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Friday, March 30, 2012

Does the Veda have an "author"?

Traditionally, the Veda is said to have been "seen" by some ancient sages, the ṛṣis and the term ṛṣi is analysed as derived from the root dṛś- `to see'.. The Nyāyasūtra and its commentary reproduce this claim and discuss the reliability of the Veda's seers (draṣṭṛ).
One might wonder why are they not called just ''authors''. Does this terminological choice mean that they saw something which already existed before they saw it?
A preliminary answer is that even the Sanskrit words for ''author'' (such as upadeṣṭṛ) tend to emphasise a person ability to put together words, or to teach them, rather than her ability to fully invent something. Moreover, the Veda is not a fictional work, and accordingly its ''authors'' can be said to have ''seen'' it in a way comparable to what one could say about a non-fictional writer, like a natural scientist, who ''perceived'' the truth of a certain law and later put it down in a text which cannot be said to be her ''invention''.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Is there any consensus gentium in Indian epistemology?

Unlike his predecessors in the Nyāya system, Jayanta (IX c.) makes room for the argument of the consensus of the great people (mahājanaparigraha): the Veda must be reliable, since exemplary people agree on its validity.
While discussing this argument, George Chemparathy (1983) notes the ambiguity of mahā- in the compound: is the argument based on the consensus of many people or of great people? Kei Kataoka (2011) quotes an early instance of the usage of mahājana (without parigraha) in the Mahābhārata and suggests that it only meant a ''great mass of people without a connotation of greatness in quality''. This is supported by Kumārila's contrastive usage of kaiścid eva parigraha 'agreement of a few only' in ŚV codanā 133d.
The difference with the consensus gentium of Roman law, used as an argument for the existence of God, among others, by Thomas the Aquinas, is that the agreement is still sought only from selected people, i.e. men, belonging to the three upper classes, living in India, etc. In the same passage about the agreement of few people only Kumārila ironises the Buddhists by saying ''Even they claim with respect to their own views that they are accepted by the mahājana and followed by the ancestors, taking into consideration a different continent" (TV ad 1.3.3-4). Obviously enough, such a different continent does not count.
To sum up, the consensus gentium runs more or less as follows:
Anyone, even the fool, says that God exists. Hence, he exists
In other words, the generality of the consent is the point.
The mahājanaparigraha, by contrast, in any case presupposes a selection of the kind of people involved. If many śūdras, for instance, would agree on the validity of something, this would not count as an evidence (or maybe it could even be counted as a counter-evidence). Thus, the two are radically different.

Do you find any of the two more convincing?
For other posts on Jayanta and on the way he deals with the validity of Sacred Texts, see this post.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Are some religious practices "immoral"?

Can a religious practice prescribing intercourse with one's closest relatives or slaughtering of lives be described as immoral? Which moral does it violate?

While discussing the validity of other religious systems, Jayanta proposes an interesting argument against the claim that forbidden (niṣiddha) practices are enough to condemn a religious system: One cannot claim that these practices are forbidden, he explains, because they are not condemned in the texts of their practitioners. Hence, the reader is lead to think, one can only judge the moral value of a practice through the value-system in which it has a role. This statement has two consequences, not explicit in Jayanta:

  1. 1. Morality can only be judged within a certain system, it has therefore no absolute value.
  2. 2. Morality is not based on sense-perception and the other instruments of knowledge which could lead to a system of values shared by all human beings. The source of moral injunctions can only be an authority.

For the problem of the validity of other religious systems, see this post. For disgust in regard to some religious practices, see this one. On the thesis that sense-perception cannot tell us anything about dharma, see this post, plus an interesting comment by Aśvamitra on this one.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Validity of Sacred Texts other than the Veda: the Nyāya approach

According to Nyāya authors, the texts different than the Veda may be valid if their author is reliable. Since directly testing the author's reliability is by norm impossible (since such texts are removed in time), one then needs to establish their author's reliability through indirect evidences, the principal ones being the consensus of the upmost people (mahājanaparigraha) and the accord with state of affairs one can verify.
Jayanta, for instance, discusses two kinds of candidates: first a reliable human being and then God himself.

