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Monday, July 25, 2011

Philosophy and Poetry


What happens if a philosopher writes in verses? In many cases, hardly anything at all. Kumārila's Ślokavārttika (in verses) is as conceptual and dense as his Tantravārttika (mostly in prose). And the same applies, as far as I can judge, to Bhartṛhari, Dignāga, Dharmakīrti and several others.
Yet there are different cases, of authors who are able to use verses for their own sake. I think of Vedānta Deśika, who is a great poet exactly insofar as he does not use verses only as a metrical form. Rather, he expresses in poetry the paradoxical nature of God's relation to human beings, a nature which he also tries to analytically describe in his prose.
It might be that poetry is especially good for a certain kind of topics, the ones which cannot be just explained away by logic. And these constitute the bulk of what really matters to human beings, once logic and epistemology have paved the way for it.
I am particularly fascinated by the way poetry or narrative structures in general might be used to convey an additional philosophical meaning beyond the one which is analytically explainable. I think of cases such as the Buddhis Canon, the Upaniṣads, the Yogācāra Sūtras, etc. etc.
How do readers feel about such texts? Does their narrative structure act upon them, enhancing their intellectual understanding?

On Vedānta Deśika, see (among other posts) here (on Veda and Upaniṣads) here (on the epistemology of Sacred Texts), here (on dharma and direct perception), here (on sense perception), here (on pleasure and pain).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Human resources matter…and still they are neglected


I am convinced that we* tend to underestimate the importance of human resources while trying to achieve a certain goal. We might consider someone's expertise, but we never take into account his or her nature and temperament. In this way, many ambitious projects never achieve their goals because of disagreements among the project participants or between the project leaders and his or her co-workers, or just because the ones who work in them could not program their time good enough.

What could be the solution?
  1. 1. To work in a team, so that one's weak points might be compensated by someone else.
  2. 2. To reflect about one's methodology and not just about the content of what is about to do.
  3. 3. (old-fashioned as it sounds) To know oneself, in order to avoid the risk of overestimating one's speed, underestimating one's bad temper, etc.


*"we" =pick up one or more of the following: South Asian scholars, scholars of Indology, scholars of Linguistics, History or of Philosophy.

Did readers find more interesting ways to deal with HR within a project regarding Indology (or any other field of the Humanities)?


On the need to coordinate offer and demand in Indology, see this post. On the need to think about methodology, see this post. On team-working, see here, here (team work in Indian philosophy), here (on delegating) and here (about how could South Asian studies be improved through team work). On the difficult survival with colleagues, see here. On choosing one's ideal colleague, see here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Can one believe without faith?


In several Indian texts, the fact that the ṛṣis have seen dharma and, hence, authored the Veda has been "proven" on the strength of statements of the Veda itself. This sounds obviously flawed to a contemporary audience: the authority of a text (even this of the Veda) depends on its author, hence one cannot rely on a text's statement until one has independently established its author's authority. In other words, the text itself has not an independent epistemological power to establish the characteristics of the one who authored it.

Similarly, Ernst Steinkellner and Masatoshi Nagatomi (and Tilmann Vetter before them, see Vetter 1964) 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:

The testing of the validity of the Buddha's words requires a tool which was for Dignāga and and Dharmakīrti the pramāṇa, the valid means of cognition. Such a tool, at least in principle, may be expected to be one which is universally acceptable to all and free from dogmatic premises and presuppositions. Both Dignāga and Dharmakīrti struggle to achieve that end by polemically refuting the number and definitions of pramāṇas of the non-Buddhist schools which were contradictory to their own. We must note, however, that the final authority by which they claimed the validity of their pramāṇa system was none other than the Buddha's words which they accepted as authentic by faith (Nagatomi 1980, 245-6).


The issue is more than controversial among Buddhologists and Eli Franco and Tom Tillemans strongly disagree with this view. See for instance Franco 1999 and Tillemans 1999.
Whatever the case, a naif Western reader may overestimate these cases, forgetting to look at comparable instances in Western thought. For instance, let me point out common statements in Christian sermons, such as "God is love, as stated in the second letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians". 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 censure religious thought. 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 one cannot strictly speak of circularity. Moreover, it might be suggested that religious thought cannot avoid such a commitment and is, hence, inextricably linked with a decision which cannot be a priori explained through epistemology (which can, however, a posteriori justify it).

