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Friday, June 3, 2011

prasaṅga: a term with a long history

Readers of śāstric Sanskrit will know prasaṅga most of all as the "unwanted consequence". Something that follows automatically. Investigating in its past may shed some light also on this meaning.

prasaṅga is not extremely frequent in the Śrautasūtras and I failed to find a definition of it. Hence, one has to reconstruct its meaning indirectly, through its usage in the Śrautasūtras, through its usage in Grammar and Mīmāṃsā and possibly also through its etymological meaning. Every translation is therefore intrinsically tentative.
The following is my (provisional) hypothesis:

In the Śrautasūtras, prasaṅga might denote:
  1. 1. temporary and incidental association of two elements or rites
  2. 2. chance, i.e., occasion, for an extended application caused by this temporary association
This latter meaning will produce the later, Mīmāṃsaka one, which seems foreshadowed in some Śrautasūtra usages:
  1. 3.what happens automatically, through a transport from one rite to another, unless there is an opposite prescription, in similar cases and if need arises
It is worth stressing that the transport does not depend on a centralised instance (as it occurs in the case of tantra). It rather depends on a marginal contact, resulting in a temporary association which is based on a specific need. A tantra-like travel would be that of a whole school sharing the same ship or train, especially booked. A prasaṅga-like one would be the relation between a hitchhiker and the car-driver who gives him a lift. Their association is temporary and based on the former need for an element already in use by the latter.

On tantra and prasaṅga, see here and here. On the methodological problem of reconstructing the meaning of a word, see here.


windwheel said...
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windwheel said...

Your posts on the topic of prasanga are very thought provoking.
I wonder whether the Planning and Management of the rituals in a major sacrifice did not lead to similar problems we see in factories or in Computing. Thus, the ancients would have faced similar problems to those studied by what is now called Critical Path Analysis in Operations Research, or the Concurrency problem in Computing.
Essentially some resources which are needed for the Sacrifice are scarce and have to be rationed so that access to it has to be queued or sequenced.
Now prasanga as meaning 'unintended consequence' or even 'reductio ad absurdum' (as in Nagarjuna) might have had an extra emotional or Cultural semantic force by reason of its experiential aspect as associated with frustration and conflict.
In other words, since there is a sort of choke point or bottle neck such that different rites are contesting the use of the same item so the word itself becomes the topos of the larger metaphysical problem of what takes precedence, what is more 'essential', or if we say essence is empty, then what is wholly free from 'chicken/egg' logic loops or what Djikstra called 'concurrency deadlock and livelock ' (this is the dining philosophers problem)- in other words, behind 'prasanga' in its divergent collocational cascades, there is a sort of Pan Sectarian Yagnya occurring in which all parties are obliged to borrow each others ritual paraphernelia in the same manner that mutually hostile & exclusivist 'Philosophies' are nevertheless resentfully constrained to contest 'air-time' on the same topical issue and in so doing incur the prasanga of a 'dialogic' menaced by that 'inclusionism' which Paul Hacker decried.
From the evolutionary point of view , the infinite play of phenotypal plasticity is, in a sense, constrained in advance by the inevitable recurrence of choke points yielding genotypal canalization, and the same thing must happen not just with memes but discourse and even thought.
In other words, prasanga, investigated by itself, becomes a better topos for 'unifying' Indology both synchronously and diachronously than the genealogical approach.
Sorry, I don't suppose I've made myself very clear but it may be you are thinking along these lines yourself or have already critiqued the notion.
BTW, I'm having a great time going through this blog at my leisurely pace. It reminds me that there is a good Indology- one that does not set Indian teeth on edge- and et in Arcadia ego before ego got the better of everything.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks a lot, Windwheel.
The analogy with computing seems to hold, insofar as in both cases one needs to do as much as possible without having to repeat the same instruction every time. In this sense, I would rather insist in distinguishing the ritual prasaṅga (i.e.: the entailment of X in a later ritual), which is positive insofar as it leads to less resources being used for achieving the same goal, and "Nāgārjuna's prasaṅga", which is an unwanted entailment, to be avoided. The two are historically connected, but I would not interpret the former along the lines of the latter.

As for the doxographical value of prasaṅga, I never thought about it, but you are surely right, and one might say that, e.g., Mīmāṃsā hermeneutic rules are used "prasaṅgena" by other schools (i.e.: without any explicit commitment, just because they are needed). And the same applies to Nyāya's dialectic rules, Vaiśeṣika's ontology and so on.

