An Important Distinction

Viṣṇubhaktagaruḍa with Malla king in Bhaktapur

I am usually thrilled to be able to work with old manuscripts.  The older it is, the more excited I get!  But excitement aside, we really need to be clear on the following distinction: the age of the manuscript is almost never equivalent to the age of the text it contains.  Hypothetical example:  A text was penned in the 10th century, but the original is lost.  What survives are a 12th century palm leaf manuscript and an 18th century paper manuscript.  At first thought, one may suppose the palm leaf manuscript to be closer to the original text than the one copied 600 years later, and this may be, but it is not necessarily so.  We don’t know how many times the manuscripts that survive were copied.  It is possible, therefore, that the 12th century manuscript was the result of a copy of a copy x 10 of the original.  It is also possible that the 18th century manuscript is a direct copy of a 10th century copy of the original.  I exaggerate a bit to highlight the point that just because a manuscript is recent does not mean that the text it contains is recent and likewise just because a manuscript is old does not mean the text it contains is older than a more recent manuscript.  Each needs to be evaluated on its own merits.

Lightbulb Moment

Clip from my MA edition of the 9th chapter of the Kriyākālaguṇottara. Shows what I had marked as a corrupt pāda.

When I was editing the 9th chapter of the Kriyākālaguṇottara for my MA thesis, I spent several hours trying to figure out pāda 25d, which I ended up marking as corrupt.  The palmleaf manuscript, oldest of the group, was indeed corrupt and hypometrical: kimedaṃ vikaryate.  I speculated about taking edaṃ as some kind of Prākṛtic pronoun, effect of non-standard sandhis, anything that would help me draw some sense out of it.  In retrospect, the corruption of the palmleaf manuscript lead me astray in transcribing the other manuscripts, and the true reading was further obscured by several things: lack of word division in the manuscripts, lack of discrimination between va and ba akṣaras, use of anusvāra for any nasal, and the inconsistent differentiation of pa and ya.  In error, I transcribed the reading of the “Beta” manuscripts thus: kimetadaṃ vikāpate.  I reviewed the passage with my advisors–some of the world’s leading Sanskritists–to no avail, they too were misled because of my interpretation, my “transcription.”  Transcription is usually thought to be a fairly cut and dry affair.  You put into roman or typed Devanāgarī exactly what is written in the manuscript, and faithfully record that in your critical apparatus and even if you choose the wrong reading then at least future scholars can disagree and accept a variant reading from the critical apparatus.  In fact, it is always an interpretation.  How do you transcribe a letter that looks like a hybrid pa/ya?  I am not aware of any critical edition that list variants without any spaces between words, but I am seriously considering adopting this convention for my own work.  The real reading for the pāda, in the Beta manuscripts now seems so obvious: “kimetadaṃvikāpate” or formally “kim etad ambikāpate.”