Conveying prescriptions: The Mīmāṃsā understanding of how prescriptive texts function

The Mīmāṃsā school of Indian philosophy has at its primary focus the exegesis of Sacred Texts (called Vedas), and more specifically of their prescriptive portions, the Brāhmaṇas. This means that the epistemic content conveyed by the Vedas is, primarily, what has to be done. In order words, the Veda is an epistemic authority only insofar as it conveys a deontic content.
In order to fulfil the hermeneutical task of Mīmāṃsā, Mīmāṃsā thinkers developed interpretative rules which should guide a reader or listener through a prescriptive text and enable his or her understanding of the text. Such rules have the key purpose to enable the understanding of a text without resorting to the intention of the speaker (either because he or she is distant in time or space or because, as in the case of the Vedas, the text has an autonomous epistemic value). This post will elaborate on these basic principles and on the way they can make a text into an epistemic instrument conveying information concerning what one ought to do.

Little research has been done on the Mīmāṃsā hermeneutical rules. Apart from a paper of mine (a draft of which is available here), there is an alphabetic list, appended to Jhā 1964, of these rules, which does not distinguish between their function and their hierarchical relations.
The present post has been prompted by the attempt to understand and as far as possible re-construe the system of rules (Mīmāṃsā authors speak in this connection of nyayas) which was operating beyond the Mīmāṃsā interpretative strategies. Although it is possible that Mīmāṃsā authors used only an ad hoc approach and thought of specific rules at each problem, the structure of the Śābarabhāṣya (the commentary on the root text of the Mīmāṃsā school, adopted by all currents within it) suggests a different interpretation. In fact, the SBh displays a clear five-fold structure:

  1. enunciation of the topic (viṣaya)
  2. enunciation of the problem (saṃśaya)
  3. prima facie view about the problem
  4. antithesis to the prima facie view
  5. conclusive view

The steps 3–5 can be repeated several times if the problem is particularly complex and needs a detailed discussion. More important, from our point of view, is that the upholder of the prima facie view, the upholder of the antithesis and the upholder of the conclusive view (who can be identified with Śabara himself) all recur in their discussion to the application of rules. In fact, the discussion is mostly all about which rule should be applied and why or why not.
The first problem for the identification of the basic principles, the ones presupposed by the majority of the other rules, is the intersection of two sets of principles. On the one hand there are the logical principles, which regard the logical structure of the Mīmāṃsā deontic logic, while on the other hand there are the hermeneutic principles needed to recognise the boundaries of a given prescription and the way it is formulated. The two sets of principles overlap only in part.

  • The hermeneutic principles are the ones which regard only the Brāhmaṇa texts and whose significance could not be automatically extended outside them, e.g., to a different corpus of texts.
  • As for the logical principles, it is highly improbable that Mīmāṃsā authors ever wanted to build a consistent deontic system of logic. Rather, they focused on a given set of texts and developed logical tools in connection with such texts. Nonetheless, some of the principles they formulated are liable to be extended beyond the Brāhmaṇa corpus.

Does this distinction convince you? Do readers familiar with the Grammatical paribhāṣās think it can be applied there?
On the motive for this post, see here. On deontics in general, see here.
(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.

6 Replies to “Conveying prescriptions: The Mīmāṃsā understanding of how prescriptive texts function”

  1. Very interesting, Elisa. How this hermeneutical task ‘to enable the understanding of a text without resorting to the intention of the speaker ‘ correlates with the late Mimansaka’s idea of tAtparya as the fourth pre-requisite of the unity of the sentence?

    • Great point, Evgeniya. Notwithstanding its later history in Nyaya (and most of all in textbooks), tatparya in Mimamsa just means ‘that which is aimed at [through a given textual passage]’, no hint of an authorial intention. For instance, a Mimamsa author may say that a certain injunction is karyapara ‘aiming at something to be done’ and then paraphrase it by speaking of its tatparya. It is also interesting to note that tatparya has, as you rightly say, Mimamsa roots and was then introduced in Nyaya by Bhatta Jayanta —who also did not connect it with an author’s intention. This last point has been recently ascertained by A.Graheli (the paper was presented at the Abhinavagupta conference in Leipzig and will be published in its proceedings), who suggested to link tatparya rather with ‘contextual meaning’.
      (sorry for the lack of diacritics.)

      • One can argue, that on some occasions Vedic texts can not be understood properly without understanding of author’s intention (i.e. passages with secret language). Though for the Mimamsakas who understood the Vedas in the first line as vidhis such interpretations probably were of no relevance.
        In this connection, what do you think, is it possible to suggest that the primarily meaning of an injunction is the command to be followed, whereas the ‘author’s intention’, i.e. the purpose of the ritual, can be ignored?

  2. As far as I can see—and please do correct me—you’re making a number of claims that are interesting but possibly controversial: (1) Mīmāṃsā provides *special* rules for the interpretation of a *special* text, namely the Veda, and not general rules of textual interpretation. [This is controversial because of Mīmāṃsā’s status as a vākyaśāstra, and because Mīmāṃsakas themselves don’t consider the Veda to be an exceptional text, but the purest embodiment of textuality, untouched by deluded and malicious human beings.] (2) Although the entire system consists of “rules” in a certain sense, there are among them some special “rules” that are more general and more fundamental than the others, and these bear comparison in their function to the paribhāṣās of grammar. [This is controversial because such a distinction wasn’t really recognized by the tradition, and given that the “rules” of Mīmāṃsā do not effect operations the way that grammatical rules do, it’s difficult for me, at least, to see how the more general rules differ qualitatively from the more specific rules.]

    I also wonder about the invocation of a set of “principles,” of deontic logic at that, when the job of Mīmāṃsā seems to be to start from the text and, by means of a general but very systematic interpretive procedures, to arrive at a set of obligations as a conclusion—what I mean is that the logical structure of these obligations is not a matter of first principles, but is the end-result of a deterministic interpretive process.

    Maybe it would just be easier to see an example? I’m sure I’m adding to my confusion by thinking of the number of Sanskrit terms that could be translated by “rule” (vidhi, sūtra, nyāya, belonging respectively to the text under interpretation, the interpretive apparatus, and general logical principles external to this apparatus, not including the paribhāṣās of the grammarians).

    • thanks for the comment, Andrew.
      (1) vākyaśāstra is a definition which comes from the outside (like pada– and pramāṇaśāstra). I agree that for Mīmāṃsakas the Veda is the paradigm of language, but exactly because of that not everything which works in the case of the Veda can be applied to ordinary language, which is, e.g., ‘contaminated’ by the faults of its speakers.
      (2) concerning nyāyas (this is the term Mīmāṃsakas use), I would not doubt about their existence (as I said, the whole ŚBh is more often than not based on a discussion about which nyāya should be applied). You are right that there is no base for the claim that there is a hierarchy among them, nonetheless, I think that an implicit hierarchy can be implicitly derived out of the way Śabara discusses nyāyas.

      Regarding your last point, I scheduled a post on the hermeneutical principles of Mīmāṃsā for Monday. I will now work on a specific example, thanks for the suggestion.

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