India’s past, philology, and classical Indian philosophy


back to issue

TO acquaint ourselves with what may have happened in South Asia in the deep past, we rely primarily on things that happen to have survived from that time, such as texts, archeological remains, monuments and other kinds of artefact. To investigate specifically what South Asians thought, as opposed to what they did, it is the texts that are of supreme importance. Indeed insofar as thoughts are constituted entirely out of concepts derived from language – a position taken by some but not all of India’s1 pre-modern philosophers – the literary compositions preserved in manuscripts and inscriptions afford us the possibility of entering into the minds of thinkers removed from us by many centuries.

The distinction between ‘texts’ and ‘manuscripts’ should be clear. Kalidasa’s Meghaduta (‘Cloud Messenger’), say, is one text. It is preserved in a number of manuscripts. A manuscript is a physical object; a text is a literary composition.2 The fact that a text consists not of matter but of language means that whereas a manuscript can be observed by sight and touch (and, I suppose, smell and taste!), a text can be observed by sight (i.e. by reading it) and by hearing. Indeed many of India’s oldest texts were composed without any recourse to writing and were preserved for many centuries not by manuscripts, but by oral-transmission.

It was probably from the last few centuries BCE that manuscripts (in Sanskrit and Prakrit) began to be written and copied in India. While many texts survive from earlier than that period, no manuscripts survive from as far back as that. The texts that have come down to us from Classical India typically exist only in copies of copies of copies of copies… Since scribes are human, copying mistakes enter the transmission at every stage. Thus when I mentioned above texts, archeological remains, monuments and other artefacts that have survived from the past, I was eliding an importance difference between the first of those and the rest. An artefact, a statue say, that survives today is the same statue that was produced previously. A text that survives today, by contrast, will have gone through numerous small changes each time its manuscripts are copied.

Some of these may be deliberate modifications on the part of a scribe. But many will be inadvertent. If so, they may result in a nonsensical, ungrammatical sentence. Or they may result in a corruption that is harder to spot, one that contains no syntactical flaw. Thus to be a pukka Sanskrit philologist, which simply means someone capable of accurately understanding texts written in Sanskrit, one must also be a text critic, that is to say someone capable of identifying these many corruptions and presenting hypotheses about what the author actually wrote. This is time-consuming and labour-intensive work, ideally involving as it does the collation of all available manuscripts of a text. But once one has become aware of the huge number of corruptions existing in the manuscripts – and printed editions based on those manuscripts – of every surviving classical Sanskrit text, it is work that comes to seem indispensable.


I am making this point because many assume that a printed edition of a Sanskrit text can unproblematically be assumed to be the words of its author. Those who proceed on this assumption erect an edifice of ‘knowledge’ on shaky foundations. The eureka moment that consists in diagnosing and removing a corruption takes one closer to the thoughts of an author. It is comparable to the fine-tuning of a radio dial such that extraneous noise and distortion reduce, allowing a voice to come across with more clarity and less interference. To read over corruptions without being aware that they are corruptions results in at best fuzzy and at worst incoherent thoughts being wrongly attributed to the author.

The other reason for my dwelling on this point is to introduce readers to one of the ideological divides in the field of Sanskrit studies. There are those who affirm the indispensability of this text critical work (the creation of new, improved editions based on the collation and comparison of manuscripts and parallel passages); and there are those who see it as actually holding back progress by being overly preoccupied with small issues of wording.


There are two ways in which the field can be advanced: by the provision of new data, and by the construction of new analyses of previously available data. The ‘providers’ are the philologists, working with manuscripts and producing, based on those, printed editions and translations. The ‘constructors’ are theorists or historians of social and political formations, of science, of philosophy, of religion, of literature. The providers work at the cutting edge of the mine or the quarry, as it were, chipping away to extract gems and marble. The constructors use these to create edifices of relevance to their own sub-field. Presented like this, it looks like we have a division of labour, rather than a battle. But it is both, for the constructors frequently accuse the providers of being unable to think creatively, unaware of the wider picture, and obsessed with inconsequential minutiae. University positions, they argue, should not be given to those scholars but rather to people who actually ‘do something’ with the material. And the providers often accuse the constructors of being insufficiently familiar with primary sources, cavalier in their use of them, and more concerned with the sensational than the true.

An American philosopher (Richard Heck) tells his students that there are essentially two ways one can challenge others’ claims: by asking either ‘oh yeah?’ or ‘so what?’, the first doubting accuracy and the second doubting relevance. The providers throw the ‘oh yeah?’ question at the constructors and the latter throw the ‘so what?’ question at the providers. I am not sure of the extent to which this infighting harms or helps the discipline. It may be that it provides a helpful curbing of the excesses of both sides.

