Mapping the territory: Sanskrit cosmopolis, 1500–today

There is a lot to do in the European intellectual history, with, e.g., major theories that await an improved understanding and connections among scholars that have been overseen or understudied. Using a simile, one might say that a lot of the territory between some important peaks (say, the contributions of Hume, Kant, Hegel or Heidegger) is still to be thoroughly investigated.

When one works on the intellectual history of the Sanskrit cosmopolis*, by contrast, one still needs to map the entire territory, whose extension still escapes us. Very few elements of the landscape have been fixated, and might still need to be re-assessed.

What are the mountains, main cities as well as rivers, bridges, routes that we would need to fix on the map? Key authors, key theories, key schools, as well as languages and manners of communication and how they worked (public debates? where? how?).
I mentioned authors before schools because for decades intellectual historians looking at the Sanskrit cosmopolis emphasized, and often overemphasized the role of schools at the expense of the fundamental role of individual thinkers, thus risking to oversee their individual contributions and to flatten historical developments, as if nothing had changed in astronomy or philosophy for centuries. This hermeneutic mistake is due to the fact that while the norm in Europe and North America after Descartes and the Enlightenment has been increasingly to highlight novelty, originality is constantly understated in the Sanskrit cosmopolis. It is not socially acceptable to claim to be novel and original in the Sanskrit world, just like it is not acceptable to be just “continuing a project” in a grant application in Europe or North America.
Still, schools are often the departure point for any investigation, since they give one a first basic understanding of the landscape. How does this exactly work?
For instance, we know that the Vedānta systems were a major player in the intellectual arena, with all other religious and philosophical schools having to face them, in some form of the other. However, it is not at all clear which schools within Vedānta were broadly influential, where within South Asia, and in which languages. Michael Allen, among others, worked extensively on Advaita Vedānta in Hindī sources, but were they read also by Sanskrit authors and did the latter react to them? Were Hindī texts on Vedānta read only in the Gangetic valley or throughout the Indian subcontinent? The same questions should be investigated with regard to the other schools of Vedānta (Viśiṣṭādvaita, Dvaita, Śaivādvaita…), the other vernacular languages they interacted with (respectively: Tamil and Maṇipravāḷam, Kannaḍa…), and the regions of the Indian subcontinent they originated in. And this is just about Vedānta schools.
Similarly, we still have to understand which other schools entered into a debate with philosophy and among each other and which interdisciplinary debates took place. Scholars of European intellectual history know how Kepler was influenced by Platonism and how Galileo influenced the development of philosophy. What happened in the Sanskrit cosmopolis?
Dagmar Wujastyk recently focused on the intersection of medicine (āyurveda) alchemy (rasaśāstra) and yoga. Which other disciplines were in a constant dialogue? Who read mathematical and astronomical texts, for instance? It is clear, because many texts themselves often repeat it, that Mīmāṃsā, Nyāya and Vyākaraṇa (hermeneutics, logic and grammar) were considered a sort of basic trivium, to be known by every learned person. But the very exclusion of Vedānta from the trivium (it cannot be considered to be included in “Mīmāṃsā” unless in the Viśiṣṭādvaita self-interpretation) shows that the trivium is only the starting point of one’s instruction and is not at all exhaustive. And we have not even started to look at many disciplines, from music to rhetorics.

One might wonder whether it is not enough to look at reports by today’s or yesterday’s Sanskrit intellectuals themselves in order to know what is worth reading and why. However, as discussed above, such reports would not boast about innovations and main breakthroughs. Sanskrit philosophy (and the same probably applies to Sanskrit mathematics etc.) is primarily commentarial. That is, authors presuppose a basic shared background knowledge and innovate while engaging with it rather than imagining to be pioneers in a new world of ideas. In a commentarial philosophy, innovations are concealed and breakthroughs are present, but not emphasised. Hence, one needs a lot of background knowledge to recognise them.

I would like to map the territory to realise who was studying what, where and how. How can this be done? The main obstacle is the amount of unpublished material, literally millions of manuscripts that still remain to be read, edited, translated and studied (I am relying on David Pingree’s estimate). Editing and translating them all requires a multi-generational effort of hundreds of people. However, a quick survey of them, ideally through an enhanced ORC technology, would enable scholars to figure out which languages were used, which theories and topics were debated, which authors were mentioned, and who was replying to whom.

This approach will remind some readers of the distant reading proposed by Franco Moretti. I am personally a trained philologist and a spokesperson for close reading. However, moving back and forth between the two methods seems to be the most productive methodology if the purpose is mapping an unknown territory. Close reading alone will keep one busy for decades and will not enable one to start the hermeneutic circle through which one’s knowledge of the situation of communication helps one better understanding even the content of the text one is closely focusing on. As hinted at above, this is particularly crucial in the case of a commentarial philosophy, where one needs to be able to master a lot of the author’s background in order to evaluate his contribution.

*As discussed several times elsewhere, I use “Sanskrit philosophy” or “Sanskrit intellectual history” as a short term for “philosophy in a cosmopolis in which Sanskrit was the dominant language of culture and everyone had to come to terms with it”, as with the use of “philosophy in the Islamic world”, that includes also thinkers part of the Islamic world but who were not themselves Muslims.

