Further thoughts on Sanskrit philosophical commentaries

The main thing about Sanskrit philosophical commentaries is that they are the standard way of doing philosophy. For centuries, they were almost the only way of doing philosophy. After Maṇḍana, one starts seeing monographs dedicated to a specific topic. Still, even those take often the form of verses+autocommentary and do not become the mainstream form of philosophy. Until today, Sanskrit philosophers think and write in the form of commentaries. This has several implications:

  1. They do not value originality per se. I am probably preaching to the converted if I say that one can make incredible innovations while writing a commentary (and in fact, this routinely happened, with sources of knowledge being removed from the list, new accounts being added, completely different explanations being offered etc.). However, the genre “commentary” involves the habitus of intellectual humbleness. One does not praise one’s innovations and rather locates them in a tradition of exegesis of truths that were already available for everyone, if only one had paused long enough to see them.

  2. Lower level explanations about word-meanings, sentence-syntax etc. are mixed with high level elaborations. This means that even the most self-confident intellectual will not disdain intellectual labour, because the two are contiguous.

  3. Philosophy is constantly seen as a dialogue with one’s intellectual predecessors. In fact, and unlike in other philosophical traditions, Sanskrit commentaries typically take the form of dialogues among possible interpretations.

  4. The constraints of the commentary open the way for the never-ending play of possible interpretations. Abhinavagupta lists 18 (if I remember correctly) interpretations for the word anuttara in his Paratriṃśikāvivaraṇa and everyone is aware of the amplifying potential of commenting on words and texts.

In later times, I would add two further features of philosophical commentaries:

  1. Commentaries tend to take into account more and more networks of texts rather than single texts
  2. Consequently, one comments not only on the texts of one’s schools, but also on influential texts one wants to appropriate (think of Śaṅkara’s inaugurating the use of commenting on the BhG and the Upaniṣads, as well as Abhinavagupta’s commentary on the Triṃśikā). Still later, one comments on the texts on one’s adversaries as a way to refute them, like Madhusādana Sarasvatī did in the case of Vyāsatīrtha.

(cross-posted on my personal blog: http://elisafreschi.com)

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.

9 Replies to “Further thoughts on Sanskrit philosophical commentaries”

  1. For me this is one of the many things that makes Śāntideva interesting: his works are not primarily commentary. Still, his writings do fit much of the implications you mention, just in a different way. One could argue the Śikṣā Samuccaya is in some respects even less innovative than a commentary, since it is primarily an anthology of texts from the sūtras.

    The Bodhicaryāvatāra, by contrast, is acknowledged by the tradition to be a genuinely new work. The hagiography of Śāntideva says the other monks at Nālandā viewed him as a lazy good-for-nothing, and tried to test him by asking him to recite something. He asked if they wanted something old or something new; they said “something new”, and so he recited the Bodhicaryāvatāra for the first time.

    And yet, even so, right at the beginning of the Bodhicaryāvatāra the text itself says “I am saying nothing new here”!

  2. I really wonder, why is the case that a lot of sanskrit happened in the form of commentaries, though it is a common practise to built theories on the shoulder of giants. But it makes one think that sanskrit had few and rare instances of innovators.

    Though i think making commentary as a way of individual learning can really be a good exercise and experiment for students (where it is really uncommon in the nonsanskrit sphere). I heard once VN jha speaking that his teacher taught him only tarkasamgraha for almost three years and was asked to just give a commentary after commentary in this period

    • Thank you, Aditya. To be honest, I think that it is not a question of originality, but rather of how to “package” one’s originality. Yet, you are like that people may think that Sanskrit had few and rare instances of innovators, because these are not “advertised” as such.