I do not feel the need to come down on one side to the exclusion of the other, given that I see both as necessary. But I do oppose those who see text critical work as dispensable. A knock-down argument here is the enormous extent of unpublished Sanskrit literature. How many Sanskrit manuscripts exist? We do not know the answer, but a recent educated guess places them at thirty million.3 The number of surviving Greek manuscripts, for the sake of comparison, is about thirty thousand. It is only a minute fraction of surviving Sanskrit texts that have been published, let alone studied in detail. This alone points to the desirability of having an army of philologists engaged in the production of critical editions, even if they are not simultaneously engaged in work of interest to those who do not know Sanskrit.


My own approach has been to start by taking a not previously translated text, or a part of a text,4 to collect manuscripts, prepare an edition that improves upon the editions published so far, and prepare a heavily annotated translation. I regard that as a necessary precursor to further analysis. Indeed for three of the texts I have worked on – the Nareshvaraparikshaprakasha, Matangavrtti and Paramokshanirasakarikavrtti (see footnote 3) – it was simply not possible to accurately apprehend the author’s thoughts on the basis of the existing editions, so full were they of corruptions. For a fourth, the Nyayamanjari, an edition exists that is not bad. But even here, if one takes the time to consult two manuscripts neglected by the editors – one written on birch bark in Sharada script, and one on palm leaf in Malayalam script – then improvements can be made that result in previously inaccessible nuances of thought coming across.

But if my research were to end with this philological groundwork, it would hardly motivate me to rise from bed in the morning. While that attention to linguistic detail brings a certain satisfaction, the exciting part is what it enables: a further examination of and engagement with the philosophical ideas. In this second stage I approach the material not merely as a passive observer, but as a fellow participant in the debate in question.


Much of my energy for the study of Indian philosophical texts derives from a sense of their as yet untapped potential for enriching contemporary philosophy. It may seem strange to some that ideas from the distant past could be enlightening today. Are not such ideas ‘of merely historical interest’? The history of physics, for example, holds no claim on a physicist. A physicist may well be interested in the history of their discipline (perhaps to remind them of how physics got to where it is today, or to show them where past physicists went wrong); but if they are not, they are not losing an opportunity to improve their physics. The history of physics is primarily history, not physics. Those who engage in the history of philosophy, by contrast, are actually doing philosophy. That is one of the differences between the history of philosophy and ‘the history of ideas’ or ‘intellectual history’, these latter two being branches of history.5


There are two reasons for this difference between, on the one hand, the history of philosophy and, on the other hand, the history of science or the history of ideas. One is the level of immersion in, engagement with, and evaluation of the ideas that characterizes the history of philosophy. They are treated philosophically, not as historical curiosities to be assigned to an intellectual museum, or epiphenomena to be set in their socio-economic context. The other is that while there is evolution and some progress in philosophy, past philosophies are not rendered redundant by subsequent ones. Some assertions put forward by philosophers in the past may have turned out to be empirically falsified. But in that case they were not philosophical assertions but empirical ones.

During the last century there was a shift among metaphysicians away from idealism towards realism (and among philosophers of mind from dualism towards physicalism). But that was not because idealism (or dualism) was refuted. The spotlight shifted towards this new terrain because of a growing awareness of different, neglected territory waiting to be explored. But an exclusive focus on this new territory leads to the older approaches and paradigms remaining in the dark and their potential insights being unavailable. Thus philosophers would do well to remind themselves of the history of their discipline in order to become aware of the limits of their current methodologies and preoccupations. To look to past philosophies for inspiration is not, or certainly need not be, conservative. It rather affords the radical possibility of challenging the narrow horizons of the discipline as it is conducted today.

While this assertion of the relevance and value of the history of philosophy has required some defence, to combat those who over-generalize notions of progress from the natural sciences and technology, surely the relevance and value of studying the belletristic literature of the past requires no such defence. The fact that a novel has been written in our own time does not mean that it will move us more, or teach us more about human nature, than a work written by Kalidasa.


Much of my own work in the History of Indian Philosophy is concerned with a complex of enduring philosophical problems, those that surround ‘personal identity’.6 What, if anything, is the essence of a sentient being? How long does an individual being last? Am I numerically the same thing as I was just after I was born (even if I no longer contain any cells that I did then)? What are the criteria for individuation of people? Is a human being a thing or a process? Is it incoherent to claim that one and the same individual could continue to exist after the death of its body? On the one hand were various Buddhist views claiming that we have no self, no essence, that we are changing – not only qualitatively but also numerically – in every single moment, that we are a process rather than a thing. These views attained a new level of sophistication with Dignaga (ca. 470-530) and Dharmakirti (6th or 7th century). On the other hand were various thinkers belonging to the text-traditions of Nyaya (e.g. Vatsyayana, Uddyotakara, Bhasarvajna, Jayanta Bhatta), Vaisheshika (e.g. Prashastapada, Shridhara, Vyomashiva) and Sankhya who claimed that we have an eternally unchanging self. In the middle ground between these extremes we find the Mimamsa view of Kumarila (an older contemporary of Dharmakirti’s) and the views of various Jain philosophers. Then there were others who came up with views different from all of the above: Advaita Vedantins such as Shankara and Mandanamishra, Vaishnava Vedantins such as Yamunacarya, Ramanuja, Madhva, Jayatirtha and Vyasatirtha, Non-Dualistic Shaivas such as Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta, Dualistic Shaivas such as Narayanakantha and Ramakantha.


