Jottings: Reading like a frog, reading like a lion
“Every journey begins with a single hop.”
Kermit the frog
Occasionally I find myself, when trying to approach a subject for writing & reflection – flitting between many different texts. So a couple of weeks ago for instance, I picked up Catherine Bell’s Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice to browse on my morning train ride, glanced at an online article by Lakoff & Johnson at lunchtime, and took in a gulp or two of Jaideva Singh’s translation of the Spanda-Karikas in the evening – all in relation to wanting to articulate a hazy idea related to ritual practice.
Sometimes this can get fairly intense, with me rapidly scanning a dozen or more texts throughout the course of a couple of days.It’s as though that which I want to express requires that I come at from many angles, until something goes “click” and words arrange themselves; clear meaning emerges from the mist of ideas. I’ve written about this process before – see A sidelong glance. Sometimes though, something anamolous leaps out of the mist, diverting my attention down a new path. The downside of this promiscuous reading is that often I can’t for the life of me remember where I came across the “thing” which has diverted my course.
Appropriately enough this time, it was the Sanskrit term mandukaplava – “leaping like a frog” – in reference to a way of reading a scripture, skipping between different sutras (and so a method of exegesis) that somehow leapt out of my reading, although I cannot remember where I originally picked up on it. I had an idea it was in one of Tuen Goudriaan’s articles, so I spent a few days feverishly digging out anything I have by Goudriaan and re-readingly it (more carefully this time) but without success. (Aside: Nietzsche used mandukagati – “hopping like a frog” to describe the writing style of some of his rivals, whilst describing his own style as Gangarotagati – strong as the flow of the Ganges river.)
Here’s an apposite passage from Mark Dyczkowski’s The Canon of the Saivagama and the Kubjika Tantras of the Western Kaula Tradition (SUNY, 1988):
“The master should explain the statements [of the Tantra, demonstrating and] corroborating their consistency by means of their interconnection and apply this principle to the various sections of the text, its chapters, sentences, words and root meaning (suira). He should ensure that the preceding and subsequent sections of the scripture do not appear to contradict each other and so apply, as required, the principles [that one must move from one section to the next] as a frog leaps [omitting what is irrelevant], or as the lion who looks around [in all directions as he walks]. In this way he should coalesce the meaning of the scripture into a single coherent expression unconfounded with other teachings. Knowing the well the meaning of each phrase as he expounds it, he avails himself of sound associations (tantra), repetition (avartana), exclusion (badha), extensive application (prasanga) and reason (tarka), etc., taking care to distinguish one topic for another.”
Abhinavagupta, Tantraloka (quoted from Dyczkowski, 1988, pp14-15)
This is good advice, I think for anyone trying to get to grips with tantric texts – the necessity of taking into account the broad, surrounding context – the text as a whole, for instance; and the occasional necessity of “skipping over” that which is irrelevant to a particular exposition, or to make connections – to leap-frog between otherwise seemingly disparate passages within a text or even between texts. Sometimes, I find myself “leap-frogging” particular passages or concepts because, at the moment, they are just too damn difficult for me to get to grips with, or at least to articulate with any degree of clarity. I just need to let the subject sink downwards – if it’s important, it will resurface in its own time.