Deontic rules at work: A case of conflict

Let us take the abstract form of a Vedic prescription:

(A.) Whoever desires to achieve something should sacrifice

It is easy for an objector to go on and argue as follows:

A Śūdra (i.e., a member of the lowest class) desires to achieve something
A Śūdra should sacrifice (PMS 6.1.25)

Mīmāṃsā authors, however, reply:

No, because sacrifice presupposes knowledge of the Vedic prescriptions enjoining it, such as (A.), and a Śūdra is not entitled to hear the Veda. In fact, there is the following prohibition:

(B.) A Śūdra should not engage with the Veda (Śābarabhāṣya ad PMS 6.1.37)

Now, why is the prohibition (B.) stronger than the prescription (A.)? I can think of two or three possibilities:

  1. Because (B.) is more specific than (A.). That specific rules overrule more generic ones is known as the upasaṃhāranyāya.
  2. Because prohibitions have a bigger deontic value than prescriptions.
  3. (Because of sociological reasons: Śūdra could not be allowed to sacrifice because there was a social consensus about the fact that they were not allowed to perform sacrifices)

The last explanation is easy, but I am afraid it might be too easy. Mīmāṃsakas were not directly involved with worldly matters and could engage in brave thought experiments, such as asking whether animals are entitled to sacrifice. No. 1 is fine and probably applies here, although one needs to be aware that multiple rules may act simultaneously, so that, e.g., in the case of the Śyena sacrifice the same rule is not enough to overrule the generic prohibition to perform violence in case of the malefic sacrifice Śyena.

For more on the Śyena, see this post. For more on Mīmāṃsā deontics in general, see these ones.

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.

2 Replies to “Deontic rules at work: A case of conflict”

  1. Elisa, you raise option #2 and don’t say what you mean by “a bigger deontic value” in this context, or what you think about it as a solution to the problem. Do you think that we can talk in terms of deontic values when looking at Mīmāṃsā texts, and if so, how? Is #2 a live option? (I looked at your posts on your project on deontic logic and didn’t see the general methodological question addressed anywhere, but perhaps I missed it. I am curious about how you are relating the formal logic to the Sanskrit text.)

    • Malcolm, what I was hinting at is the problem of the relative strength of each Mīmāṃsā rule (sorry for the poor English in the expression “bigger…”). Nothing is said about the fact that some of them may count, e.g., 1, and another 1.1, but this is a possibility we need to deal with in order to make sense of the fact that conflicts do arise and are solved. Unfortunately, these different values, if they exist, can only be inferred a posteriori from the way Mīmāṃsakas apply their rules.
      No. 2 seems to me to be a possible option. In fact, No. 1 clashes with the fact that also in the case of the Śyena we have a more specific prescription and this does *not* overrule the more general one. No. 3 is, to me, less interesting, since my working hypothesis is that, even if the sociological milieu influenced Mīmāṃsā authors (as it certainly did), nonetheless they elaborated their system in order to make sense of this influence.

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