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Friday, April 30, 2010

The union of Sacred Texts

In one of the last chapters of his Tantrāloka, Abhinavagupta discusses the coming together (melana) of Sacred Texts. He founds them on the all-pervading prasiddhi, a sort of "common belief" or "accepted notion", which alone enables us to orient ourselves in the world.

Here is the translation of the beginning of the text, together with Jayaratha's commentary thereon. The verse quoted at the end is a verse of Dharmakīrti, Sambandhaparīkṣā, kā 13, referring to arthakriyā and refuting the necessity of prasiddhi –Positive and negative concomitance (anvaya and vyatireka) are enough. Frauwallner's translation is in WZKM 41/Kleine Schriften. The verse is quoted also in ĪPViV, in Syādvādaratnākara, Tarkarahasya, Vādarahasya, etc.

Indeed this Infinitely-extended (vibhu), omniscient, saviour of the world who has made to descend (avatṛ-) through this or that distinction the whole Sacred Text (śāstra), whose essence are the letters (mātṛkā), this one1 wins ||

Now, through saying that all Sacred Texts (āgama) are a single sentence, with the second half [of the verse2] he (Abhinavagupta) announces that he will convey the knowledge of the validity of all Sacred Texts:

Now, here the coming together (melana3) of all Sacred Texts is said |

In this regard, he said, to begin with, the characteristic in general of the Sacred Text:

Here, to begin with, this whole ancient worldly usage [occurs] || 1|| after consideration of the prasiddhi (accepted notion), and this (latter) is called “Sacred Text” (āgama) |

Here, to begin with, after consideration of the accepted notions, which have been produced a long time ago as those which have not been eradicated by other accepted notions, this whole worldly usage [occurs], that is, all indeed act in this world accordingly. This is the meaning [of the verse]. And this very accepted notion is called “Sacred Text”, this means that [the accepted notion] is liable to be used in the world through that word (āgama). As has been said:

The accepted notion is in common experience the Sacred Text | (half śloka)


Seeing one, there being the vision of the unseeable and non seeing [it] there not being the vision of it, a person meets the effect (kārya) even without people who tell it ||



1Possibly ko 'pi instead of kopaḥ. Alternatively: “[the Lord], receptacle of the omniscient ones” (sarvavitkoṣaḥ), alluding to the ṛṣis etc., who can legitimately pronounce the Veda because they derive their authority from God.

2The first half closes the preceding chapter.

3 mixing with each other.

What is the problem with the ambiguous nature of "action"?

Action (mostly referred to as karman) is a debated topic in Indian philosophy. Why? Because of its ambiguous nature. "Orthodox" schools believe that karman is a separate category, along with substance, quality, etc. However, karman inheres in substance just like quality and, consequently, some thinkers such as Bhāsarvajña or the anonymous objector in Maṇḍana Miśra's Bhāvanāviveka ("Discernment about action") claim that karman is nothing but a quality. The Vaiśeṣika way of distinguishing between qualities and actions is also unconvincing: both are non eternal and inhere in a substance, but only action produces conjunctions and disjunctions. This seems an ad hoc solution: why should one then not postulate a separate category for the quality "colour-and-form", which is the only one which produces visual data? Moreover, the Vaiśeṣika distinction cuts out all kind of action apart from movement. Other authors, such as the Mīmāṃsaka Kumārila, Maṇḍana, Someśvara and Pārthasārathi, reflected further on the nature of action and differentiated it (although with different gradations) from sheer movement. Contemporary Western physics and philosophy have also problems in explaining the phenomenon of "action" as distinguished from "movement" (both gross and subtle).
But why is the issue so important? Because "action" is not just an ontological category. For ontology, "movement" would be enough, and it could be abandoned once one adheres to the contemporary subatomic paradigm, where rest is no longer the "normal" state of affairs.
Action is much a more an ethical and juridical category. To define what an action is means to decide whether one is responsible for it and, lastly, liable to be punished. In this case, sheer movement is not enough. One is not ethically censured for having moved one's finger, but rather for having shot someone. Hence, one would say that ethics adheres to Someśvara's idea of action as effort/volition (see this post and the immediately preceding ones).
On the other hand, jurisdiction does not count only the intentional, conscious side of the action, but also its movement-aspect. One is not legally guilty because of having desired to kill someone if one has altogether failed to do it (for instance, because one was still looking for a gun to buy as one's target died out of a car accident). Similar difficult cases are examined in chapter 5 of Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa. Notwithstanding his rigid intentionalistic approach, Vasubandhu also compromises with the actual performance of a bodily movement.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why do we study Sanskrit (and other "dead" languages)?

