Hindu Pluralism

by Elaine M. Fisher | 2017 | 113,630 words

This thesis is called Hindu Pluralism: “Religion and the Public Sphere in Early Modern South India”.—Hinduism has historically exhibited a marked tendency toward pluralism—and plurality—a trend that did not reverse in the centuries before colonialism but, rather, accelerated through the development of precolonial Indic early modernity. Hindu plur...

The Sectarianization of Classical Knowledge Systems

[Full title: “Transgressing the Boundaries” of Disciplinarity: The Sectarianization of Classical Knowledge Systems]

By the sixteenth century in south India, as with the majority of the subcontinent, the idea of newness had thoroughly captivated intellectual discourse—whether novelty of form, substance, or indeed of scholarly methodology. It is no accident, in fact, that schools of thought whose very names proclaimed the virtue of newness had come into sudden vogue across sectarian lines. Such is the case, most notably, with Navya Nyāya, or “New Dialectics,” an emergent discipline whose influence reached nearly every corner of Sanskrit intellectual discourse, sectarian theology being no exception.

Take, for instance, the following aphorism, cited by the Mādhva theologian Nārāyaṇācārya in his Advaitakālānala (The armageddon of Advaita), a systematic diatribe countering the Madhvatantramukhamardana (Crushing the face of Madhva’s doctrine) of the Smārta-Śaiva polymath Appayya Dīkṣita:

Statements endowed with logical reasoning are admissible even from a child.
Anything else should be abandoned like grass, even if spoken by Brahmā.[1]

According to Nārāyaṇācārya, what Appayya lacked, succinctly, was logical reasoning. As an outspoken proponent of Madhva’s Dvaita (dualist) theology, Nārāyaṇācārya embarked on his polemical project, the Advaitakālānala, not merely to defend a dualist model of ontology but also to champion the revolutionary dialectical models of Navya Nyāya philosophy. Navya Nyāya, although perhaps better known for its origin and efflorescence in Bengal following the influential thirteenth-century Tattvacintāmaṇi (Crest jewel of principles) of Gaṅgeśa, had made a second home for itself among the prominent logicians of the Mādhva lineage, who were justly renowned by contemporaries for their unsurpassed mastery of the discipline. This trend perhaps reached its zenith under the pioneering dialectical endeavors of Vyāsa Tīrtha, whose metaphysical tracts, with such names as the Nyāyāmṛta (The nectar of logic) and the Tarkatāṇḍava (The dance of reasoning), began to evoke an invariable concomitance between Navya Nyāya and the Mādhva tradition itself. In subsequent generations, Vyāsa Tīrtha was succeeded by prolific scholars such as Vijayīndra Tīrtha, who continued the Navya Nyāya legacy with his Nyāya- mauktikamālā, Nyāya- saṅgraha, Nyāy ādhvadipikā,[2] among many others—which, even when not directly concerned with formal logic, relentlessly evoke the semiotic authority of the “New Dialectics.”

Even outside of the Vaiṣṇava fold, critics of Madhva’s doctrine gravitated toward the Mādhva predilection for formal logic, seizing every opportunity to impugn the rationality of the school’s founder. Among the most memorable critiques of Madhva’s dualism, Appayya Dīkṣita’s Madhvatantramukhamardana caricatures Madhva as no less than an intellectual fraud, delusional enough to believe himself an incarnation of the wind god, Vāyu. Appayya further contends that among the scriptural passages Madhva cites, many were simply fabricated out of thin air (svakapolakalpita, or literally, “fashioned from his own cheek”),[3] and the remainder interpreted so tortuously as to defy even the limits of plausibility.

He elaborates:

“Such Ṛgvedic mantras are demonstrated to refer to the triad of incarnations of Vāyu that he himself has made up, and so forth—thus we witness the wholesale transgression of the boundaries of reasonable authority [prāmāṇikamaryādollaṅghanam].”[4]

Appayya then continues to adduce a version of the very aphorism Mādhvas themselves cite with pride, censuring not merely the theological doctrine of his Mādhva opponents but equally their attachment to logical reasoning as the cornerstone of academic inquiry.

