The `Trimurti' of `Smrti' in classical Indian thought
by Larson, Gerald James
Philosophy East & West
Vol. 43 No. 3 1993 July
Copyright of Philosophy East & West is the Property of
University of Hawaii
THE `TRIMURTI' OF `SMRTI' IN CLASSICAL INDIAN THOUGHT
S. P. R. Rose, in an article titled "Memory: Biological Basis," offers the
Indeed memory is a portmanteau expression which includes within itself
two processes and, by hypothesis, a thing. The processes are the
learning of some new skill, behaviour pattern, or piece of information
(sometimes called the acquisition of the memory) and, at some later
time, the recall and re-expression of the skill or information
(sometimes called retrieval). The thing that connects the two
processes of learning and recall is a change in the properties of the
brain system so as to store the new information which the learning
represents, in such a form that it can subsequently, in response to
appropriate cues, be searched for and retrieved. This change is known
as the memory trace, or engram.
I propose to suggest in the present essay that the classical Sanskrit term
smrti, usually translated as "memory" or "tradition," is likewise a
portmanteau expression but in a somewhat different and broader sense than
Rose's treatment of "memory" as an English expression. Specifically, I want
to call attention to what I am inclined to call three "corporate"
dimensions of smrti in traditional South Asian thought, namely, (a) smrti
as "synchronic phylogeny," (b) smrti as "diachronic ontogeny," and (c)
smrti as "precessional cosmology." All three "corporate" dimensions of
smrti are, in my view, unique to South Asian thought (at least in their
intracultural relations with one another) and thereby offer some
interesting perspectives on the subject of the symposium "Myth, Memory and
History." Indeed, my first reaction to the title of the symposium, as a
student of South Asian thought, was that in classical Sanskrit it would be
possible, albeit inelegant and somewhat unhelpful, to translate the title
simply as "Smrti, Smrti, and Smrti," for it is clear enough that the
Sanskrit term smrti can commonly mean "myth" or "memory" or "history,"
either singly or in any combination. "Myth" in Sanskrit can be
puravrttakatha (an old tale or story), puranakatha (an ancient story), or
simply purana (an old tradition), and such old stories or traditions are
included within a class of texts called itihasa-purana (from iti-ha-asa,
meaning "so indeed it was," and purana, meaning "of old") that belong to a
larger class of texts referred to as smrti, meaning in this context
something like the cultural discourses that constitute the "important
corporate memory of the community" and that I shall be characterizing as
"synchronic phylogeny" in the sequel. "Memory" in Sanskrit is usually
smrti(or a related word such as smaratva, smarana, anusmrti, and so forth),
from the root smr, "to remember," "to recollect," "to be mindful or alert."
Of particular interest in the South Asian conceptualization of "personal"
memory is the remarkable claim that the memory of my present life is what
could be considered my short-term memory, whereas my long-term memory
encompasses more than one life or embodiment so that my "personal" memory
is in its way as "corporate," if you will, as is the "corporate memory of
the community." Whereas the "corporate memory of the community" is
basically synchronic (hence, my expression "synchronic phylogeny"), my
ontogenetic or "personal" memory of more than one life is always
diachronic. Moreover, my "personal" memory or, more precisely, my
"diachronic ontogeny," which encompasses more than one embodiment, can be
recovered through certain meditation techniques, including yoga in all its
variants (wherein dharana and dhyana are special forms of smrti) and the
many "mindfulness" meditations (samyak smrti or "right mindfulness")
throughout the many traditions of Buddhist thought and practice. "History"
in Sanskrit, very much like "myth" above, can be puravrttopakhyana (an old
tale or narrative), upakhyana (a tale or story), or simply itihasa ("so
indeed it was"). Moreover, "historical" stories or narratives are
classified under smrti as the important "corporate memory of the community"
in the same fashion as "mythical" stories, epic stories, traditional law
(dharmasastra), or, in other words, itihasa-purana, dharmasastra,
nitisastra (manuals of conduct), srauta and grhya sutra-s (public and
domestic rituals), and the vedanga-s (subject areas such as meter, grammar,
and so forth related to Vedic performances), that is to say, the whole body
of material referred to as smrti. In two respects, however, "historical"
stories are not simply synonymous with other smrti materials. First, the
texts do recognize a distinction between "imagined" and "actual
"remembered" occurrences. Vyasa, in Yogasutrabhasya l.11, comments that
"memory is of two types, imagined and actual" (. . . smrtih sa ca dvayi
bhavitasmartavya ca 'bhavitasmartavya. . . .). "Imagined," says Vyasa,
relates primarily to dreams and, one can perhaps reasonably presume, to
certain kinds of mythical narratives. "Actual" refers to recalling factual
events from the past. Second, throughout the smrti literature of the
Brahmanical and Hindu traditions as well as throughout most of Buddhist
literature (Theravada and Mahayana), what is often called a cyclical theory
of history is operative. It is, to be sure, "cyclical," but, more than
that, it focuses on the general decline of history and, indeed, the entire
cosmos as well. I shall be characterizing this third "corporate" dimension
of smrti as "precessional cosmology" in the sequel.
