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, Kannāda…), 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.

2 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.

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