(I have not forgotten that this is an “Indian Philosophy” blog, in case you are only reading the first sentence of this post…)
The question of how we “do philosophy” is central to Plato’s Protagoras, where two models are on offer. There is the “sophistic” model, where a teacher gives lectures on a given topic to a paying audience. The topic is usually (and in the case of the Protagoras) the interpretation of a poem. This model has two centers of authority: the poet, who is believed to have some wisdom and more importantly some cultural currency, and the sophist, who uses his own wisdom to explain and critique the poet before his students. The other model is the “dialectical” one, which Socrates favors, and which I don’t need to explain in depth here.
Plato’s Socrates always prefers to philosophize dialectically, and at one point says that philosophy can only really happen among serious guys—no women, no music, and none of the “extraneous voices” of poetry. But he says this after playing along with his opponent by offering a sensitive and careful reading of the poem that Protagoras had suggested for discussion (an ode of Simonides). Clearly Plato is a little ambivalent about the role of poetry in philosophy: Socrates’ interpretation is really pro forma, and he makes it clear that we can’t confine ourselves to the “wisdom of the poets” if we’re interested in philosophical questions, but at the same time, he ends up making a compelling philosophical point about the difference between “being good” and “becoming good” through his interpretation of Simonides.
There is a particular juncture between poetry and philosophy that the Protagoras critically discusses: the notion that poetry contains a kind of wisdom which we can systematically “open up” and expand when we interpret poetry in a philosophical context. The context is philosophical by virtue of its overarching goals—a sophist teaching his students about virtue, for example, or Plato composing a dialogue about how philosophy should be practiced. Do we have similar junctures in Indian philosophy? Are there cases in philosophical texts where a work of poetry is made to do some important philosophical work?
Nothing quite comes to mind—but there are many examples of different types of junctures between philosophy and poetry in Sanskrit texts, and I’ll list a few here, both to exclude them from my call for comparanda and to roughly sketch a typology of interactions between philosophy and poetry (which partly overlaps with older typologies of interactions between śāstra and kāvya):
- Philosophical texts that are organized around the interpretation of a verse text, which is nevertheless not poetry. People who aren’t familiar with Indian literature are liable to confuse “verse” and “poetry,” whereas no Indian author that I know of ever considered the Sāṃkhyakārikās (for example) to be a work of poetry (kāvya).
- Vedic citations, for instance those that appear in the Paspaśāhnika of Patañjali’s Mahābhāṣya. These definitely contribute toward making a (arguably philosophical) case for the study of grammar, but again, Patañjali wouldn’t have considered the Vedas to be poetry (kāvya). (I am willing to bend a little on this point.)
- Poetic texts that are rich in philosophical content, which is however not systematically elaborated in a philosophical context. The commentaries to works of poetry sometimes elicit these philosophical meanings, but I am looking for a less “occasional” investigation, something more like Appayya Dīkṣita’s Rāmāyaṇatātparyasārasaṅgrahastotra.
- I should also note, in connection with the last point, that I don’t consider works like the Bhagavadgītā or the Bhāgavatapurāṇa to be “poetry” for these purposes. They have certainly attracted lots of interpretive attention. But I am more interested in the philosophical exploitation of the “wisdom of poets” (to use David Shulman’s phrase) than in the elaboration of what is already taken for granted to be god’s own truth.
- Works of poetry that are straightforwardly meant to represent or inculcate already-systematized philosophical ideals. This excludes (perhaps invidiously: I am also willing to bend on this point) most of the “didactic” literature of Buddhists and Jains.
- Poetry does play a major role in philosophical aesthetics: think of Abhinavagupta’s citation of the verse, from the beginning of the Śākuntala, where the deer cranes its neck in fear (grīvābhaṅgābhirāmam…). But this is exactly what we would expect, since such verses are what philosophical aesthetics is supposed to account for.
Needless to say, if this does turn out to be a gap in the literature—and not just in my exposure to it—it is not a censurable gap, since there are many ways of doing philosophy, and we shouldn’t expect the same inventory of approaches in all traditions.