Now, on the principle “Speech endowed with reason is to be accepted, not [mere] venerability,” we would give credit to his doctrine if we could discern in it anything reasonable. But such is not the case. For, generally, in his doctrine, statements that are ascertained from his own heart alone are supported, rather than commonly held principles. And those principles that are exhibited are extremely carelessly observed, applied here and there at will. Even the boundaries of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā are led astray through interpretations of disharmony [asāmañjasya]. Generally speaking, words are used completely inappropriately. His versification cannot possibly be construed syntactically, and more often than not the meters do not exist.[5]

While railing against the methodological preoccupations of his opponents, Appayya reveals his own disciplinary leanings as well. Although considered by all a polymath—a master of all disciplines (sarvatantrasvatantra)—Appayya, to the best of our knowledge, never once composed a treatise on formal logic. Rather, he cultivated a particular expertise in the field of Mīmāṃsā, or Vedic exegesis, a discipline that had centuries before attained the status of a general hermeneutics, its principles adopted widely across the Sanskrit knowledge systems. Beyond developing a simple mastery of the field, Appayya also pioneered a sustained inquiry into the status of Mīmāṃsā as a discipline, negotiating the complexity of its relationship with Vedānta philosophy, or Uttara Mīmāṃsā.[6] Despite the discursive prestige accorded to Navya Nyāya terminology by the sixteenth century, his prose shows few traces of its unmistakable philosophical idiom.[7] And perhaps most tellingly, with his provocatively titled treatise on Mīmāṃsā, the Vidhirasāyana (The elixir of injunction), Appayya proclaimed to his contemporaries that the entire discipline of Mīmāṃsā was in need of resuscitation—and that he, specifically, would provide the remedy.[8]

In short, Appayya’s primary concern, beyond Madhva’s alleged carelessness with source criticism, is that the integrity of the boundaries—or the operative rules—of Mīmāṃsā hermeneutics not be compromised through haphazard textual interpretations. By describing Madhva’s reading strategies as “disharmonious” (asāmañjasyenaiva), Appayya further demarcates himself as an avowed insider in Mīmāṃsā hermeneutics: the principle of sāmanjyasya, or “harmony,” is a Mīmāṃsaka axiom that requires interpreters, wherever possible, to understand texts as harmonious intentional communications, free from internal contradiction. Such subtle gestures were by no means lost on his Mādhva contemporaries. Given that their Smārta-Śaiva opponent had so thoroughly identified himself with the inner workings of the Mīmāṃsā system, they began to look for strategies to dismantle not merely Appayya’s own arguments but also the very universality of Mīmāṃsā’s hermeneutical apparatus.

What precisely was the relationship, then, between Mādhva faith and formal logic, Śaiva scripture and Mīmāṃsā exegesis? Disciplinarity, it seems, was no longer coterminous with the object of inquiry for the Sanskrit knowledge systems in early modern south India. One did not become a Mīmāṃsaka, in this climate, merely to understand the meaning of the Vedas, nor a Naiyāyika to master syllogistic reasoning. Rather, by the sixteenth century, during the floruit of Appayya Dīkṣita, the first stages of a sectarianization of the means of knowledge took place, as discipline-specific approaches to textuality came to be claimed as the property of competing religious traditions. To be a Mādhva theologian in this period, one had little choice but to apply oneself to the study of Navya Nyāya; and over the course of time, Mīmāṃsā acquired an intimate association with the social circles of the Smārta-Śaivas, such that by the following centuries prominent Mādhvas expressed a wholehearted disdain for the interpretive maxims of Mīmāṃsā philosophy.

By the time of Vijayīndra Tīrtha, a genuine skepticism had begun to arise in Mādhva circles concerning the general applicability of Mīmāṃsā hermeneutics. Although Vijayīndra himself had authored works of the Mīmāṃsā school, he evidently felt no compunction, as did Appayya, regarding the “transgressing” of its “boundaries” in the service of Dvaita theology.

In his Turīyaśivakhaṇḍana (Crushing the transcendent-fourth Śiva), for instance, Vijayīndra even celebrates the virtue of transgressing Mīmāṃsaka boundaries, which, he contends, was in fact a deliberate and strategic decision on the part of the Mādhva school:

It is unreasonable to say that the boundary of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā is led astray by such improper application. By saying that the statements of our Teacher [Madhva] were arrived at merely by his own fancy, one acts like a frog in a well. Only the principles shown by our Teacher possess the fortitude of intellect, and not those shown by others. The disharmonious application of the boundaries of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā is in fact precisely our doctrine.[9]

It is Nārāyaṇācārya, however, who finally threw down the gauntlet, in his Advaitakālānala, calling for the wholesale rejection of Mīmāṃsaka reading strategies outside of the narrow confines of Vedic ritual exegesis. Structured as a systematic counterattack on Appayya’s Madhvatantramukhamardana, the Advaitakālānala rejects each one of Appayya’s allegations in turn, including the notorious issue of Madhva’s recovery—or fabrication—of little-known scriptures. As one may predict, Nārāyaṇācārya was prepared with an equally incisive counterattack for each of Appayya’s allegations, attempting to renegotiate the limits of what constitutes acceptable scriptural authority and how we can reliably trust the authenticity of an attested source. In making his case, Nārāyaṇācārya exhibits much of the heightened philological sensitivity marshaled by his near contemporary, Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita, in his Śivatattvarahasya, never hesitating to bring critical scrutiny to fundamental questions of source criticism.

Take, for instance, the question of metrical flaw, still employed today as a key text-critical principle for determining whether a verse or text has been modified or poorly transmitted over the centuries. Madhva’s sources, Appayya tells us, are consistently riddled with metrical errors; thus, we are forced to doubt the faithfulness of their transmission and, as a result, their reliability as authoritative scripture. Nārāyaṇācārya takes a firm and principled stand on the matter based on the legacy of classical Sanskrit metrics, claiming that an innumerable array of variant verse forms are in fact metrically permitted, and, hence, a deviant metrical form cannot be reliably accepted as a criterion for the corruption of a verse. In fact, he reminds us quite correctly that the Mahābhārata is full of metrically deviant verses, all of which are accepted equally as authoritative by his contemporaries.

He elaborates:

For instance, the meter known as jagatī consists of twelve syllables, and there are 4,096 mutually distinct subtypes because of their derivations based on their sequential formation of heavy and light syllables. Names, such as vaṃśastha, drutavila mbita, and so forth, have been designated for a few among them. Such is the case for a single meter; as there may be a greater number of syllables in a given meter, an individual meter may exceed a lakh [of subtypes]. And as for those [well-known] meters such as śārdūlavikrīḍita and sragdharā, these are applied specifically per verse or per foot. It is not that a single specific meter is demanded by all four lines of a verse.[10]

On the question of metrical flaw, Nārāyaṇācārya is by no means timid in attempting to disarm not only Appayya’s arguments but even his principal tools of textual interpretation. What engages his attention throughout the majority of the Advaitakālānala, however, is not metrics but Mīmāṃsā. Preoccupying himself with the analytical power of Mīmāṃsā maxims, and the limits of their applicability, Nārāyaṇācārya calls into question the essential nature of disciplinarity in Sanskrit śāstra and the extratextual sectarian significance of disciplinary divisions. Appayya, for his part, being an accomplished Mīmāṃsaka with an ingenious sense of the hermeneutic potential of Mīmāṃsā strategies of interpretation, launches his attacks on Madhva by way of highly specific Mīmāṃsaka principles. Take, for instance, the first verse of the Madhvatantramukhamardana—quite likely intended both as an intellectual witticism and as a genuine attack on the scriptural foundations of dualist theology.

