Veṅkaṭanātha’s epistemology, ontology and theology

In the world-view of a fundamental Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta teacher like Vedānta Deśika (1269–1370, aka Veṅkaṭanātha), theology is the center of the system and epistemology and ontology assume their role and significance only through their relationship with this center.

For instance, Veṅkaṭanātha adopts more or less the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā epistemology, with some differences which are due to his theological position. Concerning sense perception, a sensitive topic is that of yogipratyakṣa ‘intellectual intuition’, a specific kind of direct perception in which the intellect acts as a direct access to knowledge, as if it were a sense faculty. This kind of direct perception is upheld by philosophers of the Nyāya and of the Pramāṇavāda schools as belonging to exceptional individuals. Through intellectual intuition exceptional individuals, like the Buddha, a ṛṣi or God, could have direct to dharma, thus relativising the uniqueness of the Vedic Sacred Texts. Supporting the possibility of yogipratyakṣa is, thus, consistent with the Nyāya’s discussion of the validity of the Veda as dependent on its author, and on the Pramāṇavāda view that the Buddha could access dharma. Veṅkaṭanātha, conversely, is in a difficult situation, insofar as he wants to defend both the uniqueness of the Vedas and the authority of God. In order to reconcile these two positions, Veṅkaṭanātha in his Seśvaramīmāṃsā ad 1.1.4 (the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā sūtra dedicated to direct perception) rigidly negates the possibility for human beings to attain intellectual intuition, so that no single human being could ever question the validity of the Vedas. Nonetheless, consistently with his theism, Veṅkaṭanātha does not negate the possibility for God alone to see the dharma. This entails that it would be theoretically possible for God to reveal a new Sacred Text. He will, nonetheless, not do it, because the Veda is already His will made into words, and God does not change whimsically what He wants.

As for the Pāñcarātras, they enjoy the same validity of smṛti texts, insofar as they derive their validity from the fact of stating what is already present in the Veda, either in a branch of it which is available, or in a lost one.

What is then God’s relationship to the Veda and to the world? The Veda is said to be the direct manifestation of His will, but not His revelation. The latter option is refused because it would make the Veda subordinate to God’s will and liable to be overcome by a later and possibly more complete revelation. Thus, the Veda is a crystallisation of God’s permanent free will. Similarly, the world —including all human beings inhabiting it— is described as God’s body in the sense that God can experience through it. Human free will is, thus, granted only insofar as God Himself wants humans to be free (see my article on free will in Veṅkaṭanātha).

The claim that the world is the body of God puts in the right light also Veṅkaṭanātha’s interest for ontology, which is always subordinate to his interest for theology. Ontology is not conceived as the study of what exists independently of God, nor as the study of inert matter —since such an inert matter is not conceivable in the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta world view.

Should we re-configure our questions concerning ontology and epistemology?

On Veṅkaṭanātha, see this series of post. On intellectual intuition, this one. On my claim that we should reconfigure our questions (and not just look for new answers) when we work on an “alien” philosophy, see this post.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

4 thoughts on “Veṅkaṭanātha’s epistemology, ontology and theology

  1. Hi, Elisa!
    If I understand what you mean correctly, I’d propose to understand ontology, epistemology and other -ologies and -isms not as something real, as professional philosophers often tend to do, but just as means to interpret original texts. In such case the question of how can ontology be subordinate to theology will lose a bit of its sharpnes.

    • Hi Evgenija and thanks for the comment. Do you mean to say that we should interpret an author’s ontology as only immanent in the text and stop trying to countercheck it with the outer world?

      • Not so marginally of course. But it is not a rare tendency, especially among researchers who primarily graduated in philosophy, that they overestimate the importance of such concepts. I think the main point here is, whether we want to understand what philosopher X had in mind or we want to find the proper place for his ideas in the general collection of world philosophies. Both intentions are reasonable, but one can hardly do both things at once.

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