Transcript: 26. Francis Clooney on Vedanta

Francis Clooney joins us to discuss the religious and philosophical aspects of Vedānta.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about Vedanta, which is also known as Utara Mimamsa to distinguish it from Purva Mimamsa. Utara means Later Mimamsa, Purva means Prior Mimamsa. Maybe you can remind the listeners of the basic differences between these two kinds of Mimamsa or what people sometimes call Mimamsa and Vedanta, how they relate and to what extent they constitute one united intellectual tradition.

Francis Clooney: I think when one looks at the materials that are involved when we talk about Mimamsa and Vedanta, we realize, first of all, that there are, behind the philosophical developments in either school, very different kinds of material. On the Mimamsa side, we're talking about the Vedic texts, both texts that are used in the performance of ritual uttered and the directives on how to perform ritual. What Mimamsa tries to do in any of its stages at any point in its history is to understand and show the coherence between what is said in the text and the actual performance. That is a starting point on the Mimamsa side. The Vedanta generally is traced to the Upanishads, the so-called late Vedic texts, which while often themselves having some of the same ritual materials and certainly the same heritage behind them, are rather more philosophical, in terms we would use: concerned about the nature of reality, the nature of the self, what happens after death, what is it that is true or undeniable in reality. On one level, one can say Mimamsa and Vedanta are different because they're dealing with very different kinds of material to start with. They're also, however, similar because in both traditions, there are the so-called Sutra texts - these what are often in English called aphorisms, short aphorisms, which seem aimed at combining, organizing, and clarifying what is at stake in either of these bodies of material. So the very vast body of ritual materials in Mimamsa, the Sutra texts, 2700 Sutras of Jaimini are aimed at organizing, coming up with the difficult problems and then resolving those problems in some kind of economical fashion. In the Vedanta, the many Upanishads say many different things about the self, Brahman, the world, human destiny. And the Sutra text attributed to Badarayana is aimed at clarifying and showing that there is a coherent teaching across the Upanishads and not a multiplicity of meanings. So both have something of similarity of style, a similar, you might say, scholastic intent to show the harmony of the texts that are being dealt with, but both really come from different bodies of material that naturally would make one expect there to be differences between Mimamsa and Vedanta.

Peter Adamson: On the other hand, I guess that the Mimamsas and Vedantans themselves think of earlier Veda and later Veda or the Upanishads as itself being a united body of texts, right? I mean, that's the Veda broadly considered.

Francis Clooney: Yes. When one steps back and looks at the material, it's not simply simultaneous representations - ritual on the one side and more philosophical investigation on the other. But any scholar of the Vedic materials and the Upanishads would say, 'well, these are in some way related as stages chronologically earlier and later in a singular development over time.' It's not necessarily the case that the later is better or more mature, but nonetheless the later does seem to presume the earlier. And therefore, whether one is looking at it through the eyes of a Mimamsa ritual scholar or a Vedanta philosophical scholar, the presumption on both sides would be that the earlier and the later are integrally connected with one another and are together for some purpose.

Peter Adamson: Right. Okay. So we've got a layer of texts in a sense or a layering of texts. We've got these original Vedic texts, including the Upanishads. Then we've got these Sutra texts, the Aphorisms, which systematize and deal with problems. And then we've got layers of commentary on these Sutras. And some of the most important figures in both prior Mimamsa and Vedanta are commentators, like Shankara, for example. Now you in some of your early work on Mimamsa, Purva Mimamsa, emphasized the opportunity and importance of excavating the meaning of Jaimini's Sutra text and trying to, if not strip away the later commentary, at least trying to appreciate the Sutra for its own sake. To what extent do you think that that's important and possible in the case of the Vedanta Sutra written by Badarayana?

