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.

Bhakti in Rāmānuja: Continuities and changes of perspective

(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.

God and realism

Marginal notes on a workshop in Hawai'i, part 2

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:

  1. —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)
  2. —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).
  3. —the brahman of Advaita Vedānta is an impersonal Deity. In some forms of Vedānta it is interpreted pantheistically as tantamount to the universe.
  4. —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.

Omniscience and realism

Marginal notes about a workshop in Hawai'i

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.

What counts as philosophy?

On the normative disguised as descriptive (SECOND UPDATE)

As a scholar of Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā I am well aware of how the normative is often disguised as descriptive. “It is seven o’ clock” says the mother, but what she means is rather “Get up! You have to go to school”.

What is a commentary? UPDATED

And how the Nyāyamañjarī and the Seśvaramīmāṃsā do (not) fit the definition

What makes a text a “commentary”? The question is naif enough to allow for a complicated answer. First of all, let me note the obvious: There is not a single word for “commentary” in Sanskrit, where one needs to distinguish between bhāṣyas, vārttikas, ṭippanīs, etc., often bearing poetical names, evoking Moons, mirrors and the like.

Podcasts on Indian philosophy: An opportunity to rethink the paradigm?

Some readers have surely already noted this series of podcasts on Indian philosophy, by Peter Adamson (the historian of Islamic philosophy and Neoplatonism who hosts the series “History of philosophy without any gaps” —which I can not but highly praise and recommend, and which saved me from boredom while collating manuscripts) and Jonardon Ganeri.
The series has several interesting points, among which surely the fact of proposing a new historical paradigm (interested readers may know already the volume edited by Eli Franco on other attempts of periodization of Indian philosophy, see here for my review). They explicitly avoid applying periodizations inherited from European civilisations, and consequently do not speak of “Classical” or “Medieval” Indian philosophy. What do readers think of this idea? And of the podcast in general?

I have myself a few objections (which I signalled in the comment section of each podcast), but am overall very happy that someone is taking Indian philosophy seriously enough while at the same time making it also accessible to lay listeners. In this sense, I cannot but hope that Peter and Jonardon’s attempts are successful.

The series includes also interviews to scholars: Brian Black on the Upaniṣads, Rupert Gethin on Buddhism, Jessica Frazier on “Hinduism” (the quotation marks are mine only), myself on Mīmāṃsā. Further interviews are forthcoming. Criticisms and comments are welcome! (but please avoid commenting on my pronunciation mistakes.)

Why studying the history of (Indian) philosophy?

Prof. Ramkrishna Bhattacharya addresses a similar issues (why studying Ancient Indian Philosophy) in a recent paper, here. He starts with the constatation that “it is there” (like the Everest’s being there should be enough to make one wish to climb it). He then adds that ancient philosophers like Thales or the Cārvākas were the first natural scientists since they addressed the question of what there is without recurring to myth. In this sense, modern scientists only demonstrated experimentally what these thinkers had already intuited. Moreover, in some significant cases, such as dialectics, a few thinkers only developed the field significantly in a way which is relevant even for today’s philosophy. He then concludes:

This is why ancient philosophy has much to teach us even today, for much of it was grounded in sound theoretical thought.

Do you agree? I, for one, would add that what appears to me as in need of an explanation is rather the fact of not studying the history of philosophy. Would you ever focus on the philosophy written in Polish between 1550 and 1580 only? If not, why would you want to focus on Anglophone philosophy of the last thirty years at best?

Again on the existence of a separate Yogasūtra

As most readers know, Philipp Maas (elaborating on a short article by Johannes Bronkhorst) has claimed that it is highly probable that an independent Yogasūtra never existed and that we should therefore only speak of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, a work including what is known as Yogasūtra and what is known as Yogabhāṣya. He notices that the Yogasūtra is not independently transmitted, that all quotes until the 11th c. refer to either the YS or the YBh in the same way, as if they were the same work. For more details, see section 2 of his article in Franco 2013 (available here) and his article in Bronkhorst 2010 (available here).

Federico Squarcini recently disputed this claim

Expanding the canon part n

We have discussed several times (see also here and here) about the problem of how Indian philosophers should be part of normal classes on Medieval philosophy, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, etc. etc. Podcaster and scholar of Neoplatonism and of Falsafa Peter Adamson makes several interesting points on the Blog of the APA, in this post.