What is a body? Veṅkaṭanātha on plants, rocks, and deities

In general, classical Indian philosophers tend to define śarīra ‘body’ as a tool for experience (bhogasādhana). Thus, most philosophers state that plants only seem to have bodies because of our anthropomorphic tendencies, which make us believe that they function like us, whereas in fact plants cannot experience. By contrast, Veṅkaṭanātha in the Nyāyasiddhāñjana defines śarīra in the following way:

Therefore, this śarīra is of two types: permanent and impermanent. Among them, permanent are God’s body —consisting of auspicious substrates, namely substances with the three qualities, time and [individual] souls— and the intrinsic form of Garuḍa, the snake (Ananta), etc. belonging to permanent [deities]. The impermanent [body] is of two types: not made of karman and made of karman. The first one has the form of the primordial natura naturans (the prakṛti of Sāṅkhya), etc.* of God. In the same way, [an impermanent body not made of karman] assumes this or that form according to the wish of the liberated souls, such as Ananta and Garuḍa. Also the [body] made of karman is of two types: made out of one’s decision and karman and made out of karman alone. The first type belongs to great [souls] like the Muni Saubhari. The other one belongs to the other low [souls] (i.e., all normal human beings and the other conscious living beings). Moreover, the body in general is of two types, movable and unmovable. Wood (i.e., trees) and other [plants] and rocks and other [minerals] are unmovable. […] That there are souls also in rock-bodies is established through stories such as that of Ahalyā.

tad etat śarīraṃ dvividham —nityam anityañ ceti. tatra nityaṃ triguṇadravyakālajīvaśubhāśrayādyātmakam īśvaraśarīram; nityānāñ ca svābhāvikagaruḍabhujagādirūpam. anityañ ca dvividham —akarmakṛtaṃ karmakṛtañ ceti. prathamam īśvarasya mahadādirūpam. tathā anantagaruḍādīnāṃ muktānāñ ca icchākṛtatattadrūpam. karmakṛtam api dvividham. svasaṅkalpasahakṛtakarmakṛtaṃ kevalakarmakṛtañ ceti. pūrvaṃ mahatāṃ saubhariprabhṛtīnām. uttarañ ca anyeṣāṃ kṣudrāṇām. punaḥ śarīraṃ sāmānyato dvidhā jaṅgamam ajaṅgamañ ceti. kāṣṭhādīnāṃ śilādīnāñ ca ajaṅgamatvam eva. […] śilādiśarīriṇo ‘pi jīvā vidyante iti ahalyādivṛttāntaśravaṇāt siddham (Nyāyasiddhāñjana, pp. 174–176).

Thus, the deities have an intrinsic form which is permanent and can assume further impermanent ones at wish, not depending on karman.
As for rocks and stones, the rationale of their inclusion is the story of Ahalyā, who was transformed into a stone and then back into a woman, a fact which proves that a soul was present also while she was a stone. Her story is told, e.g., in the Rāmāyaṇa.

*The first commentary explains this ādi as referring to God’s emanations, the vyūhas, which are a typical mark of Pāñcarātra theology throughout its history.

Note the limitation in the precinct of application of karman, which seem to only determine one’s body and not one’s entire life. Further, why do you think Veṅkaṭanātha does not explain away Ahalyā’s story? What is he aiming at through the inclusion of stones?

Cross-posted on my personal blog. On nature and sentience of plants in Classical Indian Philosophy, see this post and this one (in general) and this one (on Buddhist philosophy) and in general this label in my old blog. On Veṅkaṭanātha, see this label.

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 Replies to “What is a body? Veṅkaṭanātha on plants, rocks, and deities”

  1. The most powerful intuition people tend to have about ‘body’ is to start from the peculiarity of their apparent locus in it, at once constitutive of their being and yet imaginably distinct from it. Then they try and generalise this intuition non-solipsistically.
    What Deśika seems to be doing is to start with a powerfully general (albeit theologically motivated) conception of the material of phenomena, and then develop a taxonomy for the structuration of that material, so that what humans normally take to be the starting point for the understanding of body becomes just one version of what might be body. In doing this, the fundamental problems of our standard intuition – the dualism of being and materiality, and the contradictory impulses of physicalism and panpsychism – are sidestepped. Instead, we have a radical notion of ‘body’ as – to use the phrase I have mentioned above – ‘the material of phenomena’, de-centring the perceived centre, namely, the experiencer of/through body. Of course, theologically, once the world is the body of God, stones are bodily too. So there is a theological logic to his argument. But I think the conceptually provocative point from your astute focus on that passage is that we shouldn’t start with what we mean by ‘body’ as if it were self-evident, and use it in different ways; rather, we should offer a taxonomy that fills in what ‘body’ could be, and then ponder on what enables that organization of the constituents of that taxonomy. Of course, much work then needs to be done to generate an account of that enabling, and I grant that my phrase is pretty gnomic. But I am working on it…

    • Thanks for the insightful (as usual) comment, Ram!
      I might be wrong, but my work on the concept of śarīra inclines me to think that our (common sensical, Western, contemporary) conception of what a “body” is, is not innate and that it is rather deeply influenced by Descartes’ and Kant’s (and the Positivism’s) extensionism (meant as the identification of a “body” with a res extensa. By contrast, śarīra seems to carry with it almost all the time (correct me if you have different experience with this term) the connotation of a living body, able to experience. In this sense, it seems to me to already transgress the boundaries of (Cartesian) dualism.

  2. Yes, exactly. The use of English and other European languages as global tongues to express intellectual (i.e., lay, and not necessarily academic) thoughts has reinforced the dominance of the early modern European paradigm. So, even cultural inheritors of śarīra-language use ‘body’, ‘mind’, ‘life’ and so on in a way that is hermeneutically confused. And, of course, academic language has certainly placed ‘body’ within that modern paradigm, including post-modern challenges. See how ‘phenomenology’ in ‘Asian philosophy’ is nevertheless articulated through the European 20th c tradition of reconnecting body and life; see how anthropological studies of India draw similarly on 20th c notions of body, ritual, performativity, intention, locus, habitus, etc.
    Your focus on the organic concept of ‘living body’ is indeed a good way of reorienting comparativist conversation. But we also need to see how the range of ‘body’ words in Sanskrit are deployed in different generic and systematic contexts.

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