Scripture, authority and reason —About a new book edited by Vincent Eltschinger and Helmut Krasser

How do reason and authority interact and trace each other’s boundaries? Which one is the first to be allowed to delimit its territory and, by means of that, also the other one’s one?

What to write in the introductory part of an edited volume is a problem which many of us have faced already. Shall one summarise the papers which follow (thus risking redundancy)? Or shall one attempt one’s interpretation of the book’s purpose (thus risking to partly contradict its actual contents, see concerning that risk, my forthcoming review of Franco 2013)? The same conundrum repeats itself when it comes to one’s editorial work: Should one shape the book into one’s own one or should one leave as much freedom as possible to the contributors? Both sides have their advantages, insofar as shaping a book means making a strong contribution on a given topic, whereas leaving much freedom means embracing the possibility of receiving contributions which go beyond one’s own understanding of the topic under examination.

This Friday, I read the Foreword of Vincent Eltschinger’s and Helmut Krasser’s Scriptural Authority, Reason and Action. Proceedings of a Panel at the 14th World Sanskrit Conference, Kyoto, September 1st–5th 2009 (please note the unfashionable acknowledgement of the papers’ origin). They consistently opted for the first option, limiting themselves to a summary of the papers that follow and describing how they programmatically left as much freedom as possible to the contributors.*

While summarising the papers, however, they designed a chronological (and thematic) path through them. The great protagonist of the book —so interpreted— is the Buddhist dialectical relation of reason and authority. Eltschinger and Krasser start by commenting on Peter Skilling‘s and on Joseph Walser‘s articles. These discuss pre-Pramāṇavāda material, i.e., Buddhist material related to the question of authority but belonging to milieus in which the philosophical problem of the authority of the Buddhist Sacred Texts had still not become a distinct topic of investigation. Instead, both articles discuss how the Buddha becomes an authority through physical elements, i.e., through an external validation. This can assume the form of the Buddha’s supernaturally long tongue (Skilling) or of the fact of promoting Buddhist teaching from thrones and daises (Walser). Next comes the Pramāṇavāda time, with Eltschinger‘s contribution working as a bridge towards it. Four contributions focus on Pramāṇavāda (Eltschinger, Krasser, Moriyama and McClintock). Next comes a discussion of the controversy between Pramāṇavāda and Mīmāṃsā by Kataoka and a paper dwelling further on (Pūrva and Uttara) Mīmāṃsā by Hugo David. This is particularly interesting to me at the moment, because it highlights Maṇḍana Miśra’s strategy of interpreting Vedic prescriptions to do X as if they were descriptions of the fact that X is the means to achieve some desired result. According to David, this interpretation is part of Maṇḍana’s Vedāntic agenda, since it enables him to overcome the difference between vidhis (Vedic prescriptions, of independent value) and arthavādas (commendatory statements, of only subordinate value). This distinction had been implemented by Pūrva Mīmāṃsā authors to many descriptive statements of the Upaniṣads, which were thus thought to be subordinate to a prescription. Maṇḍana’s attempt, instead, negates the distinction and, with it, the lower hierarchical status of the Upaniṣads.
After Buddhism, Jainism is introduced by Eltschinger and Krasser as the other target of Mīmāṃsā critics and in fact Balcerowicz‘ contribution deals with Jaina attempts to establish the omniscience of the Jina and the validity of the Jaina canon.
The volume is closed by two contributions (by Ratié and by Torella) dedicated to the Śaiva Pratyabhijñā school, again seen under the perspective of its debate with the Buddhist Pramāṇavāda. Torella sees Kumārila as the main critical target of the Pratyabhijñā concept of an all-pervasive prasiddhi (akin to Bhartṛhari’s śabdatattva). Ratié shows that this omnipervasive principle is tantamount to Śiva’s self-manifestation and that this informs of itself all Sacred Texts. All Sacred Texts are just in some way valid, although only the Śaiva ones are completely so, insofar as the others contain only a partial manifestation of Śiva who instead revealed himself completely in the Śaiva scriptures.

What would you do while editing a book? And on a different level, what would you add about the relation reason-authority in the schools you are more familiar with?

*This also means that they refused to uniform the bibliographic style and the conventions of the contributions, “as long as these have been consistent”. To do so programmatically is a welcome innovation in an era in which we risk to correct footnote positions and oversee what is really at stake in an editorial enterprise.

Cross-posted on my personal blog

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

4 thoughts on “Scripture, authority and reason —About a new book edited by Vincent Eltschinger and Helmut Krasser

  1. *This also means that they refused to uniform the bibliographic style and the conventions of the contributions, “as long as these have been consistent”. To do so programmatically is a welcome innovation in an era in which we risk to correct footnote positions and oversee what is really at stake in an editorial enterprise.

    You know me, and you know I do not agree on this. It’s just a matter of willingness, seriously — it doesn’t take long to uniform a bibliographic style, and it is aesthetically better, don’t you think?

    As to the main point, namely:

    What would you do while editing a book? And on a different level, what would you add about the relation reason-authority in the schools you are more familiar with?

    Well, we all know there is more than one aspect of academia at stake, if we ought to answer your questions for real. Seriously, would you write in the introduction that you disagree with the view of a renown professor who in the future might sit in a commission that decides about your application? Regardless if you’re just a student or you are a professor, you want to be diplomatic, don’t you? If you are a professor, your colleague might decide to flunk your proposal for a research project just because you have written something about his article that might have sounded as a critic to his or her hears.

    Maybe I’m paranoid, but…

    • Hi Caf and thanks for the comment.
      As for the first point, I do not disagree with uniforming bibliographic styles and the like, but I strongly disagree with the idea that once this is done, our duty as editors is also accomplished. Uniforming styles is an additional plus, but not the main thing. I would rather focus on having a consistent volume which tolerates idiosyncratic choices rather than a polished volume which serves no unitary purpose (you know me, I am a planner).

  2. I didn’t really answer to the second question, but it’s implicit in what I’ve already written… the most powerful win (okay, just kidding).

  3. I found it a very difficult enterprise to write an introduction to a recent volume on agency and selfhood I co-edited, largely because we wanted the introduction to be something that could invite non-experts into the conversation, without alienating scholars and specialists. I chose to err on the side of the former, but the problem with overview sorts of things is that often, it is only the people who already know something who will get anything out of the overview besides what seems to them to be a list of names and dates. I am still ambivalent about my own intro, but I think that if I could do it again, I would try to stress major conceptual or argumentative patterns that emerged from our pan-Indian study of agency a bit more than I did.

    As a matter of personal taste, I like short summaries of each article. Rarely do we just sit down and read through such books all in one shot, and it helps to see what to expect as we plan our reading. I do also think it best for editors to provide some kind of synoptic treatment of the issues/topics of the volume as well, to provide cohesion.

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