Sunday, September 16, 2018

Hard hitting, but probably wrong

The author of this book, Swami Tapasyananda, was a leader of the Ramakrishna Mission. His book on Sri Madhvacarya was originally a chapter of a larger work, “Bhakti Schools of Vedanta”, which is still available on another product page. Madhvacarya or Madhva was a 13th century Hindu philosopher and guru from Karnataka in southern India. He is considered to be the founder of Dvaita Vedanta, the Dualist school of Vedanta, which is almost unknown in the West, where many assume that Hindu philosophy is identical with Advaita Vedanta or Non-Dualism (the Ramakrishna Mission is a modern offshoot of Advaita). Tapasyananda's book contains a shorter biography of Madhva with all the usual miraculous embellishments. Apparently, the man could walk on water and feed the multitudes! More important are the lengthy chapters on Madhva's metaphysics and bhakti (devotionalism). The book is relatively non-polemical, although it's clear from the context that Tapasyananda disagrees with Madhvacarya and his “dualist” philosophy.

As a man, Madhva seems to have been famous for his big build and physical prowess, and he is said to have declared himself the third incarnation of Vayu, the god of the wind. The first two incarnations were Hanuman and Bhima, two mythological characters famous for their herculean strength. Madhva was also very scholarly and philosophical, and regarded metaphysical discourse as an important part of loving devotion to God. Apparently, the followers of Dvaita are still notorious for being pugnacious and argumentative in matters philosophical. This presumably explains why the philosophy chapter of Tapasyananda's book on Madhva is much longer than the corresponding chapters in the books on Ramanuja and Caitanya (the latter hardly philosophized at all).

Madhvacarya's philosophy does have surprising traits, at least to those of us who are used to hear that “the world is an illusion” from a plethora of neo-Hindu or pseudo-Hindu teachers. By contrast, Madhva believed that the world was completely real and non-illusory. He was also an empiricist. Sense-experience is the main source of knowledge, and while our senses are of course imperfect and finite, we nevertheless do get true knowledge through them. Revelation is also necessary, but only in cases where sense-experience isn't possible. We can realize even without special revelation that God must exist, due to the design and teleology apparent in the cosmos, but more advanced knowledge of God's nature and the path to salvation can only come through the Vedic scriptures. The most important of these is Shrimad Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana). If something in the scriptures contradicts common sense, the scriptures should be interpreted allegorically. In practice, I get the impression that Madhva elevated philosophy, metaphysics in particular, to the highest form of knowledge. As a devotee of Krishna, he identified God as a person, rather than as the impersonal Brahman. However, God is not anthropomorphic, although he frequently takes such forms for the benefit of his devotees. (Tapasyananda quotes some poetry from Madhva's followers where God is depicted in anthropomorphic and even erotic terms.)

Madhva's dualism strikes me as contradictory. On the one hand, there is an absolute distinction between God and the world. The material world is eternal and co-existent with God. Neither matter nor the souls (jivas) have been created by God. On the other hand, the world is nevertheless dependent on God for its existence and in that sense subordinated to him. This makes no sense – if matter and souls are eternal, they are in some sense *not* dependent on God. The jivas have been thrown down into matter and ignorance by a sovereign act of God, suggesting that He is responsible for their karma and suffering. Weirdly, there are three distinct classes of jivas. Some are possible to liberate, others are forever doomed to remain in ignorance and perpetual reincarnation, while a third category are perennially evil and will inevitably go to the hell-realms. The three classes are eternal, and the distinctions between them existed already before God cast them down into matter. The followers of Dvaita Vedanta deny that God is responsible for evil, since the evil jivas have been evil forever, without God's doing. However, since the good and indifferent jivas have been cast down into ignorance and suffering by the will of God, and are often subject to attacks from the evil jivas, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that Krishna really is responsible for evil…

Another distinct trait of Dvaita Vedanta is the idea that the liberated jivas won't all have the same status. In Ramanuja's philosophy, all liberated jivas have equally high status, and all enjoy the infinite bliss and consciousness of God. To Madhva, there is a hierarchy of jivas even after liberation. This seems to be an empiricist projection of today's conditions of earthly hierarchy onto the heavenly realm.

While Sri Madhvacarya made an important contribution to “realistic” metaphysics (at least in India) and may function as a necessary punch in the face for a certain kind of solipsistic Advaitins, I admit that I don't chime with the rest of his philosophy. It's almost as if the pugnacious sage had combined the worst aspects of process philosophy and Calvinism! Madhva's god comes across as capricious without being omnipotent. That being said, “Sri Madhvacarya: His Life, Religion and Philosophy” is nevertheless a good summary of Dvaita Vedanta and therefore deserve five stars.

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