Quick note: Tantrarahasya on ellipsis and arthāpatti

Right now I'm in Hawaii for the East-West Philosophy Conference that starts in a few days. I am taking a break from my usual weekly schedule of Tantravārttika blogging in order to make a few comments on the Tantrarahasya of Rāmānujācārya.

Subsentential speech in Zits, by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, www.zitscomics.com
The Tantrarahasya is a Prābhākara introductory text dating to the sixteenth century which has not yet been translated in its entirety. Elisa Freschi has translated a portion which deals with the interpretation of injunctions in her Duty, Language, and Exegesis. Apart from that, and a summary by K. T. Pandurangi, the text is, unlike the Mānameyodaya, the Bhāṭṭa introductory text dating to around the same time, still available only to Sanskritists.

This is a shame, since the Tantarahasya, as far as I can tell, is the first Mīmāṃsā text to focus on a case of subsentential speech in its discussion of postulation, or arthāpatti. Earlier, the Prakaranapañcikā of Śālikanātha Miśra, in his discussion of vākyārtha, claims that elliptical insertion (adhyāhāra) is understood by arthāpatti. He defends the arthādyāhāra view, that what is understood through elliptical insertion is a meaning and not a word. However, the discussion is very general and does not give any linguistic examples.

In the Tantrarahasya, Rāmānujācārya argues that the utterance of "the door" is completed by the postulation of a meaning. The meaning is "closing"(saṃvaraṇa) and not a linguistic expression "One ought to close" (saṃvriyatām). He's arguing against the Bhāṭṭa view that one postulates an expression, by which a meaning is then understood. This distinction may seem unhelpful--in talking about it briefly in Ellipsis and Syntactic Overlapping, Deshpande suggests that "For all practical purposes, the two alternatives lead to the same ultimate result without out any complications" (1). However, while the two schools of thought may have been making hay over something that isn't substantial, I start with the assumption that there's an important distinction here.

I won't pre-empt my talk this week with further details, though I will say that I think the distinction has to do with the importance for natural language sentences in recovering propositions from utterances. In the Anglophone tradition, Robert Stainton has written about the difference between elliptical completion that is pragmatic, semantic, and syntactic, with his own view being that ellipsis--subsentential speech in particular--is evidence that sentences are not necessary to make speech acts.

Not only do I think that something in this arena is going on with the Bhāṭṭa and Prābhākara (though without the language of "propositions" and mental "modules"), but the fact that postulation is adduced as an explanation on both sides is interesting. After all, postulation is often characterized as semantic implication, a process which relies on axioms to yield something definite, certain, and necessary. However, especially on the Prābhākara view, where it is the desire of the hearer to understand the connections between meanings (and not something syntactic), postulation of a meaning to complete "the door" strikes me as more like inference to the best explanation or abductive inference.

Little has been done to delineate the linguistic examples of postulatory reasoning in Indian philosophy, and to see how they are related. There is the famous case of "Fat Devadatta does not eat during the day" [he eats at night], but now also "the door" in the Tantrarahasya and Mānameyodaya. Further complicating things, in the Mānameyodaya, a response to the Prābhākara is given by the Bhāṭṭa which appeals to ūha, or modification of mantras. Nārāyaṇa Bhaṭṭa argues that ūha is done through verbal postulation.

So what, if anything, unifies these cases? Is it right to say that an expression is postulated in each case? Or just a meaning? What is the epistemic status of the postulated content--can we say that it constitutes knowledge? These kinds of questions are underexplored in relationship to other pramāṇa-s, such as perception and inference.


Nārāyaṇa Bhaṭṭa and Nārāyaṇa Paṇḍita. Mānameyodaya. Adyar Library and Research Cenre, Chennai, reprint, 2004. edition, 1933.

Madhav Deshpande. Ellipsis and Syntactic Overlapping: Current Issues in Pāṇinian Syntactic Theory. Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1985

Rāmānujācārya. Tantrarahasya: A Primer of Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā by Rāmānujācārya. Eds. R. Shama Shastry and K.S. Ramaswami Śiromaṇi. Oriental Institute, Baroda, 2nd edition, 1956.

Robert Stainton. Words and Thoughts: Subsentences, Ellipsis, and the Philosophy of Language. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.


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