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Professor Sheldon Pollock Lecture: Diversity is the Essence of Indian Culture

March 26, 2014

Professor Sheldon Pollock spoke in Mumbai on the question "What is Indian Knowledge Good For?" as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series of Columbia Global Centers | South Asia. The March 18 event with Pollock, the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University, was hosted with the generous support of the Aditya Birla Group at Trident Hotel at Nariman Point, Mumbai.

More than 100 people from diverse backgrounds attended, including academics, researchers, executives, civil servants, cultural leaders, students and Columbia alumni. The event began with a welcome note from Nirupam Bajpai, director of the Mumbai Center, followed by an introduction of Pollock by the Advisor for New Projects & External Relations, Aditya Birla Group, Dr. V. Rangaraj.

In his talk, Pollock pointed out that the state of classical literature and knowledge such as Sanskrit, Persian in the academic discourse remains neglected in its land of origin. The crisis of constructing the historical past and locating its relevance in the present, especially in the context of Indian ancient history is starkly visible.  Though there has been an increase in the number of institutions of higher learning in India since Independence, the Departments for classical languages and knowledge have been declining, due to declining academic interest in it.

Classical knowledge focuses on existential questions that concern human life and values.  It is larger than employable knowledge that can be used in the market. Pollock highlighted the importance of knowledge that deals with human existence.

Reflecting upon the multiplicity in the interpretation of ancient texts, Pollock noted that while each of them differs from each other, they are all part of the common fabric of classical Indian literature. Diverse religious practices emerged around 11th century BC such as Jainism, Buddhism and various local religious sects in different parts of India. Undoubtedly, the relations among them have been intense and conflicting not only in intellectual practise, but also among the varied followers. However,   they still converged into the diverse fabric of ancient Indian tradition. Hence, the celebration of diversity, rather than uniformity has been a feature of Indian culture.

Pollock’s lecture concluded with loud applause and a lively question and answer session.