ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

How encounters with animals enhance the image of the Vaiśeṣika founder Kaṇāda


Ge Ge - University of Vienna, Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, Vienna, Austria


17 – More Than Human: Animal-Human Relations in Pre-Modern South Asia


 The Vaiśeṣika tradition is credited to the sage Kaṇāda, also known as Ulūka. One explanation for the name Kaṇāda is that it means “the grain-eater,” implying that he eats like a pigeon. The name Ulūka indicates the sage’s connection with the owl. The Buddhist source defines him as one who walks at night and frightens people, whereas the Vaiśeṣika commentaries note that Kaṇāda receives the essential knowledge of the tradition from God in the guise of an owl. The different epithets of this sage and their corresponding meanings have already been introduced and explained by pre-modern commentators and contemporary scholars. However, the relationship between these animals and the sage, which enhances Kaṇāda’s image despite the fact that his origin and anecdotes are legendary, has not received enough attention. Hence, I propose to examine the ascetic practice known as kapotavṛtti (“one who behaves like a pigeon”) and the descriptions of the owl to see how these two animals are integrated into the Vaiśeṣika tradition and enrich the depictions of the sage. On the one hand, the analogy of a pigeon can be used to explain the meaning of the name Kaṇāda, while Kaṇāda as an ascetic shares commonalities with people who practice kapotavṛtti. On the other hand, the Vaiśeṣika commentators combine the owl with the role of Īśvara to reconcile the Buddhist interpretations of Kaṇāda with their own. Overall, Kaṇāda’s associations with the two birds have considerably restored his image.