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S.J. Anthonysamy

Crossing the Boundaries of Religious Hermeneutics

On Anand Amaladass: Indian Exegesis. Hindu-Buddhist Hermeneutics

Buddhist Hermeneutics

Anand Amaladass:
Indian Exegesis. Hindu-Buddhist Hermeneutics.
Chennai: Satya Nilayam, 2003.
viii, 154 pages
ISBN 81-901345-4-X
book cover
Satya Nilayam Publications:
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1 In the words of the author, »this publication is meant to serve as a handbook for teachers who are dealing with such topics as hermeneutics, interpretation of texts, at the university level« (vii). And true to its character as a text book, this volume is absolutely systematic and sufficiently clear even for a reader who may be alien to the field of hermeneutics, a subject that is exceedingly profound. In fact the most striking features of the modern hermeneutics is that a text, particularly a religious text which had shaped itself as a result of the experience a »seer« or a community of a by-gone era is treated as possessing a »semantic autonomy« which enables it to speak meaningfully to a new era independent of its original author. And the issue raised by the author is how two very outstanding religious traditions of India namely Buddhism and Hinduism have treated the hermeneutical exercise of making their religious texts relevant to every subsequent age.
2 A question that is often raised is whether the sacred seers themselves proposed any methods by which the subsequent generations would meaningfully appropriate their teachings. In the first part of the book dealing with »Buddhist Hermeneutics« the author rightly quotes Buddha in this regarding: »Like gold that is melted, cut and polished, should monks and scholars analyze my words [before] accepting them; they should not do so out of respect« (24). The author picks out three major sets of principles central to the development of Buddhist hermeneutics, namely, »the ›four reliance‹ or strategies for understanding a text, the four types of intentional and metaphoric language and the four modes of reasoning« (28). The Four Reliance theory, which proposes four principles for the right understanding of the text, namely the teaching rather than the teacher, the meaning rather than the letter, the definitive meaning rather than the interpretable meaning and wisdom rather than mere cognition, seems to lay stress on an authentic meaningfulness of the text rather than its primary meaning. Such an understanding will certainly have a universal validity.

Hindu Exegetical Traditions


Introduction: What is Hermeneutics?

