Patricia Y. Mumme. The Śrīvaiṣṇava Theological Dispute. Maṇavāḷamāmuni and Vedānta Deśika. xviii+320 pp., index. Bangalore: Navbharath Publications, 2000 (1st ed. Madras 1988). 25 USD.
The book is a unique contribution to the study of Śrīvaiṣṇavism insofar as it takes into account chiefly classical Tamil sources, thus offering a different perspective on the development of this theological school than the one offered by other scholars based on Sanskrit sources (in order not to name other names, let me refer here to my own contribution on Free Will in Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta in Religion Compass). The choice of the sources also leads Mumme to focus on thinkers who were later considered part of the Teṅkalai current within the school. As pointed out by Mumme herself (and as shown also in Raman 2007) the division between Vaṭakalai and Teṅkalai is in fact much later (17th c.), but Mumme convincingly argues that the two currents have a prehistory in the geographical division among what she calls Kanchipuram ācāryas and Srirangam ācāryas, out of the two main centers of Śrīvaiṣṇavism in Southern India.
The division among the two currents has very much to do with their theological conception of free will and grace. The Srirangam ācāryas stress the fact that a) God is omnipotent and in this sense there can be no limitation to His free choice of whom to save and b) the souls are completely dependent on Him and in this sense can perform no independent action towards their own salvation. The Kanchi ācāryas, instead, stress that a) would lead to the undesired consequence of either the liberation of all souls (if God were merciful) or His cruelty (if He can save all and decides not to do so).
From a practical point of view, this amounts to saying that for the Kanchi ācāryas one should keep on adhering to all dharmic prescriptions throughout one’s life, whereas for the Srirangam ācāryas a single act of complete surrender, prapatti, is enough to be saved, since salvation is completely in God’s hands and one just needs to become aware of that.
The basic opposition between God’s grace and the soul’s agency is then developed by Mumme from various points of view in seven chapters. After the historical introduction in chapter one, chapter two discusses how dependency or agency are constitutive of human nature. Chapter three discusses the relation between prapatti ‘self-surrender’ and bhakti ‘devotion’, with the Srirangam ācāryas claiming that prapatti demands the abandonment of everything else, including bhakti. Chapter four discusses the role of the soul’s acceptance of God’s grace, with the Srirangam ācāryas claiming that even this acceptance is a result of God’s grace. Chapter five discusses the concrete life of the one who has surrendered, and chapter six covers the core problem of God’s omnipotence and the soul’s agency. Chapter seven discusses the role of mediators, namely Lakṣmī and the teachers. Lakṣmī acquires in fact a more significant role for the Srirangam ācāryas, given God’s perfection, out of which it is impossible that He is moved by the prayers of human beings.
Mumme’s book has the further advantage of stressing also the literary aspect of the controversy. The Srirangam ācāryas, she notes, are not so much interested in making careful arguments in favour of their theses and either try to suggestively convince, with rhetorical devices and examples from the epics and Purāṇas. The Kanchi ācāryas, by contrast, are much more part of the śāstric discourse and feel the need to develop compelling and consistent arguments.
The book includes also an accurate and useful historical chart of the thinkers of the school from Rāmānuja onwards, and an index of works, authors, and terms cited.
Mumme appears throughout the book as a sympathetic reader of the Śrīvaiṣṇava theology, perhaps even more so of its Srirangam subdivision. This allows her to take into account and discuss also hagiographical material, and to try charitable readings of the theories she discusses. Personally, I am very much in favour of the latter attitude of charitable reading (as I explained here). The former attitude has also sure advantages, since it enables one to appraise the tradition’s inner voices. Yet, it may lead one to overestimate the unity of the tradition one is examining, since one is influenced by the tradition’s self-awareness of itself as a single school. This is particularly apparent when Mumme deprecates the division of Śrīvaiṣṇavism into the two schools of Vaṭakalai and Teṅkalai, although her very book suggests the possibility of at least another hypothesis, namely that the Srirangam and Kanchi ācāryas started discussing at a certain point and have not always recognised themselves as part of the same philosophical school.
Reviewed by Elisa Freschi, Austrian Academy of Sciences (http://elisafreschi.com)