda as a totally heteronomous being, with less agency than the dasi Manthara. Indeed, he believes the Ramayana to be the principal source of a 'hieratic' Hindu conception of  monarchy as something worse than absolute despotism in that the subject is absolutely infantilzed and has no means of reaching Kantian autonomy..

Comparing Valmiki's epic to the Iliad, Pollock remarks the powerlessness of the Indians, their bondage to a fate they can neither contest nor comprehend and whose blighting effect proceeds from causes that are ethically heteronomous- i.e. punishment does not follow intention or action except in the sense of it being a 'treading the weird'- i.e. some karmic krapolla.
Thus Pollock says 'the characters of the Ramayana believe themselves to be denied all freedom of choice.'  and 'Choice is replaced by Chance, and action is nothing more than reaction.'

Is he correct?

Let us start with Kaikeyi. Did she think she had no freedom of choice? It appears, on the contrary, that she had received two boons from the King and chooses to use them in a manner that was not predetermined or fated in any way. Her maidservant, Manthara, persuaded her that Rama, once King, might mistrust or mistreat her son Bharata. Rather than bewailing her fate, Kaikeyi takes action. What of King Dasharatha? When Kaikeyi demands Ram's exile and Bharata's enthronement, does he exclaim 'Woe is me, all this was fated! I am powerless!'. No he gets angry, curses both Kaikeyi and her son and pointedly remains silent when Rama arrives before him..
Why is the King silent? The answer is that he had already promised the Crown to Rama. The point was moot as to whether Kaikeyi's boons were time-barred, already treasonous, or involved an impossible act.
Even if Lord Rama considered himself bound to obey the King, Kaikeyi had no locus standi to demand his departure. The King's silence gave Lord Rama a choice. It raised him from the abject heteronomous state that Pollock imagines him to occupy. What's more, Lord Rama was not a muscle-bound meat-head, he understood the defeasible nature of the Queen's demand very well. He pointedly states that it is not his Father but his (step) Mother he is obeying. Lord Rama acts with alacrity. He makes a momentous choice- one whose tragic consequences for his beloved father he fully realizes- and, as befitting a King and leader of Men, he makes it quickly, without wasted words. It is this supererogatory quality, this ethical surplus, which defines not Kantian autonomy (worthless shite fit only for Professors) but vatsalya as a Universal principle.

One might argue that after his father's death and his brother's renunciation of the throne, Lord Rama should, as duty bound, find some way of keeping his vow while still discharging his Kingly duties- for example, by residing in a forest, but regularly meeting Ministers and other officials. However, Bharata is fit to discharge this duty himself. So, it is only in order to keep faith with himself, to honor his own commitment, that Lord Ram chooses the more arduous path. This is the opposite of heteronomy.  To bind oneself to what one believes to be the right course, absent any other inducement or coercion, is the hall mark of moral autonomy.
Interestingly, Rama only so bound himself, by his own choice, so that the choice made by his (step) mother might be validated and take effect. That choice too- i.e. Kaikeyi's choice of boons from her husband- arose from a free and unrestrained choice made by his father. Rama does not say to Bharata- you must be King because that was Kaikeyi's wish. After all, Bharata too gets a choice. Only he can decide whether or not to take the throne. Rama does not seek to coerce or intimidate him into going against his own choice. In other words, Rama's ethical autonomy arises and expresses itself in the context of affirming the free choice of other people- one elder to him, his (step) mother, and the other younger to him, his brother Bharata. Notice that Kaikeyi's choice was not unethical as such. She was genuinely concerned about her own flesh and blood. She had a 'veto' if you like and was entitled to use it by reason of a not unnatural apprehension. Choice becomes meaningless unless its free exercise in one's own rational self-interest is accorded moral legitimacy. Otherwise, Choice becomes meaningless pi-jaw.
Pollock considers Lord Rama to represent a sort of inhuman ideal of perfection and thus devoid of all real-life human complexity. Unfortunately, real-life humans, to emerge from heteronomy, to lead families and Nations from moral heteronomy to ethical autonomy, HAVE to pay a great deal of attention to CHOICES.  Lord Ram's own choices become mere caprices, or ethical grandstanding, or perhaps some shite to do with karma, UNLESS he uses his choices to affirm and valorize the choices of others. Pollock uses the word heteronomy readily enough. Is he really ignorant of the vast literature on this topic? Perhaps, because he's writing about India- a poor and backward nations inhabited by nig-nogs- it is a mark of his greatness that he makes this graceful gesture of dissimulation.

