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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boundaries between natural sciences and humanities

A recent book (Claude Grignon and Claude Kardon, Sciences de l'Homme et Sciences de la Nature) discusses the distinction between the two fields of human knowledge. According to the authors, humanistic disciplines (such as history) are characterised by an inductive methodology, whereas natural sciences (such as physics) are deductive. The first start from facts and build theories in order to explain them, whereas the latter deduce what will happen out of their theories. Hence, in the latter time and history have no role (the laws of physics will never change, whereas human behaviour is historically determined), and the kind of causality involved is altogether different (because of the different relation to time and, I would argue, because of the repeatability of the experiments in natural sciences). The authors themselves admit that this distinction is only a matter of degree and that there are indeed major exceptions (the history of natural sciences, I would for instance suggest, is the history of an inductive collection of instances to be explained).
The subject is challenging, since the distinction is not ascertained as such in India, although astronomy and mathematics, to name just two, were highly developed (let us just think at the invention of "zero"). I have argued elsewhere (in Italian) that this non-distinction is possibly due to a different view of epistemology. Indian epistemology is indeed more inclusive and aims at explaining every kind of cognition (including interesting explanations of erroneous or delusive cognitive episodes). Hence, no distinction is drawn between inductive and deductive fields of knowledge (induction is indeed recognised as present in all cases, even in speculative thought). In sum, one wonders whether the above-mentioned distinction inheres in the disciplines or in the epistemological justification of them.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Role of Women

I am afraid this post will (if ever) only be read by women readers. And this is a pity. In fact, I wonder why for so many centuries men could have wished to have a wife at their side which was hardly more than their slave, instead of choosing a friend with whom they could have shared thoughts, experiences, feelings, thus enhancing the meaning of life.
I guess that, in spite of many passages in various religious texts which hardly support such a negative role of women, one just thought of women as lower beings and hence thought that one 'needed' them in order to satisfy practical needs (such as reproduction), but that only men were fit as companions in one's spiritual and intellectual development. That's a pity, since one missed the chance to take advantage of the many women one had around oneself (mother, sisters, wife, daughters…).
Similarly, it is a pity that reflections on the role of women are mostly been undertaken by women alone and read by women alone, so that "gender studies" has become almost a "private club" for women intellectuals. I can't understand why men generally do not feel the challenge of re-thinking their relationships towards women.
(in the photo: the rape of the Sabine women, Florence.)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Do we have to co-work in order to understand South Asia?

Some scholars prefer to work alone and maintain that working together, though sometimes useful, is fundamentally a waste of time. In my Italian blog on Verbal Communication as the founding element of (Indian) Philosophy, I have already argued that lonely work is just impossible. One always relies on other people's work. Hence, to work alone just means that contacts are mediated through (mostly) reading instead of direct contact. It is hardly the case that asking direct questions to the person whose text one is reading would not enhance one's understanding of it and the text itself.
I will hence assume that many people will agree about the necessity of joint work.
So, my present question is only: Is joint work even more necessary in case of South Asia (and, particularly, of its philosophy)?
My provisional (as usual) answer is yes. 1. insofar as dealing with another culture cannot but be enhanced through the multiplication of points of view. 2. insofar as philosophy itself often requires a constant and engaged dialogue. It is, I believe, not a description of something (be it ontology or ethics), but rather a prescription to think along with what is said. 3. One of the main purposes of "regional studies" is mediation. And mediation necessarily involves many people.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The challenge of metaphors

Many similes link human and plants, so that a creeper around a tree is compared to the arms of a young girl “chained around my neck” (Caurapañcaśikā), and the trees moved by winds in the Rāmāyaṇa rustle and seem “almost …to weep”. Do such literary instances prove something about their authors' view of plants? Did they believe that trees feel love and suffer? By and large, I think that plants in such similes do not express love, etc. It is rather up to poets to read a vegetal behaviour along the line of a human one, so that a creeper is poetically described as wanting to adhere to its beloved tree. Therefore, the burden of the expression of love or grief is on the poet, not on the plants. Similarly, in many Western languages, some sorts of willows are called “weeping willows”, not because one believes them to grieve for something, but rather because their branches, bent downwards, remind us of our behaviour while grieving.

But what about the pre-history of such expressions? Are they grounded in an older belief in the common nature of all parts of the cosmos?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Materialism in Religious Thought

I just read Shaji George Kochuthara's "Conjugal Sexual Pleasure: Contemporary Theological Perspectives" (in Ephrem's Theological Journal 13 (2009), pp. 44-71), a challenging perspective on a thought-provoking, but awkward theme. The author argues that (conjugal –since pre-marriage sex is not discussed) sex cannot be thought of just as for the sake of reproduction. Sex without love would be just an illusory communication and, in fact, be tantamount to a self-erotic act. In this connection, the author quotes a really striking sentence of a Catholic theologian, Dietrich von Hildebrand:

To regard wedded love as exclusively an objective means to the union of wedlock, and the latter in turn as a means to procreation, would be to subordinate entirely man in quantum homo to man in quantum animal — a thoroughly materialistic view” (D. von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity, 10-11.).

To me, this view sound ultimately convincing. Still, recently the Catholic Church (to name the one I am more familiar with) has often been upholding this kind of materialistic views on many themes. For instance, one thinks at the stress on the necessity of keeping artificially alive even people who will never regain consciousness (after, e.g., a major car accident) and had previously expressed the desire NOT to be kept alive in similar extreme conditions. Does not this amount to preferring a materialistic identification of (animal or even "vegetal") life as what has anyway to be preserved, independent of its worth as the life of a human person?

Similarly, the stress on the necessity to preserve every single (human) zygote does not seem to regard its spiritual potentiality, but is rather often motivated by the need to safeguard life –understood in a positivistic, materialistic way, that is, as cells and DNA.

I am not saying I do not agree on the content of such actions. I am just disappointed by the materialistic attitude by which they seem to be motivated.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Are there plants in India?

Could plants have been conceived by the Indian traditions in exactly the same way as in the (basically Western) contemporary world-view? The category of “plant may end up appearing less uncontroversial then initially assumed. On the one hand, “plants” do not constitute a coherent whole in Indian views; on the other hand, what we consider to be “plants” are not always sharply distinguished from what we would rather call “animals” or “matter”. By the way, one may note that similar problems arise even within the Western common understanding of plants, as soon as it is pushed towards less-common cases, such as see animals like corals (often considered to be plants, since they do not move), or phytoplancton (often considered to be made of animals –possibly because it moves through the oceans), not to speak about bacteria and micro-organisms. On a similar vein, we can detect extensions and inner partitions within what we would call “plants” in Indian traditions. First, in many texts (especially Vedic and early Jain ones) “plants” are seen as sentient, but only insofar as they are part of a cosmos which is in all its aspects not conceived as inert. In this case, plants are part of the same organic continuum embracing all elements of the universe and the universe itself as a whole. Second, in other texts plants (especially trees) are connected to Plant-Deities. The exact link between a plant and the Deity inhabiting it is not easy to ascertain, especially because one has to understand it out of narrative or religious texts which only incidentally deal with the issue. The Deity seems often to be conceived as inseparable from the tree, although in other (later?) cases it is said to be able to leave the plant and move into another one. In any case, it cannot live out of a plant, but for such short shifts. In some (again, later?) cases, Deities are said to have limbs, children and so on, and seem, hence, to be conceived in an anthropomorphic way. One wonders whether –at a stage which can only be inferred out of the texts preserved– the plants inhabited by a Deity were themselves thought of as Deities, or as Deities' bodies and not just Deities' abodes. Third, “plants” are not equal: almost all texts (until contemporary ones) take for granted the higher status of trees (often called vanaspati) among “plants”. Both phytotherapy and contemporary actions in favour of plants focus on the preservation of trees. From a different point of view, the more generative parts of plants (seeds, sprouts, blossoms, etc.) are deemed to deserve a greater respect, this time in Jain and Early Buddhist texts. Lastly, in many philosophical texts one witnesses a sort of “rationalistic” attitude against the evidence in favour of the sentience of plants found in Dharmaśāstra and/or narrative texts. While reading such philosophical texts one sometimes gets the impression that they are reacting against a popular belief. Thus, from their point of view they are proposing a neutral, rationale view against a folkloristic one. A Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā primer (Rāmānujācārya's Tantrarahasya), for instance, counts plants as living beings, but excludes them –overtly dissenting from some Manusmṛti quotations– from the possibility of fruition (bhoga) and, hence, from the reign of karman-bound creatures. Later Buddhist texts even state that plants do not live and classify them on the same level of earth, rocks, etc.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jainism and nature

