Reconstructing Viśiṣṭādvaitavedānta: Veṅkaṭanātha’s contribution

The book on Veṅkaṭanātha I am working on is an attempt of doing history of philosophy in the Sanskrit context, given that no agreed canon, chronology, list of main figures or main questions has been established for the history of Sanskrit philosophy. Therefore, in the Sanskrit context, doing history of philosophy does not amount to reconstruct some aspects within an established picture, but rather to understand what is the picture altogether. This also means that it is impossible or counter-productive to do history of philosophy in just an antiquarian way in the Sanskrit context.
The book also takes on the challenge of talking about Sanskrit philosophy without reducing it to ahistorical “schools” which are depicted as unchanging through time, so that while talking of Nyāya one can mix 5 c. CE sources with 11 c. ones. In contrast to this approach, the book focuses on the role of individual philosophers within such schools.

Accordingly, the book reconstructs the intellectual figure of Veṅkaṭanātha and his philosophical and theological contribution to what we now call “Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta”. Its main thesis is that Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta as we know it now is mostly a product of Veṅkaṭanātha’s brilliant mind. He connected various texts and theories into a harmonious whole, so that readers and practitioners looking at the time before Veṅkaṭanātha now recognise them as pieces of a puzzle. Once Veṅkaṭanātha’s contribution is in place it is in fact easy to look back at authors before him and recognise them as pieces of the same jigsaw puzzle. However, it is only due to Veṅkaṭanātha that the entire jigsaw puzzle exists and the various texts and ideas could have remained disconnected, or could have led to different developments without him. The book analyses Veṅkaṭanātha’s contribution in shaping the school, a con- tribution that goes so deep that it is hard to imagine Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta through a different lens. Veṅkaṭanātha’s synthesis was not, or not just, the result of a juxtaposition, but itself a philosophical enterprise. Veṅkaṭanātha re-interpreted a large amount of texts and ideas connecting them in a higher-order theory. In this sense, he is a philosopher doing history of philosophy as his primary methodological tool.

The book investigates this synthesis, its range and its theoretical foundations. In this way, it also attempts to reframe the usual understanding of Veṅkaṭanātha’s impact on Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, shifting him from the position of a learned successor of Rāmānuja to that of a builder of a new system, with a different scope (ranging well beyond Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and incorporating much more into it) and possibly with a different basis. Consequently, this book deals with philosophical themes in connection with their intellectual development.

Among the tools used by Veṅkaṭanātha in crafting his synthesis, of particular interest is his emphasis on the unity of the system holding between Vedānta and another school, called Mīmāṃsā. This is a school focusing on the exegesis of the Vedas and therefore on epistemology, deontics, philosophy of language and hermeneutics. Veṅkaṭanātha borrowed from it the tools to reconcile sacred texts seemingly mutually contradictory, as well as a well- developed dynamic ontology and account of subjectivity. However, the Mīmāṃsā school was also atheistic and considered the Vedas to be only enjoying a deontic authority, not an epistemic one. Both claims (especially the first one) contradict basic tenets of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta. Therefore, in crafting a single system out of Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta Veṅkaṭanātha needed to find a way not to deny these claims while at the same time transcending them. Last, some readers not too familiar with Sanskrit philosophy might find a lot of topics Veṅkaṭanātha deals with “non-philosophical” or at least “non-philosophical enough”. For instance, why does he spend so much time on the injunction to learn the Vedas by heart? As an interpreter, I might have just used the debate in order to extract from it what is relevant for what is recognised today as “philosophy of action”, e.g.: Can someone be motivated to undertake an action whose results will only take place after years ? Does this even count as an action? What at all counts as motivation with regard to a course of action involving multiple years? Can a cost-benefit analysis still work in such cases? Which concept of subjectivity is needed for complex actions extending over multiple years? Alternatively, I might have just depicted the relevance of the debate in the historical setting in which it took place. In general, I gave hints going in both directions, but I primarily tried to reconstruct the debate in its own terms, because a global approach to philosophy means being open not just to new answers to old questions and to new questions within known fields, but also to altogether new fields of investigation. The unitary Mīmāṃsā system is in this sense a treasure house of ideas leading to a philosophy of exegesis and a philosophy of ritual.

