A philosopher might end up having a double affiliation, to the philosophical standpoints shared by one’s fellow philosophers, and to the religious program of one’s faith.
This can lead to difficult reinterpretations (such as that of Christ with the Neoplatonic Nous, or that of God with the Aristotelic primum movens immobile), or just to juxtapositions (the addition of angels to the list of possible living beings).
A Vaiṣṇava who starts doing philosophy after centuries of religious texts speaking of Viṣṇu’s manifestations (vibhūti), of His qualities and His spouse Lakṣmī (or Śrī or other names), is in a similar difficult situation.
A Śaiva like Somānanda or Sadyojyotis might have had a slightly easier start, given that the Sacred Texts of his school had not yet entered the philosophical stage. In this sense, these philosophers were free to interpret their Sacted Texts almost freely (think of Abhinavagupta monist commentary of a dualist text like the Paratriṃśikā). The boundaries they needed to face were those of their creed, but not of the external expectations regarding their creed’s theology. The former made them add further tattvas to the Sāṅkhya list, the lack of the latter made them adaptively reuse the Sāṅkhya framework (see, on this topic, Torella 1999).
By contrast, Veṅkaṭanātha’s titanic effort of making Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta a robust philosophic system meant that he needed to find his way between the two competing ontologies of Vedānta and Nyāya, while at the same time remaining loyal to the distinctive Pāñcarātra theologemes, which were already known also to philosophers because of their presence in the Mahābhārata and in Śaṅkara’s Bhāṣya
The Nyāyasūtra proposes a fundamental division of realities into dravya ‘substances’, guṇa ‘qualities’, karman ‘actions’, with the former as the substrate of the latter two. This leads to two difficulties for Veṅkaṭanātha’s agenda. On the one hand, the radical distinction between substance and attribute means that, Nyāya authors imagine liberation as the end of the connection of the ātman ‘self’ to all attributes, from sufferance to consciousness. By contrast, Veṅkaṭanātha, would never accept consciousness to be separated from the individual soul and even less from God. The other difficulty regards the theology of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta. Since the beginnings of Pāñcarātra, one of its chief doctrines has been that of the manifestations (vibhūti) of Viṣṇu, which are dependent on Him but co-eternal with Him and in this sense are unexplainable according to the division of substances into eternal and transient.
To that, Veṅkaṭanātha opposes more than one classification, so that it is clear that Veṅkaṭanātha’s main point is addressing the above mentioned problems with the Nyāya ontology, rather than establishing in full detail a distinct ontology.
The first proposal found in the Nyāyapariśuddhi is based on the idea of a two fold division, into dravya ‘substance’ and adravya ‘non-substance’ and defines substance as the `substrate of possible accidental characteristics’ (āgantukadharmāśraya). The attribute ‘accidental’ hints at the fact that a dravya is not completely independent of all its characteristics. Veṅkaṭanātha’s definition allows him to maintain that some attributes, primarily consciousness, are never severed from God or from the liberated soul.
The subclassifications goes further, with substance being divided into inert and alive. The former category includes the natura naturans of Sāṅkhya and time, which is thus no longer a quality (guṇa) as in Nyāya. The latter category (alive substance) includes separate and heteronomous substances. Within the former are individual souls and God, whereas the latter includes cognition as essential to God (dharmabhūtajñāna, see the paragraph immediately above) and the permanent manifestations of God, which are logically dependent on Him, but have not been created by Him.
The final result is a patchwork ontology, with several elements common to the other Vedāntic schools, such as the embedment of the Sāṅkhya structure, but distinctive appears to be the genealogy of the ajaḍa part of the classification, as opposed to the Vedāntic pariṇāmavāda ‘theory of the evolution [of the brahman into the world]’, —according to which the brahman is the material cause of the world— and also to the māyāvāda ‘theory of the illusory [evolution of the brahman in the world]’ —according to which only the brahman exists and everything else is just an illusion. Veṅkaṭanātha’s ontology, in this sense, is not at all Vedāntic insofar as it has God as its emanation point, but not as its only component.
The ajaḍa part of the classification is, instead, directly connected to Yāmuna’s stress on dharmabhūtajñāna and to Veṅkaṭanātha’s dissociation of the personal aspect of God from any material ontology. Noteworthy in this connection is the fact that the vibhūtis are substances but devoid of any materiality. It is in this light that the concept of God’s body (see the end of this post) assumes its significance.
On Veṅkaṭanātha’s approach to ontology, see this post.