Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Lotus-eyes and similarity

Below are two images. At right, is a painting, from around 1750, of Radha, Krishna's beloved. At left, is a photograph I took in 2017, of a lotus flower floating in a pond (in Nara, Japan). What similarities are there between them?

pink lotus floating among circular green leaves in pondRadha painting with lotus-eyes in profile
If you are familiar with Sanskrit poetry, you might immediately say that Radha has eyes shaped like a lotus. This is a common trope, a description not only famously of her, but also of Krishna, the Buddha, and other beautiful or auspicious people. And if you are philosophically inclined, you might wonder what makes it the case that Radha's eyes are similar to the shape of a lotus petal. Just what kind of thing is similarity, anyway?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Kumārila on ethical role models and Buddhist philosophy

In commenting on Śabara's commentary on the Mīmāṃsāsūtra, Kumārila has to explain the relationship between the eternal Vedic texts which have no origin, and those texts known as smṛti (literally "remembered" texts, in contrast to śruti, those which are "heard") which are authored by human beings such as Manu but contain moral insight. This discussion starts at MS 1.3.1, where the first (incorrect) position is presented that people should ignore anything which isn't Vedic. This would mean rejecting the smṛtis. This position is untenable for a number of reasons, and Kumārila discusses why it is we should think that smṛtis are in fact based on lost Vedic texts.

This discussion is quite interesting, epistemologically, since it involves the epistemic instrument of postulation (arthāpatti). Kei Kataoka has discussed it in "Manu and the Buddha for Kumārila and Dharmakīrti." Kumārila argues that of the five possible explanations for Manu's writing his smṛti, the best one, for reasons of such principles as theoretical simplicity, is that he is working from a lost Vedic text. On the other hand, we can explain the Buddha's texts in other ways, such as being motivated by greed, or being himself deluded.
Gautama Buddha, Moses, and Jesus.

Why bring in Buddhist doctrine here? Well, if there is going to be room for non-Vedic moral authority, this might mean that even the Buddhist texts could have some moral authority. Perhaps there is a common Vedic ground even for the Buddha's teachings, where he happens on truth? For somewhat analogous reasoning in a more recent context, we might look to Vatican II, which set out a declaration that says
The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men
Of course, for the Catholic Church, divine revelation is limited to the written scriptures (for them, authored by God). But we can see some broadly similar motivation in Vatican II and the discussion in the MS. It seems like there are other texts and teachings which manage to get things "right," morally speaking. Thus we need some explanation for them. So rather than taking the extreme first position that we should reject anything non-Vedic, we might take up the view that we should accept anything which does not contradict the Vedas. (This is one interpretation of MS 1.3.5.)

But this option is too liberal for Kumārila. After all, even in the case of Vedic texts, which are accepted as teaching dharma, merely understanding the Veda is insufficient for them to be morally fruitful. They must be learned with a teacher, they must be learned by the right group of people (e.g., not  a śūdra), and so on. Further, there is an additional problem for human authored texts which is not found for the Vedas: we have to evaluate the moral conduct of the author of these non-Vedic texts. For instance, the Buddha goes beyond his caste boundaries as a kśatriya in teaching. So, Kumārila argues, we should look to the writings of genuinely good people.

It is at this point that a counterexample is raised by the pūrvapakṣin. Wait a second, they say--even if we look at supposedly "good" people, they do bad things. There's a long list of examples here, including Prajāpati, Indra, Dhṛtarāśtra, and Arjuna. On top of that, there is the problem that people in different parts of the world have different practices. In some places, Brahmin women drink alcoholic drinks, and others they do not. And, further, it seems there's a vicious circle if we are trying to identify moral teaching based on the character of the author, since we also need to have moral teaching in order to evaluate the author's character! Jonardon Ganeri (2004) has pointed out that this seems analogous to the dilemma in Euthyphro (222).

This is just a very brief summary of some of the arguments raised by the pūrvapakṣin in this section, doubting the role of moral role models in knowing dharma. In his reply, Kumārila distinguishes between the authority of the Vedas and the authority of good people. He argues that we call good people "good" because they act in ways that align with the express commands of the Vedas. The explicit injunctions of the Vedas are always the strongest guide to dharma. There is no vicious circle because one always start with these explicit statements. If someone who routinely follows the Vedas does some action which is not in direct contradiction to the Vedas, then we can consider that action good. Kumārila compares the relationship between knowers of the Vedas and the Vedas themselves to the relationship between things which emerge from salt mines and the salt mine. The salt mine makes things salty, and the Vedas analogously make things (=people who know it correctly) Vedic.

