- In the World of Men and beyond It:Thoughts on Sheldon Pollock's The Language of the Gods in the World of Men
It is a rarity for any book concerned with Sanskrit literary and cultural production to attract serious, sustained interest outside of the world of South Asian studies. Sheldon Pollock's masterful and far-ranging study has done so to a greater degree than any such work in many years. This is not happenstance: it is the product of long and careful work, of compiling and assimilating vast arrays of data across many linguistic spheres but also, and perhaps even more important, incorporating and productively responding to a wide range of recent scholarship in literary, political, and cultural theory, thereby bringing premodern Indic sources into contemporary conversations on the dynamics of culture and power. This effort has paid off dramatically, producing a dense but intricately crafted synthesis that has already proven, and will no doubt long continue to prove, to be a challenge, an impetus, and an inspiration for those wishing to confront issues of language, culture, and power, either in South Asia or cross-culturally.
For this very reason, it is more than likely that Pollock's work will play a dominant role in shaping the wider public image of premodern Indian, especially Sanskrit, language and literary culture, along with the forms of polity related to them, for years if not decades to come. This influence is a tribute to the book's many achievements, in both the empirical and theoretical domains, but it does raise some potential concerns about the book's reception and its ongoing impact on the field of premodern South Asian studies. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men tells an important, and heretofore drastically undertheorized, part of the story of Sanskrit, but it is only a part. To the extent that it comes to be seen as telling the whole story of the language in all its manifestations, even for the period with which it most closely concerns itself, it may produce an unduly constricted picture of the Sanskrit cultural field.
In order to give a clearer idea of the range of phenomena covered by Pollock's analysis, and those that seem to lie largely beyond it, I would like to begin by seriously investigating the scope of the all-important qualifier in the title of his book. The work is presented programmatically a study of "the language of the gods"—Sanskrit—"in the world of men." The title itself indicates that what we are dealing with here is not a study of Sanskrit tout court, but of some subdomain within the larger world of Sanskrit. What exactly, then, is meant here by "the world of men"? Where does it begin and end, and what does it mean to fall inside or outside it? In Language of the Gods only one boundary of this world [End Page 117] of men is clearly demarcated. This is the temporal boundary between the time of what Pollock dubs the "Sanskrit cosmopolis," whose dawn he dates to roughly the second century AD, and the period that precedes it. Sanskrit has a recoverable history that extends back before this boundary for at least a millennium, as manifested chiefly in the Vedic scriptures and the various bodies of technical literature that grew up around this corpus. Pollock argues, however, that in the early centuries AD a radical shift took place in the status of Sanskrit, as the language moved outside the liturgical or sacral domain, to which it had heretofore been confined, came to be employed by many who had so far avoided it, and was put to altogether new uses. He is interested particularly in the relation between a newly emergent Sanskrit literature and new forms of political self-representation—as he puts it, between kāvya ("poetry") and rājya ("kingship" or, more broadly, "power").1 It is this nexus that forms the real subject of Pollock's book, that shapes it and governs its selection of topics.
This selectivity is an important part of what makes the book compelling and is, in itself, wholly laudable. It makes it possible for...