Why is the topic of omniscience relevant in Indian philosophy? Because of at least two concurring reasons. On the one hand, for schools like Buddhism and Jainism, it is a question of religious authority. Ascribing omniscience to the founders of the school was a way to ground the validity of their teachings. Slightly similar is the situation of theistic schools ascribing omniscience to God, as a way to ground His ability to organise the world in the best possible way. On the other hand, for other schools the idea of omniscience was initially connected with the result of yogic or other ascetic practices. In this sense, omniscience was conceptually not different from aṇimā `the faculty to become as small as an atom’ and other special powers.
Do we need God to make sense of the world’s reality? Michael Dummett, who was surely not known for his religious fanatism came to this conclusion. God is, for this well-known philosopher, the objective perspective from which the world is intelligible as it is. In this sense, God could also be said to be needed in order to avoid the idea of a world as noúmenon, i.e., real but never grasped as it really is.
Against that, one might object that there is no intrinsic reason whence the world needs be intelligible. Yes, it would be hard to imagine that the world is unintelligible for us. But being “hard to believe” is not enough to rule out a view, unless you have a fundamental premiss saying that you prefer what looks reasonable (i.e. harmonises with your background belief). The “reasonability” premiss would rule out all gnostic or Matrix-like world-views, but there is no intrinsic reason to choose it over them.
In other words: Dummett’s thesis is based on the premiss that it is unintelligible to conceive the universe as never having been observed. Dummett sees this premiss as needed in order to safeguard subject-independent direct realism.
However, as it has been argued by Alex Watson, this premiss is not necessarily shared by Indian realists. Some of them, like most Mīmāṃsakas and the author(s) of the Vaiśeṣikasūtra, and even theists among them like Praśastapāda and Udayana do not mention God in relation to the thesis that all existents are knowable. So, even after God has been introduced into Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika, He does not play the role of rescuer of the external world. In other words, in spite of claiming that the world is intelligible, Indian realists did not see this as committing them to idealism (the world is not just contained in God’s thoughts) and even less do they see God as the rescuer of the external world.
My contribution, by contrast, focussed on another problem connected with the idea of God as support for the world’s reality, namely the conception of God it requires.
NOTE: The post has been updated thanks to Alex Watson’s thoughtful comments. All shortcomings remain mine only.
(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.
(The following is my attempt to make sense of Rāmānuja’s conceptions of bhakti. Comments and criticisms are welcome!)
To Rāmānuja (traditional dates 1017–1137) are attributed, with more or less certainty, a series of Vedāntic works, namely the Śrī Bhāṣya (henceforth ŚrīBh) commentary on the Brahma Sūtra (henceforth UMS), which is his philosophical opus magnum, both in length and philosophical depth, the Gītabhāṣya on the Bhagavadgītā (henceforth BhG), a compendium of his philosophy, the Vedārthasaṅgraha, and two shorter commentaries on the UMS, namely the Vedāntadīpa and the Vedāntasāra.
Beside these works, the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta school, at least since the time of Sudarśana Sūri and Veṅkaṭanātha (also called Vedānta Deśika, traditional dates 1269–1370), recognised Rāmānuja as the author of also three extremely short works (about 3–4 pages each), namely the Śaraṇāgatigadya, the Śrīraṅgagadya and the Vaikuṇṭhagadya, and of a manual of daily worship called Nityagrantha.
The terms bhakti `devotional love’ and bhakta `devotee’ are not very frequent in the ŚrīBh, where they are mentioned slightly more than ten times, a portion of which in quotes (some of which from the BhG). By contrast, the Śaraṇāgatigadya mentions bhakti 19 times in its only 23 sentences, and adds further elements to it (such as Nārāyaṇa instead of Kṛṣṇa as the object of devotion, and the role of prapatti ‘self-surrender’, see immediately below). Does this mean that the Śaraṇāgatigadya is not by Rāmānuja and represents a further stage in the theological thought of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta? Alternatively, one might suggest that Rāmānuja addressed different audiences in his philosophical and in his religious works. In other words, the difference between the position of the ŚrīBh and that of the Śaraṇāgatigadya could be only due to the fact that the first develops a philosophical discourse about God, whereas the latter enacts the author’s relationship with Him.
