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Monday, May 24, 2010

Typology of quotations

In the same seminar on quotations mentioned above (see here and this post), Raffaele Torella proposed to distinguish between several typologies of the usage of quotations:
  • quotations as text (texts made only of quotations)
  • hidden quotations (large passages which migrate, so to say, from one text to another, without mention of their author. Torella mentioned in this regard the case of the Vaiṣṇava Advaitin Vāmanadatta. Large quotes of him have been reused in Vaiṣṇava Tantras.
  • manipulated quotations (e.g., a dualist text may be forced by a non-dualist to justify her school's stances).
  • quotations as empty containers (e.g., the no-more-productive Sāṅkhya is reinterpreted by the late Advaitin Vijñānabhikṣu who interprets it as an Advaita school, thus filling quotations of Sāṅkhya texts with Advaita contents.
  • made-up quotations (such as, maintains Torella, many of Madhva's ones. I am still perplex about this case since I cannot understand why Madhva should not have, instead, forced a text to support his opinion, manipulating a text (or using it as an empty container) instead of faking one).
  • exemplificatory quotations (laukikanyāya, functioning like our proverbs, where the authors is hardly recognisable and has no role at all).

This typological distinction is probably not exhaustive and it conflates various meanings of "quotation", without distinguishing literal quotations from references, but it is a first (and hence useful) attempt to discuss the function of quotations within a text.
In this regard, the Islamist Paola Carusi observed that many occult quotations are such only for us. For their readers/listeners, their origin was obvious. This is obviously the case for quotations out of the Sacred Texts. Even in India, the case I am more acquainted with, one should remember that lay readers did not exist. One would only start listening to a teacher's lesson or read his text if one were his pupil (or a rival's pupil). Hence, texts may presuppose a general acquaintance with the school's basic tenets and with its root texts. In sum, occult quotations should only designate quotations which are intentionally hidden (for instance, because one wants to re-use a passage of an author who has been banned from one's tradition.

Maria de las Nieves Muñiz proposed a very interesting suggestion while discussing Giacomo Leopardi's Zibaldone: there used to be an "interlingua" (inter-language) current in the intellectual milieu of Leopardi and made of texts, ideas, quotes, pictures, myths, etc. We have to reconstruct it in order to make sense of Leopardi's horizon and to understand who has been read and who has been, instead, indirectly absorbed through the interlanguage.
The same scholar also noticed that too often one does not quote exactly the authors one has been more influenced by. One is, so to say, permeated by them and cannot distinguish theirs from one's own thought and words. To explicitly quote, I would summarise, requires a distance.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Areal studies: the conundrum of "Indology" or "South Asian studies"

Since many years, I am quite upset with the definition of my chief field of study as "Indology". In fact, I am not interested in whatever has been thought/done/performed/etc. in India. I am, for instance, more interested in Western philosophy than I am in Indian agriculture. "South Asian studies" does not make any significant difference, from this point of view. It is just a politically correct evolution of the older label.
The definition of "Indology"/"South Asian studies" identifies a field of study on a geographic basis. Hence, scholars in this field are supposed to be able to cover/be interested in covering whatever has to do with this area. This implies a major disadvantage: Indian linguistics, to name just one example, has to do with Indology. Hence, scholars of Chomsky, etc., are justified in ignoring it. As far as I am concerned, my concern with "Indology" started exactly because I understood that such areal definitions could be an excuse for this omission. I would like Indian philosophy to be part of philosophy tout court, to be examined in books about philosophy and not in ones about a certain area of the world (which happens to be South Asia). I would like, in sum, Indian philosophy to be dealt with from a philosophical point of view (and not just a geographic one).
I discussed my dissatisfaction about these terms many times with many people. Dagmar Wujastyk suggested that "Indology" as a label was invented in Germany, due to the alleged similarity with ancient corpora, such as the Ancient Greek or Latin one. One thought that Sanskrit literature (I intend here "whatever has been written in Sanskrit", not just belles lettres) was a not so wide extended corpora and that, hence, one could master it all. This makes sense, as a historical explanation, but does not justify the intrinsic sense of "Indology" once one has realised that what has been written in Sanskrit largely exceeds what one can possibly even see in one's life.
However, some days ago I mentioned the issue with a colleague who is not himself a scholar of Indology, Francesco Zappa. He made me reflect about the fact that states of affairs in the world are not born as belonging to "history" or "anthropology". Hence, areal studies may be well suited in order to understand the complexity of a certain phenomenon.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Quotations in Western vs. Indian Culture and Literature

