Wednesday, October 28, 2009


In classical Indian literature and philosophy, most texts have an author. Indologists and Sanskritists have been challenging these attributions almost since the beginning of Indology. Thus, we have learnt that Vyāsa, Patañjali, Gautama, the Buddha, etc. are not the authors of the texts attributed to them, which are, instead, often the result of centuries of re-elaborations.
In the last ten years, however, the trends is inverting. Alf Hiltebeitel's Rethinking the Mahabharata, Federico Squarcini's (and Daniele Cuneo's) interpretation of Manu and Ronald Davidson's attributions of Tibetan texts in his recent Tibetan Renaissance are all instances of how the issue of authorship has gained increasing importance in South Asian studies. All these scholars have detected authorial traits in texts which had been thought to be almost authorless by the preceding generation. They have (convincingly) argued that Indian texts are part of a network of authors, that they react against previous texts and directly influence succeeding ones, that Indian authors have a clear agenda. Somehow, these scholars are turning back, though in a theory-loaded way, to the Indian traditional approach to texts as authored.
One might imagine a counter-trend agains the overstress on authoriality to emerge in some 50 years. So, one is left with the problem of using trends without clinging at them.


VS said...

Hi! This is again an area of expertise. My view is that we should figure out if we interested in the message or the messenger? I guess Indians did not have the copyright or patent concept, thus authorship has not been a big issue for them.

elisa freschi said...

Well written, VS. You are right and your point deserves a full post as answear.

Amod said...

Richard Gombrich once put it well: the debates over authorship in India reminded him of the saying that "Shakespeare's plays were not written by Shakespeare but by another person of that name." In other words, how much does it actually matter? We can define Vyāsa as "the author of the Yoga Bhāṣya." If historical research reveals that the Yoga Bhāṣya was actually written by a guy named Gajawala, then by "Vyāsa" we can simply mean "Yogawala."

The debates over authorship start to get interesting if you can actually identify different strata in the text and start to look for separate coherent viewpoints within each of the strata. Otherwise I think it's still worth looking for a coherent authorial view in the text as a whole. Without that, it's hard to get a whole lot from the text qua text - it's left as a piece of fragments signifying nothing.

elisa freschi said...

I can't locate this passage of Gombrich (btw: where is it?), so I will not comment directly on it. You/he are/is right: to us nowadays it does not matter whether Shakespeare or, say, his secretary wrote his plays. But it does matter to know whether there was a single author of the Mahābhārata or not (in the first case, we can try to detect a single purpose of the work; in the second, we would rather look for textual strata –although both aspects are present in both cases). And it does matter whether a text presents itself as the work of a single author.

When I wrote the post, I was driven by the surprising truth that (notwithstanding the fact that most Indian philosophical texts are commentaries of older ones and seem part of a personality-less tradition) most Indian texts do state to have an author (no matter whether fictional). This means that authoriality plays a role in Indian philosophical self-appreciation.
Re. your last sentence: a single author does not prove that the text is a coherent system, nor does his absence prove the opposite (think at folklore tales). So, I see your point, but I would not agree about the fact that, without an author, one is left with "a piece of fragments signifying nothing".

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