Ontology is a moot point if you are a theist

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.

A Śaiva like Somānanda or Sadyojyotis might have had a slightly easier start, given that the Sacred Texts of his school had not yet entered the philosophical stage. In this sense, these philosophers were free to interpret their Sacted Texts almost freely (think of Abhinavagupta monist commentary of a dualist text like the Paratriṃśikā). The boundaries they needed to face were those of their creed, but not of the external expectations regarding their creed’s theology. The former made them add further tattvas to the Sāṅkhya list, the lack of the latter made them adaptively reuse the Sāṅkhya framework (see, on this topic, Torella 1999).

By contrast, Veṅkaṭanātha’s titanic effort of making Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta a robust philosophic system meant that he needed to find his way between the two competing ontologies of Vedānta and Nyāya, while at the same time remaining loyal to the distinctive Pāñcarātra theologemes, which were already known also to philosophers because of their presence in the Mahābhārata and in Śaṅkara’s Bhāṣya

The Nyāyasūtra proposes a fundamental division of realities into dravya ‘substances’, guṇa ‘qualities’, karman ‘actions’, with the former as the substrate of the latter two. This leads to two difficulties for Veṅkaṭanātha’s agenda. On the one hand, the radical distinction between substance and attribute means that, Nyāya authors imagine liberation as the end of the connection of the ātman ‘self’ to all attributes, from sufferance to consciousness. By contrast, Veṅkaṭanātha, would never accept consciousness to be separated from the individual soul and even less from God. The other difficulty regards the theology of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta. Since the beginnings of Pāñcarātra, one of its chief doctrines has been that of the manifestations (vibhūti) of Viṣṇu, which are dependent on Him but co-eternal with Him and in this sense are unexplainable according to the division of substances into eternal and transient.

To that, Veṅkaṭanātha opposes more than one classification, so that it is clear that Veṅkaṭanātha’s main point is addressing the above mentioned problems with the Nyāya ontology, rather than establishing in full detail a distinct ontology.

The first proposal found in the Nyāyapariśuddhi is based on the idea of a two fold division, into dravya ‘substance’ and adravya ‘non-substance’ and defines substance as the `substrate of possible accidental characteristics’ (āgantukadharmāśraya). The attribute ‘accidental’ hints at the fact that a dravya is not completely independent of all its characteristics. Veṅkaṭanātha’s definition allows him to maintain that some attributes, primarily consciousness, are never severed from God or from the liberated soul.

The subclassifications goes further, with substance being divided into inert and alive. The former category includes the natura naturans of Sāṅkhya and time, which is thus no longer a quality (guṇa) as in Nyāya. The latter category (alive substance) includes separate and heteronomous substances. Within the former are individual souls and God, whereas the latter includes cognition as essential to God (dharmabhūtajñāna, see the paragraph immediately above) and the permanent manifestations of God, which are logically dependent on Him, but have not been created by Him.

The final result is a patchwork ontology, with several elements common to the other Vedāntic schools, such as the embedment of the Sāṅkhya structure, but distinctive appears to be the genealogy of the ajaḍa part of the classification, as opposed to the Vedāntic pariṇāmavāda ‘theory of the evolution [of the brahman into the world]’, —according to which the brahman is the material cause of the world— and also to the māyāvāda ‘theory of the illusory [evolution of the brahman in the world]’ —according to which only the brahman exists and everything else is just an illusion. Veṅkaṭanātha’s ontology, in this sense, is not at all Vedāntic insofar as it has God as its emanation point, but not as its only component.

The ajaḍa part of the classification is, instead, directly connected to Yāmuna’s stress on dharmabhūtajñāna and to Veṅkaṭanātha’s dissociation of the personal aspect of God from any material ontology. Noteworthy in this connection is the fact that the vibhūtis are substances but devoid of any materiality. It is in this light that the concept of God’s body (see the end of this post) assumes its significance.

On Veṅkaṭanātha’s approach to ontology, see this post. (cross-posted on my personal blog)

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.

12 thoughts on “Ontology is a moot point if you are a theist

  1. Elisa, thanks for your continuing systematic work on Deśika. On a particular point, I think you are quite right to point out that the ‘personal aspects of God’ must be ‘dissociated from any material ontology’. As I have argued regarding Rāmānuja, it is essential to the acceptance of a gracious and loving God that any metaphysical account of the nature of being should not include God within it. In 20th c Western thought, Heidegger articulated this point in his critique of ontotheology.