Francis Clooney: I think in both cases, it's a necessary question to raise, first of all, because the two Sutra texts that we have, the approximately 2700 Sutras of Jyamini in the Mimamsa, the approximately 500, perhaps a few more in the case of Badarayana, are as it were floating in space. Clearly it would be hard to imagine that an author sat down one day and composed these vast Sutra texts without any context. And they both give the impression of being located in teaching traditions. In fact, they may be reminders both to teachers and their students of the topics that need to be considered. And probably themselves, therefore, in their early stages of development were teaching tools in the lively context of debating, on the one hand the ritual problems, on the other hand the philosophical problems. However, over time, we then have the perhaps receding or detachment from those teaching contexts and we have these settled texts, the Sutra texts, which if they were meant to be reminders of an ongoing discussion can seem rather more obscure if those ongoing discussions are no longer ongoing, or if those who are reading the text were not part of those discussions. And therefore, almost inevitably in the case of these Sutra texts or in fact any Sutra texts, questions arise about, well, what is the context of this argument? What exactly is meant by the position that's being presented here? And in fact, because the Sutras are meant to be reminders, devices for prompting memory regarding larger arguments, they're often extremely brief. Rarely are they full sentences, often just a word or two. And therefore, problems of interpretation come to the fore. What exactly is being meant in this context? And even though we would hope that the commentators would be part of living traditions of the teaching of these texts, they may be on the one hand, Shabara separated by two or three or four centuries from the Jain Mani Sutra composition and Shankara could be again three, two centuries later than Badarayana. So one has to trust that something coherent and continuous went on in the teaching tradition and that in some way they're related to these materials, but the gap of time necessarily raises the issue of do we actually understand what the original text was intending?

Francis Clooney: And we can tell from both Shabara and Shankara that there's also been intervening debates, just as the original Sutras sometimes allude to other people's views, then sometimes Shabara and Shankara allude to other people who are between the Sutra and themselves. And so we can see that even though those works are lost, those other ideas are kind of preserved in the commentaries themselves. Yeah, I mean, because they are teaching traditions, we know in both cases, first of all, both Sutra texts mentioned the name of older teachers prior to the Sutra text, but the commentators - Shabara on the one side, and Shankara as the first commentator of Vedanta on the other side - whose written work has come down to us, are referring to other opinions, occasionally to a named teacher said this or that, but often more vaguely saying there are some who say this, there are some who say that. Those arguments in the intervening centuries are often further development of arguments that are in the Sutra text themselves, which are argumentative texts. But nonetheless, clearly Shabara on the one side, Shankara on the other, are trying to encapsulate and then take a strong opinion regarding debates that have happened before their time.

Peter Adamson: When I asked you to sort of explain the difference between Mimamsa and Vedanta, you said, well, Mimamsa is more about ritual, Vedanta is more about philosophy or philosophical issues. And of course, in our series, we've also been treating Vedanta as a philosophical tradition, since it's a podcast on the history of philosophy. But you're a professor of comparative theology. And I wanted to ask you whether you think that it's legitimate or maybe even more legitimate in some sense to think of Vedanta texts as theological works as opposed to philosophical works?

Francis Clooney: I think I would say if I could back up for a moment, in both cases, both the Mimamsa and the Vedanta, there is a distinction between on the one hand, the ritual practice, the meditative practices, and the issues that arise immediately. Those are both distinguished from the efforts of the authors of the Sutras and then the commentators to understand, to put in context, to read according to tradition, to see claims about the nature of reality in these texts. And they certainly therefore move beyond the immediate practical matters of ritual performance or meditation, and then move into an entire religious context where the intellectual questions, performative questions, ethical questions are all interconnected. I think one could say that in both cases - and then we could focus on the Vedanta, the very idea of having the Sutras and then having the commentary is an allegiance to the older texts which are considered to be sacred scripture, as we would put it. Whether they were oral or written originally is a different question. But nonetheless, there is a body of material that has come down to us. We are beholden to it, we submit ourselves to it and work within its frame, and then think as vigorously and robustly as we can about the issues arising. I think for me, with my understanding of, in the modern West, the difference between philosophy and theology, that while there are certainly strong philosophical elements in both Vedanta and Mimamsa, because there is a certain boundary within which the deliberation takes place. The Mimamsa thinkers, Vedanta thinkers will not question the authority of scripture, but rather will take in some way that the scripture is presenting the problems that we inevitably must deal with - that there's a certain deference to scripture, thinking within the tradition of scripture, therefore within the tradition of the performance of the mandates of scripture, the insights that arise from scripture. And I think, ordinarily speaking, that could easily be called theological thinking rather than a philosophical thinking where independence of thought or simply the commentary on a prior philosopher would be at issue. When sacred scripture and the expectations about religious performance follow, theology seems to be a very good word to use.

