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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Have Indian authors believed in their god?

Until a certain moment of time, possibly around the 800 AD, Indian philosophers seem not to display very much religious feelings in their works. They might be atheists (like early Mīmāṃsakas), or generally theists (like Uddyotakara, who has a creator Īśvara in his system) or transtheist (like the Jainas in this definition, since their Jinas go beyond the "common" gods) or just not speak a lot about the issue.

The situation seems to change a lot if we look at the cultural landscape of, e.g., 13th c. India. There, most if not all philosophers seem to have been genuine believers. They adored a God and wrote about their religious experiences. Why this change?

(I know, "religious feelings" is an ambiguous definition. But please bear with me; after all we all notice the difference between Rāmānuja and Vātsyāyana.)

  1. 1. Because the etiquette in the previous period was to keep one's religious experiences private. After all, even in the subsequent period, authors often tended to distinguish their religious works and their rational-argumentative ones.
  2. 2. Because the philosophical milieu of India before 800 AD (as a conventional date) was much more secular. Religion was wide-spread on a popular niveu (as can be seen by devotional texts such as the Purāṇas, and artistic manifestations), but much less so among philosophers. 
  3. 3. Because later philosophers had to admit religion in their texts due to the influence of the increased political or social (or economical) significance of religious groups.
  4. 4. Because the "religious feelings" of earlier authors were less "personalised". Earlier authors worshipped impersonal entities, like the pursuit of epistemic validity, or dharma (either in the Vedic or in the Buddhist or Jaina sense). The difference is only in the fact that these bear no personal names etc.
  5. 5. Because the opposition between these two periods is just ill-funded. I am biased by my education, etc. Just like one can be "religious" without worhipping a god (as in most Buddhist groups), it does not make sense to speak of a religious or not-religious attitude. But, if so, how to rephrase the contrast?

Any other proposal to interpret this phenomenon?

On different concepts of deities, see also this post.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Personal favourites from the last Coffee Break Conference

The third Coffee Break Conference has been, according to many participants, the best one. Because the organisers' group is getting closer and working together is now smoother, more enjoyable and fruitful.

The following extracts are some of the passages that stroke me more. Interestingly enough, several of them come from panels dealing with development studies or with issues far away from my own ones.

M.D. quoting the following statement about Jainism: "Jainism is not 'atheist' but 'transtheist', the jinas are beyond the gods whom one prays".

A.M. noting that "Acculturative processes are multidirectional" (e.g., when a king reaches a remote tribe, it is not just the tribe that gets "sanskritized", but also the official kingship which is "contaminated" by tribal elements).

B.B. and B.D.I. noting that "Information is constructed and not collected", even while using "objective" measurements such as quantitative measurements.

What is then the solution? The same authors suggest:  "Thus, show the entire process in the research work!"

What impressed you more in the last conferences you attended? Don't go through your notes, just say what comes first to your mind.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

paribhāṣā: what does it mean?

There seem to be at lest two technical meanings of paribhāṣā, one pointing to its use as general exegetical rule and the other as metarule. The second one is most of all typical of Pāṇini's Grammar, or better of the exegesis of his grammar, since Pāṇini himself never uses this term. The first one is common in Śrautasūtra commentaries and in the exegesis of Mīmāṃsā.

Why this difference? In my opinion, because Pāṇini's grammar entails both the operational rules and the metarules organizing them, whereas the Mīmāṃsāsūtra has before it already all the operational rules, scattered in the Brāhmaṇas and thus, its rules are bound to be general rules and not metarules.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What not to do if you are speaking at a conference

If your purpose is to communicate (and not to show off), beware of these errors:

1. Do not overfill your speech with information. Remember that LESS IS MORE: the less information you convey, the more chances you will have to be able to convey them effectively.

2. The time allotted to your speech will be anyway too short to achieve more than one purpose. Thus, focus on what is really important.

3. Don't worry: Everyone knows you know a lot about your subject. In fact, everyone knows a lot about at least one subject. Thus, don't striggle to convey the impression that you could say much more than what you are actually saying. Focus on communicating instead.

4. Speeches are different than articles. Do not convey informations such as page numbers, editions, number of the sūtra, etc. No one will be able to take a note and if someone is interested, she will ask you at the end.

5. Don't read. It really makes a difference. It is hard t be boring and to indulge in the above mentioned mistakes once you are not reading.

6. Last, you might discover that questions and discussion are more fun than you might have thought. Be sure that you leave some space for that. It is often the more lively part of a speech and thus the one one remembers better.

I am surely forgetting something important (i.e.: I might not notice some of my most typical mistakes). Which habits of speakers do you dislike in particular?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Again against implicit methodologies

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices from the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back (Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, London 1936, pp. 383-4).

