Emotions in Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta philosophy: Distance and closeness

The main thing which stroke me when I started working on the theory of emotions in Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta is that emotions can be useful and are not to be avoided. In other words, unlike some Sāṅkhya-Yoga philosophers, the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta authors do not think that one should aim at some form of ataraxìa. Why not? Because one needs emotions in order to start one’s path towards the good. Moreover, emotions are not just useful as preliminary steps, insofar as emotions are present also in the liberated state (again, unlike in the Sāṅkhya, Yoga and also Nyāya and Buddhist Theravāda schools).

This does not mean that all emotions are necessarily good. The emotions which are praised are, chronologically speaking, dejection and desperation and then confidence, love (ranging from friendship to passion and awe) and possibly compassion.

Dejection and the absolute desperation in one’s ability to improve one’s condition are absolutely needed at the start of one’s spiritual path. In fact, as long as one thinks to be able to achieve something, no matter how small, one is unconsciously doubting God’s omnipotence and locating oneself above Him. Paradoxically, one’s extreme dejection and the feeling that one will never be saved, since one is not even worthy of begging God for help, are therefore the preliminary step for God’s grace to take place. One’s feeling of extreme distance from God is therefore way closer to Him than the self-conscious confidence of a person who were to think that they are a good Vaiṣṇava.

Once God’s grace has touched one, one feels blissed and joyfully responds to God’s grace with an emotional overflow of confidence and of love. The hymns of the Āḻvārs, which have been recognised as being as authoritative as the Veda for Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, display a vast array of love. One can love God with maternal love (vātsalya), looking at Him as if he were the young Kṛṣṇa. One could also love God with admiration, looking at Him as the ideal king Rāma, and so on. This vast array is less variegated in the reflections of the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta philosophers, who rather focus on their feeling of reverence and awe for God. For instance, Tamil and Maṇipravāḷa texts insist on one’s being a slave (aṭiyēṉ) of God.

The interesting element here is that this feeling is not instrumental to the achievement of God’s favour. One does not present oneself as a slave in order to secure God’s favour and then be able to raise to a higher status. By contrast, one’s ideal condition, the liberated state one strives to reach is exactly permanent servitude (as described in Veṅkaṭanātha’s Rahasyatrayasāra).

(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.

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