Monday, July 25, 2011

Philosophy and Poetry

What happens if a philosopher writes in verses? In many cases, hardly anything at all. Kumārila's Ślokavārttika (in verses) is as conceptual and dense as his Tantravārttika (mostly in prose). And the same applies, as far as I can judge, to Bhartṛhari, Dignāga, Dharmakīrti and several others.
Yet there are different cases, of authors who are able to use verses for their own sake. I think of Vedānta Deśika, who is a great poet exactly insofar as he does not use verses only as a metrical form. Rather, he expresses in poetry the paradoxical nature of God's relation to human beings, a nature which he also tries to analytically describe in his prose.
It might be that poetry is especially good for a certain kind of topics, the ones which cannot be just explained away by logic. And these constitute the bulk of what really matters to human beings, once logic and epistemology have paved the way for it.
I am particularly fascinated by the way poetry or narrative structures in general might be used to convey an additional philosophical meaning beyond the one which is analytically explainable. I think of cases such as the Buddhis Canon, the Upaniṣads, the Yogācāra Sūtras, etc. etc.
How do readers feel about such texts? Does their narrative structure act upon them, enhancing their intellectual understanding?

On Vedānta Deśika, see (among other posts) here (on Veda and Upaniṣads) here (on the epistemology of Sacred Texts), here (on dharma and direct perception), here (on sense perception), here (on pleasure and pain).


Vidya Jayaraman said...

True,it depends on whether by the term poetry we mean any work in metrical verse or a literary work.
But the first thought I had upon reading the title of this post was the genre to which works such as Vedānta Deśika's saṅkalpa sūryodaya and the prabodha candrodaya nāṭaka belong. The former in particular seems to be one of those rare works where there is literary merit and poetic value as much as a philosophical narrative. And somehow personally the awareness of the epistemology and the other works of the author seems to enhance the ruci and appreciation of this text. However I think it is a śrīvaiśnava tradition where the authors and sometimes the commentators also add their own layer of symbolism and narrative to the poetic workwith the external/internal meaning approach. If one were to read the Tamil poems of Tiruppāvai which would read like lyrical poetry externally and then read some of the commentaries there does seem to be a layer of epistemology, inner meaning, added on to them.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Vidya,
I absolutely agree with you and thanks for the additional information on Vedānta Deśika's Prabodhacandrodaya (so far, I had read only his Dehalīśastuti).
I am sorry to admit that I have no deep feeling for poetry, I tend to look for the content and forget how important the way it is conveyed might be. But I certainly see that every work of art can be read on multiple layers —in this sense works of art are even more fruitful than philosophical works, insofar as they can offer endless ground for interpretation.

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