Paul Dundas wrote an illuminating essay (The Limits of a Jain Environmental Ethic, in Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life, ed. by Christopher Key Chapple, Cambridge Mass. 2002) warning about the risk to overestimate the 'ecological' commitment of Jainism and inspiring the following considerations of mine:
1. True, Jainists endorse ahiṃsā and include plants among living beings, but they do not share our contemporary concern for 'nature' as a whole. They focus on suffering individuals, and would not share our care for protecting a natural environment even at the expenses of some individuals living in it (for instance, we might decide to kill all wild dogs in the area of Canberra in order to preserve the Australian original habitat).
2. Nature (and even the sum of the individuals inhabiting it) is not something to be preserved in itself. One should strive for ahiṃsā in order not to accumulate new karman, not (only) for the sake of plants and microscopic organisms.
3. Points 1-2 entail no ethic evaluation. Ecology is part of the contemporary world view but the fact that we feel immediately close to it does not necessarily entail that it is the 'right' way to look at nature. In fact, the last century has –notwithstanding ecology– destroyed the natural world much more than the preceding eras.
(In the photograph: Jains avoid to swallow insects and other microscopic organisms by wearing these masks)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Classifications of prescriptions: Mīmāṃsakas get organized

At first, I have been looking for a comprehensive classification of prescriptions in Mīmāṃsā and got irritated by the simultaneous presence of what seemed to me as competing classifications. Later on, I realised that these various classifications originated out of specific exegetic concerns. All of them have been included into inclusive classifications due to the Mīmāṃsaka (and Indian) inclination to classify whatever possible. These classifications differ from the ones presupposed in Dharmasūtra/Grammar, etc., as far as I understand, also because of the stress laid on the common vidhi-nature of all their elements. Then, among post-Maṇḍana authors, vidhi has been regarded as an important category in itself and in certain cases one started to classify vidhis departing from a different point of view, that is investigating the nature of vidhi itself, independent of a specific textual passage to be interpreted. In other words, pre-Maṇḍana authors identified single instances and collected them all together as vidhis. Some post-Maṇḍana (and especially later) authors, instead, could have started to aim at understanding the vidhisvarūpa ("own nature of prescription") and to see classifications as explaining it. This shift is not completed in any of the texts (even later ones) I am aware of, which all explain vidhitattva (the "essence of prescription") without mentioning the types of vidhis and insert instead classifications among exegetical topics. Maṇḍana himself seem to 'use' the classifications he was aware of, and not to understand them as pointing out the nature of vidhi (which, instead, is explained by him as the fact that the action prescribed is the instrument to achieve a desired result, iṣṭasādhanatva).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Intellectual Copyright

I have argued elsewhere about the re-use of other authors' material in Indian texts. I argued that the concept of 'intellectual copyright' has to be re-thought in ancient India (and in whatever pre-XVIII century country, as far as I know). This has massive ethical and philological implications, I believe, since to assume that knowledge obviously becomes part of a common reservoir influences one's compositional habits and worldview in general. I am not saying that classical Indian authors were not selfish or not ambitious, I am just suggesting that our concept of authorship and of 'intellectual property' may not fit with theirs.
Vandana Shiva has often expressed her worries about the sort of Indian (poor) farmers willing to buy crops from Monsanto or other companies which accept to be paid only after the harvest. Those farmers, she maintains, are not really aware of the fact that they are buying patented 'basmati rice' and that they will have to buy new corns every year (plants are hybridised). They cannot realise it –follows Shiva– because the idea of patenting a plant does not fit within their mental landscape. Interesting enough, Shiva concludes "This is known as 'biopiracy', the piracy of the knowledge and resources of the poor by the rich". Biopiracy is promoted, most notoriously, by U.S. laws and by WTO agreements that globalize Western-style "intellectual property rights" (Vandana Shiva, Tomorrow's Biodiversity, p. 132; Stolen Harvest, p. 89).
I do not share her attitude, but it is interesting to see the same argument implemented in a very different context.

Two trends in Indian arguments in favour of plants

There seems to be two different trends in Indian arguments in favour of plants.
1. On the one hand, some schools considered plants as simple living beings and, hence, respected them. For these schools, it is not uncontroversial that plants have a sort of basic awareness and that they take part to the cycle of karman. Jainism is the more consistent in arguing for the living status of plants. Early Buddhism may have included plants among living beings, but it is not clear whether only because of a general costume (and later Buddhism explicitly considers plants as just 'things'). 'Orthodox' schools of the so-called Hinduism are, again divided into two: epics and literature seem not only to argue for the sentience of plants, but to take it as self-evident, whereas philosophical schools usually deny it and interpret these passages as metaphorical.
2. On the other hand, plants are not only regarded as either insentient things or as simple living beings: in many cases we witness instances of plants being regarded as noble living beings, to be honoured and respected. This may have to do with the idea that plants are inhabited by divinities, but I sense that this is only a later, rationale, explanation of a primordial respect towards plants. Mahendra Kumar Mishra kindly made me aware of a paper of him about tribal ideas about nature, which by and large go in this direction. I am not daring to conclude that the 'Hindu' respect for plants as noble beings derives from a tribal concept of plants (nor do I believe in a 'uniform' tribal worldview, unchanged throughout centuries). I would rather propose that a 'lateral' (=non mainstream) notion of plants as noble beings has been preserved in some tribal milieus. Whatever the case, the appraisal of plants, even within those who acknowledged them as living beings, is highly differentiated.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Indological blogs

There seem to be two sorts of scholars' blogs relating to India:
–blogs about texts, textual problems, problems with softwares for textual criticisms and the like
–blogs about specific problems (focusing on a certain aspect of Indian culture).
Besides, there are blogs I cannot read (such as Kei Kataoka's japanese one) and, hence, evaluate. Just some posts, helas, are dedicated to India's philosophical thought as represented in its texts. There is, I mean, no Manyul Im of Indian philosophy. Why? I, for one, would be an assiduous reader of such a blog! And I guess that it would also enhance the feeling of scholars of Indian philosophy to belong to a group and to share –more or less– a/some mission(s) (understanding Indian philosophical ideas/making Indian philosophy part of the philosophical scene/…).

Desires and needs

I have been working a lot, recently, on the concept of desire (a paper of mine in Italian can be found here). Then, a student made me aware of the fact that, apparently, Indian philosophers do not distinguish between needs and desires. Does this only depend on the fact that –being mainly Brahmins or monks– they did not have to worry about their basic needs? I think, rather, that it has to do with the fact that there are no 'pure' needs. Every need (first of all, the need for food) is influenced by our desires, so that, for instance, one strives for a piece of cheese or for an apple but not for a piece of meat.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Plants, stones and environment as a whole

Some fairy tales tell the stories of peasants which become kings or queens. Others tell similar stories, but for the fact that the seeming peasant is, instead, the forgotten/lost/… son/daughter of a royal family. One would think that the first case is more "revolutionary" since it proposes a real social shift. But, in fact, the second one is the real audacious case, because it leads to the conclusion that every peasant could indeed be a king (and, hence, deserves respect).
I have been reminded of this instance while considering the case of plants and their status within Indian culture (see also my previous posts on this subject). Are plants to be respected because of themselves (as independent living beings)? Are they just useful resources (and, hence, to be kept green and strong because of our own advantage)? Do they, lastly, deserve our consideration because of something other than themselves? I include in this last case both the fact that plants may be inhabited by plant deities or that they may be human beings (several fairy tales –both in India and Europe– tell of human beings transformed into plants –in French and Italian there is the well known story of a girl being killed and reborn within a pomegranate). Leaving aside as less morally desirable the second alternative, the third seems less desirable than the first. But is it really so? Thinking at plants as plants may make indulge much more in minor violent acts than thinking at plants as puruṣas (personal living beings, such as Deities or humans).
(I had the pleasure to correspond about plants and Indian (mainly tribal) culture with Prof. Mahendra Kumar Mishra. He also added that not just plants, but also stones are part of the tribal, "integrated" view of life. More on this in a next post.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Women's role and desire

