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Sanskrit Debate

Vasubandhu’s "Vīmśatikā</I> versus Kumārila’s "Nirālambanavāda</I>


William Cully Allen

Sanskrit Debate: Vasubandhu’s ‘Vīmśatikā’ versus Kumārila’s ‘Nirālambanavāda’ illustrates the rules and regulations of classical Indian debate literature (pramānaśāstra) by introducing new translations of two Sanskrit texts composed in antithesis to each other’s tradition of thought and practice. In the third century CE, Vasubandhu, a Buddhist philosopher-monk, proposed that the entire world of lived experience is a matter of mind only through his Vīmśatikā (Twenty Verses). In the seventh century CE, Kumārila, a Hindu philosopher-priest, composed Nirālambanavāda (Non-Sensory Limit Debate) to establish the objective reality of objects by refuting Vasubandhu’s claim that objects experienced in waking life are not different from objects experienced in dreams. Kumārila rigorously employs formal rules and regulations of Indian logic and debate to demonstrate that Vasubandhu’s assertion is totally irrational and incoherent.
Vīmśatikā ranks among the world’s most misunderstood texts but Kumārila’s historic refutation allows Vīmśatikā to be read in its own text-historical context. This compelling, radically revolutionary re-reading of Vīmśatikā delineates a hermeneutic of humor indispensable to discerning its medicinal message. In Vīmśatikā, Vasubandhu employs the form of professional Sanskrit logic and debate as a guise and a ruse to ridicule the entire enterprise of Indian philosophy. Vasubandhu critiques all Indian theories of epistemology and ontology and claims that both how we know and what we know are acts of the imagination.
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2 Vimśatikā and Auto-Commentary in Text-Historical Context


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Vimśatikā and Auto-Commentary in Text-Historical Context

Historical Prologue

Vasubandhu was born into one of the greatest unifying periods in Indian political history. The imperial Gupta dynasty had united all of North India under centralized authority. Their century–and–a–half reign, in the midst of which Vasubandhu lived eighty years, is lauded as India’s Golden Age. The Guptas gave generously from the royal treasuries to promote intellectual and artistic excellence, inviting to their court such eminent contemporaries of Vasubandhu as the poet Kalidasa and the Mīmāmsā philosopher, Śabara. The Golden Age was inaugurated when the Guptas, ignoring Prakrit, adopted Sanskrit as the official court language. Consequently this was a prolific period, producing texts on ancient knowledge in such varied fields as law, philosophy, logic, poetics, architecture, sculpture, painting, dance, music, and even love–making. This proliferation of scholarly and literary activity was the result of the new fashion in language. Sanskrit, perfected by grammarians and poets on the basis of Panini’s rules, gave almost mathematical exactitude to terminology. Sanskrit offered philosophers and poets alike a common vehicle to express the most delicate shades of meaning, precise observations, and imaginative flights of fantasy. Even the Buddhists abandoned Pali to enter the Sanskrit world of discourse. Though a gap of three centuries separated Vasubandhu and Kumārila, the Sanskritization of India unites and sustains them in continual controversy.

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