Yesterday I was sitting on the train and observed the following scene: a group of teenagers met a Latin teacher. As usual in such occasions, one of the boys stated that it makes no sense to keep on studying Latin and ancient Greek since they are both "dead languages" (Latin and ancient Greek are compulsory in some Italian schools…among them the one of the above mentioned teenagers and that of the teacher). The (usual, once again) answer of the teacher was: "Without any Latin, how could you understand all Latin inscriptions in Rome?" Needless, the boy answered that street signals are in Italian and that he does not care for inscriptions. The teacher's argument, in the case at stake, at least, seemed rather poor to me, too.
What, instead, is the purpose of teaching and studying Sanskrit? I am not referring to one's personal study of Sanskrit (everyone has secret passions and hobbies one does not need to justify), but rather its academic purpose. On the one hand, Sanskrit may be extremely useful for whomsoever will keep on having to do with India. This claim might be disputed, but I will take it now for granted, in order to focus on the next group of students, namely the ones who –in the future– will have nothing to do with India. Is the study of Sanskrit nonetheless useful to them? Yes, in my opinion, since:
  1. unless one faces a different culture, one does not realise what one's background is; hence
  2. confrontation with another culture enhances critical thinking
  3. cultures which are temporally or geographically distant are more likely to be "different" and to, hence, implement point 1
  4. in the global world, geographically distant cultures are often either too "primitive" or too similar to ours (due to what Heidegger called the "Europeization of the Earth")
  5. hence, "dead" languages offer us an almost unique chance to face a theoretically mature culture (one we cannot dismiss as a defeated option, like we would do with, say, tribal cultures) which is at the same time different from ours.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Bhagavadgītā solution

If every action gives raise to a subsequent series of effects, then how to escape its uninterrupted chain? That is, if karman's cycle is inescapable, there is no room for nirvāṇa (as the end of this-worldly transmigration, saṃsāra). Nor there is, indeed, for proper action. In fact, determinism implies the impossibility for one to perform a fully good action. As expressed in the Bhagavadgītā: action is surrounded by error, just like fire by smoke.

This could lead to either ethical nihilism (since there is no possible way to be good, let us behave in just whatever a way) or to non-action.

By the time the BhG was composed (around the beginning of the CE), the Hindū world had to seriously face this issue because of the presence of the Ajīvikas (the fatalist sect hinted at above), the Jainas and, most of all, because of the raise of Buddhism. This upheld a strict enchainment of cause and effects, but enhanced the ethical dimension of karman in spite of its ritual aspect.

Thus, the Hindū world is confronted with the idea that its account of karman leads to either ethical nihilism or to ascetism, which was at that time represented by antagonistic schools.

The Bhagavadgītā proposes a way-out of the dilemma: one is only responsible for one's desires, not for the action. Hence, although no freedom is possible in the precinct of action, there is still some space left for human initiative. One can decide to
  1. implement an action because one craves its results (and be consequently bound in the circle of saṃsāra, without any hope to get out of it
  2. follow the path of non-action (which is wrong, since it is determined by the selfish desire to avoid the results of one's deeds)
  3. implement an action without craving for its results

The idea is that a niṣkāma-karman (an action devoid of desire) bears no ethical consequence.

But how could one perform an action, if not out of desire? In fact, at the time of the BhG the other philosophical schools had already shown how an action is always initiated by one's desires.

The only way to supersede desire is to obey. I cannot initiate an action if I do not want it, unless I obey to someone else's order. Of course, the person I am obeying to must be ethically good. Else, my desire to obey to her would be itself liable to be blamed. In short, the BhG proposes as a ethical model obeyance to God. An action which is performed as an act of obeyance is ethically pure, since it does not bear the ethical consequence of one's craving for its results.

How can one, in every day life perform every action as an act of obeyance? Conforming to one's status, that is, to one's caste and state of age, as part of the order willed by God on the world.

