Why should one study the meaning of the Veda? I.e., why studying Mīmāṃsā? (It is hard to present your research program to the public)

At a certain point in the history of Mīmāṃsā (and, consequently, of Vedānta), the discussion of the reasons for undertaking the study of Mīmāṃsā becomes a primary topic of investigation. When did this exactly happen? The space dedicated to the topic increases gradually in the centuries, but Jaimini and Śabara don’t seem to be directly interested in it.

Nonetheless, Śabara needs to explain a related topic, namely when studying the Mīmāṃsā —before or after one’s study of the Veda. Kumārila and Prabhākara introduce the prescription to learn the Veda (svādhyāyo ‘dhyetavyaḥ, see Kataoka 2001b) and the one to teach the Veda, respectively, as the prescriptions prompting the study of the Veda and, indirectly, of its meaning. Kumārila explains that the prescription to study the Veda does not include a result which can be independently desired and that one therefore needs to insert the knowledge of its meaning as the result. Prabhākara explains that a teacher needs to know the meaning of the Veda in order to teach the Veda and that the dignity of being a teacher is something independently desirable.

The space to the topic of why studying Mīmāṃsā and which prescription promotes it increases drastically —I would say— after Śālikanātha (8th c.?). Why did this question become relevant? Perhaps because its answer was less obvious and one needed to persuade a different kind of public. A public who knew of the importance of studying the Veda, but was not immediately convinced of the importance of undertaking also a detailed study of the Mīmāṃsā exegesis. I wonder whether part of the problem is due to also to a) Śaṅkara’s statement that the Vedāntins do not need to study Mīmāṃsā and b) the fact that the Mīmāṃsā presents itself as a Vedic exegesis, but in fact looks at the Vedas from the vantage point of the Brāhmaṇas, so that an audience more interested in other parts of the Vedas might be less convinced of the usefulness of Mīmāṃsā.

Veṅkaṭanātha, though primarily a Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedāntin, dedicates the first 28 pages of his commentary on the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā Sūtra to this topic. He refutes both the Bhāṭṭa and the Prābhākara points of view. The Bhāṭṭas are wrong because the knowledge of the meaning of the Veda is not something independently desirable. The Prābhākaras are wrong because the prescription to teach is not sufficiently established and, even if it were, it would not include the knowledge of the meaning of the Veda.
Veṅkaṭanātha analyses at length all position and then concludes briskly that the study of Mīmāṃsā needs to be undertaken out of one’s desire (hence the desiderative ending in PMS 1.1.1). In order to legitimate this desire, Veṅkaṭanātha is able to show that PMS 1.1.1 (through the linguistic expression atha) shows that taking time to undertake the study of Mīmāṃsā does not violate other prescriptions and that there is a suitable time for it.

European readers may feel some sympathy with Mīmāṃsā authors, who were possibly just intellectually interested in Mīmāṃsā exegesis, but had to face external challenges and to structure their intuitions about the Mīmāṃsā being “interesting” into a consistent research project.🙂

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

17 Replies to “Why should one study the meaning of the Veda? I.e., why studying Mīmāṃsā? (It is hard to present your research program to the public)”

  1. Veṅkaṭanātha’s response opens up a question in my mind. What if one doesn’t have that desire, dharmajijñāsa? Are there such people, people who do not have that desire? If so, is it just fine that they don’t study Mīmāṃsā – or even that they don’t follow the injunctions of dharma? If not, on what basis can we claim (with Aristotle’s Metaphysics perhaps?) that all people desire to know dharma?

    • Thank you, Amod and Matthew. Yes, the idea is that the study of Mīmāṃsā is not something everyone will undertake. Veṅkaṭanātha explicitly says that you don’t have dharmajijñāsā unless you have already learnt the Vedas (you need some content for your investigation). Thus, people who lack the adhikāra to study the Veda are a priori excluded.

      Nonetheless, there are good reasons to think that being among the adhikārins is a desirable situation: Everyone desires happiness, happiness can be achieved through Vedic rituals, and a right performance presupposes the correct understanding of Vedic texts, i.e., the study of Mīmāṃsā.

      As for why one should care for dharma at all, the problem is addressed by Kumārila: Without the Veda, you don’t know what are your duties (since Buddhist and Jain texts about them can be proven wrong and sense-perception, etc., do not communicate duties). Thus, either you recur to the Veda and study Mīmāṃsā or you need to live in the loka only, without any idea of what you should be doing (I am tempted to say “without any idea of ethics”). You can go for that, but at your risk (you might end up performing some anartha and land up in hell).

