A basic introduction to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta_UPDATED

(I have been asked to write a short introduction to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and would like to test it on you, dear readers and fellow bloggers. Any comment or criticism would be more than welcome!)

In its full-fledged form, the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta (henceforth VV) is a Vedāntic school, thus one which accepts the authority of a given set of texts (the Upaniṣads, the Brahmasūtra and the Bhagavadgītā) and which recognises a form of God as brahman (on the various ways of understanding God in India, see here). The full-fledged VV accepts also further groups of texts, namely on the one hand the Pañcarātra (a group of Vaiṣṇava texts prescribing personal and temple rituals, see Leach 2012, and, here) and on the other the Tamil devotional poems collected in the Divyaprabandham.

In the following, I will first deal with the tenets of the school in its mature form, as found in the writings of Veṅkaṭanātha, and then show how the situation I had just depicted has not been the only one throughout the complex history of the school.

The school’s ontology is perhaps its most distinctive contribution. The VV accepts both monism and direct realism. The monist aspect has to do with the fact that the brahman is conceived as the only independent entity. It exists in a way which even transcends the opposition between being and non-being (sat-asatoḥ param, in the words of one of the main teachers of the school, Rāmānuja). Conversely, the world as we know it is, against Advaita Vedānta and Buddhism, real and not illusory, so that our cognitions of it are epistemologically sound. Yet, the world exists insofar as it is a specification of the brahman. The brahman is the whole of which any element of the world, conscious beings and inert matter, are an attribute. Therefore, the brahman exists in a specified (viśiṣṭa) manner. This ontological Weltanschauung rests on the negation of a strict distinction between substance and qualities. Unlike in the school of Nyāya, VV considers qualifications to be qualifiers not because of their own nature, but only according to the changing point of view. For instance, a given form qualifies a body, which, in turn, qualifies a self, which, again, qualifies the brahman. The only thing which cannot qualify anything else, since it is itself the ultimate point of rest of all qualifications is the brahman. In this sense, the bodies of conscious beings are at the same time qualifications of their selves (which can therefore make them act) but also, ultimately, of the God-brahman (which can, through them, experience the world).

The VV’s ontology is distinguished from pantheism because of two reasons: 1. The brahman goes, as already hinted at, also beyond being. 2. The brahman is conceived not just as an impersonal Being, but rather as a personal God. In this sense, the VV finds a philosophical way for incorporating the religious dimension of bhakti into an onto-theology of Vedāntic type. The brahman is therefore declared to be equivalent not to a generic omniscient God, but rather with a personal form of God, called Viṣṇu, Kṛṣṇa or Nārāyaṇa.

God is invariably a cogniser. Knowledge is considered a substance, as in Vedānta and against Nyāya, but already one of he earliest teachers of VV, Yāmuna, defines God’s knowledge as dharmabhūtajñāna `knowledge which has become a characteristic’, thus highlighting how knowledge behaves as a quality of God. Moreover, the two are said to be inseparably connected and cannot be known one independently of the other. In other words, God could never be imagined to be without cognition, whereas cognition needs a knower. It also invariably needs an object (i.e., it is intentional), against the Advaita Vedānta idea of a content-less awareness as the nature of brahman.

Such a personal God can be reached through a personal kind of devotion, called bhakti, which is the culmination of the previous salvific ways taught by Pūrva and Uttara Mīmāṃsā, namely karman (ritual acts) and jñāna (knowledge of the self).

Free will
Due to the personal nature of God, His co-presence in each body does not mean that human and other conscious beings are not free. Rather, they are the ones who carry the moral responsibility of their acts, just like the co-owner of a field who decides to sell it and just seeks for the other co-owner’s consent carries the responsibility for the selling (the simile is Rāmānuja’s). This freedom is the direct result of God’s free decision to restrict His possibility to hinder or alter their decisions.

The VV school adopts the Mīmāṃsā epistemology. Therefore, it accepts the intrinsic validity of cognitions as a basis for the reliability of the Vedas and of other sacred texts and recognises perception, inference and linguistic communication as the main instruments of knowledge. As for inference, it denies the possibility of inferring a God, who can only be known through the sacred texts. The school’s main systematiser, Veṅkaṭanātha, reframes linguistic communication as the communication coming from a non-faulty source, thus accommodating both sacred texts (which have no source at all, since they are not authored) and worldly communication if coming from reliable speakers.