Still, the question remains, why does Pollock think it okay to say 'the characters of the Ramayana conceive of themselves as being denied all freedom of choice?" Does he not understand that the readers of his translation will immediately be forced to the conclusion that the Ramayana can have no ethical value at all? If Rama had no choice but to go into exile, what moral greatness attaches to him? Why would Hindus revere him?
Pollock's bizarre thesis soon yields perhaps the most foolish sentence ever written about the Ramayana- viz.  'Rama's 'true feelings' will remain secret, properly so, for they are quite irrelevant to the poem's purposes.' 
Wow! You couldn't make it up if you tried! Do we really not know Rama's true feelings for his Mum, his Dad, his wife, his brothers and so on? Even if we hadn't read Valmiki's poem, is it at all rational or reasonable to think that a poem about a man called Rama would consider the true feelings of that same Rama to be 'quite irrelevant to its purpose?'
Pollock is not ignorant. Just stupid. If, as he claims, philology of his sort is really dying out in India, let us get down on our knees and thank God for it.


  1. I haven't read the book you are referring to, however, to be fair, Ram does console Lakshman by referring to the inscrutable power of fate- saying that it was this mysterious force and not some depravity of character that caused their step-mother to make the demands that she did.

  2. @Sheila- yes, Lord Rama does mention Fate when seeking to calm down his impetuous younger brother. But part of the elder brother's role is to use skilful arguments to defuse family in-fighting. The question is whether Rama thought himself to be 'denied all freedom of choice' as Pollock suggests. Notice, that at the time when Rama is making his choice- not later on when he is trying to calm down Lakshman- he makes no reference to Fate. He pointedly states that he is obeying his mother, not his father, who has not spoken.
    Rama does not say to Lakshman- the fate's have ordained this. Try to fight against fate and you will instantly perish. The very fact that Lakshman is ready to fight to secure his brother's coronation shows that he feels he has agency. But, if Pollock is correct, and NO character in the Ramayana feels he or she has 'ANY freedom of action', Lakshman would have replied 'Sorry bro. Forgot Fate is all powerful. Thank's for the reminder. Don't worry, I'll get with the program pronto.'
    Strangely, Lakshman doesn't say anything of the sort. As Pollock himself knows, having translated his speech, what Lakshman proposes is to overturn fate and destiny and other such shite by the force of his strong right arm.

    Pollok's mistake is that he is seduced by the word 'heteronomous' and thoughtlessly applies it to Lord Rama. To justify himself, he then has to develop a thesis that everyone in the Ramayana feels helpless against fate and 'has no freedom of action'. It then follows that not only the deeds but also the words of the characters become wholly opaque and beyond human ken. If people feel they have no freedom of choice we can not interpret their actions- if you see me buying a beer, it doesn't mean I want a beer, in fact you don't what it means and have no means of finding out. All you can say is I bought that beer because I believed I had no choice, I had to buy that beer for a purpose Fate had hidden from me. Similarly, if I say I love cold beer, it doesn't mean I actually love cold beer but that I feel I have no choice but to make this statement at this particular point in time for a reason Fate has ordained but which I can have no knowledge about.
    If Pollock is right then we can learn nothing about Ram's'true feelings' from reading Valmiki. Perhaps he actually hated his Dad, was a Facebook buddy of Manthara, considered Ravana a promising pace bowler, and treasured Seeta because she appeared to him as a highly functional Corby trouser press.

  3. There is another way of looking at this. According to Mimansa hermeneutics, only those injunctions are Scripturally valid which have no worldly explanation or merit in that they point to invisible results beyond human understanding. Thus, if the Law Book says 'the King, modestly clothed, should listen to petitions while facing East'- the phrase 'modestly clothed' has a common-sense explanation, viz. that the King should not over-awe the petitioner by appearing in rich garments. Thus the King may omit this requirement without sin. However, since the injunction 'while facing East' has no common sense explanation, the King commits a Sin if he hears petitions in any other posture.
    Perhaps Pollock- in saying 'the characters of the Ramayana believe they have no free will' and 'Rama's 'true feelings' remain secret'- is interpreting the Ramayana as a Sacred Work and that too using an ancient Brahminical system of hermeneutics. What is wrong with that?

