Recently I read a very interesting argument in Kumārila’s remarks on the authority of ritual manuals (Kalpasūtrādhikaraṇa, Tantravārtika on Mīmāṃsasūtra 1.3.11–14) which deployed a very familiar concept, the textual coherence of the Veda, in an unexpected way. To put it briefly: the Veda’s special status is vouchsafed by two interpretive principles that seem contradictory at first glance.
The first is the principle of coherence: the interpreter needs to put all of the individual passages of a text together into a coherent whole. This is a widespread and common-sensical principle—so much so that Quentin Skinner felt compelled to denounce it as the “mythology of coherence” in a well-known article (see below). Skinner’s critique turns on the fact that people aren’t always coherent, and sometimes don’t even intend to be. This critique, of course, would have less traction for a Mīmāṃsaka, since Mīmāṃsakas hold the Veda to be impersonal: the Veda’s coherence is a fundamental stipulation which has nothing at all to do with whether people are themselves coherent or not.
The second could almost be called a principle of incoherence. The argument runs something like this: the Veda has lots of passages, such as “Indra killed the dragon,” which in themselves are meaningless. These passages obviously mean something—hence they’re not “senseless”—but Mīmāṃsakas held Vedic sentences to a higher standard of meaning, according to which a sentence needs to connect with something that we’re being asked to do. Sentences that are meaningful in this sense are those that provoke some response besides “so what?”. So Mīmāṃsakas go to great lengths to construe these sentences with injunctions (vidhis), the sentences that actually tell us to do something. What if this results in a “forced” interpretation? All the better, says Kumārila, because this apparent incoherence is further evidence for the Veda’s impersonal nature: what sensible person would throw apparently-meaningless sentences into his text? Ritual manuals and similar texts aren’t imprinted with these additional passages which would constitute evidence of the fact that they are not factitious (na ca tādṛśavākyaśeṣamudrāpi kalpasūtrādigrantheṣu kācid asti yadbalenākṛtakatvam eṣām avasīyate).
This second principle complements the first by separating the concept of coherence from the intention, on the part of a human being, of being coherent. We can thus distinguish “coherence by interpretation,” which is what Mīmāṃsakas produce from the Vedas, from “coherence by intention,” which results from the author’s will to produce a coherent text. In many cases these two concepts coincide, but at least in the case of the Vedas, Mīmāṃsakas point to certain aspects of the text that speak against “coherence by intention” while keeping “coherence by interpretation” on the table. One such aspect is straightforwardness and simplicity: it seems that Kumārila is saying that the Veda is authoritative—or at least we can recognize it to be so—in part because it is so strange and difficult.
Can you think of other examples of a disjunction between these two concepts? Is Kumārila’s argument purely an apologetic strategy—and if so, how successful is it?—or does it have some wider interpretive significance?
Lawrence McCrea. “The Hierarchical Organization of Language in Mīmāṃsā Interpretive Theory.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 28 (2002): 429–459.
Quentin Skinner. “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas.” Pp. 57–89 in Visions of Politics Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.