    On a general point, though, I do wonder whether you should not apply, /within/ these Hindu traditions, the same principle as you defend in your account of an ‘alien philosophy’ (this is not the place to take up my concerns with that!), namely, that we must ‘reconfigure’ our questions. You constantly see Deśika as have ‘trouble’ or being in ‘difficulty’ in trying to ‘reconcile’ his view with x from Nyāya and y from Vedānta or z from Mīmāṃsā and so on. But why see him as being committed to a particular system first and then striving to assimilate another, incompatible system into it? As your own sensitive readings show, his position on this or that matter has an internal coherence and point, so why not start from that, and simply look at how his pluralist ontology or substance-attribute analysis or reflexive epistemology, while together amounting to his own articulation of Viśiṣṭādvaita, repurpose elements recognizable in Nyāya, Sāṅkhya or Mīmāṃsā? In other words, to be a bit critical, it seems that you generate a problem for him by looking at the history of these ideas – the chronology of their availability – as if they constituted (rather than just made available the tools for) his innovative position. Similarly, it is not so much – as a linked blog says – that theology came first for him and ontology and epistemology later, so that somehow he is less of a philosopher and first a theologian; but rather, that he develops his own integrated account in which the ontology and epistemology serve a theological commitment. That is to say, while we can well preserve the descriptive terms from Western thought, we should – following your own dicta – see his position organically and on its own terms. I am not opposed to any concern to bring out the historical roots of elements of his position. I am just saying the framing need not be of someone striving to hold elements of different systems together in one position but rather someone developing a position that includes (as all positions must) different elements which happen to have originally been developed for their own ends by different systems.

    • Dear Ram,

      thanks for this interesting comment.
      Regarding my narrative of Veṅkaṭanātha as being “in trouble”, this is in part no more than a narrative, my way to make a blogpost out of it. However, I *do* think that he was at times in a difficult situation and I think it on the basis of the fact that Veṅkaṭanātha himself starts offering many authorities and these authorities appear to support only indirectly his point. Let me speak about the example I know better, that of aikaśāstrya. Here, I think Veṅkaṭanātha is clearly innovative, yet he tries to offer many quotations of his Vaiṣṇava predecessors to back up his point. These, in fact, hardly support Veṅkaṭanātha’s position, who often has to re-interpret their words (see the example of the Vṛttikāra quotes attributing the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā Sūtra and the Saṅkarṣa Kāṇḍa to Jaimini and re-interpreted by Veṅkaṭanātha as saying that PMS, SK and Uttara Mīmāṃsā Sūtra are a single text). Why doing it and why quoting Vaiṣṇava authorities? I guess that this means that Veṅkaṭanātha needed to address the concerns of people sharing his Vaiṣṇava faith.
      More in general, one does not philosophise in a vacuum and I try to show what the competing views were and how their imlications oriented Veṅkaṭanātha’s choice (say, if you adopt the Nyāya viewpoint, you end up with a stone-like liberation; if you stick at the vibhūti-theologeme, you need to integrate them in your system).

      This does not mean that Veṅkaṭanātha is ONLY balancing between different positions. He is creating always new syntheses and is choosing the one or the other because of its philosophical value. I am not claiming that he chose the one or the other for sociological or political reasons. He was a genial philosopher and could have found different ways to solve a given riddle, so that he surely chose the one which was for him the soundest from a philosophical point of view.
      I am merely saying that (1) Veṅkaṭanātha’s philosophical genius moved within the constraints of the system proposed by his predecessors (which he modified, sure, but always in a way which enlarged rather than contradicted Rāmānuja’s one), (2) at times Veṅkaṭanātha needed to justify the one or the other choice because of political or sociological reasons.
      Last, let me say that I do not understand theology as less critical than philosophy, so that if one starts from the former one is a diminished philosopher. Personally, I think that the idea of a philosophy which does not know any boundary is just an illusion. As already hinted at, one is always within a given context. Theologians are, in this sense, just more honest than many philosophers.

  2. And so, Elisa, why would Veṅkaṭanātha be constrained by the requirement to “to justify the one or the other choice because of political or sociological reasons.”

    • In other words, while one may make choices in light of or awareness of background political and sociological “reasons,” this does not make them completely determinative or wholly dispositive in the final articulation of one’s views: one can employ rhetorical arguments suited to those wanting political or sociological reasons, without being committed to those reasons as sufficient by way of accounting for one’s–all things considered–motivational reasons that suffice to account for Ii.e., explain) one’s views…. So, it would seem one needs to clarify why it is that one can state, “I am not claiming that he chose the one or the other for sociological or political reasons,” while at the same time asserting that “Veṅkaṭanātha needed to justify the one or the other choice because of political or sociological reasons,” for he “need not,” but merely chose to….

    • Patrick, thanks for raising the issue, but this is not exactly what I said. Rather, I said that (1) Veṅkaṭanātha had to face some philosophical constraints, like any other philosopher, in his philosophical enterprise and (2) he needed to justify his philosophical positions with people sharing his faith, etc. This second need is extra-philosophical and I do not think it impacted much on his philosophical position.

      • Not sure why #2 is special qua theism here. This constraint holds for non-theist Buddhists, etc, as well. It holds for us too, of course, generally speaking. It’s just the inevitable social component of belief formation, articulation, and development. At times, peoples’ metaphysics are constrained by views of personhood that won’t violate certain political views they hold about rights, and often grounded in consensus viewpoints of their social peers, etc.

        • sure, No. 2 is not restricted to theists only. I did not mean to express something exclusive. One might experience similar constraints as a non-theist Buddhist or as a Marxist (or as the adherent of any other “faith”). You might have also noticed my comment re. the fact that I do not believe in constraint-less philosophising. In this sense, adherents of a “faith” are just more honest.

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