Mimamsa In Our Present Day Context
A tiny, vocal, highly influential section of society obdurately continues to reject the popular mandate, and assiduously unfurls a fresh campaign – to paint a grim picture, filled with ugly portends, in dark hues.
But the centennial shift underway in India currently has numerous constituents, of which Mimamsa forms a central, unbroken part, and in that comprehension lies the truth of the land we’ve always been.
In this piece, we shall explore the essence of right thought and right conduct as a well-established way of life, in the modern context, for two principal reasons: first, to uncover a fascinating, if rarely-discussed topic, to thereby learn something more about ourselves; and second, to dispel associated myths which grew into ‘truths’, over two centuries of alien, ideological patronage.
Some, like Swarajya contributor, Anand Ranganathan, who believe that it is time to stop bashing the Left-liberals, and to move on, may groan at the opening paragraph’s last part. Perhaps they have a point.
After all, the Indian general elections are over. A new union cabinet is in place. Euphoria over Narendra Modi and the BJP’s stellar triumph has been replaced with cricket frenzy, as the World Cup gets underway in England. Interpretations of vote shares and voter turnouts have been subsumed by excited analyses of batting averages.
The term ‘swing’ has suddenly lost its electoral connotation, and taken on an intensely technical, aerodynamic meaning instead. Those eagle eyes which till last week, intently watched results pour out from 542 parliamentary constituencies, are now keenly focused on a solitary Afghan’s bowling arm, with only one question in mind – can Rashid Khan’s leg breaks cause an upset or two?
And yet, it is also an apposite moment to delve into the depths of this land, because while electoral analyses are replaced with cricket-speak, a tiny, vocal, highly influential section of society obdurately continues to reject the popular mandate, and assiduously unfurls a fresh campaign – to paint a grim picture, filled with ugly portends, in dark hues.
They do this because, as detailed earlier, a country they don’t quite understand returned a verdict they could neither comprehend nor accept. So, while one could heed Ranganathan’s call to stop wasting time on the ‘Khan Market’ gang, the need to simultaneously recommence explorations into that gallimaufry called India grows all the more urgent.
Indeed, the process of removing multiple, suffocating, centuries’-old layers of myth-making has only just begun. This is not Leftie-bashing. This is not even about ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. And there is a long way to go.
Ironically though, a large part of the Laphroaig Liberals’ problem does not lie in some paranoid, baleful, Marxist-inspired, atheist conspiracy, but simply in their nescience – a fancy word meaning ignorance. That is because hardly any of these public intellectuals have actually understood that ancient civilizational ethos which drives India.
At the cultural level for them, there is very little above, or beyond, stereotypical images of snake charmers and ash-covered holy men. On the one hand you encounter curious tantric practices that are perceived as repellant, antediluvian fetishes; and on the other, a congregational ‘devotionalism’ that typifies to them, the cultish bane of a regressive society, obsessed with a-million-too-many deities. The Asaram Bapu’s of this world make matters worse. By and large, then, the image projected is of a conservative, rural way of life, filled with prejudices, poverty and divides, yet bound by a set of arcane rituals, conducted in an obscure fashion, using a dead language no one speaks any more.
At the socio-political level, their interpretations are restricted to bland, superficial tropes of angry, sword-wielding, saffron-clad, militant ‘Hindoos’, consumed by an over-inflated sense of patriotism. At the intellectual level, they know words like dharma and karma, are conversant with fables and metaphors from the epics, and recognize the brilliance of thought entombed in ancient texts like the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. (‘Entombed’, because their heart-emoji-inspiring, frequently-expressed anguish, is that something beautiful and peaceful has been transmogrified into something ugly and hateful.) But not much more, proving that the truth is too important to be left to dilettantes.
Consequently, if over eighty per cent of the population subscribes to a traditional ethic, and if the language of that ethic is now beginning to dominate public discourse, does it not make sense to properly understand that popular sentiment, instead of dismissing it out of hand as some form of nefarious, fascist ‘Hindu revivalism’? Would it not be more logical to grasp its essence before countering it as some sort of pestilence?
Answer to both questions: yes, because you cannot understand India without understanding the Indian mind, and you cannot do that without understanding the core of Indian thought. For which, it has to be first accepted that there exist ancient schools of thought, like Vedanta or Yoga, which have survived the ravages of centuries unscathed; schools, which go beyond the superficial imagery of devotional hymns, the ritual worship of animist deities, and the fragrance of incense sticks. It is only then that one might step into this confusing world, and learn for example, of Mimamsa – the philosophy behind the rituals.
What is Mimamsa?
Very simply put, Mimamsa means cogitation – to ponder deeply over matters. It is the colloquial name given to a school of philosophy which explains both the essence of the Vedas, and how exactly those collections of hymns provide important solutions to society.
The principal Mimamsa text is the ‘Purva Mimamsa Sutra’ by Sage Jaimini. It is dated to somewhere between the Buddha and Jesus, and consists of a series of detailed, logical arguments by which various points are proved. Written in Sanskrit, the style is intensely aphoristic – meaning that a very large amount of information is packed into short, tight sentences. As a result, the final product is also maddeningly recondite, making patience a primary virtue for the uninitiated!
By this school of thought, rituals prescribed in the Vedas are meant to aid humans as they progress through various stages of life. Awareness is designed to be incrementally raised over time, until, at a point, humans realize by right thought, that the link between their cognition, and the reality around them, is formed by right conduct.
