Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Caṅgam corpus and the concept of God in ancient India

(I do not know Tamil, nor do I know the Caṅgam corpus. What follows is just what I understood of a very interesting conference by Eva Wilden. I will focus only on methodological issues. Caveat lector: errors are entirely mine. Comments in [square brackets] are added by me.)

In the complex issue of dating the Caṅgam corpus, one can take into account several factors:

  1. 1. metrum: The eldest hymns are composed in a certain metrum. Added stanzas, mostly invocation ones, are in another metrum.
  2. 2. "anthologization marks": At a certain points, redactors started to create an anthology of this kind of literature and tried, thus, to make works look uniform. One of these marks is the addition of an invocation stanza (akin to the Sanskrit maṅgala) at the beginning.
  3. 3.  Deities: It seems that in the most ancient Dravidian history (and, hence, in the corresponding layer of the Caṅgam corpus), deities were conceived in a specific way, i.e., they had neither name nor form, they were linked to a specific place and were always in a group [one is reminded of spiriti loci, possibly akin to Japanese deities]. Next, their implements (weapons, the flute…) start playing a role. This is possibly linked to the fact that such implements played a role in the ritual reactualization of their worship. As a third step, a concept of a precise deity is elaborated. Last, a personal, iconic worship finds its way in the texts.
 This last point is of particular significance for me, since it provides me further food for thought for the issue of how was god conceived in South Asia before the end of the first Millennium. After that, we are confronted with theistic thinkers we can relatively identify with. But before that? Vedic deities are remote and philosophical thinkers seem not to need a personal god (they are either "atheist" or they speak of some primus movens in a way comparable to what Aristotle did).

On the workshop on Viṣṇu-Nārāyana, see this post.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Will at some point the world remain empty?

Vedānta Deśika considers the world to be eternal-though-in-flux, i.e. eternal through change. It is manifested, changes, reabsorbed and is then remanifested and so on forever. But not a single one of this remanifestations is different than the preceding ones. How does this absolute determinism affect the destiny of souls? If the world needs to be the same again and again, will they ever be able to achieve a final liberation? Or will they need to be reborn again and again in order for the world not to change? If the former is the case, and souls achieve a final liberation, could not it be the case that the world, sooner or later, remains empty because everyone has achieved liberation? And, given that the world is eternal, why has this not already happened?
If, by contrast, the latter is the case, and no one (or not everyone) will achieve the final liberation, how can God still be though to be compassionate and ready to help all human beings?
The conundrum seems due to two sorts of problems:
  1. 1. The intersection of two levels of discussion, i.e., the ontology of the world and the morality of karman. The two probably should be kept distinct.
  2. 2. The connection of two sorts of explanations, i.e., God's intervention in the world on the one hand, and beginninglessness on the other. God seems insignificant, if he has only to guarantee that everything is repeated in exactly the same way, and whimsical if he has things be different each time.
As for the empty world, some suggested that the saṃsāra might appear the same, though being subjectively felt as Vaikuṇṭha by the already liberated souls, who would no longer feel the misery of it and would instead rejoice because they would feel their existence as a chance to serve God. Incidentally, one might suggest that this solution stresses the idea that the two accounts (immutability through cyclical time and grace) regard two different domains (ontology and moral).

All these questions (and some of the answers) have been inspired by Marcus Schmücker's talk on Vedānta Deśika's view of Viṣṇu, on the 24th of May, during the workshop he organised in Vienna on Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa.

On Vedānta Deśika, see this post. For more information on the workshop, see this page (a programme is also available, on the up-right corner). On free will, see the corresponding tag and especially this post (on free will and determinism).

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The next Coffee Break Conference

Conferences are, by and large, either completely useless or useful only through indirect ways, for instance insofar as they bring people together during the coffee breaks.
This basic assumption lies at the basis of the attempt of organizing coffee break conferences, i.e., conferences where papers are not read and just discussed in a thought-provoking way, as during the coffee breaks. You can find here the programs of the past two editions (Rome 2010 and Rome 2011) and of the next one (Cagliari, 13-15 June 2012).

