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Accomplishing the Accomplished: The Vedas as a Source of Valid Knowledge in Sankara.

In this concise volume Rambachan continues his important work of sorting out the Advaita Vedanta tradition, particularly by focusing on the continuities and discontinuities between Sankara's Advaita and the Neo-Vedanta of the past century.(1) His careful analyses of Sankara's writings (he does not stray into social or historical considerations, and only rarely into post-Sankara Advaita) impress upon us two points. First, he reminds us that Advaita is at its heart a highly orthodox exegetical system deeply rooted in the ritual and textual practices of Mimamsa; its precise interpretive principles receive epistemological and later metaphysical, psychological and cosmological elaborations only in a most cautious fashion. The Advaita carefully avoids giving independent roles to reason or experience, and defends the centrality of scripture from theoretical and practical perspectives. Second, Rambachan's work shows us that the Neo-Vedanta, informed by other currents of Indian thought and greatly affected by the categories and values derived from Western thought, is marked by notions of religion, experience and reason quite distinct from those of Sankara and at important points contrary to his orthodox scriptural commitments.

Accomplishing the Accomplished, his first full-length study, refutes the notions (which he takes as almost universally accepted by modern scholars) that Sankara and the Vedantins awarded to anubhava (experience) and anumana (inference) equality with or primacy over srutipramana (scriptural knowledge), and that an ultimate validation of truth by religious experience is a unique characteristic of Indian philosophy in general, "which places it in a distinctively superior category from Western philosophy". Put positively, Rambachan's thesis is that for Sankara, "given the nature of Brahman, sruti as a means of knowledge is the only logical and credible pramana ... given the nature of Brahman and the fact that the fundamental human problem is one of avidya (ignorance), the knowledge derived from the words of the sruti is a fully adequate solution".

After a vigorous introductory complaint against scholars (ranging from Swami Prabhavananda, S. Radhakrishnan, and N. K. Devaraja to M. Hiriyanna, R. deSmet, and Ninian Smart) whom he judges to have compromised Sankara's insistence that sruti requires no validation beyond itself, his major chapters survey the six pramanas (ch. 1), the Vedas as pramana (ch. 2), the method of gaining brahmajnana (ch. 3) and its nature (ch. 4) and, finally, the triple process of the appropriation of scriptural knowledge, sravana, manana, and nididhyasana (ch. 5). Each chapter is a well-wrought piece of scholarship, though the book's overall excellence would have been enhanced by a clearer picture of the (Purva) Mimamsa, and of the overall project and style of Sankara's commentaries, particularly the Uttaramimamsasutrabhasya.

Rambachan correctly recognizes the importance of sruti for Sankara, and the superior power Sankara attributes to it. Likewise, he justly rejects caricatures of srutipramana as mere prooftexting or mere submission to extrinsic authority, and aptly distinguishes the epistemological claims regarding sruti--that it gives us true and sufficient liberative knowledge--from connected but secondary features such as its effect on the mind, its role in the process of learning, its connection to perceptible realities, inferences and other means of knowledge, and its reformulation in apologetics and doctrine.

But Rambachan may make things just a bit too clear. The upanisads were certainly not entirely consistent on the issue of the relationship between sruti and anubhava, and in Sankara's writings too we find texts which seem to indicate that sruti is not the simple, sole means of knowledge of Brahman, or (at least) that being "the sole means" is still a complex reality. Let us consider but one example from Sankara, which Rambachan considers in detail. In his commentary on Uttaramimamsasutra I.1.2, which is dedicated to firming up the connection between anumana (inference) and sruti, Sankara says, "It is not the case that sruti, etc., are the only means of knowledge in the inquiry into Brahman, as is the case in the inquiry into dharma. Rather, sruti, etc., as well as experience, etc., are means of knowledge as far as their capability allows, since knowledge of Brahman concludes in experience, and has an existent object as its topic" (na dharmajijnasayam iva srutyadaya eva pramanam brahmajijnasayam; kim tu srutyadayo 'nubhavadayasca yathasambhavam iha pramanam, anubhavavasanatvad bhutavastuvisayatvacca brahmajnanasya). Rambachan, though correctly refusing to allow this single text to overturn Sankara's persistent emphasis on sruti, does not acknowledge the clear parallelism of srutyadayo and anubhavadayas, but argues instead that "it is significant that |Sankara~ adds 'etc.' after anubhava. This would suggest that no special significance is being attached to anubhava. The inevitable conclusion here is that anubhava is grouped along with all other pramanas whose roles are conceived by Sankara as only subordinate and supplementary to sruti". This correct conclusion about Sankara's thought in general is unwarranted by this particular text, which seems rather to mean that anubhava and allied means of knowledge are indeed complementary to "sruti, etc." How Brahman's extra-textual status is to be mediated through sruti is one of the central concerns--and balancing acts--of Advaita.

Rambachan's energetic critique and insistence that Sankara has a single, clear position is part of his rebuttal of those who use an "existentialized" version of Sankara to promote a romantic image of a spiritual India; to such writers he rightly denies the support of Sankara as an ally. But some of those he criticizes, such as deSmet and others who share Rambachan's commitment to careful reading,(2) do find certain complexities in Sankara's writings, as in sutra I.1.2, and fairly notice these.

They are also legitimately concerned with how a hearer/reader appropriates textual knowledge and how that knowledge relates to the extra-textual reality of Brahman--a concern Rambachan too recognizes, but which is not central to his argument. Hearers/readers are required to make the transition from "mere words"--even upanisadic words--to a validation of those words in their individual lives, and on a phenomenal level at least the knowledge of Brahman is distinguishable from textual knowledge. One has to distinguish between the realization of Brahman and the understanding of the text, even if one thereafter comes close to denying the distinction. Even if one wishes to avoid talking of an "extra-textual" knowledge of Brahman, it is not entirely inappropriate to speak of a knowledge of Brahman that is truly "post-textual." Though sruti is authoritative and has no need of supplement, some distinction between textual knowledge of Brahman and the experience of Brahman may be (temporarily and linguistically) justified within the temporal realm where the "accomplishment" of sruti takes place, just as expositions of Brahman as possessed of qualities (saguna) can be justified.

As a whole, the book reminds us why we ought not to think of Sankara as a philosopher or even a mystic, unless both appellations are mediated through an appreciation of his theological and exegetical commitments--a reminder that is no small contribution. The reader will look forward to more from Rambachan, as he continues to construct his highly useful and corrective account of Sankara vis-a-vis modern versions of Vedanta.

1 See for instance these essays by Rambachan: "Sankara's Rationale for sruti as the Definite Source of brahma-jnana: A Refutation of Some Contemporary Views," Philosophy East and West 36 (1986): 25-401; "Where Words Fail: The Limits of Scriptural Authority in the Hermeneutics of a Contemporary Advaitin," Philosophy East and West 37 (1987): 361-71; "Where Words Can Set Free: The Liberating Potency of Vedic Words in the Hermeneutics of Sankara," in Texts in Contexts, ed. J. Timm (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).

2 See Richard deSmet, "The Theological Method of Sankara" (Ph.D. thesis, Gregorian University, 1953), especially ch. 6. See also Wilhelm Halbfass (whose work Rambachan does not mention), "Human Reason and Vedic Revelation in the Philosophy of Sankara," Studies in Kumarila and Sankara (Reinbek: Verlag fur orientalistiche Fachpublikationen, 1983), 27-84.
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Author:Clooney, Francis X.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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