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Friday, January 29, 2010

"Everything has a history"


I am grateful to Dominik Wujastyk for this great motto. I agree with it especially insofar as it entails that there are no "natural" facts and data. Everything –in every moment of history– is already historically-load. In this sense, there is nothing but history, there is no moment of history when the human kind was still "natural". Just like Mīmāṃsā authors claim, the world is, from the point of view of human experience, beginning-less.
On the other hand, Western common-sense is full of arguments referring to "nature" as the element justifying all next moments of time. One should/should not –it is said– be vegetarian, because it is/it is not "natural". If one reflects on Wujastyk's motto, on the other hand, one becomes aware that even the apple we are eating at the moment is not a natural food. There were no apples in ancient India (and the word for "apple" in Spoken Sanskrit is a neologism) and there are possibly moments in history where apples have been considered prohibited or religiously pure. Not to speak about new varieties of apples, of apples in literature, in theology, in anatomy, in IT, etc.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Is there any "Applied Philosophy" in Classical Indian Philosophy?


I recently read an interesting quiz bearing the title "How good do you know yourself?". The first questions is "What part of the newspaper do you read first?". Easy answer for me, since I (almost only) read the book supplement (and hardly ever buy a newspaper unless it has a book supplement). However, in the last 5 years I have been enjoying more and more, books/articles/blogs about what one usually labels "Applied Philosophy". This may have to do with my personal background, but possibly also with the increasing need to make philosophical thoughts available and useful to a larger number of lay-people (including myself, whenever I am not researching). Unluckily enough, there is hardly any applied philosophy in India. Bimal Krishna Matilal explained this absence by saying that ethical philosophy lacks because ethical reflections are dealt with in a narrative (rather than theoretic) way, in the Mahābhārata and in similar epics. Many interesting insights can be found in other texts, especially in the chapter on karman of Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakoṣabhāṣya. But, still, I am afraid one would in vain look for volumes on "Applied Philosophy in Classical India". This might mean that applied philosophy has a lot to do with our contemporary perspective (although "applied philosophy" seems to suit perfectly the Chinese classical milieu), with our post-Existentialism expectations towards philosophy. This also means, probably, that an Applied chapter of Classical Indian Philosophy largely needs to be developed yet.
(Auguste Rodin's Penseur)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Quotations and intention

In the present post, I play with an idea, namely, that –against what one would expect– the use of quotations often tells us more than an 'original' text about the intention of its author.
If someone has something to say, s/he will probably just say it. Why does s/he, instead or in top of that, use a quotation of someone else?
1. In order to add authority to his/her statement (since X said it, it must be true).
2. Because X has already said something very significant on that subject and one cannot ignore it.
3. Because X has already said something very significant on that subject and one wants to improve on it.
The third case might be very promising. If an author quotes a passage and then interprets it in a forced way, this might mean that s/he had to quote it (for instance, because it was the standard text on that particular theme), and hence wanted to force its interpretation into his/her own one.

An instance:
I am working on the principles of tantra and prasaṅga in Mīmāṃsā. They seem to have been re-interpreted by Śabara. Śabara, however, opens his discussion with a verse which –he says– is used as an illustration (udāhṛ-). The verse is immediately followed by Śabara's own reading of it (which, I believe, does not correspond to its original meaning). Hence, I think that Śabara had to mention the verse, but then domesticates it into his own view. In this way, he conveys the idea that his innovation was already common sense among Mīmāṃsakas.
The verse says:
sādhāraṇaṃ bhavet tantraṃ parārthe tv aprayojakaḥ |
evam eva prasaṅgaḥ syād vidyamāne svake vidhau ||
And Śabara writes:
sādhāraṇaṃ bhavet tantram […] parārthe tv aprayojaka iti. yaḥ parārtham utpannas tadartham eva cānuṣṭhīyamānaḥ parasyopakaroti, sa parastasyāprayojakaḥ.
It seems to me (and before me to Bronkhorst, see Bronkhorst 1986) that the interpretation of aprayojakaḥ as a noun referring to tantra instead of an adjective referring to prasaṅga is far-fetched and, therefore quite telling. Śabara probably had before his eyes/ears a verse distinguishing tantra and prasaṅga in a certain way, wanted however to distinguish them in another.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On exclusion as the meaning of a word (Apoha in Dharmottara)