Before proceeding to a discussion of these three "corporate" dimensions of
smrti or, in other words, what I am calling the trimurti of smrti in
classical Indian thought (namely, "synchronic phylogeny," "diachronic
ontogeny," and "precessional cosmology"), let me first turn to a discussion
of smrti in classical Indian philosophy by way of laying the foundations
for what I want to suggest in my concluding comments about the trimurti of
Memory (Smrti)in Classical Indian Philosophy
For the most part, for both historical as well as philosophical reasons,
the Indian philosophical schools, with the one clear exception of the Jain
tradition, did not accept smrti or "memory" as a means or source of
knowledge. All the schools, of course, accepted smrti as an important
dimension of cognition, but in and of itself smrti was considered neither a
means nor an authoritative source of knowledge. One way of putting the
matter is to say that, for most of the Indian philosophical schools,
whereas smrti or "memory" is a necessary condition for knowing, it is not
in and of itself a sufficient condition for knowing. Regarding the
historical reasons for this position, the matter is related to some of the
issues already mentioned above with respect to the ambiguity in the very
notion of smrti, to its being, in other words, a "portmanteau expression."
B. K. Matilal has expressed the historical or traditional reason for
rejecting smrti as follows:
The revival of memory (an episode of remembering a past experience) is
not accepted as a prama (a piece of knowledge) in any Indian school of
philosophy except the Jaina school. . . . Some historical remarks
might be added in this connection. The almost proverbial ambiguity in
the use of the term pramanya by the ancients might have been
responsible, to some extent, for the attitude of the philosophers who
refused to accept memory-cognition as a separate pramana. Pramana
sometimes meant an authoritative source of knowledge, sometimes simply
an authority. Some kind of independence is usually attached to the
notion of authority. A memory-cognition or remembering is nothing but
a reproduction of some previous experience, and the causal conditions
which produced the previous experience are not necessary for this
reproduction. Thus, if the previous experience was an authority, the
memory reproduction would only be a copy of such authority. In other
words, "authoritative" will only be a transferred epithet when applied
to the memory reproduction of a previous experience. Realization of
this sort of difference between memory and direct experience prevented
the ancient writers from calling a memory a pramana. Later on, it
crystallized simply into a matter of linguistic decision. Thus,
Vacaspati makes the right point when he says that the relation of word
to its meaning is conventionally established through public usage
(Iokavyavahara), and since pramana is not used to include memory
(smrti) we should not call memory a pramana.
In the Hindu tradition, smrti the term for memory experience was also
used to denote the dharmasastras as opposed to sruti, the Vedas. Now,
since it is the cardinal doctrine of the Hindus that the dharmasastras
are dependent upon the Vedas for their authoritativeness on dharmas
and are not independent sources of knowledge about dharma, smrti
cannot be called a pramana. . . . Therefore, if smrti which meant
Dharmasastras was not an independent pramana, then by extension smrti
which also meant memory-experience, could not also be a pramana.
(Ibid., p. 263)
Since sruti was the authority, smrti could only be a "copy of such
authority," little more than a "transferred epithet" and, hence, not a
pramana. But there were also important philosophical arguments against
smrti as a pramana, mainly from the side of the Buddhists, the Naiyayikas
and the Mimamsakas. According to the Buddhists, any cognitive episode that
includes thought or construction (vikalpa)would be excluded from being a
prama or pramana. To the extent that memory clearly involves thought, it
cannot, therefore, be a prama. According to the Naiyayikas, memory or smrti
is not prama inasmuch as it does not provide immediate or "presentative"
(anubhava)knowledge. It re-presents, rather, presentative knowledge that we
had previously, but the content or object of that knowledge has ceased to
exist in the present memory awareness. According to the Mimamsakas, memory
or smrti is not prama inasmuch as it does not give us any new knowledge. It
is simply a revival of old knowledge. The Jain counterargument is that
smrti or memory is a pramana precisely because it does give us new
knowledge that is presentative (anubhava) inasmuch as it presents knowledge
of a previously experienced something as past. The knowledge involved is
that of "past-ness." But Matilal then quotes Udayana as showing that the
Jain position involves a fundamental confusion. The knowledge of
"pastness" cannot be part of the memory, since the original experience did
not involve "pastness" but was indeed fully present. The experience of
"pastness" must, therefore, be in the present experience and, hence, not
part of the memory experience. The realization of "pastness," in other
words, is a present experience assisted by memory or smrti. Thus, even the
one school that would appear to accept smrti or memory as a pramana or
prama cannot seriously sustain its position. Given the Indian predilection,
then, for pramana or prama as presentative (anubhava), new knowledge, or
the Buddhist concern for cognitive episodes that are totally
"unconstructed" (without vikalpa), srmti or memory cannot really count as
authentic knowledge. It is always a derived copy coming from the past.
