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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Are translations harmful?

Filippo, in a recent comment (on this post) proposed a provocative view:

The more you resort to translations, the further you get from becoming even a good sanskritist. Translations retard progress in the mastery of both text and language.

Of course, he agrees that translations are useful for academic purposes ("it is impossible to be an academic indologist without using translations, since very few non-pandits are capable of reading in the original the breath of texts required for writing academic papers"). More important, he also admits that they are useful for one to acquire the broader context one always needs in order to read each text ("Even if your ultimate goal is the deepest possible relation with a text, you'll need translations to get you to the point where that becomes possible, and you can kick the ladder away behind you"). Still, the main point remains: if one uses translations, one is bound to be kept far away from the text.
I suppose that part of the problem lies in one's approach to research. Probably I am in favour of the usage of translations —just like I am in favour of each kind of tools (even electronic dictionaries, at least at the beginning)— since I am a gradualist and believe in slow progress. Filippo seems, by contrast, to be an "instantaneist". To put it metaphorically, I would teach one to swim through long sessions in the swimming pool, Filippo would throw one in the water, expecting that she will learn to swim if she must.
I imagine that he might object that the longer one remains close to a "substitute" of the original text, the more difficult it becomes to get rid of it and dare "jump" into the Sanskrit. This might be true, but it is true also of commentaries. Would he get rid of them, too? And what is then the limit between directness and arrogance?

As for a sub-point, namely the need for translations, I tend to think that they are often useful (just like Sanskrit or Hindi commentaries are) even for Sanskritists while dealing with texts outside their competence. Dharmakīrti seems to be one of these examples, but the same holds true for technical texts on Grammar, alaṅkāras, astronomy, etc.

What do readers think about it? What is your experience with translations? Did they ever bring you closer to the text?

The discussion started on this post. I dedicated far too many posts to translations, a list of the main ones can be found below this post.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Translations as auxiliaries

What is the purpose of a translation?
It depends on whether one wants to produce independent text or one wants to help readers understand the original one. If one is translating a poem, one is very likely to prefer the first paradigm. An extreme, and hence interesting example of the second one is, by contrast, Kei Kataoka's translation of Kumārila, Ślokavārttika, codanā, (Kataoka 2011, Wien ÖAW). This translation includes each Sanskrit word in brackets within the translated text, which thus becomes an auxiliary to the Sanskrit one, rather than an independent text. Even dharma will figure in brackets, although it is translated as dharma. Hence, the reader may use the translation to follow step-by-step the translator's understanding of the text.

I discussed translations in many posts (this one is on my personal doubts while translating, this one, this one and this one are the purpose of translations, this one on English-specific problems, this one on a dychotomy between translations). The most interesting parts are, as often, the comments I received (see this post).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What do we have to impose on students?

Do all students have to be philologists (as is often the case in Europe)? Do they all have to focus on a minor detail of the theory of perception, etc. (as seems to be the case in departments dominated by Analitic Philosophy)?

The departments I am more familiar with tend to think that textual criticism, linguistics and (much less often) a rigorous usage of philosophy are the climax of one's academic curriculum. By contrast, history of art (archaeology being an exception), often literature, sociology and religious studies are silently deemed to be apt for less clever students. This implicit assumption is perpetuated by the fact that, throughout the decades, clever students have been lead to study, e.g., linguistics, and are now clever instructors of linguistics, and so on with the other subjects.

Is this really the case? Is textual criticism, to name just one example, the main road to our understanding of texts? Is it so complex that one has to teach it at the beginning of a student's career, since later everyone would be unable to get enough time and energy to focus on it? More importantly, is it formative? In other words, are students trained in textual criticism (and so on) better students (or scholars), whatever they will later do? A very interesting lecture by Ernst Steinkellner on the day he received the Wittgenstein prize (see here, in German), proposed philology as a new way to embrace mutual understandings among cultures. Personally, I tend to teach philosophy hoping that students will become more aware of their implicit assumptions and hence, critical citizens. But I also suspect that each subject might be used as a bridge to oneself and the others, if only done with enough depth. If this is true, than insisting on just, say, philosophy, may have the disadvantage of creating students and scholars who are doing what they don't like, are suffering because of that and are very likely not to produce any interesting contribution, since they are just out of place.

What is your experience? Did you have to study stuff you disliked? Was it formative or just a waste of time?

I have been triggered to write this post by an interesting comment on a previous post, see here. On scholars who love what they work on, see this post.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Typology of students

At the university in which I work, it is nowadays time for the final examinations of many BA and MA students. In Italy, these final examinations focus on the thesis written by each student. Apart from the tutors of the thesis, there are other examiners who have had until that moment nothing to do with the thesis and may also not know the student. Since I work in a department of Oriental Studies, the examiners may teach each of the subjects taught there (from history of Indian art to Muslim right, Chinese language and so on).
I tend to like (or at least not to dislike, which is already quite unusual among my colleagues) sitting among the examiners. This is also a way to have an overview of students I would have never known if it were not for this chance. Statistically, the number of students I meet is non-influential, still I tend to notice that bright students tend to choose to write their final thesis on linguistic topics, and (in a minor amount) on philosophical ones. Students who might be bright human beings but seem to have less to do with academic research (and who often tend to do something completely different after they complete their degree) rather pick up history of art, sometimes religious topics and sometimes topics having to do with "contemporary societies" in Asia. Literature may also be chosen. Of course, there are many exceptions and I do not mean to say anything about the students as complete human beings. One of them became, for instance, an excellent fictional writer, after having written her thesis on the history of Chinese art. Still, these students tend not to keep on studying with a PhD, etc.
Why so? Are bright students just attracted by bright teachers (whatever they teach) or do they prefer challenging, "difficult" subjects? The first choice is no answer, since one could ask further why and if there are more bright teachers teaching a certain subject. The second is also no answer, since I doubt that something is intrinsically difficult and am rather inclined to think that the degree of difficulty depends on the depth required by the teacher. Nonetheless, this degree is also influenced by the general requirements of the wider cultural milieu of one's colleagues and seniors. Hence, nowadays in many parts of the world natural sciences are believed to be more important than humanities and this triggers bright young people to pick up natural sciences.

Do you notice similar patterns in the university/ies you know better?

(We look much less smart than the professors in the photo, at the university of Siena.)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Some walks in the philosophical woods

Michel Angot published something long unheard within the history of scholarship on Indian philosophy. In fact, after the time of G. Jhā, hardly someone attempted a complete translation of a master-piece of Indian philosophy such as the Nyāyabhāṣya. Hence, one cannot but congratulate the author for his braveness and for the very fact that he presents to the reader the translation of the complete system of Nyāya in its essential fundament, i.e., the Nyāyasūtra attributed to Gautama and its earliest extant commentary, the Nyāyabhāṣya attributed to Pakṣilasvāmin/Vātsyāyana. Translating it all has the double advantage of helping the reader in better understanding Nyāya and the translator himself in better evaluating the role of each part of Nyāya. No big effort is needed to remember instances where the emphasis on just one part of a system has lead scholars to misunderstand the relationship of this part with the rest and the general purpose of the system itself (Jayarava often enough underlines the case of the Buddhist "atheism", although deities such as Indra and Brahmā do play a role in the Pāli Canon).

Beside the translation, the book also includes a very long introductory study (242pp.), which deals not only with Nyāya, but also with very broad issues, such as the existence of philosophy in India. Further examples of topics are: whether there is an ''Indian" philosophy (pp.26-32, the final view is that ''Sanskrit philosophy'' would make mostly better sense), whether we can possibly use a Western language (and its terminology) to translate and understand Sanskrit texts (pp. 33–37), comparativism (pp.46-50), the real purpose of the Mānavadharmaśāstra (p. 59), the correct interpretation of the first gloss on Pāṇini's Grammar (p.66) and so on. Evaluating the book is, hence, extremely complex. If one were to ask me whether to buy Angot's book or not, my answer would be: it depends on you. If you want to take a ''walk in the wood" of Indian philosophy, this book is excellent. It offers one much food for thought, as if one were having dinner with a brilliant company. If, by contrast, you want to read a rigorous essay, you might find Angot's one disturbing. Part of it is not Angot's fault but the publishing house's one. The book almost lacks margins, so that one will not be able to add notes, arrows or the like. Furthermore, it lacks any index and does not have a complete table of contents, so that one can only dive in the dense, space-less but content-full introduction and read it all, with no reader-friendly help. Similarly, the book is flawed by far too many misprints, also to be charged to the publishing house…

What do you look for while reading a book?

