Bimal Krishna Matilal: a review of two of his last works

by Eliot Deutsch
Bimal Krishna Matilal: a review of two of his last works
Eliot Deutsch
Journal of the American Oriental Society
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Reviewed work(s): The Word and the World: India's Contribution to the Study of Language by Bimal Krishna Matilal Moral Dilemmas in the Mahābhārata by Bimal Krishna Matilal B. K. Matilal, one of the world's leading scholars of Indian philosophy, died in Oxford, England of cancer on June 8, 1991. Born in West Bengal on June 1, 1935 and educated at the University of Calcutta and at Harvard, where he earned his 1965, Bimal-as he was known, simply, to his many friends and colleagues-took his first major teaching post at the University of Toronto, where he spent 11 years, with one-year appointments at the University of Pennsylvania and at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, before accepting the Spalding Professorship of Eastern Religions and Ethics at the University of Oxford, and a Fellowship of All Souls College. Bimal was an authority on classical Indian epistemology, but expanded his interests considerably while at Oxford. I recall meeting with him there a number of years ago and, upon learning of his writing on mysticism and ethics, asked if he had undergone some intense religious experience or perhaps had attained enlightenment. He laughed and allowed that he had long-standing interests in these areas and that he understood his obligations as Spalding Professor to develop those interests as well as to continue to pursue his studies in epistemology and logic. Bimal was a tireless scholar and a devoted teacher. His students would often remark how available he was to them and, while being very demanding, was, like a traditional guru, extremely sensitive to their individual needs, capacities and talents. Bimal was a gifted Sanskritist, as well as a brilliant analytic thinker. In 1962 he was given the Sanskrit title Tarkatirtha or "Master of Argument" and in 1990 he was awarded the Padmabhusan by the government of India, which is an honor roughly equivalent to British knighthood. Among his most important scholarly works are: Epistemology, Logic and Grammar in Indian Philosophy (1971); The Navya-Nyaya Doctrine of Negation (1968); Logical and Ethical Issues of Religious Belief (1982); Central Philosophy of Jainism (1981); and Perception (1986). He founded the Journal of Indian Philosophy in 1971 which, under his continued editorship, was dedicated to publishing technical work in Indian thought that would, he believed, be of interest to Western philosophers as well as to students of Indian thought. At the time of his death, Bimal was working on numerous projects. Although he was diagnosed to have cancer in 1988 and was periodically incapacitated by it, he displayed extraordinary courage and dedication to his work and family. He insisted on participating in many international conferences, notably the Sixth East-West Philosopher's Conference held in Honolulu in the summer of 1989, and the Twenty-Third Congress of Orientalists, held in Toronto in 1990; while enduring considerable pain, he insisted that no special attention was to be afforded him. Bimal was a highly serious scholar and a joyful person, always ready to appreciate good humor wherever he found it. The world of scholarship has suffered a great loss with his death; those of us who knew him personally will grieve for the personal loss, as well, of a truly admirable and well-loved friend. I dedicate these reviews of his last published works to his memory. The two works under review clearly testify to the range and depth of B. K. Matilal's interests and accomplishments. The Word and the World exhibits his wide knowledge of the "philosophy of language" in classical India and in the modern West, its subtitle "India's Contribution to the Study of Language" setting forth concisely and accurately the import of the work. "Although philosophy of language has a very long and rich tradition in classical India," Matilal notes, " . . . a comprehensive survey of the literature from a modern point of view is still lacking" (p. vii). The Word and the World rectifies this situation. The work is divided into two parts: the first presents a broad survey of the manner in which certain central issues in the philosophy of language (e.g., "Words and Their Meaning," " Names and Things," "Universals") were treated by classical Indian thinkers; the second analyzes special issues such as the history and critique of the sphota theory. Appendices include his studies on "Mysticism and Ineffability" and "Meaning in Literary Criticism." Throughout this work, Matilal assumes the dual role of expositor and philosopher. For example, after discussing the Nyaya-Vaisesika and Mimamsa schools' positions regarding "words and their meanings," he concludes with the judgment, it seems that both theories contain some grains of truth. If we believe in conventionalism [the Nyaya-Vaisesika view], then, in an extreme interpretation, language becomes entirely dependent on the whims of the language user.... The Eternalist [the Mimamsaka], has also made an important point regarding the givenness of the language and the word-object connection. ... The debate between the Eternalist and the Conventionalist may well reveal the point that there is some justification for accepting a theory like the sphota theory. (p. 30) Matilal also, throughout his work, is careful to note the contexts in which Indian theories of language developed, mainly with respect to scriptural authority, as well as to the concerns of Indian thinkers with straightforward questions of knowledge. In a specific sense, the philosophy of language was part of Indian philosophical activity from the beginning of its history. One reason was to recognize the Scriptures' Vedas') authority in certain areas of our belief system. (p. 4) At the same time-and Matilal sees this as following from the above- The philosophy of language in India has always formed a part of the classical philosophers' general epistemological inquiry, part of the pramana-sastra, the theory of "evidence" for belief or knowledge. Matilal places himself, then, in