History of the school
As already hinted at, the school has experienced a complex evolution. The teachers recognised as its first exponents are Nāthamuni (–970? according to K. Young) and his grand-son Yāmuna (967–1038 according to Mesquita 1973). Of the first, no works are extant, but out of their titles one can speculate that they dealt with Yoga and Nyāya. Later hagiographical sources credit him with the finding of the Divyaprabandham. Yāmuna’s works are partly extant and attest of a complex and brilliant mind, who probably moved from Nyāya (his early work are open to the possibility of inferring the existence of God) to Vedānta. The next teacher, Rāmānuja (traditional dates 1017–1137), is usually considered the founder of the school as it is known today and is clearly a Vedāntin (his main works are a commentary on the Bhagavadgītā and his opus magnum, a commentary on the Brahmasūtra called Śrī Bhāṣya). However, in Rāmānuja’s works there is hardly any mention of Pañcarātra and no mention at all of the Divyaprabandham and of its contents. The tradition recognises Pirāṉ Piḷḷāṉ, the author of the first commentaries (in Tamil) on the Divyaprabandham as Rāmānuja’s direct disciple and he is surely the first one to introduce Rāmānuja’s theology in the interpretation of these poems. The confluence of the two Vaiṣṇavisms (Rāmānuja’s Vedāntic one and the Divyaprabandham’s devotional one) finds a further point of balance in Veṅkaṭanātha (also known as Vedānta Deśika, traditional dates (1269–1370), who wrote in both Tamil and Sanskrit and tried to systematise the school’s various elements. The later interpreters of the school, however, considered him as the exponent of one sub-school (the Vaṭakalai) opposed to the other (called Teṅkalai and whose foundation was later attributed to Piḷḷai Lokācārua, 1205–1311).

UPDATED according to Amod’s suggestions (below). Many thanks!

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 Replies to “A basic introduction to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta_UPDATED”

  1. Thanks for this, Elisa. My question is: who is this introduction intended for? If it is for beginning undergraduates, they may not know what ontology or monism are; if it is for Western philosophers, they may not know what a Vedantic school or the Brahmasūtra are. The level of writing seems to me too advanced for an introduction, though that could just be be because I don’t understand your intended audience.

    • Thanks, Amod! My rule-of-thumb concerning “difficult” words (such as “ontology| or “monism”) is that if they are immediately found on a non-specialised dictionary or on wikipedia I can use them. What is yours?

      • My rule of thumb is to consider my intended audience. If I intend my post to be read by people with training in philosophy, then I don’t feel a need to define the words. But typically an introduction, qua introduction, should introduce vocabulary that is specialized to the field.

        You said you were asked to write this intro – did the people asking specify who they intended the audience to be?

        • Correct. The intended audience are theologians and “erudite people” interested in religion. But I will write separate sections on other key topics (such as Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta) and was hoping that cross-references would have been enough… Thoughts?

        • If it’s already theologians and similarly informed people, then the references to ontology and monism may be fine. I would imagine they’d need a previous introduction to Vedānta and Vedānta schools in general in order to get much out of this, though – I doubt most Christian theologians would know what the Brahmasūtra is.

          You might consider moving the history section up – no intro-level reader is going to know who Yāmuna is until they read that or something like it.

          • thanks! I added some basic info on Rāmānuja, Yāmuna, Veṅkaṭanātha and explained that the Brahmasūtra is a text:-) As already mentioned, I will add cross-references to the other chapters.

  2. The grammar in the first two lines of the Theology section is somewhat unclear and may benefit from rephrasing.
    I am more familiar with Pañcarātra than its later development into VV. But, my understanding from the Pañcarātra (and the few Rāmānuja comments on it) is that there is an attempt to rationalize how Brahman is on one side beyond attributes that the Advaitans promote (with Vedic reference) and yet a Brahman that manifests (Saṅkarshaṇa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha) and incarnates (Rāma, Kṛṣṇa, etc) to be a personal god that one has a relationship to, since you cannot have a relationship with the attribute-less. I consider VV as a direct philosophical (and political) refutation/challenge of the Advaita doctrine as it is substantiating the need for ritual worship not required of a formless Brahman which removes the need for the priest/temple culture. With the present phrasing, I am not sure it is made clear that there is not just a personal god philosophy but a philosophy attempting to straddle the philosophical arguments between a transcendental Brahman and a personal god.

    • thanks, Freedom! I should have added that a native speaker will take a look at the English form. As for your second concern, do you mean to say that it is not clear that the VV opposes AV’s illusionism or that it is not clear that Pāñcarātra texts influenced it? Or, do you think my reconstruction is too much inclined in favour of a personal God? Thanks again, elisa

  3. Pingback: A basic introduction to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta | elisa freschi

  4. The writer has observed that Brahman is the whole. And others are
    parts. Brahman has to be intrinsically and qualitatively different.
    ” Others ” have a dependent relationship with Brahman and not an
    organic relationship

    • Many thanks for this contribution from the perspective of Dvaita Vedānta (which conceptualises the relation to God as one of paratantras to the only svatantra reality).

  5. Nice Introduction Elisa. I know this article is a couple of years old but I wanted to get a clarification regarding a point that has been raised in the past by some. It seems that although Ramanujacharya was prolific and wrote commentaries on the texts you have mentioned that he did not write any commentary on the Srimad Bhagvatam, which is considered to be an important devotional text on the pastimes of Lord Narayana. I wanted to know if this is true or whether there have been references in his work to this text. I ask this since, as you mentioned within the Sri Vaishnavism tradition, the Divyaprabandham’s are considered as one of the most important devotional and philosophical texts. So, was curious as to if and why the references to Srimad Bhagvatam, which is also a devotional scripture are not to be found within Ramanujacharya’s works. The reason I ask this is also that the Srimad Bhagvatam is dated to be a text authored after Ramanujacharya’s period due to this reason.


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