Monday, October 17, 2022

Sheldon Pollock’s Misinterpretation of the Ramayana

Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana in Exile

“What possible relationships, if any, can be posited between the reemergence of Rama—the Rama of L. K. Advani of the BJP—and an earlier political semiotics of Rama—the Rama, say, of Prthviraja III?” ~ Sheldon Pollock poses this question in his controversial essay, “Ramayana and Political Imagination in India.” The essay features the cover image of India Today (15 May, 1991 issue), which depicts  L. K. Advani with bow and arrow—in his caption below the image, Pollock suggests that Advani was posing like Rama.

By using some common banalities from Marx, Sartre, and other leftists, Pollock makes the case that from the twelfth century onwards, when the Indian subcontinent was being ravaged by Islamic invaders, the Ramayana ceased to be a mythological text. It became the language of “mythopolitics,” and was deployed as an anti-Islam doctrine. Pollock’s essay was published in May 1993, when the Ram Janmabhoomi movement spearheaded by the BJP and the VHP had mobilized the Hindu masses, resulting in a radical transformation of the country’s politics.

Pollack argues that the Ramayana must be interpreted as a doctrine for “othering” the outsiders who were depicted as demonic. He notes that the text creates a dialectical contrast between Rama, the chief of the virtuous, and Ravana, the chief of the demonic. He writes: “I believe the text offers unique imaginative instruments—in fact, two linked instruments—whereby, on the one hand, a divine political order can be conceptualized, narrated, and historically grounded, and, on the other, a fully demonized Other can be categorized, counterposed and condemned.” 

He draws an unbelievable connection between the religious imaginary of the Ramayana and the political imaginary of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. He denies thousands of years of history and tradition to make the case that there was nothing religious or historical in the choice of Ayodhya as Rama’s birthplace, and that the BJP and the VHP selected Ayodhya as the site of struggle for tactical and political reasons.

If Pollack had written this kind of biased and atheistic interpretation of any Islamic holy text, he would be ostracized by the academic community for being “Islamophobic.” But the academics are not accusing him of being “Hindu-phobic.” His interpretation of the Ramayana as a doctrine of communal politics has been embraced by the leftist academics and journalists. His scholarly work is being funded by major business houses. The Congress government conferred him with the President’s Certificate of Honour for Sanskrit in 2008, and the Padma Shri in 2010.

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