Peter Adamson: Actually, in one of the works that I read by you, you mentioned in a discussion about Vedanta and how its methodology works. There's a direct quote from something you wrote: "Vedanta is an exegesis of texts and a philosophy responsive to texts," which goes along with what you just said about it as an exegetical tradition. And for me, that raises the question whether we can think about a procedure of writing exegesis on sacred texts as a way of doing philosophy at all, because I think a lot of people will think, 'no, philosophy has to be a kind of disinterested, dispassionate, non-authority-laden search for truth.' And it looks like these guys are doing something completely different. They're actually just trying to tell us what a text means.

Francis Clooney: If one takes the example of the Uttaramimamsa Sutras or Vedanta Sutras themselves, clearly the attributed author, Badarayana, is organizing what are the problems and issues and insights arising in the Upanishads in order to stress the importance of taking it to heart, believing that the scriptures are coherent and do not conflict with one another, that there are no contradictions, that the positions put forward in the scriptures are actually preferable to that of other Hindu schools or ancient intellectual schools in India, including the Jains and the Buddhists and others, and that properly understanding the teachings of the Upanishads regarding self, world, Brahman, then prepare one for the arduous work of meditation. And the meditations can be pursued both regarding the texts, which are coherent, but then also within a certain way of life, which is conducive to the texts. And then the last part of the Sutra is talk about the result, both the immediate result of the transformation of one's life and some kind of an ascent to a higher reality and ultimately to union with Brahman. So in terms of the intensity of the debates that go on, one can take it certainly as philosophical if one has a rich sense of philosophy, Pierre Hadot's work on philosophy as a way of life, philosophy as in many traditions, transformative of the person who thinks and works on these questions, not simply a work of history, not simply a work of analysis, but for the sake of following the right ideas through to a coherent conclusion. When it comes to the different Vedanta thinkers such as Shankara or other famed Vedantans such as Ramanuja or Madhva, they disagree with one another about the nuances of that teaching and where exactly one goes through this meditative process - what the ultimate reality is like. But they agree with one another that this is a transformative philosophy. The clarification of understanding, the facing the questions, the removal of errors transform you in the current moment and also prepare you for a life that really passes beyond this world. As the Upanishad says, the Chandogya, in a way that one does not return again to ordinary existence.

Peter Adamson: I guess though also the core idea of Brahman seems to be simultaneously a philosophical and theological idea because on the one hand there is a metaphysical question here, what is Brahman, how does the phenomenal world relate to Brahman? You have this very radical answer in Shankara which is that the phenomenal world is actually an illusion or is just maybe the way that Brahman presents itself to us. And that sounds like a philosophical proposal really with a kind of skeptical term. On the other hand, Brahman seems to be in some sense an object of worship as well or at least reverence. In fact, I guess people often think of Brahman and Vedanta as being God, and so you might think that this is in a way either both theological and philosophical or maybe the distinction breaks down here.