On this topic, you might look at this post by Jayarava. On Dharmakīrti's agenda in regard to faith (as seen by V. Eltschinger), see this post. On the problem of the boundaries of religious thought (and of philosophy, by the way), see this post.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Intellectual biography

I have been forced to reflect on my intellectual biography while working on an application for a scholarhip. Here is what I wrote:

After completing my MA on Śaiva Siddhānta (an annotated translation and study of Sadyojyotis' Mokṣakārikā together with Bhaṭṭa Rāmakaṇṭha's commentary thereon, dealing primarily with arguments aiming at establishing God's existence), I prosecuted my studies of Indian Philosophy and of Philosophy in general. This lead me to a second degree in Western Philosophy, whose final thesis was on Testimony in a 17th c. work, the Logique elaborated in Port Royal by D. Arnauld and P. Nicole. I continued working on Linguistic Communication as a means of knowledge ever since, primarily in the field of Indian Philosophy, but with constant references to philosophy in general.

My studies on Linguistic Communication (śabdapramāṇa) evolved in various directions, i.e., in broad investigations on the nature and evolution of this means of knowledge in all schools of Indian philosophy and particularly in Mīmāṃsā and Nyāya, in linguistic studies on language as conceived in Indian thought, especially in Mīmāṃsā, in epistemological, theological and hermeneutic matters related to this instrument of knowledge.

In order to understand the background of the Mīmāṃsā perspective on language and on Language as instrument of knowledge, I also worked more in-depth on this philosophical school in general. I started reading and translating the whole Tantrarahasya, a primer written by Rāmānujācārya on Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā. A book on this text containing a long introductory study, a critical edition and an annotated translation, together with indexes and glossary, is currently under review for Brill.

I then read extensive portions of Rāmānujācārya's direct sources, i.e., Pārthasārathi Miśra's Śāstradīpikā and Śālikanātha Miśra's Prakaraṇapañcikā, of the other available work by Rāmānujācārya (his Nāyakaratna commentary on Pārthasārathi Miśra's Nyāyaratnamālā) and of Rāmānujācārya's indirect sources (in decreasing order of completeness: Kumārila's Ślokavārttika together with Pārthasārathi Miśra's, Sucarita Miśra's and Uṃveka Bhaṭṭa's commentaries; Maṇḍana Miśra's Vidhiviveka together with Vācaspati Miśra's Nyāyakaṇikā thereon; Maṇḍana Miśra's Bhāvanāviveka; Kumārila's Tantravārttika with Someśvara's commentary, Prābhākara Miśra's Bṛhatī with Śālikanātha's Ṛjuvimalā thereon, Kumārila's Ṭupṭīkā). Within Mīmāṃsā, I worked primarily on Language as an instrument of knowledge, on linguistic theories about sentence-meaning and about exhortation, on the hermeneutics of Vedic injunctions, on absence as an instrument of knowledge, on error and on the phenomenological role of the subject in epistemology and hermeneutics. In all these cases, I have been aiming at bridging Indian philosophy and Western one, by using a terminology which could be appropriate to both cases and by trying to address Indian texts as philosophical texts, demanding to be understood in a philosophical way.

While working on Mīmāmsā as a school of philosophy, I noticed how stratified some of its key concepts are and hence started investigating into their history. I therefore dedicated a study to the evolution of vidhi and of its classifications and sub-types in Classical and Post Classical Mīmāṃsā and one to the evolution of prasaṅga and tantra in Jaimini, Śabara, and Later Mīmāṃsā, along with their parallel history within Grammar and Śrauta Sūtras. Both studies proved how Grammar, Mīmāṃsā and Kalpasūtra texts (with particular reference to Śrautasūtras and Dharmasūtras) share a common prehistory, as appears evidently in their shared terminology and methodological approaches.

