Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Sanskrit, Globalization & Sheldon Pollock Bollocks

'What began when Sanskrit escaped the domain of the sacred was literature'
Is there any possible world where Prof. Sheldon Pollock's dictum, quoted above, is not arrant nonsense?
Certainly there is.
A close reading of Continental theory- or just watching a lot of Horror films and TV serials, which cashes out as the same thing- suggests a possible route to rescue Pollock Bollocks for the aspirant  or academic Indologist's sacred duty of 'tatte uttana'- i.e. the reverential lifting of the unwieldy and infeasibly bloated testicles of influential Professors.
Sanskrit might be a ghost or an angel or demon of some sort which some Superior Being had penned up in a cage called 'the sacred', but then it suddenly escaped and what it did after that was what we call literature.
However, this ghost or angel or demon, called Sanskrit, would not be the sort of thing human beings can see or talk sensibly about. Thus for a human being to make a statement of this sort is to mark him out as a man talking nonsense, at least so far as the rest of humanity is concerned.
But, wait, what about the following hypothesis?
 Human beings may from time to time become possessed by a Supernatural entity and say or write certain things which other human beings recognize as language. However, those human possessed by that 'language' are not responsible for their own speech acts nor have any real insight into how or why they came about. Instead, being wholly heteronomous, they might serve as a sort of hive mind for the disembodied 'language' which possesses them.
It so happens that there is some other disembodied plane or invisible dimension where this 'language' can  find itself suddenly captured and confined to a cage of some sort. 'The sacred' is one such cage. However,  nil desperandum auspice deo, 'language' has some providential means of escaping this cage and when it does some sub-set of the humans whom it possesses and controls start doing something other human beings can recognize to be 'literature'.
Anyway, that's what happened to Sanskrit.
What is wrong with the story outlined above? It's perfectly reasonable isn't it? Far from being 'nonsense', it is highly scientific and utilitarian. It may inspire us to find a way to pen up Sanskrit once again in a cage- not 'the sacred' because we have more than enough crap of that sort- but, I know, tell you what, lets pen it up in a cage called 'Superstring Theory' so that what it henceforth does is yield us a nice Theory of Everything! That would be way cool.
However, there is nothing cool at all about what Prof. Sheldon Pollock suggests we do with his great discovery- which is to shove it up the arse of that sinister 'coercive globalization' which all right thinking academics are up in arms against.

But is this really a good way for Sanskrit to end its not entirely undistinguished career? I mean, it was smart enough to escape from the domain of the sacred and start doing literature. Seems a shame for it to end up as a suicide bomb suppository.
Still, what is the alternative?
Nothing else is possible for Sanskrit- at least, if  there is any truth to the arguments Pollock advances in his magnum opus- viz.
1) Sanskrit was a sacred language restricted to religious practice before the Common Era.
If this statement is true, then Sanskrit was never a language like any other and thus never had any secular application nor any lineal descendants used for secular purposes before some dramatic change occurred 2000 years ago. This begs the question- how could it have had the appearance of language to human beings? Well, it must have possessed and captured the minds and bodies and wills of some set of human beings during a long period when it, itself, was caged up 'in the domain of the sacred'. The alternative explanation, viz. that some bunch of guys invented it and ring-fenced it for purely sacred purposes, fails because no such bunch of guys ever had enough power, esprit de corps, and unanimity, to enforce that ring-fencing at any time or across any great geographical space. Ah! But what if they had supernatural help? Well, supernatural things, by their nature are beyond our ken. We have no way of distinguishing between Supernatural aid and Supernatural possession. Both propositions have equal though contrary truth value and thus we must term both as nonsense until such time as some guy chants a mantra and suddenly a whole bunch of smart people start talking Sanskrit and produce a theory of Everything or design a self delivering pizza to any point in the past when you really could have relished noshing down on a slice but it was like 2 A.M and so you just went to the kitchen and ate a shit-load of cereal straight out of the box.
2) It was reinvented as a code for literary and political expression after the Common Era begins.
What? The Rg Veda and the Brhamanas and the Upanishads and the Itihasas also encode 'literary and political' expression? Nonsense! Veda is uncreated. What are you a Mlecha or a Nastik or Shudra? Kindly fuck off. It is unseemly that an untouchable barbarian like you is reading these sacred words.
You bastard! Yes I know you can read Skt epigraphs on public monuments. But those were only written after Sanskrit conducted her daring escape from the Stalag of the Sacred.
This is clearly shown by the epigraphic evidence. What? Nonsense! Epigraphy was never the monopoly of a highly skilled craft guild or sub-caste, certainly not, carving stuff on granite or iron or copper plate doesn't take any special skill at all, a child could do it! Well, okay, maybe not an ordinary child, but one possessed by Sanskrit. You know what kids are like. They like scribbling on walls and caves and other such unlikely places. Okay, maybe the non-Sanskrit inscriptions were done by expert craftsmen, but later on even they were possessed or partially possessed by Sanskrit. That explains why the earliest Junagadh and Mathura inscriptions aren't pure Sanskrit- I mean it, it takes Sanskrit some time to possess non-Brahmins, several generations in fact. Kindly watch 'Supernatural- Season 2' to understand the mechanism of inter-generational possession.