Furthermore, the reliability of the author can be tested through the accord of what he says, with state of affairs one can verify. Since Sacred Texts by definition regard dharma, which cannot be known by normal people, one can only test the reliability of their author through partial agreements with verifiable items (ekadeśasaṃvāda). The idea is that if I can prove that X is reliable while saying Y —a topic which I can know through another instrument of knowledge, thus testing X's words—, I can infer out of this instance his general reliability. As typical instances of topic which can be tested count remedies against snakes' poison, medicine in general and magic.

For the Mīmāṃsā approach to the same topic, see this post. For the Nyāya approach to the validity of Sacred Texts in general, see this post.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Can disgust be a guide for ethics?


In his treatment of the validity of other Sacred Texts, Jayanta deals with religious practices which seem to oppose the general sense of what is right. This emotional answer to some religious practices, argues Jayanta, is not a valid reason to proclaim their invalidity.

Philosophically speaking, this is a very interesting issue. The role of emotions as guides for moral behaviour is, in fact, a disputed issues among theorists, as testified, for instance, by the very well-known and much disputed paper by Leon Kass The Wisdom of Repugnance, Kass is a bioethicist at the university of Chicago, Illinois and chaired President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2002 to 2005). In an article appeared on Nature in 2007, Dan Jones questions Kass' approach by asking whether disgust ''plays a constructive, or viscerally reactionary role''? Jayanta's solution is that only extreme emotions, such as dread, may be used as guide. The hesitation, suspicion or light disgust one might feel when confronted with a religious practice one is not used to is only due to one's being accostumed to a different view, and hence does not count as a separate piece of evidence. By contrast, what people overtly abhor cannot be considered a valid text.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Validity of Sacred Texts other than the Veda: the Mīmāṃsā approach

According to Mīmāṃsā authors, texts different than the Veda are reliable insofar as they are based on the Veda. But how can one demonstrate it? The demonstration is usually based on the application of cogent evidence (arthāpatti): The Dharmaśāstras have no other root than the Veda, hence they are based on the Veda. The background of this argument is Mīmāṃsāsūtra 1.3.4 hetudarśanāc ca (''[Other texts are not valid] also in case one sees a reason [which could have lead someone to make them up, such as personal interest]''), which denies the validity of texts for which a different reason, such as greed or delusion, can be detected.

Thus, other texts are valid insofar as they are based on the Veda. This Veda-root may be, following Kumārila, either a branch of the Veda which is currently lost, or a compendium of Vedic elements which today's readers cannot recognise because they are scattered in various Vedic texts. Alternatively, the Vedic root might be the ''always inferred'' (nityānumeya) Veda, i.e., a Vedic text which is always inferrable, but has never existed as a directly perceivable texts. This claim is based on the idea that there have always been, without beginning, two sorts of Veda, one which is intrinsically available to direct perception (i.e., which can be heard) and one which is intrinsically only inferable.
In harmony with the Mīmāṃsā focus on what is currently the case, Prābhākaras do not postulate that the always inferable Veda was previously perceptible and has then at a certain point been lost. Rather, an ever inferable Veda must exist, since it inspires from time to time authors of valid texts such as the MDhŚā, but there is nothing which leads one to postulate that it has ever existed in a directly perceptible form. Tne Prābhākaras consider the two Vedas as being on the same level and say that the ever inferable one is inferred out of the proper conduct of good people or out of the fact that right Dharmaśāstras are composed.

The existence of this ever inferable Veda is one of the less-understood and more-criticised Prābhākara claims. Sheldon Pollock, for instance, makes fun of it in his The Language of Gods in the World of Men.

For the Mīmāṃā approach to the validity of the Veda, see this post.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Nyāya approach to the validity of Sacred Texts

The Nyāya approach to the justification of Sacred Texts considers the Veda as an instance of Testimony. Just like testimony is an instrument of knowledge if the speaker is reliable, similarly the Veda is realiable since it has been uttered by a reliable speaker. Consequently, Nyāya authors need to show that the author of the Veda is indeed reliable.

