Conveying prescriptions: The Mīmāṃsā understanding of how prescriptive texts function

The Mīmāṃsā school of Indian philosophy has at its primary focus the exegesis of Sacred Texts (called Vedas), and more specifically of their prescriptive portions, the Brāhmaṇas. This means that the epistemic content conveyed by the Vedas is, primarily, what has to be done. In order words, the Veda is an epistemic authority only insofar as it conveys a deontic content.

In order to fulfil the hermeneutical task of Mīmāṃsā, Mīmāṃsā thinkers developed interpretative rules which should guide a reader or listener through a prescriptive text and enable his or her understanding of the text. Such rules have the key purpose to enable the understanding of a text without resorting to the intention of the speaker (either because he or she is distant in time or space or because, as in the case of the Vedas, the text has an autonomous epistemic value). This post will elaborate on these basic principles and on the way they can make a text into an epistemic instrument conveying information concerning what one ought to do.

Little research has been done on the Mīmāṃsā hermeneutical rules. Apart from a paper of mine (a draft of which is available here), there is an alphabetic list, appended to Jhā 1964, of these rules, which does not distinguish between their function and their hierarchical relations.
The present post has been prompted by the attempt to understand and as far as possible re-construe the system of rules (Mīmāṃsā authors speak in this connection of nyayas) which was operating beyond the Mīmāṃsā interpretative strategies. Although it is possible that Mīmāṃsā authors used only an ad hoc approach and thought of specific rules at each problem, the structure of the Śābarabhāṣya (the commentary on the root text of the Mīmāṃsā school, adopted by all currents within it) suggests a different interpretation. In fact, the SBh displays a clear five-fold structure:

  1. enunciation of the topic (viṣaya)
  2. enunciation of the problem (saṃśaya)
  3. prima facie view about the problem
  4. antithesis to the prima facie view
  5. conclusive view

The steps 3–5 can be repeated several times if the problem is particularly complex and needs a detailed discussion. More important, from our point of view, is that the upholder of the prima facie view, the upholder of the antithesis and the upholder of the conclusive view (who can be identified with Śabara himself) all recur in their discussion to the application of rules. In fact, the discussion is mostly all about which rule should be applied and why or why not.
The first problem for the identification of the basic principles, the ones presupposed by the majority of the other rules, is the intersection of two sets of principles. On the one hand there are the logical principles, which regard the logical structure of the Mīmāṃsā deontic logic, while on the other hand there are the hermeneutic principles needed to recognise the boundaries of a given prescription and the way it is formulated. The two sets of principles overlap only in part.

  • The hermeneutic principles are the ones which regard only the Brāhmaṇa texts and whose significance could not be automatically extended outside them, e.g., to a different corpus of texts.
  • As for the logical principles, it is highly improbable that Mīmāṃsā authors ever wanted to build a consistent deontic system of logic. Rather, they focused on a given set of texts and developed logical tools in connection with such texts. Nonetheless, some of the principles they formulated are liable to be extended beyond the Brāhmaṇa corpus.

Does this distinction convince you? Do readers familiar with the Grammatical paribhāṣās think it can be applied there?

On the motive for this post, see here. On deontics in general, see here.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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