I started discussing Angot's book in this post (on the role of doubt in Indian philosophy), then wrote this one (on philosophy in India), this one (on the purpose of translations), this one (on the concept of "possess" in Sanskrit) and this one (on the concept of duty).

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Do we have NOT to like what we work on?

Many people tend to think that being "scientific" means being detached. In order to write scholarly about a subject, one should not be involved in it. Is this really possible? Probably not, but even if it were, would it be desirable?

One clearly sees that Friedhelm Hardy (the scholar of Śrīvaiṣṇavism who died untimely in 2004) loves what he is working on. This might make him go too far (in my opinion) in defending Śrīvaiṣṇavism, for instance his treatment of the devadāsī issue seems to me to go too far in forgetting that the institution of devadāsī was itself declining (although he admits the decline at first):

[…] one further topic cannot be avoided: the music and dance professionally cultivated by the devadāsīs. […] Missionaries like the Abbé Dubois and some Westernized Indians, encountering a presumably declining stage in the development of the devadāsī institution, attacked it with a puritanical fanaticism which was equalled only by their complete ignorance of (or unwillingness to understand) its history and the motivation behind it. They succeeded only too well in their task: the abolition by law of the devadāsīs was regarded as a necessary reform of South Indian temple culture, but it also resulted in the total destruction of one major segment of that culture through which for one and a half millennia deep-rooted Southern religious sentiments had expressed themselves. The whole range of art that had surrounded the temple was eliminated, and even the whole issue of temple eroticism was prejudiced. […] Viṣṇu […] derives enjoyment from the art of the girls who are dedicated to him, just as he would enjoy the tulsī, kuṅkuma, camphor, etc. which are offered to him in the pūjā. And just as he returns these objects after the worship to the devotee, these girls are returned. Thus it seems possible to interpret [a man's] union with [a devadāsī] […] as a special type of prasādam.

(Hardy 1977, pp.138-140)

But I still tend to think that being too fond of one's subject is better than hating it (as is often the case). I remember my professor of Indian history, who was an excellent scholar but who really despised Indians, probably like some 19th c. British. He would say things such as "Although they have such an enormous amount of costs, the Indians were unable to build proper harbours until the British came".

Do you dare sharing your attitude towards what you study?
On Hardy, see my post "Do we have to write in a dry, unadorned style?", written on November the 23rd 2011.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Blog on Indian Philosophy?

There are no common enterprises on Indian philosophy on the web and this is a pity. I tried several times to make this blog an open platform (by the way: if you are interested, just send me your contributions!), but always failed. I am not sure about the reason, but I have recently been discussing it with Prof. Manyul Im, who has been the creator of a great blog on Chinese Philosophy, which is now run by several scholars (Im included) and which has played —I believe— a great role in the dissemination of Chinese philosophy. Below is part of my answer to a recent post:

As for your questions, since I "discovered" your blog (which was still only Manyul Im's one) I have been hoping to find something like that on Indian philosophy. I think it is incredibly good and healthy to have a place to discuss. Among other things, it improves ideas and methodologies and it makes common strategies possible (and common strategies are more than needed, if we want non-Western philosophy to find some visibility also in the West) (plus, it is fun).
I also tried to suggest to some colleagues to open one. Unluckily enough, my proposal has not lead to anything concrete. This might be due to sociological reasons (one might speculate on the intrinsic differences between people working on China or on India…) or maybe only to the fact that it is quite difficult to initiate a new blog. Adding oneself to one which is already well-known and well-established is surely easier and more appealing. Hence, it might work. I would certainly be happy to contribute and to look for further contributors and I could start a preliminary inquire among friends, colleagues and readers.

What do you think? Would you be interested in such an enterprise?

As for previous essays, you might check this post (on Indological forums), this one (on Indological blogs) and this one (on a concrete essay of building a forum).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What is the scope of recognition as an instrument of knowledge?

Is recognition (pratyabhijñā) reliable? It is part of direct perception (pratyakṣa)? Is it a distinct instrument of knowledge?

Many Indian authors use recognition as evidence in their arguments. They may say that the same thing can be touched and then seen and that we know through recognition that it is the same thing (Nyāya). Or, they might say that the fact that we recognise things through time is evidence of the fact that there is an "I" (Nyāya). Or, they claim that this "I" can recognise its nature as identical with Īśvara (Śaivas such as Utpaladeva). Recognition might also play a role within analogy (upamāna), when we recognise the gayal as being the animal about which we heard that it was similar to a cow.
Yet, Indian authors do not generally state that recognition is a distinct instrument of knowledge. Hence, to be reliable it should be included in another instrument of knowledge. The best candidate seems to be pratyakṣa, but Rāmānujācārya, for one, says that pratyakṣa is "purely born out of the sense-faculties" (saṃskārajamātra) and that "purely" is meant to exclude recognition, which, like memory (smṛti), depends also on recollection traces (saṃskāras) (TR I).
Recognition is itself different of memory, since it does not depend only on saṃskāras (so Śālikanātha, PrP).
Hence, how can recognition be reliable? Perhaps, because a part (aṃśa) of it is perceptual and hence reliable. In the standard formula of recognition, sa eva idam ("this is the one [I cognised before]''), the perceptual part is the idam ('this'). This does not seem to entail more than the sheer perception of something. However, since perception includes, according to Mīmāṃsakas and against Buddhists, also its qualifications, the idam-part may include its resemblence with the previous saḥ. Even if notion of the saḥ depends on saṃskāras, then, the sheer fact of similarity could be perceptually established.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Should Indian philosophy always be "useful" for contemporary Western philosophy?

If one thinks in a philosophical way, one is very likely to take philosophy very seriously and to take its problems in serious consideration. One will then (innerly at least) take part to the discussions depicted in the texts one is reading and not just observe them in a detached way. One will try to understand what is exactly the word-meaning, or whether an enduring self exists, or whether there are universals, or substances, etc.
Hence, if one is conversant with a rather neglected area of philosophy (like Indian Philosophy), one might be inclined to add it to the discussion, hoping that some answers might be found through its contribution, that new questions will be asked, or that old ones will be seen from a different perspective.
However, this attitude entails a risk, as far as I can see, namely, that one sees Indian Philosophy only as ancillary to contemporary (mainstream, i.e., Western) philosophy. This is unfair and risky, insofar as one risks to loose grasp of the historical perspective of the arguments one is dealing with and, most importantly, to overlook important texts and ideas just because they do not correspond to today's fashionable topics. By contrast, philological work on ancient ideas may contribute to the ideodiversity and hence promote future discussions, exactly insofar as it is free from the dictatorship of today's trends and musts.

What do readers think? Am I exaggerating the risk?

This post has been stimulated by Peppe's comment (see here).

On the importance of an historical approach, see this post. On the purpose of West-India comparisons, see this post.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Writing about Indian philosophy for philosophers

Do we want Indian philosophy to be a private area of study for Sanskritists? Or do we want to engage in wider dialogues with philosophers of different specialisations?

One of my long-term goals is to make Indian philosophy part of "Philosophy" tout court. That is, I hope that future text-books about philosophy will discuss causation including the satkārya- vs. asatkāryavāda debate; will discuss epistemology taking into account the pramāṇa approach, etc.
This is not something a single scholar will ever be able to achieve, hence I firmly believe in team-work. But even as a team, what could/should one do? One thing is to propose articles on Indian topics to philosophical audiences. Krishna Del Toso has just done it in a recent article submitted to the Open Journal of Philosophy. But a single article will not be enough. In order to raise interest among philosophers, one needs to feed them regularly with Indian stimuli. This is nothing Krishna (or any other) could do on his own.

Should not we co-ordinate our efforts so that each of "us" (whatever this means) has, e.g., an article every five or ten proposed to a philosophical journal?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Free will and desire

Are we free only when we act independently of desire? Or can one speak of free will also in the case of acts determined by desire? In other words, is eating while hungry an instance of free will? Or is only the whimsical movement of one's arm with no exact reason a free act?

