Friday, October 28, 2011

FAQ for Indologists

Long ago, D. Wujastyk opened a FAQ section on the website

His purpose was to have a more reliable platform than wikipedia for Indological subjects, which would however still work in a cooperative manner, just like wikipedia. Since I strongly believe in cooperation and think that being selfish is just stupid (not sharing what you know will just mean that most of it will die with you), I wonder why I took so long to contribute. Today, I finally wrote a page on (surprise, surprise) Mīmāṃsā.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Prehistory of debate in India

What tradition(s) lies really at the roots of the Classical Indian Philosophy?

I recently read an article by R. Bhattacharya (AION 2007, just published!) and one by K. Preisendanz (Indian Journal of History of Science 2009) on the role of ancient Indian medicine and its place within Indian philosophy. K. Preisendanz accurately examines Vidyabhusana's view that the medical work Carakasaṃhitā is an earlier output of the same Ānvikṣikī tradition which later led to the composition of the Nyāyasūtra. She mostly focuses on the tradition of debate and offers many cogent evidences. Hence, can we safely assume that we owe Indian philosophy as it is to the Ānvīkṣikī tradition, as reflected in the Carakasaṃhitā?

Yes and no.
I have been working for years on the technical terminology of the Kalpasūtras and the way it is intertwined with the terminology of Mīmāṃsā and the one of Grammar. This work made me aware of how philosophical terms, such as prasaṅga, have a deep ritual background and can be better understood through it. Furthermore, the dialectical shape of most Indian philosophical texts has been fundamentally influenced by the succession of pūrvapakṣins and siddhānta as found in the ritual sūtras.
To sum up, the past is more complex than one might believe. There has been more than one root for what we now know as Indian philosophy and its dialectic attitude. Does not this just amount to say that the past was as complex and intertwined as the present?

On prasaṅga, see here, here and here (showing also the connection of Mīmāṃsā, Kalpasūtra and Grammar). On another example of such connections, see here (about the history of the classification of prescriptions).

Thursday, October 20, 2011

How to deal with one's predecessors

I recently read in an article by Pascale Hugon (referring to her 2008 book on Sa skya Paṇḍita) about the use of some Tibetan authors on Dharmakīrtian epistemology to divide their texts as follows: enumeration and discussion about previous authors' views (1), presentation of their own view (2), discussion of possible objections against it and reply (3). In this way, explains Hugon, if author X is re-using the text of author Y and agrees with it, he will just repeat the same scheme. If, by contrast, he is re-using the text of Z and disagrees with his final position, he will embed Z's view in (1).
This stroke me, since it reflects the structure of Rāmānujācārya's texts too. These also follow the scheme (1)-(2)-(3). And, they embed Pārthasārathi's final view at the end of (1), after having closely followed Pārthasārathi's text until that point.
Hence, I wonder whether this is only a coincidence or a (late) Indian scheme, imported into Tibet.

On Tibetan authors and the re-use of texts, see this post. On the re-use of texts in general, see this post and the ones linked to it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Indian philosophy and the quest for a beginning

The idea that the older the better is not epistemologically sound, unless one is ready to subscribe to the myth of a golden age, followed by decay. Nor can one postulate to be studying the beginning of something, I think. No matter how far we go, the history we will know will always remain the tip of the iceberg of the history of humankind.
Hence, I agree with many parts of the following statements (although not necessarily with their conclusions):

Early Western Indological studies were largely driven by the desire, typical of the Romantic Age, to learn about the 'beginnings' of things: the beginnings of religion, of philosophy, Sanskrit as one of the most ancient languages of the Indo-European family, etc. There is of course nothing wrong with such historical interests; but it is a bit odd that the classically oriented philologists rarely take an interest in the relevance of their studies for the present, and that many researchers who study contemporary culture are largely ignorant of the details of the historical roots of the culture (Robert Zydenbos, review of Mesquita's The concept of liberation while still alive in the Philosophy of Madhva, MIZ 1, pp.260-1).

This is the reason, maintains Zydenbos, why in "numerous Western universities" one finds a "very strong concentration" on

Buddhist studies or Advaita studies, which are of limited relevance for an understanding of Indian culture, if one considers that Buddhism virtually disappeared from India approximately a thousand years ago and Advaita never seems to have been popular with the masses (p.260).

