Book blogging: Three Pillars of Indian Skepticism Chapters Six & Seven

 So far in his book, Ethan has argued that Nāgārjuna and Jayarāśi are part of a so-called "skeptical tradition" in Indian philosophy. The last major figure he takes up is Śrī Harṣa, who he characterizes as a mystical skeptic, who draws on an Advaita Vedānta interpretation of the Upaniṣads to "[open] up the possibility of mystical, non-dual knowledge, but [not] strictly speaking argue in favor of its existence" (116). This interpretation should be familiar by now, as it's the kind of performative approach that Ethan thinks is shared by Nāgārjuna and Jayarāśi. Neither of them flat-out assert their overall philosophical skeptical theses, but they hint at them through their method.

In Chapter Six, Ethan sets out the major contemporary approaches to Śrī Harṣa and his Khaṇḍaṇakhaṇdakhāḍya (KKh) and why he thinks they miss his skepticism (understood as Ethan is arguing for skepticism, of course). Then in Chapter Seven, he gives the more detailed textual support for his interpretation through some case studies of specific sections.

Chapter Six

Though Śrī Harṣa is explicit about the importance of Vedic scriptures and says some things which sound like Advaita, just how to situate him in relationship to Advaita Vedānta is controversial. Ethan identifies three major interpretations of Śrī Harṣa:
  • Negative dialectic (Phyllis Granoff). He is an Advaitin, but his main goal is to demonstrate that his interlocutors are self-contradictory, focusing especially on refuting definitions of pramāṇas.
  • Positive idealist (Stephen Phillips). He is an Advaitin, and through refutation, he indirectly provides support for Advaita views, such as the acceptance of Brahman. His philosophy is also really aiming at mystical insight.
  • Non-realist (Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad). He is an Advaitin and develops views found in Śaṅkara and Vācaspati Miśra, that we have to assume external objects of cognition, but we can't demonstrate they are mind-independent or know anything about their nature.
Ethan thinks that while Śrī Harṣa is an Advaitin, Phillips has "mistaken non-implicative prasajya[-pratiṣedha] negations for implicative paryudāsa negations," and that if we understand Śrī Harṣa as part of a tradition of skepticism, we can more easily avoid this error (124). As for Granoff and Ram-Prasad, he thinks they are right that Śrī Harṣa is "circumspect" about whether he will give evidence for Advaita positive claims. However, he thinks "Ram-Prasad's non-realism underplays the extent to which Śrī Harṣa is skeptical."

What does Śrī Harṣa do in the KKh? Ethan argues that his objections to Nyāya-Mīmāṃsā realism is intended to remove an obstacle to the kind of mystical experience claimed by Advaita (126-27). Thus there is a first-stage of ground-clearing, which involves showing self-contradiction in his opponents, and then we have the "possibility of mystical non-dual experience," although he is not asserting that this experience occurs and is veridical. Ethan points to the conclusion of the KKh, where Śrī Harṣa says that him self is someone who "directly perceives (sākṣāt kurute) in meditations (samādhiṣu) the ultimate brahman, the ocean of bliss" (127). And while scripture is an important pramāṇa for him, it is a pramāṇa "after the manner of our opponents'" (citing Phillips 1995:82), which Ethan says means "scripture cannot really tell you what non-dual experience of brahman is like." And Ethan adds, the KKh is supposed to work in a similar way: "it can help get you to mysticism, but it in no way substitutes for the real thing" (128). Thus what he does is develop mystical skepticism already present in Śaṅkara and Vācaspati (who doubt our ability to say things about brahman or know it through epistemic instruments) and make it so that "the mystical part becomes a suggestion of a possibility rather than a positive claim in itself."

Thus, Ethan is arguing that Śrī Harṣa is part of a tradition which rejects philosophical conceptualization and argumentation as a method for acquiring knowledge, insofar as he draws on textual material (here, the Upaniṣads) and methodology (prasaṅga, vitaṇḍā) along with Nāgārjuna and Jayarāśi.