Although smrti or memory may not be a pramana or prama in most
Indian-philosophical traditions, it nevertheless plays a crucial role in
cognition and in determining the nature and range of cognition. This is
clearly illustrated in what I consider to be one of the more interesting
discussions of smrti in the classical Indian philosophical texts, namely,
Vyasa's discussion of memory in his Bhasya on Yogasutra 1.11 and its
further discussion and treatment at II.12-13 and IV.8-9. I shall first
translate the relevant passage on smrti, namely, 1.11, and then proceed to
summarize the range of the presentation overall, linking smrti with
samskara, karmasaya, and vasana. While the discussion of smrti in
classical Yoga is not by any means the only important discussion of smrti
in classical Indian thought (Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain), it is one of the
more exemplary and systematic treatments and, hence, provides a useful
perspective on many of the important issues.
The discussion of memory in classical Yoga appears almost at the outset of
the presentation of the system. "Disciplined meditation" or yoga is said to
involve the "cessation or restraint of the transformations of the
mind-stuff or brain-system" (yogas citta-vrtti-nirodhah, YS 1.2). The
"transformations of the mind-stuff or brain-system" are said to be
fivefold, namely, "authentic knowing" (pramana), "error" (viparyaya),
"verbalization" (vikalpa), "deep sleep" (nidra), and "memory" (smrti)(YS
I.6), and it is, thus, clear at the outset that sin.tti is clearly
distinguished from pramana within the functions of the mind-stuff or
brain-system (citta). These five transformations (or, perhaps better,
functions) of the citta are said to be "afflicted" or "unafflicted"
(klistaklista) (YS 1.5). The "afflicted" modes refer to the ordinary,
intentional awarenesses of everyday life, and these "afflictions" (klesa-s)
are also five in number, namely, "ignorance" (avidya), "egoity" (asmita),
"attachment" (raga), "aversion" (dvesa), and the "instinctive fear of
death" (abhinivesa) (YS II.3-9). So long as these "afflicted" modes remain
operative, ordinary everyday life proceeds in its usual fashion. It is only
when the "afflictions" or klesa-s are overcome through disciplined
meditation (yoga)that the frustrations of ordinary life can be overcome.
One can then achieve the higher levels of awareness, namely, the
one-pointed altered state of awareness (ekagra or samprajnata-samadhi) or
the ultimate "cessation," awareness of the presence of pure consciousness
(niruddha or a-samprajnata-samadhi or the "clear discrimination,"
viveka-khyati, of purusa)(YS II.10-11).
In Yogasutra I.6-11, "the transformations" (or functions) "of the
mind-stuff" (or brain-system) are set forth as follows:
(The transformations or functions of the mind-stuff or brain-system
are) the means of knowing, error, verbalization, deep sleep, and
I.7: pratyaksa-anumana-agamah pramanani.
The means of knowing are perception, inference, and reliable
I.8: viparyayo mithyajnanam a-tad-rupa-pratistham.
Error is incorrect knowledge based upon apprehending something as
other than what it is. (Vyasa's commentary here cites the example of
incorrectly seeing a double moon because of an injury to the eye,
which is corrected when one finally experiences correctly that there
is only one moon.)
I.9: sabda-jnana-anupati vastu-sunyo vikalpah.
Verbalization has to do with apprehensions arising out of the use of
language whose referents are language itself rather than things.
I.10: abhava-pratyaya-alambana vrttir nidra.
Deep sleep is a transformation or function (of the mind-stuff or
brain-system) based upon the apprehension of absence. (Vyasa stresses
in his commentary that the point here is the apprehension of absence
and not the absence of apprehension. In other words, even deep sleep
is a kind of awareness. It is the awareness of "absence," abhava, or
Now comes the sutra regarding memory or smrti, and I shall give the sutra
first, followed by Vyasa's Bhasya:
I.11: anubhutavisaya-asampramosah smrtih.
Memory is the retention of (previously) experienced contents
kim pratyayasya cittam sinatari ahosvid visayasya iti.
grahya-uparaktah pratyayo grahya-grahana-ubhaya-akara-nirbhasas
tajjatiyakam samskaram arabhate. sa samskarah svavyanjaka-anjanas
tadakaram eva grahya-grahana-ubhaya-atmikam smrtim janayati. tatra
grahana-akara-purva buddhih. grahya-akara-purva smrtih. sa ca dvayi
bhavita-smartavya ca abhavita-smartavya ca. svapne bhavita-smartavya.
jagratsamaye tu abhavitasmartavya iti. sarvas ca eta smrtayah
pramana-viparyaya-vikalpa-nidra-smrtinam anubhavat prabha-vanti.
sarvas ca eta vrttayah sukha-duhkha-moha-atmikah. sukha-duhkha-mohas
ca klesesu vyakhyeyah. sukha-anusayi ragah, duhkha-anusayi dvesah,
mohah punar avidya iti. etah sarva vrttayo niroddhavyah. asam nirodhe
samprajnato va samadhir bhavati asamprajnato va iti.
