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Against a Hindu God: Buddhist Philosophy of Religion in India (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 61, Number 3, July 2011
pp. 560-564 | 10.1353/pew.2011.0040

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Against a Hindu God: Buddhist Philosophy of Religion in India. By Parimal Patil. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Pp. 406.

The dramatic title Against a Hindu God: Buddhist Philosophy of Religion in India, while accurate enough in some respects, does not do justice to this subtle, densely argued, technically demanding, and often astonishingly wide-ranging book by Parimal Patil. The traces of the doctoral thesis that it was in a previous life are still there, evident in the concern to explain methodology to inquisitorial examiners and the reluctance to let any footnote go by if it can possibly be included. That said, it is a powerfully realized book.

Against a Hindu God is structured in such a way as to gradually focus in on the subject of the core third chapter that gives the book its name, Ratnakīrti’s argument in the Ratnakīrtinibandhāvali, from a broadly Yogācāra Buddhist perspective, against the concept of īśvara — roughly, God — in the “Hindu” system of Nyāya. After “zooming” in on this issue, the book then pulls back again to an ever-widening scope.

The first chapter — demonstrating Patil’s highly self-conscious articulation of his methodological commitments — is a defense of the disciplinary combination that constitutes the book: Indological textual analysis, Buddhology, the historical and comparative study of religion, and philosophy. Patil’s ultimate commitment is to a philosophical study of the critique of theism, but he elaborately defends his commitment to the close study of Sanskrit in its historical context. It is as if he is constantly aware of, if not outright anxious about, the vehement dismissal of Indian philosophy by those who take themselves to be “proper” philologists, and who have dismissed “Indian philosophy” as a serious endeavor unless philologically driven. Patil is determined not to be so dismissed, and demonstrates repeatedly his mastery of the Sanskrit and the apparatus of its study, setting out his stall in this programmatic chapter. Those of us impatient with any particular effort at appeasing the self-styled defenders of textual analysis might find this chapter beside the point, but it is also a serious declaration of Patil’s comprehensive methodological intent.

The second chapter provides what is claimed to be an interpretation of Nyāya epistemology, pointing to how the Naiyāyikas would defend the existence of īśvara. The argument goes thus:

  1. 1. The object under discussion — earth or anything like it — has been constructed by an intelligent maker [who would be the instrumental, although not material cause].

  2. 2. For it is an effect.

  3. 3. Each and every effect has been constructed by an intelligent maker, just like a pot [but not like an atom, which is not an effect].

  4. 4. The earth is an effect. [End Page 560]

  5. 5. Therefore, it has been constructed by an intelligent maker [i.e., it has an instrumental cause].

The second stage of the argument, of course, is that the intelligent maker is īśvara (“God”), for there is no better candidate or explanation. Patil notes that this God of Nyāya is not omnipotent, since the basic stuff of the world, including atoms and individual selves (ātmans) is eternal. But God is omniscient, knowing all that is to be known about the constituents of the world and being sufficiently powerful to organize them into the structured world that we find.

Drawing on modern scholarship, Patil’s core point about this defense is that, from a Western perspective, it is a hybrid of the cosmological and teleological arguments. Like the first, it argues from the world to a designer of the world; like the latter, it does so by saying that it is the design of the world (consisting in its being made of parts) that warrants an inference to a God. It thus does more than a cosmological argument, because it is not just that there is a world that motivates the inference, but that the world has a particular structure; but it is less than the argument from design, because the design does not pertain to the world’s having any complexity but merely that it has parts. In order to explore the technical...