I could finally read Kei Kataoka's critical edition of Jayanta Bhaṭṭa's Nyāyamañjarī section on apoha. The critical edition is preceded by a long and insightful study on the theory of apoha as depicted by a Jayanta (a Nyāya author of the X c.). The study opens with a "survey of research", which I very much appreciated (see an older post of mine on the necessity of being aware of previous results), also because it makes some results of the japanese scholarship available to non-japanese readers. Jayanta distinguishes three theories of apoha, roughly corresponding to Dignāga's, Dharmakīrti's and Dharmottara's ones. Dignāga depicted apoha as the absence of anything else. Hence, the meaning of "cow" would have been just the exclusion of non-cows. But Kumārila criticised this view insofar as a non non-cow closely resembles a cow (!). Hence, Dharmakīrti stated that apoha is not an external entity (such as the non non-cow mentioned above), but rather a part of the cognition itself. This, again, may be problematic, since then there would be no distinction between what is grasped through a word (a part of cognition conveying the meaning "cow" through the exclusion of non-cows) and what is grasped through intellectual perception (a part of cognition assuming the form of a universal, such as 'cow').
Therefore (if I am not misunderstanding Kataoka's point), Dharmottara concluded that apoha is neither external nor internal (nāyam āntaro na bāhyaḥ). Does this mean that, since it is unreal, it cannot be external (and since it is not part of the cognition, it is not internal)?
This apoha is, follows Dharmottara, only super-imposed (āropita) and is not real in any sense (neither as absence –as with Dignāga– nor as part of the cognition –as with Dharmakīrti). But since there is no subject and since the apoha is not part of the cognition, how does this super-imposition occur? Because of residual impressions (vāsanās)?
Dharmottara further specifies it as vyāvṛttichāyā ("shadow of exclusion" or "exclusion as shadow") and as dṛṣyachāyā ("shadow of the perceptible entity"). I am not sure about the translation of the first term and about the interpretation of the second one. Whose shadow is it? How can it be without any support (neither external nor internal), but still able to have a practical efficacy (arthakriyā)?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Again on sex and the role of women


After my previous post on this topic, I had the pleasure to receive many interesting papers from friends and colleagues (some of them are still unpublished or unfinished and their authors asked me not to discuss them on the blog). One of them is a passage of Shaji George Kochuthara's PhD thesis about woman/man relationship as depicted in the Genesis account. The author extensively quotes from many authorities, but as a reader grown up in a Catholic country I have been strongly impressed by his conclusions, as if they vividly contrasted with the common assumptions of what one unconsciously identifies as Catholic. The following ones are a couple of my reflections determined by Shaji's pages.
1) Physical contacts –maintains Kochuthara together with many contemporary theologians– have a (positive) place of their own in the Bible and in the Christian faith. Love, I would add, is not the veil which makes them appear nicer and, hence, legitimates them. On the other hand, love is important insofar as it makes one abandon one's defensive attitude towards the Other. Thus, love makes a true sexual encounter possible.
2) Kochuthara strongly emphasises the companionship between man and woman as depicted in the Genesis account about Adam and Eve. However, much of this has been lost in the subsequent centuries and women/men relationships have often been devoid of friendship and of mutuality. In this way, contemporaries now accept, many women have been deprived of their "freedom" (whatever this means). But it is not just that. The segregation of women also meant (and means) that women have been talking and sharing their inner world with other women only, thus depriving men of an important component of their lives. Men segregated themselves while segregating women. They unconsciously chose not to enjoy the friendship of human beings with which they were anyway spending much time together. In some email exchanges, Kochuthara seems to be even more definitive than I am about this point. I am, instead, not sure whether men need women in order to be full human beings. Possibly, friendship with other men may also help. But, overlooking the possibilities of what one already has (a wife/a sister/a daughter…) seems to me anyway a waste of emotional energies. In persons not used to dedicate much time to personal relationships (such as the man-to-man friendships hinted at above) it may also mean that one has NO chance at all to experience a true friendship.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Getting at duty through metaphor

In sum (as shown in today's two previous posts), the primary meaning is apūrvakārya, but since this primary meaning cannot be learnt in the ordinary world, one has to get to the primary meaning trough a secondary one. One learns the secondary meaning in common usage, later one refines this understanding through Vedic study, otherwise the Veda would have no purpose.
At this point, one might wonder why is not the action to be done the one and only meaning of optative and similar suffixes. But this kriyākārya (action to be done, lit. "something to be done consisting in an action") cannot be the only meaning of an optative suffixe because otherwise sentences such as "the one who desires heaven should sacrifice" (svargakāmo yajeta) would not make sense since, as shown in the above chapters of Rāmānujācārya's Tantrarahasya (§9.-9.4.9), an action cannot be the means for the accomplishment of something desired as it expires much before the arousal of the sacrifice's result. Nor is it possible that the kriyākārya is the primary meaning and the apūrvakārya (the unpreceded duty) the secondary one, since one could not get to apūrvakārya through lakṣaṇā (secondary designation) starting from kriyā, since apūrvakārya cannot be known otherwise than through the Veda. Similarly, in Patañjali's Mahābhāṣya it is said that one learns the meaning of an apaśabda (incorrect word, such as goṇi instead of gauḥ) through lakṣaṇā, because it reminds one of the correct word. Interestingly enough, this means that the primary meaning does not necessarily precede chronologically the secondary one. In fact, one learns to speak Prakrit before Sanskrit and one learns the kriyākārya meaning of an optative suffixe prior to its apūrvakārya meaning.

