Why should one study the meaning of the Veda? I.e., why studying Mīmāṃsā? (It is hard to present your research program to the public)

At a certain point in the history of Mīmāṃsā (and, consequently, of Vedānta), the discussion of the reasons for undertaking the study of Mīmāṃsā becomes a primary topic of investigation. When did this exactly happen? The space dedicated to the topic increases gradually in the centuries, but Jaimini and Śabara don’t seem to be directly interested in it.

Nonetheless, Śabara needs to explain a related topic, namely when studying the Mīmāṃsā —before or after one’s study of the Veda. Kumārila and Prabhākara introduce the prescription to learn the Veda (svādhyāyo ‘dhyetavyaḥ, see Kataoka 2001b) and the one to teach the Veda, respectively, as the prescriptions prompting the study of the Veda and, indirectly, of its meaning. Kumārila explains that the prescription to study the Veda does not include a result which can be independently desired and that one therefore needs to insert the knowledge of its meaning as the result. Prabhākara explains that a teacher needs to know the meaning of the Veda in order to teach the Veda and that the dignity of being a teacher is something independently desirable.

The space to the topic of why studying Mīmāṃsā and which prescription promotes it increases drastically —I would say— after Śālikanātha (8th c.?). Why did this question become relevant? Perhaps because its answer was less obvious and one needed to persuade a different kind of public. A public who knew of the importance of studying the Veda, but was not immediately convinced of the importance of undertaking also a detailed study of the Mīmāṃsā exegesis. I wonder whether part of the problem is due to also to a) Śaṅkara’s statement that the Vedāntins do not need to study Mīmāṃsā and b) the fact that the Mīmāṃsā presents itself as a Vedic exegesis, but in fact looks at the Vedas from the vantage point of the Brāhmaṇas, so that an audience more interested in other parts of the Vedas might be less convinced of the usefulness of Mīmāṃsā.

Veṅkaṭanātha, though primarily a Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedāntin, dedicates the first 28 pages of his commentary on the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā Sūtra to this topic. He refutes both the Bhāṭṭa and the Prābhākara points of view. The Bhāṭṭas are wrong because the knowledge of the meaning of the Veda is not something independently desirable. The Prābhākaras are wrong because the prescription to teach is not sufficiently established and, even if it were, it would not include the knowledge of the meaning of the Veda.
Veṅkaṭanātha analyses at length all position and then concludes briskly that the study of Mīmāṃsā needs to be undertaken out of one’s desire (hence the desiderative ending in PMS 1.1.1). In order to legitimate this desire, Veṅkaṭanātha is able to show that PMS 1.1.1 (through the linguistic expression atha) shows that taking time to undertake the study of Mīmāṃsā does not violate other prescriptions and that there is a suitable time for it.

European readers may feel some sympathy with Mīmāṃsā authors, who were possibly just intellectually interested in Mīmāṃsā exegesis, but had to face external challenges and to structure their intuitions about the Mīmāṃsā being “interesting” into a consistent research project.:-)

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.

6 thoughts on “Why should one study the meaning of the Veda? I.e., why studying Mīmāṃsā? (It is hard to present your research program to the public)

  1. Veṅkaṭanātha’s response opens up a question in my mind. What if one doesn’t have that desire, dharmajijñāsa? Are there such people, people who do not have that desire? If so, is it just fine that they don’t study Mīmāṃsā – or even that they don’t follow the injunctions of dharma? If not, on what basis can we claim (with Aristotle’s Metaphysics perhaps?) that all people desire to know dharma?

    • Thank you, Amod and Matthew. Yes, the idea is that the study of Mīmāṃsā is not something everyone will undertake. Veṅkaṭanātha explicitly says that you don’t have dharmajijñāsā unless you have already learnt the Vedas (you need some content for your investigation). Thus, people who lack the adhikāra to study the Veda are a priori excluded.

      Nonetheless, there are good reasons to think that being among the adhikārins is a desirable situation: Everyone desires happiness, happiness can be achieved through Vedic rituals, and a right performance presupposes the correct understanding of Vedic texts, i.e., the study of Mīmāṃsā.

      As for why one should care for dharma at all, the problem is addressed by Kumārila: Without the Veda, you don’t know what are your duties (since Buddhist and Jain texts about them can be proven wrong and sense-perception, etc., do not communicate duties). Thus, either you recur to the Veda and study Mīmāṃsā or you need to live in the loka only, without any idea of what you should be doing (I am tempted to say “without any idea of ethics”). You can go for that, but at your risk (you might end up performing some anartha and land up in hell).

  2. It’s funny, Amod, I was thinking about something similar. That the desire to know Vedic dharma seems less natural than the desire to avoid suffering, or to understand truth in general, or to understand the self, which are expressed motivations of the other śāstras. I wonder if part of the problem is that the Mīmāṃsā Sūtra isn’t calling people at large to study it as much as justifying its study as done by a very select group of people.

    And I know that de facto, most of the students of the various traditions likely were Brahmin males, but I still think the other traditions tend to justify why they are important for people at large. Is Mīmāṃsā different in this regard, Elisa?

  3. Elisa, were there any institutional changes which would also be relevant, so that it isn’t just the “public” but also the ones with the purse-strings, so to speak, who are being addressed?

    • Many thanks for the question, Malcolm. The short answer is: I do not know. While reading the long pages of this controversy at a certain point I felt some resemblance with the struggles of today’s intellectuals trying to explain to outsiders why they care for the topics they care for (this makes a whole genre in the European system of research grants). The outsiders in the case of Veṅkaṭanātha might be Vaiṣṇava believers and intellectuals, perhaps questioning his too extensive interest for Mīmāṃsā or even his engagement with it. Might this have to do with his role within the tradition? We now know he deeply influenced it and it is sure that he was an intellectual. His public figure escapes me much more, but it needs to have been playing an important role, given that he is revered everywhere by Śrī Vaiṣṇavas (both at the beginning of texts and in today’s religious practice).

  4. Is philosophy–western thought, more natural-passive determinations…

    While the influence of eastern ways and practices on western thought are towards existent-active determinations–that Hinduism and Buddhism are not philosophies…

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