      • Namaste, could you please clarify a few things? I read selections of Jaimini and the commentaries in Radhakrishnan’s anthology but I keep getting the feeling that I’m misinterpreting the texts (my degree is in analytic moral philosophy).

        “Everyone desires happiness, happiness can be achieved through Vedic rituals, and a right performance presupposes the correct understanding of Vedic texts, i.e., the study of Mīmāṃsā.”

        Is “happiness” here to be understood in the ordinary sense or in the sense that Owen Flanagan gives in his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain (someone is “happy” only if they correctly perceive reality and might not display actual signs of happiness such as cheerful demeanor. I know Flanagan rejects the traditional Mahayana view that one can actually categorically destroy emotions such as anger but his case is the only one I can think of for present purposes)? Second, would it be fair to say that agnihotras performed in Hindu temples today be more or less the only rituals prescribed in the Vedas since animal sacrifices are not a thing in the diaspora? Third, could anyone theoretically partake and/or perform those rituals? Or are the rituals here not the actual fire ceremonies but merely acting in accordance with moral codes? Relatedly, since Purva Mimamsa denies the existence of the gods, would a Hindu Pandit even perform such a ritual for a Mimamsaka given the latter’s non-theistic view? On the surface this school of thought seems to me to have not worked out the major issues (ex. how does one get phalam (fruit) of karma without their being a deity to guide the distribution of it, in the Jains case, there are tirthankaras who are able to rise above karma) which is why I could use some clarification. On the part about hell, what would a Mimamsaka say if asked who designed and controls narak (hell)? I understand Buddhists like Vasubhandu did not believe in a literal narak but that’s a different story I suppose.

        • Thanks Bill, you raise many interesting points.
          1. (on happiness and Flanagan): I will not enter here into Flanagan’s theory, but Mīmāṃsā does not insist on the destroyance/overcoming of emotions per se. These are considered primitives and not necessarily negative. Happiness is a desirable state, in fact, it is desirable by all human beings qua human beings.
          2. Animal sacrifices are still practiced in some communities, and there are many Vedic rituals that do not involve any animal sacrifices (broadly speaking, Vedic sacrifices involve animal, Soma or vegetable offerings). By contrast, many rituals performed today are not prescribed in the Brāhmaṇas (Vedic corpus), but rather in other texts, typically Śaiva or Vaiṣṇava ones.
          3. Not everyone could perform them, but only the ones who have the relevant adhikāra ‘eligibility’. This involves also respecting norms we would call “moral”, such as not lying.
          4. A Hindu priest typically focuses more on orthopraxy than orthodoxy.
          5. (how can karman work without a deity): Mīmāṃsā authors think that assuming that a deity exists in order to make karman work is a preposterous and unneeded assumption. If karman does all the work, it is better to assume only karman instead of karman AND the deity and then having the burden to prove the existence of the deity.
          6. Similarly, hell is simply a temporary consequence of bad actions. It does not at all need to be a physical place. Svarga ‘heaven’ is explicitly equated with ‘happiness’ in Mīmāṃsā texts and I would assume that the same holds for naraka.
          Hope this helps!

          • Thanks for responding, much appreciated! My understanding is that only Kali bhaktas still do animal sacrifices and so the rest would be done in the way that I’ve seen in America (no animals). I understand the idea of adhikara but my question was more along the lines of: does one actually need a Brahmin (born brahmin or initiated western brahmin) to do the yagna or can someone like you and me do it? Hinduism is not an organized religion and so in principle there’s nothing that would stop either of us from doing the ceremony, rather, the difficulty is in getting the mantras either from a book or from a panditji and then doing the ceremony properly. With that in mind, would a Mimamsaka say that a specialist such as yourself (or anybody else who is not a brahmin, indian brahmin or non-indian brahmin such as ISKCON converts, could in theory do the ceremony (ISKCON is theistic but you get the idea)?

            On narakaloka and karma: do mimamsakas subscribe to the trifurcated notion of karmas that have already ripened, those still ripening, and those to be ripened?