There is no escape from this situation: one cannot speak without concepts, and one cannot test the validity of every concept before using it. But a certain awareness of the history of the subject can help to indicate what comes from where what easy assumption is based on what past theory and is only as valid as that theory (Parker, On Greek Religion, 2011, p. ix).

I could not be clearer about the importance of making one's methodology explicit and on studying history and historiography.

More on this subject at this post (on implicit paradigms), this one (on descriptions being never neutral), this one (again on implicit methodologies, inspired by the 2nd CBC).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The 2012 Coffee Break Conference

The Study of Asia – between Antiquity and Modernity

Program of the Third Coffee Break Conference

University of Cagliari, 13–16 June 2012
Aula verde – Cittadella dei Musei

13 June, Wednesday
Opening of the Third Coffee Break Conference
• 08.30–09.00 Greetings
Kings of the Wild: Hints of Unorthodox Sovereignty in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern India
• 09.00–09.20 D. Cinellu Chairman’s Introduction
• 09.20–10.10 Danila Cinellu Kingship and “contra-kings”. Searching for some harmony in the Frazer-Hocartian debate
• 10.10–11.00 Moreno Dore The Vrātyakaṇḍa: a kind of Jaina asceticism in a Vedic garb?
• 11.00–11.20 Coffee Break
• 11.20–12.10 Elena Mucciarelli Goddesses and Fertility in the Vedic Period: looking for stratifications
• 12.10–13.00 Cristina Bignami Viṣṇuvardhana, the royal propaganda and the Goddess
• 13.00–14.00 Lunch Break
• 14.00–14.50 Ewa Dębicka-Borek Can the worship of Narasiṃha-mantra serve as a converting ceremony?
• 14.00–14.50 Arik Moran Pahari bhakti: towards a history of devotional Vaishnavism in the West Himalayas

An Indian old man advised a Western researcher: ask while you are walking. Discussion on Development Studies Methodologies• 15.40–16.00 B. Benedetti · P. Cagna Chairman’s Introduction
• 16.00–16.20 Coffee Break
• 16.20–17.10 Barbara Benedetti · Barbara D’Ippolito Conversation between boundaries: self-critical
reflections on field work
• 17.10–18.00 Valentina Prosperi Asking and Observing along the Way, Researching Migrant Informal Construction Workers in India

14 June, Thursday
Cybernetic Sources: The Historical Sciences in the Age of Digitization• 08.30–08.50 Mark Schneider Instead of an introduction: Some remarks on digitization with East-Asian writing
• 08.50–09.40 Camillo A. Formigatti TEIandcatalogingSanskritmanuscripts
• 09.40–10.45 Vanja Štefanec Natural language processing in philological research
• 10.45–11.05 Coffee Break – Presentation of the CAESAR project by Vanja Štefanec

Anthropological interpretations: spaces and characters in the current Asian context
• 11.05–11.25 G. Tabacco Chairman’s Introduction
• 11.25–12.15 Gabriele de Seta The Noise Connection: Experimental Music in China as a Networked Subculture
• 12.15–13.05 Sehat Ihsan Shadiqin Adat in Gayonese Discourse and Practice: The Development of Ethnic Identity in Indonesia
• 13.05–13.55 Giacomo Tabacco Speaking of Success: Overwork, Malaises and Dreams among a Group of Javanese Factory Laborers
• 13.55–14.55 Lunch Break

Contemporary Issues in South Asian Religions
• 14.55–15.15 S. Bindi Chairman’s Introduction
• 15.15–16.05 Daniela Bevilacqua Do not ask about caste. If you love God, you belong to God
• 16.05–16.55 Serena Bindi “Nowadays Gods do not always help us”. Belief, skepticism and explanations for ritual’s failures in Garhwal
• 16.55–17.15 Coffee Break
• 17.15–18.05 Massimo Bon Pakistan, Secularism and Religion: a Semantic Dilemma

15 June, Friday
Translation Techniques in the Asiatic Cultures• 09.00–09.30 A. Keidan Chairman’s Introduction
• 09.30–10.20 Fanny Meunier Study of the different Tocharian versions of the Sanskrit Udānavarga: translation vs. adaptation?
• 10.20–11.10 Chiara Barbati Christian Middle Iranian Translations within the Syriac Tradition
• 11.10–11.40 Coffee Break
• 11.40–12.30 Daniele Cuneo Translation and/or/as Adaptation? The Tamil “version” of Daṇḍin’s Kāvyalakṣaṇa
• 12.30–13.20 Samira Nikooeeyan An Analysis of the Translation of Metaphors in Shakespeare’s Translated Sonnets

On the rationale of a coffee break conference, see this post. For some comments after the second CBC, see this post. This one is a post discussing ideas for future Coffee Break Conferences (ideas, speakers and organisers are any time welcome!). For further information on the Coffee Break Conferences, see here.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Differences between metarules in Grammar, Śrautasūtras and Mīmāṃsā

