Does anything exist according to Advaita Vedānta?

Not substances, not qualities, perhaps not even the brahman?

The authors of Advaita Vedānta maintain that God, the impersonal brahman, is the only reality and that each hint of dualism or pluralism is due to māyā ‘illusion’. In other words, the absolute, the brahman, is the only reality and everything else (including the material world and the conscious beings within it) only seems to exist, due to māyā, but is not ultimately real. Due to the the Advaita Vedānta’s absolute monism, the brahman cannot have any quality, as any quality would introduce a duality in the singular nature of the brahman. Thus, given that the brahman is the only reality and that it is absolutely simple (since any complexity would entail plurality) it cannot contain any intentional knowledge*, since any such knowledge would be necessary articulated according to the distinction between a knowing subject and the objects it knows and exactly such distinction is considered illusory by Advaita Vedānta authors.

Interactions among Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava and other religious and philosophical schools

The religious debate in the early second millennium in South India

The early second millennium in South India saw a culmination of scholarly activities in the sphere of Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava devotional movements, including both philosophical and ritual discourses. While we tend to study these separately from each other, for Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava thinkers both aspects – theological speculations and ritual practice – played an integral part in their intellectual and daily lives, and thus we should consider their theological works deeply entangled in the ritual world they moved in.

Further, these scholarly activities were embedded in an environment with a long history of Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava interactions, with some works showing passages conceived in direct response to their competitors. The present workshop aims to transcend disciplinary boundaries and investigate the interactions between both Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava thinkers as well as theological theory and ritual practice and how these may be manifested in discourses of identity on both an ideological and a practical level. Some of the questions will be: Do ritual practice and theological theory correspond to each other? How did theories develop from rituals and subsequently feed back and impact theological discourses and vice versa? To what extent do rituals presuppose an identification between God and His human devotees? And does the answer to this question depend on a dispute between opponents, who upheld the opposite view (i.e., a non-dualist Śaiva answer may depend on a dualist Vaiṣṇava opponent)? Or how much do Śaiva-Vaiṣṇava or intra-Vaiṣṇava and intra-Śaiva exchanges shape prescriptive and theoretical discourses on ritual practices relating to external religious markers?

In order to pursue this set of questions, a range of specialists has been asked to choose a passage from key works that shaped the intellectual and ritual life of early medieval South India. While an introduction to each of the sources will be presented, the sessions will focus on the joint reading to be held in the light of this set of guiding questions. In addition, further specialists have been invited to join the reading and contribute towards the discussions.

You can read the whole program here.

Again on omniscience: Why talking about it, God’s omniscience and some reasons to refute it

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.

God and the reality of the world — UPDATED

Marginal notes about a workshop in Hawai’i, part 3

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.

The first two parts of my marginal notes on the workshop on Omniscience, Realism and God/no-God have been published here and here.

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.

Animal theology

Paolo De Benedetti's death

The news of the death of Paolo De Benedetti reached me while I was reading a short book of him (E l’asina disse…).

Paolo De Benedetti is well-known especially for his studies on Hebraism, but here I would rather like to remember him for his articles and books on animals’ and plants’ theology. This is a problem which is much less evident in South Asian religions, given the general acceptance of a (hierarchical) continuity between animal and human lives. Yet, as already discussed here, the same continuity is not generally accepted in the case of plants.
De Benedetti used Singer’s arguments about suffering as the distinctive character shared by all living beings and keeping them alike. Unlike Singer, however, De Benedetti saw the commonality of animals, human beings and plants in a theological perspective: They are all created, not natural beings and their being alive is what God has donated to them.

Analytical Philosophy of Religion with Indian categories

Wednesday and Thursday last week I enjoyed two days of full immersion in the Analytical Philosophy of Religion. In fact, the conference I was attending was about the ontological status of relations from the perspective of Analytical Philosophy of Religion and most speakers started their talk saying that they were not experts in the one or in the other field. I was neither nor, which made me the sub-ideal target for all talks —and yet one who could learn a lot from all.

A few random remarks:

  1. “God” is an ambiguous term, in fact so ambiguous that I wonder why does not each study about philosophy of religion start with a discussion of what the author means by this word. I pragmatically distinguish between god as devatā ‘deity’ (a superhuman being which is better than a human one, but only insofar as s/he has the same qualities of a human being in higher degree, like the Greek and Roman deities of mythology), god as īśvara ‘Lord’ (the omniscient and omnipotent being of rational theology), god as brahman ‘impersonal being’ (the impersonal Absolute of most monisms, including Bradley’s one discussed by Guido Bonino) and god as bhagavat ‘personal God’ (the personal God one directly relates to in prayers, without necessarily caring for His/Her omnipotence or omniscience, but rather focusing on Him/Her as spouse, parent, child, etc.). Within this classification, Analytical Philosophy of Religion appears to focus on the īśvara aspect of God.