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Monday, March 25, 2013

Raffaele Torella on Nature in India and the West

"Nature" is conceptualised in different ways in different parts of the world and the Western concept of nature has been deeply influenced by Giordano Bruno's philosophy of nature, Descartes' dualism, Schegel's holism, the Romanticism and so on.
Such interesting implications have been highlighted by Raffaele Torella during his introduction to the conference on The Human Person and Nature in Classical and Modern India. Torella also noted that the term prakṛti, which is assumed as the standard translation of "nature" is altogether absent in the Vedic Saṃhitās and Brāhmaṇas and in the Vedāṅgas or in Grammar [and, I would add, in Mīmāṃsā and in ritual literature] it is found with a quite different technical meaning. It has, thus, no cosmological implication and no association with materiality. A form which is described as prakṛti is foundational in a structural, but not material sense.

Within Sāṃkhya, prakṛti is a feminine term, but there is no clear assertion that it is feminine in the Sāṃkhyakārikā, apart from its comparison to a nartakī 'dancer' [Attention: in a contribution to the same conference, Bruno Lo Turco has, by contrast, maintained, that the equation prakṛti-feminine and puruṣa-masculine is evident in the Sāṅkhyakārikās, due to the gender of the two terms and to the fact that puruṣa does originary mean 'male'). The polarization of feminine-masculine is, instead, found in tantrism, with the feminine as the source of the world.

Furthermore, in both Classical India and the Classical West, one encounters both a natura naturans and a natura naturata. The first one conceals itself behind the phenomena. The Sāṅkhya prakṛti, due to its subtlety is not accessible to perception, just like Heraclitus says that physis "loves to hide" (kryptesthai philei).

Do you have further elements on nature as feminine before tantrism?

For the program of the conference, see here. For my contribution to the conference, see here.



Thanks for this excellent post, Elisa.

I think, in the early Vedic corpus, pṛthivī, along with its synonyms, plays the role of [gross] nature. Consider, for example, the Pṛthivī Sūkta of Atharvaveda. There, pṛthivī is feminine not merely on account of grammatical gender. But in the same hymn, she is variously described as [according to Maurice Bloomfield’s translation]: ‘Lady of the earth’s four regions’, ‘nurse’, ‘mother’, etc. We also find in it the famous proclamation: mātā bhūmiḥ, putro’haṃ pṛthivyāḥ - Earth is the mother, I am the son of Earth. Here bhūmiḥ is a synonym of pṛthivī. Throughout the Pṛthivī Sūkta, the pṛthivī is portrayed as gross nature, and her feminine character apparent. Another proof for the feminine character of pṛthivī comes from Ṛgveda 1/89/4, where she is found pairing with dyaus and they are respectively described as mother and father. There are several synonyms of Pṛthivī in the Vedas such as viśvaṃbharā, vasudhā, etc. – one basic meaning more or less underlies them, viz. ‘source’. Now I think [i.e. I guess] these were consolidated and harmonised into the single term, prakṛti in the age of the Upaniṣads. Thus we find in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad [4/10a]: māyāṃ tu prakṛtiṃ vidvānmāyinaṃ tu maheśvaram.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks for the comment, Sudipta. I wonder whether pṛthivī in these contexts stands for natura naturans (the nature in its generative power) or for matter (which —I would tend to think— should be inert, whereas here it is interpreted as generative).

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