Thursday, August 13, 2009

Theory and Praxis

Did Mīmāṃsā thinkers execute rituals? Daya Krishna maintained –in his usual provocative way– that their reflections had no effect at all on yajñikas (ritual officiants). Asko Parpola has (convincingly, in my opinion) shown how their respective milieus were, at least at the beginning, quite close (Parpola 1981). What happened them? I have often the feeling that ritual was taken seriously by Mīmāṃsā authors, but as a subject of study rather then of praxis. In Rāmānujācārya's Tantrarahasya and even more so in Śabarabhāṣya and Tantravārttika, several examples of ritual details (at times even minutiae) are discussed. Could they have been learnt only as case-studies? The question reflects that of the examples found in Pāṇinīyas' grammatical works. Did they repeat previous examples or did they forge them out of their contact with active speakers?
Frederick M. Smith in his wonderful The Vedic Sacrifice in Transition (1987) suggests that the contiguity between sacrifice and Mīmāṃsā has continued until the present day.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How is life possible if there is no end?

All religions have to face the epistemic problem of the afterlife. I call it an epistemic problem because it goes beyond our cognitive faculties to imagine something which is no more conditioned by the categories we are inevitably bound to. It is, in other words, not an accident that we think within a fixed space and time and to imagine a "place" or a "dimension" (please notice that it is difficult even to call it) where this would not be the case is hardly possible.
In a wonderful book, Tous les hommes sont mortels, Simone de Beauvoir explains in the form of a novel that an endless life is no blessing since it is only due to its being limited that we can enjoy what life brings to us. We feel happy of our achievements because we succeeded in achieving them notwithstanding the limitation of our life-span. If one were immortal, there would be no merit in having learnt, say, 30 different languages or having climbed all the over 8000m mountains of the Himālaya. Still, this is exactly what happens to be the case in the afterlife (I am meaning by that what comes after all lifes, that is, mokṣa, heaven, paradise, nirvāṇa, …). All religions, from this point of view, run the risk to propose as an ideal either just the cessation of this-worldly unhappiness or a sort of (imprecise) bliss. One could face them with the reproach one usually employs against the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika mokṣa, that is, that no one would sincerely strive for it (if not faute de mieux, because the present state is so full of suffering).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Attention and guilt

Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośabhāṣya characterises Buddhist ethics as strongly intentional. It does not matter what you do, it is the intention beyond the act which is the action (and, hence, causes further results). If one offers alms because one wants to be thanked, one will not get any moral reward for it. This shift of perspective might be historically explained as due to the desire to differentiate the Buddhist ethics from the Jaina (and from some common-stream Indian) one. Still, there are mighty difficulties implied in it. I will hint at them in the next posts, but let me now mention a possible problem and its solution, as found in the chapter dedicated to action.

One is not accusable of adultery, it is said, if one unwillingly touches someone's else wife. Of course, one were accusable, if one had decided to touch her, however (seemingly) incidentally. But to touch one unwillingly could be thought of as a lack of attention (smṛti). Why is this not censured? Maybe because it is a symptom of the fact that one is still not a Bodhisattva, but it is not in itself an action. Of the action, it lacks the intentional character. It has not been planned, willed. Hence, it bears no fruit. Similarly, Janet Gyatso discusses the case of pollutions in dreams within monastic code (Vinaya). Even in this case, the offence is only a minor one because (if my interpretation is correct) the dream shows that one's mind is still polluted but is not the result of an act of one's willpower.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Quotations and originality

Apart from the points already mentioned in my three previous posts, quotations may be also a useful device to understand an author's compositional habit and his/her "originality". This concept is in bad need of a definition within Indian standards. In fact, Indian authors may rather be flawed because of plagiarism and are all by and large non-original. Westerners look in vain for treatises about a certain theme and find instead commentaries and commentaries on commentaries, or at most half-commentaries (such as Jayanta Bhaṭṭa's
Nyāyamañjarī, which comments only on a selection of Nyāyasūtras).
But, looking at the way one builds texts through quotations and departing from quotations, one eventually understands that an Indian author's skill (and "originality") can be found indeed in his apt arrangement of them. I argued that this is the case of Rāmānujācārya's Tantrarahasya, which is sometimes slightly more than a patchwork of former quotations. Still, Rāmānujācārya manages to collect quotations on the same theme from different works, to put them face to face and to make them, in some selected cases, crash. Similarly, Himal Trikha's PhD dissertation on the jaina Vidyānandin notes how the argumentative steps and the quotations constitute different segments of the text (p.129). That is, Vidyānandin may use several quotation (including loose and unmarked ones) but his structure of the text is independent of them. They are –in Trikha's terminology– Bausteine of his text. This is also proved by the fact that arguments are not quoted en bloc, but rather piecemeal (p.137). 
On originality in Indian literature and philosophy, see also In praise of repetition, IIAS Newsletter 2008.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Objections embedded in the text