The following table summarises the main distinction between metarules in Śrautasūtras, Mīmāṃsā and Grammar:

With "close system'' I mean the fact that the paribhāṣās found in the Śrautasūtras are only meant to throw light on further parts of the same text. This is not the case of Mīmāṃsā. As for Grammar, its paribhāṣās seem to be meant for the Grammatical system only (it is only in the Aṣṭādhyāyī that the locative is used to indicate the preceding item), but the way Patañjali justifies some of them, linking them to worldly usages suggests that some of them have a general validity. A further distinction lies in the precise meaning of paribhāṣā as meta-rule in Grammar. As already hinted at (see this post), Mīmāṃsaka nyāyas may be not meta-rules, but just rules.

On paribhāṣās, see also this post and this one (be sure to read the interestng comments as well as the less interesting post).

Sunday, June 10, 2012

What was the intellectual background before our first śāstras?

Do the similarities in the treatment of paribhāṣās (metarules) in Śrautasūtra, Mīmāṃsā and Grammar lead to the conclusion that Grammar, Śrautasūtra and Mīmāṃsā share a common prehistory or is the one indebted to the other? Dominik Wujastyk, in the Introduction to his edition of Vyāḍi's Paribhāṣāvṛtti, implicitly suggests a common prehistory, with possibly the Mīmāṃsā preceding Grammar in the usage of paribhāṣās:
It is a moot point whether or not Pāṇini actually had some of these paribhāṣās in mind as he composed his grammar; probably he did have at least some of them in mind, whether explicitly or not. A study of the earliest \emph{mīmāṃsā} from this point of view might throw some light on this question (Wujastyk 1993, p. xii).
In his PhD thesis, Sharon Ben-Dor, quoting Vashishtha Jhā, suggests that the direction of borrowing is from Mīmāṃsā to Grammar. All these authors leave the Śrautasūtras out of the picture:

Actually, the Pūrvamīmāṃsā can be viewed as the discipline that established this method. According to Jha, this discipline is a system that deals with principles (nyāyas) of textual interpretation for texts whose authors were no longer present. He adds that these principles were used by all the Indian philosophical systems, and argues that all the systems are indebted to Pūrvamīmāṃsā because it has provided the tools to interpret a text (Jha 1992: 2). [\dots] In respect to Kātyāyana, some scholars have indicated the close relationship between the vārttikas in the Mahābhāṣya and the Mīmāṃsāsūtra of Jaimini, and it is likely that some of the interpretive principles mentioned by Kātyāyana are adopted from this discipline. […] [W]hat is evident is that already in the time of Kātyāyana, this method of referring to daily life activities for interpreting a text was an established and accepted practice among Indian scholars (Ben-Dor 2009, pp.8--9).

This last element does, in fact, incline one to think that it might have been possible for Mīmāṃsā to influence Grammar rather than the other way round. For it is Mīmāṃsakas who trust ordinary experience, whereas Pāṇini tends to build a consistent system which only refers to ordinary linguistic use and it is not clear why other ordinary usages could bear any influence on the Aṣṭādhyāyī.

On paribhāṣās, see this post, which displays also further links on a possible common prehistory.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Linguistic Communication as instrument of knowledge and the Bias in favour of Evolutionism

One of the reasons why the numerous philosophical schools and thoughts elaborated in South Asia over an impressive number of centuries can be (still) neglected in philosophical department is that they do not confirm to a couple of the presuppositions of such philosophical departments:
  1. 1. obvious as it is, they do not share the history of Western philosophy (i.e., they do not fit easily in a class on Schleiermacher's sources and fortunes),
  2. 2. they do not share the same methodology of contemporary "analytic" philosophy (although excellent authors have shown how dialogue is possible, analytic philosophers may ask themselves why should they bother discussing with someone which is just "almost as good ad" her own colleagues),
  3. 3. they do not share the "evolutionary explanation" which is now very much in fashion in Natural sciences and, consequenlty, also in philosophy.

Several scholars, especially of Buddhism, have tried to show how Buddhism is compatible with Varela's or Damasio's theories, but in many cases the result is similar to that achieved by Matilal, Ganeri, etc. in the case of analytic philosophers (described above, point 2).
Now, I am not an expert of evolutionary theories and have no direct access to neuropsychological experiments. Most of the books I read on this subject, however, seem to me flawed by a source of petitio principii: they claim that we like sweet foods, because they are full of calories, and this is good for our preservation, we like sexy girls (or boys, but most authors are men), so that we can reproduce, and so on. But by the same token one might ask why do not we like many other things which are favourable to our species' preservation (such as healthy food and unattractive but fertile women) and we like instead many others which are detrimental for it (such as self-destructive habits of any sort).
More in general, picking up one or the othe character and looking for neurological or evolutionary reasons for it seems to me very much dependent on the whims of a certain group of scientists. Perhaps Indian philosophy should be recommended exactly insofar as it contains the more elaborate debates on the validity of testimony and of human statements as instruments of knowledge? Perhaps we just miss the importance of this problem while reading books based on statistical data (biased by the kind of questions asked) or on psychiatric data (biased by the sort of answers suggested), etc., because we are just not trained to see it?