            I understand orthopraxy takes precedence over orthodoxy, but I have noticed that most punditjis in America do not advertise their philosophical expertise but rather which samskaras they specialize in, which homas they perform, etc. Can it be safely assumed that they all have a minimum understanding of a school such as mimamsa unless they advertise it, or like all things, is it best just to ask? Most mandirs in America do not allow one to contact a punditji directly and of course there’s the language barrier, so wondering if it’s worth taking the trouble or if I should just stick to asking academics about Mimamsa (I was hoping to learn it the traditional way via memorization of texts).
            Best wishes

          • Hi Bill (answering here because no further subthreads are allowed)!

            Your first question has to do with the definition of adhikāra and whether one’s dedication in this life could take precedence over the fact of coming from a good family. Different authors have different opinions, but I am not aware of Mīmāṃsakas acknowledging the possibiity of “mlecchas” becoming yājñikas (performers of sacrifices).
            Btw, yājñikas are not necessarily scholars of Mīmāṃsā. Daya Krishna wrote a great article about their bifurcation. But you can surely learn Mīmāṃsā the traditional way if you manage to find a scholar, like Mani Dravid Śāstrījī.

          • Namaste, thanks for the response. I don’t mean to engage in “overkill” here but is it possible to scientifically verify the Mimamsa view that the Vedas are eternal, indirectly, but showing that sound is indeed eternal? Of course, this would not de facto prove that the Vedas are eternal or that they were composed by Rishis instead of Bedouins (I know the argument that said Bedouins were nonetheless “transmitters” of the eternal Veda even if their occupation wasn’t what we today would consider “rishis”, personally I think it’s a bad argument and clearly ad hoc) but it does seem to give some weight to their more metaphysical claims.

  2. It’s funny, Amod, I was thinking about something similar. That the desire to know Vedic dharma seems less natural than the desire to avoid suffering, or to understand truth in general, or to understand the self, which are expressed motivations of the other śāstras. I wonder if part of the problem is that the Mīmāṃsā Sūtra isn’t calling people at large to study it as much as justifying its study as done by a very select group of people.

    And I know that de facto, most of the students of the various traditions likely were Brahmin males, but I still think the other traditions tend to justify why they are important for people at large. Is Mīmāṃsā different in this regard, Elisa?

  3. Elisa, were there any institutional changes which would also be relevant, so that it isn’t just the “public” but also the ones with the purse-strings, so to speak, who are being addressed?

    • Many thanks for the question, Malcolm. The short answer is: I do not know. While reading the long pages of this controversy at a certain point I felt some resemblance with the struggles of today’s intellectuals trying to explain to outsiders why they care for the topics they care for (this makes a whole genre in the European system of research grants). The outsiders in the case of Veṅkaṭanātha might be Vaiṣṇava believers and intellectuals, perhaps questioning his too extensive interest for Mīmāṃsā or even his engagement with it. Might this have to do with his role within the tradition? We now know he deeply influenced it and it is sure that he was an intellectual. His public figure escapes me much more, but it needs to have been playing an important role, given that he is revered everywhere by Śrī Vaiṣṇavas (both at the beginning of texts and in today’s religious practice).

  4. Is philosophy–western thought, more natural-passive determinations…

    While the influence of eastern ways and practices on western thought are towards existent-active determinations–that Hinduism and Buddhism are not philosophies…

  5. Are there any scholars who used mimamsa or vedanta toolkits and methods to analyse or interpret other texts (which are out of vedic or darshanic fields) if yes what was the result of such a thing.

  6. Dear Prof Elisa,
    I have a question, can you let me know your thoughts about it?
    How would a traditional Purva Mimansaka reach out to a contemporary person of this age who accepts that humans evolved only at a certain point of history and language came later. The eternality of Vedas crucially depends on the fact that the universe was always there and Veda-parampara was also maintained eternally. But given the evidence of creation of the universe and evolution, what could be the possible defense of the Purva Mimansa position of eternality of Vedas? Of course it would be perhaps a bit easier if Ishwara comes into the picture, but that’s also not something classical purva mimanasa can do.

    • Thank you, Rajit, this is a good question. I can imagine different paths:
      1. negate the data about evolution, Big Bang etc. (I would not say that there is evidence of the “creation of the universe” as you put it).
      2. state that these data do not concern us, that Mīmāṃsā theory are relevant for our world and that these times are so remote that they do not even resemble our experience. There were no human beings at the time of the Big Bang (or of the dinosaurs etc.). For “our” times, Mīmāṃsā theories are right in insisting that we can’t imagine an origin of language or of tradition.
      3. dilate the perspective, by assuming periodical Big Bangs and dissolutions of the universe, back into a beginningless past. The Vedas will always be there, just like human beings.


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