Before the Reign of Realism: Madhva’s Vedānta, 1300–1600

In: Journal of South Asian Intellectual History
Jonathan Peterson Department of Religious Studies, Stanford University Stanford, CA USA

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The papers in this issue were first presented at the 48th annual conference on South Asia at Madison, Wisconsin. The purpose of the panel was to bring needed scholarly attention to the Vedāntic ‘realism’ attributed to Madhva (c. 1238–1317)—so termed for its rejection of Śaṅkara’s monistic ‘idealism.’ Madhva’s Vedānta has had an enormous impact on religious, cultural, and political life in southern India and the Deccan. But the quantity of critical scholarship on the movement’s history is nearly inversely proportional to its importance. If there was ever a “reign of realism,” as R. Nagaraja Sarma’s provocatively titled 1937 book on Madhva’s philosophy proclaimed, we know remarkably little about how it came to be. The four papers in this issue are intended not as the final word, but as the beginning of a sustained and collaborative conversation about this important and under-studied religious and philosophical system.

Compared to the progenitors of other Vedāntas, Madhva was an especially prolific and imaginative writer. In addition to his commentaries on the Ṛg Veda, the Mahābhārata, and numerous essays, songs, and ritual manuals, Madhva authored four commentaries on the Vedāntasūtras. The term ‘commentary’ is hardly sufficient to express the innovations he brought to these works. He not only used them to promote radically new solutions to long-running Vedāntic questions, but also as surrogates for his own self-styled messianic authority. Yet important as Madhva’s writings are in their own right, one cannot speak of ‘Mādhva Vedānta’ without the movement’s early evangelizers, systematizers, and institution builders. These early figures brought order to Madhva’s chaotic writings. They selected and harmonized key kernels of his thought and nurtured them into a coherent system of philosophy and liberation. As Valerie Stoker’s paper in this issue shows, these early figures were also instrumental in crafting the story of Madhva and localizing it in the distinctive geographies of western Karnataka—quite literally naturalizing Mādhva Vedānta in time and place.

There is an enormous volume of writing from the first three centuries of Madhva’s movement. Combined with the rich documentary record of Vijayanagara’s administrative state and its vassals (whose largesse was instrumental to the movement’s popularization) and we are presented with an enormous opportunity and challenge: we have everything we need to start the long work of excavating, layer by layer, the cemented edifice of the system so that we can historicize key aspects of Mādhva doctrine and practice, all the while plotting those genealogies, where possible, against larger social and cultural developments of the second-millennium.

Although we are only at the early stages of this work, even circumscribed efforts like ours raise methodological questions that extend well beyond our narrow case study—Is there any connection between the seemingly bloodless doctrines staked out in Mādhva scholarly writings and the lived world of Mādhva intellectuals? Can we read hagiographies and popular narratives about Madhva and his miracle-working scholar-saints as sources of history? And if so, what ways of reading does this material demand? How can we use scholastic polemics (of which Mādhva Vedānta generated many) to tell more textured and localized histories?

The issue begins in the murky period following Madhva’s death in 1317. Valerie Stoker’s article, titled “In Charisma’s Wake: History, Divinity, and Change in Early Mādhva Vedānta,” analyzes several early texts about Madhva’s life. The first is the Sampradāyapaddhati (A Guidebook to the [Early Mādhva] Community), which is thought to have been composed by Madhva’s disciple Hṛṣīkeśa (c. 1330). The second and third are the Sumadhvavijaya and Bhāvaprakāśikā of Nārāyaṇa Paṇḍita (c. 1350), the son of Trivikrama, one of Madhva’s direct disciples and earliest commentators. Both encourage veneration of Madhva as an incarnation of the god Vāyu by recounting his performance of miracles in locations that are now associated with long-standing Mādhva institutions. The connection between Madhva’s miracles and their sites of performance has led some today to understand these texts as factual accounts of the community’s early practices. The texts’ alleged facticity was put to the test in the 1950s, when the Udupi leadership submitted the Sampradāyapaddhati and the Sumadhvavijaya as evidence in a court case involving the Madras Temple Entry Act, in which they sought, unsuccessfully, to limit public access to the worship of the Krishna icon that Madhva had installed in Udupi.

The Madras Temple Entry litigation, while not the focus of Stoker’s paper, highlights the tension between “historical” and “religious” writing, or the ‘empty, homogenous time’ of secular historicism and a kind of heterogenous, messianic time—what Robert Orsi has called “divine presence” in history. Stoker argues that early Mādhva figures grappled in their own way with these tensions. One the one hand, they recognized that Madhva’s reformist movement was rooted in a particular moment and place. At the same time, Madhva’s miracles, his divinity, and the promise of his teachings being resurrected at the end of the Kali Yuga all presume the potential of supernatural intervention in history. Stoker argues that the balance early Mādhva scholars struck between the messianic and the mundane, or between the “supernatural and the rationalized” gave Madhva’s movement its unique power and appeal.

