By Rohini Bakshi
Dr. Jonathan’s Duquette’s SOAS Sanskrit Reading Room session had a very intriguing title. It was the first time that I had ever heard Vedānta and Vīraśaivism spoken of in the same breath. While most of us have some idea of Vedānta and have at least a glancing familiarity with its key proponents – Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja and Madhva, Dr. Duquette’s almost rhetorical question – ‘Had any of you heard of Vīraśaivas prior to receiving this handout?’ landed on its mark.
He went on to explain that Vīraśaivas were a small, highly localised but visible sub-sect of South Indian Śaivism, situated in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
Dr. Duquette’s focus was less on such identification and more on the highly technical and practically unknown Sanskrit texts that this community produced in the late medieval and early modern period. A Marie Curie Fellow at Oxford, his research of late has centred on Śivādvaita Vedānta, particularly on the works of 16th-century polymath Appaya Dīkṣita, whom he considers a central figure in the promulgation of this school of thought. As he talked us through the larger canvas of Vedānta, a picture began to emerge.
Flourishing after Śaṅkara (circa 8th century CE) Vedānta was dominated in the early centuries by Vaiṣṇava schools. Dr. Duquette marvelled at Vedānta’s unbroken tradition of creating new schools, all the way from the 8th century to the present day. However, not all of them received the same attention as Madhva’s or Rāmānuja’s. He pointed out that there were new schools, such as the 19th-century Anubhavādvaita, which have not received any attention at all. The Vedānta of Vīraśaivas seems to have suffered similar neglect.
Vīraśaivism, Dr. Duquette told us, began approximately in the 12th century CE as an anti-brāhminical movement which rejected caste hierarchy, the sacrificial system, complex rituals, temple worship and the mediation of priests between devotee and deva. Their main devotional corpus were ‘Vacanas’ composed by poets, saints and mystics, including female mystics. Vīraśaivas suggested that anyone, irrespective of caste or gender could achieve liberation through bhakti (devotion) to Śiva alone.
The militancy of this movement, however, gradually gave way to the validation of Brāhminical social norms and caste identities. And this is where we were introduced to the core matter of Dr. Duquette’s talk. On the intellectual level, this shift was reflected in the composition of an increasing number of Sanskrit works that acknowledged the authority of the Vedas. They gradually integrated Vedānta terminology and concepts until such time as the scholars were able to articulate and defend a distinctive Vīraśaiva Vedānta.
While scholar-saints of the Vaiṣṇava tradition had been writing commentaries on the Brahmasūtras for a few centuries, the first such Śaiva text was possibly written in the 14th -15th century by Śrīkaṇṭha. Entitled Brahmamimāṃsābhāṣya it was the first commentary on the Brahmasūtras in which brahman was identified with Śiva. This text remained largely unnoticed for the next century or so, till Appaya Dīkṣita leveraged it for defending a definitive Śivādvaita position against Rāmānuja’s school.
One of the first Vīraśaiva texts to show a Vedānta imprint was the 15th-century Anubhavasūtra of Māyideva, which expounded the Vīraśaiva doctrine of ṣaṭ-sthala, the six stages or stations a devotee has to go through before achieving union with Śiva – called śivaikya or śivajīvaikya. While the Anubhavasūtra traces its origin not to the Vedānta tradition but to the Śaivāgamas, it displays a clear Vedānta influence, presenting Śiva as a non-dual absolute echoing the non-dual brahman of Vedānta. At the same time, it presupposes a Śaiva metaphysics – the thirty-six tattvas recognised in practically every Śaiva school, the inseparability of Śiva and Śakti and so on. The text tells us that bhakti is important if you want union with Śiva, but jñāna, knowledge or gnosis, was essential too.
Before turning to the 18th-century Vīraśaivānandacandrikā of Maritoṇṭadārya, Dr. Duquette took us through excerpts from other Vīraśaiva texts written between the 15th and 18th centuries. This gave us a flavour of how the miśraṇa (blending) of Vedānta concepts and Śaiva bhakti was presented by Vīraśaiva scholars. The first was the aforementioned Anubhavasūtra of Māyideva (1.3):
avācyātmasvarūpāya śivabhāvapradāyine |
namaḥ sadgurunāthāya ṣaṭsthalabrahmamūrtaye ||
Obeisance (namaḥ) to (that one) who is the embodied form of the six-station-brahman, lord of good teachers, whose nature is beyond speech [and] who grants devotees with the state of Śiva.
Here we see brahman, but not just any brahman – a ṣaṭ-sthala brahman, the concept of ṣaṭ-sthala (six stations or stages) being quintessentially Vīraśaiva. Elsewhere in the same text Māyideva praises Vedānta vākyas, i.e., the Upaniṣads. This short text influenced another important Vīraśaiva text: the Siddhāntaśikhāmaṇi of Śivayogi Śivācārya (15th-16th century), which expands the sthalas to 101 stations (ekottaraśatasthala) – each one related to Vīraśaiva doctrine or ritual. But at the same time, it goes further than the Anubhavasūtra in its acceptance of Vedic-Upaniṣadic texts and holds that Śiva is identical to the Upaniṣadic brahman; that Śaiva teachings are in perfect conformity with Vedic texts and have the same object as the Veda. Siddhāntaśikhāmaṇi (5.12-13ab) states that Śivāgamas (Śaiva scriptures) are vedasammata, i.e., in conformity with Vedas. They are veda-dharma-abhidhāyin (teach Vedic dharma) and veda-bāhya-virodhin (oppose that which is outside the Veda). It stresses the aikyam (unity) and ekārtha (singular goal) of Veda and Siddhānta.
