Hermeneutic principles in Mīmāṃsā

The hermeneutic principles are the ones which regard only the Brāhmaṇa texts and whose significance could not be automatically extended outside them, e.g., to a different corpus of texts, or can be extended, but regard characteristics of language. Mīmāṃsā authors had to develop them first of all out of an epistemological concern, namely because they considered the prescriptive portion of the Veda authoritative and thus needed to distinguish the authoritative portion of the Veda.
Consequently, in order to make sense of complex texts like the Brāhmaṇas, in which it is not at all easy to distinguish what belongs to a certain ritual and what to another, Mīmāṃsā authors needed to be able to distinguish the boundaries of a given prescriptive passage. Consequently, some basic hermeneutical rules regard the identification of single prescriptions through syntax and through the unity and novelty of the duty conveyed.

In the following list I tried to enumerate the cornerstones among the hermeneutic principles.

  1. The prescriptive portion of the Veda is never meaningless.
  2. A prescriptive sentence is identified through the syntactical expectations among the words forming it and through the single purpose it conveys (PMS 2.1.46).
  3. Each prescription must be construed as prescribing a new element. Seeming repetitions must have a deeper, different meaning, e.g., enhancing the value of the sacrifice to be performed.
  4. Each prescriptive text, which may entail several prescriptions is construed around a principal action to be done.
  5. Each prescription conveys (only) a single piece of deontic information (anyāya ankekārthatva, ŚBh ad PMS 2.1.12; vākyabheda, ŚBh ad 1.1.1).
  6. No prescription can be meaningless. If it appears to be meaningless, it is not a prescription (vidhiś cānarthakaḥ kvacit tasmāt stutiḥ pratīyeta, PMS 1.2.23).
  7. Each prescription should promote an action (āmnāyasya kriyārthatvād ānarthakyam atadarthānāṃ tasmād anityam ucyate, PMS 1.2.1).
  8. The most powerful instrument of knowledge for knowing the meaning of a prescription is what it directly states (śruti), which is most powerful than its implied sense, context, syntactical connection, etc. (niṣādasthapatinyāya PMS 6.1.51–52).
  9. A material may achieve a result resting on an already prescribed act, like a king’s officer can achieve a certain result only insofar as he relies on the king’s authority (Vṛttikāra within ŚBh ad PMS 2.2.26).
  10. Any prescribed action needs to have a result. If a prescribed action seems to have no result, postulate happiness as the general result (viśvajinnyāya).
  11. Only what is intended (vivakṣita) is part of the prescription. For instance, in sentences such as ”Take your bag, we need to go”, the singular number in ”bag” is not intended. What is prescribed is to take one’s bag or bags, and not the fact that one must take one bag only. By contrast, the singular number is intended in ”You must take one pill per day”, meaning that one has to swallow exactly one pill per day. Whether something is intended or not is determined through its link with the sentence’s principal duty.


This post is a follow-up of this one (on logical and hermeneutical principles in Mīmāṃsā. (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.

2 Replies to “Hermeneutic principles in Mīmāṃsā”

  1. Elisa, this is a good collection of principles, but I’m still a little confused as to what this collection represents. Some of them are principles internal to the Mīmāṃsā system (e.g., the notion of a “default” phala in the viśvajinnyāya), while others are external and are rather presupposed by Mīmāṃsā than worked out by it (e.g., the requirement that the Veda not be interpreted in such a way as to make any part of it meaningless). And although you say they only apply to the brāhmaṇas (I would say the whole complex of mantra + brāhmaṇa), most of these relate to the way sentences work in general, and it was precisely this generality that made Mīmāṃsā’s interpretive claims authoritative. And finally, I wonder what separates these “hermeneutic rules” from, say, the siddhānta of each adhikaraṇa in the Mīmāṃsā system. Is it their generality? Their reference to sentences rather than ritual actions?

    I ask partly because I think I must be missing something, but partly because I’m interested in what parts of the system served as a general theory of sentential meaning, what shows up in other knowledge-systems, and what status these “portable principles” have within Mīmāṃsā itself (e.g., the idea that language is oriented towards action is pretty deeply embedded into Mīmāṃsā, but the idea that gauṇī vṛtti and lakṣaṇā are distinct is particular to Kumārila, etc.).

    • Thanks for the comment, Andrew, and sorry for the delayed answer. I am currently working on the topic and am glad to share views on it (in other words: I might well be wrong).
      The main problem is that we do not have an ancient theory of “paribhāṣās” in Mīmāṃsā (unlike in the case of Grammar), so that *we* have to start developing it and distinguishing between siddhāntas applying only within the system or more general ones. My view (which you can read on Academia.edu, here) is that the siddhāntas of Mīmāṃsā are more paribhāṣā-like than those of, e.g., the Śrautasūtra authors, insofar as in the history of Mīmāṃsā they have indeed been applied outside their initial precinct of application. In this sense, all siddhāntas at the end of the adhikaraṇas can be regarded as paribhāṣās. I have selected only some of them, insofar as some are indeed very particular and I could not imagine any further application for them. Furthermore, I am trying to distinguish the nature of these various principles. Some of them seem to be much more localised than others. Moreover, some appear to be epistemological, or logical, or linguistic in nature. If one says that, e.g., the dual can be used in the case of three closely connected items (the example is completely made up), one is —if I am not wrong— pointing to a feature of Sanskrit, not of thought in general. In this post, I have tried to group principles which regard the interpretation of the Vedas and which could be applied only to similar contexts (e.g., the interpretation of a corpus of laws). In other cases, one notices principles which are just logical in nature (e.g., you cannot use A for b and non-b).

      Just a final point on an issue we have already been disagreeing about: I am not sure Śabara meant his principles to be applied outside of the Vedas. I would rather say that he (or: his school) was trying to develop a way to interpret the prescriptive portion of the Vedas (the mantras assume their signification only as a subordinate part of it) and that he by means of that ended up with a general theory of language. In the case of Kumārila and Prabhākara, by contrast, the effort to go beyond the Veda is clear.

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