RLST 220 Short Paper Assignment, Vered Arnon
A text was discovered in the woods in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s a very short text, with a heading and fourteen numbered sections of text. Each section consists of words in Sanskrit, and what appears to be an English translation of those words. It appears to be part of a longer document, since the heading is “Chapter One”. At the top of the text, is written “By Nagarjuna”(1).
While there are many important questions about this text, this paper will undertake to answer who wrote it, and what the nature of this author might be. Although the text claims to be “by Nagarjuna”, that is not a basis to assume that someone called Nagarjuna actually wrote it. The text is attributed to Nagarjuna, but that could be a pseudonym, it could be falsely attributed, it could even be the Sanskrit word for “anonymous”. But for the sake of analysis, this paper will refer to the author as “Nagarjuna”. This is only an assumption though. Whatever else can be analysed from the text, the author’s name, despite the by-line, must remain a mere assumption, as there are no grounds for forming a reasonable hypothesis.
The text doesn’t tell much at all about the individual who wrote it, but some conjectures can be made. First, by looking at the form, style, and vocabulary, it seems that the author was a very educated person. The vocabulary is very sophisticated, full of words that seem to function as specialised terms, without any definitions offered. This indicates that the author has a lot of knowledge about what s/he is writing about. The text is also written in a complex form, indicating that the author is familiar with literary conventions. It is put together in a very logical way, suggesting that the author is familiar with higher forms of discourse. It is not written as if it were just spontaneous, the form shows that it was definitely deliberately structured. That the author had the knowledge of how to structure it, points to a high level of education.
Aside from being highly educated and knowing a lot of what s/he is writing about, the text also shows that the author must have been very involved in the subject matter, from an insider’s point of view. While many people write about philosophy from an objective, outsider’s point of view, the text is very profound and deep, making it highly unlikely that it was written by someone who was merely cataloguing someone else’s philosophies. The text doesn’t actually offer much information about “conditions”, though it is entitled “Examination of Conditions”. Instead, it seems to be an actual examination, not an exposition of the results of examination. Instead of explaining concepts, the author asks questions about them that provoke more thought. The author is interacting with the subject matter, rather than merely describing it, and this would only be done by someone who was personally involved. The author must have studied this kind of philosophy for a long time in order to write a deep response like this.
The form, style, and vocabulary of the text tell a lot about the author’s probable intent. Although it is not possible to deduce Nagarjuna’s personal motivation for writing this, the nature of the text itself indicates what it would most likely be useful for. One striking quality of the “Examination of Conditions” is that it starts off in the beginning using specialised words, technical words so to speak, to refer to concepts, without offering any definitions. Someone not already familiar with the philosophy the text is examining, would be unable (or at least very highly unlikely) to understand what the text is about. This suggests that it was written for an audience who is already very familiar with these concepts. A possible conjecture could be that Nagarjuna wrote the text solely for personal reflexion, but many characteristics of the manuscript point against that. Even within the style, the text is composed of sentences and questions. The questions are profound, the sentences are cryptic, and rather than answer the questions, the sentences seem to add to the rhetoric quality of the sentences. This indicates the text was most likely written for an audience. Also, the manuscript contains two languages. This allows more people to be able to read and understand it. If it wasn’t intended for an audience, the translation would have been unnecessary. While nothing can really be said about the author’s psychological state, it does appear that s/he wanted others to think about these questions.
Since the text appears to be directed towards an audience, that suggests that it could have been intended as a teaching tool. While the vocabulary in the text is too technical, and the text itself lacks the explanatory qualities one would typically expect of a teaching text, this only indicates that it is not intended for beginners. The text does start out with a premise, work through it in a logical fashion, and raise questions that probe more and more deeply into the concepts. It encourages the reader to think and contemplate. It could be a teaching text aimed at an audience who is already fairly advanced in knowledge and understanding of the philosophy. This suggests that the author was an “expert”, and had gained higher insight into something that s/he was attempting, through the text, to teach to others. But the teaching method the text uses, is to encourage the reader to arrive at conclusions through contemplating the questions, so it is obviously for an audience that is not only advanced in knowledge, but also in the practise of studying philosophy in a logical manner.
The message of the piece is not clearly implied. The central theme is the questions that build upon each other about the nature of the concepts that are very simply stated. This supports the hypothesis that this is a teaching text, and it supports as well the hypothesis that the author was an expert in the study of this philosophy.
Historical reliability is always a question when texts are being analysed. Since this text contains translation, that immediately suggests that it is not an original manuscript, rather it is a copy. There is no way to deduce from this text when it was written or where it came from, or who put together this specific copy. It seems to be an old text, since one of the languages is Sanskrit, and that’s a very old language. However, there is no way to validly date this text and locate it in any historical context. This makes the question of historical reliability rather irrelevant in this case. All the information gathered from analysing the text is mere conjecture and hypothesis. While it makes sense, and a lot indeed can be drawn from the text, it is not concrete.
The next step to analysing this text, would be to try to locate it in an historical context. This will involve much more than direct analysis of the contents of the text, although this analysis can provide a basis from which to proceede.
(1) Since the assignment claimed that “according to this text, this work was composed by a person named Nagarjuna”, I am assuming it occurs in a form of by-line, at the top of the text as would be most natural.