Untangling the Golden Age

The seventh and eighth centuries were, as Jean-Marie Verpoorten said, a “Golden Age” for Mīmāṃsā, when the two most important exponents of the system, Kumārila and Prabhākara, lived. But it was also a “Golden Age” for other systems. It was the time of Dharmakīrti, who was regarded by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike as the Buddhist philosopher, and it was when Śaṅkara formulated the system of Advaita Vedānta that would eventually come to be identified with “Indian Philosophy” itself.

But what appears to be a “Golden Age” in terms of textual production of lasting significance is a “Dark Age” in terms of our historical knowledge. We know next to nothing for certain about the dating, relative or absolute, of the most important works, to say nothing of the particular social, institutional or even geographic contexts in which they were produced. Take the well-known case of Kumārila and Prabhākara: although there are some suggestions (from later commentators) that one knew of, and criticized, the work of the other, the evidence is inconclusive, and it could well be that neither knew of the other’s work. Much more scholarly attention has been devoted to the relationship between Kumārila and Dharmakīrti, but here, too, the evidence is inconclusive.

So far, we’re talking about a lack of historical information—a lack that we feel particularly acutely with respect to the “Golden Age” of the seventh and eighth centuries, but one that isn’t particularly uncommon in Indian philosophy as a whole. But there are a few other features of this “Golden Age” that I find somewhat stranger, and while I’m sure there are explanations out there, I wanted to register here their very, well, weirdness.

The first is the duplication, if that is the word, of commentaries. Śaṅkara might be taken to represent a “typical” philosopher: he writes one commentary on all of the important works of his system, as well as self-contained works that introduce the basic ideas of the system. So far so good. Now Dharmakīrti writes a number of works which build upon each other and reframe his basic ideas. There is nothing particularly strange about this, either—Diṅnāga also “repackaged” his earlier work in his Pramāṇasamuccaya—but Dharmakīrti kept producing new texts in a way that goes beyond simple repackaging and replying to objections. The real puzzle here is the Mīmāṃsā authors. Kumārila and Prabhākara are both well-known for their commentaries (or series of commentaries) on Śabara’s Bhāṣya: Kumārila’s Ślokavārttika, Tantravārttika, and Ṭupṭīkā, and Prabhākara’s Bṛhatī (also called the Nibandhana). But they are supposed to have also written other commentaries on the same text which are no longer extant: Kumārila’s Bṛhaṭṭīkā, and Prabhākara’s Laghvī (also called the Vivaraṇa). Why would they write two commentaries on the same text? Scholars have suggested that Kumārila wrote the Bṛhaṭṭīkā in order to elaborate and defend his earlier views in the wake of criticism from other philosophers, but others have argued, more convincingly in my view, that the fragments of the Bṛhaṭṭīkā do not specifically refer to or presuppose any such criticisms. An equally important question is why these commentaries were lost, especially when the “other” commentaries (at least the Ślokavārttika and Tantravārttika) were read and commented upon so frequently.

The question of survival brings me to the second strange fact, which is the tangled and obscure network of citation and circulation more broadly. Kumārila’s Bṛhaṭṭīkā, apparently his final and definitive work, is known principally (if not exclusively—I don’t have all of the relevant scholarship in front of me) from quotations in a Buddhist work, Śāntarakṣita’s Tattvasaṃgraha. Who was actually reading authors like Kumārila and Prabhākara, what works of theirs were they actually reading, and why were they reading them? Let’s jump from the Buddhists at Nālandā to Śaṅkara and his students, who are thought to be roughly contemporary with Kumārila and Prabhākara. Among the earliest references to Kumārila and Prabhākara are found in the works of Maṇḍanamiśra, whose own relationship with Śaṅkara is still a subject of debate. Then we find an extensive discussion of Prabhākara’s ideas in the Pañcapādikā of Padmapāda, one of Śaṅkara’s students. It is not at all surprising that Mīmāṃsā should have been studied among Buddhists and Vedāntins, and in longstanding Buddhist institutions and more recently established Vedāntin institutions. But it does point to the asymmetry between these groups and Mīmāṃsakas, whom we might expect to have been drawn from more localized and less centralized networks of Vedic study. It also highlights another asymmetry: whereas Dharmakīrti’s and Śaṅkara’s works attracted commentaries of their own almost immediately, some generations seem to separate Kumārila and Prabhākara from their earliest commentators (Umbeka and Śālikanāthamiśra), and it’s not clear whether these commentators themselves had access to the “complete works” of either philosopher.