The second example is the one discussed by Lev Tolstoj in War and Peace and it is the standard example of free will. Maybe so standard, that it is almost purely speculative. At least according to several schools of Indian philosophy, desire is a fundamental part of the decision process. We do not go on moving our arms randomly, without any purpose. Our usual behaviour is much more finalized (, and hence belongs to the first category). In fact, the arm-case might be re-interpreted as just an instance of the "desire to prove that one has free will", with this desire having itself previous causes (one's education, etc.). Then, the question amounts to the problem of the link between desire and resolution. Are one's resolutions free, if they have desire at their basis? Or does free will only exist independently of/against desire? Indian schools such as Mīmāṃsā have naturally acknowledged the role of desire (and also Aristotle explains the human tendency to speculate as caused by a natural desire). The second option, by contrast, seems to be too much determined by the Western manichean approach to flesh vs. spirit.

What do you think? What is the view of the schools you are more familiar with?

On the necessity of desire for an action to be undertaken in Mīmāṃsā, see here. For the Nyāya stance, see here. On free will, se here. On free will in Indian philosophy, see here. For a Western point of view on the topic discussed above, you might want to read this question raised on (and its "answer" by Richard Price).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Do we have to write in a dry, unadorned style?

I recently read Friedhelm Hardy's Ideology and Cultural Contexts of the Śrīvaiṣṇava Temple. The official reason for it is that I am working on Vedānta Deśika and I am hence indirectly interested on Śrīvaiṣṇavism in general. But there is an additional reason, which is the intrinsic pleasure I derive in reading Hardy (or Steven P. Hopkins). He is not just a scholar, but also a writer, and has not the scholar inhibition which usually prescribes me (and others) a dry style. In fact, he also translated many Śrī Vaiṣṇava poems in a lyric way, which does not only reflect their historical significance, but also their poetical value. Consider the following verses of the Periyatirumoli about Viṣṇu:

Was he a thief?
He came like a big black bull and said to my daughter:
"Come! Come!"
He took her by the hand which white bracelets adorned,
and they abandoned the mother who gave birth to her.

I do not read Tamil, but am inclined to think that Hardy is quite good in conveying the idea of the thief-God, who is at the same time seductive and threatening in His power.

I tend to implicitly assume that a dry style is more "scientific" than an imaginific one. This might be, but Hardy's style has the advantage of making more people reading him (I adore Oetke's articles, but often have to force me into reading them) and of giving one a side-glance into the style of the texts he deals with. Of course, at least in my case, the style has to be functional to what it conveys. Although I like Hardy, I am strongly ennoyed by imaginific styles which only make Advaita Vedānta (for example, but many imaginific writers deal with Vedānta or Buddhism) look confused and imprecise.

What do you enjoy reading? And do you write in the same style?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Free will

Although free will is not my main field, I started thinking about it more and more in the last months, since I have been asked to write a contribution on free will in Mīmāṃsā within a volume dealing with free will in Indian philosophy. Of course, one of the most important questions is whether it makes sense to speak of "free will" in Indian philosophy. From the literal point of view, one's will can only be defined as "free" if there is the chance for it to be bound. Is this the case in India? There is something like that in some Śaiva schools, where it is said that God alone is completely free (īśvara and svatantra), whereas we are all like cattle (paśu), bound by three fetters. Further, one might suggest that karman might be thought to obstruct one's will, although in philosophical schools I never found a deterministic view of karman being explicitly endorsed (this happens, rather, in dramas, cf. the attitude of minor characters in the Śākuntalā). I am very much inclined to think that also Buddhism is not deterministic, cf. the fact that Dharmakīrti refutes the possibility of inferring a result from its causes, so that even a karmic cause cannot be said to invariably lead to a certain result.
Furthermore, the issue of free will strictly depends on how one understands action and in this sense Indian schools of thought have very interesting investigations to offer on the abode of action and most of all on the resolution to undertake an action.

What is instead missing, if I am not wrong, are several of the issues connected with free will in the Western traditions. Starting from the obvious lack of the original sin (apart from the theology of the ISKCON movement), the balance between God's omniscience and free will seems to be less of a problem. Possibly because God is rarely seen as directly interfering in worldly matters (He rather uses karman to do it), I am not aware of philosophical discussions about whether human beings alone are responsible of good and evil or God is corresponsible as well, insofar as He favours the first and lets the latter happen. One also does not find the kind of reflections one finds in Islamic thought, asking why God does not let future evil-doers die while they are still harmless children… Nor does one find the problem of the coexistence of God's goodness and free will. I tend to think that the Christian answer to this problem would be that free will is so precious, that God prefers people to be free rather than forcing them to be good. This might be due to the fact that God himself wants to be chosen freely and freely loved. But one might object that this desire of Him implies that there are also evil-doers, who might harm other people. How can one justify a desire, if this indirectly implies harming others?

On the issue of free will in Eastern theology and, hence, on many of the issues above mentioned, just read an interesting article by David Heith-Stade (you might also want to have a look at his interesting blog).

Monday, November 21, 2011

Gullability and stupid people

I am passionate about the issue of Linguistic Communication (aka testimony) (you can see here my italian blog about it). Many authors tend to think that Liguistic Communication should not be admitted among the instruments of knowledge. But this leads to terrible consequences, since without it our everyday life would just turn out to be impossible. How could we systematically doubt whatever we are told? We know by being told even the most important things in our lives, such as our name and date of birth.
Hence, I tend to favour the Indian shcools such as Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā, which admit śabda (linguistic communication) among the means of knowledge (pramāṇas). I am also always interested in reading Western accounts about it. Recentlty, I read the ppt of a talk by Stephen Wright discussing gullability and rational behaviour. Stephen summarises the arguments by Burge about the fact that people are rational beings and that, hence, they lie if they have good reasons to do it and tell the truth if they have good reasons to do it. What happens if they have no good reasons for doing either? All else being equal, they would tell the truth. In fact, telling the truth is better for your reputation and it is better because next time people are more likely to believe you, even if you are lying. Hence, even if you are ready to become a liar, it is convenient for you not to lie whenever you have no good reasons for doing it.

I am happy with the conclusions of this argument (we are entitled to believe what people say as our default attitude), but I am not totally persuaded by its bases. If the entitlement is based on the theory that people behave rationally, then how to face the fact that stupidity is by definition more common than one could imagine and that, hence, there are many many people who behave in a non-rational way. How to answer this objection?

To elaborate: as for "stupidity" I refer to the distinction among human beings drawn by the historian Carlo M. Cipolla (who used to teach economic history at Berkeley) in his famous essay on stupidity. 'According to his graphics, one can distinguish for classes of human beings: those who do good to other people, despite the fact that they might be at the same time harm themselves are "disgraziati" (NAIVE, unwary people), those who do good to other people when this also mean doing good to themselves are INTELLIGENT people ("intelligenti" in the diagram), those who harm other people when this benefits them are CRIMINALS ("banditi") and those who harm other people and themselves at the same time are STUPID ("stupidi"). The last category is, maintains Cipolla, the most dangerous one, since it is unpredictable. One can imagine what the behaviour of a evil person will be (s/he will try to gain as much as possible out of each situation, not caring at all about other people). But who knows how a stupid one will act?
Last, Cipolla maintains that exactly because stupid peope are so "different", non-stupid ones tend to think stupid people do not exist and to interepret their choices as if they were rational. Hence, the real number of stupid people is always underestimated. By definition, every esteem is always an under-esteem.

As for the diagram: the X-axis represents oneself (on the left there is harming oneself, on the right benefitting oneself), the Y-axis represents other people (on the top there is benefitting them, on the bottom harming them).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Distinction between the ontological and the linguistic level

The naive view, the one istinctively shared by people not trained in philosophy of language is that there is no gap between language and the reality it describes. Things are the way we talk about them. This approach presupposes, thus, a precise correspondence between linguistic entities and real ones, although it does not consciously postulate it. By contrast, the direct realism approach consciously claims that the world is the way we see it and might also maintain that it is also faithfully represented by language. The difference is the same as the one between naive people saying that "the sun has raised" and Ptolomeus claiming that the earth is the centre of the universe. It is no surprise that one finds everywhere people saying that "the sun rises" or "the sun sets", and this does not represent the degree of advancement of their cultural milieus. In order to understand how much advanced are the scientifc knowledges of a certain country, one should ask scientists rather than men of the street (who could answer that "the sun has just set" in the Middle Ages just like in the XXI c.). The same procedure applies in the case of ancient civilization. In order to understand whether it was aware of the mutual position of sun and earth, one cannot rely on its plays or novels. Hence, in order to judge about the Indian belief in a correspondence between language and reality, one cannot ask lay texts (which represent the naive, default, stance), but linguistic ones.