In a paper of mine ("Desidero Ergo Sum", RSO 2009), I argued that Mīmāṃsakas fall close from admitting women's and men's equality since they grant to women the eligibility (adhikāra) to perform rituals. The chief argument in favour of women is that they can become ritual agents because they long for the ritual's result, just like men. Hence, equality is based on the commonnes of desire. Now, Shaji George Kochuthara sent me an article of him ("Kāma without Dharma? Understanding the Ethics of pleasure in Kāmasūtra", Journal of Dharma, 34.1 (2009), 69-95) where more or less the same point is made. Women have an active role in kāma-related activities (which are not limited, explains Kochuthara, to sexual intercourses, but rather include all sort of sensual pleasures), because they are independent subject of desire. If I am not wrong, this may be the same kind of reasoning outlined in the case of the Mīmāṃsāsūtra: women are seen as independent subjects (unlike animals, for instance, or idiots) because they have desire. It is their very desire which allows them to emerge in the field of the plausible agents.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Texts and Recipients

Since at least the hermeneutic turn of textual analysis, we are aware of the importance of readers/listeners while evaluing a text. But how far has the composer of a text listeners/readers in view, while composing a text? The question is crucial, because it points to the possibility of critically reconstructing and of interpreting a text both from the point of view of its author and of that of its intended readers/listeners. The two levels would be distinct even at the author's time.
A recent study by an Italian philosopher and scholar of aesthetics, Maurizio Ferraris (Documentalità, 2009), highlights the recording aim of writing/composing a text (the ambiguity is necessary while talking about Indian culture, which has often been suspicious about writing). One composes, maintains Ferraris, in order to record facts, in order to make out of random episodes a "social thing". Hence, record is prior to communication. One is lead to remember Robinson Crusoe's calendar, even in his solitary island. But is the priority of record logically admissible? Or does not it presuppose the possibility of a (future) reader/listener for whom the record is meant? Does not the very idea of texts and documents as reification of social life into "social objects" entail a community within which one communicates?

Monday, November 9, 2009

How many typos should we include in a critical edition?

1. Of course, it is not always difficult to understand whether a varia lectio is a typo or whether it has a certain significance. A seeming typo could be only what is left of an older varia lectio.
2. mantrabhāva is certainly a significant variant of mantrabhāga, so why should not also a similar shift of a single phoneme be recorded in all cases?
3. In case of a particularly significant manuscript, even typos may be helpful in throwing light on its background. One could learn, e.g., which kind of typos were more current among scribes coming out of a less known scribal tradition.
4. Moreover, as suggested to me by Péter-Dániel Szántó, one could choose to record all variants so that a future reader of the manuscript(s) we have been using may use our critical edition in order to learn the manuscript(s)' script.
i) In cases such as the ones hinted at in 3), the faithful reproduction of the entire manuscript may be the most suitable solution. So, one could produce a diplomatic edition of the manuscript and then avoid including typos in the critical one.
ii) A too heavy critical apparatus makes the text less readable and is, hence, a non-sense in case of previously unedited texts.
iii) Too many typos in the apparatus make the significant variants loose their significance. They are, so to say, overwhelmed by typos.
iv) Cladistic tools are not reliable in producing a stemma codicum if they have to take into account hundreds of typos (which should play hardly a role in determining a stemma).

More in general, the point is: what does one aim at, through one's critical edition?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The scope of direct perception

Notwithstanding what we would prima facie say, our concept of 'perception' is culturally determined. The philosopher/psychologist Eric Schwitgebel notes that in a certain way we could say that we "see" the window while looking at a tree outside it, even if the window can only be seen because we know about trees and about windows and we know that a tree without a window before it would appear differently. In India, Buddhist philosophers admitted within the range of perception (pratyakṣa) things a realist would have never admitted as perceptible, such as the four noble truths (to be seen through intellectual, yogic, perception). Mīmāṃsakas seem to be the most restrictive as regards the definition of perception. To them, only sense perception is perception. No intellectual perception is admitted, memory of a perceived thing is no (longer) perception and there is no perception of not commonly perceivable items. For instance, they deny perceptibility to samavāya (inherence), against Naiyāyikas. Similarly, they deny the possibility of perceiving objects which are not directly in contact with one's sense faculties (again, against Naiyāyikas which maintain that a distant object [such as silver] can be perceived through a special contact in order to explain perceptual error [such as mistaking mother-of-pearl for silver]). On the other hand, however, Mīmāṃsakas deem determined cognitions to be perceptible, against Buddhists. In general, the object of direct perception is, for Mīmāṃsakas, very similar to the one of naive realism: a "thing" recognised as such (i.e. categorised, verbally determined), not its qualitative elements (a particular shade of colour, a kind of softness, etc., as with Buddhists).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Plants and Deities

A well-spread belief in Indian cultures acknowledges the presence of deities in trees and plants in general. Those deities are usually closely linked with the tree they inhabit, but may be begged to leave and choose another one in case one wants to feel the tree or in similar instances. So, one would think that they are ultimately distinguished from the tree. Still, in some cases a person who has damaged a tree is blamed by the tree-deity as having cut an arm of the deity's son. In a Jataka, a she-deity inhabiting a tree has her son injured by a monk who wants to fell the tree. But I wonder whether this is the original meaning of the motive of the injure to the deity's child. Perhaps, in all instances where no distinct child is presented, one could suppose that the deity refers to the plant itself as his/her child. I do not know of similar beliefs in other cultures, nor did I find an explicit statement of that in Indian texts, so this theory would presuppose an ancient belief which has only survived in stock sentences in the text which have actually been preserved to us.
The presence of a deity inhabiting a plant seems to shift the requirement of non-violence from the plant itself to the living being inhabiting it, so that it seems that life is not typical of plants, but rather bestowen on them through their inhabiting deities. Something similar might have been the case of (some) Jaina thinkers who justify the necessity of non-violence towards water and earth as motivated by the many (invisible) living beings inhabiting them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In quest of a human truth

In his appealing blog, Amod Lele has recently argued that we can apply the concept of truth as correspondence with an external state of affairs in all fields ( even in regard to human states, for instance). The blog is wonderfully written and it does not deserve criticisms coming from a different point of view, so I will just use it as a departure point for an epistemological excursus on this matter. In fact, I am convinced that the truth-as-correspondence does NOT work in all cases. In many cases, on the other hand, the truth of a certain state of affairs is closely linked with its subject and cannot be judged independently of her. By that I do not mean that truth is 'subjective', i.e. whimsical. I just mean that it is subjective because it is essentially linked with the subject. A neuroscientist could calculate the number of neurones involved in a painful sensation and the frequency of signals they transmit. But this has no necessary connection with the quality of the pain the subject is experiencing, which could depend from many other, subjective, factors (such as the presence of what the Buddha labelled a "second arrow"). So, 'pain' is a real state of affairs and it is subject-dependent. No scientist could convince me that the pain I am experiencing is unbearable if I can bear it (and vice versa, different people react very differently to what seems to be the same neuronal stimulus).
A similar case may be the experience of God. Taken for granted that God's non-existence could be demonstrated, this would not invalidate the subjective experience of His presence of people like St. Teresa of Avila. (A different way out would be to argue that all these people were liars -but this seems to me deeply implausible. The alternative view that they were deceiving themselves does not alter the point: they were anyway 'perceiving' God's presence.)
Hence, we need a concept of truth beyond that of correspondence with external state of affairs. I suspect that the truth-as-correspondence is applied to human fields because of a sort of inferiority complex of human studies in regard to natural sciences. So, scholars of the human psyche strive to become natural scientists dealing with an objective entity, the brain, and the like.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Is Madhva's hermeneutics dualist?

