Reconstructing and interpreting ancient texts: two views
Reconstructing and interpreting ancient texts: two views
Recently there has been a controversy on the task of a modern commentator on an ancient text. Michael LaFrague declared quite unambiguously:
I believe that either one is trying as best as one can to reconstruct what the Daode Jing meant to its original authors and audience or one is not. If one is not, there is no basis for placing any limits to what can be considered a legitimate interpretation. (Qtd. Goldin 750)
Paul R. Goldin has taken exception to this attitude. He writes:
While it is praiseworthy…to remind readers that authors and audiences of the past did not necessarily share our modern worldview, one cannot deny that twentieth-century critics such as Gadamer, Ricoueur and Derrida – whose Hermeneutics LaFrague freely grants are opposed to his own – compellingly demonstrated the limitations of a narrowly historicist approach. (Goldin 750)
Goldin admits that “historically informed reading” has its merits and can be defended. Nevertheless, in his view, it cannot be contended that “reconstructing the author’s original intent is the modern reader’s only legitimate concern.” He controverts LaFrague by pointing out:
Texts that survive through the ages do so because people continually find new meanings in them. Texts that die, by contrast, are ones that have to be read as though we are all living in the third century B. C. (Goldin 750)
Goldin further seeks to refute LaFrague’s view by the following observation:
The weakness of the argument is apparent if one tries to apply it to jurisprudence. Lawyers would hardly agree that the only two alternatives in constitutional law are to reconstruct the constitution as it would have been understood by its original authors and audience, or to disavow any limits to what can be considered a legitimate interpretation. (Goldin 750)
This difference of opinion obviously has its bearings on ancient texts other than the Daode Jing. I find it particularly relevant to the field of my study, the Cārvāka/Lokāyata materialist system of philosophy, which flourished in ancient
totally disappeared with all its literature after the twelfth century. The
whole system has to be reconstructed on the basis of fragments, found quoted or
paraphrased in the works of its opponents. The task of reconstruction is made
all the more difficult by the fact that its opponents did not always follow the
rules of fair play. Quite deliberately they distorted and misinterpreted the
views of the Cārvākas (for example, their stand on inference). In spite of
this, attempts made by scholars in the last two centuries have resulted in a
tentative reconstruction of the system in broad outline (R. Bhattacharya (2009)
Let me declare at the outset that I agree with LaFrague about the task of a reconstructor and am totally out of sympathy with postmodernist hermeneutics which is avowedly ahistorical. The case of jurisprudence cited by Goldin is beside the point. No maker of a country’s constitution can foresee all later developments. Some clauses have to be reinterpreted and even suitably amended to keep pace with the changing times. The case of an ancient philosophical text is altogether different. It may very well be so that it had a considerable number of adherents in the past but is now as dead as a dodo. It is also evident that not all adherents stuck to the original intention of the author and some reinterpreted the words of the base text to suit their own taste or to incorporate new elements quite alien to the system. Yet it is necessary to know first what the system was originally like, that is, what it meant to its author(s) and its audience at the time it had been first systematized. Then and only then we can judge where (and if possible, when) some later adherents turned away from the intent of the author(s) or redactor(s). This of course cannot and should not be the only legitimate concern. Later developments, too, have to be taken into consideration. But unless and until the original intent is fairly well understood, the study of later developments cannot be truly fruitful.
The Indian philosophical tradition: an overview
In the Indian tradition the base texts of some systems of philosophy are first composed in the form of a collection of aphorisms (sῡtras). The aphorisms are brief and terse to the point of being incomprehensible without some explanation provided by a guru or, in his absence, by a commentary written either by the author himself or herself (autocommentary) or by some later author who is not necessarily an adherent to the system.1
Over the course of time further commentaries and subcommentaries and, in some cases, independent works purporting to elucidate the basic ideas of the philosophical system (such as Jayantabhaṭṭa’s Nyāyamañjarī ) come to be written. The views of the opponents too are sought to be refuted in these works. This is how a vast literature consisting of explanatory material is created. The Nyāya system, for instance, has four such chief commentaries and subcommentaries by four different authors writing in widely separated times. The nondualist Vedānta system, initiated by Śaṅkarācārya, similarly gave rise to a commentary tradition that continued for centuries. Other systems of Vedānta (dualist, nondualist, modified nondualist, both dualist and nondualist, etc.) also offer a large number of secondary works, all claiming to be rooted in the base text, the Brahmasῡtra by Bādarāyaṇa. Mīmāṃsā, Vaiśeṣika and Yoga systems too belong to this textcommentary continuum tradition.
