Dharmakirti (and Panini)

John Brough, Poems from the Sanskrit

Dharmakirti is considered the definitive Buddhist epistemologist and logician. He was eaten by the cannibal hero of The Vetali’s Gift in “Eating an entire epistemologist.”

Almost nothing is known for certain about his life (or death). According to tradition, he was Chancellor of Nalanda University, and died around 700. The novel is set around 700, and Nalanda plays a major role—although as of the cannibalism incident, it has been mentioned only in passing.

The views I attributed to Dharmakirti in that episode are oversimplified. What the ogress says roughly reflects mainstream Buddhist philosophy, but does not reflect his distinctive ideas, which are complex and subtle. Interestingly, he was heavily influenced by Cārvāka. That is an Indian philosophy that was materialist, atheist, skeptical, and anti-ascetic. Fascinating—if it had not been suppressed by Church and State, perhaps the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution would have occurred in India, rather than Europe, and a thousand years earlier.

The poems I quoted in “Eating an entire epistemologist” were, in fact, supposed to have been written by Dharmakirti. Whether that is true is anyone’s guess. In Buddhist history, questions of who wrote what are highly political, and often deliberately obfuscated. I would like to think he was the poet, because it makes him seem like a flesh-and-blood person, rather than a logical abstraction, as he is treated by Buddhist scholars.

The English translations of the poems are from John Brough’s wonderful Poems from the Sanskrit. That is a collection of secular Sanskrit poetry—mostly love poems, some of them quite erotic.

Dharmakirti made one of the earliest known Buddhist references to dakinis. The following is from David B. Grey’s “Eating the Heart of the Brahmin” (itself about Buddhist cannibalism):

[Dharmakirti] mentions a class of texts called dakini tantras, in the context of a passage addressing the issue of whether or not “success” (siddhi) in magical procedures involving mantras is dependent upon adherence to ethical norms (dharma) or not. His answer was “No, for it is evident that there are observances in the dakini and bhagini tantras, etc., which are incompatible with ethical norms and are replete with violence, theft, sexual intercourse, perverse actions, and so forth, and through which there is distinctive success.”

I think he may have been speaking from personal experience.

Parental content advisory: mild cannibalism; Italian sandwiches

Pāṇini—an Indian philosopher, not an Italian sandwich—wrote the standard Sanskrit grammar, centuries before the time of The Vetali’s Gift. Every educated person studied Panini then. The sophistication of his work is astonishing, and unmatched by anything the West produced until the 20th century.

In fact, modern Western linguistics began when Panini’s grammar was translated into German, and his principles were applied to Western languages.

Panini’s work was the first “formal system.” It was not until the 20th century that people understood that this type of grammar is a branch of mathematics. It turns out that there are deep connections between grammar, mathematics, logic (Dharmakirti’s subject), and computation. This understanding is now woven through everything you do with a computer.

Some of the key connections were discovered by Noam Chomsky, whose intellectual heritage can easily be traced back to Panini. He showed that “formal languages” come in a hierarchy of four types, which correspond to four kinds of computation required to “parse” them. For example, type 3 languages, the simplest, can be parsed with “regular expressions” (regexes), one of the most common tools for modern programmers.

HTML, the language of the web, is an example of a formal language. Unfortunately, it is not a type 3 language. (Officially, it is type 2, but in practice it’s worse even than that.)

Programmers who don’t understand the Chomsky hierarchy often produce hideously buggy web sites. They try to parse HTML with regular expressions, not realizing that

Using regex to parse HTML has doomed humanity to an eternity of dread torture and security holes using regex as a tool to process HTML establishes a breach between this world and the dread realm of c͒ͪo͛ͫrrupt entities (like SGML entities, but more corrupt) a mere glimpse of the world of reg​ex parsers for HTML will ins​tantly transport a programmer's consciousness into a world of ceaseless screaming, he comes, the pestilent slithy regex-infection wil​l devour your HT​ML parser, application and existence for all time like Visual Basic only worse he comes he comes do not fi​ght he com̡e̶s, ̕h̵i​s un̨ho͞ly radiańcé destro҉ying all enli̍̈́̂̈́ghtenment, HTML tags lea͠ki̧n͘g fr̶ǫm ̡yo​͟ur eye͢s̸ ̛l̕ik͏e liq​uid pain, the song of re̸gular exp​ression parsing will exti​nguish the voices of mor​tal man from the sp​here I can see it can you see ̲͚̖͔̙î̩́t̲͎̩̱͔́̋̀ it is beautiful t​he final snuffing of the lie​s of Man ALL IS LOŚ͖̩͇̗̪̏̈́T ALL I​S LOST the pon̷y he comes he c̶̮omes he comes the ich​or permeates all MY FACE MY FACE ᵒh god no NO NOO̼O​O NΘ stop the an​*̶͑̾̾​̅ͫ͏̙̤g͇̫͛͆̾ͫ̑͆l͖͉̗̩̳̟̍ͫͥͨe̠̅s ͎a̧͈͖r̽̾̈́͒͑e n​ot rè̑ͧ̌aͨl̘̝̙̃ͤ͂̾̆ ZA̡͊͠͝LGΌ ISͮ̂҉̯͈͕̹̘̱ TO͇̹̺ͅƝ̴ȳ̳ TH̘Ë͖́̉ ͠P̯͍̭O̚​N̐Y̡ H̸̡̪̯ͨ͊̽̅̾̎Ȩ̬̩̾͛ͪ̈́̀́͘ ̶̧̨̱̹̭̯ͧ̾ͬC̷̙̲̝͖ͭ̏ͥͮ͟Oͮ͏̮̪̝͍M̲̖͊̒ͪͩͬ̚̚͜Ȇ̴̟̟͙̞ͩ͌͝S̨̥̫͎̭ͯ̿̔̀ͅ

Intellectual history and cultural diffusion are strange and wonderful; two of my favorite subjects of study.

damaru (skull drum) separator

Hat tips to muflax and Naljorma Rin’dzin Pamo, who both pointed me at the Emo Song, and to Tom Buckley-Houston for publicizing that explanation of the inadvisability of parsing HTML with regexes.