Early Nyāya authors (namely Gautama, Vātsyāyana and Uddyotakara) have proven (or thought that they had proven) the reliability of the Veda author out of the fact that the same author(s) also composed the Āyurveda, which is certainly valid, since one can check its validity through other instruments of knowledge.

Jayanta refutes this argument (since he claims that the Āyurveda texts have been composed by Caraka and other human authors, whereas the Veda has been authored by God himself) and, instead, makes room for the argument of the consensus of the great people (mahājanaparigraha): the Veda must be reliable, since exemplary people agree on its validity.

To which extent does this approach resemble the Christian and Hebrew way of justifying the validity of the Bible? How much does it differ from it?

For the Mīmāṃsā approach to the same topic, see this post.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mīmāṃsā standpoint on the validity of Sacred Texts

Indian thought knows basically two ways to justify the validity of the Sacred Texts: the Nyāya and the Mīmāṃsā one.

In synthesis, Mīmāṃsā authors argue in favour of the validity of the Veda due to the fact that it is the only instrument of knowledge through which one can know dharma. Mīmāṃsakas divide in fact what can be known into two precincts, on the one hand common experience, which encompasses what can be known through sense-perception and the other instruments of knowledge (inference, analogy and cogent evidence, to which Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā authors only add absence), which ultimately depend on perceptual data. On the other hand there is dharma, which cannot be known through sense-perception and for which, therefore, the Veda is the only instrument of knowledge. Mīmāṃsā authors also claim that all cognitions, qua cognitions, are in themselves valid, unless and until a subsequent cognition invalidates them. However, since the Veda cannot be invalidated by data of different origin, given that it is the only instrument of knowledge regarding dharma, it remains valid.
Consequently, Mīmāṃsā authors need to demonstrate that dharma is really unattainable by other instruments of knowledge.
Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā authors say that the dharma cannot be known through other instruments of knowledge because it is future and sense-perception only grasps present items (see ŚV codanā 115, translated in Kataoka 2011). The Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā solution is that the dharma is trikālānavacchinna 'not delimited by the three times'. This means that the dharma does not belong to the usual temporality, which is the characteristic of common experience. It rather belongs to a different dimension, that of what has to be done, which cannot be seized by the usual instruments of knowledge, which only grasp what is present, or grasped what was present and is now past, or will grasp what will be present.
Did Prābhākaras 'anticipate' modal logic?

On the distinction of precincts of application, so that perception cannot seize dharma, see this post.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sense-perception cannot tell us anything about dharma

We need an authoritative Sacred Text not in order to know about the world of common experience; sense-perception and the other instruments of knowledge are enough for this purpose. We need it in order to know what ought to be done, since there is no way one will be able to understand out of sense-perception that vegetable sacrifices have to be performed on the New-Moon day, that one should go to church on Sundays, or that one should rather avoid switching on the light on Saturdays.

In his discussion about the validity of Sacred Texts, in Nyāyamañjarī 4, Jayanta seems to propose a similar argument, since he says that:


Nor are they (dharmaśāstras, i.e., texts prescribing ethical and social norms) based on experience, since sense-perception is not able to determine a duty which has the form of something to be done and is not determined by the three times.


What does "not determined by the three times" (trikālānavacchinna) mean? The Granthibhaṅga (the only ancient commentary on the NM) describes the three times as the domain of sense-perception. I would add that dharma escapes the three times (past-present-future), insofar as it belongs to neither of them. It belongs to a modal, not temporal dimension. Therefore, it is not "eternal" in a temporal way.

I already discussed the impossibility of sense perception to grasp dharma in this post (from the point of view of Mīmāṃsā).

Friday, March 9, 2012

History and Geography matter (i.m. Gherardo Gnoli)


What one is and what one thinks and writes also depend on one's context. Original thinkers are not completely determined by their context, but they use the elements they derive from it as the building blocs of their own system. One of such original thinkers was Zarathustra, who —among other things— changed the semantics of two key terms in Old Iranian and used ahura (Sanskrit.asura) to denote God (Ahura Mazda "the good Ahura") and daeva (Sanskrit deva) to denote the demons. This is probably due to the fact that he wanted to turn upside down the previous religious beliefs and that he, consequently, identified the previous gods as demons. Thus, in order to understand his thought one needs to understand what he was reacting against. Furthermore, one needs to know which were the most influential religious models of his time. One easily sees that Persia was at that time not the cultural centre of the Middle East. Rather, the Eastern side of Mesopotamia was, with its Semitic inhabitants. It is hence not surprising that one finds female deities in Zarathustra's Mazdeism which can hardly be explained if one only considers its inner consistency or its indoeuropean parallels (female deities tend not to be very popular in Vedic religion), whereas they are easily explained if one compares them with their semitic counterparts. A typical example is Anahita and her Semitic counterpart Ishtar.