3) At the end of the first millennium, local speech forms were newly dignified as literary languages and began to challenge Sanskrit for both 'the work of poetry and power'.
Local speech forms used to be very simple creatures. They too possessed people but were caged in the domain, not of the sacred (even after Sanskrit escaped) but somewhere else. Anyway, a thousand years ago, they suddenly got all dignified- don't ask me how- and then they challenged Skt. to a dance off or a showdown at the OK corral or something of that sort. What's implausible about that? Stuff like that goes down all the time.  You may not be a trained Philologist but don't tell me you are naive enough to believe that Languages are all like pure and innocent and all just wanting to get along with each other. Take a look at your bookshelf. Fuck, is that my Monier Williams trying to sodomize the Thesaurus? Better believe it buddy. It's a brutal world out there in Philology phase space.
4) At the dawn of the third millennium 'coercive globalism' is causing vernaculars to mutate if not die out completely.
Indeed, it is that very same 'coercive globalism' responsible for the meme of suicide bombers getting a fatwa to license sodomy so as to enlarge their rectums for the insertion of larger payloads. Sanskrit, verily, is highly qualified (at least from the account Pollock gives us of it) to contribute shrapnel to that payload but it is only our great Professor's logic which is wholly explosive of any Universalist Logos.

And no, before you ask, I don't care how many fatwas you have, I will not enlarge your rectum.

Mind it kindly.


Anonymous said...

Hebrew was a sacred language which only began to be used to for literary ends quite recently- now it is the national language of Israel. Similarly Old Persian or even Middle Persian seems to have been used exclusively for religious purposes. The Jews had strict rabbis, the Zorastrians had powerful 'Magi'- similarly Sanskrit would have the monopoly of the Brahmin Priests and their learned patrons. Pollock's claim that the influx of Saka kings seeking to legitimate their authority may have led to one Brahmin faction stealing a march over others by putting their literary skills at the service of the invaders and competing with each other in producing texts with purely literary and artistic merits as opposed to liturgical or religious significance.
Pollock does not require any 'Supernatural' agent to make his argument coherent. Had you even minimal awareness of Indological research you would not make such an outrageous allegation.

windwheel said...

What you say is perfectly reasonable and if Pollock concentrated on proving that the Brahmins functioned as a sort of secret cabal, taking over the Chancellery of the Mauryas or other great Empire builders, and working secretly and in concert across the length and breath of 'greater India' then his thesis would be merely Paranoid babbling as opposed to Supernatural silliness.
Hebrew & Old Persian don't fit India. There is no Indian Moses or Zarathustra- bu there is a Buddha, many of whose proselytes were Brahmins, there is a Mahavira, and so on. True, Ashoka massacred Jains but that was considered an aberration. India simply did not have a trans-regional cohesive class or coercive power mechanism to enforce a linguistic policy of the type suggested and least of all over the period during which Pollock would have us believe the taboo against secular use of Skt. was strongest.

As for my minimal awareness of Indological research, surely that's a good thing. Philology tends to mislead Historians in every possible way and thus yields colossal hermeneutic stupidity in its academic practitioners. Pollock is the guy who says 'Rama is heteronomous. All the characters in the Ramayana believe they have no control over their actions or destinies. We can't know what Rama is feeling at any given time.'
He displays the same sort of stupidity in everything he writes. I know his epigraphic theory is not unique to him, but the other Professors don't go to the extent of writing arrant nonsense like 'Sanskrit escaped from the domain of the sacred' to testify to their belief that humans have no agency, no inwardness, no intentionality. They are the puppets of language which has its own adventures breaking out of jails and turning vagabond poet or wandering scholar or cowboy or Indian or Vampire or Zombie or Pirate or Professor or Julia Roberts in 'Pretty Woman' or Santa Claus or whatever.

windwheel said...

I should add, if Pollock had half a brain- one not addled by the most witless possible reception of Continental theory- he'd have framed his Research Program in terms of canonical solutions to a Co-ordination problem and modeled Skt availability cascades in a game theoretic manner such that the underlying Evolutionary Stable States were highlighted, different attractors discerned, hysteresis of memetic epigenetic effects taxonomized, etc, etc.
He doesn't do that- though that's the direction in which Continental Theory waving its arms so as to be rescued from the flood waters of its own urinary incontinence.
Instead he tells us fairy stories. I seem to recall that the 'Rambo' books were written by a Professor of Eng. Literature. Perhaps, Pollock is actually Anne Rice and Indology is just his day job.

Anonymous said...

Pollock believes sycophancy creates the Power it sucks up to. That is the root of his error.
What we call Public Relations, is an important source of 'soft power' but it defeats its own purpose if laid own too thick. The North Korean dictator used to take full page advertisements in Newspapers all over the world to draw attention to his God like qualities and achievements. It was a waste of money. He would have been better off bribing journalists to give him favorable publicity of a more credible sort.
It takes many centuries for absurd and utterly effeminate sycophancy to establish itself at as other than contemptible. But, its obvious worthlessness means it disappears without trace far more quickly.