The connection of action and result

No matter how one conceives it, the action is the chief element of a theory of causality. An action is the cause of an effect (be it internal or external). However, the link between action and result is not always fix: the same action of seeding, watering, etc. may lead to abundant rice plants or not. In this case, one might object that the other causes, such as the soil, differ. But what about the action of studying in the case of young children? It may lead to different results or even to no result at all. Indian thinkers had before them an even more striking example, the ritual action. Sacrifices are taught in the Veda to lead to a certain result (e.g., cattle, happiness, a son, the conquest of a village, …). However, by the end of the sacrifice, (usually) no result arises. And at the time the result (allegedly) arises, the action is long extinguished.

In order to explain such incongruities, one has to postulate something extra bridging the gap between action and result,

This can be an apūrva potency, that is, an unseen potency, "which did not exist before" the action. The apūrva is brought about by the action and eventually leads to the result. Through this intermediation, the action can still be said to be the cause of the result.

Else, one can try to detect additional factors, such as the soil in the case of rice plants. The apūrva is an external factor, but there are also factors residing in the agent, such as the saṃskāras. These are traces left by the action and deemed to ripe at a successive time. A Vaiśeṣika text (PDhS 8.21) describes them as "quality of the self (ātman)". However, post Vasubandhu Buddhists (especially Yogācāra ones) will theorise the existence of saṃskāras independent of a subject.

Last, one can amplificate the sphere of application of karman and postulate that an action initiates a chain of causes and effects which will. eventually lead to a result. This may happen even in a remote time, because the link cause-effect is not interrupted by the end of the physical body. Through this theory, "karman" will eventually be used (most of all in the West) as the theory representing one's destiny as causally determined by one's previous actions.

The apūrva-solution might have been the most ancient one, but it remained current in Mīmāṃsā and (as "adṛṣṭa") in Vaiśeṣika.

Theories about saṃskāras are already available in pre-Vasubandhu Buddhism and they are extremely influential in different theories of causation, each of them stressing their inhering in the subject (Hindū schools) or their independent existence, possibly within a stream of consciousness (Yogācāra Buddhism, 4th c. onwards). As in the previous section, hence, Buddhism emphasised the role of a subject-independent action and bearer of the action, against non-Buddhist schools, which by and large moved from direct realism to a subject-based one.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The development of a terminus technicus: prasaṅga before and after Śabara

Jaimini and all commentators (with the partial exception of Śabara) agree that the eleventh book of Mīmāṃsāsūtra discusses āvāpa and tantra, which are thought of as one the opposite of the other. Jaimini uses prasaṅga just three times in book twelve (ad MS 12.1.10, 11, 15) and in a very few other instances (whereas tantra is largely employed). He might have intended prasaṅga just for specific cases, whereas Śabara systematises Jaimini's lore by classifying tantra and prasaṅga as distinct devises with specific functions and objects. That this was not just his own personal concern is proven by the text he quotes at the beginning of his discussion on prasaṅga, which also aims at distinguishing the two. It is difficult to judge about a verse, whose context is lost, however the verse might, in fact (see here) focus more on prasaṅga than on tantra. Taking into account also our data about the amount of usages of tantra as against those of prasaṅga, tantra may be in the verse no more than the common reference out of which prasaṅga is driven from, in order to better specify it. The need to go into further details as for prasaṅga could, hence, be shared by both Śabara and the author of the verse, who both needed to generalise a term whose usage was linked with specific instances but was, at the same time, not specific enough. In fact, prasaṅga is not very frequent in MS nor in Śrautasūtras, where it seems to designate the "application", possibly of a general rule. See, e.g., its only occurrence in Aśvalāyana Śrautasūtra, AśvŚrSū 1.1.22, where it is opposed to apavāda (certainly meaning "exception"):
prasaṅgād apavādo balīyaḥ
In Mylius' translation (1994:29a):

Eine Ausnahme (-Regel) ist gewichtiger als eine allgemeine Regel

The shift from this to Śabara and the verse's author meaning could be explained through a single instance in KātŚrSū (I could not locate further usages of prasaṅga in this text):

pratikarmoddharaṇam aprasaṅge (1.3.27 according to Ranade's edition)

That is,
The taking away of a brand from the Gārhapatya-fire to supply other fires [is done] for every rite, if there is no application [of a different rule] (prasaṅga).
Prasaṅga here means first of all the application of a general rule which could have already enjoined something about the uddharaṇa. If there is no such a rule (a-prasaṅga), there is the simultaneous application of the same act (of uddharaṇa) to more than one rite. Consequently, prasaṅga is seen as denoting the simultaneous application itself.