Working on linguistic theories also lead me outside Mīmāṃsā proper, so that I read and translated parts of Bhaṭṭa Jayanta's Nyāyamañjarī (henceforth NM), especially of the books 3, 5 and 6 (all dedicated to language). I am currently translating the first part of NM 5, on exhortation and I am working on the translation of the second part of NM 6, on sentence-meaning, with Alessandro Graheli (University of Vienna). In this connection, together with some colleagues, I am about to submit for financing a research project focusing on the critical edition, translation and study of the fifth book of the Nyāyamañjarī. The project has already been presented to the “Open Pages in South Asian Studies” seminar held in Moscow, April 2011 and will be presented also at the World Sanskrit Conference to be hold in Delhi, January 2012.

Due to my interest for how the history of philosophy influences one's common-sense, I have also been working on theories about “nature” in Indian thought and how they differ from coeval and contemporary theories in the Western world.

Among my future projects are also a translation of the first pāda of Prabhākara's commentary on the Mīmāṃsāsūtra. Prābhākara's text is poorly transmitted and edited and is in itself extremely terse, yet it is a fundamental text of Indian philosophy, so that I plan to work on it as soon as my expertise in Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā (acquired through Rāmānujācārya's and Śālikanātha's texts) is firm enough. Symmetrically, I plan to enlarge my field of investigation also by taking into account the later development of Mīmāṃsā in South India, when Mīmāṃsā and especially Prābhākara tenets have been embedded in Vaiṣṇava schools. In this connection I started translating Vedānta Deśika's Seśvaramīmāṃsā with Dr. Marion Rastelli (Austrian Academy of Sciences). Vedānta Deśika is one of the main theologians of the Viśiṣṭādvaita school and I hope to be able to better understand the link between belief in God and belief in the authority of Sacred Texts (deemed to be independent of their author) in post Classical Mīmāṃsā.

I do not think that critical editions of texts are an end in themselves, but I am firmly convinced that one's understanding of a text may be very much improved if it is soundly grounded. Hence, I improved the existing edition of Rāmānujācārya's Tantrarahasya by reading the only extant manuscript (in Telegu script) and I consulted manuscripts (in Malayalam, Śāradā and Devanagarī script) whenever I have been working on the Nyāyamañjarī.

Apart from the horrible experience of having to write it down, how would your intellectual biography sound like? Have you ever tried to detect its Leit-motives?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Contemporary Indian Aesthetics

It is a pity that contemporary Indian philosophy is usually neglected. Contemporary Indian aesthetics is no exception, although it would have a lot to offer to the general discours on aesthetics, given the fact that it can benefit of the high level of reflection achieved in Classical Indian aesthetics.
I recently read Chaudury's Aesthetics Metaphysics. The author is acquainted with both Indian and Western aesthetic thought and claims, among other things, that there is a radical difference between the two:
Indian aesthetics has been in the main unaffected by any intellectual metaphysics. Aesthetic contemplation has been at the outset regarded as distinct from theoretic understanding and beauty distinct from intellectual truth. While Plato and the Scholastics hold artistic activity to be a feast of reason, the Indian aestheticians take it as a feast of feeling. (p. 192)

I am not sure I fully agree, but I certainly subscribe to the claim that Indian epistemology can accommodate within itself different sorts of "truths", and thus does not need to make the object it studies conform to a single (logical) standard.

Do you agree on this interpretation of Indian and Western aesthetics? If so, why was it so?

On the problem of the truth-value of whatever is not a description of a state of affairs, see here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sense perception cannot grasp dharma

satsamprayoge puruṣasyendriyāṇāṃ buddhijanma tat pratyakṣaṃ animittaṃ vidyamānopalambhanatvāt.
Once there is a connection with an existing thing of a person's sense-faculties, the arousal of a notion is sense-perception. It is not a condition [for knowing dharma] because it seizes [only] present things


MS (Mīmāṃsāsūtra) 1.1.4 is not an epistemological sūtra dealing primarily with the definition of sense perception. Rather, it aims at excluding sense-perception as a possible instrument to know dharma.