Using a textual lens, we got to see how over a period of some four centuries Advaita Vedānta concepts were articulately melded with Śaiva concepts by Vīraśaiva scholars. This is the legacy that Maritoṇṭadārya upholds in his 18th-century text, the Vīraśaivānandacandrikā. Commissioned by the then ruler of Kelāḍi Karnataka, only one kāṇḍa of this massive text has been published (vāda-kāṇḍa) while the other two (kriyā- and kathā-kāṇḍas) are still in manuscript form. Dr. Duquette marvelled at the quality of the prose in this text. Whereas just four or five hundred years previously Vīraśaivas had been antagonistic to brahmin-hegemony, we now have this beautifully complex prose in the language of the brahmins par excellence – Sanskrit.
Vāda, Dr. Duquette explained, is a technical term typically used to denote a discourse where the intent of someone is merely to understand the “truth” of the matter, not destroy rival viewpoints. Structured in the form of a doxography, Maritoṇṭadārya’s vādakāṇḍa, which has twenty-five sections, is anything but what the term signifies! After laying out his general position in section one, the author goes on to discuss various aspects of Vīraśaiva ritual (Sections 2-9). Systematically rejecting other schools (Sections 10-24), including Vedānta (17-18), he explains in section 19 that Śiva is supreme. The author acknowledges the authority of the Śaivāgamas (20) but rejects Śaiva purāṇas as ‘tamasic’ (21). While acknowledging the need for Advaita, he rejects Śrīkaṇṭha’s Vedānta (22). In section 23 he rejects aikaśāstrya (the idea that pūrva and uttara mimāṃsā form a unified whole, a position held by Rāmānuja as well as Śrīkaṇṭha). Finally, in section 24, he agrees that Advaita Vedānta is desirable, but not in its current form – because what is really needed is the ‘Vīraśaivamata’ (25).
Once they are published and translated, it would be interesting to see how the other two kāṇḍas inform us about Vīraśaivism. Dr. Duquette stressed the need to read Sanskrit texts, so that we could find new ways of looking at things. His passion for Sanskrit was very apparent when he took us through some readings from the Vīraśaivānandacandrikā. Here is a sample from section one – the general position of Maritoṇṭadārya. By helping us to identify the verb, the subject, the object and some instrumentals, Dr. Duquette helped us make sense of what initially looked like an impenetrable maze, the length of the compounds being reminiscent of Bāṇa:
The denominative verb ‘vyākulayanti’ indicates that plural kartṛ-s are confusing or confounding the most excellent of Vīraśaiva scholars (budhavarān). To find out how, we look for the instrumental that ends with parihāreṇa. Under Dr. Duquette’s able guidance, we saw that two sets of scholars, avaidika and vaidika, were the ones who were perplexing Vīraśaiva scholars. Let us see who they are and how they confound. The avaidikas are cārvāka, four types of Buddhists (caturvidha) – sautrāntika, vaibhāṣika, yogācāra and mādhyamika – as well as the Jainas (arhata). The vaidikas were of four types – jaiminīya, sāṃkhya-yoga, tārkika, and tāntrikas, the last being further subdivided into pāśupatas and pañcarātras.
How did they confound? By getting rid of (parihāreṇa) [internal] contradictions (virodha), doubts (saṃdeha), contrary cognition (viparyāsa), which were born from (janita) reflections (paryālocana) on the way (paddhati) that is the [Advaita Vedānta] doctrine (siddhānta) of vivarta-vāda – which held that the world is an apparent transformation of brahman – and this is in direct contradiction with what Śaivādvaita holds – which is that Śiva is dynamically the world, that there is a real transformation of Śiva into the world.
And how are the most excellent of Vīraśaiva scholars (budhavarān) described? They are the ones by whom the real meaning of the doctrine [revealed by] Śiva is worshipped (upāsita-śivasiddhānta-sārān) and those who have faith (śraddhā) linked to (anubaddha) the truth (tattva) of the six-stations (ṣaṭ-sthala). Further they follow (anukūla) the deep intent (tātparya) of Bādarāyaṇa muni who is the author (praṇetṛ) of the Brahmasūtras, a text which bestows wealth (sampatti-sampādaka), [the wealth that lies in] the correct interpretation (eka-vākyatā) of the means of knowlege (pramāṇa), which here is to be understood as the Upaniṣads. As we can see, Maritoṇṭadārya marries Vīraśaiva thought unequivocally and seamlessly to Vedānta to create a distinctive Vīraśaiva stance on this tradition.
Two hours were not long enough for us to get around to larger questions. How significant were Sanskrit texts in the Vīraśaiva community? How were they received? Were they revered by the lay community as well as the monastic order – in a manner so familiar in the larger Hindu milieu? How did the Sanskrit texts stand in relation to the Vacanas which continue to be the central devotional corpus of the Vīraśaivas, a community also known as the Lingāyatas? Although these questions were outside the purview of Dr. Duquette’s talk, he has placed us in a very good position to further explore various aspects of this little known Śaiva community.
Duquette, J. 2015. ‘Is Śivādvaita Vedānta a Saiddhāntika School? Pariṇāmavāda in the Brahmamīmāṃsābhāṣya’. In Journal of Hindu Studies, 1-28. Available on http://www.academia.edu