I just had the pleasure to read the paper delivered by Michael Williams at the 14th World Sanskrit Conference. It focuses on Madhva's interpretation of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad passage (-a tattvamasi), but it is also interesting as a first glance into Madhva's hermeneutical strategies. Williams rightly, I believe, underlies the fact that Madhva accepts as self-understood the idea that once you have known the principal (pradhāna) componen of something, you have automatically known also its secondary (apradhāna) components. In the instance considered in the article, Madhva argues that, through knowledge of Viṣṇu (God), one can get to know also the world. This may well be true, although I would not expect Madhva to say something like that. Is not he the one who upholds the irreducible difference (atyanta-bheda) between God and the world? If there is such a difference, how could one fully know the world through knowing Him? One could answer that the difference lies in fact in the world's dependence on Him (whereas He is absolutely independent and autonomous). Hence, the world would be qualitatively similar to God (the example used to illustrate the pradhāna-apradhāna state is that of a ball of clay and the remaining mass of clay), although it ultimately relies on Him.
Does not this reduce the importance of Madhva's emphasis on the difference between God and the world? Does not this mean that there is in fact no dualism here? I can know better understand why Madhva himself did not label his philosophy Dvaita (dual) Vedānta. Still, his appeal to common experience as an epistemic instrument to seize difference looses much of its strength if difference does not regard the nature of God and the world, but just their dependence/independence (…hardly seized, by the way).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Authors and authoriality in Indian philosophy

I have been arguing in several older posts (see: 1, 2, 3, 4) that in Indian philosophical texts the concepts of "copyright" and, consequently, of "plagiarism", lack. . Everyone copies, better, everyone uses his predecessors words and conclusions as building blocs (Bausteine) for one's own work. Why, then, are authors so frequently recorded in Indian philosophical texts? Many, possibly most, philosophical texts are said (either in the mangala or in the colophon) to be "the work of...". Moreover, authoriality is a big issue whenever it refers to past and well-known authors, such as the author of one's school foundational text, Vyāsa, etc. It is so even in schools -like Mimamsā- which maintain the independence from an author of the Veda.
The apparent contradiction may possibly be solved if one considers that "author" and "authoriality" do not share the same meaning in classical Indian philosophy and contemporary enquiries. The author could have been felt, in the first one, as a pra-vaktr, that is as "an excellent upholder" of the school's ideas. Kumārila and Jayanta Bhatta seem to have been seen and to have understood themselves as such.
The situation is different in case of semi-divine authors, such as the Vedic rsis, Gautama within the Nyaya school, Kapila, etc.). They are of foundational importance because they are endowed with an epistemological faculty to ground what they say, through intellectual intuition (yogipratyaksa). Some schools, such as Mimamsa, deny any validity to yogipratyaksa. But even the ones which acknowledge such possibility for some extraordinary human beings, do not rely on it for the successive history of the school. Hence, a first authorial foundation is useful to ground -through the yogipratyaksa faculty of an extraordinary human being- the validity of the whole system. But thereafter the system is developed through a succession of authors and commentators who are nothing more than the voices expressing the school's ideas.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


In classical Indian literature and philosophy, most texts have an author. Indologists and Sanskritists have been challenging these attributions almost since the beginning of Indology. Thus, we have learnt that Vyāsa, Patañjali, Gautama, the Buddha, etc. are not the authors of the texts attributed to them, which are, instead, often the result of centuries of re-elaborations.
In the last ten years, however, the trends is inverting. Alf Hiltebeitel's Rethinking the Mahabharata, Federico Squarcini's (and Daniele Cuneo's) interpretation of Manu and Ronald Davidson's attributions of Tibetan texts in his recent Tibetan Renaissance are all instances of how the issue of authorship has gained increasing importance in South Asian studies. All these scholars have detected authorial traits in texts which had been thought to be almost authorless by the preceding generation. They have (convincingly) argued that Indian texts are part of a network of authors, that they react against previous texts and directly influence succeeding ones, that Indian authors have a clear agenda. Somehow, these scholars are turning back, though in a theory-loaded way, to the Indian traditional approach to texts as authored.
One might imagine a counter-trend agains the overstress on authoriality to emerge in some 50 years. So, one is left with the problem of using trends without clinging at them.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Spoken Sanskrit: why?

A couple of years ago, the Indology mailing list has hosted a great number of very interesting posts on spoken Sanskrit. Stella Sandahl, for one, has argued that so-called spoken "Sanskrit" is full of Hindī neologisms (sebaphalam as apple, for instance, although there were no apples in classical India) and has little to do with the classical language. On the same track, George Hart has pointed to the self-restriction of spoken Sanskrit, which does not aim –he maintains– at expressing complex thoughts and is only meant for everyday usage. Thus, it does not do any harm and can be fun, but no more than that.
I understand such concerns but am more in favour of spoken Sanskrit, basically for two reasons (apart from the practical reason of using Sanskrit as a medium with Indian paṇḍits).
  1. 1. It can be useful for didactic purposes. In my years of teaching experience, I noticed that students have usually either a figurative memory (and are hence quite helped by visualizing the written form of a word) or an aural one. In this second case, remembering the way a word sounds or the context of a conversation may be more helpful than hours of memorizing declension-endings.
  2. 2. I hope that to acquire some proficiency in spoken Sanskrit may lead to thinking in Sanskrit along with the texts one is working on. And I am absolutely sure that one needs to think along with a text in order to make sense of it (especially in case of śāstric Sanskrit, but I guess that similes may also be difficult if one is not ready to follow them beyond what is explicitly written).

(For the ones who want to participate, Adrian Cirstei is collecting spoken Sanskrit resources.)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Plants as sensory living beings

Plants are described in many texts of Jainism, Buddhism (although Schmithausen has shown how they do not represent the final opinion) and "Hinduism" as ekendriya, that is as "endowed with a single faculty". Jainas are clear about the identification of this single faculty as touch (sparśa in Sanskrit) and many texts agree in attributing to plants the touch-related sensations of heat/cold, etc. In this sense, the fact of having just one sense faculty agrees with the collocation of plants on the bottom end of the evolutionary scale of living beings, together with other subtle entities without any individual body. However, it is difficult to see why touch should be the first sense faculty to appear in a living being. In fact, touch is usually connected with air (vāyu) and both are in the middle of the list of elements/sense faculties. I have already discussed elsewhere (in Italian) the order of the gross elements as connected with the subtle ones and the sensory faculties.
This issue, together with the consideration that Jainism usually preserves many features of the oldest strata of Indian philosophy, points at the possibility that ether (together with sound as its content and ear as the corresponding sensory faculty) has been added on top of the list of gross elements (ether/air/fire/water/earth). At an earlier time, air would have been the first of the list and, consequently, touch would have been the first sensory faculty to emerge in the simplest living beings.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Scribal "errors"

A colleague working on Arabic manuscripts made me consider a further issue about Indian manuscripts: their size. We are used to manuscripts with relatively few lines per page (usually 5-12, as far as my experience reaches: I have never seen instances of manuscripts with more than 18 lines per page). This could make "errors" due to going from the same group of syllables to the same one repeated later on (and, hence, skipping whatever is in between), less frequent.
It would be interesting to compare the percentage of such errors in Indian and non Indian manuscripts.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Scribes and scribal traditions

A recent article by Shilpa Sumant (to be published in the proceedings of WSC 14th) drew my attention to the problem of scribal traditions. A single manuscript might be carelessly written or not, but what shall we think when all the manuscripts of a certain text are uniformly full of the kind of various readings one would certainly label as "errors" due to carelessness? I am leaving aside the case of manuscripts copied in order to acquire merit (puṇya). Does this hint at the fact that manuscripts have been copied in a domestic/ritual dimension, that they were thought of as important tools rather than as "treasures" to be preserved? I expect, for instance, a handbook on how to build amulets to be somehow careless written by someone who just wants to understand what he reads and, hence, does not care for the difference between va and ba (which he would anyway pronounce in the same way). On the other hand, I would not expect important mistakes to occur in such practical books (a lacuna would make a medical passage unusable and surely needs to be filled, at least with a marginal note).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Theodicy, karman and other possible solutions

Problem: could a benevolent and omnipotent God not save all of us? In fact, some of us die without having obtained the boon of faith and, thus, seem not to have been chosen by God. But why should God, who is omnipotent, not bestow faith (and/or the ability to do good actions) to everyone?
Possible solutions:
1. (Augustin/Luther/Calvin like): God does not want to save us all, for reasons we don't know, he chooses some of us.
2. (Aquinas, Erasmus of Rotterdam): God does want to save all of us, but we have to do our best, too. Nonetheless, he can also save people who do not 'deserve' it (but this leads back to the question: why not in all cases?).
2. (Indian): God does want to save all of us, but he relies/depends on the law of karman. Hence, he always gives us a "second" chance by means of letting us be reborn again and again.
3. (Origen) God wants to save all of us and does it.

