- A Road Map for Future Studies: The Language of the Gods in the World of Scholars
I begin with a small confession. When The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India first came out, I did not rush to read this monumental tome from cover to cover.1 Being familiar with much of Sheldon Pollock’s earlier work that went into it, I allowed myself to sample and read from it selectively. I am thus particularly grateful to the editors of Comparative Studies of Asia, Africa and the Middle East for inviting me to write this review essay. When I read Pollock’s monograph with this assignment in mind, I quickly realized my mistake. Despite its immensity and the vast array of topics it covers, and despite being the summa of Pollock’s work in the decades leading to it, Language of the Gods bears no resemblance to a volume of collected papers and demands our attention as a coherent scholarly essay: it has to be read from beginning to end.
Indeed, I am not alone in this conclusion. Despite its forbidding set of topics and its massive scope, a large and highly diverse readership felt the need to come to terms with this work as a whole. That the book succeeded in making an impressive and immediate impact can easily be gauged by crude measures such as the plethora of detailed written reactions it elicited, the prizes it won, the dedication of conference panels to discussing it, and even the formation of ad hoc reading groups of students and professors centered around it.2 In what follows I primarily try to explore what Language of the Gods does and exactly why it is so consequential.
As Pollock states at the outset, his book is “an attempt to understand two great moments of transformation in culture and power in premodern India” (1). The first is when Sanskrit, the “language of the gods,” dramatically breaks out of its sacral confines and enters the world of men in South and Southeast Asia as the medium of literature and political imagination around the beginning of the common era. The second is the all-important entry of the vernaculars, [End Page 538] or the “languages of the place,” into the literary-political arena roughly a thousand years later.
Why are nearly seven hundred pages needed to discuss two moments? This is partly because Pollock understands these moments as a series of complex and interrelated processes with phases and repercussions that last for millennia. Each of these “moments” consists of, among other things, putting down the languages in question in writing (what Pollock calls “literization”); their first use for documentary purposes (e.g., in recording royal grants or tax exemptions); their employment in the service of glorifying kings and their achievements (Sanskrit: praśasti); their use for the composition of epics, poems, and other literary forms (Pollock terms this “literarization”); the codification of grammatical, lexicographical, metrical, and poetic knowledge specific to them (“philologization”); their use for creating geocultural realms to which they correspond; and their instrumentality in shaping a political structure, or at least a vision thereof. These processes are distinguishable not only analytically but often also logically and chronologically. In other words, each moment is often divided into several distinct periods. Examples include the significant time gap between the first written records (literization) and the first appearance of belles lettres (literarization) in almost every vernacular Pollock discusses, or the period between the first vernacular revolution, inaugurated by the court and shaped by the Sanskritic cosmopolitan model, and an occasional second revolution, or counterrevolution, that is “regional, both for its anti-Sanskritic deśī idiom and for its close connection with religious communities that developed distinctively regionalized characters” (432).
In addition to these conceptual and sequential complications, one has to add geography. In the vast area that the book discusses—all of South and Southeast Asia—the same “moment” does not always occur at the same time. In fact, the geocultural regions and their languages show a great deal of variation in their trajectories. For example, although the Deccan launched its “vernacular millennium” around the...