Jonathan Edelmann, Guest Author July 2020

I wish to thank the board of the Indian Philosophy Blog for the invitation to write postings this month. In this first posting I introduce my background and current project. I conclude this posting with questions about your research.

I initially encountered Indian philosophy in High School, as a junior I believe, when my English teacher, Mr. Potts, required Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854 AD). This led not only to many trips to Walden Pond in Massachusetts where Thoreau wrote and experimented in life, but also to an exploration of the books he so diligently and curiously studied by Greeks, Chinese, and Indians. Throughout High School I would go with my friend Chet to Borders Books in Framingham to read translations of the Taoteching, the Bhagavadgīta, the Republic, The Way of the Pilgrim, and others.

As an undergraduate I knew I wanted to complete a BA in Philosophy, which I did at the University of California in Santa Barbara. At that time it was strong in contemporary analytic philosophy. It was, however, in the Department of Religious Studies at UCSB that I first received a general education in Indian philosophy, like the Mūlamadhyakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, the Tantrasāra of Abhinavagupta, the Brahmasūtrabhāṣya of Śaṅkara, the Sāṃkhyakārikā of Īśvarakṛṣṇa, as well as the writings of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas like Rūpa and Jīva. I took general classes on Buddhism and was then introduced to the Dalai Lama’s work on consciousness in science and religion, which I found fascinating.

At UCSB I also met John H. Brooke from Oxford University when he visited to give a lecture and then I wanted to study Darwin and the larger philosophical issues that he raised. Thus, I went to Oxford to get an MA in Science and Religion and then a DPhil or PhD in Religious Studies and Theology. Therein I worked with Professors Brooke and Francis Clooney. At that time I got to see the larger issues in philosophy and science in the context of theology, and I began to study Indology and Hinduism with scholars in Oriental Studies and the Centre for Hindu Studies.

My first book, Hindu Theology and Biology: The Bhāgavata Purāṇa and Contemporary Theory (2012) was an attempt to think in philosophical and in philological ways about particular problems that arise when a religious tradition encounters and new school of thought. I had immersed myself in nineteenth and in early twentieth century Christian theological, philosophical, and scientific responses to emerging sciences like geology and biology. And I had immersed myself in a general study of the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, and the Indian philosophy and grammar that was available. I focused on three areas: consciousness, or a comparison between the Sāṃkhya-yoga dualism of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and contemporary theories of consciousness in science and philosophy; testimony, or the way authoritative language functions in scientific and Hindu discourses; and teleology, or the way scholars frame the goal of their work. This book is now going into a 2nd edition with OUP India.

As I was attempting to reconstruct the Bhāgavata Purāṇa for my first book I became aware at the larger commentarial traditions on the text. As I delved into them, largely due to the massive editorial project of Krishna Shankara Shastri starting in 1965, I became aware of how commentaries on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa had been a place in which philosophers and theologians had articulated their views on a wide range of intellectual topics since the 13th century.

Much of my teaching and research over the past eight years has focused on the intersection of philosophy and sacred text commentary. I am particularly interested in commentaries on the Bhāgavatapurāṇa starting in the early 15th century, but I often look at their arguments within a much larger swath of authors and texts. My focus is on the way arguments for bhakti led to an articulation of a theory of language, an epistemology, an ontology and aesthetics, and an ethics, and this was accomplished by the examination of authoritative texts that they interpreted with a host of commentarial predecessors. I am interested broadly in the way that authoritative text in the European traditions of Christianity and Judaism functions in similar and in different ways for the construction of tradition. I plan to look at important scholars within the Jesuit and Anglican traditions during the Reformation beginning around 500 years ago. The comparative aspect of this project is far less developed at this time.

I will conclude this first posting with a thesis and a question. To my knowledge most Indian philosophers and theologians proceed, to one degree or another, by articulating their views in and through commentary on older and authoritative texts. Do you find this to be true in your areas? If so, do you think this significantly impacts and distinguishes the way Indians think and resolve intellectual problems?

My thanks again to the IPB, and especially Professor Elisa Freschi, for this opportunity.

