What Are We Doing Here?

Sonam Kachru

“What are we doing here?” the incomparable Margaret Cone asked at the close of “Caveat Lector,” her presidential address delivered on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Pali Text Society: “What are we doing here if not studying languages and getting it right?”

Caveat auditor! I don’t know what I am doing here. Times like these, my head buzzes. I remember the song Śaṅkara is alleged to have composed in Kāśi on seeing an old pandit. Whether adjunct or tenured, we don’t know, but he was hard at work memorizing his Pāṇini. “Bhaja govindam, bhaja govindam, govindam bhaja,” sang Śaṅkara, “Worship God, Fool! When your time comes, Philology will not save you.”

Then again, perhaps nothing will.

To be sure, Śaṅkara (or Pseudo-Śaṅkara, to speak philologically), doesn’t say “philology,” but ḌUkṛÑ karaṇe, which is a sentence in the meta-language of Pāṇinian grammar stipulating that the verbal root “kṛ” means “doing.” Pseudo-Śaṅkara’s use of it can be taken for a multivalent gesture, expressing the exacting discipline of grammar; the alienating opacity that theory invested in accuracy can sometimes impose on the most familiar of phenomena. And just maybe, it serves to hint at the incongruity of looking for the meaning of activity in such a place. At such a time.

Will getting it right ever save us? Along with Pāṇinians, philologists too, even the greatest, have felt the tension between getting it right and doing right by the people who should matter to us. In perhaps the most moving footnote in the history of footnotes, Isaac Casaubon stops in the middle of resolving problems with the beginning of the fifth book of Strabo’s account of the southern shore of the Italian peninsula: “There is a difficulty here which I leave to others who have more leisure for such things. My mind, overwhelmed by the intelligence just received, has no more taste for these classical studies, and demands a different strain to soothe and heal it.” Of Casaubon’s father’s death, Mark Pattison (another worthy) said that “[i]t was not only filial affection lacerated by death, premature and unexpected. It is disgust with his own occupation at the moment when brought into sudden contrast with the memory of a parent whose every thought and every hour had been given to sacred things and the cause of God.”

Between the sentences we read, in the middle of the sentences we write, there is life, and there is death. “Nalinī-dala-gata-jalam atitaralaṁ tadvaj-jīvitam atiśaya-capalam,” as Pseudo-Śaṅkara says: “Drops of water collecting on the edges of a lotus leaf move in an utterly precarious way; life is like that—a shaking, insecure, inordinately fragile thing.” He goes on to enjoin us to acknowledge how the world, all of it, suffers, devoured by disease and self-conceit, fragilities of body and mind. Imagine a mode of philology that can acknowledge and make room for life and all fragility this way—for our fragilities, and not alone the fragilities of texts.

I like to think of such a philology as capable of acknowledging the power of texts on us. Perhaps Pseudo-Śaṅkara’s sentence can do something to you. It does to me. And so too do many of the texts I am tasked with reading, and teaching (if I am lucky), and writing about (when I am honest): they can change one utterly.

Imagine admitting that more often and more openly. As Buddhaghosa did, in effect, when describing Mahāgatigamiyatissa’s journey across the ocean to India on pilgrimage:

Seated on the upper deck of the boat, Mahāgatigamiyatissa looked at the great ocean; but neither the far nor near shore came into view. There was only the great ocean, strewn with foam thrown off by the breaking of the billows, a sheet of silver spread out on a bed of jasmine flowers. He thought to himself: which is more extraordinary—the heaving of the ocean waves, or the basis of the analytic method taught in the Paṭṭhāna?

The Paṭṭhāna. An ocean! Can you credit it? “Ten valleys of dry bones” is how Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids described the ten chapters of a sister work of Pāli.Nevertheless, I know what Mahagatigamiyatissa means. At least I think I do. Even the Abhidhamma should come with a Philologist General’s warning: These texts can seriously affect you, like the lines of poetry which A. E. Housman confessed he was careful not to let stray into his memory while shaving lest his skin bristle as a result and the razor cease to act.

That requires readers with heart, as literary critics working in Sanskrit knew. Scholarship, conceived of as the recovery of ancient texts, the character Housman in Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love says, is a “small redress against the vast unreason of what is taken from us.”Yes.But survival is not enough. “Vedic scholars,” Utttuṅgodaya, the author of Moonlight (Kaumudī) says, meaning the premodern scholars who have preserved the Vedas for us, arguably people who have marshalled memory against the vagaries of time better than most, “and like persons have no poetic sensitivity, their hearts lack any proclivity towards such emotions as love.” The arts of exactitude, the institutions of collective memory and preservation, and all the King’s horses and all the King’s men, can help texts to survive. But they will not on their own give them life. They will not cause our hair to stand on end. Utttuṅgodaya knew. We need readers with heart, readers like mirrors, capable of responding to brilliance, capable of spreading and amplifying light; readers who catch fire in the presence of texts that burn.

Where is our rasa theory for scholars with heart who spend time with the transformative, remarkable, cognitive music of endless works? “For this you crossed the black water?” Shanta Ratnayaka, my first academic teacher of Buddhist thought, repeatedly teased me. I had only just arrived on Turtle Island from the Island of the Black Plum. My silence was as inarticulate as Mahāgatigamiyatissa was eloquent. As Buddhaghosa tells it, Mahāgatigamiyatissa went on to contrast the limits of the great ocean with the limitlessness of Buddhist analytic method. And he went on to note that there was ravishing joy in the acknowledgement of such cognitive freedom.

Why else cross oceans?

I want to be more explicit about that, and not only on behalf of the person I once was, nor only in response to my first teacher who so often recommended that I return to engineering. Neither are present any longer. But I no longer wish to hide from those that remain and those to come the fire pervading the dry wood of our materials: the ravishments and joys, the ambivalences and anxieties and every variety of wonder and freedom and frustration and feeling entailed by our readerly way of life.  In my writing and my teaching, I wish, to borrow a phrase from Ānandavardhana (in the translation of Daniel H. H. Ingalls), to “occupy myself in giving taste to feeling.” Put it another way. I wish to savor cognitive experience.

I wish thereby to acknowledge and to include the lives of those who read texts and the extraordinary lives—lives possibly hidden to all but great readers like Buddhaghosa—made possible by the texts some of us choose to spend our time with. I don’t know that I’ll ever know exactly what I am doing here. But I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Which is a confession, you understand, and not a manifesto. A manifesto, like dharma (in its Brahmanical and not Buddhist sense) is that whose purpose and meaning is distinguished by codanā, or injunctive force. Like dharma, the force of a manifesto presupposes a collective context. I don’t know that I can presume a “we,” nor that I wish to do so. I certainly don’t wish to tell others what to do. Instead, like Śāntideva (or Descartes, for that matter), my pronouns extend only as far as myself. My sentences are intended only to perfume my own mind.

For it is late. To adapt Annie Dillard, I wish to remind myself to read and write like I am dying. Like we are out of time. Because we are. Make of that what we will.

A shortened version of this was delivered virtually at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religions on Sunday, Nov 21, in virtual session “Manifestos for Buddhist Studies.”