1. Buddhist Hermeneutics

1.1 Historical Overview – Need for Hermeneutics

1.2 Buddhist Hermeneutics – An Overview

1.3 Four Reliances Theory

1.4 Four Analogies for Hermeneutics

2. Hindu Exegetical Traditions

2.1 The Vedāngas – Beginning of Indian Exegesis

2.2 Indian Theories of Meaning

2.3 Mīmāmsā Understanding of Language and its Relevance for the Understanding of Scripture

2.4 Vedāntic Approach to the Texts: Brahmasūtras – Nature, Scope, Source and Method of Doing Theology

2.5 Becoming a Reader: Advaitic Pre-requisites for Being a Student

2.6 Advaita as a Commentarial Tradition: Two Analogies

2.7 Śankara's Method of Theologizing

2.8 Dhvani Method of Interpretation

3. Ongoing Process of Interpretation

3.1 Goal of Intercultural Exegesis

3.2 Some Strategies for Reading the Texts Together

3.3 Contemporar Indian Approaches
3 In the second part of the book the author deals at length with the various »Hindu Exegetical Traditions« making a short but succinct expose on the methods of interpretations which help one to appropriate the ever »living waters« of Hinduism. What strikes one deeply about this oldest living religion is the efforts of scholars to study the language of original texts of the Vedas and the related ancillaries like grammar, etymology, phonetics, metrics, astrology and ritual in order to give a proper interpretation. These Vedāngas have been rightly called the »limbs of the Vedas«. Going back to the sources has been stressed by every religious tradition if one wishes to capture the deep intricacies contained in the original texts and their right understanding for today. While the Vedāngas are important to discover the meaning of the ancient Vedic texts, the author is careful to assert that »the question of hermeneutics, interpretation of tradition and texts has to be located and understood within the larger context of the Indian world view …« (53).
4 In the sub-section on »Indian Theories of Meaning« the author situates them in the three basic segments of language namely the syllable, the word and the sentence. One cannot but admire the fact that even from the earliest times several schools developed their patterns of meaning according to the importance they gave to the words, sentences or to the context of a particular passage. The author rightly highlights the contribution made by one of the six Indian Classical Systems, namely the Mīmāmsā School, in the field of interpretation by its theory of language: that is, its eternal and omnipresent quality; its character as a res publica with its own laws and constitution, available to everyone; and its dynamic as manifestable and as »unchangeably eternal« (67). This School lays stress on the compelling power of language which makes it action-oriented and hence the compulsion felt by a human being to fulfill the Vedic prescriptions of sacrifice.
5 While the Mīmāmsā essentially argues in favour of interpreting the Scripture as an injunction to act, the »Vedāntic Approach« is more in favour of presenting the Veda with an ambient of knowledge, particularly encouraging the process of study and meditation on Brahman which ultimately leads to a total liberation of self.
6 It is quite amazing to note that certain personal qualities on the part of the reader are essential for a right way of reading and understanding the Hindu texts. The integrity of the scriptural text does seem to demand an equal amount of honesty and genuineness on the part of the reader as well in order that he may be worthy enough to appropriate the right Vedic spirit. The required qualities are: the ability to choose the permanent rather than the superficial; an ascetical attitude of detachment from any enjoyment; a capacity for hard intellectual labour which would comprise of qualities like a quiet mind, self control, renunciation, endurance, patience, concentration, and faith; and finally a personality with a sincere desire for liberation.
7 Students of Theology who would be the chief beneficiaries of this book would be much interested on the write up on »Íankara's method of theologizing«. The very basis of such a theologizing is knowledge of Brahman, the ultimate, which is salvific and leads one to liberation (94). Íankara's thought pattern does have a parallel to the Christian tradition (cf. Jn 8:31-32). In every tradition, Scripture is the real source for theologizing and similarly the ultimate goal of theologizing is liberation of every facet of life.
8 In the final sub-section of his book the author gives a very lucid and articulate presentation of the dhvani method of interpretation as elaborated by the poet and critic Ānandavardhana. It is a method dealing with the evocative significance of a text rather than its primary meaning. It is to be noted that every work of art or poem or even a scriptural text would be evocative and strikingly so! As pointed out by the author, what makes the evocative meaning of a text prominent is the context, the person who speaks, the relation between the speaker and addressee, the time and the place in which it is said, and the intonation with which it is said (103). The two metaphors, namely the »body-soul« and the »lamp-pot«, used by Ānandavardhana to explain dhvani are quite explicit. Dhvani is like a soul in the body or a pot which catches the eye in the light provided by the lamp. The literal or the primary meaning of a text acts as the body or the lamp providing the backdrop for the evocative meaning, which provides the text with new horizons of interpretation.

Ongoing Process of Interpretation

»There is no such thing as a final and definitive act of understanding. It is a process. There is no definitive stage when we can say that we have finally understood all that is to be understood, like the game, which is played over and over again.«

Anand Amaladass
9 In part 3 which, is entitled »Ongoing Process of Interpretation«, the author makes some useful suggestions for a meaningful dialogue among the various exegetical traditions, provides strategies for comparative reading of texts and offers his insights into the contemporary Indian approaches. The best way to enrich one's religious tradition is to be open to other religious traditions which will certainly provide a new framework of thinking and understanding and open us to new horizons of meaning. In such a spirit of openness religious texts of different traditions juxtaposed or superimposed will provide the reader of either tradition with a new intuition. The author provides one such insight by the juxtaposition of texts from Christian traditions with those of Tiruvāymoli of the Vaishnavite tradition (136-140). Such a study certainly enhances our understanding of God and enables us to have a better encounter with him.
10 The book of Anand Amaladass, the result of his long years of teaching and reflection, is thought-provoking, timely, and a very valuable contribution to inter-religious dialogue and inculturation. A spirit of cooperation and openness with other religious traditions cannot be achieved purely in the adaptation of a few external symbols of worship. Dialogue and inculturation should be done on a deeper level. The western religious tradition with which Christianity is familiar needs to dialogue with the Indian religious traditions for mutual enrichment. The limited norms of interpretations that we are accustomed to in the Christian tradition have not exhausted the meaning or the meaningfulness of our Scriptures. Our Indian ethos should certainly provoke us to have a greater recourse to the Indian modes of interpretation. And to this end the book of Anand Amaladass is an appropriate tool.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 4 (2003).
Online: http://lit.polylog.org/4/ras-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
external linkSatya Nilayam. Chennai Journal for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004), 136-142.
Author: S.J. Anthonysamy, Chennai (India)
© 2003 Author & polylog e.V.
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