How could we then account for the fact that, as long as they were alive, some people seemed not to have been 'chosen' by God? Of course, one cannot judge according to human meters, such as richness or health, but what about faith? Can anyone be saved without faith? This could be answered as follows:
3a. The fact that some of us seem to have not been chosen depends on His wish to be served in different ways (in a devout way by people to whom he bestows faith and in a, e.g., 'humanistic' or 'enlightened' one by people to whom he does not bestow it).
I could not locate a precise defence of view 3a. anywhere.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Silent Reading and Scribes

The issue of silent reading in India has also some consequences for textual criticism. If one could ascertain that silent reading became the rule in, for instance, the 17th c., then one could imagine that scribes copying a manuscript were no more used to read aloud (even if with a low tone of voice) and that hence focused on what they were seeing rather than on what they were hearing. A component linked to the form of what one sees will possibly always be present (in a scriptorium where a single person reads and dictates, that single person might accidentally read an 'e' instead of an anusvāra, etc.). But until now we are used to consider also aural kinds of errors (e.g.: ta instead of da in the South), which should become less and less frequent if silent reading is the rule.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Vedānta Deśika: Dharma is not perceivable by normal human beings

Vedānta Deśika (Seśvaramīmāṃsā ad 1.1.4) then confutes the above mentioned thesis that dharma can be seized through direct perception. This confutation entails the necessity of Sacred Texts for human beings. However, Vedānta Deśika is careful enough not to rule out the possibility for God to see dharma, since he always stresses the fact that this is impossible "for people like us" (asmadādi). In this way, he skilfully harmonizes Mīmāṃsā and theism. The following is an excerpts of his argument:

That he (Jaimini) refutes by the words “A contact with something existing” and the following ones of the sūtra. In this regard, this is the succession of the connection [of the sūtras]: In regard to dharma “perception is not a condition [for knowing it]”. Why? “Because it seizes existing [objects]”, that is, because it grasps present (vartamāna) objects. And why is it so? To this doubt he replies… What indeed [is perception]? The usage (prayoga) of the sense faculties. That must be direct perception. Hence, how can there be [direct perception] in regard to dharma? Nor is it a condition. In fact, dharma is found as something which is done at the moment and which has been done, according to its fruit. Hence, direct perception could grasp it? By no means! If indeed the own nature of a substance or [a quality or an action] is seen (maybe: could be seen) through direct perception as “dharma” in the form “this is dharma”, in the same way as one sees “this is a pot”, and if in its regard we could regularly (niyamena) grasp that immediately after this object (artha, that is, dharma) –which has been determined (nirdiṣṭa) as being the instrument to realise a [desired] result– that [result] comes into being, then through direct perception together with repeated instances of seeing we could ascertain “this is the instrument to realise something good”. [But], since the [desired] result consisting in heaven etc. cannot now be present, because of the fact that it will occur in another body, it cannot be grasped that [dharma] is the instrument to realise it. Nor does the action last until the [desired] result is experienced. The unseen potency (apūrva) which is realised by the action, though it lasts [longer], is not perceivable by people like us. [Else, one could propose that] it (the instrument to realise the desired result), in fact, consists in obliging (anugraha) the Deities. [But,] indeed, the desire (abhiprāya) of one cannot reach perceivability by another (hence, the Deities' intention cannot be directly perceivable by us). Hence, since at the level of the result there is no act (karman) and at the level f the act there is no result, it is impossible for us to grasp the relation of thing to be realised and instrument realising it inhering in both (since we never grasp them together). Hence, the fact that [direct perception] seizes [only] present things can be established (siddh-) as the cause for the fact that direct perception cannot grasp dharma.

Through that also the example concerning the nature of a precious stone is refuted (see above). In fact, the heaviness of a precious stone, even if contemplated thousands of times, is not grasped by the eyes.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Is silent reading thinkable in India?

An old post by Péter-Dániel Szántó on Augustin's remarks about St. Ambrose, made me reflect about the subject of silent reading in India. Silent reading was virtually absent in the Ancient World (Augustin's very remarks about St. Ambrose show how extraordinary it looked to him) and around the 800 AD one could still distinguish only between low-voice self-reading or loud-voice reciting. What about India? The very idea of silent reading seems to conflict with some of the basic tenets of the Indian culture, for instance, the idea that one has to study with a teacher and that culture is propagated orally (written texts being only a support for orally transmitted notions). However, one might imagine that silent reading reports could come out of different milieus, such as that of kāvya (are there any instances of people reading on their own?). Buddhist milieus could also display a different attitude towards silent reading, since they display a different attitude towards book and orality in general. Finally, I expect a different attitude to be detectable in Tibet.
The issue is not a mere curiosity since silent reading deeply changed our way to read and, hence, to write. Writers tried to focus on the form of the verse (think at poetry from the XIX c. onwards) rather than (or: together with) on its sound. Private readers needed more books (one each instead of the single copy read and commented upon by the teacher during a lesson.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Again on perception of imperceptible things: what is at stake?

I guess that my purpose in showing tidbits of the Indian discussion about the perceivable nature of dharma could get lost until I spell it out: What is a direct perception which perceives imperceptible things? A Mīmāṃsā author would stick at his empiricism and say that it is no direct perception (and that it does not exist). But the definition of direct perception is just human-made, hence. conventional. It is based on average human beings and although such average human beings are the absolute majority of the human adult population, this is still no definitive argument for ruling out exceptions as "mistakes". Still, what is left to us –the majority of the population– unless we can rely on such average data? What if perception could be totally different from the sense perception we are used to? This does not amount to a philosophical experiment like the "brain in the vat" one, because it should refer, in the intention of Dharmakīrti-like Buddhists, at least, to an actual (even desirable) possibility, the attainment of awakening. Furthermore, such possibility is said to be humanly reachable. So, there are human beings who developed a faculty (perception of imperceptible things) which is altogether absent in normal human beings, but CAN be reached by them.
How can such a faculty develop out of nothing? Should not it be present to a lesser degree in all of us? Buddhist and Nyāya authors seem to deny it altogether (if it were so, then everyone would be justified in using its own faculties to build its own set of beliefs, relying on the scant "amount" of dharma he can see by herself). But it is surely not impossible as a logical contradiction is.

What if dharma were perceivable?

The objector in Vedānta Deśika's Seśvaramīmāṃsā ad 1.1.4 then drives consequences out of the premiss that direct perception is not bound to the sense faculties. If direct perception is possible even outside their precincts, then Sacred Texts are no more the only way to know dharma. Hence, one does not need Sacred Texts anymore and dharma is just a normal subject, as medicine and politics –about which many human beings write or lecture. To avoid this consequence, Buddhists such as Dharmakīrti, or Nyāya authors may claim that dharma is perceivable only by those who are adequately trained ("enlightened" or ṛṣi) and that, hence, one still requires Sacred Texts in order to achieve such training. But this runs the risk to be circular.
Writes Vedānta Deśika:

Hence, it is correct that dharma can be directly perceived. In the same way, it is also inferable. Since there is no distinction among the visible causes of service (sevā), learning (adhyayana), etc., no difference of fruit (phala) can be seized without a further condition (nimitta, that is, dharma). Therefore, in this way, since the dharma is directly perceivable and inferable, like it [occurs] in the case of Ayurveda and of politics (arthaśāstra) [whose texts are composed by human authors], also a human sacred text (āgama) [would] be possible (or: "in regard to the dharma, which is cognizable through direct perception and inference, a human text would also be possible, just like politics and medecine [in regard to artha]"). Hence, if through these instruments of knowledge (why plural? does it entail human communication too?) the object of a prescription (codanā, as in MS 1.1.2) could be ascertained as dharma, then prescriptions seizable only through much effort (āyāsa) (that is, the Vedic prescriptions, requiring hermeneutic efforts) would be fruitless. And the interpretation [of MS 1.1.2] as stating that “only the prescription” [is a means of knowing dharma] would not be suitable. If (atha) a certain meaning, not stated by a prescription [and] not contradicted by it [would be dharma], then there would not be anymore the thesis that “only the prescription” [is a means of knowing dharma]. If, on the other hand, a certain [meaning] opposed to the [prescription], like that taught by the Buddha, etc., [could be dharma], then also the interpretation (avadhāraṇa) [of MS 1.1.2] as “the prescription is an instrument [for knowing dharma]” would not be suitable, because it (prescription) would be contradicted.

