Body and self from the viewpoint of the ritual’s justification

The trigger for a discussion about the distinction of body and self in Mīmāṃsā is not or not primarily the polemic with the Buddhists, but rather the need to justify the validity of ritual prescriptions. In particular, a sentence, the yajñāyudhivākya `sentence about the one who bears the weapons of sacrifice’ identifies the entity being endowed with the weapons which consist in the sacrifice itself with the one which will reach heaven.
The problem is that the entity which carries these weapons is the body — and the body will clearly not reach heaven, since it will be burnt.
Interestingly, bodily resurrection seems not to have ever been taken into account as an option, so that the resulting dualism is much more radical than in a Christian milieu: Mīmāṃsā authors plainly agree that the body will not go to heaven and that the sentence should rather be read as addressing in fact the real agent of the sacrifice, which is not the body, but the self.
This, however, has an important consequence, namely that the self is identified with the real agent beyond the body’s acts. This makes Mīmāṃsā authors start far away from the Upaniṣadic, Sāṅkhya and Vedāntic ideas of an underlying self which is untouched by change and action.
Thus, Sacred Texts like the above sentence suggest that there is a self. Mīmāṃsā authors point also to further evidences, first and foremost our I-cognitions, that is, the cognition we have of an “I” whenever we refer to ourselves. Objectors can easily contend that “I” is used in sentences which in fact refer to the body, such as “I am tall”, thus concluding that this evidence is valueless. Mīmāṃsā authors answer that metaphorical usages of “I” as referring to the body do not rule out that it usually refers to the subject. Again, this claim bases on the idea that the Mīmāṃsā subject is not a changeless and super-individual entity, but that it is a changing and dynamic person, which can be rightly described in I-sentences such as “I am bright” or perhaps even “I am a scholar of Greek philosophy”.

Hermeneutic principles in Mīmāṃsā

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, or can be extended, but regard characteristics of language. Mīmāṃsā authors had to develop them first of all out of an epistemological concern, namely because they considered the prescriptive portion of the Veda authoritative and thus needed to distinguish the authoritative portion of the Veda.
Consequently, in order to make sense of complex texts like the Brāhmaṇas, in which it is not at all easy to distinguish what belongs to a certain ritual and what to another, Mīmāṃsā authors needed to be able to distinguish the boundaries of a given prescriptive passage. Consequently, some basic hermeneutical rules regard the identification of single prescriptions through syntax and through the unity and novelty of the duty conveyed.

In the following list I tried to enumerate the cornerstones among the hermeneutic principles.

  1. The prescriptive portion of the Veda is never meaningless.
  2. A prescriptive sentence is identified through the syntactical expectations among the words forming it and through the single purpose it conveys (PMS 2.1.46).
  3. Each prescription must be construed as prescribing a new element. Seeming repetitions must have a deeper, different meaning, e.g., enhancing the value of the sacrifice to be performed.
  4. Each prescriptive text, which may entail several prescriptions is construed around a principal action to be done.
  5. Each prescription conveys (only) a single piece of deontic information (anyāya ankekārthatva, ŚBh ad PMS 2.1.12; vākyabheda, ŚBh ad 1.1.1).
  6. No prescription can be meaningless. If it appears to be meaningless, it is not a prescription (vidhiś cānarthakaḥ kvacit tasmāt stutiḥ pratīyeta, PMS 1.2.23).
  7. Each prescription should promote an action (āmnāyasya kriyārthatvād ānarthakyam atadarthānāṃ tasmād anityam ucyate, PMS 1.2.1).
  8. The most powerful instrument of knowledge for knowing the meaning of a prescription is what it directly states (śruti), which is most powerful than its implied sense, context, syntactical connection, etc. (niṣādasthapatinyāya PMS 6.1.51–52).
  9. A material may achieve a result resting on an already prescribed act, like a king’s officer can achieve a certain result only insofar as he relies on the king’s authority (Vṛttikāra within ŚBh ad PMS 2.2.26).
  10. Any prescribed action needs to have a result. If a prescribed action seems to have no result, postulate happiness as the general result (viśvajinnyāya).
  11. Only what is intended (vivakṣita) is part of the prescription. For instance, in sentences such as ”Take your bag, we need to go”, the singular number in ”bag” is not intended. What is prescribed is to take one’s bag or bags, and not the fact that one must take one bag only. By contrast, the singular number is intended in ”You must take one pill per day”, meaning that one has to swallow exactly one pill per day. Whether something is intended or not is determined through its link with the sentence’s principal duty.


This post is a follow-up of this one (on logical and hermeneutical principles in Mīmāṃsā).

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.