Last, what do you mean by et in Arcadia ego? Where is the death in the picture? Or do you mean to say "I knew it better"?

windwheel said...

'..distinguishing the ritual prasaṅga (i.e.: the entailment of X in a later ritual), which is positive insofar as it leads to less resources being used for achieving the same goal, and "Nāgārjuna's prasaṅga", which is an unwanted entailment, to be avoided'- I had not thought of the positive aspect at all! Perhaps this shows I am old and bigoted! By et in Arcadia ego I just meant I too lived in that Arcadia, I wasn't referencing Poussin but Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead where it is associated with one's College days when the wine flowed free and the learned Symposium, such as that which you grace, seemed the natural terminus of one's dear purchased oenophilia (wine being expensive for an undergraduate compared to beer- or 'bitter' as the English call it). Death, of course, for the cyrenaic English undergraduate, is the noblest of wines as in Beerbohm's Sufi fantasy 'Zulieka Dobson'. But 'if we cavil at sickness, God won't grant us death' and ego is a sickness. That is all I meant- certainly not that 'I knew it better'.
Still, my picture of the way that the grand Vedic sacrifices evolved is predicated on the notion of separate rituals coalescing with much status competition and bitter precedence and perquisite contestation some of which is sublimated in bramh'odya, and, it may be, the rest in, almost humorously, re-cycling the jajman or members of his family or even domestic animals as 'stand in' priests so that the ticklish point of punctilio is resolved such that the loser, from the point of view of protocol, gains jajman status in a manner that ultimately allows the 'Brahman' role to becomes the highest- thus giving rise to the fundamental premise of Samkhya. I don't know if what I have written is intelligible- all I mean is that 'theoria' for the Indians arose not from a passive witnessing and cogitating upon the rituals of a different ethne or polis but was a sort of 'U.N. mission' in which the truly productive thing is that mutually jealous and hostile officials learn to play nice so that as you say 'ritual prasanga' is a positive sum game. Surely, that is a good 'Inclusionism' as opposed to the sort Paul Hacker castigated as 'neo-Hindu' or what we might call 'New Age' or 'Politically correct'?
I personally tend to the view that great Saints like Vasubandhu & Nagarjuna etc, are like teachers whose names get associated with different models which, for didactic purposes, seem at loggerheads when actually there is a sort of synoptic paidea being advanced or accomplished. But Vasubandhu's method for ensuring the destruction of the conceptual tools used to reach the 'siddhanta'- which, for Catholics might look like ensuring the crumbs left over from the Eucharist are properly disposed off- is not really different from Nagarjuna's evocation of the meretricious concurrency deadlocks and envenomed Methodenstreit snakes-biting-their-own-tails of debate to lend prescriptive urgency to his clearing of a 'middle path'.
Alas, my judgement is, for the very numerous ritualist Brahmins, or the equally 'miserable class' of Bildungburgertum Bureaucrats, the apparently providential route of escape of Jainism or Buddhism or Advaita or Bhakti or Stalinism or Gayatri Spivakese or Amartya Sen-tentiousness- was no such thing, it was all 'an appointment in Sammara', or ruse of the Weltgeist sealing them to their 'birth determining' karma and so,Man, indeed,'is a futile passion'- Umasvati and Nagarjuna and Sankara worked their magic in vain.
My God! What long and laboured nonsense I've written!But nonsense, even such as this, is indeed the long and laboured history, or hysteresis, of prasanga.
Great blog. I am two days into sampling it- seeking perhaps the fortitude to keep an impending Dentist's appointment.
Are you Italian? What good English you write!

elisa freschi said...

prasaṅga became a famous term due to its use by Nāgārjuna etc. No one ever thinks of its more ancient (and positive, if one thinks at rationalizing resources) meaning. This is why I ended up writing a book about it and tantra.
Your depiction of the "UN mission" seems to resemble to Heesterman's and Proferes' approach to a competitive world of early Brahmanism, where conflicts between ideas can better be understood as social conflicts. What do you think of these authors and of their approach?
Last, yes, I am Italian. And my English is not that good (especially if you compare it with the many years I spent reading and/or writing in English). What is your mother tongue, if I may ask?

windwheel said...