Hence in all cases the [sūtra 1.1.2] “Dharma is a meaning having a Vedic prescription as its instrument of knowedge” (I am following here Vedānta Deśika's interpretation of this sūtra) would be improper (durvaca).

(This translation has partly been discussed with Marion Rastelli)

I am not sure about the sentence on service. To me, it seems to mean that one undertakes service to God, and study, out of similar reasons (being a Brahman, being born in India…). Service to God would not lead to a super-natural result if it were not for an additional reason (dharma, understood as bhaktidharma).

Self-awareness of pleasure and pain vs. self-awareness of cognition

In a previous post on Vedānta Deśika's Seśvaramīmāṃsā ad MS 1.1.4 I quoted a passage about the fact that dharma might be perceptible "[even] for Mīmāṃsākas, like our [inner] pleasure and [pain]". The learned editor of the Seśvaramīmāṃsā, T. Viraghavacharya, explains that the example of pleasure and pain is only meant for Mīmāṃsakas, "not for us" (na tv asmān prati). In fact, "according to our opinion, pleasure and [pain] cannot be seized by the sense faculties (indriya), because they shine forth by themselves (svayamprakāśa), since they are of the nature of cognition". According to the Mīmāṃsā, on the other hand, "cognition would not be an example, because it is only inferred through the fact that one has known something" (that is, one infers the fact that there has been a cognitive act because one ends up knowing something, but one does not "perceive" cognition while occurring –so Kumārila).
Hence, pleasure and pain are –as far as Mīmāṃsakas are concerned– the only candidates for being directly perceivable, although not through the outer sense faculties. On the other hand, if Vedānta Deśika had spoken to a wider audience, he could have used the instance of cognition (also directly perceived although not through the outer sense faculties).
Further consequences of that:
1. Vedānta Deśika spoke to a mixed audience (he does not mention the cognition example, which would not have been shared by Mīmāṃsakas, but he specifies that the pleasure and pain one is meant "for Mīmāṃsakas", thus admitting that there are further readers who are not Mīmāṃsakas).
2. Does point 1 mean that Vedānta Deśika had in view just Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsakas? In fact, Prābhākaras would have thought of cognition in a very different way.
3. Cognition is admitted by Viraghavacarya to be "directly perceivable". This does not seem to be the same as what Dharmakīrti, for one, claims when he speaks of cognition as svayamprakāśa. In fact, for him cognition is not "perceived" insofar as there is no perceiver beyond it. Viraghacarya's seems, hence, to be a different position, influenced by the assumption of an enduring subject beyond cognition. Whose position is this?
4. What does this entail in regard to the possible Prābhākara side of Vedānta Deśika's Mīmāṃsā?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Pet-linguistic instances

In order to get to similar results (the primacy of the agent), different linguistic structures can be analysed. Indian authors chose the ones which they thought to be more paradigmatic, due to their background assumptions.
Mīmāṃsā authors elaborated so much around the idea of an urgency conveyed by prescriptions because they had the Veda as the main focus of their speculations.
On the other hand, theist authors such as Abhinavagupta in his Tantraloka (but see also Sadyojyotis' commentary on the Svayambhūvāgama), elaborated on the usage of the causative (thinking at the way God makes people act in the world).
Where they aware of the fact that the linguistic instances they chose were closely linked to their background theories?


Tantra seems to have a quite different meaning in Ritual Sūtras and in Mīmāṃsā. In the first ones it indicates the basic form of a ritual, to be repeated in the rituals derived from it (that is, it indicates what is known in Mīmāṃsā as prakṛti!).

In Klaus Mylius' Dictionary of Old-Indian Ritual, tantra is defined as follows: "Grundform, Regelwerk einer Opferkategorie; so ist das Neu- und Vollmondopfer zugleich tantra für alle iṣṭis". In Mīmāṃsā, on the other hand, it indicates the performance of direct subsidiary rites just once (although they apply to all parts of the main sacrifice). Pārthasārathi Miśra defines it as follows: "tantra is indeed the common performance of the subsidiaries, like the pre- and post-sacrifices in regard to the offerings of the [rice-cake] to Agni etc. (tantraṃ nāma sādhāraṇam aṅgānuṣṭhānam –yathāgneyādiṣu prayājādīnām, AN V, xi adhyāya, intro ad 1, p. 295). That is, the pre-sacrifices are performed just once, but they apply "in common" to all offerings.
How did this shift of meaning occur?

I am grateful to Dr. Tiziana Pontillo who pointed out a definition of tantra in Lāṭyayana Śrauta Sūtra: bhūyiṣṭhaṃ tantralakṣaṇam (VI.9.13). This can still be consistent with the idea of tantra as prakṛti ("the characteristic of tantra is to be found in many rituals"). However, from this one can also develop a different concept of tantra. In fact, the sūtra could also be interpreted as "the characteristic of tantra is that [what is performed by means of it] is present (that is, valid) in many [offerings]".

Friday, October 2, 2009

Vedānta Deśika on the boundaries of sense perception

The following is the beginning of Vedānta Deśika's discussion on whether dharma can be siezed by sense perception. He has four arguments in favour of that (in yellow is a point I am not sure about):

Once the investigation on dharma has been undertaken through the [question] on whether there is no instrument for knowing [dharma] and whether there is another instrument for knowing [it], here first of all is confuted the validity of other [instruments of knowledge], according to the succession (krama) of the two established ascertainments in regard to the possibility of the compound in its parts “codanālakṣaṇa” [to express two meanings] [see Vedānta Deśika on MS 1.1.2, where codanālakṣanaḥ is first interpreted as "having no other instrument of knowledge outside Vedic prescription" and then as "having prescription as instrument of knowledge [and hence not being unknowable]"]. Hence, in this case, can [direct perception] be an instrument for knowing dharma or not? –this is the point to be inquired. What is correct? It can. To elaborate: here, substance, action (kriyā), quality, etc., which can be talked about through the word “dharma”, are established through direct perception –this is agreed upon by everyone. The fact that they can be instruments to realise something good, on the other hand, although it is difficult to be seized by people like us at once (that is, through direct perception) (sahasā), is nonetheless easily grasped through the direct perception, assisted by a heap of saṃskāras, of those who are used to that, like the reality of a precious stone (ratna) [is easily grasped by experts, but not by common people]. [Moreover,] like in the case of the appearances of the beloved one for one who is love-sick (kāmātura), an intense meditative visualization (bhāvanā) can raise a directly perceivable idea (dhī). [Furthermore,] one commonly experiences that there is a graduation in the grasp of sense faculties, like in the case of crows, owls, vultures, etc. And the obtaining of the pitch is seen in regard to those who take part to this graduation. And hence either the graduation in intensity gets somewhere exhausted, because of its nature of graduation [just like one cannot jump until the moon, no matter how long one practices –as pointed out by Kumārila] like the graduation of measures, [and it is] so for every sense faculty, or [the graduation in intensity] could generally (that is, in all cases) be practised (prayuj-, caus.) as a graduation in intensity of direct perception. If this is the case, all super-sensuous object is established to be sensory in relation to someone
[e.g. perception of small ants is sensory for one who has well trained eyes], because the exhaustion [of the graduation of intensity of direct perception] would not be possible without (that is, before) the fact that everything [has become] its content (viṣaya). As for the topic under discussion (prakṛta), this can be inferred in detail: dharma etc. can be grasped by someone's sense faculties, because they are knowable things, like the palm of a hand. Or, for the mīmāṃsakas, in regard to this premiss (“dharma etc. can be grasped by someone's sense faculties”) (pratijñā) [the reason is:] because they are directly perceivable, like our own pleasure and [pain]*. [Lastly, we know that dharma is perceivable out of śabdapramāṇa. In fact,] the great ṛṣis themselves speak about the direct perception of great ṛṣis and yogins, engendered by their dharma and energy: “Hence, he clearly sees all, as it is, through the energy of dharma”.

