Tika Parampara: The Tradition of Interpretation


Jun 9, INDIA (THE HINDU) — India has a long, continuous and cumulative tradition of commentaries on seminal intellectual texts. Knowledge has always enjoyed a privileged status in India; the sheer amount of knowledgeliterature, text of knowledge available in Sanskrit, is amazing. There is (i) the availability of the text, (ii) the ability to understand the text, and (iii) the relevance of the text.

The continuous and cumulative commentary tradition or the tika parampara ensured all the three - availability, comprehensibility and contextual relevance of the texts. Almost all the major intellectual texts have been cumulatively commented upon. The commentaries take many forms from bare annotation (panjika) to exhaustive and encyclopedic analysis (mahabhasya). What Sri K.A. Subramania Iyer says about the purpose and value of commentaries is true of commentaries in general:

"(These) …supplied the context and brought out the full implications of the main idea… (They also explain) the logical sequence (of topics and ideas)… (handing down the old tradition) was also one of the original motives of those writers…they also placed the text in the context of the totality of philosophical systems". The seminal texts of knowledge over a period of time tend to (i) grow opaque, and/or (ii) become asymmetrical with the context, and/or (iii) their connection with the tradition of knowledge in that domain becomes incoherent.

If the Indian intellectual texts have not become ‘dead’ and are still studied in the learned, though now relatively esoteric, tradition, it is because the tika parampara has kept them alive and pertinent. Some of India’s most brilliant minds have been tikakaras, exegetes - Yaska (9th century BC), Sabaraswamin (1st century AD), Kumarila Bhatta (6th century AD), Adi Sankara (7th century AD), Sri Ramanuja (11th century AD), Madhavacharya (13th century AD), Sayanacharya (14th century AD), Jnaneswara (14th-15th century AD) right down to the great moderns, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi, Radhakrishnan, Vinoba Bhave (who all wrote commentaries on the Bhagavadgita in the illustrious line of Sankara and Ramanuja). The existence of this continuous tradition of interpretation apart from attesting the society’s commitment to knowledge also attests the freedom of mind that enables the individual to reach a different, competing interpretation/ construction. The freedom to interpret thus means a freedom to think. Above all, this tradition ensures continuity of the habits of mind or what is called the mental culture of a community.

Renewal of Texts

The successful maintenance of texts has not been simple. Various processes have been involved in this story of loss, recovery and renewal. Many texts must have been irretrievably lost. A text is lost when it, (i) gets dispersed and portions of the text become unavailable for the time being, (ii) grows asymmetrical with new known facts and so ceases to be relevant or grows outmoded, that is obsolete or anachronistic, and (iii) becomes opaque and no longer makes sense. Tradition records the repeated loss and recovery of seminal Indian texts. Even in known/written history we can observe the operation of both loss and recovery/renewal mechanisms.

A folio from Dhanyalokalochana Tika, preserved at Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, Jaipur

These processes deserve to be studied though the evidence is scarce and culture specific. With the passage of time, we noted, the intellectual texts tend to become opaque and be lost. When a text grows asymmetrical with what it seeks to explain and loses its relevance and position as a primary text in a given domain of knowledge, it may finally get dropped from people’s consciousness. But dynamic communities do not allow their systems of thought to die. A civilization such as India’s that puts a premium on knowledge would strive and develop techniques for maintaining its texts. Strong cultures resist both kinds of losses - those due to the internal factors of the text and those due to the external factors - to preserve culturally central systems of ideas. A culture may, therefore, employ one or any of the following seven text maintenance/renewal mechanisms to keep the thought alive and re-contextualised:

    (i) Commentary (tika), such as Katyayana’s Varttika, 350 BC; Patanjali’s Mahabhasya, 2nd century BC; Kasika, 7th century AD

    (ii) Recension (a critical revision), such as Chandra Vyakarana, 4th century AD, a Buddhist recension of Astadhyayi that interestingly eschews what it believes is its philosophically loaded technical vocabulary

    (iii) Redaction (a re-arrangement), such as Rupamala of Vimala Saraswati, Siddhantakaumudi of Bhatttojidiksita (16th century AD) and Laghusiddhantakaumudi of Varadaraja (18th century AD)

    (iv) Adaptations, such as Hemasabdanusasana by Hemachandracharya, 11th century AD, an adaptation of Panini’s grammar to describe contemporary spoken Prakrits or Samkaradev’s Assamese adaptation of Valmiki Ramayana and such other adaptations of 13th-14th centuries onwards in almost all Indian languages.

