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.
The starting point of the present investigation is the fact that between Rāmānuja and Veṅkaṭanātha a significant change appears to have occurred in the scenario of what was later known as Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta (the term is only found after Sudarśana Sūri). The Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta as we know it was more or less there by the time of Veṅkaṭanātha, whereas in order to detect it in the oeuvre of Rāmānuja one needs to retrospectively interpret it in the light of its successive developments. This holds true even more, although in a different way, for Rāmānuja’s predecessors, such as Yāmuna, Nāthamuni and the semi-mythical Dramiḍācārya etc.
It is difficult to disentangle the different roots of what is now known as Śrīvaiṣṇavism, since this term is usually the label attributed to the religious counterpart of the philosophical-theological school of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta. However, Vaiṣṇavism was apparently an important presence in South India well before the beginning of the philosophical enterprise
Several years ago I had some pain in convincing a friend working on Husserl that the “phenomenologist” J. Mohanty which he knew too well was the same as the scholar of Sanskrit Philosophy J.N. Mohanty (I had similar problems in convincing the same person that avatar is a Sanskrit word). Just like there are two Mohantys, with two different target audiences, so there are two F.X. Clooneys.
Veṅkaṭanātha (traditional dates 1269–1370 (see Neevel 1977 for a convincing explanation of these too long life spans) is a complex figure who can be interpreted in different ways according to the facet one is focusing on. What is sure is that what we refer to as Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta has been largely influenced by the shape he gave to it. For instance, the traditional lineage of teachers of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta groups together teachers who bear some vague family resemblance among each other, but who are all directly linkable to Veṅkaṭanātha’s view of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta.
The main philosophical outlines of Veṅkaṭanātha’s Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta are:
- the Vedāntic viewpoint
- the emphasis on Pūrva Mīmāṃsā
- the incorporation of Pāñcarātra
- the incorporation of the Āḻvārs’ theology
The development of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta as a vedāntic school is clear as one looks back at Veṅkaṭanātha’s predecessors, but it is important to notice that what seems a posteriori like a clear Vedāntic school would not probably have appeared as such to its contemporaries. In fact, Yāmuna’s relation to Vedānta is complex. He quotes from the Upaniṣads in the Ātmasiddhi, and he starts it listing the Vedānta teachers he wants to refute (including Bhartṛhari and Śaṅkara), so that one might think that he is keener to “purify” Vedānta than he cares about “purifying” Nyāya. At the same time, at least in the Ātmasiddhi (see Mesquita 1971, pp. 4–13) Yāmuna accepts an anti-Vedāntic proof for the existence of God, namely the inference (whereas Pūrva and Uttara Mīmāṃsā agree that God can only be known through the Sacred Texts) and the Āgamaprāmāṇya seems to have a completely different focus. Rāmānuja is more straightforwardly part of a Vedāntic approach (this is, in my opinion, also the reason why he has been often considered the “founder” of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta —a term which he and Yāmuna still ignore). As for Nāthamuni, his relation to Vedānta can only be presupposed out of what we know of him through his successors, given that his works have been lost. Their titles focus, however, on Nyāya and Yoga (and not on Vedānta).
As for No. 2, we know nothing about Nāthamuni’s relation to Mīmāṃsā, but we know that at least one trend within Vedānta (as testified by Śaṅkara’s commentary on the Brahmasūtra) claimed that the study of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā was not necessary. Yāmuna’s relation to Pūrva Mīmāṃsā is double-faced, but Pūrva Mīmāṃsā authors seem to be his targeted objectors in the sense that he wants to convince them of the legitimacy of the Pāñcarātra transmission (although often recurring to their same arguments) and he by and large adopts Nyāya strategies (such as the reference to God as the authoritative source of the epistemologic validity of the Pāñcarātra, or the use of inference to establish God’s existence). The situation changes, perhaps during Yāmuna’s own life, certainly with Rāmānuja, who steers in direction Vedānta and, thus, comes closer to the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā. So close that he programmatically states at the beginning of his commentary on the Brahmasūtra that not only the Brāhmaṇa part of the Veda needs to be studied, but that its study is part of the same teaching with the Vedānta. Veṅkaṭanātha takes advantage of this (perhaps causal) remark and understands its deep implications: he can thus state that the whole of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā and the whole of Uttara Mīmāṃsā constitute a single teaching (ekaśāstra).