Long story short: History matters, but also Geography. I learnt it from one of my first university teachers, prof. Gherardo Gnoli (an short biography in English can be found at the beginning of the Preface of a Festschrift dedicated to him and which can be downloaded here), who passed away a few hours ago, on the 7th of March 2012. May some propitious ahura help him in his after-life journey!

Further examples of the importance of the geographic contexts? (Please no hypothetical contexts, such as the dravidian, muṇḍa or african origins of the Buddha.)

I dedicated many posts to history, e.g., this one (on the purpose of studying history) and this one (on the importance of historiography).

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Descriptive articles


Descriptive articles describe data without attempting an interpretation. They may say that a certain sculpture represents a naked woman holding a sword, or they may observe that women often have a lower social status than men, or tell about the plot of a novel. In all cases, they add nothing to what a normal observer would have anyway noticed, just by looking at the same things.

One might say that these articles are useful, since one can elaborate on them. I am not totally convinced by this argument: when something intrigues me, I go back to the sources and want to look at them on my own, also because I distrust the authors of descriptive articles as holders of "implicit methodologies". These are dangerous insofar as they leak into the data and end up influencing what was supposed to be just a list of names (etc.).

Personally, I dislike all sorts of descriptive articles and try to explain to students (and sometimes younger colleagues) that they should rather state their methodology and their premisses, and then attempt an interpretation.

Some random examples (made up by me): "The women with the sword is Kālī and its depiction in a temple sponsored by the local king is significant, insofar as it shows that the royal patronage favoured Śākta cults)". Or: "From the perspective of the thesis according to which gender differences are cultural and not genetic, the subordination of women in X as for work and business is striking"; "The plot conflates Biblical elements (the refusal to listen to God's command, temptation as coming from an external ennemy) with elements of local mythology (flying tigers and pawns) as part of the author's attempt to encapsulate the local history of his country within the general history of salvation".

What about you? What do you like and dislike reading?

On titles of articles on Sanskrit, see this post; on disciplines and their axiology, see this one and this one.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Belief, knowledge and faith in classical India

Do classical Indian thinkers distinguish between faith and knowledge? Is there a precinct for knowledge only and one for faith? Or are religious notions just like any other notions, and hence liable to be true or false?
The question has been raised by a comment of Aśvamitra to this post, where he upholds the view that "Hindus" do not distinguish between these two approaches and rather believe in the Mahābhārata war, in the earthly life of Kṛṣṇa, in Hanuman's army, etc., in the same way in which they believe in the existence of Napoleon, in the World War 2, in C. Julius Caesar's campaigns against the Germans, etc. (the inverted commas and all examples are mine). The opposite (i.e., the distinction between knowledge and faith) depends on a Christian approach (Tertullian's Credo quia absurdum) and is alien to the Indian thought.

I tend not to agree, but I must admit that the "Hindus" and Christians I know are chiefly Indian and Christian philosophers and might, therefore, not represent the majority of believers.
For instance, Mīmāṃsā authors seem to be quite clear about the fact that the Veda only applies where sense-perception cannot apply. In other words, the Veda cannot say anything regarding whatever is knowable. By contrast, the Veda is an absolute authority in the precinct of what ought to be done, since in that regard nothing can be known through the human instruments of knowledge, which are all ultimately based on sense-perception.

Buddhist Theravādin authors also seem to stress the importance of śraddhā (see Giustarini 2005, AION) as an element of one's religious path. And so do Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, who discuss śraddhā.

What do readers think about this topic? I would be glad to read other opinions. Hindu readers are especially welcomed!
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