Book Review of Visistadvaita and Dvaita

Geplaatst door

Titus Rivas   (publicatiedatum: 21 August, 2011)


Book review of "Visistadvaita and Dvaita: A Systematic and Comparative Study of the Two Schools of Vedanta, with Special Reference to Some Doctrinal Controversies" by B.N. Hebbar.


Book Review

B.N. Hebbar. Visistadvaita and dvaita: A Systematic and Comparative Study of the Two Schools of Vedanta, with Special Reference to Some Doctrinal Controversies. Springfield: Nataraj Books, 2004. ISBN 1-881338-53-3.

In the West, one often seems to think that the philosophy of India coincides with the tradition of Advaita. In fact, we are dealing with a caricature of Indian philosophy which is being reinforced by certain esoteric and popular writers.

There are various philosophical schools of Hinduism, and Vedanta is only one of them. It amounts to a philosophical meditation on the sacred books of the Vedas, comparable to Western scholasticism. Within Vedanta there also are several schools, of which Advaita Vedanta is only one example. Hebbar has devoted this book, as its title suggests, to two other vedantic schools, Visistadvaita and Dvaita Vedanta.

In itself, the realization that Indian philosophy is larger than the Advaita tradition is already interesting enough. But this also has philosophical implications for people who like to study the wisdom of the East. Some New Age authors create the false impression that in India, besides Buddhism (and possibly Jainism), there really is only one doctrine: there is only one single Soul and that soul is identical to God. Within the very context of traditional Indian Vedanta, a considerable number of philosophers simply do not endorse this view. Instead, they defend the proposition that every soul is indeed dependent on a deity, but that this does not mean that they can be reduced to God. In their view, immortality does not mean that the individual gets completely immersed in 'Brahman' but that it always retains its unique identity as a soul. The Advaitin propositions are in this context understood as an expression of ignorance.

In his book, Hebbar also creates a dialogue between these two alternatives to the Advaita doctrine, Dvaita and Visistadvaita Vedanta, in areas such as philosophical epistemology, natural philosophy, the philosophy of psychology and the philosophy of theology. The use of many footnotes show that Hebbar stays close to the actual doctrines as expressed in Indian texts. They incidentally also show how long Indian philosophical terms can be (e.g. bhagavadrupagunakriyadinam).

Hebbar always confronts arguments from one movement with counter-arguments of the other theory, so that the reader feels he's witnessing a lively discussion. This makes the rich variety of positions within Indian philosophy even more tangible. Hebbar demonstrates that Indian philosophical speculation had already reached a high level of sophistication many centures ago, and goes far beyond a mere slavish repetition of Advaitin teachings. For instance, according to Visistadvaita, allthough all souls remain individual, they do share a common nature, whereas Dvaita states that every soul also differs from all other soul by nature.

There is a lot in this book that may lead to intellectual pleasure for philosophers. For example, Visistadvaita claims that the Vedas are not written or dictated by God, but impersonal and unwritten. This would be necessary because otherwise the Vedas could not be used as evidence for the existence of God anymore, as this would entail a circular argument (petitio principii) (p. 100). Fundamentalist Christians could learn something from this basic insight.

Incidentally, all this does not mean that India was ever characterised by a perfect kind of religious tolerance. Hebbar describes vitriolic controversies in which a follower of one tradition accuses adepts of the other tradition of demonic errors. There is a case of a king who made a philosopher choose between conversion to a particular system of thought and the death penalty. Apparently, tolerating intellectual dissenters is not only difficult for Westerners.

Titus Rivas

This is a free translation of a review in Terugkeer, 20 (4), Winter 2009, p. 30-31.

Contact: titusrivas@hotmail.com