The Cārvāka/Lokāyata too developed along the same line. It had a base text on which more than five commentaries were written. The base text is sometimes called the Bārhaspatyasῡtra .2 We also read of a Paurandaraṃ sῡtram and Pauraṃdarīyavṛtti, presumably referring to the aphorisms of Purandara and his autocommentary (R. Bhattacharya (2009) 10911). Whether Purandara recast the old base text of a now lost work or redacted the base text itself for the first time is not known. Did he add new aphorisms? Again we do not know. It is highly probable that he was the first to employ the name Cārvāka to mean a system that was previously known as Lokāyata in early Tamil epics, such as the Manimekalai (incidentally, these Tamil works and their commentaries, largely neglected so far, testify to the existence of two other materialist schools besides Lokāyata in southern India, namely, bhῡtavādins and the Sarvakas. Vanamamalai 36). In any case, excerpts from all these works, both aphorisms and commentaries, are found in the works of other philosophers, mostly followers of nondualist Vedānta, Nyāya and two non-Vedic systems, Yogācāra Buddhism and Jainism. Since the base text and all the commentaries are lost, the views of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata have to be reconstructed on the basis of these available fragments. It is not possible at the present state of our knowledge to determine how many aphorisms there originally were. Only a few that were at the centre of controversy are found quoted over and over again. It is almost certain that they were all taken more or less verbatim from the base text.
Over and above these two sources (aphorisms and commentaries thereon), quite a number of epigrams, purporting to contain the Cārvāka/Lokāyata view, have been cited in several philosophical digests. The best known of them is the Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha (A compendium of all philosophies). It is possible that not all of these satirical verses originated in the Cārvāka circles. Some of them seem to have Buddhist and Jain origins. In so far as the antiVedic attitude is concerned, the Cārvākas were regarded by the Vedists to be at one with these two religious-cum-philosophical schools.
Nobody will deny that a successful philosophical system cannot remain the same, exactly as intended by its original proponent and understood by his original audience. New interpretations are bound to arise, particularly when the system has to face criticism from the followers of other systems. The commentators of the base text of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata had to take into account the criticism leveled against their system by its opponents. The fragments of the commentaries of the base text exhibit how the commentators tried to defend the basic materialist position by means of arguments and examples. Most of the fragments appear to be verbatim quotations from the commentaries of Aviddhakarṇa, Udbhaṭabhaṭṭa and Purandara. Thus, although the number of the aphorisms and the fragments from the lost commentaries are regrettably few, the fundamental ontological and epistemological positions of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata are fairly well documented. At least some conclusions can be drawn from the available fragments.
1 Vācaspatimiśra composed commentaries on the base texts of Nyāya, Sāṃkhya, Vedānta, etc. Most probably he was a nondualist Vedāntin but he is credited with being independent of all systems (sarvatantrasvatantra), for he is reputed to have interpreted the base texts faithfully without introducing his own views. How far it is true needs further verification, since it is difficult, if not impossible, to be absolutely neutral in philosophical questions.
2 Both D. R. Shastri (1944, 1959) and Mamoru Namai (1976) have called their respective collections of aphorisms Bārhaspatya(sῡtram), following the Purāṇic tradition of considering Bṛhaspati, the guru of the gods, as the eponymous founder of the doctrine. Jayantabhaṭṭa has indeed used the name Bārhaspatyasῡtram once (NM 2:196). Elsewhere too there are references to bṛhaspateḥ sῡtrāṇi, “the aphorisms of Bṛhaspatl” (see R. Bhattacharya (2009) 106 for details).The name “LokāyataSῡtra” occurring in Jha’s translation of the TSP (2:893) is not supported by the Sanskrit text (22.1871 in
Baroda ed.), which has sῡtram only, not “LokāyataSῡtra”. However, Cakradhara has once called it
so (GrBh 1:100). But there are reasons to believe that the materialists in India such as
Purandara called themselves Cārvākas (TSP 2:528. For a detailed discussion see
R. Bhattacharya (2009) 7677). All writers since the eighth century CE, when
referring to materialism, indiscriminately employ all the three names and many
more, some more fanciful than others (such as bhῡtamātratattvavāda
(Malayagirisuri) and māhabhῡtodbhῡtacaitanyavādamata (Prajñākaragupta), both
qtd. In Franco (1997) 274 and n3).