Let us organise more Saṃvādas! An Interview with Mrinal Kaul

I met Mrinal Kaul for the first time in December 2012, when he attended the Coffee Break Meeting on textual reuse in Indian Philosophical texts. Since then, I tried to have him collaborate to many of my projects, but always failed, since he is already very  busy with incredibly many others. You can read his blog here and find out something more about him on his Academia page. Once you have done this, add much more Sanskrit than you would believe, imagine a smiling, funny face and you will still have only a vague idea of him.

elisa freschi (Question 1): Tell us something about your current project.
Mrinal Kaul: At present I am working on a section of the third chapter of the Tantrāloka of Abhinavagupta along with its commentary by Jayaratha. This section talks about the bimbapratibimbavāda (the theory of reflection). I am preparing a critical edition of the text along with an annotated translation and critical essays about how Abhinava understands the theory of reflection and how Jayaratha interprets him.

ef: How did you get interested into the topic?
MK: Several years back when I was trying to explore the so called “Kashmir Śaivism” and reading its seminal texts with my teachers I also read Tantrāloka chapters 1, 2 and 3. The chapter one of the Tantrāloka —which entails 37 chapters— is a very illustrious introduction to the Trika tradition of Abhinava. Chapter two talks about the anupāya (“[means] without means”). It is a very small chapter of about 50 verses. And then the chapter 3 is about śāmbhavopāya [‘Śaiva means’, ef]. But when I  read the first section of the third chapter, which talks about reflection, I was fascinated with this idea without  being aware how difficult this topic would eventually turn out to be.

ef: I see, but you still did not say what captured your interest in the bimba-pratibimbavāda
MK: I think it was the sheer beauty of the metaphor itself. I mean the way Abhinava explains that this world is in reality a reflection of the Absolute. The metaphor of mirror is very important for him. And it is through the means of this metaphor that he tries to explain his theory. In other words, I think I was fascinated by the metaphor and the explanation of the idea that the world is just a reflection of the Absolute.

ef (Question 2): A question which risks to be very much stereotyped: how much did your non-academic background influence your academic choice?
MK: I would say tremendously. I never expected that I would get into academics so seriously. I think it was a bit my grandfather’s influence who was an academician, but not in a very strict sense. I grew up looking at Śaiva and Vedānta texts around me and I wanted to know what they talked about, but it was beyond any question that I would go for humanities because of the background I came from, according to which it is absolutely unusual that you would go for the study of Sanskrit or some related subjects. But after I finished high school I made the very unusual choice of studying Sanskrit. And when I look back I see how I had begun to study it and how I look at it now. I mean I think I started with a complete orthodox approach and now I am —from a certain point of view— completely opposite to it.

ef: What do you mean when you say that it was “beyond question” that you would go for humanities? Did your relatives expect that you study natural sciences? (If I am getting too curious, just stop me).
MK: I still remember when my 10th standard results came and I was together with all my friends who then started to discuss which subjects to choose for the 11th class. It was but obvious that everyone would go either for sciences or commerce. Frankly, at that point of time I did not even know that one could study Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Philosophy, History etc. in schools or colleges. In other words, I was just expected to go either for science or commerce. Some of my friends and relatives even said I was crazy and was taking my career too easily. I mean their perspective was also justified in the sense that in humanities there are very less opportunities for jobs etc. But I stood firm and I think the most important thing is that my family never stopped supporting me in whatever I wanted to do. I know many of my friends who had to sacrifice their passion for the wishes of their parents simply because they thought that it was not right to follow one’s passion.

ef: When you say that your approach is now completely opposite to the orthodox one, do you refer to the fact that textual criticism is connected with a sort of critical attitude towards the text?
MK: Studying Sanskrit with both traditional and modern scholars has made me realize that both the systems of pedagogy are critical in their own way. Even while a traditional Sanskrit scholar might be hesitant to make an emendation or proposing a conjecture in a text, at the same time I must point out the critical approach with which texts are studied in proper traditional Sanskrit schools. In some traditional Sanskrit debates and discussions the criticism is indeed hair-splitting. At the same time there are many dimensions lacking in traditional approach. In the context of Indian scholarship of Sanskrit I think traditional schools are doing much better than the modern universities. Having said that I must also add that there are many things lacking in the modern approach. In my understanding the most useful approach is the one which complements both of them. We should, I think, try to develop an approach which is based on mutual critical attitude towards a text.

