Friday, October 30, 2009

Is Madhva's hermeneutics dualist?

I just had the pleasure to read the paper delivered by Michael Williams at the 14th World Sanskrit Conference. It focuses on Madhva's interpretation of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad passage (-a tattvamasi), but it is also interesting as a first glance into Madhva's hermeneutical strategies. Williams rightly, I believe, underlies the fact that Madhva accepts as self-understood the idea that once you have known the principal (pradhāna) componen of something, you have automatically known also its secondary (apradhāna) components. In the instance considered in the article, Madhva argues that, through knowledge of Viṣṇu (God), one can get to know also the world. This may well be true, although I would not expect Madhva to say something like that. Is not he the one who upholds the irreducible difference (atyanta-bheda) between God and the world? If there is such a difference, how could one fully know the world through knowing Him? One could answer that the difference lies in fact in the world's dependence on Him (whereas He is absolutely independent and autonomous). Hence, the world would be qualitatively similar to God (the example used to illustrate the pradhāna-apradhāna state is that of a ball of clay and the remaining mass of clay), although it ultimately relies on Him.
Does not this reduce the importance of Madhva's emphasis on the difference between God and the world? Does not this mean that there is in fact no dualism here? I can know better understand why Madhva himself did not label his philosophy Dvaita (dual) Vedānta. Still, his appeal to common experience as an epistemic instrument to seize difference looses much of its strength if difference does not regard the nature of God and the world, but just their dependence/independence (…hardly seized, by the way).


VS said...

A scholar should be discussing these points with you. However sometimes a layperson can also provide some stimulation. :o)

Maybe the work cited, is Madhava's interpretation of another scholarly work and thus he has not superimposed his opinions.

I cannot resist mentioning one of my favourite quotations: We dance round in a circle and suppose, while the mystery sits in the center and knows.

elisa freschi said...

Experts are important, but philosophy would loose its significance if it were no more accessible to 'lay' thinkers! A philosophical idea, in order to be such, has to be understandable even in another language/era/context.

Michael Williams said...

I can see why you would expect Madhva to uphold atyantabheda. My opinion, however, is that owing largely to the fact that, from the outset, the Maadhva tradition was highly antagonistic towards fundamental Advaitin doctrines, they tended to deliberately present themselves as wholly antithetical (through such mottos as atyantabheda and so on). In fact, when you explores Madhva's thought, it becomes clear that Madhva's position on crucial ssues such as the relationship between God and the world is far more intricate than at first it seems. The first thing that pops to mind is his acceptance of the bimba-pratibimba model of the upaadhis, which is chiefly discussed in the Giitaabhaa.sya. Although this model (and this is just a hypothesis on my part) seems to become less prominent in Madhva's thought as it develops, it is clear that such a model implies simultaneously similarity and difference since jiiva is simply a distorted reflection of an immaculate original.

This model would, of course, tie in well with his interpretation of pradhaanadvaaraapradhaanaj~naana. We would, of course, gain knowledge of the pratibimba through knowledge of the bimba. I am not aware, however, that the Maadhva tradition itself considered this connection. At any rate, I would argue that (as you seem to imply), that the traditional udnerstanding of Madhva's philosophy as "Dualism" is extremely limited (at least in the case of Madhva himself, in later thinkers perhaps this term s more appropriate). Although Madhva is often presented as arguing that the world is "as real" or enjoys the same reality as God, as opposed to the Advaitin who argues that the brahman alone is real, and the world itself anirvacaniiya, in fact Madhva himself devalues the reality of the world and our knowledge of it, at least *relatively". This is why I think BNK Sharma (correctly) interprets Madhva's "realism" as a type of "theistic realism" where the world and our knowledge of it are constantly overshadowed by the Reality of God. The difference between the two traditions in this case is not that one upholds the absolute reality of the world and the other does not, but simply that they go about undermining the reality of the world in different ways. Perhaps... I'm still thinking about this!

elisa freschi said...

Dear Michael,
thanks for your answer. Yes, I DO think that 'Dvaita' is an inappropriate description of Madhva's thought (no wonder it is not M's own definition). My understanding of the relation God-world in Madhva is that the world has a non-independent reality. So, he would agree with the Advaitins in denying the independent reality of the world, but not in denying its reality tout court. I am not sure whether Madhva meant to undermine the reality of the world (as you seem to imply with "but simply that they go about undermining the reality of the world in different ways"). What about the idea that the non absolute reality of the world was somehow taken for granted since Upanisadic time (at least, within Vedantic circles) and that, hence, M rather focused on the defence of the reality of the world (though as dependent of God)?

Michael Williams said...

Dear Elisa,
Yes, the svatantravaada is a very important aspect of Madhva's negotation. It's important to remember, however, that it was just one of the formulations that Madhva used, though it was certainly to my mind the most prominent. The others that spring to mind are the pradhaana/apradhaana relationship (which seems to me to be a more generic, "umbrella" term), the bimba-pratibimba and the This latter only really appears briefly in Madhva's BSBh, as I recall: he does not really seem to favour it a great deal. I see what you mean about my comments on the relationship to Advaita. What I mean to say is simply that in the Maadhva tradition, "being" in the broadest sense of the term is multivalent. Whilst the world certainly participates in sattva, and is not anirvacaniiya as the Advaitins suggest, nevertheless by virtue of being paratantra, pratibimba, apradhaana and so on it subordinated to God as an infinitely perfect reality. So in both traditions the world is not "as real" as the underlying reality upon which it depends (in Advaitin brahman being the adhi.s.thaana, in Maadhva Vedaanta the dpended-upon reality).

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