Comments and criticisms, as usual, more than welcome!

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.

11 Replies to “Reconstructing Viśiṣṭādvaitavedānta: Veṅkaṭanātha’s contribution”

  1. Good stuff but I might wish to see more of his phl religion proper though the methods he used to create a new form of Vishistaadvaita is certainly interesting. For instance, how would he have responded to the (now dead) new atheist and “brights” movement or, more philosophically nuanced, physicalism (in any of its guises)? Relatedly would he have agreed with Ian Stevenson’s attempt to prove reincarnation “scientifically” or would he have said that reincarnation is simply a matter of faith with no possibility of being empirically demonstrated?

    • Thank you, Bill. I see your points, thanks for raising them.
      Personally, I am not convinced that the only interesting discussions on philosophy of religion are the ones which are or have been popular in the last few decades and am at least also interested in looking at new questions and perspectives.
      Re. physicalism, you might want to read an amazing essay by John Taber (“Dharmakīrti on physicalism”), explaining why a Buddhist philosopher would refute it.
      Re. reincarnation, I would imagine that most Sanskrit authors would disagree with both your alternatives. “Scientific” proofs are the result of positivism and the humanities deciding that there is no other paradigm worth pursuing other than the positivistic one. “Faith” is explicitly denied a role by authors who believe in reincarnation, such as the Mīmāṃsaka Kumārila (who accuses Buddhists of being “blind believers”). The theory of reincarnation is rather the result of an inference to the best explanation based on diversity on outputs given the same inputs (education, health…).

      • I think I glanced at that paper before, but as expected, the only “physicalists” of the time were the ancient Indian equivalent of Logical Positivists: Carvaka, a school of thought that all but a few physicalists today would reject in much the same way that Ayer’s brand of LP is rejected. That’s not to say it is not interested to see his engagement with said school, just that, in the contemporary debate in phl mind, what would a contemporary follower of Dharmakirti say to, say, an emergentist or eliminative materialist (indeed, any variety of contemporary physicalism)? I agree that the arguments for reincarnation appear to be based on inductive reasoning, but I would love to see a Buddhist make a “scientific” case for reincarnation that engages the relevant literature in both eastern and western phl mind. Ian Stevenson did a lot of research, but it didn’t really convince skeptics.

        I also wouldn’t say the debate on reincarnation has been “popular” per se since it is never discussed in the western phl mind literature and only barely discussed in academic eastern literature outside the sociological and history of philosophy approaches. The Dalai Lama for instance, in addition to the other mainstream representatives of Buddhism, rely on the same arguments which do not sound convincing to skeptics. In other words, why can’t Buddhists give the same rigorous arguments, coupled with science, that Judeo-Christina-Islamic apologists and philosophers of religion give with regard to the existence of God, souls, afterlife, etc.?

        • Bill, I would say that Cārvākas are emergentists, how else would you define them?
          As for eliminative materialism, this is Federico Squarcini’s interpretation of the position of the Yogasūtra, you might want to check it.

          I did not mean to say that reincarnation is “popular”, I apologize for the misunderstanding. Rather, I meant that looking at Sanskrit philosophy in order to find answers to a given set of questions (such as the debate about physicalism) is legit, but less interesting for me than looking for altogether new questions and perspectives.

          Last, you might want to look at Jonathan Edelmann’s work on evolution and the Bhāgavatapurāṇa, for a direct engagement with current scientific debates. Let me know what you think!

          • I didn’t care for Edelmann’s book to be honest, was too expository and therefore left much to be desired. I know of some other people who put out similar papers that I found more interesting, but Edelmann’s book is more or less the only full-length book in English dealing with the topic by an outside academic. The only “Hindu Theology” book I’ve seen in English that I thought looked like it advanced the debate was “Not two is not one: A Hindu Theology of Liberation” which is about social justice not pure theology like Edelmann’s book is.