Kumārila deals with the problem of local customs by emphasizing the universal nature of Vedic injunctions, and arguing that the particular restrictions about alcohol in the Vedas are in fact consistent with the regional variations. Since Brahmin women are not actually commanded not to drink alcohol (of a particular kind), the ones who refrain are not doing anything wrong, and the ones who engage aren't either. And as for the textual examples of good people doing bad things, there is a range of possible strategies (some of which might also be interestingly compared to hermeneutic strategies for apparently bad actions in the Hebrew Bible). We can say that the text itself sometimes condemns actions, which means it wouldn't be a problem as a moral guide. Or, perhaps the text admits of a figurative meaning or otherwise different meaning which makes the apparent badness of the action dissolve.

But back to the Buddhists. Kumārila argues that since the few Vedic truths in Buddhist teachings are so mixed up in bad reasoning (he gives examples of some of these), these truths are "like milk put in the skin of a dog" (śvaṭṭi nikṣiptakṣīravad). That is, they are polluted and not to be drunk. Of course, Dharmakīrti will argue otherwise, using the structure of arthāpatti against Kumārila (see Kataoka 2011 on this). He thinks that the Buddha's teachings can't be explained unless we accept that the Buddha had some direct perception of dharma. In contrast, we can explain the Vedas otherwise.

While much of my personal interest in Mīmāṃsā is in his linguistic philosophy, it's important to remember that for Kumārila (and indeed, Mīmāṃsakas in general), philosophy of language is never an abstract concern divorced from dharma. And while I would be hesitant to assign large sections of the Tantravārttika in an introductory philosophy class, I do think that this portion of the TV is a nice rejoinder to the oft-repeated worry that Indian philosophy lacks anything like "ethics." Of course, the concerns are deeply Vedic and we cannot entirely abstract from the ritual context, as ritual is a moral instrument. But Kumārila is grappling with problems that any philosopher of religion today would recognize.

Works Cited
Ganeri, Jonardon. "The Ritual Roots of Moral Reason" Kevin Schilbrack (ed),  Thinking Through Rituals: Philosophical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 213-230.

Kataoka, Kei  "Manu and the Buddha for Kumārila and Dharmakīrti," Helmut Krasser, Horst Lasic, Eli Franco, Birgit Kellner (eds), Religion and Logic in Buddhist Philosophical Analysis. Proceedings of the Fourth International Dharmakīrti Conference. Vienna, August 23–27, 2005. Wien 2011, pp. 255–269

Monday, May 7, 2018

A laukika analogy for ūha?

In teaching Mīmāṃsā philosophy of language, I try to find ordinary (laukika) analogies to Vedic examples. Today, I wonder if the new slogan put out by the First Lady of the United States could work as a sort of example of how ūha or Vedic modification works (or, here, fails to work).

Here's the case in the news today: Melania Trump has kicked off a new program with a slogan, shown in the image below.

To a native English speaker, the phrase in isolation, used as an imperative, seems odd. Typically, we say things like "Be your best" or "Be the best" or something like it. I googled "be the best" on an image search and came up with the slogans below.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Kumārila Bhaṭṭa on the Mahābhārata

Mukesh Singh's illustration of the Kauravas from 18 Days.

After arguing against an objector who argues that motivating speech (arthavādas) are not meaningful (anarthakya), Kumārila turns away from explanation of motivating speech in the Vedas to passages in the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas.

He says (and here I follow Jha 25-26 with some changes, Sanskrit is from SARIT):
The above explanations apply also to passages occurring in the Mahābhārata and Purāṇas, etc. For, as well, in these cases, we have the express injunction: "One should recite these before persons of the four castes," which shows that they are the means of accomplishing certain desirable ends; and when we proceed to seek for this desirable end, we do not accept the mere recitation of the words as bringing about any result; and find that the true result lies in a full comprehension of the causes of dharma, artha, kāma, and mokṣa, along with their opposites, adharma, anartha, duḥkha, and saṃsāra, for the purpose of acquiring those of the former set and avoiding those of the latter.