    (v) Translation, for example the translations of major literary and philosophical texts in almost all the modern Indian languages, 14th century or so onwards; Hindi paraphrase of Astadhyayi by Shri Narayana Misra and English translation of the text with incorporations from Kasika by Sri S. C. Vasu, 1898

    (vi) Popular exposition, or the katha pravachana parampara, has been chiefly instrumental in both maintenance and renewal of texts of thought. The two parallel traditions, the learned and the popular, have been mutually enriching each other and contributing in equal measure to the development of thought through processes of paraphrase, explication, verification, falsification and illustration and continue to do so.

    (vii)Re-creation, both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata for example, are maintained by repeated creative use of their themes and episodes, by re-creations, such as those by Bhasa and Banabhatta who composed works on themes, characters and episodes from these two patronymic epics.

Of all these mechanisms, commentary or tika is primary for the renewal and maintenance of texts. Panini’s Astadhyayi (7thcentury B.C.) indicates the presence of literature of commentaries, Vyakhyana (Act. IV. 3.66) and Patanjali in his Mahabhasya, lays down the broad rudiments of the mechanics of vyakhyana or explanatory interpretation (I.I.). Commentaries were written on almost all the major texts belonging to different types of literature, vanmaya (permeated by speech). Panini has distinguished four classes of literature from the point of view of authorship and their status as discourses of knowledge:

(1) Drsta : revealed (by unknown thinkers) (2) Prokta : (IV. 3.101) composed by one different from the one who taught, for example Chhandas and Brahmanas (3)Upajnata : discovered/laid down by some one (IV.3.115) viz. Panini’s own Astadhyayi (4) Kita : (IV.3.87, 116) or ordinary compositions, for example akhyayikas, poetical literature, et al.

Great Commentaries

The oldest commentary available now is the Bhasya by Sabarasvamin, popularly known as Sabarabhasya. This Bhasya mentions older and now unavailable commentaries, chief among which is the Vritti of Upavarsa. Next we come to Kumarila Bhatta who wrote his great commentary on Sabarabhasya. His work is divided into three parts, known under three different names: (1) Slokavartika, which discusses the first section of the first discourse (adhyaya) dealing with Tarka, principles of argumentation, (2)Tantravartika, dealing with the last three sections of the Adhyayai and whole of Adhyayas II and III and (3) Tuptika, dealing with Adhyayas IX-XII, a short commentary. In his work, Kumarila Bhatta displays astounding range and command of linguistic knowledge. On Slokavartika, there are two well-known subsequent commentaries, and on Tantravartika, there are six well-known commentaries. This closes the list of major inter-linked commentaries on mimamsa.

Besides these interlaced commentaries, we also have chronologically sequential direct commentaries on the mimamsasutras. Prabhakara Misra wrote a commentary on Sabarabhasya called Brihati (available only as an incomplete manuscript) and he is being mentioned here separately, for he interpreted mimamsa and Sabarabhasya differently according to his own school.

Salikantha’s Rijuvimala of the 9th century is a commentary on this. Salikaranatha’s work gives an insight into the Prabhakara system. Among independent works on the mimamsa may be mentioned the Sashtradipika of Parthasarthy Misra (14th century). Madhavacharya (14th c.) also wrote a commentary on the Jamini Sutra known as Nyayamala. He has not however, commented upon each sutra as was done by Sabara and Kumarila. This work is very valuable and ranks first amongst the works of those writers who commented upon the adhikaranas as a whole but not on each sutra separately. The seventeenth century saw a renewed interest in the Mimamsa system, as is witnessed by the writings such as Appayadiksita’s Upakramaparakrama, Apodeva’s Mimamsanyayaprakasa, Khandadeva’s Mimamsakaustubha, Gagabhatta’s Bhattacintamani, and Narayana Bhatta’s Manamyodya.

The commentary literature is indeed endless; we have listed here only those that are very frequently used and cited in discussion of the mimamsa philosophy.