We are now starting to organize the next one (tentative dates and venues: Rome, 21st-22nd December 2012; Turin, September 2013). As usual, we aim at having people join and discuss in an open and critical way topics and methodologies. So far, we managed to pick up topics (e.g., the concepts of "development" and "belleletristic", the study of manuscripts, the conceptualization  of grammar in different cultures…) which were suitable to be considered from different points of view and to be better understood if regarded through the lenses of different standpoints (be they geographically remote, like India, or chronologically remote, like Ancient Greece). Now, which topics would readers suggest for the next CBC?

You can find the Wiki dedicated to the CBC here. The rationale of organizing it is explained in this post, whereas you can read my comments after the CBC 2 in this post.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

God as agent

Agency is the fact of having a direct knowledge of the material causes, of having desire to do and of being endowed with an action. (upādānagocarāparokṣajñānacikīrṣākṛtimattvaṃ kartṛtvam, Dīpikā on TS 17)

The passage comes from the standard primer on Navya Nyāya, Annambhaṭṭa's autocommentary on his Tarkasaṅgraha. The context is that of the inference about the existence of a Lord, namely ''A sprout is made by a doer, because it is a product, like a pot", so that the agency here described might be only the God's one. If this were not the case, one would have the following three requisites of agency in general:

1. direct knowledge of the material causes (i.e., applied and unmediated knowledge)
2. desire to do
3. doing (or undertaking of the action)

The material causes are later in the TS defined as samavāyikārana  'causes inhering in the result' (like clay in case of a pot). Direct knowledge is a typical requisite of God, since He does not need to depend on the complex epistemological system we are bound to, and can just know everything directly. If the definition does not only apply to Him, then it means that agency requires this sort of direct knowledge to the things one needs in order to act. Does it refer only to practical actions, such as doing a pot, where you must have a direct knowledge of the clay? Or can it apply also to general concepts? And what would a ''material cause" be, in such cases?

On action and knowledge, see also this post (and the tag "action").

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Predestination in Madhva's thought

Predestination is admitted by the Theistic school of Dvaita Vedānta, founded by Madhva (see Zydenbos 1991). In his review of Zydenbos' article, V.N. Pandurangi (Pandurangi 2012) translates the three kinds of souls according to Dvaita Vedānta as 'eligible for liberation' (muktiyogya), 'ever returnee' (nityāvarta) and 'eligible for eternal hell' (tamoyogya). It is not clear —due to the ambiguous semantics of Sanskrit kṛtya suffixes such as yogya— whether the first and the last group of souls will necessarily attain liberation and hell or may attain them. This difference has a major impact on the issue of free will and it is possibly presupposed by Bhagavadgītā 16.19-20 referring to eternal hell and in several other short hints by various authors (including Vedānta Deśika, see, again, Pandurangi 2012). However, the latter examples only refer to the limit case of a few souls at the edge of the classification and authors are careful to explain that these marginal cases should not make people despair, thinking that they might be eternally bound souls.
Is, thus, predestination to eternal hell a real possibility for ordinary people? Or only the limit case of a classification? I am inclined to think that the former option applies to Madhva, and the latter to the rest of Indian philosophy. Do readers agree?

On predestination and free will see also this post and this one. On Madhva, see this post.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The paradox of questions

One does not expect from an artist to be able to supply a compelling definition of what is ''art", but on the other hand no philosophical investigation can be accomplished unless we are aware of what we are trying to achieve and of what is our initial understanding of it.
Thus, no questioning is possible if one has absolutely no idea of what is the topic one is asking about and in one sense the question already embeds its answer. This is the paradox of question (see a beautiful article by Amber Carpenter and Jonardon Ganeri, 2010).
This means that even one's initial question needs to be cautiously examined. This is even more so whenever one tries to question a text or a philosophical school remote in time and/or space, so that one's initial understanding of what one is looking for runs the risk to be so wrong as to be misleading even as an initial guidepost. This is what happens, in my opinion, when we start by asking questions such as "What do Indian authors think about free will?" or "Did Indian authors believe in God?". On the other hand, one cannot just avoid asking questions, unless one wants to write nothing but descriptive articles. Nor can one hope to ask only questions which make sense within the Indian context, unless one has decided to give up any hope to communicate with the non-Indian world (including at least a part of oneself).

