The semantic development of tantra and prasaṅga

A review of Freschi Pontillo 2013

A review of our 2013 book on the evolution of the semantics of tantra and prasaṅga by Émilie Aussant can be read on the Journal of South Asian Languages and Linguistics (link here).

Many thanks are due to Dr. Aussant for her ability to explain in a few sentences the broad context (the Sanskrit śāstra tradition and its ability to encode as many aspects of life as possible), the narrow one (metarules for the interpretation of sūtras) and the specific topic of tantra and prasaṅga.

You can read more on tantra and prasaṅga in my previous blog, here and here. A short version of the book is available on Academia.edu, here.

The Natural Relation in Mīmāṃsā

Mīmāṃsā authors refute the Nyāya and Buddhist theory of a conventional relation and try to prove that nobody would ever be able to establish a linguistic convention without words, since any convention-maker would in turn need words to explain that a certain word X is to be connected with a certain meaning. It follows that, in order to avoid a circular regress, at some point one necessarily needs words whose relation with their meanings is not conventional. Later Nyāya authors introduce here the idea of a God who creates words with an embedded conventional relation, but this thesis implies, according to Mīmāṃsā authors, far too many unwarranted assumptions. Mīmāṃsakas rather stick to common experience, in which language is a given.
Mīmāṃsā authors also dedicate much energy to the explanation of the process through which one learns a language, first understanding the meaning of basic sentences and then the meaning of their constituent words.

Interactions among Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava and other religious and philosophical schools

The religious debate in the early second millennium in South India

The early second millennium in South India saw a culmination of scholarly activities in the sphere of Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava devotional movements, including both philosophical and ritual discourses. While we tend to study these separately from each other, for Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava thinkers both aspects – theological speculations and ritual practice – played an integral part in their intellectual and daily lives, and thus we should consider their theological works deeply entangled in the ritual world they moved in.

Further, these scholarly activities were embedded in an environment with a long history of Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava interactions, with some works showing passages conceived in direct response to their competitors. The present workshop aims to transcend disciplinary boundaries and investigate the interactions between both Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava thinkers as well as theological theory and ritual practice and how these may be manifested in discourses of identity on both an ideological and a practical level. Some of the questions will be: Do ritual practice and theological theory correspond to each other? How did theories develop from rituals and subsequently feed back and impact theological discourses and vice versa? To what extent do rituals presuppose an identification between God and His human devotees? And does the answer to this question depend on a dispute between opponents, who upheld the opposite view (i.e., a non-dualist Śaiva answer may depend on a dualist Vaiṣṇava opponent)? Or how much do Śaiva-Vaiṣṇava or intra-Vaiṣṇava and intra-Śaiva exchanges shape prescriptive and theoretical discourses on ritual practices relating to external religious markers?

In order to pursue this set of questions, a range of specialists has been asked to choose a passage from key works that shaped the intellectual and ritual life of early medieval South India. While an introduction to each of the sources will be presented, the sessions will focus on the joint reading to be held in the light of this set of guiding questions. In addition, further specialists have been invited to join the reading and contribute towards the discussions.

You can read the whole program here.

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?

Open access papers on philosophy of language etc.

For a lucky coincidence, two long term projects of mine reached completion almost at the same time.

You can therefore read on the 2017 issue of the Journal of World Philosophies the (Open Access) papers on philosophy of language which are the result of a project led by Malcolm Keating and myself (see here). I am grateful to the journal’s editor, Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach for her help and support throughout the process.

On the 2017 issue Kervan you can read the lead papers on epistemology of testimony, printed cultures and conceptualisation of sexuality which are the result of the 2013 Coffee Break Conference held in Turin and edited by Daniele Cuneo, Camillo Formigatti and myself. I am grateful to the journal’s editor, Mauro Tosco for his help and support throughout the process.

Enjoy and please let me know your comments and criticisms!

The Deontic Nature of Language

According to the Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā approach to language, the sentence meaning is “something to be done” (kārya). In other words, unlike for Nyāya authors, sentences do not convey the existence of something, but rather that something should be done. Sentences which look as if they were conveying a descriptive statements should be interpreted as supplementing a (at times implicit) prescriptive one. For instance “It is hot here” is a supplement of “Please, open the window” and “Vāyu is the swiftest deity” is a supplement of “One should sacrifice to Vāyu”.

Jaimini and Bādarāyaṇa

PMS 1.1.5 strangely inserts the word bādarāyaṇasya ‘according to Bādarāyaṇa’ in its wording. Does it mean that this key sūtra of the school is only the opinion of Bādarāyaṇa? The context makes it clear that it is not a prima facie view and in the commentary on PMS 1.1.5, Veṅkaṭanātha uses the mention of Bādarāyaṇa to substantiate his idea of a unitary system of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta. He explains that Jaimini mentions Bādarāyaṇa in order to show that this view is traditional (sāmpradāyikatā) and accepted by his own teacher.
That Bādarāyaṇa was the teacher of Jaimini is proven by means of some Mahābhārata quotes, which should prove their connection, and also the identity of Bādarāyaṇa and Vyāsa.

Again on omniscience: Why talking about it, God’s omniscience and some reasons to refute it

Why is the topic of omniscience relevant in Indian philosophy? Because of at least two concurring reasons. On the one hand, for schools like Buddhism and Jainism, it is a question of religious authority. Ascribing omniscience to the founders of the school was a way to ground the validity of their teachings. Slightly similar is the situation of theistic schools ascribing omniscience to God, as a way to ground His ability to organise the world in the best possible way. On the other hand, for other schools the idea of omniscience was initially connected with the result of yogic or other ascetic practices. In this sense, omniscience was conceptually not different from aṇimā `the faculty to become as small as an atom’ and other special powers.

How does language work?

Meanings of Words and Sentences in Mīmāṃsā

Mīmāṃsakas subscribe to the idea that words convey word-meanings, and thus refute the Bhartṛharian holism. The relation between a word as meaningful unit and its meaning is fixed, as it is proved by our common experience of words, and it cannot be denied in favour of a view focusing on the text as a whole and rejecting without compelling reasons our prima facie experience of words as meaningful units.

Given that one can thus establish that words are meaningful, what exactly do they convey?