The world of South and Southeast Asia has always featured prominently in theoretical discussions seeking to open European ideas up to the world, from the importance of India for postcolonial theory to the seminal work of Clifford Geertz and Benedict Anderson—partly derived in both cases from Indonesian fieldwork.footnote1 This should not surprise us, given that the area collectively harbours nearly a third of the global population, that South Asia in particular possesses one of the world’s longest and richest literary traditions, and that both regions featured prominently in the European colonial adventure. Most discussions, however, have focused on the sustained and complex engagement between these regions and European colonialism. Scholarship on pre-modern South and Southeast Asia which takes up larger theoretical questions remains less common.

A welcome recent exception is the work of Sheldon Pollock, scholar of Sanskrit and other regional languages. The Language of the Gods, his most ambitious intervention in the field thus far, opens up a rich series of theoretical debates about language, modernity, culture, power and identity. Pollock defines his chosen topic, the ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’, as a vast zone of South Asia book-ended by the modern states of Afghanistan and Indonesia that was characterized for a thousand years by its ‘largely homogenous language of political poetry’. This cultural sub-continent was territorially expansive, politically universalistic and ethnically non-particularized. Though it lacked the prop of an imperial state or church and never established itself as the language of everyday speech, Sanskrit was the most compelling model of ‘culture-power’ for a quarter of the world’s population from the beginning of the first millennium ad: ‘The work Sanskrit did was beyond the quotidian and the instrumental; it was directed above all towards articulating a form of political consciousness and culture, politics not as transaction of material power—the power of recording deeds, contracts, tax records and the like—but as celebration of aesthetic power.’

The vast extent—both temporal and spatial—of the Sanskrit domain has deterred scholars from offering broad overviews and interpretations: Pollock notes both the inherent difficulty of the South Asian languages and ‘the risk of provoking specialists of the particular regions where such study has always been parcelled out’, ready to pose counter-cases to any general tendency that may be identified. Language of the Gods does not tremble in the face of such obstacles: it is a revolutionary and polemical work within the field of Indology. Nor is Pollock slow to venture into other territories, addressing the course of European vernacularization so that it may be compared with the South Asian trajectory and identifying what he considers to be lacunae in traditional interpretations: ‘We now know a great deal about the lineage of the absolutist state and the history of the civilizing process, but rarely in the impressive body of scholarship of which these thematics are representative are the language and literary medium of such political and social processes described or analysed.’ He concludes both main sections of the book with a systematic comparison between Europe and the world of Sanskrit, discussing both the role of Latin as a cosmopolitan tongue and the rise of vernacular languages in an arc that runs from King Alfred to Dante.

If there was a discipline of Pre-Modern Studies, Language of the Gods would be required reading. As Pollock reminds us, the concept of modernity requires pre-modernity as its Other, so that the modern can be defined by what it excludes: ‘Many of the properties ascribed to pre-modernity . . . seem to have been identified not through empirical historical work but rather by simply imputing counter-positive features required by the very narrative of modernity.’ This approach is transparently dubious, as pre-modernity was never static nor homogenous—indeed, it was far more diverse in its forms than modernity itself. The border between modern and pre-modern is everywhere porous. In the West, incipiently ‘modern’ thoughts and practices co-existed for centuries with older ways, and as Westernization and modernity—not always the same thing—struck the non-Western world, complex patterns of adoption, adaptation and avoidance likewise co-existed. Time and again, Pollock warns us against the usual habits of thought in this field. He offers both an extended case study in how to think about the pre-modern world, and an abundance of theoretical and methodological reflections on that process, which should be invaluable to anyone who concerns themselves with the same topic—whether they adopt his concepts wholesale, or engage with Pollock in more critical ways.

In the book’s first section, Pollock explores the history of the Sanskrit Cosmopolis, beginning with its emergence in the first millennium ad. This phenomenon is, he contends, difficult to explain through the lens of conventional Western thinking about civilizations and nation-states, since the diffusion of Sanskrit from Java to the Hindu Kush cannot be explained through the familiar processes of conquest, colonialism, or religious and political revolution. It must rather be understood as an act of ‘pure free will’, a consequence—one might be tempted to say—of the sheer charismatic power of the Sanskrit language and the cultural products written in it (I use the term ‘written’ advisedly, for one of the many significant moves Pollock makes is to restrict the concept of ‘literature’ to products of the technology of writing). This deployment of Sanskrit is not to the absolute exclusion of other languages: Prakrit and Apabhram·s´a—both of which can be understood as derived or devolving from Sanskrit—are also used for literary purposes, even if the emergence of Sanskrit from its previous life as a liturgical language limited to Brahmins had the effect of diminishing the significance of both. Furthermore, Pollock argues that the growing use of Sanskrit for literature (kavya) and for political inscriptions did not come entirely at the expense of regional languages, many of which were first committed to writing in the same era. They were deployed in inscriptions for what he characterizes as the ‘documentary’ work of texts, such as defining the boundaries of a land grant, or specifying the terms of a tax exemption, whereas the ‘workly’ task of the ruler’s self-representation fell to Sanskrit and the genre of the pras´asti, or panegyric inscription.

Towards the end of the first millennium, Pollock identifies the growing use of these regional languages for ‘workly’ texts—not only epigraphically, but also for literary purposes. The dense inscriptional record allows Pollock to specify a beginning to this ‘vernacular millennium’, with which the book’s second part concerns itself. His search for a beginning to vernacularism constitutes a deliberate challenge both to primordial nationalists—who would claim that vernacular literatures have no beginning, since folk traditions are eternal, but merely enter into writing at this or that date—and to those whose objections to beginnings might be more philosophical or theoretical. This point of origin is situated by Pollock around 875 ad at the court of the Ra¯s·t·raku¯t·a dynasty, under the reign of Nr·patun·ga Amoghavars·a (roughly contemporaneous with England’s King Alfred). At this court we find both the first ‘workly’ inscriptions in a vernacular language—the Dravidian language Kannada—and the first work of vernacular poetics, the Kavira¯jama¯rgam attributed to S´rı¯vijaya. From Kannada, Pollock describes the emergence of other vernaculars across South and Southeast Asia, beginning with Telugu, Marathi and Tamil in southern India and Javanese in Southeast Asia, all with ‘workly’ texts prior to the millennium. These tongues were followed at a later date—mostly in the first half of the second millennium—by the modern Indo-European languages of northern India, and by Khmer.

As these languages evolve, the use of Sanskrit—especially in political contexts—declines proportionately, leading Pollock to identify what he characterizes as ‘vernacular polities’, no longer interested in representing themselves through the universal rhetoric of Sanskrit, but rather intent on self-assertion within specific regions where particular languages are spoken. Pollock challenges the orthodoxy which links the emergence of these vernaculars to religious movements, particularly the bhakti strand of Hindu belief and practice, which emphasized the personal and emotional bond between worshipper and deity. In both main sections of the book, Pollock is eager to decouple the culture-power formations he identifies from religious belief, arguing that language-choice and religion are much less closely linked than received scholarly opinion would have it. He insists that the choice—Pollock’s designation—to write literature in vernacular languages is a political act, almost always deriving from royal courts, at the behest of rulers with a specific agenda.