On the "principle of correspondence" as a guide-line throughout the entire Indian philosophy, one might wish to read Johannes Bronkhorst's Langage et réalité: Sur un épisode de la pensée indienne (summary available here).

What do readers think? Are linguistics and ontology distinguished in Indian philosophy? Or do Indian philosophers just conflate the two?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

God and karman

The Mīmāṃsā argument against God as the ruler of karman is (as it is often the case with Mīmāṃsā), an application of what we call Ockham's razor:

Can God alone rule the people's destiny? The standard Indian answer is that He needs karman as His tool. But if karman is anyway needed, why not getting rid of the extra element, i.e., god?

Similarly, if we anyway need the people's karman and/or material elements to create the world/keep it going, why adding on top of them also a god?

Of course, these arguments have nothing to do with God as the object of one's longing and passionate devotion.

Friday, October 28, 2011

FAQ for Indologists

Long ago, D. Wujastyk opened a FAQ section on the website

His purpose was to have a more reliable platform than wikipedia for Indological subjects, which would however still work in a cooperative manner, just like wikipedia. Since I strongly believe in cooperation and think that being selfish is just stupid (not sharing what you know will just mean that most of it will die with you), I wonder why I took so long to contribute. Today, I finally wrote a page on (surprise, surprise) Mīmāṃsā.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Prehistory of debate in India

What tradition(s) lies really at the roots of the Classical Indian Philosophy?

I recently read an article by R. Bhattacharya (AION 2007, just published!) and one by K. Preisendanz (Indian Journal of History of Science 2009) on the role of ancient Indian medicine and its place within Indian philosophy. K. Preisendanz accurately examines Vidyabhusana's view that the medical work Carakasaṃhitā is an earlier output of the same Ānvikṣikī tradition which later led to the composition of the Nyāyasūtra. She mostly focuses on the tradition of debate and offers many cogent evidences. Hence, can we safely assume that we owe Indian philosophy as it is to the Ānvīkṣikī tradition, as reflected in the Carakasaṃhitā?

Yes and no.
I have been working for years on the technical terminology of the Kalpasūtras and the way it is intertwined with the terminology of Mīmāṃsā and the one of Grammar. This work made me aware of how philosophical terms, such as prasaṅga, have a deep ritual background and can be better understood through it. Furthermore, the dialectical shape of most Indian philosophical texts has been fundamentally influenced by the succession of pūrvapakṣins and siddhānta as found in the ritual sūtras.
To sum up, the past is more complex than one might believe. There has been more than one root for what we now know as Indian philosophy and its dialectic attitude. Does not this just amount to say that the past was as complex and intertwined as the present?

On prasaṅga, see here, here and here (showing also the connection of Mīmāṃsā, Kalpasūtra and Grammar). On another example of such connections, see here (about the history of the classification of prescriptions).

Thursday, October 20, 2011

How to deal with one's predecessors

I recently read in an article by Pascale Hugon (referring to her 2008 book on Sa skya Paṇḍita) about the use of some Tibetan authors on Dharmakīrtian epistemology to divide their texts as follows: enumeration and discussion about previous authors' views (1), presentation of their own view (2), discussion of possible objections against it and reply (3). In this way, explains Hugon, if author X is re-using the text of author Y and agrees with it, he will just repeat the same scheme. If, by contrast, he is re-using the text of Z and disagrees with his final position, he will embed Z's view in (1).
This stroke me, since it reflects the structure of Rāmānujācārya's texts too. These also follow the scheme (1)-(2)-(3). And, they embed Pārthasārathi's final view at the end of (1), after having closely followed Pārthasārathi's text until that point.
Hence, I wonder whether this is only a coincidence or a (late) Indian scheme, imported into Tibet.

On Tibetan authors and the re-use of texts, see this post. On the re-use of texts in general, see this post and the ones linked to it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Indian philosophy and the quest for a beginning

The idea that the older the better is not epistemologically sound, unless one is ready to subscribe to the myth of a golden age, followed by decay. Nor can one postulate to be studying the beginning of something, I think. No matter how far we go, the history we will know will always remain the tip of the iceberg of the history of humankind.
Hence, I agree with many parts of the following statements (although not necessarily with their conclusions):

Early Western Indological studies were largely driven by the desire, typical of the Romantic Age, to learn about the 'beginnings' of things: the beginnings of religion, of philosophy, Sanskrit as one of the most ancient languages of the Indo-European family, etc. There is of course nothing wrong with such historical interests; but it is a bit odd that the classically oriented philologists rarely take an interest in the relevance of their studies for the present, and that many researchers who study contemporary culture are largely ignorant of the details of the historical roots of the culture (Robert Zydenbos, review of Mesquita's The concept of liberation while still alive in the Philosophy of Madhva, MIZ 1, pp.260-1).

This is the reason, maintains Zydenbos, why in "numerous Western universities" one finds a "very strong concentration" on

Buddhist studies or Advaita studies, which are of limited relevance for an understanding of Indian culture, if one considers that Buddhism virtually disappeared from India approximately a thousand years ago and Advaita never seems to have been popular with the masses (p.260).

This might be true, and I agree about the fact that it is a pity that scholars working on contemporary India often ignore its past. Nonetheless, personally I do not study Indian philosophy in order to better understand today's India.
And Buddhism is a sort of magnet that attracts students (and scholars), probably because it addresses them directly. Is not this also a way of being relevant?
What do you think? Why do you study what you study?

If you share my suspicions about the concept of "beginning", you might be interested in reading this post and this one (on IE reconstruction).

Friday, October 14, 2011

Shall we speak of "Oriental" philosophy?

Does it make any sense to speak of "Oriental philosophies" or even of "Oriental philosophy"?

I tend to hate the label "Oriental", since this seems to convey little information and since this little information also happens to be wrong. It conveys little information because if one hears the word "Oriental", one will only know that the topic one is dealing with occurred outside (America, Sub-Saharian Africa and) Western Europe (with the boundaries of Western Europe being themselves uncertain). It might have happened in Turkey, Egypt or Indonesia.
It conveys wrong information, because it implicitly presupposes a uniformity between cultures which have little to do with each other (e.g., Mongolian "shamans" and Arabian classical poetry). Furthermore, it implicitly presuppose that whatever culture belongs to the "Orient" is more distant to the "Occident" than to any other "Oriental" culture. But this is not the case, and Arabic philosophy has been influenced by Aristotle and not by Lao Tse.
To sum up, "Orient" only works as the alter ego of the "Occident". As shown by Said, its use only informs us about what "Occidentals" think (and often it tells us a lot about what they like and dislike). In this sense, the "Orientals" are akin to the "Extraterrestrials" of science fiction. The latter are our projction (for instance, they are often technologically advanced, like we would like to be; but look ugly, because we are too vain to accept not to be the best looking living beings).

This being said, is there any residual use of the word "Orient"? Perhaps, insofar as it forces us to reconsider what is different than us. The word "Ancient" may work in a similar way. What is "Ancient" and what is "Oriental" is "not-us". If one does not stop at the stereotype and accepts taking a trip into the little-known, one might find out a lot about oneself and even happen to learn something about Sanskrit, Buddhism, Shinto, etc.

Do you ever speak of "Orient"?
On labels, see here (on my dissatisfaction with areal studies) and here (on "Indology").

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Looking for help on early 20th c. Printing Houses in India/Updated

While looking for the editio princeps of Vedānta Deśika's Seśvaramīmāṃsā, I could finally find a vague trace!
All printed editions (1940, 1971 and 1981) of the SM do not mention any manuscript source, either in the Premiss (altogether absent in the first two) or in the footnotes. The 1981 edition, though endowed with a nice Introduction, does not mention any source at all, be it manuscript or printed. Hence, I speculated that they all copied from an earlier edition and started looking for it. On-line catalogues and resources bear no evidence of any earlier edition, but I am sure this is no conclusive evidence, since this might have been published in a small typography, perhaps only for religious purposes.

