Getting lost in the mists of the esoteric

Reading a story this morning in The New York Times by Jennifer Schuessler about a remarkable project to catalogue an astonishingly large and diverse body of Indian literature over the centuries, I was reminded of three particular posts I wrote about some of such literature last year. Of course, my interest in writing about such literature was borne out of my natural attraction for the esoteric and literary. I think it is reasonable to reissue all three posts for those of you who might share my passion. I do not know if scholars such as Bhartrhari, Kumarila Bhatta and Dhramakriti are included in the series that the Times story reports. If not, it might be eminently worthwhile. Stanford has already done some outstanding work on it.

August 20, 2014


With advancing age, it seems the boundary of my comprehension about everything is closing in on me. I understand less now than ever before. It could also be that in the past too I did not understand nearly as much as I thought I did but managed to delude myself.  Be that as it may, one presses on against a constricting intellectual horizon.

I mostly test my comprehension against fundamental physics and quantum mechanics. I have done so for close to 40 years now and find myself nowhere close to approaching even the beginning. I am not being glib here. I mean it with all sincerity at my command. In between I do deviate into the esoteric of the philosophical/literary kind. I have started reading about Bhartrhari again. He is regarded as one of the most original philosophers of language and religion of India. His era was between 450 and 510 C.E. That would be between 1564 and 1504 years ago. Last night, I began reading his famous “Vairagya Shatakam” (100 Verses on Renunciation). The version I am reading was published in 1976 by Advaita Ashrama or Kolkata and translation was by Swami Madhavananda.

As Madhavananda points out, the ‘Vairagya Shatakam’ is one of three series of 100 verses collectively known as Subhashita-trisati (Finely-worded or happily-worded three centuries).  Who Bhartrhari was has remained unresolved among historians but the most popular view is that he was the elder brother of King Vikramaditya of Ujjain (now in Madhya Pradesh), regarded as one of the most respected kings of India. His genealogy, of course, is irrelevant to his scholarly and literary life and accomplishments.

The verses were written in high Sanskrit and particularly so because Bhartrhari then was and has been subsequently extolled even in Western scholarship as one of the world’s great grammarians. Unfortunately, I do not understand Sanskrit other than through fractured inferences. There are moments of great clarity that occur to me because many Indian languages, including my own Gujarati, came from there and still often use nearly unaltered Sanskritic constructs. For instance, one of the ten themes that Bhartrhari deals with in the 100 verses is called भोगास्थैर्यवर्णनम. It was instantly obvious to me what it meant because my mind at once broke it down into three distinct words—Bhog (pleasures of the senses) Asthairy (transitory in this context but otherwise unstable too) and Varnam (description or delineation as used by Madhavananda). Together it means delineation of the transitory nature of pleasures/sense-objects.

At one level I had to know the meaning of all those words put together, which was easy, and at the next level also know their deeper meaning, which was even easier. I know I am contradicting my starting premise that I understand less than ever before. The idea that pleasures of the senses are transitory is profound but easily understood. One was born understanding it like most people, I suppose. Transiency of life experiences is at the heart of Indian philosophy—both Hinduism and Buddhism. Of course, in Buddhism impermanence is the central feature.

Madhavananda’s translation of the verses is admittedly literal and it therefore gives you a direct entry into Bhartrhari’s mind. However, my personal interest is in the language itself. Sanskrit often feels like one uninterrupted sentence strung together with several words. That is where its incantatory challenge comes in. When your incantation is correct—and it can take a fairly long training to achieve that—you feel as if your words are a great raft smoothly flowing in a literary ocean. When rightly recited it has the virtue of anchoring one’s frenzied mind.

It is not for me to critique the literary merit of Bhartrhari’s poetry other than saying that it is obvious that the man spent a long time thinking about life and beyond. In terms of the rhythm and meter of what he writes let me just cite one verse below. Those of you who can read it would automatically get into the splendid rhythm of the verse. Poetry is as much meaning as rhythm, one comes from the words and the other from the meter.


Let me conclude by citing something I wrote after reading early parts of ‘Vairagya Shatakam’. It is my short tribute to Bhartrhari. I have once again experimented by fusing three languages—Hindi, English and Gujarati. I am in no mood to translate.

अस्थैर्य ही जीवन है

स्थैर्य ही मृत्यु

Against such an idea

Who can argue?

વૈરાગ્ય આવ્યું અને

જીવન પત્યું

Mayank Chhaya


August 9, 2014

जो मैं कल था

क्या वोह आज भी हूँ?

और जो मैं आज हूँ

क्या कल भी रहूँगा ?

What I was yesterday

Am I that today?

And what I am today?

Will I be tomorrow?

Mayank Chhaya

Is there an underlying, intrinsic self to us or are we just a form of energy constantly making and unmaking ourselves in relation to the universal flux? That is the question in my mind this morning. It is reasonably obvious that at some level I am today what I was yesterday. But is that my core unchanging intrinsic self? I don’t know. I don’t.