ef (Question 3): This fits nicely with my third question: How did you form yourself as a Sanskritist?
MK: Absolutely honestly, I am ashamed of calling myself a Sanskritist. Those who are aware of my so called academic “qualities” as a Sanskritist are aware of my limitations. I call myself a pseudo Sanskritist. You remember in the Deśopadeśa or Narmamālā, Kṣemendra uses a phrase for people like me vismṛtalaṭpratyayo vidvān. But at the same time I must say that I am trying to improve everyday. I am still going back to undergraduate manuals of Sanskrit and locating the forms that I either forget or never knew. I am not trying to be humble, but I am just trying to be sincere. Anyway, in the year 1998 I came across Paṇḍit Dinanath Yaccha who was a head-paṇḍit in the Jammu and Kashmir Research Department. I continued to study with him for a long time and I still remember when I met him for the first time I asked him “Do you know Sanskrit ?”. I wanted advice from him because I had just started studying Sanskrit. He said if I wanted to be a university teacher who knows nothing (meaning if I wanted to be a pseudo-Sanskritist) then I should do whatever I wanted, but if I was really interested in understanding the core I should start studying the Laghusiddhāntakaumudī. He recommended an edition that he had studied from when he was a student at the Panjab University in Lahore. I could not find that edition, but I did manage some other edition. Then he taught me the Laghukaumudī, followed by the Amarakoṣa and Kālīdāsa’s Śakuntalā. After this he asked me to focus on some Śaiva texts. This was my introduction to the Śaiva system of Kashmir. Later, I went to St Stephen’s College in Delhi where I read for my undergraduate and master’s degrees in Sanskrit. I was lucky to have teachers like Dr Harsh Kumar and Dr A.D. Mathur there, from both of whom I learnt a great deal. Looking back I think it was Dr Mathur who actually pushed me towards research oriented study in Sanskrit. Thereafter, I also studied in the University of Pune for a while with Prof V.N. Jha. I wanted to study Logic with him. This officially made me a Sanskritist, I think. With the inspiration of Prof Bettina Baumer I used to visit Benaras regularly to study Śaiva texts with Pandit Hemendra Nath Chakravarty, and some times with Dr Mark Dyczkowski. Benaras is obviously a dynamic centre for Sanskrit studies.

ef: You have been studying in many different places, what did you learn from each experience? What you recommend to which kind of person?
MK: Well, this one is going to be very long to answer. I think I would have lots to say, but I will keep myself brief. I think it pays off very much if you have a good base in traditional study and then you adopt the modern approach. I still regret I did not spend enough time studying traditionally. Once a traditional Nyāya scholar Dr Devadatta Patil in Pune told me “Give me five years of my life and I will give you all Nyāya from the Tarkasaṁgraha to the Tattvācintāmaṇi“, but I was not courageous enough to accept his offer. Now I deeply regret it. Even if I was interested in Śaiva of Kashmir I should still have considered mastering a system of Śāstra completely which would later have helped me in understanding any other śāstric system. At the same time the modern approach is absolutely crucial. So while India does remain a main hub for studying Sanskrit at different levels, I think in the West the North American system represents theoretical aspects smartly, and Europe is stronger in the philological approach. For me personally studying with traditional Sanskrit scholars of Kashmir was very different from reading with traditional paṇḍits of Benaras or Pune, and studying in North America was very different from studying in Europe, but all these encounters added to my knowledge and experience (although I still continue to be naive).

ef: Add, please, a line about your studies in UK, Canada and Italy.
MK: In Oxford I studied for my master’s course after I had finished my M.A. in Delhi University. I worked with Prof A.G.J.S. Sanderson on the 9th chapter of the Tantrāloka which talks about the causality and the tattva-krama in the Trika system of Abhinavagupta. Studying with Prof Sanderson was an eye-opener for me. It was like jñāna-cakṣu-unmīlana [“the sudden opening of the knowledge-eye”, ef]. I could not continue studying  for my D.Phil with him for want of funding. Thus, I joined a Ph.D. course in Montreal. It was another eye-opener. In the first three years of Ph.D. I was expected to read a lot about the  methodological approaches in studying social sciences. This pushed me outside the philological bubble I used to live in. I discovered another world out there which is absolutely equally important as philology is. Hopefully, I will finish my Ph.D. thesis in 2014. Meantime, since early 2012 I have been in Italy. Italy for me means two people: Prof R. Torella and Prof F. Sferra. I have been working with Prof Sferra for a long time. We are also working together on a critical edition of the Minor Works of Abhinavagupta along with an annotated translation and notes. This will be published in 2014. Since I was already working with Prof Sferra it made more sense working with him for my thesis. I got a small visiting travel grant from the Québec Government. I could spend some time working with him and I continue doing so, now as a lecturer at the “L’Orientale” University in Naples.

ef (Question 4): A question which is very relevant for me: you started at a very early age/at a very early stage of your academic career to edit volumes. Would you recommend it? Did you learn a lot or do you feel you wasted more time you could have better invested?
MK: Honestly I think I should have put more effort in doing my college assignments. Nonetheless, I think I can write another volume on my experiences while working for the projects of the two books I edited. If you see the first book titled The Variegated Plumage you will come across innumerable traces of my inexperience. But I think it was this experience that helped me in producing a better volume like the Linguistic Traditions of Kashmir [of which you can read interesting reviews on Mrinal’s blog, e.g., Saroja Bhate’s one here, ef] even though I think this could also have been better in many respects. I do not know if I would recommend to any one getting engaged in editing or publishing at an early age, but if I could go back in time, I would focus more on doing the college assignments. That said, working on these volumes was not at all wasting time in any way. I cannot explain in words how much I have learnt working with Prof. Aklujkar on the Linguistic Traditions of Kashmir. Even though I am not a grammarian (which I make very clear in my introduction to the volume) I can confidently speak about the history of Sanskrit grammar in Kashmir. And Prof Aklujkar is a hard task master, and an amazing personality. Even though I have never been his student formally, I owe a lot to him.