Does the mind-stuff or brain-system remember the process of
apprehension of the object (that is to say, the pratyaya or hoetic
process) or the object (or content) itself? The process of
apprehension (namely, the pratyaya), influenced by the experience of
the object (or content) and thereby involving both the form or
representation of the object and the form or representation of the
apprehending process itself, generates a latent (or unconscious)
imprint (samskara) (on the mind-stuff or brain-system) that conforms
to the process of apprehension (and thereby contains both the
representation of the object and the representation of the process of
apprehension). That latent imprint (samskara), being activated when
similar or cognate apprehensions occur (sva-vyanjaka-anjana), brings
forth the memory experience (smrti) which thereby also contains both
the representation of the object (or content) and the representation
of the process of apprehension. With respect to these two, namely, the
representation of the object (grahya) and the representation of the
process of apprehension (grahana), the latter relates primarily to
determination or ascertainment (buddhi) whereas the former relates
primarily to what is meant by memory (smrti). And this memory is of
two varieties, first, remembering what has been imagined
(bhavita-smartavya), and second, remembering what has actually
occurred (abhavita-smartavya). The first kind of remembering pertains
to aspects of dreaming. The second kind of remembering pertains to
aspects of waking. All of these memories arise from the experiences or
apprehensions that come forth from (the transformations or functions
of the mind-stuff or brain-system, namely) the means of knowing,
errors, verbalizations, deep sleep, and memories. All of these
transformations or functions are characterized by pleasure (sukha),
frustration (duhkha), and delusion (moha) and are to be understood as
being under the influence of the afflictions (klesa-s). The experience
of pleasure relates to the affliction known as "attachment" (raga).
The experience of frustration relates to the affliction known as
"aversion" (dvesa). The experience of delusion relates to the
affliction known as "ignorance" (avidya). All of these transformations
or functions of the mind-stuff or brain-system must be brought under
control or stopped. When they are properly brought under control, one
attains an altered state of awareness known as one-pointed or totally
focused (ekagra or samprajnata-samadhi). When they are completely
stopped, one attains an altered state of awareness known as "ceased"
(niruddha or a-samprajnata-samadhi).
enerates a latent imprint (the samskara), which contains a form or
representation of both the object or content apprehended and the process of
apprehension itself. The latent imprint in turn generates the memory
experience, and it would appear, then, that the latent imprint (samskara)
performs both a storage function, that is to say, it retains or is
responsible for the acquisition of content, as well as a retrieval
function, that is to say, when properly activated it is able to generate
the memory experience. In modern biological terms (and see the opening
quote by S. P. R. Rose), the latent imprint (samskara), at least according
to classical Yoga philosophy, would appear to perform the two processes of
"acquisition" and "retrieval" and is also the hypothesized physical trace
in the brain-system, namely, the "engram." The latent imprint (samskara) in
generating the memory experience assists the process of knowing
(determination, ascertainment, or the buddhi-awareness) and also provides
the content of the memory experience either in terms of what has been
imagined or what has actually occurred. Moreover, two other dimensions of
the latent imprint (samskara) and its relation to memory must be mentioned.
Inasmuch as the samskara-s and resulting smrti-s unfold in an environment
of "afflictions" (klesa-s), a subset of samskara-s known as karmasaya or
Karmic residues become operative (YS II.12-14). According to classical Yoga
philosophy, these can become activated at any point in life depending on
their intensity, and at the conclusion of a particular life they all come
together and generate a new life. The karmasya-s or Karmic residues
determine the species of life (jati), the length of life (ayus), and the
quality of the experience of the new embodiment in terms of pleasure or
frustration (bhoga)(YS II.13). At this point, in other words, the latent
imprints (samskara-s) and resulting smrti-s begin to encompass more than
one life, and one's personal memory can extend by implication into a
continuing series of future embodiments. By the same token, the subset of
samskara-s known as karmasaya-s have, over time and over the continuing
series of embodiments, resulted in a great store or stock of subtle traces
known as vasana-s (Vyasa's comment on II.13 and also see YS IV.8-9). One
might put it that the "causal" or "active" samskara-s of one's present
embodiment are one's karmasaya-s (one's active or impelling memory), which
will largely determine one's future new experiences and memory experiences
in this present embodiment and the next embodiment yet to come, whereas
one's vasana-s or subtle traces are the "effect" or "passive" samskara-s
from all of one's previous embodiments, subtle memory traces (one's passive
memory) not only of our prior embodiments in the human species but in
numerous other species as well. One possible comparison with modern
discourse at this point would beto suggest that samskara-s as karmasaya-s
have to do largely with short-term memory, which relates to matters of
immediate self-identity and future possibilities, whereas samskara-s as
vasana-s have to do largely with long-term memory--but a long-term memory
that not only encompasses a complex series of previous embodiments but may
extend to the limits of life itself.