Since these are not questions, but more like expressions of a vague puzzlement, I’m not sure what answers to expect. But they do lead me to wonder whether there are other, and possibly more robust, ways of studying the connection between these philosophers than Quellenforschung. (Elisa’s work on citation practices is a step in this direction, I think.) The content of the conversation is obviously what we care most about, but the nature and conditions of the conversation are important too—even if it seems impossible to know anything for certain about them—especially because they shaped the archive that has come to represent, at least to us, one of the “Golden Ages” of Indian philosophy.

(I refer to J.-M. Verpoorten’s Mīmāṃsā Literature in the Gonda History of Indian Literature Series and L. McCrea’s “Transformation of Mīmāṃsā” in Periodization and Historiography of Indian Philosophy.)

8 thoughts on “Untangling the Golden Age

  1. Interesting thoughts. We do have some absolute dates for Buddhist texts of the period based on Tibetan and Chinese accounts, which keep more precise dates. Yijing (I-tsing) mentions all the major Mahāyāna thinkers in India at his time, so you can tell who had achieved fame, at least, by 685 CE (the date Yijing left India). We know the chronology of Tibetan translators as well; Ye shes de, who translated the Bodhicaryāvatāra into Tibetan, worked under Khri lde srong brtsan (r. 816-838 CE). Since Yijing doesn’t mention Śāntideva, I date the BCA between 685 and 838 BCE on the basis of that evidence.

    Not that that’s exactly precise, of course! I am boggled when I hear scholars of Greece debate the date of Plato’s dialogues down to the month. We’re never going to get anything like that. But it’s worth taking note of what we do have.

  2. A similar situation is with Sanskrit literature. There are a number of works ascribed to Kalidasa or – in sum – about one thousand verses in different versions of Bhartrhari’s ‘Shatakatrayam’. Probably this implies, that with respect to Indian culture the statement ‘X is the author of Y’ differs from the statement ‘Wittgenstein is the author of Tractatus’. We believe that a work belongs to an author, but in many traditional cultures (not only in India) authors name just marks a text making it more significant.

    • Yes, Evgenija! That’s a crucial point. And “our” of understanding of what an author is is also a historical construct, it has not always been the case (and will probably rapidly change due to Wikipedia-like authorships).

    • I am also not sure that it should surprise us to see a person writing multiple commentaries on the same text. For instance, Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta did it too (writing shorter and longer commentaries and subcommentaries on the former’s Īśvarapratyabhijñākārikā).

  3. Andrew, on the Bṛhaṭṭīkā and the Jaina texts quoting it, see Frauwallner 1962.
    You seem to imply that the arguments in favour of the succession Kumārila-Prabhākara discussed in Yoshimizu 1994 do not convince you. Why? (If you have not read the text, I will summarise it in a post).

  4. On Evgeniya’s point: yes, I think a more supple notion of authorship—one that has multiple “functions” that are not always co-present—is precisely what we need. (I’m obviously thinking of Foucault’s “What is an author?” in Language, Counter-memory, Practice).

    The question of whether writing multiple commentaries is common (which is a brute fact) is slightly different from the question of whether it’s surprising (which, at least for me, is a function of how we understand or motivate the choice to write multiple commentaries: did the author’s views change? are they written from two perspectives? is one more “scholarly” and one more pedagogical? is one an “abridged” version of the other? is one a “revised and expanded” verison? what would those choices mean in a manuscript culture? does one supercede the other? how different are the two texts, anyway?).

    Elisa, yes, I’d always appreciate some discussion of the Kumārila/Prabhākara question. And I’m waiting on a copy of Frauwallner’s paper (and a few others), but in the meantime I noticed that our friend Nārāyaṇabhaṭṭa also quoted the Bṛhaṭṭīkā.

    • Thanks! Where is Nārāyaṇabhaṭṭa’s quote? I will also try to scan and send you Frauwallner’s article (it might take longer, though, as I have a complicated relationship with scanners).

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