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.

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.

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.

Loving God for no reason

Why does a devotee love God? Because He is good, merciful, omniscient…? Or just out of love?

This seems to be one of the moot issues between the two currents within the form of Vaiṣṇavism later to be known as Śrīvaiṣṇavism, since Piḷḷai Lokācārya (13th c.) stresses that loving without reason is superior to loving with a reason, just like Sītā’s ungrounded love for Rāma is superior to that of Lakṣmaṇa, who loves Rāma for his good qualities (see Mumme 1988, p. 150).

Anand Venkatkrishnan on Vedānta, bhakti and Mīmāṃsā through the history of the family of Āpadeva and Anantadeva in 16th–17th c. Banaras

When, where and how did bhakti become acceptable within the Indian intellectual élites?

Daya Krishna’s “Creative Encounters with Texts”

Daya Krishna was an Indian philosopher, a rationalist and iconoclast, who constantly tried to question and scrutinise acquired “truths”. The main place for such investigations was for him a saṃvāda ‘dialogue’. That’s why he also strived to organise structured saṃvāda inviting scholars from different traditions to debate about a specific problem. The minutes of such dialogues have been published in Saṃvāda and Bhakti.

Is bhakti a philosophy? Daya Krishna 2000

I am grateful to Elise Coquereau for bringing me back to one of my past interests, namely Daya Krishna‘s philosophy. Daya Krishna was a polyedric genius, who wrote on economics, sociology, history of Western and Indian Philosophy, aesthetics, etc., always with a revolutionary and unconventional spirit.

Doing research on free will in Indian Philosophy

As a scholar trained in Western Academia, one has at least three choices while dealing with Sanskrit Philosophy:

  1. One can treat it as if it were Western philosophy and discuss, e.g., of monotonic or non-monotonic logic in Nyāya,
  2. 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),
  3. 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)