            The Carvakas denied inductive reasoning a place in their system, therefore they would be rejected by today’s philosophers of mind, east or west, with or without the added benefit (or defect) of them being metaphysical naturalists. Since there were already materialist schools in Ancient Greece and Rome, what to speak of today, I don’t see what a modern western philosopher or mind or metaphysics would find of value in the Carvaka school. Maybe this is due to my only reading RadhaKrishnan’s Sourcebook for my info on Carvaka thinking but with options like the Identity-Thesis (type physicalism), Eliminativism (specifically the Churchland variety) and epiphenomenalism, I just don’t see how the Carvakas are relevant except as a historical curiosity, a footnote, albeit an interesting footnote, to early atheism in India, a country which didn’t see true atheism since until the 1950s.

            (just scrolled back up) I wasn’t claiming that the Carvaka school wasn’t emergentist, rather that Dharmakirti was not an emergentist.

          • Bill, I am answering here because we have reached the max. number of nested comments. Thanks for explaining your point re. Cārvākas and Edelman. I am surprised that you did not find, e.g., Ch. Ram-Prasad’s book as an innovative contribution to the theological debate and would be interested in reading your comments.

            As for atheism, please have a look at my posts: Atheism has a LOOONG history in Sanskrit philosophy!

  2. Hi Bill and elisa!

    In Radhakrishnan’s History of Philosophy, the section on Viśiṣṭādvaita is focused on Rāmānuja’s theology of love, and Veṅkaṭanātha is placed as just one party to the philosophical debate that followed. Here, in contrast, the wide-ranging theological questions are not in focus.

    But a physicalism was present, bought earlier to Vedānta by Vācaspati Miśra; and your question of reincarnation was then routinely referred to Vedic science. elisa’s attention to Mīmāṃsā usefully highlights the transmission of that Vedic traditionalism through to modern times. It remains a quiet heart of India’s intellectual life, but little noticed outside: the key (postgraduate!) texts have simply never been circulated, still less translated.

    From the bare deontic authority of the Vedas in Mīmāṃsā I take away the sense that back at the roots of the philosophical schools, the Vaiśeṣika-sūtra served simply as a denotative semantics for the Vedas, which were starting to sound archaic, and seem meaningless to some, notably the Carvaka materialists (!) among the Brahmins.

    Patañjali the grammarian sensed the need among his students of languages for a more wide-ranging semantics, to track the changes in the language; he found resources for it in the Yoga-sūtra, and reordered the text to suit the school style, and teach a culture of disciplined study.

    Now that too envisaged a commitment over years, which brings us to elisa’s final philosophical question. YS 3.6 “tasya bhumisu viniyogah” (cultivation by stages) certainly envisaged just that, as motivated by YS 1.14 “tu dirghakala nairantarya satkara -asevito drdhabhumi” (in the long term, adapting good form to cultivation on a sound foundation).

    Adaptation in this kind of sense is now central to the evolutionary accounts of such matters; and parallel arguments run in contemporary Vedic science.

  3. Thank you for your comment, Orwin. You made me curious and I checked S. Radhakrishnan’s “A sourcebook in Indian Philosophy” (not his History of Indian Philosophy). As you somehow anticipated, he only deals with Rāmānuja, no mention of anyone after him. But he does not speak of love and rather focuses on the VV–AV polemics on difference between ātman and brahman, the nature of avidyā and the meaning of tat tvam asi.

  4. I bought the History in India, and find it not much read in the West. The piece on Rāmānuja was not by him, but evidently he gathered a coherent philosophical following for the project, marking the kind of turn to aesthetics recently uncovered by Amod.

    For a closer review of the debates around Rāmānuja, I now value Srinavasacharya’s Philosophy of Bedabeda, Adyar Library 1950. He finds Radhakrishnan following Deussen and Thibault in a drift from Advaita into Bedabeda, embracing individualism in the way of the West, yet in a spiritual sense.

    Radhakrishnan’ rose to prominence as ambassador to Russia, and his path can take you to Putin’s “everyone has a right to their own fate”, at least on the backslide into determinism, which many think (quite wrongly) simply follows from modern science.

    Leaving all that aside, I’m now taken by the thought that Veṅkaṭanātha marked, alone in his time, the quiet undercurrent of essentially Vedic thought, leading through to today’s Patanjali University, and actually a more productive take on current science. That would be through attention to texts and the language, with its distinctive interlacing of syntax and semantics, which drift apart in modern philosophy.

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