Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jainism and nature

Paul Dundas wrote an illuminating essay (The Limits of a Jain Environmental Ethic, in Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life, ed. by Christopher Key Chapple, Cambridge Mass. 2002) warning about the risk to overestimate the 'ecological' commitment of Jainism and inspiring the following considerations of mine:
1. True, Jainists endorse ahiṃsā and include plants among living beings, but they do not share our contemporary concern for 'nature' as a whole. They focus on suffering individuals, and would not share our care for protecting a natural environment even at the expenses of some individuals living in it (for instance, we might decide to kill all wild dogs in the area of Canberra in order to preserve the Australian original habitat).
2. Nature (and even the sum of the individuals inhabiting it) is not something to be preserved in itself. One should strive for ahiṃsā in order not to accumulate new karman, not (only) for the sake of plants and microscopic organisms.
3. Points 1-2 entail no ethic evaluation. Ecology is part of the contemporary world view but the fact that we feel immediately close to it does not necessarily entail that it is the 'right' way to look at nature. In fact, the last century has –notwithstanding ecology– destroyed the natural world much more than the preceding eras.
(In the photograph: Jains avoid to swallow insects and other microscopic organisms by wearing these masks)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Classifications of prescriptions: Mīmāṃsakas get organized

At first, I have been looking for a comprehensive classification of prescriptions in Mīmāṃsā and got irritated by the simultaneous presence of what seemed to me as competing classifications. Later on, I realised that these various classifications originated out of specific exegetic concerns. All of them have been included into inclusive classifications due to the Mīmāṃsaka (and Indian) inclination to classify whatever possible. These classifications differ from the ones presupposed in Dharmasūtra/Grammar, etc., as far as I understand, also because of the stress laid on the common vidhi-nature of all their elements. Then, among post-Maṇḍana authors, vidhi has been regarded as an important category in itself and in certain cases one started to classify vidhis departing from a different point of view, that is investigating the nature of vidhi itself, independent of a specific textual passage to be interpreted. In other words, pre-Maṇḍana authors identified single instances and collected them all together as vidhis. Some post-Maṇḍana (and especially later) authors, instead, could have started to aim at understanding the vidhisvarūpa ("own nature of prescription") and to see classifications as explaining it. This shift is not completed in any of the texts (even later ones) I am aware of, which all explain vidhitattva (the "essence of prescription") without mentioning the types of vidhis and insert instead classifications among exegetical topics. Maṇḍana himself seem to 'use' the classifications he was aware of, and not to understand them as pointing out the nature of vidhi (which, instead, is explained by him as the fact that the action prescribed is the instrument to achieve a desired result, iṣṭasādhanatva).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Intellectual Copyright

I have argued elsewhere about the re-use of other authors' material in Indian texts. I argued that the concept of 'intellectual copyright' has to be re-thought in ancient India (and in whatever pre-XVIII century country, as far as I know). This has massive ethical and philological implications, I believe, since to assume that knowledge obviously becomes part of a common reservoir influences one's compositional habits and worldview in general. I am not saying that classical Indian authors were not selfish or not ambitious, I am just suggesting that our concept of authorship and of 'intellectual property' may not fit with theirs.
Vandana Shiva has often expressed her worries about the sort of Indian (poor) farmers willing to buy crops from Monsanto or other companies which accept to be paid only after the harvest. Those farmers, she maintains, are not really aware of the fact that they are buying patented 'basmati rice' and that they will have to buy new corns every year (plants are hybridised). They cannot realise it –follows Shiva– because the idea of patenting a plant does not fit within their mental landscape. Interesting enough, Shiva concludes "This is known as 'biopiracy', the piracy of the knowledge and resources of the poor by the rich". Biopiracy is promoted, most notoriously, by U.S. laws and by WTO agreements that globalize Western-style "intellectual property rights" (Vandana Shiva, Tomorrow's Biodiversity, p. 132; Stolen Harvest, p. 89).
I do not share her attitude, but it is interesting to see the same argument implemented in a very different context.

