Category Archives: Religious Studies

Buddhism comp passed!

I’ve gotten word from Karen Lang that she and Paul Groner rated my Buddhism comprehensive exam with an “enthusiastic pass”. (Those exams are not graded with letters: either you pass or you fail.) Yay!

I’m working on my Hinduism comprehensive now.

And then the methodology comprehensive.

And then the dissertation proposal.

And then 9 months of research abroad… probably Taiwan.

And then writing the dissertation and defending.

And then back in the workforce.

Strange encounter of the Devanagari type

Yesterday, my wife and I went to a used book store. I was browsing their foreign books section and found a book with Devanagari script on it. The first thing that caught my eye was the word dharmaśāstra (धर्मशास्त्र) written on the cover. I thought “aha! a Sanskrit book”. But above it I saw the word māramana (मॉरमन), which did not ring any bell. (People who read Hindi will already have found where I erred.) I looked at the table of contents and realized immediately that the book was in Hindi, not Sanskrit. But that word, māramana, did not ring a bell. I was trying to figure out whether it was the name of an ancient author, a place, some sort of obscure philosophical view. Then I noticed the ardhacandra over the first syllabe. That’s the half moon diacritical mark above the word. This is not a normally found in Sanskrit so it has to be a modern Hindi word. Since it is Hindi, the last short “a” vowel is not pronounced so it should sound like māraman. Still, nothing came to mind. Then I remembered that the ardhacandra is normally used in transliterating the long “o” sound found in some English words (like in the name “John”: जॉन). Ok, so it is an English name sounding like moraman…. the religion of moraman…. moraman morman… Mormon!

It was an instructional book about Mormonism. It’s been my experience that recognizing English words transliterated in Hindi is pretty hard. Unfortunately, I don’t have to read such transliterated words very often. Here, I had a big fat clue in the ardhacandra but I’m reading much more Sanskrit than Hindi these days and even in the Hindi I read from time to time, the ardhacandra is not very frequent. So it initially slipped my mind. In general, Hindi transliteration of English words is done to represent how the English word sounds to the ears of native Hindi speakers. Hence, it requires quite a bit of mental gymnastics for a reader thinking in English to totally flip perspectives. The reader must no longer be an English language speaker looking at Hindi as a foreign language but must become a Hindi speaker looking at English as a foreign language. Arguably, the same gymnastics sometimes has to be performed with French for instance but because English and French “grew up” together, so to speak, and use the same script, the mental gymnastics involved are usually trivial.

The secret life of Nāgārjuna

Please forgive me for the title. No, I’m not going to write about Nāgārjuna’s biography. I’m sorry. You see, I just succumbed to that disease that prompts academic writers to come up with sexy titles that only obliquely hint at their real topic.

I do not intend to write about Nāgārjuna’s life but about his texts. Or more precisely, I intend to talk about an insidious form of tunnel vision that can develop when studying Nāgārjuna’s philosophy. It is an affliction that has for root an over-reliance on Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK) combined with a neglect of Nāgārjuna’s other works. Not without warrant, the MMK is given primary importance in Nāgārjunian studies. This primacy becomes problematic when the MMK becomes the only lens through which Nāgārjuna’s philosophy is approached. I must admit that I have been afflicted by it. I’ve written term papers in which I spent no small amount of effort demonstrating that Nāgārjuna’s philosophy in the MMK entails consequence X. Now I’m finding out by reading his other works that I could have saved myself that effort by simply citing his verse. From the standpoint of personal cultivation, the effort I spent is not lost because there is value in arguing for X on the basis of the contents of the MMK instead of just citing a verse that states X. Arguing requires the ability to see the connexions between the various elements of the philosophy in a way that just citing does not. Still, I need to adjust my lens to include into its scope what I had hitherto neglected and which, blissfully abusing language, I have called Nāgārjuna’s secret life.

I am taking responsibility for my own foibles but I do think however that this disease is one the entire field of Mādhyamika studies has to guard against. It would be nice to see in scholarly publications engaging general Madhyamaka topics more reliance on Nāgārjuna’s other works and less emphasis on the MMK.