The “Hillary Clinton” effect in Sanskrit studies

Why do we look for excuses for not engaging with recent Sanskrit scholarship?

To my knowledge, Veṅkaṭanātha’s Seśvaramīmāṃsā (henceforth SM) has been commented upon only once in Sanskrit, namely in the 20th c. within the 1971 edition. The title of the commentary is Sūkṣmārthaṭīkā ‘gloss on subtle meanings’. As often the case with commentaries, some moot issues are just not commented upon, but the commentary is very often insightful and useful at the same time, providing identifications of speakers and adding interpretative cues. Also relevant is the fact that its author is a outspoken Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedāntin who, unlike the author of the SM, does not feel compelled to assume a Mīmāṃsā standpoint. Therefore, in case of conflict (for instance, at the beginning of the commentary on PMS 1.1.6, pp. 88–89 of the 1971 edition) he highlights the differences between the Mīmāṃsā perspective presented in the main text and the Viśiṣṭādvaita one. Thus, he makes it indirectly visible that Veṅkaṭanātha’s choice of reading PMS 1.1.6 as focusing on the signification power of language instead of on the permanence of phonemes is not only one legitimate interpretive choice within Mīmāṃsā hermeneutics, but also an effort aiming at the harmonisation of the PMS with the lore of Viśiṣṭādvaita Veṅkaṭanātha needed to take into account.

In this way, the Sūkṣmārthaṭīkā‘s author also indirectly points out the gigantic effort Veṅkaṭanātha undertook, almost seven centuries before, when he tried to propose a synthesis of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta.

These reasons should make it clear why I deemed it relevant to include a translation of the Sūkṣmārthaṭīkā to my study of the SM. I can also add that in general recent Sanskrit scholarship often tends to be neglected only because it is recent and Sanskrit, whereas I cannot see any a priori reason for not engaging in a close study of both recent and ancient texts in Sanskrit, and for not reading both English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Sanskrit recent scholarship.

PS: I wrote that I don’t see any a priori reason, because I can understand that life is short and one needs to decide what to read, and that reading one’s colleagues’ or future evaluators’ articles might be pragmatically the most advisable choice. But studying Sanskrit is already a non-pragmatic life choice, so that it cannot be reduced to career moves. Moreover, preserving ideodiversity (copyright: Houben), even within the Sanskrit ekumene should be at least part of the mission of people engaging with such non-pragmatic life-choices. Don’t you think?

“But is Indian thought really philosophy?”

We can answer the question “What is it?” for a religion or worldview by proceeding either sociologically or doctrinally. […] In philosophy, for example, the question “But is it philosophy?” can be not so much a question about the boundaries of the discipline taken doctrinally as it is a rejection of any approach not already favored by the elite in power, In that case, the genus within which the question “But is it philosophy?” falls is not philosophy but rather politics, or maybe even just bullying. (Eleanore Stump 2013, pp. 46, 48).

Why studying the history of (Indian) philosophy?

Prof. Ramkrishna Bhattacharya addresses a similar issues (why studying Ancient Indian Philosophy) in a recent paper, here. He starts with the constatation that “it is there” (like the Everest’s being there should be enough to make one wish to climb it). He then adds that ancient philosophers like Thales or the Cārvākas were the first natural scientists since they addressed the question of what there is without recurring to myth. In this sense, modern scientists only demonstrated experimentally what these thinkers had already intuited. Moreover, in some significant cases, such as dialectics, a few thinkers only developed the field significantly in a way which is relevant even for today’s philosophy. He then concludes:

This is why ancient philosophy has much to teach us even today, for much of it was grounded in sound theoretical thought.

Do you agree? I, for one, would add that what appears to me as in need of an explanation is rather the fact of not studying the history of philosophy. Would you ever focus on the philosophy written in Polish between 1550 and 1580 only? If not, why would you want to focus on Anglophone philosophy of the last thirty years at best?

Is the monologue also a dialogue?

No, taught Martin Buber, since a monologue lacks the dimension of Otherness. He was so adamant about that, that he even applied it to the case of God. Maurice Friedman (Martin Buber. The Life of Dialogue, p. 82) describes the relation of God and each single human being as follows:

If God did not need man, if man were simply dependant and nothing else, there would be no meaning to man’s life or to the world. ‘The world is not divine sport, it is divine destiny’.