एवं भारतादिवाक्यानि व्याख्येयानि । तेषामपि हि श्रावयेच्चतुरो वर्णानित्येवमादिविध्यनुसारेण पुरुषार्थत्वान्वेषणादक्षरादि व्यतिक्रम्य धर्मार्थकाममोक्षाधर्मानर्थदुःखसंसारसाध्यसाधनप्रतिपत्तिरुपादानपरित्यागाङ्गभूता फलम् । 
He has argued above that, through postulation (arthāpatti) which functions as a last interpretive recourse when other epistemic instruments have failed, we are to understand motivating speech as praising or denigrating certain methods, so as to compel people to act according to Vedic commands. But here, he applies this approach to a command given by Vyāsa in the MBh, in the Śāntiparvan (12.314.45), where he commands that the story he has just narrated should be recited in front of all four castes. This is a command, and as such, it, like all other commands, has a result desirable to people. But that result isn't just hearing the recitation (an observation which will be important in the next section on mantras), it is understanding the meaning of the text itself.

Kumārila continues,
And in certain portions of these works, as in the chapters on dāna, rājadharma, and mokṣadharma, of the Śāntiparva of the Mahābhārata, we meet even with direct injunctions, while in others there are arthavāda-s, in two forms, what has been done for someone else (parakṛta) and stories of the distant past (purākalpa) And for the other portions, those containing descriptions of events and stories, if we accept these in their literal sense (tātparya), then, with reference to these at least, the injunction of reciting them would become useless, and hence we take these to indirectly imply praise or denigration. And as these descriptions have been inserted with the sole purpose (tātparya) of such praise or denigration, one should not be primarily focused on their truth (tattva).
तत्रापि तु दानराजमोक्षधर्मादिषु केचित्साक्षाद्विधयः केचित्पुनः परकृतिपुराकल्परूपेणार्थवादाः । सर्वोपाख्यानेषु च तात्पर्ये सति श्रावयेदिति विधेरानर्थक्यात्कथंचिद्गम्यमानस्तुतिनिन्दापरिग्रहः । तत्परत्वाच्च नातीवोपाख्यानेषु तत्त्वाभिनिवेशः कार्यः ।
In this section, Kumārila argues that if we look at the Mahābhārata, we can find that it contains the same types of expressions that he's been discussing in the context of the Vedas. There are direct injunctions (sākṣāt vidhi-s) as well as motivating speech (arthavāda-s). What motivates us in the Mahābhārata? Well, the fact that other people, (it is implied they are good people), have done certain things, and actions also from good people which happened a long time ago. We are inspired by good and heroic deeds of ancestors. However, these deeds do not actually have to have happened for us to be inspired, according to Kumārila.

In a statement which might scandalize some today, Kumārila says that some parts of the text involves stories whose literal sense or ordinary purpose (tātparya) would be useless (anarthakya) and so we should understand them as indirectly praising or denigrating some action. He doesn't identify which parts of the text, but he specifies that these are cases where the descriptions of what is going on do not need to be entirely correct or at least we shouldn't be primarily focused on their truth (tattva). In other words, it is no harm to the ethical motivating ability of the Mahābhārata that some parts of it are fiction! (This echoes what he has said elsewhere about the Vedas, too--not that they are fiction, but that they can employ hyperbole and metaphor to motivate.)

