by Libbie MILLS, Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto
For a paper presented at the 2019 Edinburgh meeting of the American Council for Southern Asian Art (ACSAA), I worked through a range of Sanskrit texts
on jīrṇoddhāra, the removal (uddhāra) [and replacement] of the old (jīrṇa), for temples and icons.
The texts I read each told, on the whole, a similar story, and I was considering how to gather it together for the ACSAA presentation, when I realised that someone else had already done it for me. That someone is Nigamajñānadeva, a 16th C southern Śaiva author of the Jīrṇoddhāradaśaka, “Ten Verses on Jīrṇoddhāra”. The text is accompanied by a Vyākhyāna commentary by the same author, and quotes drawn from a wide range of predominantly Śaiva sources. Having used the structure of the Jīrṇoddhāradaśaka to frame that ACSAA presentation, I went on to study the text more closely, using twelve manuscript copies held at the Institut Français de Pondichéry (IFP)
to make a critical edition and English translation of its telling of the principles of jīrṇoddhāra, along with supporting portions of its Vyākhyāna commentary. In making the edition, I hoped to facilitate access to this text that elegantly assembles a long textual tradition of maintenance theory into a clear framework of ten verse points. The material is both of use in looking back over the tradition and, since it remains in active use, also of relevance to an understanding of contemporary maintenance practice. The verses tell us how temples and idols have been, and continue to be, maintained, and give us the rational for the process.
Text Structure: Verse and Commentary
The structure of the Jīrṇoddhāradaśaka has three levels. In the first level, jīrṇoddhāra is explained in just ten verses. Here you see them as they are given in IFP manuscript RE 04073b:
Below you see the complete manuscript RE 04073. The 10 verses of the Jīrṇoddhāradaśaka are to be found at the very bottom of the stack of bundled folios.
And here are the 10 verses of the Jīrṇoddhāradaśaka as they appear at the beginning of the 1980 edition:
The verses are concise, and packed with references to ideas that need to be unpacked to be understood. Therefore there is a second level, in which each verse receives an explanatory commentary. In a third level, that commentary is backed up and fleshed out with quotes from other authorities. This being a text for devotees of Śiva, the authorities used are largely Śaiva ones.
Once one has read all three levels – the ten verses, the commentary and quotes – the ten verses alone can work as a point-form precis of jīrṇoddhāra practice as taught in the Śaiva tradition.
It is this point-form effect that is the feature of the text that I would like to comment on here.
Commentary as Footnote?
Verse as Title? Highlighter?
Since the commentary is by the same author as that of the verses, it works much like expansive footnoting. So expansive, in fact, that there is no room for it at the foot of anything: more fatnote than foot. The scant 10 verses that remain in the main flow of the discourse serve rather like titles to sections. Or, since they give a fuller summary of the content than a title generally would, the sort of assistive eye-catch that one seeks from a highlighter pen.
The highlighter thought might leave one wondering whether the verses came before or after their commentary. But obscurities in the verses stop one from going any further with that thinking. If the commentary is needed to explain the verse, the verse is likely to have come first.
Marking the Shift from Verse to Commentary and Back
In general, Sanskrit manuscripts give quite subtle markings to warn us that we have shifted from verse to commentary, or the other way around. Below, you see an example of both transitions in manuscript RE 15532. After several folios of commentary on verse 4, verse 5 begins discretely, in the upper level, at line 4, just to the right of the right-hand string hole. It ends on line 6, to the right of the left-hand string hole. There is a discrete loopy line to mark the transitions at each end of the verse. Embedded in its explanation, the verse is not made to stand out very much.
Nothing out of the Ordinary
It might seem an odd thing, to write a commentary on one’s own work. But this is not an uncommon behaviour in Sanskrit scholastic literature. And once one has read a piece like this, one comes to see the charm of it, and to feel some jealousy for the bi-level writing it frees up. There is, here, a sense of liberty to explore, space to go on, that the polite brevity of a footnote will never give, crushed as it is to the bottom of the page, or the end of an article, chapter, or book. It makes you wonder why we don’t do this too, why we constrain ourselves as we do, why, with all the formatting tools available to us, we tamely tread on through the paragraphs.
A Neutral Voice
And there is another good trick here: the commentary never alludes to the common authorship. We do not get: “What I meant by X is Y”. There is a nice neutrality of eye, a dryness to the received: “What is meant by X is Y”.
The author leaves enough distance between his layers of writing to allow him to point critically to what is missing from the verses, what needs to be supplied. That distance is set by the use of the third person of “Next he will tell us about Z”.
Thus does Nigamajñānadeva stand back and reflect on what he has versed up, unfolding it for the receiver.
Filling in the Blanks
And a lot needs supplying. Some of the most important information is held in the commentary and quotes, rather than in the verses.
With both verses and commentary under his control, the author can use the commentary as a natural frame. An introduction is placed in front, connecting sentences lead the reader from one verse to the next, and, while the fat commentary space gives the author permission to expand as far as he wishes, it also permits him to draw things to a close at his convenience.
Here I stop too.