Madhvacàrya, or Madhva, in the context of Indian philosophy, holds a pre-eminent place as the proponent ‘absolute’ of the Dvaita, or Dualist, school of Vedanta. A philosopher among philosophers, Madhva was no straight-line thinker. He was a pioneer — one who went against a host of established standards, or norms.
What led him to propose a unique stream of Vedanta, with its own laser-beam particle of exposition, were his conventional differences and ideological dissatisfaction with philosophical trends, within the scaffold of Hinduism.
Madhva always espoused the philosopher’s birth-right, or that god-given legacy of every philosopher: independence of belief, and supremacy of conviction. What led him to propose a unique stream of Vedanta, with its own laser-beam particle of exposition, were his conventional differences and ideological dissatisfaction with philosophical trends, within the scaffold of philosophy, during his time. His philosophy was a new thought of philosophical intensity, yes; but he was no born foe of any philosophical interpolation. His vision, quite simply, encompasses the most tangible, powerful, and unrelenting disapproval of Vedantic monism.
Madhva [1199-1278], not only traced back Dualist thought even to some of the Upanishads, but he also showed a great deal of polemical spirit in refuting Adi Sankaracàrya’s Advaita philosophy.
Madhva’s cornerstone of conviction was a puissant belief in the basic difference in kind between god and individual souls. Madhva strongly refuted the non-dualist analogy of Sankara — who believed the individual self to be a phenomenon, with the absolute spirit, the Brahman, being the only reality. That’s not all. Madhva also cogently rejected the venerable Hindu theory of maya, or illusion, which infers that only spirituality is eternal, with the material world being only ‘varnished’ and delusive.
Madhva was his own expanse and monitor. He departed from orthodox Hinduism in a number of ways. He believed, for instance, unlike a vast majority of Hindu thinkers, in eternal damnation. In so doing, he offered a concept of heaven and hell, with a third alternative: a Hindu purgatory of endless transmigration of souls. Of reincarnation, or rebirth. Madhva also glorified bheda [difference] in a novel way: difference between soul and god, between soul and soul, between soul and matter, between god and matter, and between matter and matter. More importantly, he severely criticised and rejected the popular Advaita concepts of falsity and indescribability of the world.
Madhva, by way of his epistemology — understanding of the process of knowing — admitted three ways of knowing: perception, inference, and verbal testimony. He gave no place to the creation effect, at a certain date, by one mere diktat of god, out of an unmeasured anything. Madhva recognised the creation of external substances, as B N K Sharma, a noted Madhva scholar, once put it, “in a Pickwickian sense.” Real creation, in Madhva’s view, was tantamount to an eternal dependence of the world of matter, and souls, on god, as would involve their non-existence in the absence of god’s will. In Madhva’s system, the existence of god cannot be proved; it can only be learned through the Scriptures.
The most remarkable aspect of Madhva’s thought is its classy ionisation, contemporaneity, and exceptional refinement. Madhva demonstrated how philosophy could devolve, fulfil its purpose, and even attain its zenith, by allowing every mortal to comprehend the eternal effulgence and indivisible or indissoluble connexion of bimba-pratibimba bhava [reflection as a trans-empirical entity] that exists between the infinite and the finite. God’s will, Madhva also observed, is the essential condition and sustaining principle; the Brahman being the only independent Real, the source of all reality — of consciousness and activity of the infinite. Of perfect happiness, the endless of the eternals, the indisputable of the reals, and the cognisant of all the sentients.
Madhva’s doctrine, in simple terms, is the philosophical touchstone intended to argue, justify, and bring about a sort of rapproachment for the presence of the sinistral dimension with divine perfection, as Sharma avers, “by fixing the responsibility of goodness or evil upon the moral freedom born of diversity of the nature of the souls who are themselves eternal and uncreated in time.” There’s a striking parallel to Madhva’s maxim in Alexander Campbell Fraser’s Philosophy of Theism, ”The mixture of good and evil in the Universe is a sure enigma to Theism, and a challenge to it: to believe that all is as it ought to be and this is destroyed if anything is found existing that ought not to exist, however insignificant the place in which it is found, or however rare the occurrence.”
Adds Fraser, “Pain, error, sin and death are the chief evils in our world. Sin is absolutely evil. Pain is the correlative of pity and sympathy. It is natural and, therefore, a divine means of education of spiritual life. But, the continued presence of what is unconditionally bad cannot be disposed of in this way. How to relieve the mystery of moral evil, including what seems an unfair distribution of pleasure and pain and an unequal adjustment of opportunities for moral growth has been a human perplexity from the beginning. It finds expression in the Hebrew poets like Job, and in the Greek dramatists like Aeschylus. How can it be reconciled with the goodness of god?”
Madhva’s cardinal avowal of the reality of god is of an independent nature, with the rest being dependent. The souls, Madhva testified, conform themselves implicitly not only upon an inherent, distinctive gradation among them, but also on their pedestals related to varying degrees of knowledge, power, and bliss. Madhva thought of knowledge as being relative, not absolute. He spurned the Universal as a natural consequence: of a principal sense of belief, or the uniqueness of a particular person or a thing. To know a thing, said Madhva, is to know it as distinct from all others in the general sense, and from some in a specific way. Mere appearance, Madhva expressly, or clearly, related, wasn’t reality, while objective experience was — a theme song that Immanuel Kant advocated, much later.