*One needs an additional argument for Mīmāṃsakas, since the sheer fact that "they are knowable things" would not be enough for a Mīmāṃsaka to prove that dharma, etc., are seizable by the sense faculties. They could be known –a Mīmāṃsaka would argue– through the Veda. On the other hand, the second argument would not be valid for non Mīmāṃsakas, since pleasure and pain are, according to non Mīmāṃsakas not seized by the senses, rather they are by themselves known. In fact, they are believed to be instances of cognitive acts and, hence, self-luminous (svayaṃprakāśa).

(Seśvaramīmāṃsā, ad 1.1.4) (This translation has been discussed with Marion Rastelli)

The boundaries of sense perception

I am strongly suspicious about the claim that one can directly perceive objects other than the ones we all perceive. I do not believe, e.g., in mystic perceptions. However, I am well aware that the argument runs circular unless it is soundly ground in ontology. To say that only what is perceived is perceivable does not add any information. On the other hand, anthropology proves that our perceptions are influenced by what we are used to think of as perceptible. Finally, I claimed elsewhere (see my italian blog on the Word as Instrument of Knowledge) that our sense perception can be altered by what we are linguistically aware of.
Whatever the case, the problem of whether dharma (and brahman) can be directly perceived is an intriguing one. Theists and followers of the Buddha, the Jina, etc., have to state that (at least some special ones) can perceive it, but they are then left with the risk of newcomers claiming they perceive it, too. "Traditional" Mīmāṃsakas are hard empiricists and stuck at the idea that "nothing beyond the physical world is perceivable", including in the physical world also inner sensations of pleasure and pain.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why should one study both the prescriptive part of the Veda and the Upaniṣad?

In his Seśvaramīmāṃsā, Vedānta Deśika (XIII c., possibly the most influential Viśiṣṭādvaitin after Yamuna and Rāmānuja) describes the link between the necessity of studying the Veda from an epistemological perspective and the necessity of including in it also the Upaniṣads. I can fully understand his first argument (also the Upaniṣad are valid, because their intrinsic validity is not invalidated due to faults found in their speaker), but I am puzzled by the next one. It seems to say that in the Brahmasūtra and its commentary the validity of the Upaniṣad will be established, whereas in the Mīmāṃsāsūtra the Upaniṣad are acknowledged as an important part of the Veda, but their [independent] epistemological validity is not admitted.

Everything can be a proper (samañjasa) object, once an instrument of knowledge has cleared it up. Hence, a complete reflection on the way instruments of knowledge work is of significance || 20 ||

“A reflection on the instrument to know dharma”: so has [the subject] been in general denoted.

Hence, also a reflection on mantras, commendatory statements, smṛti etc., will find its place in it || 21 ||

In the reflection on the means for knowing the nature (rūpa) of prohibitions and injunctions,

also a reflection on the means for knowing the adharma which is prohibited will be present [in his commentary on MS 1.1.2 Vedānta Deśika elaborates on the subject of adharma being included in the investigation on dharma] || 22 ||

[Obj:] But in regard to the [Upaniṣadic] sentences about the brahman, who rely (viśram-) on the own nature [of brahman], there is no status of being a means for knowing the dharma; [hence] there should not be any reflection on them here || 23 ||

[Reply:] Let it not be like that! Since here one undertakes an inquiry (jijñāsā) on the meaning of the Veda in general, the validity of the whole Veda has to be described from the beginning. || 24 ||

Hence, since an instrument for knowing dharma is an instrument of knowledge because it has no faults on the part of the speaker, also a sentence on brahman is established to be a means of knowledge in general [for both dharma and brahman, and not just for brahman] || 25 ||

The reliance (viśrānti) on the own nature in general will be then discussed in the Śarīraka (Brahmāsūtra),

in fact, here, although there is no mention of the [Upaniṣad statements], the validity [of the whole Veda] will be established

so much that, insofar as they do not aim at their own nature, and are [rather] to be supplemented to a prescription,

the reflection [on the Upaniṣadic statements] is then reached, but not an instrument for [their] validity || 27 ||

(Seśvaramīmāṃsā concluding verses of the commentary on MS 1.1.3) (My previous translation has been improved by Marion Rastelli)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Do ritualists listen to anti-ritualists?

Luca Picardi discussed H.W.Bodewitz 1996 study on punarmṛtyu ("repeated death" or "second death"?). His conclusion goes partially against Bodewitz' one, insofar as Picardi believes that it is hardly the case that a ritual innovation has been introduced as an answer to anti-ritualist criticisms. The theme is challenging and regards Mīmāṃsā philosophy as well. How competitive and open was the stage of Indian debate about ritual?
Consistently with the above claim, Picardi maintains that there is a detectable continuity between Brāhmaṇas and Upaniṣad in the path leading to the interiorization of sacrifice [hence, in this case, too, the Upaniṣad should not be read as an answer against external, anti-ritualist criticisms]. If pushed too far, the thesis is hardly plausible, still it raises more general thoughts.

Where is the subject?

Speaking at the 14th meeting of the Italian Association of Sanskrit Studies, Daniele Cuneo discussed some puzzling verses in Manusmṛti XII. [As before, I will try to reproduce the gist of his paper; my comments will be in square brackets.]
The verses are:
yo 'syātmanaḥ kārayitā taṃ kṣetrajñaṃ pracakṣate |
yaḥ karoti tu karmāṇi sa bhūtātmocyate budhaiḥ || 12 ||
jīvasaṃjño 'ntarātmānyaḥ sahajaḥ sarvadehinām |
yena vedyate sarvaṃ sukhaṃ duḥkhaṃ ca janmasu || 13 ||
tāv ubhau bhūtasaṃpṛktau mahān kṣetrajña eva ca |
uccāvaceṣu bhūteṣu sthitaṃ taṃ vyāpya tiṣṭhataḥ || 14 ||
asaṃkhyā mūrtayas tasya niṣpatanti śarīrataḥ |
uccāvacāni bhūtāni satataṃ ceṣṭayanti yāḥ || 15 ||
According to Cuneo (who follows Patrick Olivelle's first view, now partially altered, and Federico Squarcini's one), the Manusmṛti should be collocated in the II c. b.C. and it constitutes a conscious reply to the ascetic issues raised by Jainists and Buddhists. The XII book is dedicated to the theory of action and retribution. Hence, his conclusion will be, these verses aim at indicating an enduring self who can be the carrier of merit and demerit from life to life (a "responsible agent"). Such a metaphysical thesis can ground justice on a human level.
Accordingly, the verses discuss several alternatives, departing from the Sāṅkhya or proto-Sāṅkhya kṣetrajña, but then introduce the more neutral jīva ("individual Self") in order to identify such responsible agent. The kṣetrajña is defined first as ātmanaḥ kārayitā, where ātman is interpreted by all commentators as 'body'. Cuneo further proposed to interpret it as the prakṛti-part of its cognitive apparatus. [I agree that the Sāṅkhya puruṣa or kṣetrajña could never be the responsible agent the author aims at, since he does not act at all. But the use of kārayitā and of pravartayitṛ found in the commentaries thereon hints at a different kind of theory –or a different kind of Sāṁkhya]. [Why is mahān dismissed?] [v. 12 seems to draw the picture of a kṣetrajña which causes the bhūtātman to do. This, in turns, "does acts". If it is so, then, is the bhūtātman the same as the ātman and, hence, the same as the body? Or does it still imply a sort of awareness? If the latter, why did not the author of Manusmṛti choose bhūtātman as the responsible agent he was looking for? And why is instead the jīva identified as a knower rather than a doer? v.13ab designates the jīva as a possibly transmigrating entity and this suits well Cuneo's thesis.]
According to Cuneo, the pivotal role of jīva is highlighted by the pronouns tam and tasya which cannot but refer to it (since tam in v. 14 is masculine and since kṣetrajña and mahān have been mentioned in the above pada as something different).
His translation of the relevant padas is more or less as follows [my rendering from Cuneo's Italian]: "the two kṣetrajña and mahān constantly pervade him (=the jīva). Out of its configuration (śarīra) innumerable kinds of people (mūrti) arise". That is, out of the qualities (guṇa) of the jīva arises the distinction between agitated, calm, sad people. The role of guṇas and the corresponding kinds of people has been explained elsewhere in the Manusmṛti, where the term mūrti is also found referring to such "kinds" of people.
Cuneo also highlighted how the commentators cannot be used to understand this passage (and, possibly, the whole Manusmṛti), since they lived much later than the author of the Manusmṛti (the first commentator dates to the 500-650 A.D.) and have much different agendas. In the case at stake, they are influenced by vedāntic ideas. For instance, they agree in identifying the paramātman (never mentioned in the verses!) as the referent of tam and tasya. Further, they identify differently the other elements (jīva is said to be manas or buddhi, the mahat is said to be the antaḥkaraṇa). Cuneo also pointed out that a universal self could be detected in the Manusmṛti only in a very different context, that is, in the I book, where a prabhū or svayambhū chas a cosmogonic function.
Finally, Cuneo takes for granted that the Manusmṛti is the work of an author. The issue of authoriality is a key term in the recent development of Sanskrit studies. During the same meeting, it has been applied to Vedic studies (to the hymns ascribed to Dīrghatamas).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bhāvanā: Kumārila and Bhartṛhari