I think I might have read Heesterman's book many years ago, before I had any views of my own or indeed any genuine enthusiasm for my ancestral religion. Proferes I'm afraid I don't know, but I see he also studies Jainism- to which I am partial- so I'm sure reading him will be rewarding and I thank you for the tip. Is it possible to purchase your book for Kindle or to read on Computer? I know hard copies of Indological books on Amazon etc tend to be very expensive. Perhaps you could put buy clicks on your blog (unless they are there and I didn't notice them).
The point about big Yagnyas, or their modern day Secular equivalent is the same today as it has always been. Class conflict may figure but not in any predictable way. My feeling is that a new type of mathematics- cellular automata theory- has been shown to give a much better fit for modelling Social processes than the algebraic approach so essentially the Just So stories of older Indology aren't credible for us now. Interestingly, the ancient Indians did use cellular automata theory- in fact, it is from this period that board games develop- rather than algebra for their own needs though this was displaced by algebra at a later stage. Thus, applying the 'common sense' of our own era- which is that Social processes are like Conway's 'Life' computer program (which older people may remember running on their first P.C or Mac)rather than conforming to Hegel's misprision of Calculus (which he actually taught).
In answer to your question, I am embarrassed to say that English is my first language- indeed I write novels and poetry in English- though I'm also interested in Urdu poetry. By birth, I am Tamil. Indeed I suspect that my first wife- an Italian Indologist like yourself- only married me to steal a march over her rivals by getting a 'sleeping dictionary' (this was the name given to the native mistress taken by East India Company officers who needed to learn the local language quickly). Needless to say when she discovered that I had been speaking English rather than Tamil to her, (my accent makes the two indistinguishable) she divorced me promptly.
Hence my animus against the Indology profession!
What do you think of Roberto Callasso? His books, translated into Hindi, is having quite an impact! Perhaps, Indology will end up creating its own subject! This is the opposite of Victor Hugos plaint 'India went and ended up becoming Germany!' to which Calasso alludes.
Anyway, mustn't take up anymore of your valuable time.
Great blog.

elisa freschi said...

I checked on Amazon, but Proferes (Vedic Ideals of Sovereignty) does not seem to be available as an ebook. Nor could I find a scan of it. Can't you count on an efficient library? (Having lived and worked for years in Italy, I don't expect an affirmative answer, I am just curious to know because the problem of dissemination of scientific works is an urgent one).
As for Calasso, which work of him has been translated into Hindī? I liked a lot his Ka, but ---I must admit--- most of all as a novel. He is a charming writer and he is able to give back life to subjects which might seem "dull", such as Vedic ritual.

windwheel said...

I'm in London so I don't have any excuse for my laziness. In any case, for better or worse, I now have my own theory which is diametrically at odds with the direction Indology is going in.
You didn't mention how I can access your own writing- I have a blind spot for Tantra and my feeling is that Western Indology might actually be good for that sort of thing.
I think only 'Ka'- which I thought silly- has been published in Hindi but I can see it would appeal to this generation. Actually, the last couple of generations, Indians have made a cult out of writing nonsense about the Itihasas- Ram was mean to Sita, Pandu was too lustful, Krishna was a cunning trickster- other such imbecility.
I recall there was a Prof. at SOAS- Julia Leslie- who showed a capacity to course correct on the basis of actually talking to ordinary Hindus but her career was tragically cut short. Needless to say our far more elitist Indian scholars would never be guilty of such a faux pas.
The real danger is the Hindutva zealots who pretend to be outraged by Wesern Indology but quietly steal its clothes because they are entirely devoid of common sense.
Was Callasso influenced by Evola, Guenon etc? Did he actually know Sanskrit? it would be a fine joke if future Hinduism becomes Callossist.
My own proposal for saving the Euro involved swapping Berlusconi for Sonia Gandhi- India needs more strippers in Parliament and Italy needed a P.M who didn't goose Angela Merkel.
Properly considered this too is prasanga.

Alessandro said...
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elisa freschi said...

I agree with your opinion re. Hindutvavādins. They seem to me to have been too much influenced by Western ideas (for instance, as for the lack of distinction between description and prescriptions, which was quite clear in the Indian darśanas, or the adoption of the natural sciences as the only paradigm of truth, so that one tries to establish the scientific validity of "Vedic" ideas, and so on).

As for my work, most of it is available on my page on I never thought (my fault) of producing an ebook of my first book (the one on Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā), but I will post something about it in November (it is not available until then). The book on tantra and prasaṅga will soon be available as an ebook. I will keep you informed about the precise date. Thanks for asking.

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