Madhva maintained the simple fact that things are transient and ever-changing does not mean they are not real. And, so he discerned: every new relation changes, or modifies, the substance to some extent; greater in some, less in others. The first Indian philosopher to have introduced the new doctrine of visesas [speciality], and its application to the underlying perception of difference, Madhva, never dispelled the pre-eminence of the doubt maze. Where doubts arise, he said, they must be put down to the perception of difference from a few high-altitude counter-correlates, with their close purport of resemblance to the object — in question.
Bondage and release, in Madhva’s system, are real. Devotion, Madhva emphasised, is the only way to release, albeit god’s grace is more than a primal requirement that saves us, in the ultimate analysis. Scriptural duties, Madhva added, when performed without any ulterior motive, purify the mind and help one to receive god’s grace.
In Madhva’s motif, reality is one of the more certain aspects of what could be defined as existence, consciousness, and activity: a fount which maybe expressed in space-time relationships vis-à-vis the eternal idea of matter, mind and/or soul. This also elucidates Madhva’s supple, valid and comprehensively intelligible allegory of his concept of karma. Plurality, or the basic disparity in the nature of souls, Madhva maintained, was based on something that is more basal than karma with its myriad garbs and influences. His riposte, “If that something was only an illusion, the law of karma would have been a damp squib upon humanity.”
Madhva left a great corpus of work: thirty-seven in all. His works include ten philosophical monographs expounding his logic and metaphysics, commentaries on the ten Upanishads, the Gita, and the Brahmasutras, not to speak of the Rig Veda, and an epitome of the Mahabharata, including the Bhagavata. His magnum opus is the Anu-Vyakhyana, a metrical work — a critical exposition of the Brahmasutras. His writings are characterised by exceptional pithiness of expression, and explicitness of thought. What’s more, Madhva went directly to the fountain-heads of ancient thought — the sourcebooks of Hindu philosophy — to draw his inspiration from them. He also had a strong note of mystic fervour in his thought and writings: a great degree of substantiality. You’d think of a similitude in Western philosophy — Baruch Spinoza.
Scholars suggest that Madhva’s life in many respects was analogous to the life of Jesus Christ. Miracles, for example, attributed to Christ in the New Testament were also ascribed to Madhva. Historians, albeit imaginatively, or inventively, suggest that Madhva was, perforce, influenced during his youth by a group of Nestorian Christians who were residing at Kalyanpur, near Pajaka, Madhva’s place of birth, located adjacent to the modern temple-town of Udupi — in India’s southern State of Karnataka — the seat of his philosophy.
Whatever the precepts or percepts, Madhva was an uncompromising Dualist. He explored the real as being present in the mind of god as a systematic repertoire, even in terms of realities which are far beyond human perception. Madhva implied, through his seminal, metaphysical doctrine, that all acts of consciousness, by way of the dependent selves, are finally dependent on god’s will.
While modern science has its own theories of the phenomena, such as the splitting of the atom, distinction, in Madhva’s parlance, is not denial. So also existence. “Existence,” Madhva said, “is a test of reality” — of existence, which is not necessarily for all time and space. His theme song? Actual existence, at some place, at some time, is sufficient evidence to separate the real from the unreal. It is a profound statement, a stroke of a genius, not really connected to one’s birth, or contemplated labels of one’s race, creed, or colour. It is something that is also, in essence, a reflection of one’s action, deeds and misdeeds, good and bad visages, in one’s journey through life and/or existence.
It crystallises, more or less, the sum and substance of Madhva’s perestroika — a signal principle of logic, transcendental, and co-existing inwardness. It is not only a concept that applies as much to the propagation of spiritual life as peaceful co-existence, but also a legacy that has endured every critical trial.
FROM MADHVA TO CAPRA
A full organismic conception of biology, or the belief that in every complex system the behaviour of the whole can be understood, essentially from the properties of its parts, is central to Cartesian thought, and René Descartes’ celebrated method of analytic thinking. Modern science has reversed the relationship — sort of. Systems, as we now understand them, cannot be understood by analysis. Which also implies that properties of the parts are not intrinsic entities — it’s something that can be understood only within the context of the larger whole.
Madhva’s Dvaita [Dualist] philosophy envisages that scientific descriptions are generally postulated to be objective, and quite independent of the human observer, including the process of knowing. Writes Fritjof Capra, one of the world’s foremost theoretical physicists, in his landmark book, The Web of Life: “The new paradigm implies that epistemology has to be included explicitly in the description of natural phenomenon…” Reason? Systems, according to Capra, are all interdependent. They also encompass, Capra adds, a web of relationships, including nature, with a corresponding network of concepts and models, none of which is any more fundamental than the others [It is also — more or less — cognate to what noted US biologist Edward O Wilson describes as consilience — the basic unity of all knowledge. Of the proof that everything in our world is organised in terms of a small number of fundamental laws — one that also encircles the particles underlying every branch of learning].
This ‘new-fashioned’ thinking, Capra contends, recognises the fact that all scientific concepts are limited and approximate; and, that science can never provide any complete or definitive, or total, understanding. According to Capra, the process of living is not the world, but a world — one that is always dependent on interdependent structures, including the genetic information encoded in the DNA. This also means that consciousness, in essence, is a social phenomenon — no more, no less.
To be human, therefore, contends Capra, is to be endowed with reflective consciousness. Of body movements which become tightly linked in a complex dance of behavioural co-ordination. Of the numerous forms we perceive, all brought forth by the divine actor, or magician, which includes the dynamic force of play that is called karma.
If this isn’t a new vision of reality — a grid of life, and living systems — that envelops us all, what is?