This might be true, and I agree about the fact that it is a pity that scholars working on contemporary India often ignore its past. Nonetheless, personally I do not study Indian philosophy in order to better understand today's India.
And Buddhism is a sort of magnet that attracts students (and scholars), probably because it addresses them directly. Is not this also a way of being relevant?
What do you think? Why do you study what you study?

If you share my suspicions about the concept of "beginning", you might be interested in reading this post and this one (on IE reconstruction).

Friday, October 14, 2011

Shall we speak of "Oriental" philosophy?

Does it make any sense to speak of "Oriental philosophies" or even of "Oriental philosophy"?

I tend to hate the label "Oriental", since this seems to convey little information and since this little information also happens to be wrong. It conveys little information because if one hears the word "Oriental", one will only know that the topic one is dealing with occurred outside (America, Sub-Saharian Africa and) Western Europe (with the boundaries of Western Europe being themselves uncertain). It might have happened in Turkey, Egypt or Indonesia.
It conveys wrong information, because it implicitly presupposes a uniformity between cultures which have little to do with each other (e.g., Mongolian "shamans" and Arabian classical poetry). Furthermore, it implicitly presuppose that whatever culture belongs to the "Orient" is more distant to the "Occident" than to any other "Oriental" culture. But this is not the case, and Arabic philosophy has been influenced by Aristotle and not by Lao Tse.
To sum up, "Orient" only works as the alter ego of the "Occident". As shown by Said, its use only informs us about what "Occidentals" think (and often it tells us a lot about what they like and dislike). In this sense, the "Orientals" are akin to the "Extraterrestrials" of science fiction. The latter are our projction (for instance, they are often technologically advanced, like we would like to be; but look ugly, because we are too vain to accept not to be the best looking living beings).

This being said, is there any residual use of the word "Orient"? Perhaps, insofar as it forces us to reconsider what is different than us. The word "Ancient" may work in a similar way. What is "Ancient" and what is "Oriental" is "not-us". If one does not stop at the stereotype and accepts taking a trip into the little-known, one might find out a lot about oneself and even happen to learn something about Sanskrit, Buddhism, Shinto, etc.

Do you ever speak of "Orient"?
On labels, see here (on my dissatisfaction with areal studies) and here (on "Indology").

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Looking for help on early 20th c. Printing Houses in India/Updated

While looking for the editio princeps of Vedānta Deśika's Seśvaramīmāṃsā, I could finally find a vague trace!
All printed editions (1940, 1971 and 1981) of the SM do not mention any manuscript source, either in the Premiss (altogether absent in the first two) or in the footnotes. The 1981 edition, though endowed with a nice Introduction, does not mention any source at all, be it manuscript or printed. Hence, I speculated that they all copied from an earlier edition and started looking for it. On-line catalogues and resources bear no evidence of any earlier edition, but I am sure this is no conclusive evidence, since this might have been published in a small typography, perhaps only for religious purposes.

Today, I finally found the following lines in Paṭṭābhirāma Śāstri's (Sanskrit) Preface to the 1981 edition (my translation):

Eighty years ago, in South India, in Kāñcipurī, a book called Seśvaramīmāṃsā has been published through the Printing House Sudarśana, once edited by the honourable Prativādibhayaṅkāra Anantācārya (p. iii).

As expected, I could not find any information about this edition. The Sudarśana Printing Press seems to have been active in Kañcipuram at the beginning of the 20th c. (several books published by it are listed by the Digital Library of India, all around 1900-1905). It might have published mostly Vaiṣṇava works, but I have not found any conclusive evidence about it. Do readers know better?

Do readers know where is it likely to find its books? In Chennai? In Kancipuram itself?

Monday, October 10, 2011

On the importance of studying historiography

When I started studying philosophy, I used to dislike any historical approach. Investigating into, e.g., the history of the antecedents of Cusanus or Hegel seemed to me at least a boring distraction from their powerful theories or even a nuisance to their understanding —since through history they became less "out of the blue" and hence ended up looking less powerful. I liked even less historiographical accounts about the history of philosophy (e.g., how was Berkeley interpreted in the late XVIII c. Germany), which seemed to me an end in itself I did not want to have nothing to do with.
Now I know that what I ignore will influence me without me being aware of it, hence in a subtle and dangerous way. Therefore, I started studying philosophy as the history of its development. More recently, I am also becoming aware of the importance of the study of historiography. If one is not aware of historiographical trends and fashions, e.g., one might tend to think that one reads are historical (or textual or archaeological…) data, whereas the author of the study might have played a significant role in collecting them and sorting them out.
I have been led to think a lot about this topic since the last Coffee Break Conference, where Giovanni Ciotti dealt with it as for linguistics (explaining, e.g., how the history of linguistics may influence our understanding of what a "root" is, although this should be a "scientific" term) and Mark Schneider dedicated an enlightening round-table to Historiography.
More recently (for me), Srilata Raman, in the book I frequently referred to in the last week, is well aware of the risk of taking historiographical models as if they were harmless description of reality as it is. She points out, for instance, that the monkey/kitten simile is very recent (XIX c.) and that Tamil historiography on Srivaisnavism used history "as a vehicle for locating groups and people [in this case the Tamils] and giving them a past taht suits their present or encourages their sense of the future" (Michael Bentley, quoted in Raman 2007: 15).