No. 3 and 4: Furthermore, Veṅkaṭanātha used the same model, I think, to incorporate into the system further elements. He reaches back to the Pāñcarātra, which had been defended by Yāmuna but rather neglected by Rāmānuja and, more strikingly, to the hymns of the Āḻvārs. It is in this sense more than telling that Veṅkaṭanātha (as first among the first teachers of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta) decided to write also in Tamil and to write theology also in poetical form, as the Āḻvārs had done.
Did you ever try to reconstruct what had happened in a single school within some generations of teachers and pupils? What did you find out?
As a scholar trained in Western Academia, one has at least three choices while dealing with Sanskrit Philosophy:
- One can treat it as if it were Western philosophy and discuss, e.g., of monotonic or non-monotonic logic in Nyāya,
- One can deal with it in its own terms, e.g., by describing the inner-Mīmāṃsā controversy about whether one has to study the Veda because of the prescription to study it or because of the prescription to teach it (since, in order for someone to teach, someone else must be learning from him),
- One can attempt a compromise, looking for how a certain topic is configured in Sanskrit philosophy.
In the case of the topic of free will, it is hard to avoid the third approach. In fact, whereas the topic of free will is one of the major Leitmotivs running throughout the whole history of Western Philosophy, on a pair with ontological issues, it is not formulated as such in Sanskrit philosophy (see Freschi in the volume edited by Dasti and Bryant). Nonetheless, one can look for implicit treatments of it in theological contexts and in in philosophy of action ones.
Veṅkaṭanātha (also known with the honorific title Vedānta Deśika, traditional dates 1269–1370) is one of the most prolific and multi-faceted personalities of Indian philosophy. He attempted to create a philosophic system which should have broadened Rāmānuja’s Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and make it into a more comprehensive philosophical system. Due to its ambition of comprehensiveness, it is legitimate to expect from Veṅkaṭanātha’s system that it deals also with questions relating to the nature of action and of our contribution to it, and, thus, ultimately with the issue of free will.
What do we have at Veṅkaṭanātha’s background?
On the one hand, Veṅkaṭanātha’s relation towards (Pūrva) Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta (and other Indian philosophical systems), on the other his relation with the Vaiṣṇava religious literature he considers authoritative (Pāñcarātra, hymns of the Āḻvārs). Given the fact that most researches on Indian philosophy focus on Sanskrit texts, one runs the risk to neglect the latter component, which is predominant in Veṅkaṭanātha’s non-Sanskrit production.
The Mīmāṃsā background
The Mīmāṃsā school did not explicitly deal with the topic of free will. Nonetheless, its theory of action presupposes that there are real agents and that these can be held responsible for their actions. In this sense, its concept of duty and of responsibility takes free will as self-assumed.
The Vaiṣṇava background
The Vaiṣṇava texts follow a different path, since many of them emphasise the worthlessness of the poet (the Āḻvār) or of his poetical figura (often a woman) and his/her desperate need of God’s mercy, which is the only thing which could save him/her. Interestingly enough, even in these texts, free will is not denied, but rather superseded by God’s intervention. The protagonist is desperate because of her/his sins and states that s/he cannot achieve anything on his/her own. The possibility to achieve salvation through other ways (most notably, through the bhaktimārga, which is based on one’s love for God) is not ruled out. One could theoretically be able to love God and to be saved through that. De facto, however, the protagonists of the Āḻvārs’ hymns feel unable even to do that. Even their love is not perfect, only their surrender is.
Thus, free will seems to remain a pre-condition. But God’s grace can supersede it and save even unworthy ones. Or do Tamil-conversant readers have a better appreciation of what is at stake?
(cross-posted also on the Indian Philosophy blog)