One of the problems in recognising a marked quotation is that it might be marked just by an iti. However, iti can also indicate just the end of an objection, even a longer one. So, the more general question arises: Do we have to consider objectors in Indian philosophical texts to be historical figures or not? Have their thoughts been reproduced from other texts or rather invented by the author of the text one is examining? The two questions are not mutually exclusive insofar as we know of objectors which were (no longer?) historical figures, but whose views have been reproduced from text to text (on this theme, see also my previous post on the subject of the "heretic" in Tibetan literature), such as many Lokāyatas.

Conforming to my intention to read more (see), I tried to find out what has been written on these themes. I will add my next discoveries here. For the time being, I can only mention Emery R. Boose's chapters on iti and on references in Gary A. Tubb, Emery R. Boose, Scholastic Sanskrit, Treasury of the Indic Sciences Series, AIBS, New York 2007. The book is great in concept, but it is still very basic in its indications (at least in this case).

Marks of a quotation

More precisely, it would be interesting to understand,
–whether there is at all the feeling of the need of literal quotations.
–whether literal quotations are explicitly marked (at least as a rule) by, e.g., iti vacanāt or similar expressions.
–whether non-literal quotations are marked (at least more often than not) by, e.g., iti manyate or similar expressions.
–whether literal quotations are more often than non-literal ones marked as such (at least by iti) and, if so, if their source is also mentioned.
–which kinds of texts are literally quoted (sacred texts? texts by revered teachers? adversaries' ones? texts the readership is expected to know and would hence be disturbed to find changed? texts the readership is not expected to know and hence needs to be acquainted with?)?
–are iti śruti, iti smṛti, iti prasiddha, iti dṛṣṭa, iti āmnāta and similar indications reliable?

The more technical side of these questions (that is, frequency and number of quotations and their marks) would be better answered through a certain amount of case-studies in as far as possible different fields of Indian philosophy. In fact, I suspect that traditions more closely linked to writing might have developed different habits from ones still 'suspicious' about the written form of a text. This pre-judice is however in need of confirmation.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Proposals for the study of quotations in Indian philosophical texts

Why do we need at all a study of quotation?
–In order to better evaluate texts and their history.
–In order to better evaluate the relation of Indian authors to other authors (do they feel like quoting revered teachers? or do they rather name only adversaries?…).
–In order to better edit texts.
–In order to better understand Indian habits of reading and writing/composing texts (did they quote literally even longer passages? or did they quote ad sensum? did they have a small library of texts behind their desk?).

What do we want to study?
–Forms of quotation.
–Marks of quotation.
–Frequence of unmarked quotations and their reason.
–Use of quotations.

For a historical background:
–When did plagiarism become an offence in European intellectual history?
–Did Middle Age authors mark quotations? And when? Which textual quotations were unmarked?

Examples worth considering:
–Madhva's use of (possibly non-existing) texts to confirm his most innovative views.
–Manu's use of "iti smṛtam" exactly in order to confirm his own views.

Maṇḍana's definition of action

In his Bhāvanāviveka, Maṇḍana reproduces the view of an objector who maintains that karman is not a separate category but just an unnecessary postulation. All that we can see is conjunctions and disjunction (which are qualities) and there is no necessity to postulate anything else beyond that. Maṇḍana criticises this view and then presents his theory of bhāvanā. Due to this sequence, it is easy to argue that he considers bhāvanā as an alternative explanation of movement.
He repeats Kumārila's definition of bhāvanā as the “interruption of a previous state of rest (audāsīnya)”, and interpreted this “rest” rather loosely, in both physical and psychical sense. Accordingly, he further defins the bhāvanā as consisting in effort (prayatna) and movement (parispanda). In this way, mental activities can also be labelled by him bhāvanā). Finally, Maṇḍana explicitly acknowledges the differences between his position and the Vaiśeṣika one:
For us, it is not so that movement alone is the only action (kriyā), as it is [instead] for Kaṇāda (the author of the Vaiśeṣikasūtra, the foundational text of the Vaiśeṣika school).
Due to this double criterion, Maṇḍana's definition of action (bhāvanā) can apply to both movement and effort without recurring to metaphorical usages. It can hence easily explain cases such as "the chariot goes", where no effort is seen.
As for the objector's claim, one could integrate Maṇḍana's exposure by making explicit that conjunctions and disjunctions inhering in a thing as their qualities are instead just the movement's result.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Refraining from action?

