Does God Have Free Will?
Hermeneutics and Theology in the work of Vedāntadeśika
Vedāntadeśika devoted his intellectual life to providing an authoritative defense of Rāmānuja’s devotion-centered theology; one which would prove convincing not only to committed Śrīvaiṣnavas, but to a wider philosophical and intellectual public. In doing so he relied heavily on the epistemological and linguistic theories promulgated by the Mīmāṃsā tradition of scriptural analysis. This provided a ready made and widely respected body of argument defending the claims of scripture, yet brought in its wake a good deal of unwanted baggage as well. The Mīmāṃsā analysis of scripture and of religious action was designed precisely to rule out the intervention of a personal God, or any divine being whatsoever, in the production of scripture or in the dispensing of rewards for acts of religious merit. Mīmāṃsā argued that scriptures were eternal and uncreated, and were authoritative precisely because no personal agent was implicated in their composition. They insisted further that these scriptures describe a purely mechanical relation between religious acts and their rewards—one in which properly performed actions automatically produce their stipulated results, without regard for the spirit in which they are performed, and without any need to please or placate any God or gods.
The adoption of Mīmāṃsā as the basic model for both defending and interpreting scripture was not of course original to Vedāntadeśika’s work, but was already basic to the hermeneutic employed by Rāmānuja in his Śrībhāṣya, and by his predecessor Yāmunācārya in his Āgamaprāmāṇya. Both of these authors display a close but uncomfortable relationship to Mīmāṃsā in their works, criticizing selected elements of Mīmāṃsā hermeneutics while adopting its basic model of scritptural legitimation. But Vedāntadeśika chooses to confront this problematic legacy in a far more systematic fashion than his predecessors, actually writing his own full commentary on the Mīmāṃsāsūtra, his Seśvaramīmāṃsā or “Mīmāṃsā With God”, which, as its title indicates, is an attempt to reread Mīmāṃsā in theistic terms, challenging the antitheistic principles of the earlier Mīmāṃsakas while retaining as much as possible of their interpretive machinery.
In my talk I will examine the tension between Vedāntadeśika’s devotional theology and the anti-theistic presuppositions of the epistemological and hermeneutical theories he employs in defending it, and to explore the consequences of the way he seeks to resolve this tension.
Larry McCrea is Associate Professor of Sanskrit Studies at Cornell University. He received his Ph.D. in South Asian Languages & Civilizations in 1998 from the University of Chicago, and his BA in 1989 from Cornell University and he is among the world's major experts of the Indian scriptural hermeneutics (Mīmāṃsā), especially of its hermeneutical approach. Among his most recent book projects, The Teleology of Poetics in Medieval Kashmir, Harvard Oriental Series (Spring 2009), deals with the conceptual revolution in Sanskrit poetic theory brought about by the work of the ninth century Kashmiri Ānandavardhana. McCrea argues that the most crucial innovation Ānandavardhana introduced in the field of poetics was his application to literary analysis of a teleological approach to text interpretation imported from the discipline of Mīmāṃsā.