The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India

The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India

The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India

The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India

Synopsis

In this work of impressive scholarship, Sheldon Pollock explores the remarkable rise and fall of Sanskrit, India's ancient language, as a vehicle of poetry and polity. He traces the two great moments of its transformation: the first around the beginning of the Common Era, when Sanskrit, long a sacred language, was reinvented as a code for literary and political expression, the start of an amazing career that saw Sanskrit literary culture spread from Afghanistan to Java. The second moment occurred around the beginning of the second millennium, when local speech forms challenged and eventually replaced Sanskrit in both the literary and political arenas. Drawing striking parallels, chronologically as well as structurally, with the rise of Latin literature and the Roman empire, and with the new vernacular literatures and nation-states of late-medieval Europe, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men asks whether these very different histories challenge current theories of culture and power and suggest new possibilities for practice.

Excerpt

I feel that if language is understood as an element of culture, and thus
of general history, a key manifestation of the “nationality” and “popular
ity” of the intellectuals, this study is not pointless and merely erudite.

GRAMSCI, selections from Cultural Writings

Das Sein verstimmt das Bewusstsein.

GRAFFITO, East Berlin, November 1989)

This book is an attempt to understand two great moments of transformation in culture and power in premodern India. The first occurred around the beginning of the Common Era, when Sanskrit, long a sacred language restricted to religious practice, was reinvented as a code for literary and political expression. This development marked the start of an amazing career that saw Sanskrit literary culture spread across most of southern Asia from Afghanistan to Java. The form of power for which this quasi-universal Sanskrit spoke was also meant to extend quasi-universally, “to the ends of the horizons,” although such imperial polity existed more often as ideal than as actuality. The second moment occurred around the beginning of the second millennium, when local speech forms were newly dignified as literary languages and began to challenge Sanskrit for the work of both poetry and polity, and in the end replaced it. Concomitantly new, limited power formations came into existence. Astonishingly close parallels to these processes, both chronologically and structurally, can be perceived in western Europe, with the rise of a new Latin literature and a universalist Roman Empire, and with the eventual displacement of both by regionalized forms. But the parallels are complemented by differences, too, in the specific relationships between culture and power in the two worlds. Today, the vernacular epoch that began in India and Europe a millennium ago seems to be mutating, if not ending, as the local cultures then created are challenged by a new and more coercive globalism. It may be only now, therefore, that we are able to identify the shape of these past events and to ask whether from their old differences we might learn any new ways of acting in the world.

This is a very large set of issues—the book might have carried as a sec-

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