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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Michael Williams on Philology, Tradition and Madhva

It is a pity that one can read book-discussions but only very rarely article-discussions. It is for this reason that from time to time I post my comment on articles I have been reading. This time, I will focus on "Problems and Perspectives in Interpreting the Texts of the Mādhva Tradition", by Michael Williams, in Religions of South Asia 6.2. 2011 [but in fact just released], pp. 191--205.
Williams discusses along the lines of the polemics between Roque Mesquita and Deepak Sarma (and refers also to an article by Olivelle, 1998) about the best approach to Madhva's text.

On the one hand, one might read directly Madhva, on the other, one might rely on Madhva's paramparā. In favour of the "philological" approach, Williams acknowledges the fact that Madhva wrote 37 works and that "themes are repeated, terminology is reused, arguments are elaborated" (p. 195). However, Williams writes, the
marginalization [of Jayatīrtha and the traditional commentators of Madhva] is apparent, for instance, in Mesquita (2000) and elsewhere in his studies of Madhva's texts. Under this approach, Jayatīrtha's works would still retain their value as independent philosophcail treatises of course, but as far as reconstructing Madhva's thought goes, they would be redundant (p. 197).
 I do not think that this last adjective is the right one. Rather, as explained for instance in the Introduction to the critical edition of the Śābarabhāṣya in Kataoka 2012, commentaries should be used faute de mieux, and their use should be signalled to the readers.
As for the historical reconstruction of Madhva's thought, Williams final stance is "compatibilist". But Williams hints also at the possibility of a "philosophical reconstruction", done by a
philosopher whose horizons of interest coincide with those of the Indian authors. Such a researcher seeks systematically and critically to reconstruct their arguments with an eye to rendering them intelligible and relevant to modern practitioners of philosophy. […] This approach deals primarily with arguments rather than doctrines (pp. 198--9).
In order to make such a mediation possible, Jayatīrtha's work is even more useful, Williams maintains. And, why waste one's time trying to understand the intricacies of Vyāsatīrtha "when traditional scholars already jave an excellent understanding of them and are happy to impart their learning to us" (p. 201)?

A last remark: the article is followed by a dense appendix, including nominally an "Extract from the Nyāyāmṛta [by Vyāsatīrtha] with two commentaries", but in fact also Madhusūdana Sarasvatī's Advaita Siddhi's refutation of the Nyāyāmṛta. The text (a discussion about the first definition of mithyātva) is very interesting, but it is offered to the reader without any exegetical tool and displays no connection to the preceding article. It is, for instance, not shown, how philological or traditional learning can co-operate (or supersede each other) in understanding such texts. Thus, a reader is left with the question: Why adding an appendix which cannot be understood and has little link to the text to which it is appended?

What is your balance between traditional learning and "philological" approach?

On Olivelle vs. Böhtlingk, see this post. On Kataoka's use of commentaries, see this post.


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