Medhātithi on intention and action

In general, Medhātithi’s commentary systematizes the MDh. In the case of action and intention, he does his best to iron away seeming incongruities by explaining that intentional actions are liable to more blame than unintentional ones, which he accomplishes by adding the needed adverbs or adjective to the wording of MDh (e.g., in his commentary on 9.242 (on intentional vs unintentional crimes), 11.56, 11.77 (on the intentional vs unintentional killing of Brāhmaṇas), 11.125, 11.209 (on deciding expiations when no one is explicitly prescribed)). Accordingly, Medhātithi explains away the “unintentionally” in MDh 11.127, because the strength of the penalty implies that the action was performed intentionally.

As often the case in his commentary, Medhātithi derives his philosophical framework of reference from the deontic teachings of the philosophical school of Mīmāṃsā. For instance, he does not add his own definition of “action” and “intention”, but presupposes the Mīmāṃsā understanding of these concepts.
The speculation on action starts for Mīmāṃsā philosophers by considering the paradigmatic case of complex ritual actions. This means that they consider first and foremost actions spanning over a long period of time (hours or even days) and that cannot be easily explained as the result of ephemeral desires, but rather require what Alfred Mele calls “distal intentions” (intentions about the non-immediate future, see Mele 2006). Nonetheless, they all agree about the pivotal role of desire in action and, in this sense, ground each complex action ultimately in a “primitive” desire (i.e., a desire for something independently desirable, and not desirable for the sake of something else). Typical examples for primitive desires are desires for sons, rain, cattle, happiness, whereas desiring to know the meaning of a certain passage is considered subservient to some other desire, which has led one to read the corresponding text.
Accordingly, Mīmāṃsā authors distinguish between main actions and the activities they are composed of; one’s intention relates to the main action, whereas the intermediate activities are needed sub-steps, but are not independently intended. Therefore, different rules apply to the two sets. This bipartition is taken for granted also in the MDh and by Medhātithi. For instance, MDh 11.11–12 discuss the case of a main action (a sacrifice) being interrupted for want of an ingredient needed for an intermediate activity. Since the main action needs to be completed, one is allowed to complete it even by appropriating a single ingredient in a way which would not be normally allowed (taking it away from someone who does not need it). In other words, the need to complete the main action creates a situation of necessity that permits one to act in a sub-ideal way.
Intention is not dealt separately from blame in the Dharmasūtras nor in the MDh. However, Medhātithi is himself an insightful thinker and often takes up small clues in the MDh to open up a deeper discussion, and this happens in the case of his discussion of intention. Specifically, Medhātithi adds a second axis to the one examined above concerning intentions, prohibitions, and expiations, namely that of intention (saṅkalpa) and motivation. Near the beginning of the MDh, the elements underlying one’s observance of law is briefly outlined, including intention and desire:

To be motivated by desire is not commended, but it is impossible here to be free from desire; for it is desire that prompts vedic study and the performance of vedic rites.
Intention is the root of desire; intention is the wellspring of sacrifices; and intention triggers every religious observance and every rule of restraint—so the tradition declares. Nowhere in this world do we see any activity done by a man free from desire; for whatever at all that a man may do, it is the work of someone who desired it.
By engaging in them properly, a man attains the world of the immortals and, in this world, obtains all his desires just as he intended.

In this passage, Manu asserts a few things. First, he asserts that both engaging in activity and refraining from particular activities are “triggered” by intention (“intention triggers every religious observance and every rule of restraint”). The terminology suggests that Medhātithi is thinking of activities that would have otherwise taken place, and which demand effort on one’s side to be avoided (such as lightning a cigarette as the first thing in the morning for a passionate smoker). In other words, intention triggers one to change the present inertia, be it by undertaking something or refraining from acting inertially.
Second, he asserts—perhaps counter to intuitive notions—that it is intention that comes before and necessitates desire (“intention is the root of desire”). Third, he asserts that desire is a requirement for acting in the world (“Nowhere in this world do we see any activity done by a man free from desire; for whatever at all that a man may do, it is the work of someone who desired it”).
In his commentary, Medhātithi’s develops the ideas in this passage. Specifically, Medhātithi outlines the concept of intention and the required elements for action. Medhātithi introduces the topic of his commentary by first quoting a portion of Manu’s above passage:
Intention is the root of desire; intention is the wellspring of sacrifices; and intention triggers every religious observance and every rule of restraint—so the tradition declares.