I am attending an interesting seminar on quotations in Western Literature (especially in Giacomo Leopardi's Zibaldone). I especially appreciated some stimuli, such as:
  • the need to create a taxonomy of what is a quotation (in a certain sense, every linguistic usage is a quotation of someone else) –as proposed by Alessandro Grilli
  • the tendency of quotations to degenerate, loose their semantic power and become just antonomastic usages (as with, again, Alessandro Grilli): I strongly disagree with that since Indian cultural history is an evidence (also) of the opposite. Basic texts are quoted and semantically enriched every time they are quoted and reused.
  • Japanese has several words for "quotation", and this proves that this was a basic tenet in Japanese culture (so Matilde Mastrangelo). This is an interesting hint, insofar as there is nothing like the word "quotation" neither in Classical Latin nor in Sanskrit. Does this mean that quotation were not important? No, I believe. It rather means that quotations (and, most of all, re-usage of previous textual material) were so much part of the normal intellectual praxis that they were not felt as a "device" in need to be thematized.
  • in the West, there is a recurring metaphor of poets as bees, taking honey out of flowers. Authors disagree as far as the work of bees is concerned: do they just collect something which is already honey or do they elaborate it? Whatever the case, to be bees implies that one uses someone else's material and that one selects it (a history of this metaphor has been sketched by Stefano Jossa).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The paradigmatic nature of ritual action

As already hinted at, karman means ``action'' and also ``ritual action''. However, the first meaning is not secondary, as one would at first sight think. On the contrary, the ritual action is the paradigm of every kind of action and one uses it in order to understand other activities. In this way, other actions are assimilated to the ritual one. For instance, wedding is described along the lines of ritual: the bride's father is the sacrificer (yajamāna), the bride is the victim, the groom is the Deity (to whom the sacrifice is offered) and at the same time one of the officiants (yājaka). In a similar way, work is interpreted as sacrifice, the client is the yajamāna and the worker is the yājaka.

Short, the sacrifice is a complete action, including all its aspects, from remuneration to fatigue, from organization to future plans.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What is karman?

Karman (or karma, as the nominative sounds) is a chief theme in the development of Indian culture; it has played a key role since ancient times and until today. Karman means first of all ”action”, and hence the action par excellence, that is, ”ritual action”. In this connection, two questions arise:

the nature of ”action”

the connection of action and result

One may note, in passing, that even on the Western notion of ”action” strong disagreements are crowded, and that from common-sense to physics through the philosophy of action there is no consensus about what an action is.

A further problem in the identification of what karman is, lies in where its core should lie: is an action primarily externally identified through its effects, or internally, through the attitude leading to it?

In the first case, a karman would be the production of an effect (be it a concrete product or a generic consequence in the outer world).

In the second case, a karman would amount to the initiation of a certain action, an individual’s effort and tension towards it.

From left to right, one can imagine a gradual shift from the stress laid on the result to that on the incoation of the action as follows:

(On the first line, what happens on the level of the subject, on the last line, what happens on the level of the obejct)



Vaiśeṣika (1st BC) Kumārila (8th c.) Someśvara (12th c.)

agent of the production effort

movement produced result


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Vedānta Deśika on śabdapramāṇa arguments for yogipratyakṣa

Vedānta Deśika's position in the Seśvaramīmāṃsā is quite complicated. As a Mīmāṃsaka author, he denies the possibility of ṛṣis who actually saw the dharma and then authored the Veda. As a theist, however, he assumes that this is possible in the case of God, Viṣṇu. The terms he uses in this connection are: śāstra, āgama, upadeśa, śruti. Śruti designates just the Veda (?). Śāstra designates the genuine Sacred Texts, i.e., the Veda and the Pañcarātra. Āgama refers to the Sacred Texts insofar as they have been uninterruptedly handed down. The same verbal root may apply, hence, also to non-śāstric texts, having a human origin, called upadeśa, which have also been handed down (presumably: since a very ancient time).

The Lord's perception of dharma can be trusted, because it is nitya. Hence, it has not been acquired, unlike in the case of ṛṣis or yogins. In fact, the previous arguments all pointed at the impossibility for a person to acquire such an extraordinary perception. They do not prove that such a perception cannot inhere forever in God.

Is dharma inferable?

In his Seśvaramīmāṃsā ad 1.1.4, Vedānta Deśika refutes the possibility of dharma being inferred as follows:

In this way, since it is impossible for people like us to directly observe (adhyakṣ-) dharma in the form of an instrument to realise [one's] benefit, it is established that even inference, which requires [the observation] of mutual concomitance and exclusion [and, hence, depends on direct perception], is not an instrument of knowledge in regard to dharma.

As for [the argument] “Even in case of an equal study and service [to God], one [inferentially] postulates a difference in the extra-sensory conditions because one sees a difference in result” –that also does not [hold], because it does not require a further condition, since it is possible that a subtle difference in study, service [to God], etc., is indeed visible. And, once a difference in condition has been postulated in general, would it be established through direct perception, etc. or through [Vedic] injunction and other [Sacred Texts]? Since the correct distinction (viveka) is not established, [the argument] is not useful for the [correct] practice. (Since through inference one only postulates a difference in study, service, etc., but cannot ascertain its nature, there is no way to know what one should do in order to achieve it. Hence, either one relies on the Veda, or one is stuck to impotence.)