According to Kumārila Bhaṭṭa, who is probably the most influential author of the Classical Mīmāṃsā and who founded the so-called Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā, MS 1.1.4 aims at excluding also direct (and non sensory) perception, i.e. yogipratyakṣa (on this sūtra in Kumārila's interpretation, see John Taber, Kumārila on perception, 2005). This is a sort of direct apprehension of an object, non-mediated by inference, etc., nor by the sense-faculties, and which could hence compared to Kant's intellectual intuition. It occupies only a marginal position in pre-Classical Indian philosophy, where it is attributed only to marginal categories (such as yogins and ṛṣis), whereas Classical authors tend to stress its role as an alternative to Sacred Texts as instruments of knowledge or as an integration of them.

In fact, if intellectual intuition is possible, direct perception is no longer limited to sense faculties and can also grasp super sensuous objects like dharma. If this is the case, one can justify, e.g., the Buddha's grasp of the four noble truths and one no longer depends on Sacred Texts as one's only source about dharma.

Can one admit intellectual intuition among the sources of dharma, without endangering the uniqueness of the Veda?

I dedicated several posts to yogipratyakṣa, see for instance here (on its object), here (on its risks), here (on the opposition Veda-sensory perception or yogipratyakṣa-sensory perception) and here (on Vedānta Deśika about it).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Unifying Hinduism: when did it start?

Very recently (winter 2010), Unifying Hinduism: philosophy and identity in Indian intellectual history, a book by Andrew Nicholson raised interesting discussions on the “birth” of Hinduism. Nicholson locates it with interesting arguments in the Vijayanagara empire, but the results of any historical enterprise, may always be reframed within an earlier frame of references.
Jayanta Bhaṭṭa's attempt to admit the Atharvaveda among the Vedas and other Sacred Texts different than the Veda among the Texts enjoying an epistemological value (in the Āgamaprāmāṇya section of the Nyāyamañjarī) can be viewed as exactly part of the process which lead to the diffusion of a pan-Indian acceptance of similar texts and values.

Which enterprises would you classify as paving the way to "Hinduism"?

On Nicholson's book see also this post and this other blog (interview to Nicholson about his book, with comments). To Jayanta I dedicated many posts, see for instance here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

What happened between Śālikanātha and Rāmānujācārya?

As discussed in two previous posts (here and here) Śālikanātha Miśra (IX c.?) dedicates several pages to the ontology of the ātman. These pages appear neither innovative nor particularly original, yet Śālikanātha must have deemed the topic important enough to include it in his Prakaraṇapañcikā. By contrast, Rāmānujācārya (after the XIII c.) hardly if ever uses the term ātman and does not discuss at all any ontological argument about it. That the topic of the subject interests him is, however, proved by the many pages about its hermeneutical and epistemological phenomenology.

Why does Śālikanātha feel the need to add ontological arguments, probably borrowed from the Nyāya school? And why does not Rāmānujācārya feel the same need? What happened between the two?


The following answer is more than tentative and it is based mostly on the method of investigating into the history of ideas (Ideengeschichte). It is easy to see that one of Śālikanātha's principal opponents, namely the Buddhist Pramāṇavādin, is altogether absent in Rāmānujācārya's work. In fact, Rāmānujācārya was active in South India and at a time (after the XIII c.) when Buddhism was no longer a philosophical concurrent. Consequently, Śālikanātha might have felt the need to defend the ātman also from an ontological point of view, in order to resist to the Buddhist anātmavāda, whereas Rāmānujācārya was active at a time in which the existence of an ātman was common sense among philosophers. Consequently, he could rather focus on its epistemological and hermeneutic phenomenology.

Vincent Eltschinger has attempted (in his book Penser l'Autorité des Ecritures) a similar solution of the different approaches to the Buddha's word in Dignāga and Dharmakīrti. Do you deem it legitimate to use extra-philosophical arguments to interpret a philosopher's thought?