something of a tension between showing, on the one hand, the distinctive quality of Indian thinking, as being culture-specific, and, on the other hand, noting its contributions to what Matilal takes to be general problems of epistemology-as these have come to be defined in modem Western thought. He thus describes carefully the debates internal to the tradition, as they involve special Indian (mainly Nyaya, Buddhist and Vedantic) metaphysical issues, while avoiding enclosing the classical Indian thinkers in their own world by over-emphasizing their distinctiveness. Matilal in fact tends to believe that it is often the same problem (e.g., of universals," of "the relation that obtains between word and object," and so on) that is being addressed by both traditional Indian grammarian-philosophers and contemporary Western analytic thinkers. This "sameness" enables us, he believes, to recognize "India's contribution to the study of language." Now different readers will, one can be certain, believe that Matilal moves too strongly in one or the other direction at times in his expositions and evaluations. Nevertheless it is clear that he does show a keen sensitivity to this whole issue and often says just the right thing. For example: The early Mimamsa view is attributed to an ancient teacher Upavarasa. An argument is given as follows, in Vacaspati's commentary, Bhamati. When we recognize a letter k from an utterance and then recognize it again from another utterance, we in fact re-identify it as the same letter k. We do not recognize it as a similar letter k, as we sometimes do in the case of recognizing individuals belonging to the same class such as cows.... To use modern jargon, this comes very close to saying that letters such as k and c are, on this view, something like k-type or c-type (which, being universal, are indestructible) and the actual utterances are to be regarded as tokens. But perhaps it is a risky correlation, for ordinarily we say that the tokens represent the type while Upavarsa claims that the utterances only manifest the letter k. (pp. 34-35) Matilal spends a good deal of time dealing with the well-known sphota theory of the grammarians, which argues that the real vehicle of linguistic meaning is not the articulated sounds of a speaker but a separate entity, an independent source of meaning, the sphota, which is timeless and indivisible and is itself a manifestation of an eternal linguistic reality (e.g., Bhartrhari's sabda-brahman). Matilal, employing a colorful metaphor, writes: The metaphysical view of Bhartrhari is that whatever is called sabda, `language' and artha, `meaning', `thought' or `things meant', are one and undifferentiated in their pre-verbal or potential state. Before the utterance, it is argued, the language alone with whatever it conveys or means is like the yolk of a peahen's egg. In that state all the variegated colours of a full-grown peacock lie dormant in potential form. Later these colours are actualized. Similarly in the self of the speaker or hearer, or whoever is gifted with linguistic capacity, all the variety and differentiation of linguistic items and their meanings exist as potentialities, and language and thought are identical at that stage. (p. 86) Matilal then goes on to show nicely how and why this theory was rejected by the Mimamsakas and the Naiyayikas; but for some reason he does not discuss why it was also rejected by Advaitins such as Samkara, for whom, at first glance, it might appear that the theory ought to have been congenial. Chapters I I and 12 in the book are, I think, the strongest philosophically, insofar as they attempt explicitly to relate classical Indian thought to contemporary concerns. "Translation and Bhartrhari's Concept of Language (Sabda)" (ch. 11) addresses primarily a Western philosophical audience concerned, as so many of them today are, with problems of interpretation," whether of a hermeneutic or deconstructionist bent. Language is often uncritically thought to be a vehicle of thought and meaning. And from this flows the pervasive idea that in a multilingual world, the same thought is or can be conveyed by different expressions which are distinguishable parts of different languages.... In the light of Bhartrhari's idea, this is a platitude that we would do well to give up. For Bhartrhari's the signifier-signified duality (vak and artha) is more a fiction than a reality. It is vikalpa, a convenient fiction, but it lacks the ultimate or absolute truthvalue.... Thus it is that Bhartrhari's holistic doctrine of language, of which the identity of the vacaka (signifier) and the vacya (signified) is also a part, requires us to give up the search for any independent "transcendent" meaning as the translational constant, as the invariant in variable languages, and yet the same view allows that there could be a situational meaning or vacya that would be correlated with different linguistic expressions or vacakas (signifiers) which would be deemed as intelligibly equivalent. (pp. 122-23) In "Cognition and Language" (ch. 12) Matilal deals with another issue of contemporary interest-the degree to which all perception (or, conception) is linguistically informed. Matilal points out how the traditional Indian distinction between two kinds of perceptual awareness, nirvikalpa (`non-discriminatory') and savikalpa `discriminatory') enabled the Buddhists, the Mimamsakas, the Naiyayikas and others to argue that there is a mode of "sensory awareness where no concept and hence no language or word (sabda) can appear." Bhartrhari took exception to this and remains in the good company of philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Quine and those concerned with "worldmaking" and "perspectivism" (Goodman, Searle, Putnam) who argue forcefully against any "innocent eye" view of things. The least satisfactory material in the book, I think, is to be found in the appendices, especially where Matilal analyzes "ineffability." He begins with the claims to be found in mysticism, East and/or West, regarding the inability of language to characterize, without severe distortion, the experience of unity or identity. But he then confounds, early on, this concern with a whole