Francis Clooney: I think you are right in saying that there are certain issues raised in the Vedanta, the teachings about the world, the teachings about Brahman that are legitimately available for philosophical analysis. And one can have metaphysical questions of the one and the many, philosophical questions about how time relates to a timeless reality, the questions of sense knowledge in relationship to a knowledge that goes beyond the senses, a kind of idealism regarding a pure sense of self or a pure sense of ultimate reality. And these questions can be understood and have in India, but not only in India, been explored and debated over many centuries. What is distinctive to Vedanta I think is a certain skepticism about the ability of the human mind on its own to speculate about these questions in a useful fashion. Because there are so many different possibilities about... is Brahman the same as the world, is Brahman greater than the world, is the world real, is the world illusory, is our very identity in ordinary life in some way true or is it simply a falsehood to be put aside? There are as many opinions as there are teachers. The understanding in Vedanta - and this would again cut across Shankara, Ramanuja, and other Vedanta teachers - is that the point of the teachings of the Upanishads as clarified in the sutras is to give basically a correct approach to this higher knowledge. And therefore a certain sense in which human creativity, human thinking, human asking of every question is valuable but at a certain point one must submit one's understanding, one's questioning to the frame of knowledge that is given in the Upanishads as read through the sutras. And therefore you might say that there's a transition from a independent philosophizing to a philosophizing or theologizing that pays due deference to tradition in all of the Vedanta schools.

Peter Adamson: That strikes me as being right. On the other hand I think if we focus specifically on the case of Advaita Vedanta you really could wonder whether this is a case, in the thought of Shankara, where the philosophical speculation has led him to sacrifice some of what you might have thought was apparently incumbent upon him as a Vedic exegete. In fact some of the rival commentators say this, that he's effectively dispensed with ritual, for example, and maybe we don't even have a notion of karma anymore, maybe there's no coherent way of thinking about dharma anymore, because all of that seems to in some sense be part of the phenomenal realm. And if he condemns all of that as illusory, maybe condemns is too strong but I'll say it anyway, if he condemns all that as illusory then how can he really make sense of these very fundamental aspects of Vedic tradition?

Francis Clooney: I think when one thinks about in this case what Shankara is doing, and how Shankara was understood by other competing schools of Vedanta, we can sort it out into several levels in order to get at how innovative he was. On the one level the rhetoric of other schools of Vedanta who are usually considered different, non-different, or even in the case of Madhva, kind of dualist schools where reality is not the same as the self, they as many a thinker and many a school can be quite polemical and quite devastating in their critiques of Shankara as unfaithful to the Vedas, as dismissive of tradition, as tantamount to being a Buddhist rather than in fact somebody deferential to the tradition. One can understand this kind of polemic as part of either the game or the serious project of arguing about these materials. On a second level, I think when one takes the philosophy and separates it from the exegesis of the texts and particularly if one reads Shankara in light of later Vedanta teachers, and in some cases modern textbooks about Vedanta, it can seem that he's developed a philosophical system that is in fact not really deferential to the Upanishads. However if one actually reads his work either in the Brahma Sutra context, where he seems arduously to be struggling to make sense of his main ideas about the non-dualism of Brahman and self - but also to still find a place for ritual performance, to still find a place for the teacher, the scripture, even in a certain way a sense of karma, there's clearly the struggle of an intellectual here who's chosen not to leave the Vedic tradition behind, not to go beyond the Upanishads, and not to be simply an independent thinker. The final thing I would say on that is I think while one naturally goes to the Brahma Sutras, the Uttara Mimamsa Sutras, in order to understand kind of the classic statement of the cases of Shankara's thinking, it's also necessary to pay attention to the other works that he wrote: most notably his commentary on the individual Upanishads. And I think it most clear in his brilliant and greatest commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that he has worked out a theory of the ultimate reality, the ultimate teaching on Brahman as self, with very careful gradations of how that knowledge and that higher consciousness is accessible to people who begin as committed ritualists, committed performers of the ritual. How can those people be intellectually persuaded and enabled by their very Dharmic practice to move beyond Dharma to a higher kind of knowledge. And when it sees him in this larger context of a commentator who's meticulously commenting on every word of the Upanishads he picks up, we realize that he's not simply offering an alternative philosophy on the one side divorced from the Upanishads, but is seriously trying to show how this philosophy and liberative theory grows out of the text that he's commenting on.

