A pathway through Kumārila’s Ślokavārttika, śabda-chapter, part 1

The chapter on śabda ‘language as instrument of knowledge’ within Kumārila’s Ślokavārttika is an elaborate defense of linguistic communication as an autonomous instrument of knowledge. Still, its philosophical impact runs the risk to go unnoticed because it is at the same time also a polemical work targeting rival theories which we either do not know enough or we might be less interested in, and a commentary on its root text, Śabara’s Bhāṣya on the Mīmāṃsā Sūtra. The chapter has also the further advantage that all three commentaries on it have been preserved. Thus, beside Pārthasārathi’s useful one, one can benefit also from Śālikanātha’s deeper one and from Uṃveka’s commentary, which is the most ancient, tends to preserve better readings of the text and is philosophically challenging.

The following is thus the first post in a series attempting a pathway through the chapter:

V. 1 is the polemical beginning of the chapter: It starts by attacking Śabara’s definition of language as an instrument of knowledge. One understands from the very beginning that Kumārila is not afraid of fights, not even with his respected predecessors:

Among the various instruments of knowledge, one should have said the definition of śabda in general,

why does here, this [definition by Śabara], hurrily denote the śāstra ‘Sacred Texts’ teaching’ [alone] (and not śabda in general)? || 1 ||

pratyakṣādiṣu vaktavyaṃ śabdamātrasya lakṣaṇam |
tad atitvaritena iha kiṃ vā śāstrāsyāhidhīyate || 1 ||

The next verses (2–14) explain why Śabara’s definition could be attacked and discuss whether a definition is at all needed. Incidentally, they present also a short definition of śabda in general and of the Sacred Texts’ teaching in particular:

And what has been said [by Śabara], namely “It consists in the cognition of a meaning obtained out of a linguistic cognition”, this is a general definition [of śabda], not the definition of the specific case of the Sacred Texts’ teaching || 3 ||

The teaching of the Sacred Texts, be it permanent or human-made, is denoted as that which teaches to people what [should] be done and what [should] not be done || 4 ||

yac ca uktaṃ “śabdavijñānād arthe jñānam” itīdṛśam |
aviśiṣṭaṃ viśiṣṭasya na tac chāstrasya lakṣaṇam || 3 ||

pravṛttir vā nivṛttir vā nityena kṛtakena vā |
puṃsāṃ yena upadiśyeta tac chāstram abhidhīyate || 4 ||

In v. 15ab, Kumārila introduces the main opponents, the Vaiśeṣikas and Buddhists, who agree in reducing śabda to a case of inference, whereas v. 15cd presents the view of the Sāṅkhyas, who —like the Mīmāṃsakas— consider śabda as an autonomous instrument of knowledge, but —according to Kumārila— for the wrong reasons:

In this regard, Buddhists and Vaiśeṣikas have considered [śabda] an inference |

By contrast, the Sāṅkhyas and others accept that there is a difference, but they do not say what is the [real] reason of the difference || 15 ||

tatrānumānam evedaṃ bauddhair vaiśeṣikaiḥ śritam |
bhedaḥ sāṅkhyādibhis tv iṣṭo na tūktaṃ bhedakāraṇam || 15 ||

(Who are the others? It might be a general reference to Paurāṇikas and other groups or a specific one to non-Pramāṇavāda Buddhists, who also accepted śabda as an autonomous instrument of knowledge.)

Next, from v. 16 to v. 34, Kumārila discusses the position of the Sāṅkhya thinkers. This passage is therefore relevant especially for historians of philosophy aiming at reconstructing the Sāṅkhya position.

Kumārila discusses with Vaiśeṣikas and Buddhists in the verses 35–51, which are perhaps the philosophical core of this chapter, since they address the central topic of the alleged epistemic autonomy of śabda.

In v. 52 Kumārila mentions the Naiyāyikas and their definition of śabda as depending on a reliable speaker, a definition which Kumārila cannot accept, as it rules out cases in which we rightly rely on linguistic communications whose authors is not known or never existed (as in the case of the Mīmāṃsā understanding of the Vedas).

The chapter counts altogether 111 verses. I will discuss the next ones in a separate post.

On Kumārila’s commentators, see this post.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 thoughts on “A pathway through Kumārila’s Ślokavārttika, śabda-chapter, part 1