Why would upright people like Vālmīki (the author of the Mahabhārata) and Vyāsa (its narrator) use such means? Why not write completely true stories to inspire people? Kumārila says,
Since they were guided by their study of the Veda (vedaprasthānābhyāsena), Vālmīki, Vyāsa, and others composed their works on the same lines as the Veda. And, as those for whom these works were intended were persons of varying mental abilities, it was only proper for them to insert every kind of matter in their works. Now, some people are taught just by injunctions. But for others, they are taught by injunctions mixed with motivating speech, some which are short and some which are lengthy. This approach is so that everyone's minds would be gripped.
वेदप्रस्थानाभ्यासेन हि वाल्मीकिद्वैपायनप्रभृति भिस्तथैव स्ववाक्यानि प्रणीतानि । प्रतिपाद्यानां च विचित्रबुद्धित्वाद्युक्तमेवैतत् । इह केचिद्विधिमात्रेण प्रतिपद्यन्ते । अपरे सार्थवादेनापरेऽल्पेनार्थवादेनापरे महता । सर्वेषां च चित्तं ग्रहीतव्यमित्येवमारम्भः ।
He does not say it explicitly, but we can surmise that maybe he thinks the people who have lower intelligence who might be attracted to the fictional parts. (Edited to add: This is of course speculation, and is only based on the strongly rational tendencies of Mīmāṃsā. Jha, perhaps to blunt the force of this implication, translates vicitrabuddhi as "varying degrees of intelligence and diverse tastes," but I don't see that the idea of "taste" is necessarily present here.) Now, the author of the Mahābhārata is working with a Vedic template, but is also drawing on their ordinary experiences.
Some of these injunctions and prohibitions are grounded in the Veda (śruti), some are about wealth and happiness, based upon considerations of ordinary pleasure and pain, grounded in ordinary experience (loka). Similarly, among the motivating speech, too, some are Vedic (vaidika), some are ordinary (laukika), while some are made-up (racita) by the author himself in accordance with the logic of poetry (kāvyanyāya). However, all of these are authoritative, since they are for the purpose of praise.
तत्र तु केचिद्विधिप्रतिषेधाः श्रुतिमूलाः केचिदर्थसुखादिषु लोकमूलास्तथाऽर्थवादाः केचिद्वैदिका एव केचिल्लौकिका एव केचित्तु स्वयमेव काव्यन्यायेन रचिताः । सर्वे च स्तुत्यर्थेन प्रमाणम् ।
Kumārila identifies a variety of grounds for the composition of the Mahābhārata, which includes the Vedas, but does not exclude the possibility of something made-up or constructed (racita) by the author himself. Again, the status of something as fiction, or at least as not the whole and complete truth does not mean it cannot be authoritative (pramāṇa) in the realm of ethics. He concludes with some remarks about the parts of them which can't be related meaningfully to any Vedic injunction:
As for those portions however, which are not capable of being taken along with any injunction, some of them bring about pleasure just by themselves, in their being heard, like the the descriptions of the Gandhamādana mountain range and so on. And some, such as the descriptions of wars, serve to embolden everyone, the brave as well as the coward, and thereby serve a distinctly useful purpose for the kings of men. In those cases, however, where none of these is possible, such for instance as the hymns to deities, which we do not find capable of bringing about any perceptible result, we assume (kalpanīyam) an unseen result (apūrva).
ये तु वाक्यशेषत्वं न प्रतिपद्यन्ते तेऽपि केचित्स्वयमेव श्रूयमाणगन्धमादनादिवर्णकप्रभृतयः प्रीतिं जनयन्ति । ये तु युद्धवर्णकास्ते सर्वेषां शूराणां भीरूणां चोत्साहकराः पार्थिवानामुपयुज्यन्ते । यत्र तु न किंचिद्दृष्टमुपलभ्यते तत्र विशिष्टदेवतादिस्तुतिद्वारमदृष्टं कल्पनीयमित्येषा दिक् । 
Jha, perhaps relying on a later commentator, takes him to be changing topics to the Purāṇas here, but it seems that his remarks could apply to both texts. Not all parts are, like the Vedas, aiming at the knowledge of dharma. Because their authors are following the Vedas, naturally, these texts will have ethical impact and serve purposes. But Kumārila admits that some parts are there just for being pleasant, like descriptions of nature. Some purposes are purely military or political. And he leaves room for the possibility of unseen result (apūrva) arising from hymns, for instance, which do not immediately lead to visible effects, but which we might postulate need to have some effect, since they are not there for any of the other reasons.

I should note in closing that as I was finishing this blog post, I encountered Anand Venkatkrishnan's dissertation which discusses this passage in some detail. He has his own translation of the text which readers should look at (80-81) in a discussion of itihāsapurāṇa literature more broadly in the Mīmāṃsā context.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Philosophy of language in the Tantravārttika

Kumārila Bhaṭṭa's Tantravārttika, or Exposition on Ritual Practice, is less frequently discussed by modern philosophers than his Ślokavārttika, or Commentary in Verse (though maybe more than his Ṭuptīkā), probably because it focuses on discussion of the non-injunctive aspects of the Vedas (mantras and other expressions). But it is a rich discussion of interpretive principles and philosophy of language broadly understood, including even some discussion of the purpose of the Mahābhārata.

I have sometimes had people ask about the relationship between "religion" in Indian philosophy (especially Mīmāṃsā) and philosophy of language. Given the way contemporary analytic philosophers talk about language today, it doesn't seem to have much connection to what people think of as religion. It isn't taking a particular scriptural text as its corpus, nor interpretation of that text as a starting-point for hermeneutics. Of course, before talking about Indian philosophy's "religiosity," one would do well to consider the historical origins of contemporary philosophy of language (in Augustine and other biblical theologians/hermeneuticists). And, if we understand religiosity in broader terms as concern with ultimate questions, there are certainly metaphysical and ethical aspects of contemporary analytic philosophy of language!

With that in mind: in reading the Tantravārttika today, I came across a discussion of a problem that is so clearly recognizable as a contemporary problem in semantics, but with a different example sentence, that I laughed out loud: