Monday, July 29, 2013

Difficult Apologetics: How to justify evil prescriptions in the Sacred Texts

Philosophers or "free thinkers" may abruptly dismiss whatever they don't understand or believe to be false in a Sacred Text —or even decide not to open one at all. But theologians and authors of apologetics have a much tougher task: they must make sense of everything within a Sacred Text —even what seems to be immoral or unjust.

The most well-known example in Indian apologetics is that of the Śyena-sacrifice. This is a malevolent ritual which is prescribed in the Veda with the words: "The one who wants to harm his enemy should sacrifice with the malevolent ritual Śyena''. Opposers easily used it as an evidence of the flaws in the Veda, whereas Mīmāṃsakas had to reconcile it with the ideal of non-violence, also believed to be of Vedic origin. One of the solutions is that of stressing the adhikārins, i.e., the people who are responsible for performing the sacrifice. The sacrifice is not, it is explained, prescribed to everyone, but only to the ones who "want to harm their enemies". This is  something one should never desire to do, thus, they are already committing something prohibited and in this sense the Vedic prescription about the Śyena is a way to bring these evil ones under the control of the Veda (śaṭhacittaśāstravaśatopāyo 'bhicāraśrutiḥ, Parāśara Bhaṭṭa).

Today it came to my mind that this is the same way Jesus Christ used to "rescue" the Mosaic permission to repudiate one's wife. Consider Matthew 19.3–9, where some Pharisees come, as it is often the case in the Gospel narrations, to Jesus in order to test him with a conundrum he would not be able to solve, namely, the seeming contradiction between the cruelty of repudiating one's wife and the fact that this practice is sanctioned by Moses (De 24:1-4):

"Why then," they [=the Pharisees] asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"
Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard […]." (International Version 2011)

Do you see it? Jesus is using the same device as the Mīmāṃsakas, i.e., saying that the passage in the Sacred Text which seems unjust is in fact the best possible solution for the (cruel) people it addresses and that the prescription is in fact not a general order, but an ad hoc permission, focusing on the ones who would not have been able to follow the best way.

Do you know of other instances of this apologetic move? Do you think the parallel holds?

On the Śyena conundrum you can read also this post.


Unknown said...

Discussions about polygamy and slavery (both explicitly accepted by the Quran; the first still accepted by many Muslims, although rarely with enthusiasm, the second generally considered abhorrent to most) in modern Islam often follow a similar pattern, with the addition of a bit of "progressive" vision (slavery was permitted at the time but with the aim to alleviate it in order to phase it out, etc.) that is also very common in the Christian analysis of the Christ/Moses dialectic. In Christianity, this is already apparent in St. Paul, and I believe it emerged within Islam pretty early as well.
This historical awareness seems to be lacking in the Indian exemple you offer here.

Unknown said...

Comparable with this is the following well-known verse (5/56) from the Manusmṛti –

न मांसभक्षणे दोषो न मद्ये न च मैथुने।
प्रवृत्तिरेषा भूतानां निवृत्तिस्तु महाफला॥

On this Sarvajñanārāyaṇa, one of the commentators makes an interesting observation –

“एतादृशमेवैतत् यत्सामान्यतो निषिद्धत्वेऽपि ततो निवृत्तिर्महाफलेति । एतच्च वेदैकसमधिगम्यत्वान्न विपरीतदृष्टान्तमात्रेणान्यथा संभावयितुं शक्यमिति तात्पर्यम् ।”

Thus, by mentioning the prohibited things, the negativity of such prohibited things are better reinforced – a technique of underlining its character of being a parisaṅkhyā vidhi. Another notable remark is ‘vedaikasamadhigamyatva’ – if this is read with a word used in one of the opening verses of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, ‘nigamakalpataru’, three important features emerge –

i. The all-pervasive character of the authority of the Vedas – both in case of dharma and adharma;

ii. A ‘kalpataru’ or wish-fulfilling tree is said to give whatever is asked for from it by any seeker, irrespective of the merit of the gifts thus accorded. The merit or demerit of the fruit accorded does not at all pertain to the giver (i.e. the Vedas), but the receiver. By this a sort of ‘religious buffet’ is offered, as it were;

iii. A psyco-ethico-linguistic approach to dharma and adharma is here adopted.

elisa freschi said...

@Marco: you are absolutely right, Mīmāṃsakas (and other Indian authors, as far as I know) do not take into account the historical dimension and rather neglect the notion of "progress": the world will, for them, always be like it is now.

@Sudipta, thanks for your comment. I enjoyed your point re. the Veda as kalpataru, a very appropriate point re. the Śyena sacrifice. I am not sure I understand what you mean with your third point, though. Could you elaborate more?

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