How do you solve this problem?
On God and free will in Indian thought, see this post. On free will in particular, check also the label "free will". On descriptive articles, see this post.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Saints, rebirth and belief

All Italian Christians, and probably many Catholics around the world know of Saint Rita of Cascia. She is known as the "Saint of the Impossible", since her body is thought to be incorrupted (although she died in 1457), and because through her intercession impossible wishes can come true.
Part of my family comes from Cascia and my great-grandfather, being a doctor, a socialist and (hence) a reknown atheist was once asked by the local authorities to visit the body of the Saint to see whether it was really incorrupted. The rationale behind the choice was that only an atheist would have been honest in describing what he would have found. And, in fact, the doctor reported that the body was incorrupted (at least, I suppose, if compared to its age). Did he convert to Catholicism after that? No. Did anyone become a stronger believer because of his fundings? Possibly, but only because they fit with what they believed already.
Let us suppose that someone finds an ancient body which, because of impredictable circumstances, has been incredibly well preserved. Will she think that this was the body of a saint? Most probably not, unless she has further evidences of it. She will rather look for "scientific" reasons, such as extreme coldness, lack of humidity, etc.

Similarly, why is it so important to know whether scientific evidences are found in favour or against the core points of one's faith?  Jayarava addressed the topic of rebirth in a recent, interesting post. Unfortunately, comments are not allowed, perhaps because he received too many harsh answers. But why should readers overreact? Natural sciences speak about matter and can hence not really exclude ALL sort of continuity. Thus, if you think you have enough reasons to believe in rebirth, natural sciences will not make this belief unsound (conversely, if you want to believe that the earth has been created, say, 6000 years ago, you will have the problem of justifying why it has been created with fossils, etc.). Thus, what bothers one in reading that natural sciences do not support the belief in rebirth (nor in Heaven, etc.)? If one needs the support of natural sciences in order to believe in something, does not it mean that she is not really believing it? By contrast, natural scientists should avoid bold statements about the fact that they "proved" that rebirth, transubstantiation or miracles are impossible.

One might object that there must be consistency between what one believes as matter of fact and between what one believes because of faith. This is true, and the solution of similar conundrums is one of the reasons for the existence of theology. Theologians will, e.g., explain in which sense the two –seemingly contrasting– claims have to be understood.

What is really at stake when one looks for scientific evidences?

I already discussed this issue at length, especially with Aśvamitra and Vidya, see this post and this one, and the comments on them. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

vastu on the epistemological and ontological level in Jayanta

vastu is often used in śāstric Sanskrit as a loose term meaning ‘object’ in a not necessarily concrete way. It has nothing of the intrinsic concreteness of a piṇḍa. Unlike artha (about which see this post), it is not linked to a linguistic expression and unlike artha it is necessarily epistemologically sound. Cf., for instance, in Jayanta's Nyāyamañjarī, the following statement by a Buddhist opponent, opposing vastu and artha, with the latter being much vaguer:

Thus, when conceptual cognitions, which lack contact with external entities (vastu), appear, people have the erroneous conception: “I have cognized an external object (artha), and I have taken action towards it, and I have obtained it”. This [erroneous conception] is not, in fact, based on determining [the conceptually cognized] as an [external] object (evaṃ bāhyavastusaṃsparśaśūnyeṣu vikalpeṣu samullasiteṣu ``bāhyo 'rtho mayā pratipannaḥ, tatra cāhaṃ pravṛttaḥ, sa ca mayā prāptaḥ" ity abhimāno bhavati laukikānām (NM 5, section 4.4, Kataoka2009c, p. 460, translation in Watson and Kataoka (in the proceedings of the apoha workshop, about which see this post)).