Bhartṛhari speaks of bhāvanā in his well-known passage about pratibhā (who taught to the cockoo bird to sing? The pratibhā). Bhāvanā should be a synonym of it. The vṛtti glosses it as śabdabhāvanā, since it is essentially linguistic. Abhinavagupta, who surely knew (and sometimes criticised) Kumārila, uses again śabdabhāvanā in the same sense as Bhartṛhari. Is it possible that two so different meanings of śabdabhāvanā co-existed without anyone feeling the need to specify "my śabdabhāvanā is not the same as Bhartṛhari's/Kumārila's one" or the like? I am not talking about bhāvanā, a common name throughout Sanskrit culture, but śabdabhāvanā does not seem as much broadly used (I do not know of other cases of its usage). Finally, could Kumārila have not been aware of Bhartṛhari when he called the linguistic bhāvanā "śabdabhāvanā"? Or did he have it somehow in mind? What are the implications of that?

2 levels within Mīmāṃsā

As argued in my previous post about pramāṇa, I think that there are two levels in Mīmāṃsā: an older, exegetical level and a newer philosophically engaged one. The older may list different kinds of prescriptions and explain that the prayogavidhi is the one which enjoins an act, the newer explains that one enjoins an act because it is one duty/because it is the mean to attain something desired/… Not necessarily do the two harmonize and it is interesting to see how Mīmāṃsā philosophers managed to reduce contradictions. See, about the above-mentioned enjoinment issue, Vācaspati's commentary on Maṇḍana's Vidhiviveka.

What is a "means of cognition"?

Pramāṇa is found in Mīmāṃsā texts in two different meanings:
1. (see e.g. Jaimini, MS 1.1.2, 1.1.4 and 1.1.5 and Śabara's commentary thereon) as an epistemological terminus technicus referring to our sources of information: perception, inference, communication…
2. (see Śabara on 1.2.31, 1.2.46…) as a Mīmāṃsā terminus technicus referring to a source of information about an exegetical point.
In the latter sense, a pramāṇa may be the direct mention of a term in a certain connection, or its indirect indication through number, gender, etc. For instance, the direct mention of kuśa grass as sacrificial substance allows one to conclude that it has to be applied (viniyoga) to the sacrifice.
The second meaning seems to me the original Mīmāṃsā one. It might have been older than the systematic discussions about pramāṇa in Indian epistemology (which also rarely predate Kumārila and Dharmakīrti). So, exegesis might have been the way through which Mīmāṃsā elaborated a philosophical lexicon. Similarly, V. Eltschinger argued that the Buddhist epistemological school of Dharmakīrti derived its lexicon and interests out of the Bodhisattva-bhūmi literature discussing internal Buddhist problems (antaḥvidyā, knowledge of Buddhist texts).

Is cognition aware of itself? With or without contents?

Alex Watson's book (The Self's Awareness of Itself, Vienna 2006) and his subsequent papers on the theme of self-awareness in the Nyāyamañjarī and in Rāmakaṇṭha's writings made me aware of a problem I had neglected before.
If one believes that cognition is self-aware, one believes that within a cognitive act one does not seize only an object but also the cognition itself. Prābhākaras (see Rāmānujācārya's Tantrarahasya, chapter 1) maintain that one is at the same time aware of an object, of the subject perceiving it and of cognition itself. Buddhists of the Dignāga-Dharmakīrti tradition claim that there is no "subject" beyond cognition and hence maintain that cognition is just aware of itself. Does this mean that it is also aware of its contents?
That is, is svasaṃvedana (self-awareness) of the form "self-awareness of cognition of something" or is it just "self-awareness of cognition"? If the first, is this "something" specified as it would be in the final piece of cognition of an (apparently) external object or not? Does cognition perceive oneself as "cognition of a patch of blue"? or just as "cognition of something" (indeterminate)?
I would be happy with both options and I could even acknowledge the possibility of the third one mentioned above ("self-awareness of cognition"), although it is hard to figure out how the object form (grāhya) can be separated from the cognition.
Rāmakaṇṭha seems to maintain an extreme position: svasaṃvedana is just the nature of consciousness. Hence, it does not entail any object as its content. It is, moreover, present even in deep sleep, coma, and "within thoughts". The latter example refers to a typical Śaiva argument in favour of a permanent self (see Vasugupta's Śivasūtra and commentaries thereon): one needs an underlying self enabling one to shift from one thought to the other. This leads me to the following conclusion: Rāmakaṇṭha held this strange position (self-awareness of cognition qua cognition but without any cognised content) because he just substituted "consciousness" for any occurrence of "self" (ātman) (on this point, see Watson 2006 who nicely explains how Rāmakaṇṭha countered Buddhists by accepting all their arguments in favour of cognition alone and then explaining that cognition IS the self). Then, he assumed that self-awareness is co-essential to consciousness. Hence, his arguments in favour of self-awareness being always present are just to be thought of as arguments in favour of the continuous presence of a self which consists in cognition (of what? obviously of oneself, hence, it consists in self-awareness).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Summary about the meaning of verbal roots and verbal endings

  • According to Śabara, in every verb there is the general idea of "causing to be" something and the concept of a specific activity. They can be loosely connected to verbal ending and verbal root respectively.
  • According to Kumārila, both the verbal root and the verbal ending express an activity, and the two are linked as universal and particular: the verbal ending expresses an action in general, the verbal root specifies it.
  • According to Maṇḍana, the verbal root only expresses the action's result. The verbal ending alone expresses the action.
  • According to Someśvara, the verbal root expresses the movement caused by effort, which is expressed by the verbal ending.
  • According to Pārthasārathi, the verbal root and the verbal ending may have different specific meanings. The bhāvanā is however in every case characterised by the fact of leading to the production of something else (possibly, unlike the meaning of the verbal root).

Monday, September 21, 2009

Again on the argumentative structure of Pārthasārathi's Śāstradīpikā

So, points 1 to 3 and point 7 are definitely a pūrvapakṣa. Instead, points 4 to 6 are agreed upon by the siddhāntin as well. Points 8-9 are the transition to the siddhānta, opening at point 10.
Why did Pārthasārathi choose such a complex argumentative structure?
It is typical of him that he lets his own view merge into an uttarapakṣin's one (so, for instance, in the Nyāyaratnamālā, while dealing of śabdabhāvanā). He could thus have meant 1-3 as an objection becoming gradually more plausible. Then, 4-6 are definitely his view. 7 continues one of the elements of the 1-3 objection and 8-9 express it fully. 10 rejects it and the following part of the text expresses Pārthasārathis' view.
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