It is amazing how reading scholarly western literature about ancient Indian scholars invariably sets me sail on a weird journey through a river of perceptions. Like I often do on a whim, I again went back to reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). This morning the random choice was Bhratruhari whose Google search led me to this particular material on SEP. It was while reading the fairly complex and unapologetically scholarly material that the lines above in Hindi and their English translation came to me. “Came to me” sounds mystical but in a manner of speaking they were delivered fully formed. Or, at the very least, their formation was so instant and organic that I felt no effort in conceiving and birthing them. The conception and birth were—or at least I perceived them to be—instantaneous.

I have written about such subjects earlier and I remain deeply interested in the kind of extraordinary pursuit of esoteric knowledge that went on in India since at least 500 BCE during the time of Buddha. Among the many ideas that SEP’s ‘Epistemology in Classical Indian Philosophy’ refers to are perception, inference and testimony. In particular, I was struck by this passage: “With an eye to the alleged power of inference to prove the existence of God or personal survival, the Cārvāka materialist school recognizes perception as a knowledge source but not inference nor any other candidate. Inference depends upon generalizations which outstrip perceptual evidence, everything F as a G. No one can know that, Cārvāka claims. Testimony is also no good since it presupposes that any speaker would tell the truth and thus is subject to the same criticism of lack of evidence. And so on through the other candidates (Mādhava, Sarva-darśana-saṃgraha). The standard response is pragmatic. We could not act as we do if we could not rely on inference (etc.) albeit inference does depend on generalization that (often, not invariably) outstrips experience. The skeptic himself relies on such generalizations when he opens his mouth to voice his skepticism, by using words with repeatable meanings (Gaṅgeśa, inference chapter, Tattva-cintā-maṇi).”

I am not even sure if what I understand of perception, inference and testimony, is the same as what the SEP is saying or what the Cārvāka materialist school is saying. All I know is that while reading that passage the lines above formed in my mind as a whole idea. How do I know what I perceived of me yesterday and inferred to be is what I perceive of me today and infer? And by extension of that, how do I know what I will perceive of me tomorrow will be a continuation of the last two days? I get lost in such esoteric non-sense. That has been a lifelong feature.

Some regular reader of this blog may conclude that I may now need some treatment considering the frequency with which I lapse into such esoteric ideas. But then how do you know what you perceive of me and infer me to be is really what I am? This especially when I am not sure myself if there is intrinsic continuum to me.

June 23, 2014

Getting trapped and lost in the esoteric is an old habit of mine. After writing about spacetime superfluid the other day and serendipitously ending with Kumarila Bhatta I have been captivated by two pieces in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. One relates to Bhatta, a seventh century Indian philosopher described as one of the most influential thinkers of Indian philosophy, and the other relates to Dhramakirti, a likely sixth or possibly seventh century scholar of Indian Buddhism.

Stanford does a remarkable job of presenting these two astoundingly original minds going as far back as 13 to 14 centuries. There is a lot that Stanford offers on these two extraordinary figures but I was struck by the following two passages. The first is about Bhatta and the second about Dharmakirti.


The locus classicus for Kumārila’s argument here is verse 47 of the codanā sūtra chapter of theŚlokavārttika:  “It should be understood that all pramāṇas’ being pramāṇas obtains intrinsically; for a capacity not already existing by itself (svataḥ) cannot be produced by anything else.”

The argument Kumārila concisely expresses here in verse form is straightforward but compelling: if it is thought that any cognition finally counts as a reliable doxastic practice only insofar as it can be demonstrated to be such (for example, by appeal to a subsequent cognition of the causes of the initial one), infinite regress ensues; for the subsequent, justifying cognition would, as itself a cognition, similarly require justification, and so on.


It [i.e., the universal] does not come there [from somewhere else], it was not there already, nor is it produced subsequently, nor does it have any parts. [And even when in other places] it does not leave the previous locus. Oh my! It’s just one disaster after another. (Pramāṇavārttika I.152)[7]

No doubt the fundamental intuition in Buddhist nominalism, just as in other nominalisms, is that universals are occult pseudo-entities that should not be taken seriously by a responsible thinker concerned with ontology. As the above quotation from Pramāṇavārttika shows, Dharmakīrti lists a series of anomalies: they don’t come from anywhere, they are partless, aren’t produced, are in several places at one time, aren’t seen, wouldn’t seem to have any discernible function, and so and so on. Such bogusness of pseudo-entities becomes a recurrent theme in Buddhist Epistemology. A later Indian Buddhist writer, Paṇḍit Aśoka, inspired by Dharmakīrti and Dignāga, ridiculed real universals as follows in his Sāmānyadūṣaṇa (“Refutation of Universals”).

It is not my case that I understand Bhatta and his mimamsa and the philosophical profundity that it represents. Nor is it my case that I comprehend fully Dharmakirti and Buddhist nominalism. However, I can reach fairly intelligible and intelligent inferences from what is being proposed. The idea that all this was going on 13/14 centuries ago is also compelling for me, although once you are talking about such deep concepts, the passage of time is immaterial.

I intend to write in greater detail soon.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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