Chapter Seven

In this Chapter, Ethan summarizes several arguments in the KKh, using a numbered approach to show the different options (vikalpas) which he dismisses in his attempt to show the opponent's presuppositions fail. Up first is a set of four putative reasons to accept the existence of pramāṇas 138-146), after which Śrī Harṣa concludes that debate can function without accepting them. Ethan argues this section is evidence for Ethan's skeptical tradition thesis for two reasons: (1) it is a prasaṅga form, and (2) since his rejection of the pramāṇas does not "commit him to acceptance of an epistemological view," he is using vitaṇḍā. At this point I wonder when a prasaṅga form of argument does not count as evidence for skepticism. Certainly prasaṅga is a widely-employed argumentative style, even by those who Ethan would not want to include as part of his tradition. Or is it just a defeasible sign which must be bolstered with more evidence? Likewise for vitaṇḍā.

The second set of arguments Ethan takes up are those which show that Naiyāyikas cannot demonstrate that everything that exists has tattva ("existence"). These arguments are supposed to show that according to Śrī Harṣa, Naiyayāyikas and others have basically gone beyond the limits of human reason--or tried to--and this is why they've failed and become incoherent (151). The idea is basically that we don't need "philosophical conclusions" for everyday life. In a couple of sentences, Ethan essentially summarizes his book:
This sort of attitude that philosophical conclusions are unnecessary for the activities of everyday life is a mark of the Indian tradition of skepticism about philosophy. The differences in the three pillars, however, is that Jayarāśi is content to simply enjoy everyday life, while Nāgārjuna and Śrī Harṣa see this attitude as part of larger projects: Buddhist non-attachment and the preparation for the possibility of mysticism respectively (151).
 So even Vācaspati's theory of indeterminacy (see Ram-Prasad's view above), would, on this view, be something that Śrī Harṣa would not want to accept, as it would constitute a "philosophical conclusion."

At the end of these chapters, though, I'm not sure what Ethan thinks about Śrī Harṣa's attitude towards scripture, which seems to be more central than he gives credit. Here I cite Nilanjan Das' translation of a crucial passage towards the end of the text:
You, who are fond of reveling in ignorance, ought to have faith in the doctrine of non-duality, presented to you by these arguments which, by your own lights, have the features of good reasoning. Consequently, your faith in the content of the Upaniṣads will induce in you a desire to know the self. Slowly, as your consciousness is freed from ordinary mental states, you yourself shall become acquainted with the ultimate truth, to which reflexive self-knowledge bears witness, and which is sweeter than honey. (KKh 120)
Here is how Das (2018) understands this passage:
This passage is suggestive: it reveals that for Śrīharṣa, rational inquiry—unconstrained by faith in scripture (italics mine)—cannot be a guide to the truth. The professed goal of the Nyāya system was to lay down a system of rational inquiry which, irrespective of the domain of inquiry, would allow one to progress towards to the truth in that domain. But Śrīharṣa thinks this is impossible.
Likewise, Granoff (1978:202) argues that

So while ultimately śruti is (as Ethan does note, p. 123) sublated by experience of non-dualism, it seems as if it plays an important role, as does some appreciation of rational restrictions, at least in some thin sense (we cannot accept contradictions, and so this prompts us to look at scriptures). While scripture cannot, ultimately, be a direct epistemic instrument establishing non-duality, non-duality is something we should believe in or have confidence in (śraddhā, often translated as "faith"). What is the relationship between this kind of attitude and the philosophical skepticism that Ethan thinks is present here? In discussing Nāgārjuna he is explicit that he doesn't want to interpret him as having a form of "skeptical fideism...a means to the acquisition of faith in the sense of a belief not subjected to rational evaluation" (41). Would he say the same about Śrī Harṣa?

Das, Nilanjan, "Śrīharṣa", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Granoff, Phyllis E., 1978, Philosophy and Argument in Late Vedānta: Śrī Harṣa’s Khaṇḍanakhaṇḍakhādya, Dodrecht: D. Reidel.

Phillips, Stephen H., 1995, Classical Indian Metaphysics: Refutations of Realism and the Emergence of “New Logic”, Chicago: Open Court.

Previous posts in this series:
Chapter 1
Chapters 2 & 3
Chapters 4 & 5


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