About Jonathan Edelmann

Assistant Professor of Hinduism University of Florida

10 Replies to “Jonathan Edelmann, Guest Author July 2020”

  1. Commentary is pretty widespread but not everywhere. The story about Śāntideva (who I specialized in) goes that his fellow monks considered him lazy, someone who did nothing but eat, sleep and crap. They challenged him to recite something to earn his place – and he asked them whether they wanted something old or something new. So he recited the Bodhicaryāvatāra, his most famous work – and thus tradition regards it as something generally new. But that is especially interesting because the text itself opens by saying there is nothing new said in it.

    I suspect that the story of the BCA as something new may be intended to draw out a contrast with his other major work, the Śikṣā Samuccaya. That one is not a commentary in the usual sense, but consists largely of quotations from major sūtras, with some comments added to each; i.e. it’s an anthology. So its oldness is clearer than the BCA’s.

    • Greetings Amod and thanks, again, for bringing in Śāntideva. I am mainly working with “Hindu” texts, i.e. a vast body of literature that is considered authoritative in one way or another, it being in some way connected to the Veda and the larger Upanishadic, Puranic, Vedantic, and Epic tradition. I am, however, interested in comparison with Buddhist and Jain approaches. Moreover, the time period in which I am working does not have a living Indian Buddhist tradition unlike older periods.

      The case of Śāntideva is a great place to start in thinking about Indian Buddhism. Are you suggesting that the Bodhicaryāvatāra is not a commentary because Śāntideva did not know or make reference to the older Buddhist texts?

      If you are saying that the Bodhicaryāvatāra is not a commentary in any sense because he is not speaking directly on or about a specific text, I would disagree — to some degree. My limited reading of the Bodhicaryāvatāra is that it summarizes and works with an existing body of literature, e.g. the Mūlamadhyakārikā. My view is that the Bodhicaryāvatāra is not proper commentary, but it does comment on the Buddhist texts before him, and that if you want to understand the context of the Bodhicaryāvatāra then you would need to read the Mūla. Would you agree with that?

      Do you think Shantideva may have departed from the commentarial style of someone like Shankara, Rāmānuja, etc.?

  2. Many thanks for this fascinating post, Jonathan. It’s intriguing to read how one got into Sanskrit philosophy! Short answer to your last question (I will get back to it): YES! Explicit innovation is by rule a flaw in the Sanskrit intellectual traditions (as it usually was in Europe until Descartes). This does not mean to say that there are no innovations, but they are not emphasised.

    • Yes, Descartes is interesting; I’ve also enjoyed reading Francis Bacon, Galileo, Luther. The work you and others have done on periodization is on my reading list. I’m really interested in how we conceptualize historical borders in India.

  3. I have wondered about this reticence to pose anything novel and directly attribute it to oneself in the Indian philosophical tradition. But, perhaps there is a superficial explanation that rings somewhat true. Superficial because to make it more nuanced and of greater depth would require more strenuous analysis than I can attempt.
    It might have to do with the pre-literate antecedents of Sanskrit/Prakrit intellectual traditions. Analyzed as a mechanism of knowledge transmission and persistence, the propagation of the Vedas and its appendages through the substrate of human memory has no other known parallels. The human dimension of this transmission, with its effects on societal structure, and even eugenics, doesn’t seem to a well-researched topic.
    I think that while this “human” database has been remarkably resilient in maintaining ancient modes of thought, it also influenced and filtered what would be admitted as “knowledge” worth preserving. This might by why new or even alien ideas that did gain admittance were usually cloaked as “deeper” or “hidden” truths. This might explain why ideas like “moksha”, rebirth and “atma”, which are foreign to simpler ideas of heaven and material reward in the here and now, can exist as addendums to the core rks of the samhitas.
    This cultural tradition of cloaking novel ideas as elaborations of earlier ideas , to promote their inclusion in the sum total of knowledge worth preserving, can be seen even in Sankara and the reticence to drop ritual and heaven-seeking in the 8th century AD – a decidedly literate milieu.
    I suspect that prior to wide-scale publishing, new-wine-in-old-bottles was the norm. After all, most radical thinkers or outliers tend not to be socially effective enough to convince a group of people to propagate their ideas. Given the likely case that the groups who were most effective at propagating knowledge was the one least inclined to undermine the foundations from which their effectiveness derived. In total, we are fortunate that works like Tattvoplavasimha have survived in some form, and it shouldn’t surprise us that so many others like it have disappeared or appear as absurd strawmen in the mainstream literature.
    Whether this distinguishes Indian thought or not?
    If Indian thought is to be judged as a matter of textual/oral record, I imagine it does. And that too only for the degree that it is visible in the Indian traditions given its antecedents and evolution.
    Whether it says something about how Indians thought or think, I wouldn’t be bold enough to say.

  4. Hi Jonathan
    I think I asked you this when we met in Berkeley briefly. When were you at UCSB, I went to graduate school in Philosophy from Fall of 1999-2005 Fall.
    It is surprising to see how you were able to engage both departments there and move on to do amazing work in both religion and philosophy, and even crossing into science and religion and philosophy. I find that combination really exciting and engaging. Nice to see your post. Looking forward to more of them 🙂

  5. In response to Jonathan’s and Elisa’s drift that commentary is the rule and original treatises an exception in at least “Hindu” thought, I would like to remind you all of at least six original works from 5th Century CE till 16th Century CE which are all of ‘canonical’ status in the Sanskrit Philosophical curriculum all over India which are taken more seriously than the same author’s commentarial work. First, Bhartr.hari’s Vakyapadiiyam, second, Jayanta’s NyAya Manjarii, third Udayana’s Atmatattva Viveka and Nyaya KusumAnjali and finally RaghunAtha S’iroman.i’s
    These, to say nothing of S’riihars.a’s Khand.anakhand.akhAdya and Abhinavagupta’s TantrAloka are by no means commentaries. As to why the more original some philosopher is, the more they may tend to attribute it to their teachers’ –“whatever is correct and well-thought out in this work should be credited to my teacher, and all faults and deficiencies are mine” (RaghunAtha and S’rihars.a do not even practice this modesty) this is hardly evidence of lack of originality. It is a cultural style and Jayanta of course has famously commented upon the possibility of “real novelty” (nUtanam vastu) in any philsophical conceptual exploration at all. I have pondered over this question of “Can there be NEW concepts/problems in philosophy?” systematically and with arguments on both sides, in my long Introduction to Daya Krishna’s posthumously published “Contrary Thinking “(OUP NEW YORK). I call that introduction “New Stuff”.

    • Dear Arindam,

      thank you for your comment. I agree that the cultural habit of saying that one is not doing anything novel is not indicative of whether or not one is an original thinker. If you are, however, trying to say that the VP, NM etc. were “taken more seriously than the same author’s commentarial work”, I am not sure. Bhartṛhari could write the VP because he had composed the MBh-dīpikā and the NM is in many senses a commentary (although it comments on selected sūtras only). Raghunātha seems the more novelty-prone, but still he called himself a Naiyāyika. Madhva is a revolutionary type, but had his revolution take the form of a commentary on selected sources… Long story short: Engaging with the great texts of the past is considered in Sanskrit Philosophy an unavoidable task if you want to be a philosopher (unlike in some departments of Analytic philosophy).

    • Dear Arindam, thank you for this illumination. I shall obtain your Introduction as soon as possible (I’ve long admired Daya Krishna’s work and yours as well). I can say now, however, that I agree with you in a limited sense. For me I think the question is what is the reach or scope of the term “commentary” — surely one can say that an adequate reading of Raghunathashiromani’s Padarthatattvanirupanam without knowledge of the padarthas in the Nyayasutra would be nearly impossible. I read Raghunatha, for example, as a commentator in the sense that he is using the historical tradition to formulate his own views. Yet if one takes a very broad and capacious definition of commentary, does one risk making the term ineffective, like defining a cow as a four legged animal? More soon.

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