It was a pleasure to welcome to our workshop this month Prof. Larry McCrea of Cornell University, and Prof. Isabelle Ratié from the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle for a seminar on Indian philosophy. Larry McCrea talked to us about late-first millennium discussions of the opening phrases of Indian philosophical works. At stake in these debates was what constitutes the rational human agent who will decide whether or not to read such works based on certain criteria. The creation of gradually larger schema of criteria can help inter alia date certain commentaries ascribed to this period.
At first, within the Brahmanical commentarial tradition of the philosopher Kumārilabhaṭṭa (c. 650 AD), a tripartite set of criteria for judging the value of texts by their opening statement (ādi–vākya) was expressed, consisting of the text/topic (śāstra) itself; its purpose (prayojana); and the connection (sambandha) between the topic and its purpose. These three parts should motivate the reader to engage with the text at the very outset. These lively discussions suggest a mileu in which several authors and their works competed for readership within a busy philosophical and literary marketplace.
The eighth-century Buddhist philosophers took up this three-fold and unpacked its implicit consequences. Arcaṭa, for instance, in his Hetubinduṭīkā commentary on Dharmakīrti’s work criticized the claim that such criteria are sufficient for gaining even uncertain knowledge of the truth or falsehood of any work’s opening claim. Later, Vinītadeva’s commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Nyāyabindu added a fourth criterion, the purpose of the purpose (prayojanasya–prayojana): to learn epistemology in order to accomplish all human aims. Another commentator on the same text, Dharmottara (c. 750s), describes the fourth criterion instead as the purpose of the topic (abhidheya–prayojana), which he claims implies the first three criteria.
Finally, Jayantabhaṭṭa’s (c. 900) Nyāyamañjarī coins the term “opening statement” itself (with recourse to the above philosophers). However, Jayantabhaṭṭa broadens the scope of the opening statement, which he claims validates Nyāya epistemology / logic in order to ultimately validate the Vedas, out to apply to our criteria for deciding to follow any path. He argues, against Kumārilabhaṭṭa, that in the every-day world of choices, we can trust out “hunches” or “suspicions” (saṃśaya) without recourse to the intrinsic validity or otherwise of some claims. However, when approaching Vedic ritual the stakes are higher and the attendant sacrifices and responsibilities greater. Thus, McCrea suggests, the problem for Jayantabhaṭṭa’s philosophy is how one argues from the quotidian to the transcendent level of epistemology.
Isabelle Ratié presented her latest discoveries regarding the works of the grammarian-philosopher, Bhartṛhari (450–510). Among the works attributed to Bhartṛhari is the now lost work known as the Śabdadhātusamīkṣā or perhaps more properly the Ṣaḍdhātusamīkṣā, that is known only from later references and quotations. Bhartṛhari influenced both later Brahmanical and Buddhist philosophical traditions, but the content of this work, and so part of the content of his oevre, has long been in doubt.
It was assumed, given Bhartṛhari’s supposed concern with speech (śabda) in other works, for example the Vākyapadīya and Mahābhāṣyadīpaka commentary on Patañjali’s famous work, that this “investigation” (samīkṣā) also focused on language. However, Ratié has found evidence in quotations and criticism of his position in works by Somānanda (c. 900–950) and Utpaladeva (c. 925–975), who appear to be intimately familiar with this work, that it may instead have investigated the six elements (ṣaḍ-dhātu), most likely the five material elements of earth, fire, water, air and ether and the immaterial element of consciousness (cetanā) or self (ātman).
The surviving fragments of the Bhartṛhari’s text suggest that he attempted to unify these six elements as arising from a unitary consciousness or self in a similar way to the later Advaita Vedānta school. The existence of such an important antecedent to the Advaita Vedānta position of the eighth-century Ādi Śaṅkara has important consequences for the study of that school. The eighth-century Buddhist philosopher Śāntarakṣita and his disciple Kamalaśīla may also have been aware of it. Ratié notes, though, that the attribution of the Ṣaḍdhātusamīkṣā to Bhartṛhari is still not a certainty and so this position may not have existed as early as the fourth century. Nonetheless, Ratié’s investigation into the Bhartṛhari’s discussion of the six elements acts as a salutary reminder that modern philologists should not be too quick to discount the perspectives of medieval Indian exegetes in favour of a reductionist scepticism.