  3. Good post as always, Elisa. I wonder though (this brings up some of my analytic western background) what someone, say, a New Atheist (or a physicalist of either type A or B) would make of Nagarjuna. I know that many have done their best to naturalize Nagarjun, Santidev, and other Buddhist thinkers, but I worry that some may be tempted to throw the baby out with the bath water and abandon any prospects for Indian philosophy. It doesn’t help western philosophers that Indian philosophy (most of it anyway) has some reverence for authority, even in “atheistic” schools like Carvaka, etc. Is it a misunderstanding to see Indian philosophy as essentially like Yayati (who offered his youth to his father out of blind parental obedience) and Western philosophy as more like Oedipus (who murdered his own father out of his passion)? On the surface this does seem to me an oversimplification and as a student of Indian thought I would like to see, if for mere curiosity’s sake, a solid scientific defense (even if I ultimately reject it) of traditional Indian theology and cosmology that engages with modern biology and neuroscience as I realize that many of the standard reasons given by the classical texts (and modern gurus such as Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, Chinmayananda, Ramana Maharishi, Bodhinath Veylanswami) won’t wash for 99% of western philosophers. tl;dr: I think most western analytic philosophers will be inclined to reject the dialectical methods of Nagarjuna and that this will taint their overall impression of pre-modern Indian thought.

    • Hi Bill, thanks for your comment. I agree that many analytic philosophers use the “reverence-to-one’s teachers” model as an excuse to decide that Sanskrit philosophy is not scientific enough. It would be too easy to reply that the same people are so devout to their teachers that they don’t even venture outside the sphere of Anglo-Analytic philosophy.
      As I wrote to Aditya above, I think that Sanskrit philosophers are not being less Oedipus than Euro-American ones, but they are not celebrating their parricides.

      As for your second query (whether it would be possible to offer a scientific defence of theology etc.), by contrast, I tend to disagree with you. One of the things I appreciate the most about Mīmāṃsā is its ability to put clear limits. The “is” is not the “ought” and what applies to the one does not apply to the other. Hence, the Veda remains a deontic authority, but has nothing to say when it comes to scientific discoveries. In this sense, I think that a scientific defence of theology is ill-put. This being said, other thinkers, like Jonathan Edelmann among the contributors of this blog, see it otherwise and you might want to check his work!

      • Edelman’s work on the Bhagavata Purana and Biology came up short of my expectations. It seemed more operational than constructive (I was expected him to show exactly how Darwinian biology is compatible with a text that posits a flat earth). He reminds me of Rajiv Malhotra in that sense. I don’t mean that comparison as an insult as some might but rather as a disinterested observation. I mention this as a former Hare Krishna myself with a BA in western philosophy. The Sankhya system is incompatible with modern science and contemporary metaphysics in my view. It was formulated at a time when physics was still in its infancy and the authors of the Sankhya texts almost certainly would not be Sankhya philosophers if they were alive today. Many Hindus have tried to reconcile (even late, see Bhagavata Purana) shastras with modern science but so far I have yet to see any that deliver the goods. Likewise some Hindu philosophers such as RamaKrishna Puligandla (my first philosophy teacher) have tried to refute the claim that the Big Bang Theory is scientific by phenomenological arguments (both eastern and western), but these arguments fail since they assume an anti-realist account of science.

        • Thanks, Bill, for your very interesting comments. Personally, I think that any defence of, say, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa should defend it as a religious text (thus teaching truths useful for liberation, not for a degree in sciences), not as a scientific text.

  4. Hi Bill,
    Your solid scientific defence is starting to emerge in Eastern Europe, in ethnobotany and astronomy, but won’t gain philosophical notice in that way. Nor do even Indian philosophers notice Patanjali University serving a booming ethnopharmaceutical sector.

    There is also a large obstacle on the commentary tradition, reading texts one line at a time, and even breaking difficult lines up. You can trace that in the variant texts of the Vaisesika sutra, which remains an essential source, where the concept of surface layer and skin depth are introduced in descriptions of wetting powders. Now studied in Eastern Europe with fractional differentials as just the next thing in nonlinear dynamics.

    There has also been a devastating implosion of K-theory, the successor to superstrings, with long-standing conjectures proved false. Mathematics has more texture and less transparency than expected, so a new era opens of diversification. But breakthroughs expected in quantum consciusness and nervenets are also no-shows, unmasking the complacency and arrogance of Silicon Valley.

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