Whatever the case, in accordance with his agenda, Śabara mentions prasaṅga in his commentaries to all sūtras 12.1.1-15. After him, however, the fundamental opposition between tantra and āvāpa blurs the one just devised between tantra and prasaṅga. Hence, tantra tends to invade again the precinct of prasaṅga and to include all cases where the same element, though performed only once, applies to several cases, as against āvāpa.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Circularity in religious thought

I have already noticed in a previous post how the fact that God (or the ṛṣis) authored the Veda has been allegedly proven on the strength of statements of the Veda itself (stating, for instance, that the ṛṣis "have seen dharma"). This sounds obviously flawed to a contemporary audience: the authority of a text (even the Veda) depends on its author, hence one cannot rely on a text until one has independently established His/Her author's authority. Hence, the text itself has no independent epistemological power to establish the fact that someone did (or did not) author it.

Similarly, Ernst Steinkellner (and Vetter before him) argued that there is a similar circularity at the foundation of the validity of Buddhist thought:

the path taught by the Buddha is valid ----»because it is established by instruments of knowledge ---»the validity of these instruments has been established by the Buddha


Hence, the very instruments which should prove the Buddha's authority are only justified through His authority.
However, a naif Western reader may overestimate these cases, forgetting to look at comparable instances in Western thought. For instance, let me point at common statements in the Christian churches, such as "God is love, as stated in the second letter of St. Paul to the Corintians". In fact, that God is love is presupposed by the existence of his Revelation. Hence, the Revelation itself cannot independently prove it.
The above discussion is not meant in order to blame religious thought for that. In fact, circularity is not a flaw for a believer –who already trusts the Sacred Texts and is hence not disturbed by an appeal to their authority. One can imagine that an emotive commitment is used in order to found an epistemological one, so that the circularity is not exactly such. Moreover, in my opinion, religious thought cannot avoid such a commitment and is hence inextricably linked with a decision which cannot be totally explained through epistemology (which can, however, a posteriori justify it).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why do we need at all a study of quotations?

I would like to discuss some general questions to be addressed and their import on the study of quotations.

Textual-critical reasons:

  • In order to better edit texts (one needs to know whether a quotation embedded in a later text is a reliable witness –this also depends on the general attitude towards the kind of text quoted). In this connection, writes K.Preisendanz: "Dense incidental as well as continuous expository commentaries […] can sometimes be used–by means of their pratīka-s and other quotations or quasi-quotations–to correct the available text of the basic work as transmitted in a dominant line of manuscript transmission which may not necessarily reflect the original text precisely; they can also make us aware of alternative versions of the basic text which were current in India" (2008: 611).
  • In order to restore lost or partially lost texts. In the passage immediately following the one quoted above, writes K.Preisendanz: "[Commentaries] may even allow us to reconstruct the mūla-text of lost works. As an example […] Mallavādin's Dvādaśāranayacakra immediately comes to mind, made available through Siṃhasūri's commentary and Dharmakīrti's Hetubindu reconstructed from Arcaṭa's Hetubinduṭīkā with the additional utilization of its Tibetan translation" (2008:611-2).

Historical-critical reasons:

  • In order to better understand Indian texts and/within their history (for instance, does the lack of quotations of a certain author in later texts mean that he was not influential? On the same subject, but from the standpoint of Western Ancient and Medieval authors, Ch.Schulze denies the direct link between number of quotations and fortune of a text: "Fehlende Zitate bei späteren Schriftstellern können mannigfaltige Ursachen haben –früher Textverlust, Überstrahlung durch spätere Autoritäten, Unpassendes für den eigenen Gedankengang (z.B. weil man einer anderen Schultradition anhängt als der Vorgänger) usw.–und müssen keineswegs einer Abwertung des Autors und seiner Professionalität entspringen" (2008:21).
  • In order to better evaluate the relation of Indian authors to other authors (do they feel like quoting revered teachers, or do they rather name only adversaries?…).
  • In order to better understand Indian habits of reading and writing/composing texts (did they quote literally even longer passages? did they quote ad sensum? did they have a small library of texts behind their desk?).

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Auctoritas or Echoes of a Text?