range of other aspects of "ineffability," such as the inability of anyone to describe satisfactorily any form of intense sensory experience, like a toothache. In short, the alleged treatment of mysticism becomes only a means to open a discussion of many essentially unrelated aspects of ineffability as they bear on language in general. In sum: Matilal's The Word and the World is a must for anyone interested in the philosophy of language and in Indian thought. The work is "technical" but accessible both to Indologists in general and to contemporary analytic philosophers. It demonstrates without question that "India's Contribution to the Study of Language" is at once immense and significant. B. K. Matilal edited Moral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata and wrote the opening essay for the work. The book consists of thirteen essays which range over basic sociological inquiries (e.g., "The Socio-Moral Implications of Draupadi's Marriage to Five Husbands" by A. N. Jani; "Marriage and Family in the Mahabharata by S. G. Kantawala) to fundamental conceptual ones (e.g., "The Concept of Moral Dilemmas: Its Applicability in the Context of the Mahabharata" by S. P. Dubey; "Reflections on the Concept of Action in the Gita" by S. Paul Kashap). The essays were first presented at a colloquium held at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla in 1988 under the guidance of Margaret Chatterjee, who was its director at that time. It would seem most appropriate on the occasion for this review to concentrate on Matilal's essay, which is entitled "Moral Dilemmas: Insights from Indian Epics." Once again, Matilal is concerned at once with specific issues arising in a traditional Indian context and more generalizable matters of moral philosophy. He writes: Professional philosophers of India over the last two thousand years have been consistently concerned with the problems of logic and epistemology, metaphysics and soteriology, and sometimes they have made very important contributions to the global heritage of philosophy. But, except [for] some cursory comments and some insightful observations, few professional philosophers of India have very seldom discussed what we call moral philosophy today.... On the other hand, the tradition itself was very self-conscious about moral values, moral conflicts and dilemmas, as well as about the difficulties of what we call practical reason or practical wisdom. This consciousness found its expression in the epic stories and narrative literature which can, therefore, be used for any illuminating discussion of moral philosophy in India. I propose to take this line of enquiry. The moral dilemmas presented in the Mahabharata were in some sense universal, for most of them can be effectively used even today to illustrate arguments in moral philosophy. (p. 5) There is, however, I think, a fundamental confusion which informs this essay, and it is revealed in its opening lines: "Dilemmas are like paradoxes. Genuine paradoxes are seldom solved." I would have thought that a genuine paradox," by definition, is not something that ever gets "solved"; it is only "seeming paradoxes" that enjoy that possibility. The problematic that Matilal raises then with regard to the great epic is whether or not there are paradox-like dilemmas to be found in its teaching. Insofar as a "moral dilemma" arises when there appears to be an irreconcilable conflict between two or more principles of action or moral obligation, from which one must make a choice and act accordingly, the answer is certainly that the Mahabharata sets forth a considerable number of them; but also, eliminating any paradoxical quality thereby, showed ways by which they were to be resolved, mainly by indicating that the conflict can disappear when one orders one's values, which inform the moral principles of action and obligation, properly. A moral dilemma would be like a logical paradox only when, in the concrete instance, the values underlying the respective duties and responsibilities were of absolute equal weight; and, it should be noted, if this were the case generally, one would not have a coherent ethic in the first place. Matilal focuses his analysis of moral dilemmas on an episode presented in the Karnaparvan in which Arjuna was faced with a choice between two irreconcilable obligations: promise keeping and avoidance of fratricide" (p. 7) and describes the incident that led to this as follows: On the very day of final encounter between Karna and Arjuna Yudhisthira [Arjuna's elder brother] fled the battlefield after being painfully humiliated by Karna in an armed engagement. When Arjuna came to the camp to pay visit to him and asked what really happened, Yudhisthira flared up in anger and told Arjuna that all his boastfulness about being the finest archer in the world was a lot of nonsense, because the war was dragging on.... In a rage, he not only insulted Arjuna but also slighted the "Gandiva bow," . . . [which] was a gift to Arjuna from Agni, the fire-god. He [Arjuna] held it so dear to his heart that he had promised to kill anyone who would ever speak ill of Gandiva." Hence Yudhisthira's word put Arjuna in a very difficult situation: either he would have to kill his venerated older brother or break his promise. (pp. 7-8) Matilal shows then how Krsna, the incarnate deity, resolves the dilemma by arguing that the two obligations in the concrete situation at hand are not in fact equal. The sanctity of life (especially that of a brother) takes precedence over promise-keeping. Matilal then goes on to compare and contrast Krsna with R. M. Hare, a contemporary British moral philosopher, and with Sartre and Kant-with the latter alone holding steadfast to a promise-keeping and "not telling a lie" obligation. Krsna comes out, in the contrasts, quite favorably. The book, as a whole, contains many other interesting discussions by various authors on dharma, in its diverse forms, and shows how a certain moral sensitivity is required for recognition of moral dilemmas-Krsna unsurprisingly being one of the few figures in the Mahabharata who is free of such concerns. COPYRIGHT 1992 American Oriental Society

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