Absracts of Manjushree Hedge

SI-1 paper abstract which was turned into the monograph Reclaiming Ramayana

Title of paper: Introduction to Ayodhyākānḍa – Sheldon Pollock

In his introduction to the Ayodhyākānḍa of the Rāmāyana, Sheldon Pollock briefly tells of the story that unfolds in it. It captures for Pollock life played out in the city — social/family life, with its inherent tensions, the responsibilities it imposes on an individual, and the conflicting allegiances it extracts; and political life, the ‘state’ and its powers.

While his analysis of the story and its characters are clinical, he makes certain dubious hypothesis:

1. During the three or four hundred years following the middle vedic age (800. B.C), fundamental and enduring changes came about in the Indian way of life. Most important of them was a far more markedly defined hierarchical ordering of the society, and also the extraordinary expansion of the role of the king.

Political power, Pollock claims, came to be concentrated in royal dynasties as exclusive proprieties for the first time. Consequently, Valmiki set out to frame a didactic work that would serve as a manual of conduct for (future) Indian society. Ayodhyākānḍa, therefore, laid down the ground rules for:

Smooth transference of hereditary power: Submission to hierarchy- younger to elder prince, eldest prince to king- was made essential. It was seen as the only possible way to arrest the tendency in hereditary kingship towards ruinous fragmentation.

Portrayal of king as Father: The institutionalization of dependency and loyalty is a major precondition to the centralization of power. For this, the state was conceived as a family and the king as its father— a device perhaps more effective than the ascription of divine status to the king.

Role of women: Ayodhyākānḍa sought also to crystallize the status of women in the society— obedience to husband in all circumstances.

Yet, there are some essential contradictions between the ideal and actual in the women characters of the Rāmāyana — Sita, Kausalya and Kaikeyi, all seem to be strong, self-willed, independent women.

2. Pollock claims that there are certain inconsistencies within the text:

Kaikeyi’s boons: Near the end of the book, we learn that Dasaratha had agreed to pay rājyaṣulka to Kaikeyi’s kinsmen i.e, Bharata had a legitimate claim to the throne. So, why did Vālmiki introduce the anecdote of the boons? Could it be to preserve the honesty and integrity of the king? For intensifying the drama? Or to reinforce the principle didactic thrust of the book? (Rama submits in the face of what is presented as a grave injustice, instead of merely a contractual agreement.)

3. Dasaratha’s character, Pollock claims, is not well developed: he is sometimes portrayed as an epitome of virtue, and at others, depicted as a man enslaved by his desire for women.

4. Juxtaposing the treatment of kingship and its attendant problems in the Mahabharata and other epic poems, Pollock draws a sharp contrast in the attitudes of Vyāsā/Krishna and Vālmiki/Rāma.

As a saving grace, perhaps, Pollock shows Valmiki to finally address a transcendental question – What is it that makes life possible? He provides a fitting, if complex, answer – It is behaviour in accordance to dharma that alone makes life possible.

SI-2 paper abstract

Title: Indian Renaissance – a Birth & a Death

Sheldon Pollock’s international collaborative project, Sanskrit Knowledge Systems on the Eve of Colonialism (SKSEC) aspires to trace the intellectual history of pre-modern India in order to gather a “clearer picture” of the professed death of Sanskrit “in the face of European modernity”. Superficially, SKSEC demonstrates a spirit of openness towards the multiplicity of possible answers to the complex questions it raises. Yet, a closer reading shows that SKSEC works within a fixed framework of predetermined conjectures & conclusions, and to these, I wish to draw the readers’ attention.

Firstly, it does not appear to be a strictly construed “intellectual history” that Pollock commits to chart — it appears he is simply enamored by the catch-phrase “navya” that was in vogue during the period under examination, and merely wishes to understand what of the navya-movement was, in fact, “new”. For Pollock, this word, “navya”, is a precious discovery; what he wishes to do with it is to tune the Indian intellectual trajectory into perfect symphony with the European Renaissance — in other words, to equate “navya” with “rebirth”/“renaissance”. Further, if Europe embraced/encouraged the renaissance, Pollock writes that India largely repudiated the navya impulse. Therefore, to Pollock, it was the presence of “something internal, not external, to the Sanskrit intellectual formation… that arrested the capacity for development by cordoning off the kind of critique that had once supplied that formation’s very life force.”

It is rather clear, then, that SKSEC works on a few presumptions— that,

(a) seventeenth-century Indian intellectual tradition was characterized by certain peculiarities that were comparable to the European Renaissance,

(b) they proved completely powerless in the face of their European counterparts, and the millennia-old systems of thought were finally, irrevocably replaced by the latter.

(c) an intimate relationship is deducible between Muslim rule and the avowed “creative upsurge” of seventeenth-century Indian science.

It is a shockingly mischievous endeavor, and I wish to explore the perils of the same. In the present paper, I examine carefully Pollock’s idea of the “new” in seventeenth-century Indian knowledge systems, their colonial encounter, and the dubious inferences they allude to.