Have you ever come across similar instances, where being or not being aware of some historiographical background has saved you from a major misinterpretation?

On the importance of studying history, see here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

On the historiography of bhakti

Until now, I used to think that the interpretation of the monkey-way and the kitten-way as corresponding to Catholicism and Lutheranism was due to Rudolf Otto's 1917 essay. However, Srilata Raman book (Tamil cats and Sanskrit monkeys, 2007) shows how Otto's claim itself had been prepared by previous authors, looking for monotheism as the culmination of every religious development and hence aiminig at identifying bhakti with what was more similar to it in India. A key work in this stream, maintains Raman, is George Grierson's article on Bhakti-mārga for the 1910 Encyclopedia of Religions and Ethics, edited by M. Eliade.
Since scholars working on Indian religions were usually themselves not Catholics, Grierson's and Otto's claims in turn nourished (or, as Raman maintains, were nourished by) "a stream of thought arising in the wake of modern Tamil historiography, which emphasized that the theological dispute was one between the Sanskritic Northern School and the Tamil Southern School". (Raman, p.13).

  1. 1. identification of Rāmānuja's bhakti as monotheism (hence, as the most valuable "religion" in India)
  2. 2. identification, within bhakti, of a Catholic and a Lutheran "church" (respectively, the Vaṭakalai and the Teṅkalai)
  3. 3. identification, by Tamil historians, of the best among these two (the Teṅkalai) with Tamil works and authors.
More on this topic can be read here.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Did the British construe India as we know it?

Within Śrī Vaiṣṇavism coexisted two different interpretations of the way one's soul should surrender to God, one upholding the "monkey-way" (Vaṭakalai) and the other one the "kitten-way" (Teṅkalai). In both cases, the cub (i.e., the human soul) can do nothing on its own and completely depends on its parent (God). But whereas the baby monkey will at least hold on its mother's back, the kitten will be brought by its mother who seizes it by the scruff of the neck.
These two currents have enjoyed a certain fame even among Western scholars, due to the book Rudolf Otto dedicated to Viṣṇuism in 1917. There, he compares its split into two currents to the Western schism in the Christian Church (Kirchentrennung) and described the Vaṭakalai as the Roman Catholic option, with a Pelagian stress on human beings as able to attain salvation through their efforts and the Teṅkalai as the Lutheran option. (For a critique of the reception of Otto's sketchy description, see Hardy's article on the JIPh 1979:280).
By and large, Tamil authors tend to favour the kitten way and Sanskrit authors the monkey way. Vedānta Deśika is traditionally considered as the champion of the monkey-way. Or, at least, this is what I thought until recently. Srilata Raman (2007) notes that
it is at a very late date that the theological differences between the two schools of Śrīvaiṣṇavism come to be listed and formalised […]. It was only as late as the nineteenth century, the period when formal litigation in British courts began, that both the Vaṭakalais and the Teṅkalais needed to profile themselves as distinct separate sects, with irreconcilable theological differences. The formalization of hitherto fluid theological opinions in turn would have further helped consolidate sectarian identity (Raman 2007: 9-10).
As in other cases (the practice of satī, perhaps, the supremacy of Advaita Vedānta, the idea that the Vedas are the basis of all current practices, the concept of "philosophy", etc.), one notices that the British are not just a recent intervention in South Asia. They are now part of South Asian history and one cannot avoid them in one's hermeneutical enterprise.

Are readers aware of further cases of a "pizza effect", that is categories influenced by the West and then superimposed to older ones in South Asia and treated as "indigeneous"?

On Vedānta Deśika (deemed to be the champion of the monkey way), see here.
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