Scriptural Exegesis as an Episteme

Scriptural Exegesis as an Episteme: The Case of Early Indian Buddhist Yogacara Hermeneutics

Roy Tzohar

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Pair of Buddhist Manuscript Covers with Scenes from the Buddha's Life (c) and Buddhas with a Bodhisattva (d)" India, Bihar, 1075-1100, Opaque watercolor on wood, Each: 2 1/8 x 22 1/4 in. (5.39 x 56.51 cm) From the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Museum Associates Purchase, (M.72.1.20c-d) South and Southeast Asian Art.

This project explores the procedures and methodologies developed and applied by exegetical cultures with respect to the evaluation of the authenticity, validity, and truth value of scripture as source of knowledge.

As a case study, the project examines a particular moment in Indian Buddhist literary production, focusing on the early Yogācāra commentaries on the Mahāyāna sūtras (roughly thirdsixth century, CE) and their reflexive engagement with the question of the proper interpretation of scripture and composition of commentary. Often in response to doubts regarding the authenticity and authority of the Mahāyāna sūtras, these works had developed various strategies and criteria for establishing the validity and truth value of scriptural passages. The project examines them in their broader textual, practical, and institutional context, focusing in particular on the extent to which their normative hermeneutical criteria, as a basis for judgments, were adopted by the ‘normal science’ of Buddhist commentarial discourse.

Through this case study, the project argues that a commentarial culture may be best understood as an episteme in the following three senses: 1) it always stands in relation to a root-phenomena, which it seeks to interpret and explain; 2) it engages in the justification of the authority of these explanations and interpretations; and 3) it develops a system of judgment-making, which manifests a procedural conception of knowledge governed by ethical and institutional considerations.