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.
Mīmāṃsā authors think that cognitions are by themselves, i.e., intrinsically valid. In other words, they are not valid because of some additional reason, but just because of the sheer fact of being unfalsified.
In order to establish this claim, Veṅkaṭanātha defeats three possible candidates as extrinsic reasons for the cognitions’ validity, namely agreement (saṃvāda, with other people’s cognitions or with one’s other cognitions), quality of the cognition’s cause and causal efficacy (arthakriyā). The latter candidate is rejected because it would lead to an infinite regress (one would need to establish the causal efficacy of the cognition of causal efficacy and so on) and because some cognitions just don’t have any causal result. The passage is as follows:
arthakriyā ca na vyāptā, aśakyārthakriyeṣv anādarapadeṣu ca pratīteṣu puruṣapravṛttyabhāvena tanmūlārthakriyābhāvāt.
Nor is the causal efficiency (arthakriyā) included (vyāp-) [in the ascertainment of a cognition’s validity], because there is no causal efficiency as the root of certain [cognitions], given that there is no human activity (pravṛtti) in the case of apprehended [cognitions] in regard to which causal efficiency (arthakriyā) is impossible and whose contents (pada) have not been taken into account (anādara). (SM ad PMS 1.1.5)
UPDATE: The translation has been updated according to the suggestion (see comments below) by Lalitālālitaḥ (for which I am extremely grateful). I am sure he is right about the general meaning, but I would have still preferred anādarapadārtheṣu or anādaraviṣayeṣu.
(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.
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.
Intrinsic validity means that each cognition is in itself valid, unless and until the opposite is proven. I do not need to prove that I am typing in order to know that I am. I know that I am typing unless and until something shows me that I am wrong (e.g., I wake up and realise I was only dreaming of typing).
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).
Veṅkaṭanātha is an important milestone for the reconstruction of the history of Indian philosophy. In fact, he is a historical figure and the reconstruction of his thought is also facilitated by the contextual knowledge already available about the times, the cultural and geographical milieu, and the religious tradition related to him.
For Mīmāṣakas, a non-defeated belief counts as knowledge as long as the opposite is proven. This means that according to Mīmāṃsakas, for the Veda, the absence of defeating conditions is in itself equivalent to its truth.
This, however, does not amount to its truth from the point of view of a theory which considers only justified true belief as knowledge. Incidentally, the Mīmāṃsā’s refusal to distinguish between justified belief and knowledge offers a way out of a difficulty found in every account of linguistic communication as an instrument of knowledge, i.e. the problem of how we can understand false utterances (see Chakrabarti 1986, Matilal 1990:61-8, Mohanty 1992:253-5, Ganeri 1999:18-25). Roughly, the problem lies in how we can understand that there is a snake in the next room after hearing the sentence “there is a snake in the next room” although there is no snake in the next room. Linguistic communication is an instrument of knowledge, but the belief that there is a snake in the next room cannot amount to knowledge. How can this content be possibly conveyed? In order to justify that we understand false sentences, Indian theories of linguistic communication as an instrument of knowledge would need a (preceding) status of non-committed awareness of the meaning, claim the authors listed above.
However, this is not needed in the case of Mīmāṃsā. Mīmāṃsakas would describe this situation by saying that our initial knowledge of the presence of a snake in the next room is later defeated as soon as we see that there is no snake there.
Most of my long-term readers have had enough of my discussions of Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā, of its late exponent Rāmānujācārya, and of its theories about deontic logic, philosophy of language and hermeneutics. They may also know already about my book dedicated to these topics. More recent readers can read about it here.
You can also read reviews of my book by the following scholars:
- by Taisei Shida on Vol. 31 of Nagoya Studies in Indian Culture and Buddhism. Saṃbhāṣā (2014), pp. 84-87.
- by Andrew Ollett on Vol. 65.2 of Philosophy East and West (2015), pp. 632–636 (see here)
- by Gavin Flood on Journal of Hindu Studies, published on line on 13 October 2015 (the beginning is accessible here)
- by Hugo David on the vol. 99 of BEFEO (2012-13), pp. 395-408 (you can read the beginning here)
I am extremely grateful to the reviewers (I could not have hoped for better ones!) for their careful and stimulating analyses and for their praising my attempts to make the text as understandable as possible and to locate sources and parallels in the apparatus. In fact, as a small token of gratitude for the time they spent on my book, I will dedicate a post to each one of their reviews, where I discuss their corrections and suggestions. The first one in this series will appear next Friday.