Sheldon Pollock
The impact of British colonialism on culture and power has been the dominant
arena of inquiry in the past three decades in South Asian studies. A large body
of scholarship has been produced in the colonialism-and-X mode: colonial-
ism and economy, colonialism and caste, colonialism and religious categories,
art, empiricism, gender, historicality, law, literature, the nation, numeracy, sci-
ence, sexuality, and so on down the alphabet. A good deal of this scholarship
has been both substantively and theoretically exciting and provocative and
has changed the way we understand the transformative interactions between
India and the West, starting from the consolidation of British power in the
subcontinent around 1800.1 But as many of its practitioners would be ready to
admit, colonial studies has long been skating on the thinnest ice, given how
far it presupposes knowledge of the precolonial realities that colonialism en-
countered and how little such knowledge we actually possess.
As I have argued in various forums for some fifteen years—though it
will seem breathtakingly banal to frame the issue in the only way it can be
framed—we cannot know how colonialism changed South Asia if we do not
know what was there to be changed.2 In the domain of culture viewed broadly,
and more specifically with respect to systematic forms of thought, under-
standing how Western knowledge and imagination won the day presupposes
a comprehension more deeply grounded in epistemological and social facts
than we now possess of how South Asian knowledge and imagination lost,
which in turn requires a better understanding of what exactly these forms of
thought were, how they worked, and who produced them. To date, hypothe-
ses on the demise of Indian science and scholarship with the advent of colo-
nialism seem largely dependent on interpretations dominant since the time
of Max Weber, which take for granted the presumed uniqueness of Western
rationality, technology, rights-bearing citizenship, or capacity for capitalism—
Previous Page Next Page