Medhātithi then goes on to further explicate a view of how intention relates to desire and action, responding to various objections:

And therefore, he (Manu) spells out what has been said, namely that without a desire the nature of a sacrifice is not carried out. An intention is the root of sacrifices and similar actions, and of desire. A person who desires to perform a sacrifice or a similar action necessarily forms an intention. And when an intention is being formed, it is necessarily the case that a desire is also brought close as caused by it, even if this (desire) is itself not wished. Just like when a person aiming at cooking burns [wood-logs] also smoke is produced, even if unwished, insofar as it is caused by that same cause. In this regard, it is impossible that a sacrifice or a similar action is performed, if desire does not occur.

[Obj.:] Then, what is this intention, which you say to be the root of all actions?

[R:] It is the appearance (sandarśana) of consciousness (cetas), after which desiring (prārthanā) and ascertaining, one after the other, occur. In fact, these mental activities (vyāpāra) attain the role of root for the undertaking of all actions. For, it is not the case that material activities are possible without them. To elaborate: First of all, one ascertains the nature of a given thing, e.g. “This thing produces this effect”. This cognition is here called intention. Thereafter, desiring (prārthanā), i.e., will (icchā) occurs. This is desire (kāma). Once one has the will “How will I realise that (thing) through that (action)?”, one ascertains “I will do it”. This is the ascertaining. Thereafter, one undertakes an action with regard to an external activity which is the instrument to realise [one’s goal]. For instance, a person who wants to eat something first observes the action of eating [by someone else], then wishes “May I eat!”, then ascertains “I will abandon all other activities and eat!”. Then, he tells to the action, the cause, the place and the eligible person: ‘Come together, prepare (sajjīkṛ-) a succulent [food]’.

[Obj.:] But if this is the case, sacrifice and similar actions do not occur just because of an intention. Rather, they occur because of intention, desire and ascertaining. Thus, why does Manu say “sacrifices originate out of intentions”?

[R:] There is no flaw, since the intention is the original cause. For this very reason, he (Manu) will later say that one never sees any action by a person who does not desire anything.

These passages favour a plain reading of the claim in Manu whereby intentions are the root cause of engagement in sacrifices and other actions. At its core, the understanding of intention furthered here appears to be a basic consciousness of how certain acts relate to certain ends. While intentions have an initiatory role, desire and ascertainment necessarily follow. This approach is distinct from cognitivism (as defined by Sarah Paul), insofar as intentions are volitions and not identical with the corresponding beliefs.
In which sense can intention be the cause of desire and not the opposite? Is not it the case that we first experience appetites, then move on to form the intention to satisfy them and then perform the relevant sequence of acts? Let us start with Medhātithi’s starting point, namely that of complex actions, such as sacrifices, that extend through time. In their case, the claim that a basic appetite is what causes one to act, appears less plausible, because appetites are ephemeral and cannot sustain a longer cycle of activities. Accordingly, Medhātithi’s account makes perfect sense when it comes to actions that are performed not because of a basic appetite, but because of a conscious decision, but can it apply also to other kinds of actions?