Peter Adamson: And could he even talk about Dharmic practice, ritual and so on as a kind of initial stage or preparatory stage which you transcend when you achieve the result of identifying your consciousness without a Brahman?

Francis Clooney: Even in the Brahma Sutras themselves in the third book, there's a discussion of whether action, ritual action is necessary for knowledge. And even there, Badarayana and his Sutras talk about there can be no guarantee that ritual action causes knowledge because one can have many insights in life and know about many ritualists who seem not to go from the cause, the ritual practice to the effect, the higher knowledge. And therefore no guarantee that this qualitative, entirely different higher knowledge is somehow the product of ritual performance. But in the Brahma Sutras themselves, but also in Shankara's explication in that context and in other places, is that the ritual performance is necessary to prepare the person to be disposed to this higher knowledge. So as he puts it in the Brahma Sutra commentary: action, Dharmic action does not cause knowledge, but it prepares the way for the arising of knowledge, that by the rooting out both of bad ideas, but also of ego, of stray desires, of worldly influences and interests, the discipline of ritual performance, which is very difficult, makes one the kind of person who both is disciplined and attentive and also because it is so difficult wants something more and then is ready to read the Upanishads and rise to the higher knowledge. I think Shankara, like most of the Vedanta teachers would be skeptical if somebody came along and simply said, with no ritual background, with no discipline, 'I will read the Upanishads and expect something to happen.' I think they would say,' no, that background is there.' It's only background, but it's the background one needs for the higher knowledge.

Peter Adamson: And presumably that's also would be a critique that they could make of the Buddhists despite the fact that the end result sounds so Buddhist.

Francis Clooney: Right. And it may be quite unfair in terms of how one thinks about the Buddhist position seen by Buddhists. But I think the teachings of someone like Shankara is that the wrong ideas and the wrong practices that one sees among the Buddhists, as he's charging, would in fact not prepare one for this higher knowledge, but would distract one either by simply practices that lead in the wrong direction or more deeply, I think, ideas and actions that are rooted in the ego of the individual. And the point of the ritual practice is to purify that ego and detach one's higher knowledge from the ego. And quite unjustly, one might think from a Buddhist perspective, charging that the Buddhists lack the discipline to break away from a phenomenal understanding of the world.

Peter Adamson: It seems like a very ironic accusation to level at the Buddhists of all people. But you can see why he would do it. Because without the kind of subordination of your own self to a ritual, you might not see any way of eliminating that ego based desire.

Francis Clooney: So it's a very basic point because at one level, and justly, and I think it's not a problem for us today, to see so many elements of common ground between Shankara and the Buddhists in terms of moving away from ritual performance, the cultivation of a better self, the realization of a higher reality that is transformative. All of this can be agreed on. But I think what is determinative of Shankara, who remains within the Brahminical and Vedanta fold is that the background, which one is to leave behind, has to be gone through first. Only the rare individual, perhaps, as he says from karmic residues from a previous life, may enter this life ready for a higher knowledge. But that the idea that one can say the Veda is not necessary, the ritual is not necessary, I will move beyond it, could be simply the ego of the person putting aside the difficult necessary work. And that for Shankara, unlike the Buddhists, the narrow path that one has to travel is through Vedic performance in order to be the kind of person who can have the higher knowledge.

Peter Adamson: One thing I was wondering while we've been covering Vedanta is whether we've given a misleading impression, actually, by concentrating on Shankara. Of course, he's very famous, and Advaita is very famous. So we looked at the original sutra, we looked at Shankara, we also looked at grammar and the relationship between grammar and Vedanta in Bhartrihari. But there are all these other sort of strands within Vedanta. Do you think that it's a kind of mistake or distortion of Vedanta to concentrate on Shankara? And would it even be fair to say that some of the other Vedantans are much more interested in retaining a final place for ritual in their kind of framework, so that we could think that maybe Mimamsa as a whole, both Purva and Uttara Mimamsa, is still a very ritual-based tradition, and then Shankara is a kind of an outlier or exception to that?

