The “Hillary Clinton” effect in Sanskrit studies

Why do we look for excuses for not engaging with recent Sanskrit scholarship?

To my knowledge, Veṅkaṭanātha’s Seśvaramīmāṃsā (henceforth SM) has been commented upon only once in Sanskrit, namely in the 20th c. within the 1971 edition. The title of the commentary is Sūkṣmārthaṭīkā ‘gloss on subtle meanings’. As often the case with commentaries, some moot issues are just not commented upon, but the commentary is very often insightful and useful at the same time, providing identifications of speakers and adding interpretative cues. Also relevant is the fact that its author is a outspoken Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedāntin who, unlike the author of the SM, does not feel compelled to assume a Mīmāṃsā standpoint. Therefore, in case of conflict (for instance, at the beginning of the commentary on PMS 1.1.6, pp. 88–89 of the 1971 edition) he highlights the differences between the Mīmāṃsā perspective presented in the main text and the Viśiṣṭādvaita one. Thus, he makes it indirectly visible that Veṅkaṭanātha’s choice of reading PMS 1.1.6 as focusing on the signification power of language instead of on the permanence of phonemes is not only one legitimate interpretive choice within Mīmāṃsā hermeneutics, but also an effort aiming at the harmonisation of the PMS with the lore of Viśiṣṭādvaita Veṅkaṭanātha needed to take into account.

In this way, the Sūkṣmārthaṭīkā‘s author also indirectly points out the gigantic effort Veṅkaṭanātha undertook, almost seven centuries before, when he tried to propose a synthesis of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta.

These reasons should make it clear why I deemed it relevant to include a translation of the Sūkṣmārthaṭīkā to my study of the SM. I can also add that in general recent Sanskrit scholarship often tends to be neglected only because it is recent and Sanskrit, whereas I cannot see any a priori reason for not engaging in a close study of both recent and ancient texts in Sanskrit, and for not reading both English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Sanskrit recent scholarship.

PS: I wrote that I don’t see any a priori reason, because I can understand that life is short and one needs to decide what to read, and that reading one’s colleagues’ or future evaluators’ articles might be pragmatically the most advisable choice. But studying Sanskrit is already a non-pragmatic life choice, so that it cannot be reduced to career moves. Moreover, preserving ideodiversity (copyright: Houben), even within the Sanskrit ekumene should be at least part of the mission of people engaging with such non-pragmatic life-choices. Don’t you think?

Jaimini and Bādarāyaṇa

PMS 1.1.5 strangely inserts the word bādarāyaṇasya ‘according to Bādarāyaṇa’ in its wording. Does it mean that this key sūtra of the school is only the opinion of Bādarāyaṇa? The context makes it clear that it is not a prima facie view and in the commentary on PMS 1.1.5, Veṅkaṭanātha uses the mention of Bādarāyaṇa to substantiate his idea of a unitary system of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta. He explains that Jaimini mentions Bādarāyaṇa in order to show that this view is traditional (sāmpradāyikatā) and accepted by his own teacher.
That Bādarāyaṇa was the teacher of Jaimini is proven by means of some Mahābhārata quotes, which should prove their connection, and also the identity of Bādarāyaṇa and Vyāsa.

Against the extrinsicity of validity of cognitions UPDATED

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.

The Advaitins? Just blind believers!

The argumentative structure of Yāmuna's Saṃvitsiddhi

Yāmuna is not strictly speaking a Vedāntin, at least not in all his works. Nonetheless, the extant portion of his Saṃvitsiddhi (henceforth SSi) starts with a typically Vedānta concern, namely the exegesis of some Upaniṣadic statements, and especially of the word advaita within them.

The presence of an Upaniṣadic, and, therefore authoritative, starting point does not mean that there is no space for argumentation. By contrast, Yāmuna discusses at length various possible interpretations, so that the quotes open rather than closing the discussion. In this sense, the Upaniṣadic quotes have the same role of controversial sacrificial issues in Pūrva Mīmāṃsā: the discussion is prompted by the problem they raise. The structure of the first pages of the SSi is the same found at times in Veṅkaṭanātha’s philosophical works such as the Seśvaramīmāṃsā insofar as the opinions of several different schools are briefly examined and refuted. However, in these pages of the SSi the opponents have only one chance to speak out their opinion, the discussion does not involve a single speaker at length, and after one has been defeated, Yāmuna moves swiftly to the next one. The situation changes, even within the same SSi, once Yāmuna moves to a topic which has metaphysical and not only hermeneutical relevance, namely whether there is only one saṃvit ‘cognition’, or whether this is differentiated according to its various intentional contents. Here, the discussion turns into an engaging succession of objections and replies.

Yāmuna at times lets some space for sarcasm. An interesting case contrasts Yāmuna’s point of view to that of “believer” Vedāntins (the opponents are identified immediately before as brahmavidaḥ ‘knowers of brahman’. The context is that of the denial of any difference, so that one can postulate that these are Advaita Vedāntins):

Enough! This teaching about brahman suits [only] believers. We are not believers and resort to reason.

hanta! brahmopadeśo ’yaṃ śraddadhāneṣu śobhate. vayam aśraddadhānās ’smo ye yuktiṃ prārthayāmahe. (SSi 1942 p. 131).

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.

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.

Is the use of arguments from authority “irrational”?

Basically, I would say no, since there are topics for which it is meaningful and rational to resort to arguments from authority. To name an example, if I want to know how you feel, the best thing to do is to ask you.

But even if you don’t agree, let me point to the distinction between

  • the use of such arguments as a way to close a discussion (e.g., “It is the case that X, because an authoritative source said it”)
  • the use of such arguments as part of a discussion or as opening a discussion (e.g., “An authoritative source tells us that X, how shall we understand it?”)

Intrinsic validity in Veṅkaṭanātha

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).

Modification as an evidence for the fact that mantras have meanings and an application of the Aindrīnyāya

Both Śabara’s and Veṅkaṭanātha’s commentary on the Mīmāṃsā Sūtra insist that mantras are not important only insofar as they are pronounced, but rather that they convey a meaning (technically: they are vivakṣitārtha `they have intended meanings’).
One of the evidences for the meaningfulness of mantras is the fact that mantras are modified (ūh-) in the ectype rituals. If, for instance, the archetype ritual is for Agni and the ectype ritual is offered to Indra, the mantra will be accordingly changed (e.g., from Agnaye juṣṭam to Indrāya juṣṭam). If the mantras had no meaning, there would be no scope for modifying them. If the pronunciation were enough to achieve some unseen potency (apūrva), one would just repeat the mantras in the same form.