Quoting, extensively quoting from a former text may show that one is aware that everything worth saying has already been said. This is consistent with the Indian idea of a cyclical time or of an beginningless one. In both cases, all possibilities have already been enacted. One can only add new forms to well-established contents, as proposed by Jayanta Bhaṭṭa in the prologue of his Nyāyamañjarī or by Vedānta Deśika in a maṅgala.

Better, this habit may become itself a kind of fashionable thing to do. Authors such as Jayanta do much more than they avow and many others conceal innovations in old forms. In the West, one is lead to think at the Aquinas, who has been accused of "innovation" in his interpretation of some aristotelian loci, and who, notwithstanding this tendency, omits even to say where his opinion is expressed in the Summa Theologica. Similarly, Patañjali's Mahābhāṣya is often still enigmatic for today's researchers, since they cannot distinguish between Patañjali's new ideas and what he refers from previous thinkers. More in general, in India, just like in the Western Middle Age, claiming to say something new would have diminished the authority of one's statements. Authority had, in fact, to do with the auctoritas, and, consequently, with the auctores one was quoting from.

In order to add authority to one's text, hence, one needed to quote from authoritative ones. Did one also need to name the authorities one was quoting from? Yes, insofar as the author's name (or reference to his name) stressed his authority. But in case of very well known authors and texts, such as the Bible or Peter Lombard's Sentences, the reference could also be quite causal and imprecise. The audience would have been able to collocate the quote immediately.

The answer is even less univocal in the Indian śāstric tradition. In fact, one notices cases where an authority is explicitly named in order to confer authority on one's text. For instance, Madhva used quotes from the Sacred Texts, often unknown ones –or perhaps even made up ones– in order to confirm his most innovative conclusions.
On the other hand, within a school borrowing from one's predecessors was licit and one did not care to name one's source. This might be due to the fact that the individual author felt himself as part of the tradition and, hence, as its legitimate heir could use everything in it. Else, it is also possible that the audience immediately recognised such implicit quotes of former, authoritative texts, once embedded in a later text. It is worth remembering, in this connection, that listeners and readers were only cultivated people in classical India. One did not need to address the requirements of a lay reader. I dare not say that every quote could be identified and correctly attributed to its author, rather that the listener could recognise it as part of the school's lore and, hence, as authoritative and correct.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Form and performance of a text


Quotations are copious in both written and oral texts. Formulae are also a sort of "quotation", although they lack (the memory of) an author. Moreover, until the advent of print, in many places "the physical act which produced originals was the same as that which produced copies. Writers were responsible for both" (Burrow 1982: 31). Hence, they were very likely to be often used to both copying and actively writing, and to use the first ability within the second.

Burrow quotes a famous passage of St. Bonaventure (XIII c.) about the modus faciendi librum (way of making a book):


There are four ways of making a book. Sometimes a man writes others' words, adding nothing and changing nothing, and he is simply called a scribe [scriptor]. Sometimes a man writes others' words, putting together passages which are not his own; and he is called a compiler [compilator]. Sometimes a man writes both others' words and his own, but with the others' words in prime place and his own added only for purposes of clarification; and he is called not an author but a commentator [commentator]. Sometimes a man writes both his own words and others', but with his own in prime place and others' added only for purposes of confirmation; and he should be called an author [auctor] (St. Bonaventure, fourth quaestio in the Proem to his commentary on Peter Lombard's Sentences, quoted in Burrow 1982: 30-31).


So, no one just writes without any model: "The scheme simply does not allow for that possibility" (Burrow 1982:31). Moreover, how reliable is Bonaventure's description of the scriptor? In fact, scribes did not "change nothing". On the contrary, the scribe added and changed "not only inadvertently, like the compositor, but also deliberately. He replaces obscure expressions with more familiar ones, omits and rewrites passages, and sometimes adds passages from other sources or even passages of his own composition" (Burrow 1982: 31-32). At least in India, the case I am more acquainted with, a copyist may act so in order to alter the text, but, more often, in order to improve it or to better preserve it (hence, explanations may be added whenever a passage seems to obscure to be understood). Hence, s/he does not feel like someone who is violating the text, but rather, as its protector. Was Bonaventure unaware of that? My personal answer is that he did not list such editorial changes as "changes". The only changes worth mentioning were the ones made by a compiler, all others were just part of the process of copying. Nowadays, we are also used to the idea that a publishing house' editors are allowed to practically re-write a proposed text, and yet they are not mentioned as co-authors.
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