Factors Responsible for the Rise of Tika Parampara

It is relevant to note here the motivational force behind this enormously rich body of literature of interpretation, tikas. Even though a culture is not bibliolatrous, it would often accord a special status to a text or texts. A distinction may thus be proposed between a text, for example Rigveda, that is repeatedly made to conform to one interpretation and a text that has decidedly generated competing philosophies as the source of different philosophic systems.

From the beginning, of the three paths laid out to guide an individual’s conduct in life - karma (action), upasana (belief), jnana (knowledge) - ‘knowledge’ is held to be superior. But the tradition holds that even knowledge is subordinate to dharma - dharma is the superordinate principle of life for it is dharma which determines the validity and value of everything. It is the sanctity of properly acquired dharmic, valid knowledge that generated the scholarly pursuit of interpretation which ended in the growth and development of a philosophy of interpretation known as mimamsa, the system attributed to Jaimini (3rd century B.C.).

Basically, what sets the interpretive process in motion, therefore, is not just the symbolic and the seemingly irrational text alone, but also the ambiguous, the contradictory, the apparently meaningless or controversial propositions or ideas and even an apparently clear simple statement such as tata tvama asi, ‘Thou art That’.

Apart from this, the very nature of Indian intellectual discourse demands explicatory commentary. Indian texts are a product of the oral tradition and as oral texts they are a disembodied storehouse - they are: (i) de-contextualized statements (ii) composed in complex and abbreviated sutraic syntax (iii) made terse through devices of economy such as class-markers, meta-terms, technical terminology, under- stood repetition and ellipsis, etc., and more importantly, (iv) unlike contemporary Western texts, statements of conclusions and not descriptions of the processes ‘this (the author’s) own mind has gone through in arriving at the doctrine,’ (v) organized in an intricate thematic (or topic) organization, and (vi) at least in the sruti-literature, are expressed in a symbolic language.

The commentator, the tikakara therefore has his three-fold task cut out for him - he has to determine the meaning through (a) explication of a clearly worded statement, focusing perhaps on particular lexical choice, if need be, (b)establishment of the meanings of a seemingly clear or of a multivalent statement, (c) determination of the symbolical meaning of a transparent, statement. Furthermore, he must also establish the relevance, articulate the argument or arguments for and assure the sustainability of the thought-system.

There are specific text situations, which set these interpretive processes in motion. The content or meaning of a text has an internal validity and an external validity, an inner coherence and an outer coherence. Internally, a text may (i) conform to the visible facts, or (ii)be neutral with respect to them, or (iii) be asymmetrical, or (iv) be meaningless or (v) be ambiguous. Ambiguity may be (i) lexical or (ii)prepositional; asymmetry, on the other hand may take any of the three forms-(i) contradiction within the proposition where one part of the text is asymmetrical with some other part; (ii)contradiction between the text and the known laws of this world (implausibility) and, (iii)between the text and the cultural context both general and of the whole composition (inappropriateness). With respect to the rest of the text, the statements may be (i)discontinuous, when for example the topic is changed suddenly or when there is a series of apparently unconnected words (ii) superfluous or repetitive, and (iii) contradictory when it says one thing at one place and something quite the opposite in another place. The mimamsa theorists use different terms for different kinds of statements - arthavada for adulatory sentences, anuvada for those that are in conformity with known facts, gunavada for those that are against the known facts and bhutarthavada for those that are neither against the known facts nor are provable by perception.

The incidence of these elements or triggers differs from one kind of text to another and accordingly we talk of different types of exegesis. We may distinguish between:

1. vedic (sruti) exegesis 2. smriti exegesis: (a) darsana (philosophy) (b) vyakarana (grammar) 3. kavya exegesis Competence for and Method of Interpreters The learned tradition which forms the core of this popular tradition, seeks to determine the meaning of the text according to the accepted paddhati and in the shared meta-language. This imposes certain conditions on the interpreter. There is in the tradition the concept of adhikara, the problem of competence to interpret. A process of saturation resulting in participation mystique must set in before the eyes are ready to see and the mind to grasp.