Two trends in Indian arguments in favour of plants

There seems to be two different trends in Indian arguments in favour of plants.
1. On the one hand, some schools considered plants as simple living beings and, hence, respected them. For these schools, it is not uncontroversial that plants have a sort of basic awareness and that they take part to the cycle of karman. Jainism is the more consistent in arguing for the living status of plants. Early Buddhism may have included plants among living beings, but it is not clear whether only because of a general costume (and later Buddhism explicitly considers plants as just 'things'). 'Orthodox' schools of the so-called Hinduism are, again divided into two: epics and literature seem not only to argue for the sentience of plants, but to take it as self-evident, whereas philosophical schools usually deny it and interpret these passages as metaphorical.
2. On the other hand, plants are not only regarded as either insentient things or as simple living beings: in many cases we witness instances of plants being regarded as noble living beings, to be honoured and respected. This may have to do with the idea that plants are inhabited by divinities, but I sense that this is only a later, rationale, explanation of a primordial respect towards plants. Mahendra Kumar Mishra kindly made me aware of a paper of him about tribal ideas about nature, which by and large go in this direction. I am not daring to conclude that the 'Hindu' respect for plants as noble beings derives from a tribal concept of plants (nor do I believe in a 'uniform' tribal worldview, unchanged throughout centuries). I would rather propose that a 'lateral' (=non mainstream) notion of plants as noble beings has been preserved in some tribal milieus. Whatever the case, the appraisal of plants, even within those who acknowledged them as living beings, is highly differentiated.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Indological blogs

There seem to be two sorts of scholars' blogs relating to India:
–blogs about texts, textual problems, problems with softwares for textual criticisms and the like
–blogs about specific problems (focusing on a certain aspect of Indian culture).
Besides, there are blogs I cannot read (such as Kei Kataoka's japanese one) and, hence, evaluate. Just some posts, helas, are dedicated to India's philosophical thought as represented in its texts. There is, I mean, no Manyul Im of Indian philosophy. Why? I, for one, would be an assiduous reader of such a blog! And I guess that it would also enhance the feeling of scholars of Indian philosophy to belong to a group and to share –more or less– a/some mission(s) (understanding Indian philosophical ideas/making Indian philosophy part of the philosophical scene/…).

Desires and needs

I have been working a lot, recently, on the concept of desire (a paper of mine in Italian can be found here). Then, a student made me aware of the fact that, apparently, Indian philosophers do not distinguish between needs and desires. Does this only depend on the fact that –being mainly Brahmins or monks– they did not have to worry about their basic needs? I think, rather, that it has to do with the fact that there are no 'pure' needs. Every need (first of all, the need for food) is influenced by our desires, so that, for instance, one strives for a piece of cheese or for an apple but not for a piece of meat.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Plants, stones and environment as a whole

Some fairy tales tell the stories of peasants which become kings or queens. Others tell similar stories, but for the fact that the seeming peasant is, instead, the forgotten/lost/… son/daughter of a royal family. One would think that the first case is more "revolutionary" since it proposes a real social shift. But, in fact, the second one is the real audacious case, because it leads to the conclusion that every peasant could indeed be a king (and, hence, deserves respect).
I have been reminded of this instance while considering the case of plants and their status within Indian culture (see also my previous posts on this subject). Are plants to be respected because of themselves (as independent living beings)? Are they just useful resources (and, hence, to be kept green and strong because of our own advantage)? Do they, lastly, deserve our consideration because of something other than themselves? I include in this last case both the fact that plants may be inhabited by plant deities or that they may be human beings (several fairy tales –both in India and Europe– tell of human beings transformed into plants –in French and Italian there is the well known story of a girl being killed and reborn within a pomegranate). Leaving aside as less morally desirable the second alternative, the third seems less desirable than the first. But is it really so? Thinking at plants as plants may make indulge much more in minor violent acts than thinking at plants as puruṣas (personal living beings, such as Deities or humans).
(I had the pleasure to correspond about plants and Indian (mainly tribal) culture with Prof. Mahendra Kumar Mishra. He also added that not just plants, but also stones are part of the tribal, "integrated" view of life. More on this in a next post.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Women's role and desire