Or, similarly, at the end of the same section:

But [apohas] are different from [universals] in that the former are not real entities (vastu).
vastu is less vague than viṣaya, which might refer to each knowledge content, be it the content of an actual instance of cognition or also the sphere of application (like gocara) of a future or hypothetical one. In his polemics against the Buddhists on the existence of universals, vastu is used by the Buddhists and Jayanta with the same sense, although with a different referent. In fact, both agree that vastu is the real entity actually known during an act of valid cognition. However, they disagree as for its identification. For the Buddhists, only the ultimate particular, the svalakṣaṇa, is a vastu (i.e., only the svalakṣaṇa is the real object grasped by a valid act of cognition), whereas for Jayanta a vastu can also recur and be either an individual or a universal (see scheme below, section 4.2). Consequently, the vastu is intrinsically simple for the Buddhists, whereas it might be also complex for Jayanta (which on this point is following Kumārila). The following excerpt is from the Buddhist objector, who starts with a sarcastic remark about the multiform vastu upheld by realists such as Kumārila:

The same thing which is universal, is a particular, the same thing which is one, is many, the same thing which is perpetual, is impermanent, the same thing which exists does not exists: these are [just] the remainders of the Jains!
And even while it is being said, it is non-appropriate.
If you (Kumārila) say that there is no contradiction because [universal and particular] have been seen, [we reply that] it is not so, because they are not perceived as such |
In fact, it has been said that the eye-perception (netradhī) does not grasp an artha that recurs ||

Some pages later, Jayanta replies:

As for what has been said, namely that “It is illogical that in a single object (vastu) two contradictory aspects (rūpa) simultaneously occur”, that is also wrong. […]
Like the distinction of colours occurs in regard to a variegated [spot], |
in the same way, one also distinguishes similarities and differences because of the manifoldness of an object (vastu) ||
Hence, since one distinguishes similarities and differences in this non contradictory way, |
objects (vastu) must have a double nature, like in the opinion of the Bhaṭṭa (Kumārila) || 

vāstava is used in NM 5 when Jayanta replies to the Buddhist criticism of the universal (jāti). Whereas the Buddhist considered the universal as an unwarranted conceptualisation, Jayanta answers that it is real (vāstava):

Even at the first connection of the sense faculty [with its object] one understands the sameness [of two or more individuals] |
and [their] manifoldness. Hence, commonness and difference are both real ||

Thus, the universal is real, i.e., it belongs to the thing (vastu) itself. It does not, however, belong to the concrete individual (piṇḍa), in which it is rather present (vṛt-). The vastu is thus the real object, the one which is rightly ascertained through a correct use of our instruments of knowledge. To this vastu belong the aspects of individuality and universality, insofar as they can be ascertained through instruments of knowledge.

Do readers have different opinions about the usage of vastu in other authors?On artha in Jayanta, see this post. On the apoha workshop and Jayanta, see this post. On Jayanta in general, see this post.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The "Liberators from saṃsāra'' (saṃsāramocaka)

The Saṃsāramocakas are not thoroughly known (for a survey of references and a careful analysis of them, see Wilhelm Halbfass, Tradition and Reflection, pp. 87-129), but our sources agree in describing them intent in killing other creatures (mostly insects, for obvious reasons) in order to liberate them from saṃsāra and, hence, benefit them.
By the time one encounters them in the work of important philosophers, such as Kumārila and Jayanta (in the Sarvāgamaprāmāṇya section of his Nyāyamañjarī, henceforth SĀP), the Saṃsāramocakas were probably only a straw-man kind of opponent, one which everyone agrees to condemn. In other words, nothing in the SĀP leads one to infer the existence of a specific group of heretics bearing this name in Jayanta's time and place. Rather, in the SĀP (as in other philosophical texts, see again Halbfass' essay mentioned above) they cover the role of an ideal opponent, since their existence enables one to question a purely rational foundation of dharma. As shown in Kumārila's dealing with them (ŚV codanā 201ff, and especially 243), since the Saṃsāramocakas kill other creatures for these creatures' sake, ''not harming others'' or ''helping others'' are not sufficient criteria for recognising a valid religious belief. After all, the Saṃsāramocakas kill locusts, etc., (and would kill human beings, if possible) in order to save them from the bondage of saṃsāra. From a subjective point of view, they are benefitting their victims and, unless one accepts an objective standpoint to judge about morality, there would be no reason to blame them.