This process of saturation involves mastering all the pertinent knowledge. The interpreter conducts his inquiry following a given pattern or vyakhyanaprakriya, which is a part of the sastrapaddhati. A selfcontained total act of interpretation includes:

(i )what the earlier thinkers of the same school or sampradaya have said; (ii) the differing opinion or matantara, and (iii) the context or prasanga. It consists of paraphrase, explanatory example and counter-example. Since an interpretation can be arrived at only through controversy the shastrapaddhati permits only one kind of katha (narrative)-the vada. Thus vadakatha, which is the best of kathas will continue until truth is arrived at. Almost all the philosophical treatises we know of have adopted vadakatha.

The exegesis tradition - tika parampara - produced the shastrapaddhati, a method of reading texts and its existence defined India as an interpretive community. This paddhati - (i) imposes certain conditions on the interpreter through the twin concepts of adhikara and adhikari, (ii) requires statement of what has been said earlier, of the opposite point of view or matantara, of the original and the changed context or prasanga, (iii) allows only one kind of argument structure or katha which is vadakatha (Nyayasutra 1.2.1.), (iv) accepts broadly, with school-specific variations, four pramanas in this left to right strength hierarchy - pratyaksa (perception); anumana (inference); upamana (analogy); abhyasa (experience) and shastra vachana or sabda (verbal testimony). Finally the paddhati employs ten instruments of exegesis which may be classed as those pertaining to:

A. The interpreter’s belief system 1. sarvabhaumasiddhanta (the principle to be upheld) B. Verbal testimony 2. sruti 3. darsana-smriti 4. itihasa - purana dristanta C. General rules of interpretation 5. sangati (coherence) 6. paribhasa nyaya (learned rules of judgement) 7. loka nyaya (popular rules of judgement based on real life experience) D. Language 8. nirvachana (etymology) 9. vyakarana (grammar) 10.sabda-sakti

In the polyvalent philosophical texts, the interpreters search for mula-siddhanta, the core meaning of the text in accordance with the assumptions of the sampradaya to which they belong. Thus in his Gita Bhasya, Adi Sankara as an exponent of the nivrittimarga seeks to establish the principle that liberation from sorrow is attained only through a particular knowledge (Vivekachudamani 58).

Classes of Commentaries

Rajasekhara in Kavya-Mimamsa, Chapter 1, gives a complete list of different kinds of commentaries. He distinguishes eight kinds- ‘commentary that explains the ideational content of a sutra is called vritti; analysis of a vritti is paddhati. Bhasya is a detailed analysis that takes into account the possible objections and counterarguments. Samiksa gives an explanation of the intended and deeper meanings and issues implicit in a Bhasya analysis. A mere indication of meaning in the simplest and briefest language is tika. Explanation of only the difficult words is panjika. A brief statement of the meaning of a sutra is karika. In the same manner, an analysis of the unexpressed or suggested meanings and implications of a sutra is called varttika.

In this way, the commentaries not only achieve their purpose of determining the precise meaning, they also accomplish the much greater task of unifying scattered knowledge. Vamana- Jayaditya say in their first karika of Kasika: "The purpose is to bring together and unify the grammatical knowledge that lies scattered in vrittis, bhasyas and all sutras, analyzing verb-roots and nominal-stems" (Kasika, Atha Pratyahara, 1). In fact, in the work of the great exegetes - Jaimini, Sabara, Patanjali, Sankara, Kumarila, Helaraja, Bhattoji Diksita and Nagesa - even the discipline boundaries are transcended and all knowledge is tied up into an interrelated whole.

Concluding Remarks

To sum up, Sanskrit interpretive tradition, empirical and methodological, is the foundation of India’s intellectual history and an evidence of how Indian minds confronted the texts on free and equal terms. It is essentially a linguistic and philological tradition. Questions are asked and answered at all levels of language structure - pada, vakya, carana, samghatana. And to handle doubts, a method of interpretation slowly evolved into a convention common to all disciplines. It originated in an effort to make sense of the earliest symbolic poetry of the Vedas, attained its richest expression in the Smriti (literally, already existing knowledge systematized and coded in treatises) exegesis and underwent its final categorical extension once again in a work addressed to the problem of verbal symbolism in the poetry of the Vedas.

Kapil Kapoor is Professor, JNU, Delhi

Source: Kriti-rakshana, publication of the National Mission for Manuscripts, India.


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