Therefore, only the Sacred Texts (śruti) are a [proper] shelter for the performance of dharma, together with [its] procedure.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Karman in Jainism

As regards karman and its ethical value, Buddhist authors, especially of the earlier schools, had to distinguish themselves from Jaina opponents. Jainas embed a very ancient theory of karman, which understands karman as a sort of substance. Accordingly, a past good or bad action inhere in one's soul just like powder on a greasy item. In order to attain liberation, one has to free oneself from such a material substance, which envelops the soul and obstructs its power.

This leads to a major problem: how can karman, a substance, inhere in the soul, which is also a substance? The problem of the link between soul and karman was easily solved in the "Hindū" schools, since karman was thought to inhere in the soul as an action or a quality; and in the Buddhist ones, since karman was considered to be the only reality. What about Jainas? The usual way out is metaphorical: Jaina texts speak of karman as powder adhering to a wet cloth, or as water getting into a boat through its leaks. Later on, the notion of karman as a substance pervading the universe and attracted to the souls (called jīva, lit. ``living'') through their actions (meaning most of all "movements''), arises. According to Akalaṅka (8th c.), the karman would not adhere to the soul, if it were not for the soul's passions, which make it "greasy'' and fit for the karman to adhere on it. These passions, and their greasiness, is burnt through ascetism. In this way, the karman produced by the actions of a monk is immediately consumed.

Since karman is a material substance, it has a gross reality. In this sense, it is easy to understand how the performance of a bodily action is the more relevant ethical issue. Only a bodily action counts and consists of a substance. On the other hand, the intention while performing the action is no substance and has, hence, no direct ethical significance. Mental acts are, in fact, acknowledged among ethical factors, but only whenever there is no corresponding bodily action. A typical example of a mental act bearing negative ethical consequences is the adherence to a false doctrine (i.e., non adherence to Jainism). When a bodily action follows, the mental intention to perform it is not taken into account, either because it is overseen or because it is considered as just the precondition of the succeeding bodily action. Counter-examples, where intention and action performed do not harmonise (e.g., one kills someone although one did not want it to happen) are considered extreme exceptions. In fact, Jaina are extremely careful and mindful in avoiding every injury even to the minutest and subtlest living being. Once one knows about the existence of such creatures, a lack of attention is itself tantamount to the preliminary part of the action to kill them. For instance, not straining water means that one is deliberately swallowing the tiny living beings living in it. Hence, unconscious actions can be said to be evil, because they are caused by non-mindfullness.

In fact, the main way to accumulate this obstructive karman is –according to Jainism– to perform violence against other living beings. Consequently, non-violence is the supreme imperative for the Jainas. By refraining from committing any kind of violent act, conscious or unconscious, one does not accumulate further karman. Praying, studying, meditating, as mental activities are not karman and, hence, do not lead to any further accumulation of karman.
(I am not a Jaina expert. I hope Jaina readers will bear with me).

Friday, May 7, 2010

What is the purpose of one's purpose?

At the beginning of a treatise, a Sanskrit author states, among other things, who should read his/her work (in modern terms, its target reader) and what is its purpose. Next, s/he explains what is the purpose's purpose. For instance, a treatise on verbal suffixes may have as its purpose to teach the usage of these suffixes. The purpose's purpose would be that a correct use of suffixes is needed in order to speak correctly, and to speak correctly means to think correctly. Obviously, one could keep on asking about the purpose's purpose's purpose.

Or not. One could also think that knowledge, of whatever subject, no matter how small and unimportant, is a good in itself, which does not need a further purpose.
As far as I am concerned, I always look for a purpose's purpose. Things become significant for me only insofar as they are part of a larger frame. I am happy to focus on the paper of a manuscript I am working on, I find the evolution in a letter's shape fascinating, I spent months on rare terms, such as prasaṅga. But I would not be able to do it, unless I thought of it as a step towards a better picture of, e.g., the development of Indian thought. Apart from my personal tendencies, I believe that focusing on the significance of what we study is ethically right. Also because human resources are limited, and I do not think it does not make any difference whether they are employed in trying to understand a miliar stone of Indian philosophy, or on a minor line in a minor work.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Proposal for a coffee-break conference


Numerous conferences are organized on Indian philosophy, philology, religions, or –more generally– on "South Asian studies". Hence, a further proposal should identify the continuity- and discontinuity-traits it aims at. The present project is the result of a larger reflection on the common sensical statement that "the most interesting parts of a conference are the coffee breaks". One yawns or falls asleep while most papers are read –apart from a couple of them and one's own one. On the other hand, one often takes part of challenging and fascinating debates while sipping at one's cup of coffee. Often, the same paper sounds thought-provoking and insightful during the break, and extremely boring while it is actually read.

This leaves space enough for the proposal of a coffee break-conference, that is, a conference which leaves behind the more stiff formulations of established and untouchables conclusions, and favours an open-minded exchange of ideas, suggestions, criticisms.

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