Prābhākāra Mīmāṃsā and the Rise of Nyāya’s Philosophy of Language

Dear fellow readers,

Hi. My name is Patrick, and I’m a Doctoral Candidate at Cornell University. For the month of March 2021, I’ll be taking the lead in this blog series for graduate students to discuss their research. In this first blog post, I’ll speak briefly about my dissertation project:

My research interests primarily orbit around philosophy of language in premodern South Asia, and my dissertation project seeks to tell an intellectual history of Gaṅgeśa’s philosophy of language in the Tattvacintāmaṇi (c. 1320 CE).

My intellectual-historical narrative is tied together by the theme of appropriating resources and positions from Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā: Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā emerged with Śālikanātha (c. 900 CE?) as on the cutting edge of the field of philosophy of language through his antithetical engagement with Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā to coopt their philosophical resources within a Prābhākara model, and then Naiyāyikas in turn developed their own philosophy of language antithetical to the then-dominant textual tradition of Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā, primarily by rehabilitating and refining positions from Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā, and especially from Maṇḍanamiśra (active late 600s/early 700s?).

On the content/philosophical side of the project, one of my core theses is that the competing systems on philosophy of language were primarily concerned with the topic of human motivational behaviour. For the Naiyāyikas, humans are rational agents and are motivated by a calculation of self-interest, whereas for the Prābhākaras, humans’ initial impulse to act is disinterested from the result and stems from a sense of duty or obligation. The framework in which this debate occurred was a perception model of language (i.e., how the language-listener computes meaning), and specifically commands. One of my goals is to show how other topics within their systems harmonize with their positions on this core topic.

I have published some preliminary writing which will feed into the first section of my dissertation as an article in the Journal of Hindu Studies titled: ‘Commands and the Doctrine of the Apūrva in Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā’ (hereafter, Cummins 2021). In the article I argue that Śālikanātha developed a new model of the archetypal Vedic command svargakāmo yajeta (‘the man desiring heaven must sacrifice’) for Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā whereupon the apūrva is directly signified by the command suffix –eta. I attempt to show that this reconfiguration allows Śālikanātha to subordinate Kumārila and Maṇḍana’s theories of bhāvanā (‘bringing into being’) while coopting their philosophical resources. The first section of my dissertation will expand upon the article, covering other topics in Śālikanātha’s treatises where this theme is replicated.

While Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā rose to a position of dominance in the wake of Śālikanātha, this is only now gaining some recognition in the field: much of the post-Śālikanātha corpus is lost and the extant pieces remain deeply understudied (see Cummins 2021 pp. 4-5, 36-7). And on the flip-side, scholastic attention given to Nyāya in the past century has primarily focused on their theories of perception and inference, not their philosophy of language, even though philosophy of language was an equal concern for the Naiyāyikas themselves (e.g., the Śabdakhaṇḍa constitutes 1/3rd of the whole Tattvacintāmaṇi). Given all this, it is unsurprising that our field hasn’t realized that Gaṅgeśa was the final voice in several centuries of responses to Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā. Gaṅgeśa was, as his son Vardhamāna called him, a master of Mīmāṃsā (lit: a seer of the far shore of Mīmāṃsā [mīmāṃsāpāradṛśvane], vs. 3 of the Prakāśa on the Nyāyakusumāñjali). The very language we typically think of as synonymous with later Nyāya – avacchedakas and whatnot – is all but absent in Gaṅgeśa’s Śabdakhaṇḍa. Instead, the language that permeates the Śabdakhaṇḍa is the language of Mīmāṃsā.

The biggest challenge in this project is one of reconstruction. Gaṅgeśa engages Prābhākara interlocutors’ whose treatises are no longer extant, and Gaṅgeśa does not name names. To compound the problem, Gaṅgeśa’s commentators in the following centuries appear to not have direct access to Gaṅgeśa’s source materials nor is their commentarial modality historicist. This leaves me in the situation of trying to figure out if a Prābhākara interlocutor’s position on a given topic in the Śabdakhaṇḍa tracks with any Prābhākara interlocutors’ positions on other topics (and conclusions from this methodology can only go so far). Similarly, on the Nyāya side of things the treatises of two important Naiyāyikas are also lost: Trilocana (pre-Vācaspati) and Soṇḍāda (post-Śaśadhara but pre-Gaṅgeśa). Thus, although much can be said with certainty, there will nevertheless be gaps and hypotheses which can only be resolved via the emergence of new materials.

One of my working hypotheses is that this conversation between Prābhākaras and Naiyāyikas primarily happened in the Mithilā to Bengal region. While it’s not at all a controversial claim on the Naiyāyika side of things that Vācaspati, Udayana and Gaṅgeśa were all from the Mithilā region, it is perhaps more controversial on the Prābhākara side (as Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā was well-studied in the South too, as confirmed by inscriptional evidence and engagement by Vedāntins). However, I’ve found evidence that points to Śālikanātha as from Bengal (see Cummins 2021 n. 109). Likewise, no other Sanskrit intellectual seems to have direct access to Gaṅgeśa’s immediate Prābhākara interlocutors’ materials –> this makes it so I can’t but seriously consider the possibility that these Prābhākaras were from his immediate locale. I need to scour the inscriptional evidence from the greater Mithilā and Bengal region for references to Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā (it’s high on my to-do list!), but I would be love to hear if anyone has further thoughts on this issue.

11 Replies to “Prābhākāra Mīmāṃsā and the Rise of Nyāya’s Philosophy of Language”

  1. Great post, Patrick, thanks a lot!
    I am a bit lost concerning the second to last sentence, do you mean to say that since no else engages with Prābhākara authors so thoroughly, it makes sense to imagine that they were from Gaṅgeśa’s area? I see your point, but how much of the South Indian Vedānta literature has been checked for traces of lost Prābhākaras? (honest question)

    • Hi Elisa, thanks for this 🙂 Apologies if the 2nd-last sentence wasn’t clear.

      I wasn’t say that nobody apart from Gaṅgeśa engages with Prābhākara so thoroughly. Rather, I was saying that I cannot find evidence that the exact Prābhākara positions that Gaṅgeśa engages as his direct interlocutors were known to any other Sanskrit intellectuals who we can be confident were Southerners in the 1200-1400s.

      And you’re right, of course: this hypothesis needs to be confirmed through a deeper survey of the literature (hence: ‘hypothesis’).

      However, to take one example of preliminary evidence pointing in this direction: it would be uncontroversial to say that Varadarāja, author of the Dīpikā on Bhavanātha’s Nayaviveka, is a Southerner (he claims lineage affiliation with Sudarśanasūri in his opening verses). However, I cannot find evidence that Varadarāja, despite being active not too long after Gaṅgeśa, has any knowledge of the specific Prābhākara positions that Gaṅgeśa engaged.

      Obviously, this far from conclusive evidence. However, it makes me think:
      i) I should explore the hypothesis that these specific Prābhākaras may have been from Gaṅgeśa’s locale.
      ii) There is a need for a broader survey of Southern literature (Vedānta and otherwise). So for example, another good place for me to poke around might be Śeśvaramīmāṃsā and other works by Vedānta Deśika.

      On the flip-side, the first instance I can find of these specific Prābhākara positions appearing in the South is in Vyāsatīrtha’s engagement Gaṅgeśa in the Tarkatāṇḍava –> and Vyāsatīrtha is then engaging Gaṅgeśa’s Prābhākara interlocutors second-hand (only via the Tattvacintāmaṇi). If Vyāsatīrtha’s second-hand access to these specific Prābhākara positions is actually the first instance of these Prābhākara positions appearing in the South, this might also point to these now-lost Prābhākaras as from Gaṅgeśa’s neck of the woods.

      To wrap up my response: I strongly agree that absence of evidence is no good proof. That being said, people have taken for granted that the South was the big stronghold of Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā, but I am now finding some preliminary, albeit thin, evidence to consider the hypothesis to look further East too …

  2. Do you reckon that your thesis would name this method of resuscitation of materials on Gaṅgeśa’s interlocutors from Śālikanātha by spelling out its novel features?
    or, is it the case that the method you are resorting to is a prevalent one? and a historicistic one?

    • Dear Roshni. Hi, thanks for this. Good question.

      I would say my methodology is definitely intellectual-historical and philological. However, my claims about Gaṅgeśa’s immediate Prābhākara interlocutors are not one of the bigger objectives of my project. I recognize this as one aspect of the project about which I can’t make strong claims, short of further materials coming to light (i.e., finding now-lost Prābhākara texts), and the project will emphasize other aspects while doing what I can on this frontier.