Can God as the perfect omniscient knower guarantee the possibility of a reality disidentified from all local perspectives and thus independent of them, though remaining inherently intelligible (by God Himself)? It depends on how one understands God.
As discussed already here, Indian authors can mean at least four different things when they speak about “God”, namely:
- —the devatās of mythology, like Indra and Zeus (during this workshop in Hawai’s, Andrew Nicholson has shown several examples of how philosophers make fun of this naive conception of Gods)
- —the īśvara of rational theology. He is usually omniscient and omnipotent and mostly also benevolent. In Indian thought, He can be proven to exist and to be such through rational arguments (e.g., through an inference from the fact that mountains, being an effect, need a creator, like pots).
- —the brahman of Advaita Vedānta is an impersonal Deity. In some forms of Vedānta it is interpreted pantheistically as tantamount to the universe.
- —the bhagavat kind of God is the one one is linked to through a personal relationship. His or Her devotees might consider Him omniscient or omnipotent, but in fact their reasons for loving Him of Her are different and regard their being in relation with Him or Her.
Which God can help guaranteeing the world’s reality? The devatā kind of Gods are clearly irrelevant for this purpose, since they are not even omniscient and surely do not represent an impartial perspective. The brahman kind of God is omniscient only in a sense akin to the Buddha’s being omniscient, namely insofar as it does not lack any relevant information, but it does not at all guarantee the reality of the world of direct realism. In fact, the world is for Advaita Vedāntins an illusion.
The īśvara kind of God seems the best candidate. But which kind of īśvara? Matthew Dasti‘s talk elaborated on the early history of īśvara in Nyāya, showing how the system’s basic premisses at least facilitated the elaboration of an īśvara concept. This evolution culminates in a full-fledged rational theology by Udayana. For Udayana, the īśvara he tries to prove rationally is not just any intelligent maker that can be inferred as the cause from the premise that the earth, mountains and plants sprouting from it are effects. That intelligent maker had to be:*
- A super-soul with eternal knowledge of everything, and especially of the past and future good and bad actions of all human beings that ever lived.
- One who has natural control or lordship over the material universe and other individual souls whose bodies he creates according to their beginninglessly earned merits and demerits.
- One who joins the eternal atoms in the beginning of each cosmic cycle according to a remembered blue-print giving rise to the two-ness in a dyad by his primordial act of counting.
- One who makes the otherwise unconscious “destiny” (unseen karmic traces, adṛṣṭa)) or law of moral retribution work.
- One who acts directly through his eternal will and agency without the mediation of a body, although all the “intelligent makers” one has ever encountered produce effects with a body of their own.
- One who composes the Vedas which tell human beings how to live a good life, through “do”s and “don’t”s, which would otherwise be devoid of the imperative force that they command.
- One who establishes the conventional connection between primitive words and their meant entities.
- One who, after creating the world, also sustains and in the fullness of time destroys it.
- Showers grace on humans and other creatures so that each soul can eventually attain their summum bonum—final liberation from all ensnaring karma and suffering.
- One who remains constantly and uniformly blissful through all these actions which do not touch his changeless essence and for which he has no “need”.
Such an īśvara has been discussed by Arindam Chakrabarti in his final talk on Vācaspati, insofar as He seems to be the only kind of God who can be said to be omniscient in the “hard” sense of possessing a complete knowledge of all states of affairs. However, He is vulnerable to objections to omniscience raised both in European and Indian philosophy. E.g.: How to delimit the range of “all” in “omniscience“? Can He really know also future events? If so, this seems to contradict our free will and even the possibility of non-necessary, contingent events. More in general, how can God know past and future events as such, though being Himself atemporal (this topic has been dealt with by Shinya Moriyama in his talk as well as in his 2014 book)? Not to speak of the pragmatic problems caused by omniscience, namely that it is altogether different from the way we usually experience knowledge to happen, i.e. in a processual way, and that one could never be sure that anyone (even God) is omniscient, since we are not omniscient and, therefore, could not test Him. Last, as outlined by Arindam (and by Patrick Grimm’s Cantorian argument against omniscience), God’s omniscience seems deemed to fail, since it cannot be proven to be logically conceivable.