ef (Question 5): Now a practical question: what would you recommend to young fellows from India who would like to keep on studying?
MK: Many years back Prof Aklujkar inspired me so much with a verse (this is probably from the Mahābhārata): ācāryād pādaṃ ādhatte, pādaṃ śiśyaḥ svamedhayā | pādaṃ kālena labhate, pādaṃ svabrahmacāribhiḥ || So I would like to recommend to younger students that we have all very different sources of learning available to us, but what matters is the method with which we study a certain discipline. And it does all depend on us – how we strive to learn harder and better. That said I think the problem with young scholarship in India is not that there are no bright young students who want to study classical Indian studies, but the problem is the system and the teachers in these systems. In many ways, I feel that many of the Sanskrit departments in Indian universities are not involved in research but rather with the idea that they want to “preserve” and “propagate” the so called ‘Indian culture’. Such approaches which are driven more by a nationalistic agenda rather than seeking academic excellence offers least interest to the students who are aspiring for an intellectual pursuit. In many Sanskrit departments in Indian universities  student are are not trained in critical thinking, but are made to think of themselves as custodians of the “Indian culture”. Anyway, the students who are really interested in the intellectual part will surely find their ways, if not in Sanskrit departments (unfortunately), but in other departments. If they are really interested in studying Sanskrit, I would recommend studying either in some good traditional Sanskrit university (like the Tirupathi Sanskrit University) or studying privately with some paṇḍits. That always made more sense to me.

ef (Question 6): Do you interact with people working on similar topics (e.g., ontology or metaphysics) but within different cultural settings (e.g., “Western” philosophy)?
MK: Unfortunately, I do not see myself doing that although in my understanding it is extremely important. Lately, I have been gradually trying to introduce myself to such similar topics in different cultural settings.

ef (Question 7): In your review of Prof. Rastogi’s book you emphasise the importance of thinking of Sanskrit thought as philosophy (and not just as a relic of the past). What do you think is needed to achieve this purpose?
MK: I think the best thing to do is to stop thinking of Sanskrit philosophy texts as things of the past and get them engage also with the modern thoughts. I have witnessed a big and deep gap between the traditional and modern Sanskrit scholars and I have always believed that there should be a common platform for scholars from both traditions to discuss about such things. Many traditional Sanskrit scholars are still writing new texts to revise the ideas of Patañjali, Gautama and others. And many of these texts compel us to think differently. I recall some years back I saw a book titled Saṁvāda published by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research which was basically a compilation of the debates that took place in an extraordinary meeting held between traditional and modern scholars of “Indian Sanskrit philosophy”. It was indeed interesting to read a book like that. May be we could organize for gatherings like that.

ef (Question 8): What would you recommend to someone who wishes to specialise on Kaśmīr Śaivism?

MK: Several years back when anyone used to ask me this question I used to answer very arrogantly: “Go and study some Nyāya and Pāṇini first”. But that was an angry young man speaking. I have grown up since, but even though I would not like to answer this question as I used to in the past, I still maintain that the knowledge of the Nyāya and the Vyākaraṇa works as an entry requirement for studying Sanskrit philosophy (kaṇādaṃ pāṇinīyaṃ sarvaśāstropakārakam). In simple words a very good command over the Sanskrit language and śāstra is very important. Like Prof Sanderson used to tell me: “You should kick those crutches away”. In other words if you do not know Sanskrit language properly and you are not able to translate and understand a text without the help of other translations, it is like walking with the help of crutches. You should master the language to such a level where you can work absolutely independently with a text, no matter howsoever difficult that text might be. This is like walking without crutches. Knowing, understanding, digesting and assimilating the ideas of the Sanskrit śāstras and developing one’s own critical thinking in understanding them is required.

One of my teachers, Professor Nilkanth Gurtoo with whom I studied some Śaiva texts used to emphasize the fact that we may only study one text of a certain system, but we should master it so well that it becomes easy to understand any other manual of a certain Sanskrit philosophical system. He used to quote (I think from the Mahābhāṣya): ekaḥ śabdaḥ suprayuktaḥ samyakjñātaḥ | svarge loke kāmadhuk bhavati |  In other words if we have an easy understanding of any Śāstric system it would also become easy to approach the Śaiva literature. As far as the basic texts of the Trika Śaiva system of Kashmir are concerned, one can start with the Parāprāveśikā attributed to Kṣemarāja (but most probably not by him actually), the Paramārthasāra attributed to Abhinavagupta (although Prof A. Sanderson doubts its authorship), or the Pratyabhijñāhṛdaya of Kṣemarāja. Reading the works of Prof A. Sanderson is crucial for developing a critical eye in understanding the significant historical development in Kashmirian Śaiva schools. Then for philosophical study we have the works of Prof K.C. Pandey, Prof R. Torella, Prof. N. Rastogi, Dr. Isabelle Ratie, Dr Alex Watson.

You can find other interviews under the label “Interview”. Do let me know if there is someone you would like me to interview or a question you would like me to ask.


Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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