Martin Buber’s own words (I and Thou, p. 82) are even more direct:

You know always in your heart that you need God more than everything; but do you not know too that God needs you—in the fullness of His eternity needs you? […] You need God, in order to be—and God needs you, for the very meaning of life.

Somehow, I am not surprised that Maurice Friedman participated in one of Daya Krishna’s saṃvādas (one can read the transcripts in Intercultural Dialogue and the Human image, Maurice Friedman at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

The reason for gender-unbalanceness? Often just carelessness

…and the fact that we think that being a man is the norm and women are an exception or a subcategory, just like “Italians”, “green-tea lovers” or “plumbers”.
For an interesting study on this topic, see this summary on the Washington Post about dialogues in movies: It turns out that women speak way less than men. Not because of the lack of heroines, but rather because whenever one adds a less relevant character (such as a shopkeeper), one is inclined to add a “normal” human being, a man (you would not want to add an Italian shopkeeper to your movie unless you had a special reason to do so, would you?).
Seems to be a good reason to ponder about the people we invite to conferences, collected volumes and the like: It might be that we also invite more men than women at first, since men are instinctively felt to be the more normal kind of scholars. For more on this topic, check this post (by me and Malcolm Keating).

Against non Italian scholars studying Latin and non Greek scholars studying ancient Greek

Consider the following:

Italy is now a unified country and no longer dominated by Austrian, Spanish or French rulers. Why do we need only more foreigners to supervise Latin publishing and translations?


Greece is now a unified country and no longer dominated by Turk rulers. Why do we need only more foreigners to supervise ancient Greek publishing and translations?

What do you think? I, for one, would answer that the more and the better scholars engage with these world’s treasures, the better. I am not sure that having an Italian passports makes me a priori a better candidate.

Now, you might consider that I am also not an ideal candidate, since I do not share the same set of beliefs of Cicero or Catullus. However, I am not sure one needs to believe in Aphrodites in order to understand Catullus’ desperate love for Lesbia, nor does one need to believe in Zeus to understand Cicero’s quest for justice. One might say that I am allowed to study Catullus, etc., because no believers of his religion are left but that the principle of “insiders only” still applies in case of religions/political systems/langauges/… of which there is still a living tradition.

This is a legitimate point of view, but one needs to be aware of the fact that it leads to isolationism. One would only be allowed to study people whose religion/language/set of beliefs… she or he shares, with no adhikāra to look beyond his or her field. Moreover, I wonder how one would be able to look critically at his or her field, if she or he had had no chance to learn about how different the world can be.

Long story short: I am still a believer in the enriching power of saṃvāda, ‘dialogue’.

Expanding the canon part n

We have discussed several times (see also here and here) about the problem of how Indian philosophers should be part of normal classes on Medieval philosophy, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, etc. etc. Podcaster and scholar of Neoplatonism and of Falsafa Peter Adamson makes several interesting points on the Blog of the APA, in this post.

Commenting on a great scholar of Indian philosophy (M. Biardeau)

Who influenced you more in Indian philosophy? Whose methodology do you follow, perhaps without even being aware of it?

Before you answer, let us try to focus on women before we think at the many other men who might have been influential.
I, for one, cannot stop admiring Madeleine Biardeau‘ s work.

Sometimes small typos can be an obstacle: Beware authors! (and readers)

In his Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Julio Cortázar asks himself why a great author like Lezama Lima has not been recognised and acknowledged as such. Among other

Julio Cortázar (from

reasons, he notices that the editions of his works are so full of typos, “that it is no wonder, that the  school’s teacher —who lives in each of us— takes offense at them”*.

Readers —continues Cortázar— use his insistent transcription errors as alibi, as part of a defense-mechanism to remain on this side of Lezama, without having to take his visions seriously.

A few pages later, with perhaps some implicit sexism, Cortázar elaborates further on the sort of engagement required by great books comparing it with Jacob’s wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:22-32). I am sorry to admit that I could not find the book neither in Spanish nor in English but that I enjoyed the text passage so much that I will have to quote it in German nonetheless:

In Rayuela habe ich das Leser-Weibchen definiert und attackiert, weil es den echten liebevollen Ringens mit einem Werk, das für den Leser wie der

André L. Leloir

Engel für Jakob ist, nicht fähig ist.

*my translation, C’s style is much more evocative.