On Linguistic Communication as an instrument of knowledge, see this post (or, if you can read Italian, my entire Italian blog on this topic).

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Metarules in Śrautasūtra, Mīmāṃsā and Grammar

Pāṇini's Grammar is well-known (among other things) for its highly sophisticated complex of rules and meta-rules. However, meta-rules are present also in Śrautasūtra and in Mīmāṃsā.

The meaning of paribhāṣā is –against expectations– not fixed. As for its usage in the Śrautasūtras, Chakrabarti explains:

The term paribhāṣā was not well-defined and it appears that no definition was strictly adhered to when the sūtras were characterizes as paribhāṣā. Not only the basic interpretative clues, but also the general rules were regarded as paribhāṣā. They contain some heterogeneous topics, and some insignificant rules too crept into the paribhāṣās (Chabrabarti1980, p. vii).

As for Grammar, Dominik Wujastyk (editor of the Vyāḍīyaparibhāṣāvṛtti) argues that paribhāṣās have been introduced for solving problems of the Aṣṭādhyāyī and suggests that they might have, accordingly, a different degree of abstraction:
Rather than giving up Pāṇini's grammar as wrong in such cases, it is natural to try to improve the theory. The tradition introduces extra rules to correct the situation. These are the paribhāṣās, a term which may be translated as 'metarules', 'principles', 'theorems' or 'auxiliary hypothesis' (Wujastyk1993, p. ix).

In Mīmāṃsā, by and large, we might understand the term paribhāṣā (and even more so its quasi-equivalent in Mīmāṃsā, i.e., nyāya) in two senses: in a loose or in a technical sense.  In the looser sense, a nyāya is a general rule regarding a certain behaviour. In the stricter sense, it is a rule ruling other rules. An example of the former kind of nyāya is the Mīmāṃsaka khalekapotavan-nyāya 'the rule of the pigeons in the threshing floor'. This is only a similarity used to represent cases in which many items at once occur in the same place, just like pigeons hurrying to grasp some grains. But it does not regard rules. By contrast, rules such as 'the meanings of the words in the Mīmāṃsāsūtra are the same as in the ordinary communication' (in Śābarabhāṣya ad Mīmāṃsāsūtra 1.1.1) is a rule which applies to other rules, the ones mentioned in the MS.
Although the technical usage of nyāyas derives from the looser one, it is convenient to distinguish between the two. In order to be a meta-rule, a rule needs to refer to further rules. Since the main focus of the Mīmāṃsā is the Veda, rules regarding it directly do not need to be meta-rules. By contrast, meta-rules are rules ruling a certain exegetical rule. For instance, all rules applying to other rules of the Mīmāṃsāsūtra, or all rules applying to an exegetical rule discussed in the ritualistic thought prior to the Mīmāṃsāsūtra.

For other cases testifying a common prehistory shared by Śrautasūtras, Grammar and Mīmāṃsā authors, see this post (on tantra), this and this one (on prasaṅga, the latter discusses a metarule, i.e., "an exception counts more than the general rule").

Friday, June 1, 2012


In the last three years I was surprisingly glad to attend and participate to two of the three IIGRS conferences. The rationale behind it is to give younger researchers the chance to present their papers in a scientific environment, but the result was by far much better than that: In fact, the first and second IIGRS (International Indological Graduate Seminar) have been a big success and we all enjoyed coming together and discussing for hours before and after every paper. (I was not there at the third IIGRS, but I guess the same happened there, too. A participant even told me that the third one was the best one.)

In most cases, the too vague label "Indology" did not hinder fruitful discussions and, on the other hand, the age-group (within 5 years since the end of one's PhD) was well-cut in order to select people who are (still? :( ) desirous to exchange ideas, develop new trends of research, welcome challenges and engage in new approaches.
I wonder why is it so difficult to keep oneself open towards this kind of chances? Why do we increasingly tend to close ourselves into our own studies –only to complain about our isolation later? Whatever the answer, the IIGRS remains a unique chance to interact, challenge and be challenged.

This year, the seminar will be hosted in Edinburgh, September the 4th-5th 2012. The deadline for applying has just expired –at the end of May– but there might be some free slots left, due to Visa problems and similar cases.
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