Francis Clooney: I think if one goes back to the original notion that for all of these Vedanta thinkers, the Veda, the ritual practice, the sutras, the Upanishads, the meditation are all in some way connected with one another, then one has to ask a very hard question about the Shankara tradition, whether for the sake of a purity of a higher knowledge, for the sake of kind of an absolute transition which leaves the world of practice behind, Shankara has perhaps offered a very fine narrative of a higher knowledge that is irreversible, but may in fact be oversimplifying and, although he would not put it this way, improving on the Upanishads and improving on Badarayana's sutras. Certainly if one goes back and looks at any of the great Upanishads, one sees there's quite a diversity of claims about the world, claims about human experience, references central or straight to the performance of rituals, deities appear, deities are sometimes very central, and the Upanishads seem quite comfortable with the diversity of narratives about what the world is really like. Most scholars who look at the sutras of Badarayana and try to attempt to understand what they're about in themselves say that he has a kind of compromised position that not so much ultimate non-duality, but a kind of duality, non-duality in conjunction. That in certain ways there is a higher knowledge, but it does not entirely obliterate a world of difference, therefore a world in which ritual practice is required, and that the higher knowledge does not preclude - even after the higher knowledge has been gained, some sense of distinction between self and Brahman. In the theistic schools of Vedanta, it easily follows, such as in the work of Ramanuja a few centuries after Shankara, that the realization of the teachings of the Upanishads is possible in a world where there is still some differentiation, and most important in that differentiation is the existence of Brahman now as the Lord, whom one worships, to whom one offers puja sacrifices and the like. So I think it certainly is true that the great interest that Western scholars have had in Shankara in the last two centuries may in part have to do with the brilliance of his thinking, but may also in part have to do with what Western scholars trained in traditions of idealism thought was the highest form of Indian thought. Whereas people who have a theological background or a sense of knowing actually the Upanishadic heritage well can concede that the other schools of Vedanta may actually gain insights into the sutras, the Upanishads, and into Brahman, that Shankara for the sake of his zealous clarification may have put aside.

Peter Adamson: And if the idealist connection isn't the only or best way to think about what Vedanta can give us if we're thinking about this project of comparative theology, which is what you do here at Harvard, what do you think Vedanta as a whole brings to that kind of endeavor? I mean, if people are interested in comparative religion or comparative theology, is there something distinctive that Vedanta, both in Shankara and in other Vedanta thinkers, is there something distinctive that they bring to that kind of project?

Francis Clooney: I would say that the incredibly rich traditions of Vedanta, and they'd be even doubly rich if one looks at them in relation to the Mimamsa ritual theory and the entire world of the Veda, give us an extraordinarily developed, sophisticated, multi-generational tradition of interpretation, of understanding of reality that is on many levels multidimensional and very insightful about the nature of the world and reality. And that if one is open to the idea that this is theological learning because it's deferential to tradition and scripture and also open to the possibility of transformative practice, then either in Shankara's version of it or Ramanuja's or other later versions of it, these are magnificent theological systems. Not simply in the sense of doctrines of God or defenses of doctrine, but the entire apparatus of thinking through the nature of reality, taking words seriously, taking experience seriously, taking practice seriously, and believing that in the end there is an ultimate truth that one can reach in some way. To see the Vedanta systems in their wholeness with the subtlety of their commentarial complexities is to see outside the West, and outside certainly the Christian tradition, full-scale developed theological understandings of the world. And I think for somebody like myself who's interested in comparative work, it is very important not simply to see the other traditions as simply, you might say, the raw material for our consideration as we perpetuate our own models of theology, but rather to realize that the thinkers of these great traditions of the East, and in this case Vedanta, are our intellectual peers. That the kind of thing we hope to do through our thinking, both in classical philosophy and modern theological thinking, we actually have peer thinkers in these traditions who are doing from different sources with different styles of reasoning, different questions in a different language, nonetheless the same kind of work of understanding reality in a whole and complete effective way as we are ourselves doing. 


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