On Śālikanātha on the ātman, see here and here. I dedicated several posts to V. Eltschinger's book. See for instance, here (first post on the book), here (discussing why we need Sacred Texts) and here (discussing an expert's different fields of expertise).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ontology and phenomenology of the ātman

A bright colleague of mine (Daniele Cuneo) pointed out that Śālikanātha's passage in yesterday's post might as well be interpreted as purely ontological. The point could be that the subject is fix and that it only seems manyfold in its epistemological role.
In fact, the emphasis on the subject as knower might be interpreted as just instrumental to the ontological foundation of the ātman. That this is not the case is at least suggested by the history of the Mīmāṃsā reflection on this subject, which originates from Vedic hermeneutic concerns and not from ontological ones. Historically, it is more probably the case that ontological arguments have been added in order to firmly ground the subject's phenomenological role in epistemology and ritual hermeneutics.

How comes, then, that the ontological approach is added to the phenomenological one? Hypothetically, one might propose that Śālikanātha adds to the standard Prābhākara argumentation, based on the Veda and, therefore, on the phenomenology of the subject and on its role in epistemology, a further line of argumentation, based on ontology and inspired by the arguments of its opposers, mainly Naiyāyika authors. Consider the following sequence of arguments (with no interruption in between) and note the shift to the usage of ātman in the ontological section:

(Vedic-based argument:) In regard to someone who [performs] no action, agency and experience would be [merely] hypothetical. [But] an agent and an experiencer, presupposed by the [Vedic] sentence about the one having the sacrifice's weapons [which refers to the ātman as the sacrificer and as the one who will enjoy heavenly bliss],1 must be determined, hence the mention of recognition has been put forth.

(Nyāya-influenced argument:) And when this self has been recognised, then the self [endowed with] consciousness is its characteristic. Nor does it arise at a certain point from it (self) alone. For an effect whose [single] cause is always proximate would not arise [only] from time to time. […] Therefore this self, which is the inherent cause [of consciousness], requires a [further] cause, one that is inherent to it.2

1 “This sacrificer who has the sacrifice's weapons (the sacrifice's substances and tools), will go to the heavenly world quickly” (sa eṣa yajñāyudhī yajamāno 'ñjasā svargaṃ lokaṃ yāti). The sentence is discussed by Śabara, ŚBh ad MS 1.1.5. I could not locate a Vedic source for it.

2 According to the Nyāya school, there are three sorts of causes: 1. the samavāyikāraṇa 'inherent cause', such as the two halves of a pot, which inhere in the effect (the pot); 2. the asamavāyikāraṇa 'cause which does not inhere [in the effect, but rather inheres in the inherent cause], such as the colour of the two halves, which inheres in them, but not directly in the pot; 3. the nimittakāraṇa 'necessary condition', such as the potter.


Why does Śālikanātha feel the need to add ontological arguments? (My tentative answer will follow shortly, but I would be glad to read your opinion about it).

On more insights about the subject (this time in the Mānavadharmaśāstra) by Daniele Cuneo, see here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ontological or epistemological arguments for the subject?

Rāmānujācārya definitely favours a non-ontological approach to the problem of the subject. For him, the subject is what one becomes due to hearing and obeying to Vedic prescriptions.
What about his more systematic predecessor, Śālikanātha?

Since its very beginning, the chapter he dedicates to this topic (the Tattvāloka within his Prakaraṇapañcikā) seems to look for a balance between the two opposite tendencies. In its second verse, the first two padas are rather ontologically oriented, whereas the last two stress the role of the subject as the agent of cognitions we can experience in every day life:


The self, distinguished from intellect, sense faculties and from the body, is an all-pervasive substance |

different according to each field (of experience) [i.e., according to each empirical individual] , it shines forth in the act of understanding of the objects ||


(buddhīndriyaśarīrebhyo bhinna ātmā vibhur dhruvaḥ | nānābhūtaḥ pratikṣetram arthavittiṣu bhāsate || 2 ||)


Moreover, the subject is repeatedly identified as the knower (jñātṛ) and its necessity is demonstrated through epistemological arguments (such as the need for a reunification of different sense-cognitions and the possibility of memory).


How can the two approaches coexist?


On Rāmānujācārya's approach, see here. For further post on the topic of subjectivity, check the label "subject".

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Where is the subject during errors?