In a paper of mine ("Desidero Ergo Sum", RSO 2009), I argued that Mīmāṃsakas fall close from admitting women's and men's equality since they grant to women the eligibility (adhikāra) to perform rituals. The chief argument in favour of women is that they can become ritual agents because they long for the ritual's result, just like men. Hence, equality is based on the commonnes of desire. Now, Shaji George Kochuthara sent me an article of him ("Kāma without Dharma? Understanding the Ethics of pleasure in Kāmasūtra", Journal of Dharma, 34.1 (2009), 69-95) where more or less the same point is made. Women have an active role in kāma-related activities (which are not limited, explains Kochuthara, to sexual intercourses, but rather include all sort of sensual pleasures), because they are independent subject of desire. If I am not wrong, this may be the same kind of reasoning outlined in the case of the Mīmāṃsāsūtra: women are seen as independent subjects (unlike animals, for instance, or idiots) because they have desire. It is their very desire which allows them to emerge in the field of the plausible agents.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Texts and Recipients

Since at least the hermeneutic turn of textual analysis, we are aware of the importance of readers/listeners while evaluing a text. But how far has the composer of a text listeners/readers in view, while composing a text? The question is crucial, because it points to the possibility of critically reconstructing and of interpreting a text both from the point of view of its author and of that of its intended readers/listeners. The two levels would be distinct even at the author's time.
A recent study by an Italian philosopher and scholar of aesthetics, Maurizio Ferraris (Documentalità, 2009), highlights the recording aim of writing/composing a text (the ambiguity is necessary while talking about Indian culture, which has often been suspicious about writing). One composes, maintains Ferraris, in order to record facts, in order to make out of random episodes a "social thing". Hence, record is prior to communication. One is lead to remember Robinson Crusoe's calendar, even in his solitary island. But is the priority of record logically admissible? Or does not it presuppose the possibility of a (future) reader/listener for whom the record is meant? Does not the very idea of texts and documents as reification of social life into "social objects" entail a community within which one communicates?

Monday, November 9, 2009

How many typos should we include in a critical edition?

1. Of course, it is not always difficult to understand whether a varia lectio is a typo or whether it has a certain significance. A seeming typo could be only what is left of an older varia lectio.
2. mantrabhāva is certainly a significant variant of mantrabhāga, so why should not also a similar shift of a single phoneme be recorded in all cases?
3. In case of a particularly significant manuscript, even typos may be helpful in throwing light on its background. One could learn, e.g., which kind of typos were more current among scribes coming out of a less known scribal tradition.
4. Moreover, as suggested to me by Péter-Dániel Szántó, one could choose to record all variants so that a future reader of the manuscript(s) we have been using may use our critical edition in order to learn the manuscript(s)' script.
i) In cases such as the ones hinted at in 3), the faithful reproduction of the entire manuscript may be the most suitable solution. So, one could produce a diplomatic edition of the manuscript and then avoid including typos in the critical one.
ii) A too heavy critical apparatus makes the text less readable and is, hence, a non-sense in case of previously unedited texts.
iii) Too many typos in the apparatus make the significant variants loose their significance. They are, so to say, overwhelmed by typos.
iv) Cladistic tools are not reliable in producing a stemma codicum if they have to take into account hundreds of typos (which should play hardly a role in determining a stemma).