The coexistence within the Indian tradition of rational debate of so many opposed groups is in itself remarkable and has not yet received the attention it deserves – neither inside ‘the academy’ nor among the politicians or general public who make essentialist pronouncements about ‘the Hindu tradition’ or ‘the Sanskrit tradition’. As knowledge of this Sanskrit tradition of philosophical debate between the various schools becomes more widespread, these one-sided characterizations will become untenable – invalidated by the spectacle of a far greater diversity that was contained within, and celebrated by, these schools.


Contemporary Euro-American philosophers tend to address the issues of selfhood enumerated above in ignorance of the fact that sophisticated South Asian intellectuals have been reflecting on them for many hundreds of years longer than western thinkers; many of the issues that arose in Europe in the period between Descartes and Kant had already been debated in India for the previous thousand years – in ways that overlap, but differ in unexpected and revealing ways, for example by making use of different distinctions. There is a growing awareness within the discipline of Philosophy of its parochialism and need to internationalize. Some who have been trained exclusively in western philosophy are looking to, and drawing on, the Indian material. Once more scholars emerge who are trained to access and make analytical use of both the South Asian and the western material, the encounter between the two traditions is sure to yield new perspectives on a variety of problems.

It is my hope – and there are some signs that it is not an unrealistic one – that Indian philosophy will soon begin a similar trajectory to that taken by Greek philosophy in the middle of the twentieth century, when it moved from being restricted to Classics syllabi to becoming a mandatory part of every philosophy degree.7



1. In this article I use ‘India’ and ‘Indian’ as synonymous with ‘South Asia’ and ‘South Asian’.

2. I am here, for simplicity’s sake, reducing a threefold distinction between works, texts and manuscripts into a twofold one.

3. See Dominik Wujastyk, ‘Indian Manuscripts’, in Jörg Quenzer and Jan-Ulrich Sobisch (eds.), Manuscript Cultures: Mapping the Field. 2014.

4. The Nareshvaraparikshaprakasha (a commentary on ‘An Examination of the Soul and God’ by Sadyojyotis), the Matangavrtti (a commentary on the Agama known as ‘The Elephant’), and the Paramokshanirasakarikavrtti (a commentary on ‘The verses that Refute the Conceptions of Liberation Advanced by Other Schools’ by Sadyojyotis), all three composed in Kashmir by Bhatta Ramakantha, a 10th century adept in the tradition of Shaiva Siddhanta; the Nyayamanjari (‘Flower-Garland of Logic’), composed in Kashmir by Jayanta Bhatta, a 9th century philosopher in the tradition of Nyaya; and the Haracaritacintamani (‘The Wish-Fulfilling Jewel that Tells of the Exploits of Shiva’), composed in Kashmir in the 13th century by Jayadratha, a Shiva bhakta. The articles and large parts of the books are available here:

5. See Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, 1978, p. 9; and the concluding chapter of Adrian Moore, The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics; Making Sense of Things, 2011.

6. The Self’s Awareness of Itself. Bhatta Ramakantha’s Arguments Against the Buddhist Doctrine of No-Self. Vienna, 2006. ‘Ramakantha’s Concept of Unchanging Cognition (nityajnana): Influence from Buddhism, Samkhya and Vedanta’, in J. Bronkhorst and K. Preisendanz (eds.), From Vasubandhu to Caitanya. Studies in Indian Philosophy and Its Textual History. Papers of the 12th World Sanskrit Conference, 2010a, Volume 10.1, pp. 79-120. ‘Bhatta Ramakantha’s Elaboration of Self-Awareness (svasamvedana), and How it Differs from Dharmakirti’s Exposition of the Concept’, Journal of Indian Philosophy 38(3), 2010b, pp. 297-321. ‘The Self as a Dynamic Constant; Ramakantha’s Middle Ground Between a Naiyayika Eternal Self-Substance and a Buddhist Stream of Consciousness-Moments’, Journal of Indian Philosophy 42(1), 2014, pp. 173-193. And see forthcoming articles in Purushottama Bilimoria (ed.), Routledge History of Indian Philosophy, Routledge, London; and in Joerg Tuske (ed.), The Bloomsbury Research Handbook to Indian Epistemology and Metaphysics, Bloomsbury, London.

7. Personal communication, Jonardon Ganeri, 6 November 2013.