      So I would contrast my project with something such as recent work on Bhaṭṭanāyaka (where Bhaṭṭanāyaka’s treatise is lost and the project is entirely one of reconstruction from quotations in Abhinavagupta etc). In contrast, we DO have Gaṅgeśa’s treatise and my project is primarily a study of Gaṅgeśa, but the only access we have at this time to his immediate Prābhākara interlocutors is what Gaṅgeśa himself tells us.

      All that being said, perhaps I can elaborate with an example:

      In the śabdāprāmāṇyavāda, Gaṅgeśa charts a debate on the topic: Śālikanātha; Udayana; lost Prābhākara position only recorded in the Tattvacintāmaṇi; Gaṅgeśa’s own position.

      Gaṅgeśa’s commentator name his interlocutor as Mahodadhi/Mahārṇava (whether this is the name of a text or a person, I’m unsure). In any case, it’s clear Gaṅgeśa’s commentators have received this name through tradition, they don’t have direct access to this text.

      However, I feel confident in connecting this position of Gaṅgeśa’s now-lost Prābhākara on śabdāprāmāṇyavāda with a position on another topic within the jātivāda of the Tattvacintāmaṇi, on the basis of coherency (the two positions only work if we presuppose the other). So I would feel relatively confident identifying these as the positions of the same interlocutor on two different topics.

      However, I cannot go a further step and connect these positions with, say, Gaṅgeśa’s big interlocutor on vidhivāda. This is the sort of limitation this methodology of reconstruction runs up against.

      Perhaps I should end by saying that Gaṅgeśa does a fantastic job of controlling the narrative and hiding his debt to his predecessors. If we didn’t have access to the Nyāyasiddhāntadīpa, for example, Gaṅgeśa’s debt to Śaśadhara would be all but obscured. Much on these sort of questions will remain unknown short of new materials coming to light, but there is still light enough to do work within …

  3. Thanks very much for your illuminating reply, dear Patrick. In the light of above comments (thanks to elisa freschi) and replies, i understand that your extrapolation is on the philological sources for reconstruction – by making use of the epistemological device of law of coherence, resorting to cross-references from within interlocutors’ theories regarding, perception, inference, and language (which is your focus).
    i would still like to pose the question whether this method of (partial)reconstruction partakes in a larger claim counterposing itself (as philological method) against other dominant modes of reconstruction – such as the historical? introducing novel features to this method of reconstruction?
    Or perhaps, your thesis at this point does not want to get into such larger debates?
    It nonetheless broadens the field of reconstruction.
    Thanks for the post.
    Best wishes for your work.

    • Dear Roshni,
      I had not previously considered bringing my methodology into conversation with other modes of reconstruction (as you suggest, for example, the historical).
      My thought process about the interventions I want to make with my dissertation project has been primarily in terms of the state of knowledge in the field, but you make a valid point and perhaps this is one avenue I should give greater consideration.
      Thanks for your input and for reading my post 🙂
      Warmest regards,

      • Many thanks to Patrick (and Roshni) for this very interesting questions and answers. Patrick, I would be interested to read your opinion about how Gaṅgeśa reuses and interacts with Śaśadhara and the others we know (unacknowledged paraphrases, I guess?), so as to anticipate what he might be doing with his Prābhākara untraced sources…

        • Hey Elisa,

          Śaśadhara is, on a set of core topics, THE template for Gaṅgeśa’s own positions and system. We can observe Gaṅgeśa use Śaśadhara as material in several ways:

          i) There are instances where Gaṅgeśa presents Śaśadhara’s position as an earlier Naiyāyika conclusion/position in a given debate (vāda). For example, the apūrva. This topic in the Tattvacintāmaṇi begins with Śālikanātha, and Gaṅgeśa then presents the position of his Naiyāyika predecessor who critiques Śālikanātha. I can identity this as Śaśadhara. Gaṅgeśa then presents a real (now-lost) Prābhākara as responding to Śaśadhara. Gaṅgeśa then presents own position as a critique of the Prābhākara who critiques (what we know to be) Śaśadhara. In this way, Gaṅgeśa gives us the history of a debate wherein he situates himself on a continuum with Śaśadhara as the important Nyāya voice in the conversation.
          ii) Gaṅgeśa also often takes Śaśadhara’s conclusions without being so transparent about Śaśadhara as a predecessor, and presents them as his own (e.g. Śaśadhara’s rehabilitation of abhihitānvayavāda against Śālikanātha’s critique in Vākyārthamātṛkā I).
          iii) Similarly, Gaṅgeśa silently takes Śaśadhara’s conceptual innovations and treats them as his own. For example, Śaśadhara re-conceptualizes the language function of ‘suitability’ (yogyatā) to use against Śālikanātha’s position on the apūrva as directly signified by the verbal suffix -eta. Gaṅgeśa takes Śaśadhara’s position of yogyatā as his own and uses it in śabdāprāmāṇyavāda, yogyatāvāda and apūrvavāda.
          iii) Gaṅgeśa often weaves Śaśadhara’s text seamlessly into his own, right down to specific quotes at the exact same places (e.g., NS 2.2.66 at the end of jātiśaktivāda I), specific insults about the Guru (Prabhākara) being laghu, and so on.

          Gaṅgeśa seems a bit more hostile to his more recent predecessor Soṇḍāda than he is to Śaśadhara, but also presents Soṇḍāda as an important predecessor in conversations with Prābhākaras too.

          So to turn to your question with this in sight, I don’t trust Gaṅgeśa so much when it comes to his Prābhākara sources. I do trust him to be presenting real positions with fidelity. However, at specific times I question to what degree these Prābhākaras are engaging the Naiyāyikas directly. I think there are a few cases where Gaṅgeśa may creating the conversations (TBD). I might have a clear answer on this on a few topics (I haven’t done all the readings yet –> Murāri might be very useful here).

          • Thank you very much for this detailed answer, Patrick. You seem almost to say that we should praise Śaśadhara over Gaṅgeśa and that the latter’s fame is the result of systematicity more than philosophical acumen.

  4. Hi Patrick, The History of Thithut, by Singh and Bahadur (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press 1922) gives a comprehensive survey of the records of Mithila. And Śālikanātha is listed as a Sanskrit writer from Mithila (p. 110), date unknown. BUT the same index entry points also to p.164, and the entry on Saukanatha Misra, “pupil of Prabhakara Guru. . .” That reads like a Vedic-style sandhi of rather unusual *l in Śālikanātha. And moving east towards Bengal, Paul Thieme noticed “early Prakritisms”. I have found the very rare palatial *l and r/l ambiguity: as if a Chinese influence.

    I’m not coming off the academic circuit here, rather with a prospector’s interest in ethnobotany, traditional knowledge systems and medicine. Perhaps the quest for discovery makes us more inventive: in any case, with these knotty historical problems I look to semantic stress in the texts, and for analysis, to Roman Jakobsen, structural linguistics and anthropology, and structural realism in philosophy.

    Here the r/l opposition serves as a structural element and anthropological marker. And Śālikanātha/Saukanatha is described as an ” honorary” (kevala in Vedic) Maithila, with family associations but no attested residence. As if a pilgrim, likely on the route north to Katmandu.

    In such ways I find that structuralism serves well as a *forensic method, for recovering fragmented evidence and traditions. And that forensics was in any case the root of ancient science: there were always unnatural deaths to be investigated, with suspicions of homicide: and there the principle of ahimsa gave one a valuable neutrality.

    • Thanks for this and for reading my post.

      I looked up the reference you provide in The History of Tirhut, from Earliest Times to the End of the Nineteenth Century (it’s available on the Internet Archive).

      As you mention, the listing of Śālikanātha on p. 110 is elaborated on p. 165. The further description on p. 165 says that the paṇḍits of Mithilā look upon Śālikanātha as a Maithila brahmin, and some families even claim connection, but there is no further evidence.

      The evidence I present (Cummins 2021 n. 109) looks to another recent Sanskrit treatise by the Naiyāyika Udayana, written not too long after Śālikanātha was active, and Udayana calls his recent predecessor Śālikanātha a gauḍa (i.e. Easterner, but probably Bengali specifically given that Udayana was seemingly in the greater Mithilā region himself).

      It’s nice to see that local tradition agrees with my interpretation on Śālikanātha’s ostensible locale: thanks for this 🙂

      You mention an entry on Saukanātha. I cannot find this name in the same work. Do you have a page number? Thanks.

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