A colleague asked me to confirm the following: "Indian philosophies didn't say much about action explanation because on most of the views actions were something that we should aim to CEASE to perform". Apart from the explanation part, I wonder whether this is not an "orientalistic" oversimplification. Many of us are used to Advaita-Vedānta depictions of saints detached from bodily affairs, including actions. Conflated to that is also the Buddhist refusal of a self who performs the action (cf. the Zen saying "the arrow shoots itself"). This is certainly true, but it does not lead to the consequence that the illuminated one ceases to perform actions (since this would be impossible). Rather, he ceases to identify himself in the actions performed. In fact, the illuminated one knows that there is no agent or patient beyond the action. As for mainstream Hinduism, the idea that worldly business (or actions tout court) have to be abandoned is not as popular as many Westerners think. The Bhagavadgītā, which is possibly the most read and revered book in India, explicitly refutes the "path of non action". Every action, it says, is surrounded by error, just like fire is surrounded by smoke. Nonetheless, the solution is not not to act. Rather, one should act without interest. One should act regarding the action in itself and not its results. One should, e.g., act rightly independent of the possible negative or positive consequences for oneself. If one acts in this way, even if one eventually gains something out of the action, one is not (karmically) bound by it since the result was just the action's consequence and not its only motive. No wonder, some Vaiṣṇava thinkers liked Prabhākara's idea of obeying a prescription for its own sake.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

History of classifications of prescriptions within Mīmāṃsā

It is difficult to settle when did the various classifications of prescriptions originate, since hints at them are present in the first texts of Mīmāṃsā literature, although their systematic arrangement occurs only much later. Better, in Mīmāṃsāsūtra and Śābarabhāṣya the prescriptions seem to be presupposed. Śabara mentions for instance the utpattividhi as if it were a self-evident hermeneutic device. So, one would expect them to be part of the Vedic or late Vedic repertoire, including the Śrautasūtras, or of the terminology of the paddhatis (ritual manuals). Instead, through Vedic dictionaries and concordances I could not find but vague references at viniyoga and prayoga. References at adhikāra entail only its meaning of “subject to be dealt with” and utpatti lacks altogether, just like niyama and parisāṁkhyā (and none of these terms is found in compounds with -vidhi). Same with the paddhatis I am aware of, and with the late yajñika work edited in Frederick Smith's The Vedic Sacrifice in Transition. My working hypothesis at the moment is that these terms were common in the Mīmāṃsā (not yajñika) prehistory. They have been implemented by Mīmāṃsā authors for centuries, before they felt the need to systematically deal with them. At that point, one had several classifications born out of different contexts and due to different exegetic needs. Some authors , like in the Mīmāṃsābālaprakāśa, just listed them all, others tried to make sense of them. Some lists hardly ever left the context where they had been devised. For instance, the apūrva-, niyama-, parisāṅkhyāvidhi classification is usually discussed within a narrower context (meaning of mantras, explanation of a particular passage).

Monday, August 3, 2009

Philosophy: Consistency and Truth

In an intriguing book, Buddhism as Philosophy (a generous preview of which is available here), Mark Siderits argues that one should test the tenets of Buddhism, such as the theory of karman, if one wants to undertake a philosophical investigation of it:

Instead we might simply explore how this belief affected other aspects of Buddhism: their ethical teachings, for instance, or their artistic representations. There is a great deal we can learn by studying Buddhism and other religions in this way. By simply setting aside the question whether the teachings are true or false, and focusing on how different elements of the tradition might be related to one another, we can learn to see the inner logic of the system, how it hangs together as a system. This can help us see things we might otherwise miss. But it cannot tell us whether its teachings are reasonable. (p.10)

However, to "see the inner logic of a system" may be an important test for it and I can't understand why Siderits does not mention it. "External" tests run the risk to be just "internal" to a different system (for instance, contemporary common-knowledge of physics and biology). Moreover, by looking "externally" to a system, one tends to test just what looks odd to one's own background (such as the theory of karman). Instead, one accepts as obvious the fact that perception is a reliable means of knowledge. Looking at a system from within may instead make one aware of its inner contradictions or, more generally, of what is really constitutive for the system and, hence, test-worthy.
Siderits seem to presuppose a non-ambiguous concept of truth against which every teaching can be tested:

[I]n studying philosophy we are interested in finding out what the truth is. (We may not always find it, but that's our aim.) (p.10)

I do not want to argue here that truth is subjective-dependent etc. Rather, I just wonder whether consistency can be a safer compass in judging a system different from one's own.

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