Whatever else might be said about the classical Yoga view of smrti or
memory, one is struck by the boldness and expansiveness of the
conceptualization, which on one level invites us to consider the
possibility that our present embodiment (our present life experience) is
only one part of a corporate trajectory that extends diachronically to a
begin-ningless past, which on another level invites us to consider the
possibility that we may well be able to "remember" not only our earliest
memories in our present embodiment but numerous previous embodiments as
well, and which on a final level invites us to consider the possibility
that not only are our memories "human" memories but they encompass the
memories of countless other species as well.
The Trimurti of Smrti as Myth, Memory and History in South Asia
In the introduction to the present essay I called attention to smrti as a
portmanteau expression that encompasses a threefold "corporate" perspective
in terms of "synchronic phylogeny." "diachronic ontogeny," and
"precessional cosmology." I explained what I meant by each of the
expressions and I suggested that the three taken together provide a unique
South Asian perspective on the symposium theme, "Myth, Memory, and
History." In the middle section of the essay I surveyed some of the more
important South Asian philosophical traditions regarding the notion of
memory, with special reference to the classical Yoga formulation, which I
take to be a somewhat symptomatic or exemplary discussion by way of setting
forth many of the basic issues that arise with respect to memory from a
philosophical perspective. For the most part in Indian philosophizing,
smrti or memory is not prama or pramana, partly because of the larger
cultural understanding of the nonphilosophical notion of smrti as
"tradition" or the "corporate memory of the community" that has only a
derived or transferred authority from the eternal Veda or sruti (which, of
course, is always pramana for the Brahmanical and Hindu traditions), and
partly also for cogent philosophical reasons arising out of the realization
that the memory experience does not appear to provide either new or
presentative (anubhava) knowledge. Nevertheless, smrti or memory is a
fundamental structure and function of the mind-stuff or brain-system, that
is to say, of cognition, a fundamental structure and function that links us
with a complex network of identities both synchronic and diachronic.
I propose in the final section of this essay to bring together these
various themes that I have been discussing and to show how they relate to
South Asian perspectives on "Myth, Memory and History."
1. "Synchronic Phylogeny." In an article that I published some years ago,
titled "Karma as a 'Sociology of Knowledge' or 'Social Psychology' of
Process/Paxis" I argued that our modern notions of history and historical
thinking are totally absent in South Asian thought. I argued,
furthermore, that a historical interpretation was, therefore, no
interpretation, at least in terms of trying to understand the indigenous
conceptual structures in South Asian thought. I asserted: ". . . to put it
directly, historical interpretation is ours, not theirs! In a South Asian
environment, historical interpretation is no interpretation. It is a
zero-category." I would still hold to the same position that in
traditional Indian thought our modern notions of historical thinking are,
indeed, totally absent, but I am inclined now to add, however, that there
is nevertheless a notion of history operating in traditional Indian
thought. The notion operating is just not our modern Western notion. What,
then, is it? My answer is that, on one level, it is something like what I
am trying to call "synchronic phylogeny," and I have in mind the
interesting discussion of these matters by Madhav Deshpande in his article
"History, Change and Permanence: A Classical Indian Perspective."
Deshpande points out that there is a deep "conservatism," and
"preservationism" in classical Hindu thought, based on the doctrine of the
eternality of the Sanskrit language by the Sanskrits grammarians as well as
on notions of a permanent social reality by the authors of the Mimamsa and
Dharmasastra literature. Both in the development of language and in the
development of society, everything was already present in the beginning.
Thus there was no history in a real sense. All forms always existed,
and it is a matter of pure accident that certain forms are or are not
found in a particular text, a particular time or a particular region.
Thus, the problem of "existence" was separated from the problem of
"attestation." Non-attestation did not imply non-existence. While
eternal existence was the fact, the attestation and non-attestation of
forms was a matter of historical accident.
Thus, whatever changes occur either in language or in society are never
dealt with historically, but are treated rather as "options." Hence, both
the Sanskrit language and the larger social-religious system were dealt
with largely in a deductive fashion. The human community is not to be
viewed as developing over time diachronically. It is to be viewed, rather,
in terms of "synchronic phylogeny." Says Deshpande:
The classical Indian tradition looked upon the Sanskrit language and
the Sanskritic culture as eternal entities. They were viewed as God's
creations at the beginning of time, but often they were viewed as
self-existing realities independent of even God and his creation.