(The above are just quick notes. Any feedback is welcome!)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

8 Replies to “Mapping the territory: Sanskrit cosmopolis, 1500–today”

  1. For mapping the terrain as you suggest, perhaps machine learning algorithms + stylometry is the way forward.

    • Thanks for suggesting it. I am afraid that machine learning would oversee what are philosophically interesting ideas (mixing them up with popular ones). But you are right that I need to make it clear and that “mapping” might suggest a ML approach.

  2. Hi elisa!

    Thank you for this post: it means a lot to me, working to recover the ancient Patañjali as an original natural philosopher. But we should recognize that thinking in terms of schools was integral to the Vedic tradition; and similarly in Greece they spoke of sects, as in theology.

    And Patañjali was also a pioneer of theism: distinguishing philosophy from theology as a secular interest is a modern convention. Galileo, Newton and Leibniz all found themselves caught up in sectarian squabbles.

    Interestingly, at the time, the atronomer Cassini was collecting Sanskrit manuscripts, which he presented at the French Academy, just in the years most sensitive in the dispute between Newton and Leibniz over priority in calculus. The exact reference is: Mémoirs de l’Académie des Sciences depuis 1666 – 1669 (Paris: Jean Boudot 1729-1734), vol. 8, pp. 213-299. That would be a good place to start in recovering a better record of Indian astronomy!

    As for innovation in philosophy, Philipp Maas noted Śaṅkarācarya in his commentary on the Yoga sūtra reading ānantya (infinitude) for anantya (unending), so raising the tone of the theism to the infinite horizon! Taken as an object of meditation, that means the visual vanishing-point or projective horizon, which is then essential for understanding the curious cosmologies of the Purāṇas. There you have the tangle of philosophy, theology, geometry and astronomy in which countless scholars have lost their way.

    To pick up a trail like that and extend it is then a rare achievement indeed. I’m thankful that Patañjali used plainer words to more practical ends.

  3. What would you say are the hardest Sanskrit or Indian philosophy texts to understand? In western phl, Die Kritik is certainly up there as is Word and Object and anything by Frank Jackson and Putnam, along with Baudrillard. Of the Indian Buddhist masters, Vasubhandu comes off as more challenging for me personally than Nagarjuna or Shantidev. Others feel free to pop in.

    • Hi Bill,

      I am not sure that such a list would make sense, because it seems very subjective (I would not even start of thinking of Putnam, and rather speak of Plotinus or Meister Eckhart).

      Anyway, Dharmakīrti is really tough, especially without commentary and so are also, imho, Bhartṛhari and often Kumārila (Śāntideva seems much more accessible to me, possibly because of the topics he deals with, and Nāgārjuna seem to me tough but understandable because they are intratextually consistent). Then, Vyāsatīrtha and many Navya Nyāya authors…

      • The problem with Plotinus is that we can map him onto Neo-Vedanta: to give a more religious comparison, it is like the Rig Veda and Hesiod’s Theogony, Genesis, Enuma Elish, Baal Cycle: these are all more or less the same genre or type. Whereas there is no precedent for AM Turing, there is precedent for a Noam Chomsky (Plato, Descartes) or a David Hume (Buddhism, Sextus Empiricus). Likewise, the thought of Shankaracharya and Vivekananda would be easily recognized by Plotinus. I do agree with you on Bhartrihari and Shantidev though. I’m not familiar with Vyasatirtha (learn something new everyday!) so I can’t comment on him.

  4. Vasubandu and Putnam were both aspiring to dogmatic solutions for the mind-body problem, while caught in a swamp of linguistic ambiguities: Vasubandu between Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit, and Putnam natural language, mathematics and the new machine codes. That’s surely as difficult as philosophy gets! But I look past such tangles, like Jonardon Ganeri in his Classical India, where Vasubandu is reduced to a single footnote.

    The tangle that does draw me is between Patañjali and the Sāṃkhya teachers who commented on his edition of the Yoga sūtra, in relation to controversies with the Buddhists: you find them together in the Yuktidipīka, asking whether a soul can enter a body without a material influx of some kind. That very debate picked up again in the European Enlightenment, and set the scene for Kant’s Critique.!

    What I find disappointing is that in today’s conventional wisdom, Patañjali in the Yuktidipīka has to be just a Sāṃkhya teacher, and not the grammarian. And Buddhists could not possibly be influenced by older Sanskrit discourse about meditation. And Patañjali had no business revising Charakas classic of medicine, when we know that the first commentaries on Hippocrates were by glossators clarifying the medical terminology. There I really appreciate elisa’s caution against school-bound readings.

  5. That’s Vyāsa-tīrtha, Vyāsa of the temples: he signed off on the whole elaboration of the Mahābhārata, so there is a precedent in Vyāsa as a refector of the Vedas.

    The tale of 24 Vyāsas follows by a combinatorial logic: 4 Vedas x (saṁhitā + brāhmaṇa + upaniṣad) x (white + black) traditions = 24. And when you follow the combinatorial theme into Jain mathematics, there is some precedent for Turing’s computational philosophy. Ganeri then offers a graph-theoretical analysis of the Navya-Nyāya, which is very innovative.

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