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
A philosopher might end up having a double affiliation, to the philosophical standpoints shared by one’s fellow philosophers, and to the religious program of one’s faith.
This can lead to difficult reinterpretations (such as that of Christ with the Neoplatonic Nous, or that of God with the Aristotelic primum movens immobile), or just to juxtapositions (the addition of angels to the list of possible living beings).
A Vaiṣṇava who starts doing philosophy after centuries of religious texts speaking of Viṣṇu’s manifestations (vibhūti), of His qualities and His spouse Lakṣmī (or Śrī or other names), is in a similar difficult situation.
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?
Yāmuna (967–1038 according to Mesquita 1973) is one of the chief figures of the philosophy later known as Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta. In fact, to me one of the most intriguing questions regards his role in the formation of this school. It is only with Rāmānuja (who lived two generations after Yāmuna) that the school becomes clearly Vedāntic and it is not by chance that it is only Rāmānuja who decided to write a commentary on the Brahmasūtra.
Why do we find Pāñcarātra first refuted by Vedānta scholars and then defended by other Vedāntins? What happened between the two groups? And what was at stake with Pāñcarātra?
Who wrote the following quotes?
There is an Upaniṣadic sayiong that the Brahman is one only, without a second. But the existence of something different than the Brahman refutes this. To this we say: in the mention of “without a second” what does the compound intend? Is it a tatpuruṣa or a bahuvrīhi (attributive compound)? […]
Moreover, which consciousness modifies itself (vivṛt-) in the form of the deployment (prapañca)? To begin with, it is not the notion of [simple objects] like a pot, since the [deployment] is seen also when such notions are not present. And since it is not the case that one can say that if such a notion were not produced, or if it were destroyed, the whole world would not exist. And if one were to say it, [one’s assertion] would be invalidated by one’s sense-perception. […]
If X appears without Y, even Y appears also without X. For instance, [a cloth] appearing even without a pot [and] a pot itself [appearing] without a cloth.
You have surely understood that we are within a Vedāntic framework (i.e.: using the Upaniṣads as one’s foundamental point of reference, evoking the brahman). What else?
Would you have understood that the framework is not-Advaitin? Probably so, given that the last verse mentioned refutes the sahopalambhaniyama (the rule according to which if two things are simultaneously grasped, like cognitions and external objects —which are only grasped through cognitions— they are not different). However, you might be surprised to know that the author is Yāmuna (in his Āgamaprāmāṇya).
In the light of that, what does the distinctive contribution of Śrī Rāmānuja consists in, apart from systematization and more accurate treatment of many detailed features?
You can read some more open questions on Rāmānuja by clicking on the category “Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta”.