Today, I finally found the following lines in Paṭṭābhirāma Śāstri's (Sanskrit) Preface to the 1981 edition (my translation):

Eighty years ago, in South India, in Kāñcipurī, a book called Seśvaramīmāṃsā has been published through the Printing House Sudarśana, once edited by the honourable Prativādibhayaṅkāra Anantācārya (p. iii).

As expected, I could not find any information about this edition. The Sudarśana Printing Press seems to have been active in Kañcipuram at the beginning of the 20th c. (several books published by it are listed by the Digital Library of India, all around 1900-1905). It might have published mostly Vaiṣṇava works, but I have not found any conclusive evidence about it. Do readers know better?

Do readers know where is it likely to find its books? In Chennai? In Kancipuram itself?

Monday, October 10, 2011

On the importance of studying historiography

When I started studying philosophy, I used to dislike any historical approach. Investigating into, e.g., the history of the antecedents of Cusanus or Hegel seemed to me at least a boring distraction from their powerful theories or even a nuisance to their understanding —since through history they became less "out of the blue" and hence ended up looking less powerful. I liked even less historiographical accounts about the history of philosophy (e.g., how was Berkeley interpreted in the late XVIII c. Germany), which seemed to me an end in itself I did not want to have nothing to do with.
Now I know that what I ignore will influence me without me being aware of it, hence in a subtle and dangerous way. Therefore, I started studying philosophy as the history of its development. More recently, I am also becoming aware of the importance of the study of historiography. If one is not aware of historiographical trends and fashions, e.g., one might tend to think that one reads are historical (or textual or archaeological…) data, whereas the author of the study might have played a significant role in collecting them and sorting them out.
I have been led to think a lot about this topic since the last Coffee Break Conference, where Giovanni Ciotti dealt with it as for linguistics (explaining, e.g., how the history of linguistics may influence our understanding of what a "root" is, although this should be a "scientific" term) and Mark Schneider dedicated an enlightening round-table to Historiography.
More recently (for me), Srilata Raman, in the book I frequently referred to in the last week, is well aware of the risk of taking historiographical models as if they were harmless description of reality as it is. She points out, for instance, that the monkey/kitten simile is very recent (XIX c.) and that Tamil historiography on Srivaisnavism used history "as a vehicle for locating groups and people [in this case the Tamils] and giving them a past taht suits their present or encourages their sense of the future" (Michael Bentley, quoted in Raman 2007: 15).

Have you ever come across similar instances, where being or not being aware of some historiographical background has saved you from a major misinterpretation?

On the importance of studying history, see here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

On the historiography of bhakti

Until now, I used to think that the interpretation of the monkey-way and the kitten-way as corresponding to Catholicism and Lutheranism was due to Rudolf Otto's 1917 essay. However, Srilata Raman book (Tamil cats and Sanskrit monkeys, 2007) shows how Otto's claim itself had been prepared by previous authors, looking for monotheism as the culmination of every religious development and hence aiminig at identifying bhakti with what was more similar to it in India. A key work in this stream, maintains Raman, is George Grierson's article on Bhakti-mārga for the 1910 Encyclopedia of Religions and Ethics, edited by M. Eliade.
Since scholars working on Indian religions were usually themselves not Catholics, Grierson's and Otto's claims in turn nourished (or, as Raman maintains, were nourished by) "a stream of thought arising in the wake of modern Tamil historiography, which emphasized that the theological dispute was one between the Sanskritic Northern School and the Tamil Southern School". (Raman, p.13).

  1. 1. identification of Rāmānuja's bhakti as monotheism (hence, as the most valuable "religion" in India)
  2. 2. identification, within bhakti, of a Catholic and a Lutheran "church" (respectively, the Vaṭakalai and the Teṅkalai)
  3. 3. identification, by Tamil historians, of the best among these two (the Teṅkalai) with Tamil works and authors.
More on this topic can be read here.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Did the British construe India as we know it?

Within Śrī Vaiṣṇavism coexisted two different interpretations of the way one's soul should surrender to God, one upholding the "monkey-way" (Vaṭakalai) and the other one the "kitten-way" (Teṅkalai). In both cases, the cub (i.e., the human soul) can do nothing on its own and completely depends on its parent (God). But whereas the baby monkey will at least hold on its mother's back, the kitten will be brought by its mother who seizes it by the scruff of the neck.
These two currents have enjoyed a certain fame even among Western scholars, due to the book Rudolf Otto dedicated to Viṣṇuism in 1917. There, he compares its split into two currents to the Western schism in the Christian Church (Kirchentrennung) and described the Vaṭakalai as the Roman Catholic option, with a Pelagian stress on human beings as able to attain salvation through their efforts and the Teṅkalai as the Lutheran option. (For a critique of the reception of Otto's sketchy description, see Hardy's article on the JIPh 1979:280).
By and large, Tamil authors tend to favour the kitten way and Sanskrit authors the monkey way. Vedānta Deśika is traditionally considered as the champion of the monkey-way. Or, at least, this is what I thought until recently. Srilata Raman (2007) notes that
it is at a very late date that the theological differences between the two schools of Śrīvaiṣṇavism come to be listed and formalised […]. It was only as late as the nineteenth century, the period when formal litigation in British courts began, that both the Vaṭakalais and the Teṅkalais needed to profile themselves as distinct separate sects, with irreconcilable theological differences. The formalization of hitherto fluid theological opinions in turn would have further helped consolidate sectarian identity (Raman 2007: 9-10).
As in other cases (the practice of satī, perhaps, the supremacy of Advaita Vedānta, the idea that the Vedas are the basis of all current practices, the concept of "philosophy", etc.), one notices that the British are not just a recent intervention in South Asia. They are now part of South Asian history and one cannot avoid them in one's hermeneutical enterprise.

Are readers aware of further cases of a "pizza effect", that is categories influenced by the West and then superimposed to older ones in South Asia and treated as "indigeneous"?

On Vedānta Deśika (deemed to be the champion of the monkey way), see here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Is it irrational to know that reason cannot reach everything?

…or is not it perfectly rational to know the reason's limits?

Whenever I talk about my primary interest, i.e., epistemology in Mīmāṃsā, I have to face the objection that the Mīmāṃsā school is not philosophical, since it accepts inconditionally the authority of the Veda. Today, while reading the (excellent) book Reflexion und Ritual in der Pūrvamīmāṃsā, by Lars Göhler, I met a similar statement, explaining that the Mīmāṃsā introduced the dialectical method (the topic is mentioned, a doubt is raised, several objectors are allowed to speak, after objections and counter-objections, one achieves a final conclusion, which is then applied to the topic) into Indian philosophy (p. 123). Nonetheless (allerdings), writes Göhler, one should remember that the Mīmāṃsā accepted the authority of the Veda. Why "nonetheless"? Does the fact of accepting an authority de facto disqualify you as a philosopher? Does it mean that your dialectical method is not pure?
What would remain of Western philosophy if we were to apply the same criterion to it?
More importantly, Mīmāṃsā authors distinguish two domains: the domain of what is perceptible and that of what is beyond perception. In the former, the Veda has no authority. No one would believe that the sun stops moving just because the Veda might have said it. By contrast, as for the domain of what lies beyond perception, either we believe in some authority, or we are completely at loss. How to decide whether sacrificing rice grains or going to the Mass on Sunday is good or not? Sense perception (and all the other means, which ultimately rely on sense-data), just does not help.

Is not it rational, then, to accept that one needs an authority?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Why working on concrete individual authors?

When one works on Sanskrit philosophy, one often swims in a sea of anonymous works and undatable manuscripts. The core of Sanskrit philosophy, indeed, is debatable as for date and/or authorship and/or geographic origin. However, there a few exceptions. I argue here that working on such exceptions offers some advantages.

