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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.

2 comments:

VS said...

Hi! I came here through your link on Nick's blog.

I cannot comment appropriately on your post because of my ignorance on this topic. However, isn't it that the simplest life forms first emerged in water and thus touch could have something to do with this fact?

elisa freschi said...

Thanks for the proposal, VS. Are you talking from the point of view of contemporary biology? If so, it's interesting to think that the Indian idea of touch as the first sensory faculty to develop could suit such a world-view, too (however, I cannot see any direct link between water and touch –water can at least be an excellent vehicle for taste and smell, too). And you are right in hinting at the idea that Indian thinkers may have stated that touch is the basic sense somehow 'instinctively', out of direct observation, rather than formulating a complex theory in order to reach such conclusion. The theory might have been developed later on, hence the oddity of touch being usually linked with air but being attributed to plants and simple beings not necessarily related to air.

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