More in general, the point is: what does one aim at, through one's critical edition?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The scope of direct perception

Notwithstanding what we would prima facie say, our concept of 'perception' is culturally determined. The philosopher/psychologist Eric Schwitgebel notes that in a certain way we could say that we "see" the window while looking at a tree outside it, even if the window can only be seen because we know about trees and about windows and we know that a tree without a window before it would appear differently. In India, Buddhist philosophers admitted within the range of perception (pratyakṣa) things a realist would have never admitted as perceptible, such as the four noble truths (to be seen through intellectual, yogic, perception). Mīmāṃsakas seem to be the most restrictive as regards the definition of perception. To them, only sense perception is perception. No intellectual perception is admitted, memory of a perceived thing is no (longer) perception and there is no perception of not commonly perceivable items. For instance, they deny perceptibility to samavāya (inherence), against Naiyāyikas. Similarly, they deny the possibility of perceiving objects which are not directly in contact with one's sense faculties (again, against Naiyāyikas which maintain that a distant object [such as silver] can be perceived through a special contact in order to explain perceptual error [such as mistaking mother-of-pearl for silver]). On the other hand, however, Mīmāṃsakas deem determined cognitions to be perceptible, against Buddhists. In general, the object of direct perception is, for Mīmāṃsakas, very similar to the one of naive realism: a "thing" recognised as such (i.e. categorised, verbally determined), not its qualitative elements (a particular shade of colour, a kind of softness, etc., as with Buddhists).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Plants and Deities

A well-spread belief in Indian cultures acknowledges the presence of deities in trees and plants in general. Those deities are usually closely linked with the tree they inhabit, but may be begged to leave and choose another one in case one wants to feel the tree or in similar instances. So, one would think that they are ultimately distinguished from the tree. Still, in some cases a person who has damaged a tree is blamed by the tree-deity as having cut an arm of the deity's son. In a Jataka, a she-deity inhabiting a tree has her son injured by a monk who wants to fell the tree. But I wonder whether this is the original meaning of the motive of the injure to the deity's child. Perhaps, in all instances where no distinct child is presented, one could suppose that the deity refers to the plant itself as his/her child. I do not know of similar beliefs in other cultures, nor did I find an explicit statement of that in Indian texts, so this theory would presuppose an ancient belief which has only survived in stock sentences in the text which have actually been preserved to us.
The presence of a deity inhabiting a plant seems to shift the requirement of non-violence from the plant itself to the living being inhabiting it, so that it seems that life is not typical of plants, but rather bestowen on them through their inhabiting deities. Something similar might have been the case of (some) Jaina thinkers who justify the necessity of non-violence towards water and earth as motivated by the many (invisible) living beings inhabiting them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In quest of a human truth

In his appealing blog, Amod Lele has recently argued that we can apply the concept of truth as correspondence with an external state of affairs in all fields ( even in regard to human states, for instance). The blog is wonderfully written and it does not deserve criticisms coming from a different point of view, so I will just use it as a departure point for an epistemological excursus on this matter. In fact, I am convinced that the truth-as-correspondence does NOT work in all cases. In many cases, on the other hand, the truth of a certain state of affairs is closely linked with its subject and cannot be judged independently of her. By that I do not mean that truth is 'subjective', i.e. whimsical. I just mean that it is subjective because it is essentially linked with the subject. A neuroscientist could calculate the number of neurones involved in a painful sensation and the frequency of signals they transmit. But this has no necessary connection with the quality of the pain the subject is experiencing, which could depend from many other, subjective, factors (such as the presence of what the Buddha labelled a "second arrow"). So, 'pain' is a real state of affairs and it is subject-dependent. No scientist could convince me that the pain I am experiencing is unbearable if I can bear it (and vice versa, different people react very differently to what seems to be the same neuronal stimulus).
A similar case may be the experience of God. Taken for granted that God's non-existence could be demonstrated, this would not invalidate the subjective experience of His presence of people like St. Teresa of Avila. (A different way out would be to argue that all these people were liars -but this seems to me deeply implausible. The alternative view that they were deceiving themselves does not alter the point: they were anyway 'perceiving' God's presence.)
Hence, we need a concept of truth beyond that of correspondence with external state of affairs. I suspect that the truth-as-correspondence is applied to human fields because of a sort of inferiority complex of human studies in regard to natural sciences. So, scholars of the human psyche strive to become natural scientists dealing with an objective entity, the brain, and the like.
Licenza Creative Commons
Quest' opera è distribuita con licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 2.5 Italia.