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.
(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.
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.
According to Mīmāṃsā authors, and unlike Nyāya ones, Vedic sentences do not convey the existence of something, but rather that something should be done. This means that the entire Veda is an instrument of knowledge only as regards duties and cannot be falsified through sense-perception, inference, etc. No Mīmāṃsā author, for instance, could ever blame a scientist for reaching a conclusion that clashes with data found in the Veda.
Opponents coming from the Advaita field figure often in Yāmuna’s Ātmasiddhi, which shows that even before Rāmānuja Vaiṣṇava authors were taking seriously the challenge of Advaita. Even more interesting is the way Yāmuna answers to them. Let us see some examples concerning the concept of self (ātman):
[Obj.:] But the fact of being a cogniser is the fact of performing the action of cognising and this implies modifications and is (typical of) insentient things and belongs to the sense of Ego.
खपुष्पं भवत्सिद्धान्त इत्यादिप्रयोगेषु तु भाट्टानां पुष्पे खसम्बन्धित्वारोपेण आरोपितखपुष्पपदार्थनिष्ठासत्त्वादीनां सिद्धान्ते सत्त्वेन प्रयोगः । इदं न खपुष्पम् इत्यत्र तु पुरोवर्त्तिनो ज्ञानाविषयत्वभाव एवार्थः स्यात् । इति तन्मते आरोपविषयता शब्दजन्यविकल्पवृत्तिविषयता चालीकस्याङ्गीक्रियेते , तथैव तस्य अभावात्मकधर्म्माश्रयत्वमपि । अत एव तद्रीत्या अलीकलक्षणं किं स्यात् इति चिन्तनीयम् , न हि तन्नये मनोवृत्तिविषयत्वसामान्याभावोलीके इति । कालासम्बन्धस्तु तल्लक्षणं वक्तुं शक्यते ।
वेदान्तिनां नये तुच्छस्याध्यारोपाविषयत्वात् कथञ्चिच्छब्दमहिम्ना शशशृङ्गपदेन विकल्पात्मकमनोवृत्तौ जातायामलीकत्वस्य विषयत्वमङ्गीक्रियते । तथापि विकल्पस्य ज्ञानत्वानङ्गीकारात् ज्ञानाविषयत्वमलीकस्य सम्भवति । अथापि विकल्पस्य ज्ञानाद्विविच्य प्रदर्शनाय तैः सत्त्वेन प्रतीत्यनर्हम् अलीकम् इत्युच्यते । उक्तानर्हताया अवच्छेदकञ्च किञ्चिद्वक्तव्यम् इति अत एव तन्नये तदेवावच्छेदकं तल्लक्षणं – सर्व्वदेशकालवृत्त्यत्यन्ताभावप्रतियोगित्वे सत्युत्पत्त्यादिशून्यत्वम् – इति सम्भवति ।
अथवा – उक्तप्रतियोगित्वे सति कालासम्बन्धित्वमेवालीकत्वं तदस्तु ।
तार्किकनये तु अलीकस्य ज्ञानसामान्याविषयत्वम् इति तन्नये न विकल्पवृत्तिरङ्गीक्रियते इति प्राप्तम् । अत एव ज्ञानाविषयत्वमेवालीकलक्षणम् । कालासम्बन्धित्वं वा ।
एतेषु सर्व्वेषु पक्षेषु इदं चिन्त्यं यत् –
तत्तन्मते तुच्छस्य यल्लक्षणं ज्ञानाविषयत्वदि तत् किं तुच्छे वर्त्तते न वा । वर्त्तते चेत् तस्यापि स्वरूपं प्राप्तं , नास्ति चेत् कथं तस्य तुच्छत्वम् ।
– इति ;
तुच्छस्यापदार्थत्वेनैव भेदप्रतियोगित्वादिभावधर्म्मानाश्रयत्वे सति पदार्थेषु तद्व्यावृत्तिः कथं सिद्ध्येत । तदसिद्धौ पदार्थानां तुच्छाभेदेनालीकत्वमापतेत् , तत्सिद्धौ च तुच्छे प्रतियोगित्वादिकमङ्गीकर्त्तव्यमापतेत् ।
– इति च ।
(My friend, Sudipta Munsi brought this post from the Bharatiya Vidvat Parisat to my notice and obtained permission from the author to cross-post it on this blog. Except for his name, the learned author, Srimallalitalalita, prefers to remain anonymous.)
Rāmānuja’s theory of the self seems to have been greatly influenced by the need to reply to the Advaita Vedāntin claim that the self is nothing but sheer consciousness. Thus, Rāmānuja (like Yāmuna before him) stresses the fact that consciousness needs to inhere in someone and that therefore the self is a cogniser (jñātṛ) rather than sheer cognition (jñāna).
This being said, some statements of him in different contexts may appear puzzling. His summary on the self in the Vedārthasaṅgraha, for instance, goes as follows:
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”.
Was Rāmānuja the first author of the Vedāntisation of the current(s) which later became well-known as Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta? Possibly yes. But, one might suggest that there are many Upaniṣadic quotations also in Yāmuna’s Ātmasiddhi and that Rāmānuja’s Śrībhāṣya seems to speak to an already well-established audience, and I wonder how could this have been the case if he were the first one attempting the Vedāntisation…