Can one establish the validity of a religious behaviour through arguments which avoid any appeal to an authority?

On Jayanta see this post. On his Sarvāgamaprāmāṇya section, see this one.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

artha, meaning and reference in Jayanta

artha is a very common term in śāstric Sanskrit and it is at times difficult to see what is Jayanta's distinctive usage of it.
He, in fact, inherits from the Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā systems an epistemological usage of artha in the context of the definition of perceptual knowledge, as meaning 'the real object of a valid piece of cognition'. In the context of linguistic usage, in the śāstric usage preceding Jayanta, artha tends to define the meaning of a word, often considered to be identical with its referent. This does not mean, however, that this artha is a concrete individual.
For instance, in a passage (NM 5, section 3.2.4 in Kataoka 2010), Jayanta states that although the universal is present only within an individual, the two have distinct arthas, thus showing that artha cannot refer to a concrete individual (since there would not be two distinct concrete individuals for vyakti and jāti):

This vṛtti (the presence of the universal in the individual) is the same that [holds] between parts and part-bearer, and between qualities and quality-bearer. Later it will be shown that these two (part and part-bearer and quality and quality-bearer) have different meanings.

 Jayanta rather inquires on what makes something into the content of an epistemic or of a linguistic act. What is the feature which makes an object fit to be grasped? Jayanta's explicit answer (again, in NM 5) will be that the object of a linguistic expression is the vyakti tadvān, i.e., the individual insofar as it is endowed with the characters which make it part of a universal. This is, consequently, the meaning of artha for Jayanta (whether this interpretation holds true for his predecessors and successors is still to be verified).

Do you have different views about the usage of artha in this or other authors? 

On Jayanta, see this post and this one. On artha in Indian thought, see this post and a remark in this one.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mīmāṃsā and philosophical dogmatism

Mīmāṃsā has often not only been sharply criticised but even cast out of the philosophical realm because of its close link to the Veda1. It is essentially anti-philosophical –it is argued– to assume an a priori reliable source of knowledge like the Veda. Closely examined, this issue seems to me completely untenable. The thesis underneath it (“Philosophy as such must be independent from every a priori presupposition”), if agreed upon, would completely change our common-sense understanding of “Philosophy”. We would have to banish out of “Philosophy” the bulk of the so-called Western thinkers, from Aristotle (who certainly never doubted the external world’s independent reality), to Aquinas, Pascal, or (more recently) Kierkegaard and Gadamer. Moreover, the necessity for a rejection of all traditional a priori is not necessarily part of the definition of “Philosophy”; it has been widespread only relatively lately, about Descartes’ time, and –as far as I can judge– has never succeeded in creating a completely fundament-free philosophical system. The whole of Kant’s magnificent theory would break down if one were only to ask2 why we should trust his Tafel der Urteile and the consequent list of categories. Therefore, we cannot refuse Mīmāṃsā the title of “Philosophy” just because of its being explicitly linked with a tradition (i.e. the Veda).

1.  Some quite interesting examples of this mistreatment of Mīmāṃsā can be found in Arnold 2001:589-590 and D’Sa 1980:44-7 (fn 15).
2.  As a correspondent happened to ask him in a letter.

 This post is explicitly provocative. Whenever I discuss its fundamental point I usually end up with a big arguement with my colleagues working on Buddhist Pramāṇavāda. What do readers think?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Principle of charity

I am generally faithful to the principle of charity. In case of doubt, all else being equal, I will interpret a theory choosing the option that maximises its explicative value. Most of all, I try to avoid cases of absolute nonsense. If the answers offered to a problem by a certain theory seem to be patently wrong, I also try to determine whether they are not intended to answer a different kind of problem. By the way, this is also one of the exegetical tools adopted by Mīmāṃsā in reading the Veda.

What do readers do while dealing with non-sensical passages?

On my principles, see this post.
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