Digital Methods in the Study of Indian Philosophy

I’ve just returned from a conference dedicated to “Digital Textualities in South Asia” at UBC. One of the main goals of the conference was to gauge what kinds of digital tools and resources are being developed in South Asian studies, and I noticed that many of the projects were basically concerned with textual criticism. One model that at least three presenters used was (1) transcribing large numbers of manuscripts of a given text; (2) semi-automatically collating these manuscripts using programs like CollateX; and (3) developing a stemma using phylogenetic software. I talked about something more general—strategies and standards in the production of digital texts, using literary anthologies as a test-case.

What about Indian Philosophy? How, if at all, has the transition to digitial media transformed our research? Most of the projects that I am aware with are concerned with making digital texts available. There is, first of all, the SARIT project, which has excellent coverage of Buddhist philosophical texts thanks to the direction of Birgit Kellner. (I can promise that more Mīmāṃsā texts are coming soon!) SARIT provides downloadable e-texts as well as a search interface for those texts. Then there is the digital Prasthānatrayam provided by the Advaita Śāradā at Sringeri, which provides a completely hyperlinked text of all of Śaṅkarācārya’s commentaries. Besides these general resources, there is an in-progress database of Fragments of Indian Philosophy run by Ernst Prets at the IKGA. This project is particularly exciting, first because it is a million times easier to keep track of fragments using digital tools than print resources, and second because the inherently linked and relational nature of fragments makes it very natural to treat them as “linked open data,” which has a number of exciting applications. (See the Leipzig Open Fragmentary Texts Series and Sharing Ancient Wisdoms.) Finally, there are teaching applications, such as the annotation software that Malcolm mentioned in a recent post.

That said, my impression is that philosophy and South Asian studies are among the least “digitized” academic fields/disciplines, and Indian Philosophy falls in the middle of this Venn Diagram of analog scholarship. I think there is still a lot we can do, and a lot of interesting projects to be designed. With this post I wanted to pose a couple of questions.

  • What am I missing? What exciting digital projects are out there that have some relevance to the study of Indian philosophy?
  • How, if at all, do digital tools and resources (like GRETIL, SARIT, etc.) change the way that we do our research on a practical level?
  • How, if at all, do digital tools and resources change the questions that our research begins with?
  • How can we use digital projects to change the “user base” of Indian philosophy? (i.e., can we get more people involved, either as readers, collaborators, annotators, etc.?)
  • What would you like to see happen in this area? What kinds of projects would be useful or interesting to you?

Here is a running list of digital tools and projects that might conceivably be used to study Indian philosophy:

6 thoughts on “Digital Methods in the Study of Indian Philosophy

  1. Thanks, Andrew for this fascinating post. If I could ask you a couple of questions:

    (1) how do you think Indian Philosophy, broadly understood, compares to “Ancient” (i.e. Greek and Latin) philosophy on the analog/digital spectrum? We’ve seen how MSI techniques have helped us understand the Herculaneum papyri. Do you think that concrete instances of such opportunities and successes have led our classicist cousins farther along? Or are we more or less in the same place?

    (2) Do you think that in some ways, textual scholars like many of us here are somewhat hesitant to get on board with initiatives that can seem faddish, and that this may be an obstacle?

  2. In general I think the digitization of texts is a good start. Richard Mahoney’s digital editions of Śāntideva’s main texts have been a big help for me in my work. For me, the flashier text-mining and visualization kind of projects are far less important than the basics of digital texts – and scholarly communication, which venues like this are great for.

  3. Thanks for this great post! I work myself mostly in the field of Buddhist philosophy and thus I’m often in need to consult some non-Sanskrit texts. There are some great tools to do that and maybe they will be of some use for you. I have two projects in mind:
    Digital Pali Reader, a Firefox add-on that gives you an access to the Myanmar and Thai Tipiṭaka together with a wide selection of Pali commentaries; Pali dictionaries; search engine, and more.
    The SAT Daizōkyō Text Database, an on-line database of Taishō Tripiṭaka in 85 volumes with a direct access to Digital Dictionary of Buddhism and to other resources; images of the original pages, and more.
    Generally, without tools such as Digital Pali Reader, The SAT, and other resources mentioned by Andrew, any research across many traditions (or even texts) would be much more demanding. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, because we have digital tools, we are able to formulate research questions that otherwise would be nearly unresolvable, to say the least. Just one example from my field. Suppose you plan to check what was the meaning of some random Nāgārjuna’s term, ekārtha for example, in Buddhist literature composed prior to his dates. And now imagine going through all the canons manually!

  4. Thanks to everyone for mentioning projects that I neglected to mention in the original post—I’ve now added these to the bottom of the post. I agree with Amod that the place to start is making reliable, searchable, digital texts. The SAT Daizōkyō Text Database is a good example of what the next steps might be.

    Regarding Matthew’s first question, I am absolutely unqualified to report on the status of digital research in the Greek and Latin world, but it is true that some recent research (e.g., on the Herculaneum philosophical papyri) would be impossible without modern technology. But there is considerable division of labor there: the archaeologists and technicians unroll the scrolls and image them, and the textual scholars produce their editions and commentaries. Scholars working in Greek and Latin (and also Hebrew) also have the benefit of comprehensive collections of digital texts that are exhaustively lemmatized, which is still a long ways off for Sanskrit and other South Asian languages.

    The thinking behind Amod’s and Matthew’s comments seems to be this (please correct me if I’m wrong): research in philosophy has generally proceeded by reading texts carefully and thinking, and the transition to digital media hasn’t changed and won’t change this basic methodology. The most that digital media can do is help us to do more efficiently the things we would have done anyway, like use dictionaries, look up how particular words are used in context, etc. (A possible corollary: projects that do something different, like ‘text-mining’ or ‘visualization’, are not philosophical projects.) But—and this is all somewhat speculative at this point—it’s at least possible that an intelligent application of digital tools and methods will yield philosophically-interesting results that individual scholars reading their books and thinking would never achieve. This might be because of the scale of the data (covering hundreds of texts instead of one or two), or it might be because machines do things with text data that are different from, but complementary to, the things that humans do with it: pattern recognition, topic modelling, citation detection, etc. And of course I think the very activity of “reading” which is so fundamental to philosophical research is on the verge of being completely transformed: because of the physical limitations of print (and manuscript) media, we read individual texts, maybe with one or two commentaries. (The limit case is an edition of the Kāvyaprakāśa that I have been using that includes sixteen commentaries!) But we can now imagine reading environments that deliver all of the commentaries and all of the parallel texts in a programmatic and synchronized way.

  5. Thanks for this follow up, Andrew. I think you make a very good case.

    It would seem that among other things raw computing power coupled with digitized texts will help us more effectively gain linguistic usage data that may help us in questions of authorship, influence, and historical strata of texts.

    I wouldn’t endorse the view that you suggest is behind Amod and my comments, but I think the way you put it well articulates the kind of attitude I guessed at in my second question.

    I’ve made a link to this thread in the “resources” section of the blog. Readers may find other digital tools and repositories there as well.


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