What is a commentary? And how the Nyāyamañjarī and the Seśvaramīmāṃsā do (not) fit the definition UPDATED

What makes a text a “commentary”? The question is naif enough to allow for a complicated answer. First of all, let me note the obvious: There is not a single word for “commentary” in Sanskrit, where one needs to distinguish between bhāṣyas, vārttikas, ṭippanīs, etc., often bearing poetical names, evoking Moons, mirrors and the like.

Sanskrit authors, thus, had in mind a widely different set of texts which we all bring back to the seemingly single category of “commentary”. Some of them are chiefly line-by-line or word-by-word explanations (an illustrious example is Manorathanandin’s commentary on Dharmakīrti’s PV). Others entail elaborate philosophical disquisitions (such as Vācaspati’s Nyāyakaṇikā on Maṇḍana’s Vidhiviveka). Still others just comment on a few words or sentences every 10 pages or so (such as Cakradhara’s Granthibhaṅga on Jayanta’s Nyāyamañjarī).
Some of them are part of a longer history, that they fully embrace. This is especially true in the case of the philosophical sūtras and of their first Bhāṣya-commentary, which tends to be fused in a single text. This last sentence could also be interpreted as saying that a sūtra-part was only later extracted out of the respective Bhāṣya.
Vācaspati’s commentary of the Nyāyasūtra, for instance, embeds comments also on its Bhāṣya by Vātsyāyana, but typically also on the Vārttika thereon. Others focus only on one text and neglect the successive history. Śrīprapāduka’s commentary on the same Nyāyasūtra, for instance, explicitly focuses only on it.
What is constant in all these cases is that a commentary is in close dialogue with a root text (with or without its commentaries), which remain(s) its main interlocutor(s).
This makes the definition wide enough to encompass texts such as the Nyāyamañjarī itself, which comments extensively on some selected Nyāyasūtras (Graheli 2016 contains an appendix with the sūtra numbers and the impressive amount of pages dedicated to each of them). Similarly, Veṅkaṭanātha’s Seśvaramīmāṃsā comments anew the Mīmāṃsāsūtra, programmatically neglecting the commentary by Śabara.
Thus, we could sum up the relation “A is a commentary of B” as “B is the main interlocutor of A”.
UPDATE: The relation of “being the main interlocutor” can be more loosely understood if A and B belong to the same śāstric tradition, whereas it needs to entail a very close (e.g., page-by-page or line-by-line) dialogue in order to consider A, which is polemical about B, a commentary of it.
However, the picture may become still more complicated, because a text A apparently commenting on B may have in fact in view most of all B’s other commentary, C, so that C, though never mentioned, is A’s main interlocutor.
Coming back to the example mentioned above, the Seśvaramīmāṃsā comments on the Mīmāṃsāsūtra, but while having constantly in view the Śabara’s Bhāṣya thereon and, more strikingly, Rāmānuja’s Bhāṣya on a different sūtra, namely the Brahmasūtra. One ends up with a net of main interlocutors rather than a single one.

(cross-posted on my personal blog)

**I thank Amod Lele for the discussion in the comments here below.

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7 thoughts on “What is a commentary? And how the Nyāyamañjarī and the Seśvaramīmāṃsā do (not) fit the definition UPDATED

  1. Important thoughts. I’m also not sure about the “main interlocutor” definition, because “interlocutor” to me implies at least the possibility of a hostile relationship, which seems to move away from our concept of commentary. One could say, for example, that Hegel is Kierkegaard’s “main interlocutor” in at least some texts, but I don’t think I would want to call those texts commentaries.

    • thanks Amod. I think most of us tend to assume to know what a commentary is, but the idea gets foggier once one gets closer to the texts. There are many “commentaries” which strongly diverge from the spirit of the text they comment upon (as much as we can reconstruct it), so that I do not think that “disagreement” would rule out the possibility of a commentary-type of relation. Please note that I am not speaking of “hostility” only because the Sanskrit etiquette usually tends to avoid open hostility. As for your counter-example, I agree that Hegel could be said to be Kierkegaard’s main interlocutor, but I would not be able to say that, e.g., “Die Phenomenologie des Geistes” is the main interlocutor of “Aut-Aut”. If this were the case, and “Aut-Aut” were really engaging in a close discussion (e.g., line-by-line) with the content of the Phenomelogie, then why not calling it a (polemical) commentary? To sum up, “interlocutor” needs to refer to a text, not to a person. And yes, you are right, in case of disagreement (and even more so in case of hostility), the connection needs to be even closer in order for A to be said to be a commentary of B.

      • I think that’s right. To my mind “interlocutor” usually suggests a person, but if we are referring to a text then I think we’re closer to the mark. Could one perhaps say that the idea of a commentary is that it is a text which is about another text, perhaps in addition to being about the topic of that other text? Such a definition would include many contemporary scholarly articles and “secondary works” as commentaries – which makes sense to me.

  2. Pingback: What is a commentary? | elisa freschi

  3. fyk, the Nyāyasūtravivaraṇa is basically a selection of Nyāyabhāṣya and Nyāyavārttika passages, according to what Oliver Frey tells me. Very little is original.

  4. In the case of the Nyāyamañjarī, I would say that Kumārila, Dignāga, etc., are Bhaṭṭa Jayanta’s interlocutors, rather than Vātsyāyana etc. I would distinguish glosses or scholia such as the Granthibhaṅga, from explanations of aphorisms such as the Bhāṣya, the Vārttika and the Tātparyaṭīkā, and again from larger, digressive commentaries such as the Nyāyamañjarī and perhaps the Seśvaramīmāṃsā.

    • Thanks for your comment, Alessandro, and welcome on the IPhBlog!
      As for your first point, you may have seen my discussion with Amod, who raised a somewhat similar point. I see your point concerning Jayanta’s close dialogue with Kumārila, and this is why I stated in the post that the interlocutor has to be a text (Amod also rephrased the relation of “having one text as main interlocutor” as “being mainly about another text”, in order to avoid evoking a human being through the word “interlocutor”). I would not say that the NM is mainly about the ŚV, since the ŚV appears again and again, but is not chronologically analysed, and since there are other texts which play a major role in it, as you pointed out. By contrast, I think it would be fair to say that the NS provides the framework upon which Jayanta builds his work and that in this sense the NM is about it.
      The chapters of the Tattvasaṅgraha (+pañjikā) which mainly quote and comment on the Bṛhaṭṭīkā, provided we can show that they quote with almost no gap, could instead be considered a commentary on it.
      Concerning your second point, yes, showing that these are all very different sorts of texts was exactly my point when I decided to focus on the multifaceted nature of the texts we translate with “commentary”.

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