While focus is placed in these passages on sacrificial and “similar actions”, which indicates a series of complex actions aimed at a particular result, Medhātithi makes it clear that the mental activities of intending, desiring, and ascertaining are the “root for the undertaking of all actions”. This sets up a fairly robust picture of action whereby actors hold in their minds a consciousness of how they understand their movements to interact with the world, which will result in a particular and desired end. In this sense, the psychological sequence Medhātithi sketched above could be a depiction of the phenomenological process through which a certain level of consciousness is a preliminary requirement for the process to be started, but cognition and appetite are also needed. The emphasis on phenomenology is due to the fact that it is hard to make sense of the statement that intentions generate desires (could one say “I intend to have dinner, therefore I am starting to feel hungry”?), but it makes sense that one only becomes aware of desire after having conceived the corresponding intention (“I intend to have dinner and realize that I am in fact hungry”). If taken to its extreme consequences, this would imply that there are no genuine conflicts between intentions and desires, because desires become available to one’s consciousness only once one has intended to do something. If desires are not directly responsible for our actions, how can Medhātithi explain episodes that are often ascribed to them, e.g. in case of what Euro-American philosophers call the “weakness of the will”? For instance, how could he explain the case of one failing to dress up to go to an opera even though they had previously formed the intention to go? Medhātithi could deal with is as a conflict among intentions, not among different causal factors (the intention to go and the desire to stay home) determining one’s actions. Alternatively, he could mention how inertial states take stronger intentions to be resisted and discuss such examples as based on a conflict between an intention and a hard-to-break inertial state. He could argue that it would be hard to dress up even independently of an active desire to stay home (thus proving that the problem is not due to a conflict between intentions and desires), because dressing up (like any act) involves effort, and all efforts are only undertaken if one sees that a bigger advantage will come of out them.

What do you think? Given Medhātithi’s premisses, does my extension of his thought to the above case make sense?

(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:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

3 Replies to “Medhātithi on intention and action”

  1. Elisa, thank you for this interesting post.

    My first thought is to separate what Manusmrti says from what Medhatithi says about it. So, to focus just on the text 2.2 to 2.5, particularly on 2.3 below:

    सङ्कल्पमूलः कामो वै यज्ञाः सङ्कल्पसम्भवाः।
    व्रतानि यमधर्माश्च सर्वे सङ्कल्पजाः स्मृताः॥

    Now my question is: 2.2 and 2.4-5 are all seem to focus on काम, so why this sudden change of emphasis to सङ्कल्प in 2.3? And perhaps there is a different way of reading सङ्कल्पमूलः कामः?

    So, suppose we take सङ्कल्पमूलम् as meaning “सङ्कल्पस्य मूलम्” (the root of सङ्कल्प) instead of “सङ्कल्पः मूलम्” (सङ्कल्प as the root).

    Then सङ्कल्पमूलः कामः would mean “the root of सङ्कल्प is काम”, and not “काम is that which has सङ्कल्प as its root”. So the causal chain would look like this:

    काम ==> सङ्कल्प ==> यज्ञाः व्रतानि यमधर्माश्च

    Why wouldn’t this work for 2.3? Is there a grammatical reason, some Paniniyan rule, according to which this reading would be wrong? It would also be in keeping with the focus on काम in the rest of 2.2 – 2.5, I think. Or perhaps elsewhere in the Manusriti सङ्कल्प is explicitly and unambiguously mentioned to be at the beginning of the causal chain above, instead of being the intermediate link?

    I hope to comment on Medhatithi as well later (might take some time to find and read the text), because that is the philosophically interesting part as you’ve pointed out so well.

    • To answer my own question above, Kale says: “A Bahuvrihi compound consists of two or more nouns in apposition to each other….” There is no Paniniyan sutra for this, but under A 2.2.24, Patanjali gives the following vārttikā and explanation:

      समानाधिकरणानां बहुव्रीहिर्वक्तव्यः॥ किं प्रयोजनम्। व्यधिकरणानां मा भूदिति।

      Since the two padas in “सङ्कल्पस्य मूलम्” are not in apposition (vyadhikaraṇa), they cannot be used to form the bahuvrīhi compound सङ्कल्पमूलः.

      So, Olivelle is correct to observe in his notes on 2.3 (Olivelle, pp. 243-4) that my suggested reading (adopted only by Nandana among the commentators and Doniger in her translation) is mistaken.

      It therefore follows that the causal chain described in 2.3 is:

      सङ्कल्प ==> काम ==> यज्ञाः व्रतानि यमधर्माश्च

      Just as Medhātithi understood it.

  2. Elisa,

    According to Medhātithi, if I have understood correctly, the causal chain looks like this:

    सङ्कल्पः ==> कामः ==> अध्यवसायः ==> क्रिया

    Here I think Ganganath Jha’s translation of अध्यवसायः as “resolution” works better than “ascertainment”. The word “ascertainment” would work better in relation to doubts of the form “Is it X or not X?” But in the conative-volitional context, “resolution” or “decision” seems to better convey the intended sense. It is as though each कामः is making a proposal, and अध्यवसायः settles on one of them to the exclusion of others.

