Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Language of the Gods in the World of Men

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

Sheldon Pollock
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 703
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnqs7
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Language of the Gods in the World of Men
    Book Description:

    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 Menasks whether these very different histories challenge current theories of culture and power and suggest new possibilities for practice.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93202-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. PREFACE AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. MAPS
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-36)

    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...

  6. PART 1. The Sanskrit Cosmopolis

    • CHAPTER ONE The Language of the Gods Enters the World
      (pp. 39-74)

      The transformation of the social life of Sanskrit around the beginning of the Common Era constitutes one of the most momentous events in the history of culture and power in Asia. It is also one of the least discussed and as a result, unsurprisingly, the least understood.

      From around the beginning of the first millennium b.c.e., when the earliest form of Sanskrit appeared in South Asia, until around the beginning of the first millennium c.e., Sanskrit functioned as a communicative medium that was restricted both in terms of who was permitted to make use of the language and which purposes...

    • CHAPTER TWO Literature and the Cosmopolitan Language of Literature
      (pp. 75-114)

      The astonishing expansion of the discursive realm of Sanskrit in the century or two around the beginning of the Common Era occurred not only at the level of royal inscriptional eulogy. Thepraśastiitself was intimately related to, even a subset of, a new form of language use that was coming into being in the same period and would eventually be given the namekāvya.¹ It was only when the language of the gods entered the world of men that literature in India began.

      To speak of beginnings, especially literary beginnings, is to raise a host of conceptual problems. The...

    • CHAPTER THREE The World Conquest and Regime of the Cosmopolitan Style
      (pp. 115-161)

      The new political culture and cultural politics embodied in the public expression of power in Sanskrit spread across southern Asia with remarkable speed. Just to register thisdigvijaya, or conquest of the quarters—and the very unusual sort of conquest that it was—is to grasp something of the character and reality of the Sanskrit cosmopolis. Within a mere two centuries, in locales that ranged from Kashmir and Puruṣapura (Peshawar) in the foothills of the western Himalayas eastward to Champa (central Vietnam), Prambanam on the plains of central Java, and even beyond in the further islands of today’s Indonesia, from...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Sanskrit Culture as Courtly Practice
      (pp. 162-188)

      The spread of a widely shared, largely uniform cosmopolitan style of Sanskrit inscriptional discourse would have been impossible without an equally vast circulation of the greatkāvyaexemplars of that style, accompanied by the philological instruments without which the very existence of such texts was unthinkable. The magnitude of the space through which Sanskritkāvyacirculated can be suggested by a few simple observations. The two great foundational texts of cosmopolitan Sanskrit culture, theMahābhārataandRāmāyaṇa, came to represent the basic common property of literary culture across southern Asia. The role of theMahābhārataspecifically in shaping the image...

    • CHAPTER FIVE The Map of Sanskrit Knowledge and the Discourse on the Ways of Literature
      (pp. 189-222)

      When the scholar Hemacandra completed his grammar and presented it to King Jayasiṃha Siddharāja of Gujarat, the king had the book copied and distributed throughout the world—a world that was vast yet delimited in its vastness and completely named and known. The fact that a cosmopolitan grammar should have escaped its local confines in Aṇahilapāṭaka and circulated as far north as Nepal and as far south as Cōḻa country is in itself hardly surprising. After all, Sanskrit, like Prakrit and Apabhramsha (which are also analyzed in Hemacandra’s grammar), was no language of Place and was quite capable of traveling...

    • CHAPTER SIX Political Formations and Cultural Ethos
      (pp. 223-258)

      Our exploration of the complex relationship between literature and space began with a legendary account of the origin of Sanskrit literature and a literary-theoretical discourse on Sanskrit styles and their regional dimensions. Both perspectives are conditioned by a conceptual matrix fundamental to Sanskrit thought for ordering and explaining the diverse phenomena of culture and society as elements in a transregional network closely related to Sanskrit’s own nonlocalized mode of existence. But there are other, literary linkages between literature and space. Narrative has an internal spatial logic, a “semiotic domain around which a plot coalesces and self-organizes,” as one scholar puts...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN A European Countercosmopolis
      (pp. 259-280)

      We can gain a sharper sense of the peculiar nature of the cultural order that Sanskrit helped to create, and the kind of political order for which it was cultivated, if we consider both from an explicitly comparative perspective. There is a natural tendency, exhibited even (or especially) in social and cultural theory, to generalize familiar forms of life and experience as universal tendencies and common sense. Comparison offers an antidote to this by demonstrating the actual particularity of these apparent universalisms. Among those forms of life and experience, Latin literary culture and the Roman political formation, as well as...

