There is honey on the tree in your backyard; why are you going to the mountains in search of honey? The principle of parsimony in Mīmāṃsā

“If you can find honey on a tree nearby, why going to the mountains?”
arke cen madhu vindeta, kim artham parvataṃ vrajet

Beside their specific commitment to some hermeneutic metarules regarding the linguistic and prescriptive nature of the Vedas, Mīmāṃsā authors also strictly adhere to the principle of parsimony (lāghava). This principle says that one should avoid unnecessary effortsand it applies to different fields. For instance, if a ritual prescription says that one should sacrifice “animals” (in plural), one should sacrifice the lowest number of animals satisfying the requiremenet of the prescription, namely three (two animals would be expressed in Sanskrit with the dual number). Similarly, unnecessary speculations should be avoided, if an easy explanation of a given phenomenon is available, as with Ockham’s Razor.

The principle of lāghava is also differently expressed. In the Śābarabhāṣya ad 1.2.4, this is expressed as in the title of this post, with a further hemistich explaining that there is no point in making further efforts once the result can be easily achieved, but the principle is omnipresent in Mīmāṃsā. For instance, it rules the way Mīmāṃsakas apply the instruments of knowledge to understand what is connected with a given prescription (from śruti onwards, see PMS 3.3.14), with the general idea that unless there is a serious reason, one goes for the easiest solution (e.g., what is directly enjoined overrules what one could understand out of context). Careful readers will have already noted that this is the same approach which is detectable in Kumārila’s most well-known epistemological innovation, namely his theory of the self-validity of cognition (svataḥ prāmāṇya). There, once again, unless and until the opposite is proved, each cognition should be accepted as valid, and there is no requirement to always look for further confirmations.

What is the impact of the principle of parsimony on the overall Mīmāṃsā philosophy? In my opinion, it hints at the fact that what runs the risk of being seen as a direct realism is instead a system based on truth-as-consistence more than on truth-as-correspondence.

I am grateful to Kiyotaka Yoshimizu for having discussed the topic of kalpanālāghava with me (all mistakes in this post are only mine).

On Kumārila’s theory of self-validity, see this post, and this one. On the hermeneutic principles in Mīmāṃsā, see this post.

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

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13 thoughts on “There is honey on the tree in your backyard; why are you going to the mountains in search of honey? The principle of parsimony in Mīmāṃsā

      • Arka is Purple Calotropis, or Calotropis gigantea (L.) (see also index to my Roots book). It’s a flowering bush, not a tree. It’s one of the milkweeds, giving a poisonous milky white latex that burns the skin. I can find no link between Calotropis and honey. It’s not a plant known for bee hives, although bees do pollinate the flowers. That’s why I queried the interpretations of “arka” in your post above. It doesn’t mean “home” or “tree”, nor is it somewhere one would particularly expect to find honey. It’s definitely odd and, for me, throws doubt on why this verse was cast the way it was. There must be something about arka that I’m missing.

        • Perhaps then: If there are bushes attracting bees nearby, why going far away to find bees? I understand your point (I would have liked the arka to host bees, not just to attract them), but both Śabara (who does not comment on arka at all) and his commentator Kumārila seem not to see any problem with it. Kumārila explains the proverb by saying that one who looks for honey would not go to the mountains if he can find it on his very way —not a single word on arka. Nor can I imagine a different word being misread as arke, can you?

          • Well, I guess we have to assume something like that.

            But generally, the well-known idea about Arka is that it’s sap is corrosive, and the plant is poisonous. If you rub mashed Arka flowers on a cut, it encourages bleeding. It is used in ointments that are meant to make the skin red and swollen (enlarging the ears, for example).

  1. It is true that the arka tree produces sap not honey. But then it easily procurable and grows pretty fast in the backyard of many homes. So it makes sense that arka simply be taken as “lakshyartha” or in the figurative sense of an easily procurable plant with an added bit of irony. If only one could get madhu from Arka plant, then one doesn’t have to go to the Parvata. I understand this more in the sense of a criteria to employ pratipattigaurava only when pratipattilāghava isn’t possible – perhaps a corollary to Occam’s principle. I also think this rather figurative use of arka is what morphed this nyaya into variants such as atke chet and akkechet (remember Vācaspati use it in sānkyatattvakaumudi) and akka and atka being explained away as “corner of a house” and “corner of a house where the sun falls” perhaps people later on taking arka to mean the sun to force-fit a vacyartha?

    • Thank you, Vidya, very interesting comment. It makes sense that arka is contrasted to parvata as something close and easily available. I can also understand why the variants (atke and akke) arose, given that other people might have had the same doubts Dominik manifested here. However, I am not sure I follow your last point concerning arka as sun, could you elaborate on it?

      • namastE,

        The honey on the aRkka tree might actually mean “the honey on a beehive on the aRkka tree” rather than either the sap of the tree (as in maple syrup) or “the nectar of the flowers of the aRkka tree. This tree is known as “erikku^” tree in Malayalam and perhaps Tamil.

        DKM Kartha

        • Thank you, Kartha, I agree. But I understand Dominik’s concern due to the fact that one is used to connect the arka tree with its sap and not with its being a proper shelter for beehives.

  2. Dear Dr. Freschi,
    Please change the title to:

    There is honey on the tree in your backyard; why are you going to the mountains in search of honey?”

    The present sentence does not have the idiomatic ring of English.

    I suggest this change because this sentence comes up when my name is Googled, so I feel a certain responsibility although you are in charge here and you are a professional philosopher unlike me, a mere layman in these matters.


    DKM Kartha