As a starting point, order and a regimented lifestyle is key to instilling focus in the mind. The savage in a man has to be tamed. It has to be trained to learn the consequences of its actions. It has to be taught to live in harmony with its surroundings – both nature and society. This the hymns do, when chanted. These verbal injunctions, when propagated to a person over a long period of time, finally produce in near-hypnotic fashion, a motive for right action. It is in order to achieve this realization that an elaborate set of rituals, centered round the fire sacrifice, are devised.
Surprisingly, there is little actual talk of gods or goddesses or devotion. That may seem rather strange, since the Vedas are filled with divine beings of great power who control the elements, and fly through the skies determining human destinies. Every hymn is dedicated to a heavenly being, with an imprecation to grant wealth, health or peace. Indra, Rudra, Varuna, Mitra, Dyaus; it is a long list, which has only grown exponentially over the millennia.
So, what reconciles this apparently absurd contradiction? Answer: pragmatism. Jaimini concedes that Gods are necessary, to provide focus to an individual’s mind, and to inculcate an element of faith. You have to believe the words you hear, if you intend to act upon them. The God-concept then is a preparatory tool employed to push a person onto the path of realization, but it is not viewed as an end in itself.
We see then, that the explanations provided by Mimamsa are far more integral to our traditional way of life than we normally appreciate, even if they are discussed in requisite depth far less often.
In another sense, this issue of teaching humans to live amicably in society, of learning to become responsible for one’s actions, is the history of the world. Indeed, in one form or another, all major texts have issued the same statutory warning: Fear the man who fears no gods, for he fears not the consequences of his action.
Remember that the next time you have a conversation with an atheist. Remember that the next time someone admiringly brings up U R Ananthamurthy’s account of having micturated on a Shiva Linga in his youth. This is the difference between ‘religion’ in an organized, hierarchical, Western sense (which Marxist thinking contests), and a simple way of life whose inclusive, philosophical roots are not easily grasped without in-depth study. It is this nescience, accompanied by jejune superficiality of analysis, which forces comparisons between apples and oranges, and results in social acrimony instead of resolution. How can you ever argue about or oppose something you don’t understand?
There is more. Mimamsa is not four paragraphs. There are long meditations rejecting the tail-chasing infinite-regress (don’t ask, read!). There are soaring commentaries by Shabara, Prabhakara and Kumarila Bhatta which go into further details. There is eschatology, where death is described as the recognition of pure consciousness. There is Karma theory at its most evolved, giving an attractive definition for the soul, and how sin must be avoided at all costs. And there is also the logical, practical, rational reasoning for following a simple, regimented lifestyle in harmony with society and nature. But for now, this should do.
What remains then, is for us to see how this school of philosophy plays out in the modern world. Indeed, does it play out at all? Oddly enough it does, and believe it or not, a popular proponent is that Khan Market gang’s bête noire, Modi. For five long years, he bored listeners to death by repeatedly harping on the importance of right intent. Remember his frequent references to ‘Niyat’? Those who opposed him discounted these repetitions as nice, cute phrases employed to veil a deeper, sinister ‘Hindutva’ agenda. Those who supported him accepted him at his word, and happily went on to vote for him in 2019. Funnily, neither his supporters nor his detractors stopped to consider the thoughts underlying Modi’s words. As a result, either way, the message within the message stayed largely lost.
(Of course, make no mistake – this is not to say that Modi and his tribe are a pack of angels. No, most certainly not; indeed, anything but! They are hard-nosed politicians who will play every trick in the book to secure a popular mandate. To suggest otherwise would be to indulge in shameful, unwarranted unctuousness.)
Yet, it has to be acknowledged clearly by objective analysts that adherents of Hindutva do draw their morals from a tradition very different and far older to, that of dead white men from the 19th century. It may not look that way at first glance. That is because enough saffron thinkers often make a vaulting metaphysical leap directly from devotion to abstract thought.
Consequently, Dharma and Karma – our two favorite words, are thus more frequently addressed with reference to the Bhagavad Gita, with Mimamsa being relatively glossed over in the process. One reason for this is that thinkers and speakers often take the target audience for granted. Another reason is that in such a worldview, higher thought and the truth, as espoused by Vedanta, are taught as a point of evolution, and not a totem; meaning, that it is posited as a point of aspiration, meant to be approached with a deeper appreciation of duty and knowledge. But to be honest, such approaches do sometimes cause problems in linearity of thought.
Ergo this piece: to highlight the essence of the Vedas, as pioneered by the Mimamsa school of philosophy; to bring out the logic behind our way of life which, surprisingly, is inherently devoid of godheads, creators or divinity. At the core lies only a truth, about an all-pervading unity, which must never be disturbed by wrong thought or wrong action.
This may admittedly be a difficult conclusion to accept, because everything we know, everything we see, including the colorful, melodious vibrancy of devotionalism, goes against it. But it is the truth, and one way to find out is to read the Purva Mimamsa Sutras by Jaimini. There is nothing to beat knowledge.
So, make no mistake: the centennial shift underway in India currently has numerous constituents, of which Mimamsa forms a central, unbroken part, and in that comprehension lies the truth of the land we’ve always been. Thus was it, and thus shall it ever be so.
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