The Prābhākara view distinguishes three elements within a cognition: the act of cognition, the object cognised and its cogniser. It also claims that they are inseparably known through every single cognitive act, insofar as no cognition of an object is possible without a cognising subject and without a cognitive act itself. Nor is one only aware of the sheer cognised object, without any frame. One knows a known object. This also means that, in the Prābhākara view, a cognition is a piece of knowledge only insofar as it is self-aware. It is not, as in Sāṅkhya and Nyāya, a mechanical act to which the conscious subject adds awareness. In order to be a knowledge, it must be intrinsically conscious.

What about acts of cognition which are not self-aware? A cognitive act which were not self-aware could not be a case of knowledge, because it would necessarily lack the important component of presentness. But are such cases conceptually possible? An interesting example is discussed by Rāmānujācārya in the epistemological chapter of TR (TR I). Rāmānujācārya mentions the case of the memory of silver which arises in one's mind while seeing a piece of mother-of-pearl on the beach. One sees mother-of-pearl and automatically remembers silver. This is said to be only an incomplete cognition and cannot be a piece of knowledge. Now, one could ask, who is the agent in the case of such cognitions? And how comes that s/he seems not to be included in such cognitive acts, since s/he is said to be necessarily included in acts of knowledge? Do they just arise due to saṃskāras and, hence, automatically or is a knower nonetheless present?

In fact, in the case of a conscious recollection of silver, one would simultaneously be aware of oneself and of the act of recollection. By contrast, the recollection of silver evoked by a lustrous piece of mother-of-pearl seems to be necessarily unconscious, since if it were conscious, one would be able to distinguish it as a separate piece of cognition and one would not conflate the remembered silver with the apprehended lustrous thing. Does not its “incompleteness” exactly refer to the fact that it lacks the element of a knower and of an act of cognition?

If this interpretation is correct, such cognitions would arise independently of a subject, which would else necessarily be included in the knowledge act. They arise due to saṃskāras and are, hence, not acts of knowledge performed by an agent, but only results of the saṃskāras' function. Hence, they can occur independently of an agent.

Do readers have a different understanding of the way saṃskāras function? And of the Nyāya or Sāṅkhya epistemologies?

On mother-of-pearl mistaken as silver, see also this post.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Religious experiences and the need for boundaries

What is essential to a religious experience? Within a theistic perspective, one's encounter with God. If this happens, everything else is unessential and becomes ipso facto superfluous. If one has experienced an encounter with God, one will probably see how fasting, cutting one's hair, refraining from drinking wine, etc., are all as far from the experience one has had, as their opposites.
Why then do we need churches and religious institutions? Why "religions"? I can see at least two kinds of reasons:
  • 1. encountering God is not something you can foresee. It might depend also on you, but must depend primarily on Her/Him. While waiting for that to happen, you might try to get prepared through a certain discipline. The discipline will forge you and make the encounter possible. It creates, so to say, the empty space within yourself where the epiphany might take place.
  • 2. you might think you did encounter God just because you had an intense experience. For instance, I am inclined to think that this happens to many people who fall in love with TV personalities, no matter whether rock stars or "reverends". Religious institutions should guard you from the risk of confounding God with what is just emotionally intense. They should deny all your claims, unless they fit into their narrow path of well-established ways of encountering God. If your encounter is sincere, they explicitly claim, it will fit within it. Maybe, many of their authorities also secretly think that if you really had a genuine experience of God and this did not fit into the standards, you will receive from Her/Him enough strength to explain to the Church/to your spiritual master that it has to change its/his/her standards. These have to exist, hence, to test the genuinity of your faith.
I might be wrong, but I understand Mīmāṃsā as fulfilling these two tasks. Paradoxically, the Mīmāṃsā school is engaged with Sacred Texts, but seems to have no sympathy at all for religious experiences. Why so? If the above is correct, because of 2.
And what would be the purpose of executing difficult rituals in an exact way —imagining that you no longer believe in Vedic Deities, but in a personal God? 1.

How do readers conceive the role of religious institutions in India? I am not speaking about their political role, but only of the theological rationale of their existence.
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