Three questions to Mark McClish

This is the third interview in a new series, entitled Three questions, in which scholars,  invited to participate in the SAW events, answer three questions about their research.

It is my honour to introduce Mark McClish, who will give a talk on the construction of fortifications in Classical South Asia at the workshop Cultures of Computation and Quantification (session of 8 February 2013).

Mark McClish is Assistant Professor of Asian Religions at Birmingham-Southern College. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin in Asian Cultures and Languages with a specialization in Sanskrit and Indian Religions. His research focuses on the political and legal traditions of classical South Asia, known as arthaśāstra and dharmaśāstra, respectively. He has worked primarily with the Arthaśāstra of Kauṭilya (ca. 100 BCE – 100 CE), the sole surviving treatise on statecraft from the classical period and a repository for a wide array of information on contemporary political, economic, social, and cultural systems. He is interested in how the historical context of sources such as the Arthaśāstra shaped their development over time and in particular on how the political and legal theology of the orthodox Brāhmaṇa priesthood influenced the theory and practice of politics and law in the classical period.

Natalie Cernecka: How did you become interested in Sanskrit and Indian studies?
Mark McClish: I discovered my interest in Sanskrit and Indian Studies quite by accident. I had always been interested in the study of religion, but originally thought I wanted to work on early Christianity. After my first course on Hinduism with David Haberman, however, I turned to the study of India and never looked back. I was fascinated by the complexity and exuberance of the Hindu traditions. With his encouragement, I travelled to India right away and enrolled in Sanskrit courses immediately upon my return. With Sanskrit, it was love at first sight. I was introduced in graduate school to the tools and methods of philology and, through study with Patrick Olivelle, kindled an abiding interest in the classical Sanskrit legal and political literature.

NC: How full is our picture of the economic, social, and legal systems in ancient and medieval India?
MM: The medieval period benefits from a much more substantial epigraphical record and decidedly better historical sources than does the ancient period, with which I am more familiar. Hence, we have a much fuller, albeit uneven, picture of medieval systems.

For the ancient period, the sources containing the most information and the most extended reflection on these systems are the Sanskrit śāstras, technical treatises on a variety of topics. The śāstras, however, were purposely composed in a ‘timeless’ idiom that eschewed direct reference to their specific historical or geographic context. Hence, we are equipped in some cases with relatively fulsome models of ‘ideal-typical’ systems, but a very incomplete sense of how these theoretical models relate to the historical practices of specific places and times. Firmer data for the ancient period can be gleaned from the slim epigraphical record, numismatics, and archaeology, but for various reasons these sources provide a very fragmentary and incomplete picture that is often difficult to equate with the information found in the śāstras or other non-technical textual sources. Ultimately, there is little we can say with certainty about the overall operation of economic, social, and legal systems at given places and times in the ancient period, and arguments over the proper interpretation of texts as historical sources figure prominently in theories and critiques of proffered historical models.

NC: What do you hope to discover by collaborating with historians of mathematics?
MM: One of the great issues in studying śāstra concerns the relationship between the information they record and practice ‘on the ground.’ A greater appreciation of the mathematical information promises to illuminate new ways to think about how these theoretical treatises related to practice. Here we can ask a number of questions: is the information provided in a given text sufficient to have guided a given practice, or was other mathematical knowledge necessary? Is the author’s treatment of a given topic, such as the construction of fortifications, mathematically sound? What level of mathematical expertise is assumed by the text and among which individuals in society? All of these questions add to an appreciation of the roles our texts actually played within society: to what extent were they technical manuals, and to what extent were they demonstrations of erudition? I would also hope that collaboration with historians of mathematics will open new comparative dimensions between our sources that might aid in the refinement of our understanding of how these texts are related, particularly in terms of relative and absolute chronology.

NC: Many thanks!

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