    And neither Jha’s translation of सङ्कल्पः as “thought” or Olivelle’s translation as “intention” works for me. The first is too vague, and the second looks out of place in the causal chain. If anything corresponds to an intention in the above causal chain, it would be अध्यवसायः and not सङ्कल्पः.

    Then what could samkalpa be? I think it is akin to what Hume calls “the prospect of pleasure or pain from any object”. To quote Hume more fully: “…when we have the prospect of pain or pleasure from any object, we feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity, and are carry’d to avoid or embrace what will give us this uneasiness or satisfaction.” (Hume, Treatise

    In Nagarjuna’s MMK 23.2, we find a similar explanation of संकल्प:
    संकल्प-प्रभवो रागो द्वेषो मोहश्च कथ्यते।
    शुभ-अशुभ-विपर्यासान् संभवन्ति प्रतीत्य हि॥

    Translation (Siderits and Katsura):
    “Desire, aversion, and delusion are said to arise from false discrimination. These arise in dependence on the good, the bad, and false conception.”

    So it seems that संकल्प involves the discrimination of things as good/pleasant (शुभ) or bad/unpleasant (अशुभ), and this gives rise to desire (राग) and aversion (द्वेष), respectively. My suggestion is that Medhātithi’s own view could be something similar.

    Thus, when Medhātithi explains संकल्प as the cognition that “This thing (पदार्थ) has this effect (अर्थक्रिया)”, I do not think he is talking about a means-end belief as you seem to be suggesting. Instead, संकल्प is my cognition that an object would a certain effect on me, namely, as pleasant or painful.

    Suppose that, according to Medhātithi, संकल्प makes us aware of the means to some given end. Then why would he explain the subsequently occuring desire as wondering “How will I realize that (thing) through that (action) कथम् अहम् इदम् अनेन साधयामि?”

    So my proposal is that, in terms of the simplified belief-desire model that is current in analytic philosophy, संकल्प corresponds to the desire for the end (i.e., pleasant object), and काम to the desire for the means (i.e., action conducive to getting the pleasant object) guided by a means-end belief. If I have to render संकल्प into English, I could follow Siderits and Katsura somewhat to translate it as “discriminatory awareness”. Or I could translate it as “affective awareness”, to convey (my interpretation of) Medhātithi’s idea that this or that पदार्थ can affect me in pleasant or unpleasant ways.

    As for Medhātithi’s own illustration of these concepts, I don’t think it corresponds perfectly with my explanation of them. He would have done better to choose some delicious food item as the object that I am seeing, and the eating of it as what I desire. So it does pose some challenge to my explanation.

    By way of conclusion, let me try to make sense of Manusmriti passages 2.2-2.5 in relation to 2.1. It seems to me that 2.2-5 was by a commentator who tries to qualify the phrase “अद्वेष-रागिभिः” in 2.1, and that this comment later became an interpolated part of the text.

    2.1 says that the dharma is followed and assented to by those who lack desire and aversion. The commentator is not happy with this, and begins 2.2 by seemingly quoting Ayodhyakanda 21.57 of Ramayana: “कामात्मता न प्रशस्ता”. Even in Ayodhyakanda, this is not an outright rejection of काम, but only the deprioritizing of काम when it comes into conflict with धर्म. The composer of 2.2-2.5 goes one step further by saying that काम makes possible Vedic study and the performance of dharma possible because no action is possible without काम.

    P.S. Gita 6.4 talks about renouncing all संकल्प-s (सर्वसङ्कल्पसंन्यासी). Shankara in his commentary explains this phrase as implying the renunciation of all desires (सर्वांश्च कामान्) by citing Manusmriti 2.3 and Shantiparva 177.25 of Mahabharata. The Shantiparva passage says:

    काम जानामि ते मूलं सङ्कल्पात्किल जायसे।
    न त्वां सङ्कल्पयिष्यामि तेन मे न भविष्यसि॥

    It is interesting that this passage is also found in an early Buddhist collection of sayings similar to Dhammapada, the Udānavarga:

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