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  • An Introduction to Mādhva Vedānta
  • Robert Zydenbos
An Introduction to Mādhva Vedānta. By Deepak Sarma. Ashgate World Philosophies Series. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003. Pp. xiii + 159. Paper.

The school of Vedānta philosophy founded by Madhva (1238-1317 C.E.) is popularly known as Dvaita, a name Madhva himself never used and which is somewhat misleading, as it suggests a dualism while Madhva's philosophy is rather a pluralistic one. The adjective Mādhva, derived from Madhva's name, is used to designate the followers of Madhva's Vaiṣṇava variety of brahminical Hinduism, and may be used to unambiguously identify this kind of Vedānta. Although this school plays an important role in the history of Indian thought, it has been sadly neglected by modern Vedānta scholarship, which tends to focus on Advaita and Viśiṣṭādvaita. The first serious modern study, written in German by Helmut von Glasenapp, was Madhva's Philosophie des Vishnu-Glaubens (Bonn, 1923), of which the English translation by S. Shrothri, Madhva's Philosophy of the Vishnu Faith (Bangalore, 1992), is not beautiful but has the merit that a few minor errors in von Glasenapp's pioneer work have been corrected in footnotes. In the well-known histories of Indian philosophy, Surendranath Dasgupta's treatment of Madhva (A History of Indian Philosophy, vol. 4) is considerably better than the rather scanty one by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (Indian Philosophy, vol. 2, chap. 10, sections 6-14).

The amount of Sanskrit writing in the tradition of Madhva is considerable, and in this still very living tradition there is a huge production of literature in modern Indian languages, almost all of it in Kannada, the tradition having originated and still having its stronghold in what today is the Kannada-speaking state of Karnataka in southern India (Madhva was a native speaker of Tulu, a language spoken in southwestern Karnataka, which has hardly any written literature). Among modern authors writing in English, the best known is B.N.K. Sharma (The Philosophy of Śrī Madhvācārya: A History of the Dvaita School of Vedānta and Its Literature), most of whose writings unfortunately suffer from a polemically sectarian outlook. As a general historical and systematic introduction to Madhva, his works, and his thought, the French La doctrine de Madhva by Suzanne Siauve (Pondichéry, 1968) remains unsurpassed. More recently, the most important studies of Madhva's works that appeared outside India are again in German, by Roque Mesquita: Madhva und seine unbekannten literarischen Quellen (Vienna, 1997; now also available in an English translation as Madhva's Unknown Literary Sources: Some Observations. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2000) and his superb translation and study of one of Madhva's most important works, Madhva: Viṣṇutattvanirṇaya (Vienna, 2000).

Madhva's doctrine is considered one of the three main currents in Vedānta, next to Viśiṣṭādvaita-Vedānta (the monistic doctrine formulated by Rāmānuja) and the variety that is best known in the Western world, Advaita-Vedānta (the illusionistic [End Page 665] monism that received its classical form at the hands of Śankara). According to the hagiography, Madhva grew up in an Advaitin environment but came to consider the Advaitins his main philosophical opponents, because monism, and particularly one that essentially denied the reality of the phenomenal world, did not support his Vaiṣṇava (recognizing Viṣṇu as the supreme being) devotional religiosity. He therefore sought to establish a pluralistic philosophy that did not dismiss phenomenal reality as illusory.

Dvaita- or Mādhva-Vedānta is actually much more than the exegesis, sometimes rather imaginative, of the standard set of mainstream brahminical texts that one would expect from Vedānta. Madhva was a creative thinker, and his doctrine is an intellectual tour de force that seeks to combine elements from several sources and currents of religious and philosophical thought into one coherent whole: a philosophical terminology from Vedānta; ritualism from the Pāñcarātra āgamas; mythology from the Vedas, Upanishads, the great epics, and the purāṇas (Madhva wrote an extensive commentary on the Bhāgavatapurāṇa); and an ontology and epistemology that reveal the influence of Jainism.