- The Concealed Art of the Soul: Theories of the Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology
The Concealed Art of the Soul: Theories of the Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology by Jonardon Ganeri is a book on the nature of the self and our (lack of) knowledge thereof, and it is a great example of how Eastern and Western thought can enrich each other. Although the book deals first and foremost with the Indian tradition, the discussion moves elegantly from Vasubhandu to Cicero, from Dignāga to Schopenhauer, from the Naiyāyikas to Peter Strawson, from Jayanta Bhaṭṭa to Derek Parfit. Because the book touches upon such a broad range of topics and sources, a fair understanding of Western philosophy as well as some familiarity with the Indian religious and philosophical traditions is presupposed. For example, when the text refers to the Stoics, the Naiyāyikas, or the Pāṇṇava and the Kaurava, it usually assumes that the reader knows who these groups are, and this might make the book at times a somewhat difficult read for the nonspecialized Religious Studies or Philosophy undergraduate or the interested layperson. The style of writing, however, is lively, elegant, and not overly technical.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, "Soul-searchers and Sooth-sayers," sets the stage and first establishes the need for a discussion about the self. Although a person is, in a way, "condemned to company" (p. 23) with his or her self, to actually pin down what is meant by that "self" is very difficult, because by being everywhere the self seems to be stripped "of a sense of being somewhere" (p. 36). In classical Indian texts teachings about the self are often very indirect, concealing as well as [End Page 243] revealing the truth in order to make readers struggle with the material and make them gain their own insights into the real nature of the soul (p. 93). This phenomenon and its implications are analyzed using episodes from the Upaniṣads, the Mahābhārata, and the parables of the Buddha. For example, Ganeri retells and interprets the story of Indra and Virocana from the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, in which the creator god Prajāpati, "being told of their quest to discover the self . . . fobs them off with [answers] he knows to be false" (p. 17).
Later on in the book Ganeri writes about the sūtra genre that leaving "deliberate, open spaces for interpretation" (p. 208) is one of its general features. This statement would probably have been less controversial with regard to the narrative texts presented in part 1, the parable being the classical example for a text form that aims at engaging readers and motivating them to draw their own conclusions on the message of the text beyond what is contained in the letters. However, the idea that an enigmatic verse from the Vaiśeṣikasūtra was deliberately noted down in such a cryptic way in order "provide" later commentators with the opportunity to respond to later objections to the Vaiśeṣika theory might be debatable. While such reinterpretation occurs naturally and was common practice for Indian philosophers trying to legitimize new ideas by reading them back into existing material (a typical example being Vācaspati's attempt to read a distinction between determinate and indeterminate perception into Nyāyasūtra 1.1.4), it is at least questionable whether this was the original intention of the sūtra format, which in the historical context of oral transmission is much easier explained as a list of memorable key points for existing doctrines than as a deliberate "open space" for future philosophers. There are certainly some difficulties with attempting to work out the original aim of a text as Ganeri is trying to do in this book and a danger of reading more into it in terms of the author's intention than the sources...