Monday, May 20, 2013

Does one study out of desire? Aristotle and Veṅkaṭanātha

A brahman must learn by heart the Veda and study its auxiliaries (metrics, astrology —to know when to perform a certain ritual—, etc.). But does he have to also dwell in it and investigate further beyond its sheer phonic form? And, if there is no duty to do it, why do people nonetheless start studying Mīmāṃsā (defined as the study of the meaning of the Veda)? Veṅkaṭanātha's answer, in his Seśvaramīmāṃsā (ad MS 1.1.1) and in the Śatadūṣaṇī is clear: out of desire (rāga). He thus replies to opponents who claim that the duty to learn the Veda extends beyond its phonic form and includes the Mīmāṃsā. Thus, Aristotle's approach ("Human beings naturally love to know") triumphs and the stereotype of an Indian adversion to desire is —once again— to be at least rediscussed:

To begin with, the study of the whole Veda, together with its auxiliaries and with the Brahmasūtra is established, be it promoted by the injunction to study (as claimed by the Bhāṭṭas) or by the one to teach (as claimed by the Prābhākaras). Also the investigation about its meaning regards the whole [Veda], be it promoted by an injunction (as claimed by the Bhāṭṭas) or by one's desire (as explained in the Seśvaramīmāṃsā), since there is nothing hindering the one or the other (injunction or desire).

[Objection:] There might well be no hindrance to the promotion [of the study of the meaning of the Veda] by a prescription, but there is certainly a hindrance to the promotion by [one's] desire [to know the meaning of the Veda], because it is incongruous that one undertakes an activity as long as there is desire.

[Reply:] It is not so, because both the [following] options (vikalpa) are not possible: Is [desire to know it] an hindrance in the investigation about the brahman, or is it [an hindrance in the investigation] about ritual action (karman)? Not the first one, because a human being desires all four human aims (i.e., pleasure, success, dharma and liberation) [and not just the first three], and because there is no contradiction if, in [their] sequence, one [also] enjoys [them]. […]
(Śatadūṣaṇī 3)

Thus, desire is legitimate and legitimated, even within Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta… 

For further posts on Veṅkaṭanātha see this one (and its links).


Unknown said...

Is desire here meant as desire at large or does this legitimize only the desire for knowledge (which is the widerly accepted Aristotelian view)?
I think it is a significant difference as in most traditional contexts (but very often in modern ones too) against the desirability of desire (pun intended) with the ethical judgement on the desire subordinated to the worth of its object (you can see a detailed discussion on these lines for example in Dante).

elisa freschi said...

Good point, Marco. I would say that Mīmāṃsā authors broadly speaking acknowledge desire as inherent in human life and only condamn specific desires, such as the desire to harm other living beings. However, their Vedāntin counterparts state that desire has to given up in order to attain liberation, with the possible exceptions (according to the Vedānta school involved) of desire to serve God and desire to know.

Unknown said...

Interesting and thanks for your answer. The Mimamsa position as you put it seems to mirror some remarks by Avicenna, although he and other Arabic writers tend to use more "marked" words that could be rendered as "passion" or "love" in this cases (following Plato I would say).

Matthew said...

Nice post, Elisa,

I am reminded of a few connected points, please forgive me if I just note them in a bullet list:

1. I think a more apt contrast with Aristotle has been noted by KK Chakrabarti (IIRC), that while Aristotle claims that philosophy starts with wonder and is thus, in some way, not goal-directed but a kind of fascinated reflection, the Indian philosophers tend to claim more pragmatic and instrumental goals for philosophical reflection (ending suffering, knowing Brahman, etc.)

2. It is interesting that the nyAyasUtra lists prayojana as its 4th topic and vAtsyAyana mentions that specific vidyAs have their own prayojanas, as do the individuals who study.

3. gaNgeSa notes that reflection need not be spurred on by doubt alone (the usual trigger for review of one's beliefs), but also for fun, if you are a tarkarasika.

4. I always liked that passage in the bRhad-AraNyaka which says that desiring the self is equal to desirelessness. Among other things, it indicates that the notion of desire was much more fluid that some people take it for the AdhyAtmika schools.

elisa freschi said...

@Matthew, your points 1 and 2 harmonise with the general consensus that Sanskrit authors tend to be more "goal-oriented", a claim which is partially contrasted by your point 3. To which I would like to add Patañjali's classification of students at the end of the Mahābhāṣya's Paspaśā, where he lists all possible goals of studying grammar and then says that there are also paramavidyārthins who study only for the sake of knowledge.

Re.4: Could you point to the exact passage? (You might know that I am passionate about this subject).

Matthew said...

bRhad 4.4.6

That entire passage is absolutely wonderful, in many, many ways.

Matthew said...

oh--kANva recension, if it matters. Basically, I am looking at Olivelle's version, with Nagari and translation.

elisa freschi said...

Thank you Matthew!

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