He writes,

To those who define the subject of the Brahmasūtras as “Śiva or Viṣṇu,”
It is agreed—we who worship nirguṇa brahman accept the saguṇa as well.
Little contradiction arises for us, who know the na hi nindā maxim.
Nor should any other interpretation of the Sūtras be suppressed by you.[11]

The na hi nindā maxim is an interpretive principle paraphrased directly from the Mīmāṃsāsūtrabhāṣya (2.4.20) of Śabara, who aims to resolve the potential contradictions in ritual procedure resulting from Vedic passages that appear to censure (nindā) a particular sequence of actions. Such blame, Śabara contends, does not prohibit what seems to be prohibited, but rather simply allows room for some other possibility.

As he writes,

“Blame, after all, is not employed to blame the blameworthy, but rather to praise something other than what is blamed (na hi nindā nindyaṃ nindituṃ prayujyate, kiṃ tarhi ninditād itarat praśaṃsitum). As such, what is understood is not a prohibition of what is blamed but rather an injunction of something else.”[12]

Appayya, for his part, extracts the na hi nindā maxim from its Vedic ritual context and adapts it for the resolution of apparent logical contradictions in other scriptures, such as the sectarian Purāṇas and the Brahmasūtras. Any scriptural statement that appears to castigate either Śiva or Viṣṇu—or even to deny the nondualistic nature of the world—may simply be interpreted as an optional, contingent description of the true state of affairs. Individual deities, for example, may be equated with the nondual brahman as saguṇa manifestations on the force of this same maxim. Apparently exasperated by this approach, Nārāyaṇācārya not only maintains that Appayya’s particular uses of Mīmāṃsā hermeneutics are inapplicable as a critique of Madhva’s doctrine of dualism, or as a means to determine the identity of or difference between Śiva and Viṣṇu, but he also goes much further and throws into question the more general validity of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā itself as an approach to textual interpretation outside of the narrow confines of Vedic ritual procedure.

As he remarks aphoristically in one of his verses:

“Mīmāṃsā, set forth to resolve the contradiction among statements occupying the peak of scripture, is in this case entirely fruitless.”[13]

By reducing the consequences of the na hi nindā maxim to absurdity, what Nārāyaṇācārya aims to elucidate is the danger involved in haphazardly applying hermeneutical principles without careful attention to what those principles logically entail. When any critical statement can be explained away as optionality, scripture is rendered unable to negate heretical doctrines in simple, declarative statements. Even genuine philosophical refutation becomes logically impossible. By thus attempting to outlaw Mīmāṃsā reading practices in the arena of sectarian debate, Nārāyaṇācārya reveals the growing division between the very tools of textual interpretation employed by rival sectarian traditions. In fact, rather than agreeing on a single shared medium for debate, the two rival traditions began to demarcate certain textual approaches as essentially their own property, distancing themselves from attack and counterattack by attempting to invalidate their opponents’ reading practices. In fact, Nārāyaṇācārya enthusiastically accepts Appayya’s allegations that Madhva “transgresses the boundaries” of Mīmāṃsā, construing this transgressive maneuver as the culmination of the Mādhva school’s mastery of syllogistic logic. No school of philosophy, even Mīmāṃsā, he argues, ought to be accepted as the arbiter of all intellectual activity.

Were this the case, one who failed to accept the primacy of “primordial matter” (prakṛti) would “transgress” the precepts of the Sāṅkhya school of philosophy, and one who failed to accept the ontological inherence of properties in objects would “transgress” the principles of Vaiśeṣika.

And as for the claim that even the boundaries of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā are being led astray by improper argumentation, then our response is that we are not the servants of the Pūrva Mīmāṃsakas. We’ll proceed with whatever boundaries we like. But rather—

Statements endowed with logical reasoning are admissible even from a child. Anything else should be abandoned like grass, even if spoken by Brahmā.

Based on this principle, we accept what is reasonable, and we abandon what is unreasonable. This is an ornament, not a fault, for those who propound independent systems of thought. Otherwise, by failing to accept the ontological category of inherence, one would transgress the boundaries of Kaṇāda’s [Vaiśeṣika] system, and by failing to accept the primacy of prakṛti, one would transgress the boundaries of Sāṃkhya; thus, we by no means consider this a fault. But rather, how could we not perceive you yourself—who have accepted the singularity of the self, the universal brahman, the falsehood of the world, and the fact that the Veda teaches falsehood—as having transgressed the boundaries of all systems apart from the Buddhists.[14]

In short, Nārāyaṇācārya turns Appayya’s allegation on its head—transgressing the hermeneutics of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā is no fault at all but rather a dearly held principle of argumentation and interpretation. Despite—or perhaps even because of—the vehemence of his argumentation, Nārāyaṇācārya manages both to solidify the boundaries between their respective sectarian communities and, in the process, to draw widespread scrutiny across sectarian boundaries to the very reading practices that had been taken for granted for centuries as the foundations of textual interpretation. As a result, the source material of sectarian debate became the source of a widespread reconsideration of textual interpretation itself, as intellectuals from all camps contributed to an incisive reconsideration of just how the texts they had long taken for granted really do mean what we think they mean.

Footnotes and references:


yuktiyuktam upādeyaṃ vacanaṃ bālakād api | anyat tṛṇam iva tyājyam apy uktaṃ padmajanmanā || Quoted by Nārāyaṇācārya, Advaitakālānala, pg. 42. This aphoristic verse is best known from the Yogavāsiṣṭha / Mokṣopāya textual corpus. See for instance Mokṣopāya 2.18.3.


The Nyāyādhvadīpikā, for instance, is, remarkably, a treatise of the Mīmāṃsā school of Vedic hermeneutics, about which more will be said below. The fascination with the homonymy of the term nyāya as “logic” and nyāya as a “maxim” of Mīmāṃsā hermeneutics is perhaps no accident.


See Mesquita (2000, 2008) for the controversy on the authenticity of Madhva’s scriptural citations.


ityādiṛgvedamantrasya svakalpitavāyvavatāratrayaparatayā pradarśanam ity ādiprāmāṇikamaryādollaṅghanaṃ bhūyaḥ saṃdṛśyate. Appayya Dīkṣita, Madhvatantramukhamardana, pg. 11.


athāpi yuktiyuktaṃ vaco grāhyaṃ na tu puruṣagauravam iti nyāyena tanmataṃ śraddadhīmahi yadi tatropapannaṃ kiṃcid ākalayema. na tv evaṃprāyeṇa hi tanmate svamātrahṛdayārūḍhāni vacanāny evopajīvyāni na tu nyāyāḥ. ye tu nyāyāḥ pradarśitās te ‘py atyantaśithilā eva kvacit kvacid āśritāḥ. pūrvamīmāṃsāmaryādā ‘py asāmañjasyenaiva nītā. prāyeṇāsādhubhir eva śabdair vyavahāraḥ. ślokaracanāyām anvayāsaṃbhavo vṛttāny athābhāvaś cādhikaḥ. Appayya Dīkṣita, Madhvatantramukhamardana, pg. 11.


See Pollock (2004) for a discussion and partial translation of the work in question, the Pūrvottaramīmāṃsāvādanakṣatramālā, or “The Milky Way of Discourses on Pūrva and Uttara Mīmāṃsā,” in Pollock’s translation.


Diaconescu (2012), for instance, has observed that Appayya’s language shows remarkably little Navya Nyāya inflection, without, however, inquiring into why this might be the case.