For instance, Vedānta Deśika offers the non-common advantage to be a full-fledged individual. We know a lot about him, although mostly through almost hagiographical works. More than one hundred works of him have been preserved, and most of them seem to be genuinely attributed to him. Through comparing his devotional, theological and philosophical work, we can get an elaborated idea of his intellectual figure and of his contribution. Hence, Vedānta Deśika is one out of not many milestones in Indian philosophy. Reconstructing his thought is a difficult task, yet not an impossible one, insofar as it implies reconstructing the thought of a precise individual, through many possible sources, most of which authored by Vedānta Deśika himself.

Since I work mostly on Indian philosophy, I am mainly interested in reconstructing the philosophical profile of Vedānta Deśika. In order to do that, one cannot but rely also on his other works apart from the Seśvaramīmāṃsā (SM), but also on his predecessors' works, in order to evaluate Vedānta Deśika's contribution to the debate. In fact, Indian thinkers often tend not to emphasise their original contributions and rather to present them as if they were just (improved) interpretations of the foundational texts of their school.

In the case of the SM in particular, in order to reconstruct Vedānta Deśika's contribution, one will have to take into account the stand of the debate within Mīmāṃsā on the topics Vedānta Deśika deals with and then within Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta on the same topics and on the usage of Mīmāṃsā in general. Two fundamental steps in this regard will be Rāmānuja's Vedārthasaṅgraha (11th c., where also Mīmāṃsā doctrines are discussed) and Yamunācārya's Āgamaprāmāṇya (10 th. c., discussing the authority of Pañcarātra scriptures).

Have you been working on authors having a determined personality? Did it help your general understanding of Sanskrit philosophy and cultural history?

On Vedānta Deśika, see here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A database of scholars?

As it is often the case, offer and demand do not meet in Sanskrit studies.
While considering where to write my PhD dissertation, I did not know about Jim Benson's work on Mīmāṃsā. When I spent some time with him last Spring, he said he had at that time no student to supervise —and would not have minded having one. Years after, I started thinking of a critical edition of Sucarita's commentary on Kumārila, until someone informed me that there was already someone else working on it. Now, I am working on Vedānta Deśika and cannot get really in touch with the many serious scholars working on him (if you google "vedānta deśika" you will get instead hundreds of devotional websites —which are fine, except that I am looking for something else).
Usually, this shortcomings due to lack of mutual contact and information can be avoided because the community of Sanskrit scholars is relatively small. But this is not always the case, especially if one works at its outskirts (geographically, culturally or linguistically). Nor can one just count on one's personal acquaintances.
Hence, how to fix the problem? I think that a nice solution would be to create a database of Sanskrit scholars, searchable through various keywords (such as "key interests"), unlike the rare "Who's who in Sanskrit Studies" by Klaus Karttunen. Prospective students would in this way find suitable tutors. Scholars would be able to know whether someone else is working on a topic they are also working on. They could in this way share information and avoid useless efforts (such as doing the same thing at the same time).

On offer and demand in Indology, see this post.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How to establish the validity of a "new" Sacred Text

Vedānta Deśika is the major systematiser of the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta. Before him, Yāmunācārya and Rāmānuja set the theological bases of Śrī Vaiṣṇavism, making a theological and philosophical school out of it. Vedānta Deśika has to rethink its position in the landscape of Sanskrit philosophy. Since Sanskrit works start by rule with an indication of their epistemological legitimacy, Vedānta Deśika had to face at first the problem of the legitimacy of the epistemological background of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and Śrī Vaiṣṇavism. This included the Vedas but most of all a collection of Sacred Texts called ''Pañcarātra" and which was commonly used by Śrī Vaiṣṇavas in their religious praxis.

From this point of view, Vedānta Deśika's situation parallels the one of other Sanskrit philosophers, such as Bhaṭṭa Jayanta and Abhinavagupta, who had to face a similar issue in trying to justify the Śaiva Sacred Texts. Basically, Sanskrit philosophy knows to way to justify the epistemological validity of an instance of Linguistic Communication (e.g., a Sacred Text). Either it is said to be apauruṣeya, 'independent of a human [author]', and, hence untouched by his/her defects, or it is guaranteed by an authoritative author, an āpta, 'reliable'. The Mīmāṃsā school strongly advocates the first view, whereas the Nyāya one the second. Within the second, it is quite easy to accommodate one's belief in God as the author of Sacred Texts. He is their reliable author, insofar as he is the most reliable speaker altogether. And in fact, the Nyāya school itself soon enough identifies the ''reliable speaker" of the Vedas as God himself. The authors who follow this attitude, like Bhaṭṭa Jayanta, will just have to prove that a certain Sacred Text has also been authored by God to include it within the Canon of the valid texts. By contrast, Vedānta Deśika chooses to adhere to the Mīmāṃsā paradigm, and thus has to face a far more complex issue, i.e., justifying the validity of the Veda as independent of a divine author, while at the same time preserving the supreme position of God. Further, he needs to justify the authority of the Pañcarātra, although these are not apauruṣeya. This leads him to an articulate epistemology of Linguistic Communication.

What happens to a religion when it faces the challenge of istitutionalisation? What happens when it tries to found the validity of its Sacred Texts within an already established framework?

On Vedānta Deśika, you can see this post.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What is the surest way to rationally found one's believes?

Vedānta Deśika (XIII c.) was a polygraph. He wrote in different genres and in three different languages. However, the Seśvaramīmāṃsā (SM) occupies a specific position in his production, insofar as in it Vedānta Deśika explicitly faces the orthodox tradition of Mīmāṃsā. Thus, it represents at the same time Vedānta Deśika's essay of making Śrī Vaiṣṇavism compatible with the Vedic orthodoxy and of showing how Vedic orthodoxy would be useful and welcome for Śrī Vaiṣṇavas.

In his SM, Vedānta Deśika mainly focuses on orthodoxy, whereas problems concerning the Śrī Vaiṣṇavas' orthopraxy and the legitimacy of their rituals are dealt with in other works (see Rastelli 2006). Similarly, the emotional answer to the question about God's existence is dealt with in the copious devotional poems composed by Vedānta Deśika. Consequently, the SM represents an intellectual enterprise, one aiming at creating a synthesis between the two systems. How far can this synthesis reach? A main obstacle seems to be the Mīmāṃsā atheism, which would frontally oppose the very foundation of Śrī Vaiṣṇavism.
Vedānta Deśika will have to detect a difficult path within his interpretation of the foundational texts of Mīmāṃsā (Jaimini's Mīmāṃsāsūtra and Śabara's Śābarabhāṣya), one which allows him to say that the atheism as conceived by Mīmāṃsā authors was not a denial of the god devotees worship and at the same time to ground Śrī Vaiṣṇavism through rational argumentation independent of the pre-postulation of God's existence.

I have been blogging a lot about Vedānta Deśika, see for instance this post (on the epistemology of direct perception), this one (on that of dharma), this one (on linguistic communication), this one (on intellectual intuition).

Friday, September 16, 2011

How to refute a paper

Is there a meaningful way to refute an article? I tend to think that it must be one through which the author can at least learn something.
For instance,
  1. 1. The refusal must be motivated. To say "it does not suit our journal" is not enough. The author should be given enough elements to judge and improve.
  2. 2. The review process must be as transparent as possible.
  3. 3. The reviewers must not be suspected of not being able to understand or to evaluate the article (i.e., they must know its topic well enough to be able to evaluate its value).
  4. 4. If possible, rather than refute, one might suggest improvements. Of course, this implies that the dead-line must allow extra time for substantial improvements. It is just sad to know that you are given no second chance, although the problems pointed out might have been remedied.
  5. 5. Particular caution might be needed in case of papers which cannot be "recycled". In other words, before asking for a paper in Montenegrin about a finety of ancient Indian phonetism, consider whether the author is really likely to produce something you will be able to publish.

By the way, I have just had an article refuted by a journal whose editor had asked me to write something for a special issue (on a topic connected to religions). This made me rethink about the general topic of refuting articles from a different standpoint:-))

Thursday, September 15, 2011

In praise of variants

Philology is a bourgeois, paternalist and hygienist discourse of the family, which cherishes filiation, condemns adultery, is afraid of contamination. A discourse of guilt (the variant is a deviant conduct), which founds a positive methodology (Bernard Cerquiglini).

This sounds like a funny and yet intriguing quote. I found it thanks to Reinhold Grünendahl's "Post-philological Gestures - "Deconstructing" Textual Criticism" (WZKS 52-53), which is in fact a praise of German textual criticism against Deconstructionism and any other attack coming from the side of Said's, Derrida's and Foucault's (alleged?) followers.
The intriguing side of the quote and that —at least in my case— it made me react by thinking that, in fact, I do not condemn at all variants. They are often the most important part of one's work. They tell one a lot about the fortune of a text (has it been understood? misunderstood? wilfully altered?), the milieus where it has been read, the kind of people who read it and their worldview. Besides, it might be the only way to get some insight into the original meaning of the text as conceived by its author.
Interestingly enough, the quote is found in a book which seems to share a similar point of view, since it is called Eloge de la variante: Histoire critique de la philologie (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1989, the quote is from pp.76-77).

On critical editions, textual criticism and variants, you might like these two posts (and their insightful comments).

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tips for a better speech, from the point of view of a listener

What makes a speech a very good one —in South Asian studies? No reading, of course, good time-planning (vs. "I now have to skip to the conclusions…" while frantically looking for the right sheet) and being prepared by pronouncing it aloud, but what else?

During and after the last Coffee Break Conference, I collected some good advices from friends and colleagues:
  1. 1. If you are supposed to deliver a paper in a language which is not your mother-tongue, do not fill it words you would not normally use. The effort of remembering them (or, worse!, reading them) will make you nervous and unnatural. Just write your speech in a plain, colloquial way, using the same sort of language you would use for explaining it to a friend.
  2. 2. Focus on conveying an idea.
  3. 3. Examine your audience. Many papers have been enhanced just be the fact that the speakers had had enough time to adjust to the audience.
  4. 4. Less is more. Do not aim at re-shaping the history of South Asian studies, no one will follow you. Instead, convey one core point.

What would readers suggest? What sort of papers do you like more?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Boundaries and sacredness

One of the characteristics of whatever is "sacred" or "religious" seems to be its being segregated from the corresponding normal behaviour (see M.S.'s point about it in this post). This might mean that walking, eating, cooking, etc., might all be secular as well as religious activities and that the difference lies first and foremost in their context. If the context sets a precise boundary, secluding them from normal experience, then they acquire a religious meaning. This is what would happen within a Vedic ritual, which encompasses all sorts of "normal" activities (such as the one listed above).
Does this apply to language as well? Indian grammarians seem to imply that the correct use of language bestows religious merit. But how does this happen? The topic has been dealt with recently by Paolo Visigalli and Marco Ferrante at the second CBF. I am sure I misunderstood most of their papers, but long summaries might be downloaded here. An intesting way to start the discussion is the first vārttika by Kātyāyana on Pāṇini. The vārttika says:
siddhe śabdārthasaṃbandhe lokato 'rthaprayukte śabdaprayoge śāstreṇa dharmaniyamaḥ yathā laukikavaidikeṣu.

In George Cardona's translation:

It is given from every day communication in the world that there is an established relation between words and meanings; it is also given that the use of a word is prompted by a given meaning in that one uses words in order to convey meanings. This being so, a restriction intended for merit (dharmaniyamaḥ) is established by the grammar, like in common and Vedic words.

The last point might imply that Grammar imposes a restriction into language and that only a so-restricted language may convey a meaning. Interestingly enough, the clause yathā laukikavaidikeṣu might mean that no language is intrinsically "sacred" (not even Vedic) and that, rather, sacredness depends on the way one adds special constraints to it. These constraints might be those of correctness, but perhaps also of a conscious usage (one which is made correct by Grammar and not just by the fact that one is a native speaker).
The main point seems to be that religious merit (dharma) has to do with a selection among equally possible options (niyama). Do readers know of other contexts of usage of the compound dharmaniyama?

I never blogged specifically on Indian Grammar, but if you look for "Grammar", you will find several posts dedicated to special issues (such as the minimal significant units according to Indian Grammarians, the interactions between Grammar, Mīmāṃsā and Ritual Sūtras, etc.).

Monday, September 12, 2011

Comments on a Coffee Break Conference

A Coffee Break Conference is one meant to be nothing more than a coffee break conversation. No papers read, just discussion about topics, in an informal, yet passionate way, as it happens while sharing a meal during a boring conference.
I just came back from the Second Coffee Break Conference. As expected, it was great fun to feel free enough to share thoughts I would have normally kept for myself ("Do we really need a Gender approach?"), to ask questions I would not have normally been brave enough to ask ("What is the optimization theory in linguistics?"), to object, discuss, fight and disagree on really important points (such as the influence of one's implicit assumptions).
Hence, many thanks to the organizers and the participants!
Here are some of my favourites of the conference:

  1. M.F. asking: "How far would you go to support your thesis? (Would you consciously omit data or alter them?)".
  2. D.C. answering: "Until the third or forth very bad review of my work".
  3. S.L. destroying our naive dreams by explaining us that "microfinance is just finance".
  4. F.O. stressing the fact that the most honest thing to do is "to make our implicit assumptions explicit".
  5. P.D.S. about "critical areal studies".
  6. G.C.'s point that we should "be aware of the 'pizza effect', while working on South Asian texts with concept derived from the South Asian tradition, such as that of root".
  7. M.S. point that "Sacredness is about segregation" and the way it relates to Kātyāyana's vārttika on dharmaniyama.
In case you managed to attend the conference, what are your favourites?
I plan to discuss some of the panels in the next posts. I posted here the program of the conference and discussed its rationale here.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Implicit paradigms

Even if one claims one is not following any theory, one cannot help following one. Hence, it is much better to acknowledge it, unless one wants to be under the influence of an implicit (and hence, far more dangerous) paradigm.
This is what Mary Fulbrook (chapter 3 of her 20o2 book, see photo) says about implicit paradigms in history:
A-theoretical historians, if provoked sufficiently, may be brought to enunciate the view that Theory Is Not History and historians should get on with The Real Job of Doing History. Now for the bad news.
Even those who have no interest in theory are actually operating with implicit paradigms. In fact, the rest of this book is devoted to unpicking the various elements involved even in implicit paradigms. We have just introduced some of these elements, which, if unpacked a little more, include: the constitution and categorisation of "facts"; the selection of which "facts" to include and exclude; notions about the relationship among elements; the significance and weighting given to each element; the constitution of what might be called a Geschichtsbild, the historical picture of the whole, and the emplotment, the tale told about the combination of selected elements (sometimes called the metanarrative); and the general evaluation and emotive colouring given to the final product, the representation of history (including the use of language through which to write and represent selected aspects and interpretations of the past). […]
For example, how should one approch characterization and explanation of the English Civil War —or English Revolution, as Marxit historians (used to) like to call it? […]
[I]t is important to note the fact that any historical explanation entails choices about selection and explanation, whether or not it is considered by its proponents to be theoretical. And what satisfies one historian's curiosity (analysis of key meetings, the specific motives or actions of particular individuals) may seem just a matter of irritating or even trivial detail from the perspective of another historian. (pp.35-37)

(By the way, the present writer never doubted the fact that it WAS a Revolution. Apparently, my History teachers were also influenced by Marxist paradigms but, helas, did not make me aware of them.)

Let us then speak about methodology, all the more because it is something were genuine discussions are really possible (unlike in the case of minor details of one's work).

I already addressed this issue here and D. Wujastyk did it in his comment on this post.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Should we just write in English?

English native speakers have the undoubtful advantage of having the chance to write in their own language while writing in a sort of lingua franca, understood by the whole Academia. But what about the rest of us?

  • Should we just write in English —since, after all, we address a public which is supposed to read English well enough?
  • Should we write in English while addressing an academic public and in our mother-tongue while addressing a more general one, one which could still need introductory works on, e.g., the Bhagavadgītā or the Yoga system?
  • Should we write in English our essays and in our mother-tongue our translations? (This seems to be the policy adopted in Vienna by E. Steinkellner, H. Krasser, their students and colleagues.)

In favour of the idea of writing in English speak many compelling reasons, one for all is the wider accessability of essays written in English. However, against it, I can find at least two interesting points:
  1. 1. It is hardly the case that one's English is good enough to master all nuances of the English language. Translating in English, hence, entails translating in a less-refined way.
  2. 2. We all work on Indian topics, because (among other things) we are convinced of the importance of keeping alive the lore of Indian thought, safeguarding its différence within the process of homologation of thought. Doing it through a single medium —does not this entail a contradiction?