The general problem appears to me to be that the īśvara is at the same time the knower of all and part of the system which He should know completely, so that He cannot escape the restrictions which apply to this world (in which knowledge is experienced to be processual, entities are not at the same time temporal and non-temporal, and one element cannot know the whole).
*The following points are all discussed by Udayana. For further details, see Chemparathy 1972. The present formulation of the list is largely indebted to Arindam Chakrabarti.
Shinya Moriyama also wrote a report about the same workshop, unfortunately (for me) in Japanese. Google translate was enough to understand that it is quite interesting and gives one a perceptive insight in the Philosophy Department in Hawai’i. You can read it here.
A non-intelligible entity cannot be conceived to exist. But, if the world needs to be known in order to exist, we need to postulate a non-partial perspective out of which it can be known. Since the perspectives of all human beings (as well as those of other animals, I would add) are necessarily partial and cannot be reconciled (how could one reconcile our perspective of the world with that of a bat?), this perspective needs to be God.
The idea is that the (Buddhist) religion is primarily experiential and that philosophy is a later reification which misses the main point at stake and moves the emphasis away from what really counts. Moreover, in the case of Buddhism (but I am inclined to think that no other theology would survive Jayarava’s analysis) the result is full of inner contradictions and does not stand a critical inquire.
Thus, why engaging in philosophical thought, if you care for a given religion? Why entering a field in which you will loose anyway, since sooner or later a new development in, say, physics or neurosciences will show that you are at least partly wrong?
A possible answer would be to claim that natural sciences and theology do not speak about the same things (a claim Jayarava appears to refute). Moreover, one might claim that human beings naturally try to understand (as in Aristotle). But are there positive reasons for engaging in philosophy if one comes from a religious standpoint? Let us consider Giordano Bruno’s paradoxical words on this topic (as you will all know, Giordano Bruno was a Catholic priest and philosopher who was burnt on 17.2.1600 because of his heretic ideas —this sonet praises the ignorance of those who do not question anything, as if this were a moral virtue):
IN LODE DELL’ASINO:
Oh sant’asinità, sant’ignoranza,
Santa stoltizia, e pia divozione,
Qual sola puoi far l’anime si buone,
Ch’uman ingegno e studio non l’avanza!
Non gionge faticosa vigilanza
D’arte, qualunque sia, o invenzione,
Né di sofossi contemplazione
Al ciel, dove t’edifichi la stanza.
Che vi val, curiosi, lo studiare,
Voler saper quel che fa la natura,
Se gli astri son pur terra, fuoco e mare?
La santa asinità di ciò non cura,
Ma con man gionte e ’n ginocchion vuol stare
Aspettando da Dio la sua ventura.
Nessuna cosa dura,
Eccetto il frutto dell’eterna requie,
La qual ne done Dio dopo l’esequie!
You might want to come and raise some interesting objection at one of the two lectures below:
—Body and self in Śrīvaiṣṇavism. A “hands-on” discussion of Veṅkaṭanātha’s Seśvaramīmāṃsā (ad 1.1.5) (Wed, 11 am)
—Knowing the unknowable: Vedānta Deśika on supersensory perception (at the Pedagogical University of Cracow, Wednesday, 4 pm).
The Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta is a philosophical and theological school active chiefly in South India, from the last centuries of the first millennium until today and holding that the Ultimate is a personal God who is the only existing entity and of whom everything else (from matter to human and other living beings) is a characteristic.