See also McCrea (2008) on the extensive discourse, both critical and approbative, generated in response to Appayya’s provocative theses.


pūrvamīmāṃsakamaryādāsāmañjasyenaiva nīyateti tad ayuktam. asmadācāryodāhṛtavacanāni svamātrahṛdayārūḍhānīti vadan kūpamaṇḍūkāyate. asmadācāryapradarśitanyāyānām eva matidārḍhyaṃ na parasparadarśitānām. pūrvamīmāṃsakamaryādāsāmañjasyaṃ cāsmanmata eva. Vijayīndra Tīrtha, Madhvatantramukhabhūṣaṇa, GOML, Madras, Ms. No. 15446, fol. 6.


yathā dvādaśākṣarā jagatī nāma vṛttaṃ tasyāś ca gurulaghuprakriyāvyutpādanena parasparāsaṃspṛṣṭāś catvāri sahasrāṇi ṣaṇṇavatiś ca bhedā bhavanti. tadantaḥpraviṣṭānāṃ katipayānāṃ vaṃśasthadrutavilambitādayaḥ saṃjñāḥ kṛtāḥ. evam ekasya chandasa ete, yathā yathā chandokṣarāṇām adhikatvaṃ bhavati tathā tathā lakṣādhikaprastāram ekaikaṃ vṛttaṃ bhavati. yāny api śārdūlavikrīḍitasragdharādīni vṛttāni tāni ca ślokapādaparyāptāny eveti niyamaḥ. na tu tad eva vṛttaṃ ślokasya pādacatuṣṭaye ‘py apekṣaṇīyam ity asti. tena—sarvair devaiś ca bhaktyaiḥ svanimiṣanayanaiḥ kautukādvīkṣyamāṇaḥ pāyāc cheṣagarutmadādidivijaiḥ saṃsevitaḥ svaṃ padam. ity atra ādyapāde sragdharā dvitīyapāde ca śārdūlavikrīḍitam. Advaitakālānala, pg. 51.


śivaṃ viṣṇuṃ vā yady abhidadhati śāstrasya viṣayaṃ tad iṣṭaṃ grāhyaṃ naḥ saguṇam api tad brahmabhajatām. virodho nātīva sphurati na hi nindā nayavidāṃ na sūtrāṇām arthāntaram api bhavadvāryam ucitam. Madhvatantramukhamardana, pg. 2, v. 1.


na hi nindā nindyaṃ nindituṃ prayujyate. kiṃ tarhi ninditāditarat praśaṃsitum. tatra na ninditasya pratiṣedho gamyate, kiṃtv itarasya vidhiḥ.


virodhaṃ vākyānāṃ śrutiśikharabhājāṃ śamayituṃ pravṛttā mīmāṃsā bhavati sakalāpīha viphalā. Advaitakālānala 2.13.


yad api pūrvamīmāṃsāmaryādāpy asāmañjasyena nītety uktaṃ, tad apy uktaṃ na hi vayaṃ pūrvamīmāṃsakānāṃ kiṃkarāḥ. yattanmaryādayaiva vartemahi. kiṃ tu—yuktiyuktam upādeyaṃ vacanaṃ bālakād api | anyat tṛṇam iva tyājyam apy uktaṃ padmajanmanā || iti nyāyād yad upapannaṃ tat svīkurmaḥ, yad anupapannam... tatparityajāmas, tad etad bhūṣaṇam eva na tu dūṣaṇaṃ svatantratantrapravartakānām. anyathā samavāyānaṅgīkārāt kāṇādādimaryādollaṅghanaṃ prakṛtiprādhānyānaṅgīkārāt sāṃkhyamaryādol-laṅghanam ity ādy api dūṣaṇaṃ kimiti nodbhāvayeḥ. pratyuta sakalavādyanabhimatam ātmaikatvam akhaṇḍaṃ brahma viśvamithyātvaṃ vedasyātattvāvedakatvam abhyupagatavatas tavaiva śūnyavādyatiriktasarvatāntrikamaryādollaṅghanaṃ śūnyavādimatapraveśasyeti kathaṃ na nibhālayase. Advaitakālānala, pg. 42.

Help me keep this site Ad-Free

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: