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.

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.

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?”)

A review of Vincent Eltschinger’s Buddhist Epistemology as Apologetics

An interesting review of Vincent Eltschinger’s last book, Buddhist Epistemology as Apologetics, by Peter Bisschop which has the advantage of

  1. summarising the main thesis of the book (the Buddhist epistemological school is not only a natural development of the Buddhist tradition of dialectics, but also the reaction to external attacks, e.g., by Kumārila Bhaṭṭa)
  2. highlighting Eltschinger’s innovative methodological choice of reading Buddhist epistemology through its social history
  3. adding a few critical remarks* about the structure of the book (“An overall conclusion rounding off the four individual chapters would have been welcome, in particular because the subject of the first two chapters […] and the last two chapters […] differ quite strongly from each other”, p. 268) and about the possible distinction between Vaiṣṇava and Śaiva attitudes towards Buddhism (“A text like the Skandapurāṇa […] does not contain a single reference to pāsaṇḍins [‘heretics’, EF]. This may not only reflect a difference in time but also in position, that of the conservative, anti-Buddhist Vaiṣṇavas of the Viṣṇupurāṇa on the one hand and the soon-to-be dominant Śaivas of the Skandapurāṇa on the other”, p. 265).

*Long-term readers will now know that I am biased in favour of structured criticism (and against lists of useless typos and baseless praises). Accordingly, they may disagree with me on the importance of this last point if they prefer different types of reviews.

Why studying Mīmāṃsā within Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta: An easy introduction for lay readers

The Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta is a philosophical and theological school active chiefly in South India, from the last centuries of the first millennium until today and holding that the Ultimate is a personal God who is the only existing entity and of whom everything else (from matter to human and other living beings) is a characteristic.

Andrew Ollett’s Review of Duty, Language and Exegesis in Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā

This post is the first one in a series discussing reviews of my first book. An introduction to the series can be found here. I am grateful to the reviewers for their honest reviews and will answer in the same, constructive way.

Reviews on Duty, Language and Exegesis in Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā: Many thanks and some notes —UPDATED

Most of my long-term readers have had enough of my discussions of Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā, of its late exponent Rāmānujācārya, and of its theories about deontic logic, philosophy of language and hermeneutics. They may also know already about my book dedicated to these topics. More recent readers can read about it here.
You can also read reviews of my book by the following scholars:

  • by Taisei Shida on Vol. 31 of Nagoya Studies in Indian Culture and Buddhism. Saṃbhāṣā (2014), pp. 84-87.
  • by Andrew Ollett on Vol. 65.2 of Philosophy East and West (2015), pp. 632–636 (see here)
  • by Gavin Flood on Journal of Hindu Studies, published on line on 13 October 2015 (the beginning is accessible here)
  • by Hugo David on the vol. 99 of BEFEO (2012-13), pp. 395-408 (you can read the beginning here)

I am extremely grateful to the reviewers (I could not have hoped for better ones!) for their careful and stimulating analyses and for their praising my attempts to make the text as understandable as possible and to locate sources and parallels in the apparatus. In fact, as a small token of gratitude for the time they spent on my book, I will dedicate a post to each one of their reviews, where I discuss their corrections and suggestions. The first one in this series will appear next Friday.