nitya and eternality

During the three days of this workshop on philosophy of language in South Asia I have been repeatedly asked why I would want to “remove” the aspect of eternality from the concept of nitya. In fact, I think the situation is rather the opposite.

“Eternality” is a later overinterpretation of a term which, in my opinion, originally did not mean that, and continued not to have eternality as its primary meaning throughout its history.

nitya (as shown by Minoru Hara, JAOS 79.2) is etymologically adjective meaning ‘inherent’. This meaning is completely in harmony with its use in the same semantic field as siddha, autpattika, apauruṣeya and svābhāvika in Vyākaraṇa and Mīmāṃsā, as well as dhruva.*

So, how comes that one starts speaking about temporality in connection with nitya? In my hypothesis, there are three steps:

  1. In connection with the Mīmāṃsā vs Nyāya controversy, Mīmāṃsā authors insist on the apauruṣeya aspect of language, whereas Nyāya authors insist on language as pauruṣeya. Since language is pauruṣeya, it is not nitya in the sense of being kṛtaka ‘made up’, ‘artificial’. Thus, once again, nitya is not opposed to ‘temporal’ but to ‘artificial’, once again pointing to an opposition which does not have “eternality” as its primary focus.
  2. The Mīmāṃsā vs Nyāya controversy evolved also into a Mīmāṃsā vs Buddhist Epistemology controversy. For Buddhist epistemologists, whatever is kṛtaka is also kṣaṇika. Here temporality comes into the picture. Still, the point is not about “eternality” vs, “temporality”, but rather about “fixed/permanent/ummovable” vs “ephemeral”, as shown by the examples mentioned (mountains and rivers are said to be respectively kūṭastha– and pravāhanitya).
  3. Euro-American interpreters are used to the topic of temporality and to the concept of eternality, which plays a big role in the Graeco-Roman and in the Judaeo-Christian worldviews. Thus, they are inclined to interpret concepts in this sense, just like it happens with concepts like “Scripture”, “God”, “letter” and the like, which have been introduced uncritically in the Indian debate.

*Yes, you might find nitya also in connection to anādi ‘beginningless’, which might be interpreted temporally (I rather think it just means “for which no beginning can be proved”). But this is just one among the many terms used in juxtaposition with nitya (see above for several others).

P.S. I recently wrote an article on nitya. You can read the pre-print version here.

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, here.

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?

From word meanings to sentence meaning: A workshop in Cambridge

From Word Meanings to Sentence Meaning:

Different Perspectives in Indian Philosophy of Language

The reflection on language and its structures was a major component of the Sanskritic intellectual horizon, intimately connected with the broader epistemological and soteriological concerns of different schools. This led to the emergence of various conflicting philosophical views on the nature of the cognition obtained from language (śābdabodha). In this respect, a pivotal issue is how padārthas (the meanings/referents of words) relate to vākyārtha (the meaning/referent of the sentence). During this one-day colloquium, the focus will especially be on the views set forth by the Pūrva-Mīmāṃsā philosophers (Bhāṭṭa and Prābhākara), the Buddhists, the Grammarians, and the theoreticians of Alaṃkāraśāstra, and on the reconstruction of the debate as it developed in the course of the first millennium CE.


Date: November 11, 2016

Time: 9:30 am – 6:00 pm

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.

Kumārila on sentence-meaning: Mahābhāṣya opponents?

At the beginning of his chapter on sentence meaning, Kumārila sets the problem of what is the meaning-bearer in the case of a sentence (see this post). Later in the chapter, he will discuss sphoṭa, apoha and then present his abhihitānvayavāda, but first he discusses in general the possibility of a sentence-meaning. There can be no sentence-meaning out of the sum of the word-meanings, since those are instantaneous and cannot connect (kā 6–8). The same applies to their cognitions (kā 9). Further, neither words (pada) nor the concepts evoked by them (tadbuddhi) can really connect, so that a sentence-meaning is stricto sensu impossible.

A possible narrative on the history of linguistics in India

In classical Indian philosophy, linguistics and philosophy of language are of central importance and inform further fields, such as epistemology and poetics. Thus, looking at the debates on linguistics and philosophy of language offers one a snapshot on the lively philosophical arena of classical India.

pada-vākya-pramāṇa… Since when?

If you have read post-Classical śāstra, you will have certainly encountered the formulation above, describing the three foundational disciplines as focusing on
words (pada), i.e., grammatical analysis in Vyākaraṇa
sentences (vākya), i.e., textual linguistics in Mīmāṃsā
means of knowledge (pramāṇa), i.e., epistemology in Nyāya

Linguistic Communication as an Instrument of Knowledge: A panel

I came back last week from Athens, were I had organised together with Malcolm Keating a panel on Linguistic Communication as an instrument of knowledge. I ended up framing the problem according to four basic questions, namely 1) What do we know? , 2) How (through which instrument of knowledge) do we know it?, 3) What is the role of language as a medium?, 4) What is the role of the social context?

Mīmāṃsā and Grammar

Did Mīmāṃsā influence Indian Grammar? Or did they both develop out of a shared prehistory?

Long-time readers might remember that this is one of my pet topics (see this book). Probably due to the complex technicalities involved, apart from Jim Benson, not many people have been working on this topic, but in the last few days I had the pleasure to get in touch with Sharon Ben-Dor (who worked on paribhāṣās, more on his articles in a future topic) and then to receive the following invitation:

Doing things another way: Bhartṛhari on “substitutes” (pratinidhi)
Time: Friday, 17. October 2014, Beginn: 15:00 c.t.
Place: Institut für Kultur- und Geistesgeschichte Asiens, Seminarraum 1, Apostelgasse 23, 1030 Wien
Speakers: Vincenzo Vergiani and Hugo David (Cambridge)