Different philosophical traditions hold different views in this
regard. However, these entities were placed by the classical tradition
at the head of history, rather than viewing them as outcomes of a long
historical development. These were the unquestionable first principles
from which everything else had to be logically deduced. While western
science and civilization seem to be based on a continuously
self-improving process of experimentation and induction of new general
principles, classical Indian tradition "claims" to be authoritative by
being a purely deductive tradition whose first principles have been
unalterably established. . . .
History as viewed from this deductive perspective is not a matter of
new creation of events or new inventions, but simply an unfolding of
implicit aspects and values of the eternally self-existing
Moreover, Deshpande points that Manu as well bought into this "unhistoric
We certainly do not know the real cause of Manu's failure to take note
of the facts of Indian history as our modern historians perceive it.
However, the historical impact of this "unhistoric history" has been
quite significant. By failing to recognize the foreign and racially
different origins of the different peoples in India, and by focusing
on their sychronic socio-religious positions, rights and duties, the
classical Indian tradition brought about a wonderful racial and
cultural synthesis of Indian peoples.
The synchronic feeling of socio-religious unity was more important
than the historical fact of diverse origins, and therefore, to serve a
synchronic purpose, the synchronic unity had to be projected back into
history to the first acts of creation.
In place of our modern notions of history or historical thinking, in other
words, it almost appears as if there were a deliberate embracing of
"unhistoric history" by classical Indian thought, the embracing of a
"synchronic phylogeny" whereby we look back and "remember" the eternal,
first principles that are truly authoritative and make possible the
deduction of the pluralist options with which we must continually live.
2. "Diachronic Ontogeny."Yet what I am calling "synchronic phylogeny" is
only one level of the classical South Asian perspective on "Myth, Memory
and History." Although diachrony appears to be lost on the level of
phylogeny in favor of a purely deductive, holistic, synchronic system based
on eternal first principles, it is recovered, puzzlingly enough, on the
counterintuitive level of ontogeny, or, in other words, on the level of
personal identity. The unfolding of personal life is as "corporate" in its
way as is the synchronic, interacting network of interpersonal community,
only the "corporate" component is now a diachronic series of embodiments
that intersects with the unfolding synchronic phylogeny. I now have a
"diachronic history," not in the sense of the unfolding of the larger
community, which has shown itself as the "unhistoric history" of a
deductive, synchronic system, but, rather, in the sense of a series of
recurring embodiments (either in terms of the transmigration of the Hindu
and Jain traditions or in terms of the rebirth trajectories of the Buddhist
tradition) which I am capable of becoming "mindful of" or "remembering" and
which I must come to control if I wish to move beyond the frustrating
"afflictions" of the human condition. Smrti or memory is again
"corporate"--no longer in the synchronic, interpersonal sense but, rather,
now in a deeply diachronic, intrapersonal sense. I have, as it were, or,
perhaps better, I am a multiple series of persons or trajectories,
unfolding over time, marked by samskara-s, karmasaya-s and vasana-s that
impel and shape my identity and give me a "history" rich not only in the
contents of the human species but implicated as well in countless other
species of life.
3. "Precessional Cosmology." Finally, there is one other level in the
classical South Asian perspective on "Myth, Memory and History," namely,
what I am calling "precessional cosmology," for it is not simply the case
that the South Asian perspective asserts a "synchronic phylogeny" and a
"diachronic ontogeny." There is also the continuing refrain in numerous
Hindu and Buddhist texts that the world is continuing to run down, is
continually in decline. While the intellectual reasons for "synchronic
phylogeny" and "diachronic ontogeny" are clearly spelled out in the smrti
literature, both "traditional" and "philosophical," the reasons for
cosmological decline are not as clear, and one suspects, therefore, that
the underlying reasons for cosmological decline may not have been original
to a South Asian environment. Indeed, as is well known, the notion of the
world running down is not unique to India but is generally accepted in the
ancient world. It is widely accepted in the ancient Near East, in ancient
Greece, and to some extent in ancient China as well. Most interpreters are
not quite clear why ancient India accepted the notion of cosmic decline.
Typical of the explanations given for the Indian notion is that given by
Madhav Deshpande in his essay, "History, Change and Permanence: A Classical
It is not very dear why such a doctrine of decline developed in
ancient India. It is conceivable that the invasion of the Greeks and
the emergence and dominant political and social position of the
non-Vedic religions like Buddhism and Jainism were viewed to be
"darker times" in comparison with the previous ages, and this might
have led to the theory of four ages.
I would suggest, however, that the theory of the four declining ages has
very little to do with actual historical conditions in ancient India but
has a great deal to do with ancient traditions of astronomy or astrology
that were widespread throughout the ancient world. Because the plane of the
earth's equator is at a slight angle (twenty-three and one-half degrees) to
the ecliptic, the vernal equinox or the beginning of spring "precesses" or
moves backwards through the ecliptic or the zodiac one degree of arc about
every 72 years. It takes approximately 26,000 years (or, more precisely,
25,920 years) for this precession or falling backwards to make a full
circle 50 that the vernal equinox can occur again at its starting point.
According to one calculation, the oldest zodiacs were constructed by using
the fixed star Aldebaran in the exact middle of Taurus, thereby making the
vernal equinox occur at one degree Aries around 4139 B.C.E. The "Ages" of
the world are, then, as follows:
Age of Taurus - 4139 B.C.E.
Age of Aries - 1953 B.C.E.
Age of Pisces - 220 C.E.
Age of Aquarius - 2375 C.E[.21]
According to another calculation, and evidently one more widely held by
present-day astrologers (mainly because of the discovery of Uranus in
1784), the "Ages" are as follows:
Age of Taurus - 4350 B.C.E.
Age of Aries - 2250 B.C.E.
Age of Pisces - 150 C.E.
Age of Aquarius - 1950 C.E.
Quite apart from the precision of these "Ages" and the raging polemics
among astrologers, the basic notion of "precession" or falling backwards
along the ecliptic or zodiac in a time frame of 26,000 years (or 25,920)
was widely recognized in the ancient world. It is the "Great Year" or
"Cosmic Year" of Plato, and it apparently has its analogue in the yuga
theory of the Hindus and Buddhists. The "Ages" of the world in the
Visnu-purana, for example, in terms of Krta, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali--made
up, respectively, of 1,728,000, 1,296,000, 864,000, and 432,000 years and
with some 72 manvantara-s or Manu periods between each deluge--appear to
reflect a comparable understanding of the "Great Year." The basic number
432,000 is a multiple of both 60 (= 72) or 360 (=12), the latter providing
a characterization of the year and the former (namely, 72 x 360 "days" in
the life of Brahma or 25,920 "years") the "Great Year" or "Cosmic Year."
The large numbers used by the Hindus and Buddhists are probably due to
their desire to express mathematical ratios and relations in terms of whole
numbers. It is probably the case that the ancient Chinese likewise
understood the notion of "precession," and it is the most educated guess,
at least in terms of my understanding of the current literature on the
history of science, that the Greeks, the indians, and the Chinese all
learned about most of these matters from the ancient Near Eastern cultures
of Babylonia and Sumeria. In using the expression "precessional cosmology,"
however, my point is not to enter into the problem of origin or diffusion
or scientific explanation--I leave all of that to the appropriate experts
in the history of ancient science--but, rather, to point to a dominant
mind-set regarding "history" in classical antiquity, ancient India, and
ancient China. The mind-set is one of falling backwards, of "precessing,"
and, hence, at least in the classic Hindu and Buddhist formulations, of the
present and future always becoming the past (or, in other words, Karma and
rebirth). The present is the past, and the future will be the past. Even
the beginning is only a modality of the past. What is and what will be has
already been, and my "historical" task is to understand what I was, to lift
the amnesia or remove the cobwebs so that I can "remember" and "be mindful"
(smrti) about what I was. Coupled with this sort of notion of human praxis
is a strong cultural sense of continuing decline and of being completely
caught in what cannot seriously be changed, since what is and what will be
has already been. Given such a mind-set of "precessional cosmology," there
are only two possible options: either acquiescing or adjusting or
harmonizing with what is (was) or somehow renouncing "precessional
cosmology" (in terms of moksa, nirvana, or some other renunciatory
technique). From one point of view one can describe "precessional
cosmology" as "cyclical" so long as one remembers the crucial intuition
that it is a "cycling" neither into the present nor the future but, rather,
a continual "precess-ing" or "falling backwards" into the past.
But the time has come for me to close these reflections on "synchronic
phylogeny," "diachronic ontogeny," and "precessional cosmology," the
trimurti of smrti in classical South Asian thought--a strange, indeed
counterintuitive, call for us to look to the past, to what was, to what can
be remembered, to what was really true, to what was there at the beginning
and will always be there at the beginning. The present is only the past,
and the future will again be only the past. In our time of "deconstructing"
everything that we think we know, when our universal certainties have
revealed themselves as contingent and largely empty, perhaps we would do
well to listen to this South Asian call to the past, to "remember" who we
were so that we may come to know, finally, who we are.
This essay was originally presented at the symposium "Myth, Memory, and
History," held at the Center for South Asian Studies, University of
Virginia, in Charlottesville, March 1992.
1 - S. P. R. Rose, "Memory: Biological Basis," in The Oxford Companion to
the Mind, ed. R. L. Gregory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p.
2 - The term smrti in this sense is to be contrasted with the class of
texts known as sruti or authoritative, "scriptural" texts (the Veda-s). The
latter represent the direct knowledge of revelation in terms of either
required ritual action or speculative knowledge or both, whereas the former
represent only a derived authority. That is to say, smrti or the "important
corporate memory of the community" can never contradict sruti(the special
knowledge revealed in the Veda-s). If there is a conflict, sruti always
prevails. In the event that something is mentioned in smrti that is not
mentioned in sruti, it must always be assumed that the warrant was there in
sruti but that the appropriate sruti warrant has been lost. For an
important discussion of the relation between smrti and sruti, see Madhav
Deshpande, "History, Change and Permanence: A Classical Indian
Perspective," in Contributions to South Asian Studies, vol. 1, ed. Gopal
Krishna (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1979); pp. 1-28; esp. pp. 9-10:
3 - For the Sanskrit text of the Yogasutra, the Yogasutrabhasya of Vyasa,
and the Tattvavaisaradi of Vacaspatimisra, I have used
Patanjala-Yogadarsanam, ed. Ram Shankar Bhattacharya (Varanasi: Bharatiya
Vidya Prakasan, 1963). For the Sanskrit text and translation of
Vijnabhiksu's Yogavarttika, I have used Yogavarttika of Vij-manabhiksu, 4
vols., ed. and trans. T. S. Rukmani (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal,
1981-1989). For translations of the Yogasutra, Vyasa, and Vacaspati, I have
consulted The Yoga-System of Patanjali, trans. J. H. Woods, Harvard
Oriental Series 17 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914), and The
Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, trans. H. Aranya (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983).
4 - For a typical account in the Puranic literature, see, for example,
Visnu-purana, chap. 3, in The Visnu Purana, 3d ed., trans. H. H. Wilson
with an introd. by R. C. Hazra (1961; reprint, Calcutta: Punthi Pustak,
1972), pp. 19-24. For an excellent discussion of the many Buddhist
discussions of the decline of history and the Good Law, see E. Lamotte,
History of Indian Buddhism, trans. Sara Webb-Boin (1958; reprint of
original French edition, Louvain, Paris: Peeters Press, 1988), pp. 191-202.
5 - B. K. Matilal, logic, language and Reality: An Introduction to Indian
Philosophical Studies (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1985), p. 208.
6 - For an engaging discussion of these issues together with a spirited
response, see S. Chatterjee, The Nyaya Theory of Knowledge (Calcutta: The
University of Calcutta, 1965), pp. 371-376.
7 - Matilal, Logic, language and Reality, p. 208.
8 - It should be noted that Chatterjee points out that some Vaisesika
thinkers as well as some Advaita Vedanta thinkers are inclined to allow
smrti in some sense to be pramana. Overall, however, he would agree that
the Indian schools by and large do not accept smrti as pramana. See
Chatterjee, Nyaya Theory, pp. 371-376. Regarding the Jain view, it should
perhaps be at least noted that smrti is accepted as a pramana under the
category of paroksa or "indirect" knowing. The Jain tradition makes a
distinction between "direct" (aparoksa) and "indirect" (paroksa) knowing.
The former includes perception of all kinds and can be either "ordinary"
(vyavaharika) or "extraordinary" (paramartha). The latter includes the five
varieties of "mediate" or "indirect" knowing, namely, smrti (memory),
pratyab-hijna (recognition), tarka (general reasoning), anumana
(inference), and agama (reliable authority).
9 - For the editions of the Yogasutra utilized together with the editions
of the commentaries of Vyasa, Vacaspatimisra, and Vijnabhiksu, see note 3
10- The translation of citta as "mind-stuff" is, of course, that of J. H.
Woods. "Brain-system" is also an appropriate rendering, since it captures
the Samkhya-Yoga focus on the systemic, materialist, and biological nature
of citta, in contrast to "pure consciousness" or purusa.
11 - In my transliteration of the Sanskrit text, I have dissolved the
sandhi whenever possible for ease of reading.
12 - The term a-sampramosa means literally "nonstealing," from the root mus
plus pra. Both Vacaspati and Vijnabhiksu suggest that "as-teya"or "not to
be stolen or taken away" is an appropriate synonym. "Nonstealing" can also
mean "nonloss"; hence, my preference for the more positive term,
13 - Gerald James Larson, "Karma as a 'Sociology of Knowledge' or 'Social
Psychology' of Process-Praxis," in Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian
Traditions, ed. Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1980), pp. 303-316.
14 - Ibid., p. 305.
15 - Deshpande, "History, Change and Permanence," pp. 1-28, and see note 2
16 - Ibid., p. 9.
17 - Ibid., pp. 18-19.
18 - Ibid., p. 21.
19 - See note 4 above for the reference to the Visnu-purana and the
relevant Buddhist texts.
20 - Deshpande, "History, Change and Permanence," p. 6.
21 - Rupert Gleadow, The Origin of the Zodiac (New York: Atheneum, 1969),
pp. 55 ff.
22 - Ibid.