Accessible English text of Vaiśeṣika Sūtra

As many readers know, I teach in a Great Books program where our courses center on the discussion of important primary texts across all major liberal arts disciplines — humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The center of authority in the classroom is not the professor, but the course materials, and accordingly we are encouraged to be a “jack of all trades” and teach outside our scholarly expertise. Hence this semester I am actually teaching a natural science course on different views of astronomy and cosmology through history. While a traditional Great Books program would focus only on Western sources, we have aimed for greater inclusivenes. My current syllabus includes Hindu, Chinese, and Islamic sources alongside Western materials.

This brings me to the topic of my post, the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra, an ancient Hindu text that espouses something like atomism. It was clearly a slam dunk for my course, to include alongside Democritus and Lucretius, but I have been repeatedly frustrated by the lack of a useable English translation of the text. This old edition is festooned with so much commentary as to be unreadable. Meanwhile, more recent editions are unusable for different reasons. The translation by Debasish Chakrabarty leaves so many words untranslated — including, absurdly, the words for the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) — as to be almost completely unreadable. Subhash Kak’s rendering is somewhat better, but still leaves far too many words untranslated and is burdened with a line-by-line commentary that alternates between boring reiteration and a tendentious attempt to demonstrate that the text anticipates everything in modern science. I can’t give either of those translations to my students and expect them to make heads or tails of it. I realize that no translation fully captures all the nuances of the foreign language — yet the solution is surely not to simply give up and expect the reader to learn dozens of foreign terms before they can approach the text at all.

Finally, driven by desperation, I went through the old edition, which at least translates the text into English, and transcribed the aphorisms of the original text. I provide the result here in case anyone might find it useful. It includes some clarifying footnotes of my own, as well as some material related directly to my classroom context (such as a division of the reading for two class sessions). I am aware that a full understanding of the text and its legacy requires engagement with the commentary, but I cannot pretend to provide that in the context of my class in any case. Presenting the original text, relatively unadorned, will at least give my students an overview of its breadth and key claims.

Updated Critical Reading Worksheet

Thanks to everyone who commented on the last version of my close reading worksheet, now re-named a critical reading worksheet after it turned out that “close reading” is its own specific kind of thing, and tweaked a bit in response to suggestions from lots of people. In particular, I’ve added some questions to encourage my students to think about what they’re bringing to the text, and to notice their own reactions to it; and some questions which will hopefully get them thinking about the structure of the text and (where relevant) the argument. I think in future I might try to expand it to give some examples of paragraphs from academic texts which show the kinds of critical engagement that might result from asking each of these different questions, but this is the version I’ll be using in my teaching this year:

Continue reading “Updated Critical Reading Worksheet”

What’s the point of university?

I’m teaching my first Great Christian Thinkers class on Friday, and because it’s meant to be a course that orients my students to their degree as a whole and we’re opening on the theme of ‘What Matters Most?’, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the purpose of university; both what they want to get out of their degree and what a range of other people and institutions might want them to get out of it. I’ve pulled together some short extracts for them to discuss as part of the session, and thought they might be of interest to others: you are welcome to borrow and/or adapt these at will. Continue reading “What’s the point of university?”

A guide to close reading

I’m planning to give my first year undergraduates a worksheet designed to help them engage with the theological and philosophical texts we study during our course. I’ve noticed that a lot of my students struggle to find critical ways into the texts, and I’m hoping that giving them some fairly generic questions to work through will help them find ways in. I’m planning to talk through the list of questions when I hand them out then use them as a basis for some of our seminar discussions over the rest of the semester so that the students can get a handle on how to use them.

Here’s the list of questions I’ve drafted so far; I’d really appreciate any comments/suggestions/wisdom gleaned from other people’s teaching experience, and of course you’re welcome to appropriate these for yourself if they look like they’d help you in your own teaching:

Continue reading “A guide to close reading”

Contra Dad Rock Pedagogy

I woke up this morning to a retweet of JKAS’ Wall Street Journal “Has Anyone Seen Last Year’s Promising Freshman?” It was, umm, “interesting” to read a pedagogical perspective dripping with utter contempt for his students especially as I had gone bed late last night reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. hooks encourages her readers to foster an openness in the classroom driven in part by student desire but also that recognizes that every pedagogical decision is a political decision, that when one teaches only the canon that one has advocated something. Teaching is never simply teaching and if you think it is you’re either not thinking or being willfully ignorant. Now, if we take JKAS at his word at being “invited into this exclusive club” of “liberal enlightenment”, would should, I suppose, trust that he is smart enough to know how insulting his article will be taken as an insult. After all, in it he lambasts professors, his very colleagues (I suppose tenure makes rascals of folks), for not simply  extolling the virtues of the Western and instead “confuse teaching with advocacy”. But setting aside the veracity of such a claim (it seems to me to lack merit) we may assume that while JKAS is aware enough to know it will cause offense we may also assume, since he wrote the article, that he enjoys the fact that it will be offensive. He may even feel that he’s struck a blow against the complex of PC college professors whose only taste for intolerance is against the intolerant. In other words, JKAS is a contrarian and so shares less in common with the lover of wisdom than he does with the sophist who likes the way the words feel in his mouth. Ironically this means he shares more in common with the common right-wing caricature of “social justice warriors” who get off on their outrage as he clearly is enjoying his own smug denigration. Continue reading “Contra Dad Rock Pedagogy”