  4. @Sanjay. If that is really what Pollock is doing why does he not say so? Perhaps, you will respond, he is an initiate into some high Brahminic cult sworn to protecting esoteric truths from profane eyes like mine.
    This is not to say Mimamsa has nothing to say about the itihasas. On the contrary, the actions (which are choices) of the Epic heroes acquire an aesthetic dhvani by occurring in, so to speak, the epochee between the auditors experience of apoorvata and the Cosmic apurva.
    Mimansa interpretive rules (nyayas) aren't particularly interesting- they're the lawyers' stock-in-trade, not the litterati's heuristics.

  5. Still, you can't deny that the real reason Lord Rama 'chooses' exile is because he knows his father had given his step-mother two boons and so from the moral point of view there is no other honourable option. In mimansa there is the law of the fishes 'matsya nyaya'- the big fish eats the little fish- the big reason is the one to be read into the text not the little reason that appears alongside it.
    The only freedom Lord Rama has is whether to interpret Kaikeyi's action as motivated by malice and ambition for her son or to put the blame on fate. You yourself explain that his words to Lakshman in this respect were merely by way of getting him to cool down. Thus, as Prof. Pollock says, Rama's 'true feelings' aren't discoverable, nor is the poet concerned with them.
    I don't see how your criticism is tenable.
    Since Lord Rama knows

  6. @Sanjay- okay, that's a possible argument, but it isn't one Pollock himself made. The problem with the gunapradhan axiom in this context is that the 'big fish' for an ordinary Hindu like me, in Valmiki, is the notion of vatsalya bhava- pillai bhakti- the Brahma Sutra's prescription of reciprocity between devotee and deity- the viyogini attaining a higher status than the yogi, i.e. birha (separation) as higher than Union and so on.
    For you, or your defense of Pollock, the big fish has to be something quite different viz. a brooding sense of fate's inscrutable malice, a dazed oneiric stumbling from under its wings, cheeks rent by its talons such that tears might have channels in which to run, a nightmare sense of powerlessness in which legions of ghouls and goblins are struck down only to rise again in more terrifying form...
    The problem is, Valmiki hasn't written a Gothic tale. The Ramayana aint Beowulf. Nor is it Oedipus Rex. This, you might say, is its defect. It ought to be coz like Ram was Aryan? And the good Aryans are the Greeks and the Germans. Others don't count. Heidegger said so. And, no, he wasn't a great lump of shite but like real deep and totally against like important stuff like 'Planetary Technology' and like I think horse-faced shaven headed shaggy arm pitted women with Teutonic accents are kinda sexy- though they look and dress like they're menstruating all the time and...dunno, maybe I'm Gay? I mean Salman Khan was way hotter than whassername in Dabanng and I was kind of thinking you know the Goth look might work for me- hide my paunch and I could use black lip-stick and wear a leather trench coat or something...

  7. Sheldon , how much Sanskrit does he know and how mucb can he interpret in the right way. The divinity schools in USA and West rely heavily on the English translations which are not done throughly. For example , many translate Gnana as knowledge . Is it right? No . The writing of John Dobson comes to mind who wrote a classic monograph Advaita Vedanta and modern science, when he was a monk in RK mission. He had to leave the mission as he invented the amateurs Dobsonian telescope which is quite a useful invention, so that he could popularise this invention. Here is the extract from his Advaita Vedanta and modern science.

    "There is no language on the face of the earth even comparable to Sanskrit in its competence to handle philosophical concepts. Swamiji found himself translating and re-translating from Sanskrit to English. In English there is no word for Vivartavada (the doctrine that the first cause is apparitional). Parinama (transformation) is understood but not Vivarta. There is no word for Brahman, for Atman, for Maya or for the Gunas. It is not just that the words are absent; the ideas are also absent"

    Swamiji here is Swami Vivekanand. Dobson is emphatic that"It is not just that the words are absent; the ideas are also absent".

    One feels that divinity schools in US lack the depth to understand Sanskrit. I have heard some Prof from divinity schools first say a line in Sanskrit with absolutely haywire shruti and saandhi. No wonder Sheldon makes a mess of interpretations.

    1. Many thanks for the tip- for others who may be interested this is a link to an extract from this amazing man's book http://rivr.sulekha.com/advaita-and-science-vi-mr-john-dobson-a-vedantin-scientist_423450_blog