The second paper, written by Anusha Rao, examines debates about the eligibility of women for Vedic study and ritual performance across three centuries of Mādhva commentarial literature. In “Maunaṃ Sammatilakṣaṇam? The Eligibility of Women for Vedic Study in Dvaita Vedānta,” Rao points to a gradual process of commentarial foreclosure, where Madhva’s ambiguous stance about women and Vedic study was systematically clarified to exclude women. Although Madhva promotes the kind of gendered (and casteist) ideas of Vedic study seen in the other Vedāntas, Rao shows us that he carved out a separate category of “superior” (uttama) women who are in fact eligible to study the Vedas. But who are these ‘superior’ women? Madhva is clear that certain goddesses are indeed ‘superior,’ but he does not clearly limit the property of exceptionalism to the gods. In doing so, Madhva either intentionally or accidentally raises the possibility that certain human women might undertake Vedic study, too (Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja were utterly clear in rejecting this possibility).

Putting aside whether Madhva intended this to be the case, the ambiguity of his position compelled later commentators to clarify it. Rao traces layers of Mādhva commentary that, by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, interpreted Madhva to unambiguously deny a woman’s eligibility to study the Vedas. In tracing these layers of commentary, Rao grapples with the gulf between the theory of gender in early Mādhva soteriology and its practice in the movement’s domestic and ritual spaces. To be silent or deliberately ambiguous on women’s eligibility, as commentators from Jayatīrtha through Vyāsatīrtha were, is not the same as endorsing women’s access to Vedic learning, even in theory, which is still not the same as implementing it in practice. Rao nevertheless asks what the shifts in discussions about women’s eligibility can tell us about histories of commentary and exegesis, and possible reasons why, in the sixteenth century of all moments, commentators felt it necessary to voice an unambiguous position about women’s eligibility for Vedic study. These debates have contemporary reverberations. Rao concludes her paper by pointing to modern Mādhva exegetes who have exploited Madhva’s ambiguity to claim, contrary to the last four centuries of commentary, that the Mādhva tradition from its earliest and allegedly ‘purest’ articulations endorses a woman’s eligibility for Vedic study.

The third and fourth papers argue that ‘polemics’ are important but under- utilized sources for thinking about the function of knowledge within larger orders of politics and power. In his paper “Liberated, But Not Free,” Nabanjan Maitra examines early receptions of Mādhva theology among adherents of Advaita Vedānta at Sringeri. Maitra reads the Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha of the fourteenth-century logician Cannibhaṭṭa to argue that Advaita Vedāntins used two strategies for dismissing the Mādhva system as a system of ‘Vedānta.’ First, Cannibhaṭṭa treats the school as a Vaiṣṇava sect, thereby placing Mādhva Vedānta beyond the Vedic pale. Second, Mādhvism is condemned for its account of liberation, wherein the self remains in a state of eternal servitude (dāsatva) to the sovereign lord Viṣṇu (parameśvara). Maitra argues that these two prongs of attack cohere as a unified articulation of power that was undergirded by the Sringeri monastery’s efforts to place the liberated ascetic at the apex of an imagined social order. Conversely, Mādhva writers presumed a vastly different conception of sovereignty and authority that favored kings, patrons, and social elites. Maitra argues that anti-Advaita polemics written by early Mādhva scholars served a vital sociological function to win over power brokers and to secure the boundaries of the Mādhva community.

The last paper builds on the idea that polemics are productive by examining Mādhva-Jain polemics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In “Critique and Catharsis: Jain-Vaiṣṇava Polemics in Early Modern Karnataka,” Jonathan Peterson analyzes an anti-Jain essay titled Pāṣaṇḍakhaṇḍana (Condemning the Apostates) written by an influential Mādhva intellectual named Vādirāja (c. 1550–1610). Although critiques of Jainism are present in many Mādhva texts (they are demanded by the very structure of the Vedāntasūtras), Peterson reads the Pāṣaṇḍakhaṇḍana as the product of a particularly volatile moment in the history of western Karnataka, when the atrophy of Vijayanagara courtly power and the rise of Vīraśaiva warlords produced a unique set of local power struggles over patronage, livelihood, and influence. The language of Pāṣaṇḍakhaṇḍana bears only oblique traces of these local conditions, but by reading it alongside inscriptions, land grants, and monastic records, Peterson makes two larger arguments. The first is methodological. Polemics demand a certain kind of contextualism—not one that aims to explain the doctrinal content of a text as the product of certain social conditions, but instead seeks to understand the ‘work’ a given polemic might have done in the world. The second argument extends from the first. Polemics are often mischaracterized as a form of ruinous debate or, perhaps worse, as a form of feeble prattle that is incapable of generating new ideas. Peterson suggests that the Pāṣaṇḍakhaṇḍana exemplifies but one of several ways in which polemics were productive for early modern intellectuals. Vādirāja directs the power of incendiary speech not to destroying an enemy (in fact, the text likely never fell before Jain readers), but towards securing the edifice of Mādhva devotion in a moment of instability and upheaval. Vādirāja’s anti-Jain writing was, in other words, critique as a form of catharsis and community-building.

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