A basic introduction to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta

(I have been asked to write a short introduction to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and would like to test it on you, dear readers. Any comment or criticism would be more than welcome!)

In its full-fledged form, the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta (henceforth VV) is a Vedāntic school, thus one which accepts the authority of the Upaniṣads, the Brahmasūtra and the Bhagavadgītā and which recognises a form of God as brahman (on the various ways of understanding God in India, see here). The full-fledged VV accepts also further groups of texts, namely on the one hand the Pañcarātra (a group of Vaiṣṇava texts prescribing personal and temple rituals, see Leach 2012, and, here) and on the other the Tamil devotional poems collected in the Divyaprabandham.

In the following, I will first deal with the tenets of the school in its mature form, as found in the writings of Veṅkaṭanātha, and then show how the situation I had just depicted has not been the only one throughout the complex history of the school.

The school’s ontology is perhaps its most distinctive contribution. The VV accepts both monism and direct realism. The monist aspect has to do with the fact that the brahman is conceived as the only independent entity. It exists in a way which even transcends the opposition between being and non-being (sat-asatoḥ param, in Rāmānuja’s parlance). Conversely, the world as we know it is, against Advaita Vedānta and Buddhism, real and not illusory, so that our cognitions of it are epistemologically sound. Yet, the world exists insofar as it is a specification of the brahman. The brahman is the whole of which any element of the world, conscious beings and inert matter, are an attribute. Therefore, the brahman exists in a specified (viśiṣṭa) manner. This ontological Weltanschauung rests on the negation of a strict distinction between substance and qualities. Unlike in Nyāya, VV considers qualifications to be qualifiers not because of their own nature, but only according to the changing point of view. For instance, a given form qualifies a body, which, in turn, qualifies a self, which, again, qualifies the brahman. The only thing which cannot qualify anything else, since it is itself the ultimate point of rest of all qualifications is the brahman. In this sense, the bodies of conscious beings are at the same time qualifications of their selves (which can therefore make them act) but also, ultimately, of the God-brahman (which can, through them, experience the world).

The VV’s ontology is distinguished from pantheism because of two reasons: 1. The brahman goes, as already hinted at, also beyond being. 2. The brahman is conceived not just as an impersonal Being, but rather as a personal God. In this sense, the VV finds a philosophical way for incorporating the religious dimension of bhakti into an onto-theology of Vedāntic type. The brahman is therefore declared to be equivalent not to a generic omniscient God, but rather with a personal form of God, called Viṣṇu, Kṛṣṇa or Nārāyaṇa.

God is invariably a cogniser. Knowledge is considered a substance, as in Vedānta and against Nyāya, but Yāmuna defines God’s knowledge as dharmabhūtajñāna `knowledge which has become a characteristic’, thus highlighting how knowledge behaves as a quality of God. Moreover, the two are said to be inseparably connected and cannot be known one independently of the other. In other words, God could never be imagined to be without cognition, whereas cognition needs a knower. It also invariably needs an object (i.e., it is intentional), against the Advaita Vedānta idea of a content-less awareness as the nature of brahman.

Such a personal God can be reached through a personal kind of devotion, called bhakti, which is the culmination of the previous salvific ways taught by Pūrva and Uttara Mīmāṃsā, namely karman (ritual acts) and jñāna (knowledge of the self).

Free will
Due to the personal nature of God, His co-presence in each body does not mean that human and other conscious beings are not free. Rather, they are the ones who carry the moral responsibility of their acts, just like the co-owner of a field who decides to sell it and just seeks for the other co-owner’s consent carries the responsibility for the selling (the simile is Rāmānuja’s). This freedom is the direct result of God’s free decision to restrict His possibility to hinder or alter their decisions.

The VV school adopts the Mīmāṃsā epistemology. Therefore, it accepts the intrinsic validity of cognitions as a basis for the reliability of the Vedas and of other sacred texts and recognises perception, inference and linguistic communication as the main instruments of knowledge. As for inference, it denies the possibility of inferring a God, who can only be known through the sacred texts. Veṅkaṭanātha reframes linguistic communication as the communication coming from a non-faulty source, thus accommodating both sacred texts (which have no source at all, since they are not authored) and worldly communication if coming from reliable speakers.

History of the school
As already hinted at, the school has experienced a complex evolution. The teachers recognised as its first exponents are Nāthamuni (–970? according to K. Young) and his grand-son Yāmuna (967–1038 according to Mesquita 1973). Of the first, no works are extant, but out of their titles one can speculate that they dealt with Yoga and Nyāya. Later hagiographical sources credit him with the finding of the Divyaprabandham. Yāmuna’s works are partly extant and attest of a complex and brilliant mind, who probably moved from Nyāya (his early work are open to the possibility of inferring the existence of God) to Vedānta. The next teacher, Rāmānuja (traditional dates 1017–1137), is usually considered the founder of the school as it is known today and is clearly a Vedāntin (his main works are a commentary on the Bhagavadgītā and his opus magnum, a commentary on the Brahmasūtra called Śrī Bhāṣya). However, in Rāmānuja’s works there is hardly any mention of Pañcarātra and no mention at all of the Divyaprabandham and of its contents. The tradition recognises Pirāṉ Piḷḷāṉ, the author of the first commentaries (in Tamil) on the Divyaprabandham as Rāmānuja’s direct disciple and he is surely the first one to introduce Rāmānuja’s theology in the interpretation of these poems. The confluence of the two Vaiṣṇavisms (Rāmānuja’s Vedāntic one and the Divyaprabandham’s devotional one) finds a further point of balance in Veṅkaṭanātha (also known as Vedānta Deśika, traditional dates (1269–1370), who wrote in both Tamil and Sanskrit and tried to systematise the school’s various elements. The later interpreters of the school, however, considered him as the exponent of one sub-school (the Vaṭakalai) opposed to the other (called Teṅkalai and whose foundation was later attributed to Piḷḷai Lokācārua, 1205–1311).

cross-posted on the Indian Philosophy Blog, where you can also read some interesting comments.

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

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2 thoughts on “A basic introduction to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta

  1. Nice introduction to Visistadwaita Vedanta. Although I am follower of Advaita, I have always been fascinated about the different variety of schools within Vedanta. Thanks for the write up.