Actions and duties

Rāmānujācārya explains the possibility of understanding a passage of the Sacred Texts referring to a duty non-conveyed through any other instrument of knowledge (and hence a-pūrva, see this post) through the fact that even in this-worldly experience we understand duties as inhering in actions to be done. From this experience we can grossly acquire a proper learning (vyutpatti) of exhortative suffixes as meaning an action to be done. In fact, these suffixes primarily mean something-to-be-done (kārya) and only secondarily its abode (namely, an action). But such worldly vyutpatti is enough to initially grasp the meaning of a Vedic sentence and initiate the "hermeneutic circle" (my terminology) that will eventually lead to one's full grasp of its exhortative significance.

Ought and Sacred Texts

As well known, according to Prābhākara Mīmāṃsakas the Veda conveys only prescriptive (that is, exhortative) meanings. It does not describe reality, but rather prescribes what has to be done. The latter cannot be understood, in turn, out the other means of knowledge, as they can only reflect reality (and in reality there is knowing bridging the link between is and ought). Hence, the ought can only be grasped through the Sacred Texts. Better, the unpreceded (apūrva) ought can only be grasped through them.
But how can such an understanding take place? The possibility of understanding Sacred Texts is established within Theistic traditions by the will of God who reveals them. In the atheistic Mīmāṃsā, on the other hand, it is based on a sort of falsificationism: we have to rely on worldly meanings of words even while reading Sacred Texts since, else, we would not have any key as to interpret them. Hence, the mastery of worldly meanings is a pre-condition for the understanding of a Sacred Text. But what if that texts prescribes a kind of duty which is fully new (apūrva), that is, non-attainable through any other (worldly) kind of knowledge? Should not it remain beyond any possible grasp?
I am quite attracted by Prābhākara discussions on this border-line question. Rāmānujācārya, in his Tantrarahasya, lets a Prābhākara propose the option that even in worldly sentences prescribing something to be done what one grasps is the pure "ought", so that one can grasp the ought in itself even in mundane commands. Rāmānujācārya dissents. According to him, it is only through its link to action, which can be experienced even in this-world, that we can understand what a ought means, and, hence, understand it even in its apūrva-garb in Sacred Texts.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Memory and perception


I recently read an interesting article about false memories. It seems that most people, if confronted with a made-up photo DO recall the event which would have been depicted in it. In the experiment, the event was a hot air balloon trip and I am surprised by how little we are sure about –if we can end up being persuaded we have actually lived such an extraordinary experience although we did not. This has important consequences on juridical matters, showing that it is useless (and may lead to distorsions), to urge witness to remember or to rember more clearly what they might have unconsciously seen. Vedānta Deśika makes a similar point in his Seśvaramīmāṃsā on 1.1.4:

[Obj.:] What about the fact that the very topmost level of visualisation (bhāvanā) makes [things] perceptible? [S:] This is not true. Out of visualisation it is not perception which arises, but rather only clearness of memory. In fact, the accumulation of mnestic traces (saṃskāra) supplies sharpness to memory. Even when, for instance, a love-sick meets his beloved one, nothing exceeding what has already been known appears. And the exceeding element appearing in “And on every tree I see a cloth (ambara) consisting in the skin of an antelope (kṛṣṇājina) and a garment (cīra), similar to Rāma with his arch, holding a noose in hand, the destroyer” and similar [verses], this is not directly perceivable, since it appears in a different way. What [is directly perceivable] is, instead, its external look.

Friday, January 8, 2010

What is the Vedānta school?

Daya Krishna dedicated some insightful pages on the so-called Vedāntadarśana ("Vedānta as a philosophical school/system"), pointing out its absence in the First Millennium of the CE.
Western scholars consider Śaṅkara to be its "founder", although Śaṅkara does not present himself as an innovator and his independent fortune seems to have started later on. The earliest opponents of "Śaṅkara's" Vedānta, in fact, rather oppose Maṇḍana's version of it. But at a certain point (I do not know when) the idea has spread, that Maṇḍana was not a faithful interpreter of Vedānta. This might have been a consequence of his being associated with Vācaspati after the creation of two sub-schools of Vedānta (Vivaraṇa and Bhāmatī, the latter having been founded by Vācaspati)
I just found a funny passage in a XIII c. commentary on Śaṅkara's Brahmasūtrabhāṣya:

Vācaspati, on the other hand, following behind Maṇḍana [and] not recognizing the meaning of the Bhāṣya on the [Vedānta]sūtra has refuted the prescription about hearing etc. (that is, he has stated that it was not a prescription); but in this case he had recourse to that prescription. Oh, what an enviable wisdom! To hear [reflect] and [meditate] are the duty (dharma) of the renouncer-stage. Hence, while refuting such a prescription [Vācaspati] is [also] hostile towards the very renouncer-stage. Moreover, if there is no prescription, also the sūtra about the responsible ones, endowed with the four stages (that is, including the renouncers, who would have nothing to do if Vācaspati's interpretation were consistently implemented) would be made incorrect through the word atha. Therefore, let us disregard the chatting of Vācaspati […]
(vācaspatis tu maṇḍanapṛṣṭasevī sūtrabhāṣyārthānabhijñaḥ samanyasūtre śravaṇādividhiṃ nirācacakṣe; atra tu tadvidhim ūrīcakre. aho batāsya pāṇḍityam! śravaṇādīnāṃ ca sannyāsāśramadharmatvāt tadvidhiṃ nirākurvan sannyāsāśramayaiva dveṣṭi; vidhyabhāve ca athaśabdena sādhanacatuṣṭayasampannādhikārisūtraṇaṃ cānupapannam. tasmād vācaspatipralāpam upekṣya […] śravaṇādi vidhito 'nuṣṭheyam, on BrSūBhā 3.4.47)

The commentary is the anonymous Praṭārthavivaraṇa, who has been attributed to Anubhūti Svarūpa. The author often overtly disagress with Vācaspati, thus giving us a glince into real Indian disputes. In fact, disagreements are on critical points of Vācaspati's arguments and, in turn, lead to further developments (Amalānanda defended Vācaspati in his Parimala commentary).
Interestingly enough, the author has to add that Vācaspati did not understand Śaṅkara, for, in fact, Śaṅkara seems also to have denied the status of prescription to the one about hearing/reflecting/meditating on the brahman at I.1.4.

Conceptual/non-conceptual perception

The disagreement about conceptual/non-conceptual perception is one of the main topics of dispute in classical Indian philosophy and, accordingly, in two of its protagonists, Kumārila Bhaṭṭa and Dharmakīrti.
The latter claims that only the very first moment of perception is of real perceptual nature. Any further elaboration of it is already conceptual and, hence, non perceptual. Kumārila's definition of perception, instead, is broad enough to accommodate also its conceptual moment. This means that, according to Dharmakīrti's account only the first, indistinct impression of "a brown mass" is perceptual, whereas Kumārila would say that we have perceived a chair.
This does not amount to say that Dharmakīrti negates the existence and importance of conceptual elaborations of perceptual data. In fact, our whole worldly existence depends on them and their distinct presence was acknowledged also in the Pāli Canon (see Del Toso's blog). What Dharmakīrti disagrees about is their perceptual nature.
Does the dispute, therefore, boil down to a merely terminological problem? Not really, since to be perceptual means, in Dharmakīrti's epistemology, to be infallible. Hence, to deny perceptual status means also to deny validity to the idea of a "chair" and of any other (conventional, would Dharmakīrti say) object.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

How to deal with a flexible philosophy

After writing my last post about "Flexible philosophy" I had the pleasure to discuss it with Alessandro Graheli. Later on, Evgenija (I hope she does not mind being mentioned here) kindly reminded me that what I wrote about Mīmāṃsā philosophy applies also to other branches of Indian philosophy. Hence a more general problem: how shall we deal with Indian philosophy if it lacks (absit iniuria verbis) the sistematic consistency we are used to?
Is this lack itself an interesting challenge for our conservative view of (philosophical) truth as consistency?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Flexible Mīmāṃsā Philosophy

The closer I work on some Mīmāṃsā terms, the more I realise how loose they might be. I do not mean to say that they are not technically used, in fact they are. But the need for a formal and fix classification seems not to have arisen until after the X century. Before that point, they discuss names of prescriptions (vidhi), auxiliary acts (aṅga) and even means for knowing them (the very central term PRAMĀṆA) without caring for my need for ordered lists and co-occurrences.
This might be due to the fact that I (we?) work with just a few texts predating Kumārila. The differences one notices in the available texts may just reflect different positions in earlier, not extant ones. These earlier ones might include explanations of shifts in order/meaning/connection of terms which I am eagerly and in vain looking for. The same applies to horizontal relationships to other schools of Indian thought (such as the interactions with Grammar, Ritual Studies and Dharmaśāstra, about which I am not fully aware).
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