Which languages do readers use while blogging/writing/translating? Which different readerships do you address? And, if you are an English Native Speaker, how do you feel about "our" use of English?

You might read here and here some interesting comments on translating from Sanskrit into English (especially if one has not English as one's native tongue).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Applied (Indian) Philosophy

Out of the last weeks' news: 1. debate about the Danish terrorist Breivik: how could one defend one's society from hatred? 2. the number of people depending on pain-killers increases and pain-killers alone are often not enough to sedate pain. They would also need a psychological assistance.
From one point of view, it is way to easy to see that an increase in the general level of self-awareness, critical thought and intellectual resources in the society would be badly needed. As explained in the Kāmasūtra, even those who cannot read benefit of the general level of culture, because society as a whole so to say oozes with śāstra.
I am absolutely in favour of financing pharmaceutical research or computer sciences, but I wonder whether humanistic studies are really that useless. After all, does not society itself benefit of a general increase in its culture? Of course, scientific culture should also increase. But are we really sure that only the latter deserves funding? It should also be taken into account that humanistic studies are in comparison much cheaper. One does not needs labs, rats, expensive materials or the like. Why do not governments feel it is a good investment to have more people studying, e.g., Indian philosophy and resisting racism, or studying the Western philosophical bases of psychoanalysis and understanding how much of pain is culturally dependent?
But this leads me to a further question: how much do humanities scholars contribute to the misunderstanding of their disciplines as useless? Should we just stop caring about footnotes and bibliography and focus on the essential? Or is careful reading itself essential?

What do readers think? And what do they actively do?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Why using poetry to convey a theological or philosophical content?

There seem to be three ways a thinker could use (also) poetry:

  1. 1. just as a formal device (e.g., for mnemotechnical purposes): Dharmakīrti, Kumārila, Bhartṛhari…
  2. 2. as a way to convey in a dramatic way a philosophical content: Jayanta's Āgamaḍambara, Utpaladeva's stotras… In this case, the full-fledged form of one's reasoning will still be found in one's philosophical works.
  3. 3. insofar as poetry and narrative allow one to integrate time within one discourse, to go beyond the logic of the principle of non contradiction, etc., : Vedānta Deśika, many Yogācāra and Mahāyāna Sūtras. In this case, one's narrative texts will be closer to one's ultimate purpose.

Do readers see further cases?

On Philosophy and Poetry and o Vedānta Deśika, see (among many other posts), here (please note also Vidya's comment). On Jayanta, see here. On Utpaladeva, see here. On a Mahāyāna Sūtra and its philosophical significance, see here.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Coffee Break Conference — 2

As last year, we organized a new edition of the Coffee Break Conference. The title means that the whole conference aims to be relaxed and stimulating, like the discussions taking place during the coffee breaks (and never during the actual conferences).
For further details on the concept, please check our web-site,

The Study of South Asia: between Antiquity and Modernity: Parallels and Comparisons.

The Coffee Break Conference — 2

(8-10 September 2011)

Where: Institute of Oriental Studies, Caserma Sani, via Principe Amedeo 182b (Underground “Vittorio"), Rome


1.1 Language as a Way of Salvation

Thursday the 8th, 8.30-13 sine tempore

chair: Marco Ferrante

• 8.30-8.35, Camillo Formigatti and Elena Mucciarelli, General Introduction.

• 8.35-8.40, Marco Ferrante, Introduction to the Panel.

• 8.40-9.20, Paolo Visigalli (University of Cambridge), How can I get a cow just by saying “cow"? an exploration into the power of language in ancient India.

• 9.20-10, Enrico Giulia, The Japanese Polyglots of Salvation: Miwa-ryū and its multilinguistic approach.

• 10-10.40, Marco Ferrante, Language, Salvation and their Relation: the soteriological goal according to the ancient Indian grammarians.

• 10.40-11, coffee break

• 11-11.40, Marco Lauri, Three ways to happiness. Arabic language and its paths to salvation.

• 11.40-12.20, Priya Darshini Swamy (University of Leiden), One Language is Not Enough: The Use of Sanskrit Among Hindus in Amsterdam.

• 12.20-13, Roberta Amato (Archivio di Stato di Venezia), Language as a sign of the times in Timor-Leste. The perception of the Portuguese language as salvation between politics and religious belief.

13-14.15: Lunch

1.2 The Development Question in South Asia: Policies and Processes

Thursday the 8th pomeriggio 14.15-17.20

chair: Matilde Adduci

• 14.15-14.20, Paola Cagna, Introduction to the Panel.

• 14.20-15, Daniela Bevilacqua, Divine Enterprise, the intime relationship between new Hindu religious organisations, Hindu nationalism and power élites.

• 15-15.40, Paola Cagna, The Self-Help groups movement between poverty alleviation and women’s empowerment: a case study from South India.

• 15.40-16, coffee break

• 16-16.40, Valentina Prosperi, Casual migrant workers in the construction industry in India. Gender dimension.

• 16.40-17.20, Simona Lanzoni, Women, empowerment and microcredit.

17.20-17.30: coffee break

1.3 Round-table on History and Historiography

Universalist theories in past, present and research. Or: How autopoietic was primitive communism?

Thursday the 8th, 17.30-19.30

chair: Mark Schneider (University of Hamburg)


2.1 “Indigenous" grammars

Friday the 9th 8.30-13

chair: Giovanni Ciotti (University of Cambridge)

• 8.30-8.35, Giovanni Ciotti Introduction to the Panel.

• 8.35-9.25, Philomen Probert (University of Oxford), Underlying forms and derivations in ancient Greek theory of prosody.

• 9.20-10.15, Maria Piera Candotti (University of Lausanne) and Tiziana Pontillo (University of Cagliari), Linguistic layers and their role in structuring Pāṇini's grammar.

• 10.15-10.30, coffee break

• 10.30-11.20, Christian Pallone, Japanese grammatical traditions.

• 11.20-12.10, Stefano Seminara (Pontificio Istituto Biblico, Rome), Sumerian grammatical traditions.

• 12.10-13, Carlo Vessella, Greek grammatical traditions.

13-14.15: Lunch

• 14.15-15, Artemij Keidan, The Syntax of the simple sentence.

2.2 Round table on Borrowing representational devices across language speculation

What happens when representational devices developed by a tradition to describe a language A are employed to describe a language B?

Friday the 9th 15-17

chair: Giovanni Ciotti

• 15-15.30, Introductory speech, Luca Alfieri, A Contribution to the History of the Concept of Root.

• 15.30-17, Open Discussion

17-17.15, coffee break

2.3 Narratives in South Asian philosophical texts

Friday the 9th 17.15-19.30

chair: Daniele Cuneo

• 17.15-17.20, Daniele Cuneo, Introduction to the Panel.

• 17.20-18.10, Robert Leach (University of Edinburgh), Textual Deference: Philosophy in the Spandapradīpikā.

• 18.10-19, Kate Wharton (Research Assistant to the Revd Canon Guy Wilkinson), The Teacher as Mother of Midwife? A Comparison of Brahmanical and Socratic Methods of Education.

• 19-19.30, Open Discussion


3.1 The relevance of texts for the study of art

Saturday the 10th 8.30-11.20 chair: Elisa Ganser

• 8.30-8.35, Elisa Ganser, Introduction to the Panel.

• 8.35-9.25, Ciro Lo Muzio, Written sources versus material record: some views on a thorny issue.

• 9.25-10.15, Felix Otter (University of Heidelberg), Vastuvidyā between text and practice: Some considerations.

• 10.15-10.30, coffee break

• 10.30-11.20, Anna Tosato (University of Mysore), The Use of Traditional Texts in the Interpretation of Dance Sculptures (Nāṭyaśāstra-s, Śilpaśāstra-s and Vāstusūtra Upaniṣad).

11.20-11.35, coffee break

3.2 Round Table on Present Results and Further Goals

Saturday the 10th, 11.35-12.35

chair: Elena Mucciarelli and Cristina Bignami

For further info, abstracts and additional bibliography:

If you feel the project appealing, please consider donating here.

Licenza Creative Commons
Quest' opera è distribuita con licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 2.5 Italia.