  7. PART 2. The Vernacular Millennium

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Beginnings, Textualization, Superposition
      (pp. 283-329)

      It is obvious that we cannot analyze the history of vernacularization—the term used here for the literary and political promotion of local language—or even observe it taking place, without knowing precisely what it is we are trying to observe and analyze. If we are concerned with the transition from quasi-universal to more regional ways of being in the spheres of culture and power, we will pay attention to, among other things, the ways people began to produce texts that were local rather than translocal in body and spirit—in their language and spheres of circulation as well as...

    • CHAPTER NINE Creating a Regional World: The Case of Kannada
      (pp. 330-379)

      Few local literary cultures of premodernity anywhere permit us to follow the history and reconstruct the meanings of vernacularization with quite the same precision as is possible for Kannada, the language of what is now the southern union state of Karnataka. We can chart the shifts in cosmopolitan and vernacular cultural production without interruption from about the fifth century on, based on texts that are for the most part securely datable—an almost unparalleled antiquity and chronological transparency. Much of the data is the hard evidence of epigraphs, and their quantity is breathtaking. The region must be one of the...

    • CHAPTER TEN Vernacular Poetries and Polities in Southern Asia
      (pp. 380-436)

      Processes of literary-cultural transformation exactly like those found in the Kannada-speaking world are in evidence across much of southern Asia for a period of some five centuries beginning a little before 1000. Given so vast a domain with local complexities everywhere, and few comprehensive accounts existing for any one language let alone for the entire southern Asian world, only the general shape of this vernacular revolution can be sketched out here, with a few especially representative or complex instances examined more closely. Several features discernible in many instances (not, of course, all) will serve as focal points: the place of...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Europe Vernacularized
      (pp. 437-467)

      To an outside observer, the vernacularization of Europe as a literary-cultural process in itself and, even more so, in relation to political processes appears to be one of the great understudied topics of Western history. The editor of a recent edition of theOxford History of Medieval Europe, while observing that a major factor in “the new diversity” that marked the late Middle Ages was “the exploitation of a variety of languages in important writings,” confesses himself at a loss to explain the development itself; the origins of the vernacular turn are for him as “mysterious” as its results are...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE Comparative and Connective Vernacularization
      (pp. 468-494)

      Brief and selective as it is, the foregoing sketch of some key moments in the historical transformation of literary culture and power in western Europe should suffice to point up some of the extraordinary parallels with contemporaneous developments in southern Asia. The great innovation that was to enduringly change these two worlds occurred during the first five centuries of the second millennium, and it shows a remarkably consistent morphology. (Other apparent moments of vernacularization outside of this time period are either problematic in their history, as in Tamil country in the early first millennium, or entirely divergent in their literary-cultural...

  8. PART 3. Theory and Practice of Culture and Power

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Actually Existing Theory and Its Discontents
      (pp. 497-524)

      If the passing of the so-called master narratives that have shaped modern ways of knowing the world—accounts based on belief in the progress of scientific reason, for example, or human emancipation—is partly a result of discontent with their apparent claims to a monopoly on truth or their rigid laws of developmentalism, there is no little irony in the fact that they are being replaced, in some instances, by what might be called cultural naturalism as the explanatory model of change in the history of culture and power. To be sure, theories linking cultural change and biological evolution have...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN Indigenism and Other Culture-Power Concepts of Modernity
      (pp. 525-566)

      One particular mode of theorizing and explaining culture implicitly rejects, or is entirely indifferent to, both culture’s evolutionary development and its purely instrumental contribution to power. Instead, culture is viewed as something just there, and as ever self-identical. It is considered outside the flux of time, whether natural or political, or else endowed with so deep a history as to appear forever beyond time. And its stance in relationship to power is presumed to be almost one of consanguinity, certainly not that of an object to be deployed at the will of power.

      There are various discursive embodiments of this...

  9. Epilogue. From Cosmopolitan-or-Vernacular to Cosmopolitan-and-Vernacular
    (pp. 567-580)

    Few things seem as natural as the multiplicity of vernacular languages used for making sense of life through texts—that is, for making literature. And few things seem as unnatural as their gradual disappearance in the present, especially from the pressures exerted by globalizing English. Literary-language loss is in fact often viewed as part of a more general reduction of diversity in a cultural ecosystem, a loss considered as dangerous as the reduction of biological diversity, to which—in another instance of cultural naturalization—it is often compared. Today’s homogenization of culture, of which language loss is one aspect, seems...

  10. Appendix A
    (pp. 581-596)
  11. Appendix B
    (pp. 597-600)
  12. PUBLICATION HISTROY
    (pp. 601-602)
  13. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 603-648)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 649-684)