- Epistemologies and the Limitations of Philosophical Enquiry: Doctrine in Madhva Vedanta
Epistemologies and the Limitations of Philosophical Enquiry: Doctrine in Madhva Vedanta, by Deepak Sarma, purports to discuss the possibility of philosophical evaluation of a tradition of thought and practice, in this case the Dvaita school of Vedānta to which the author belongs, that upholds a "strict insider epistemology." (Although the work bears the subtitle "Doctrine in Madhva Vedanta," for information about beliefs and epistemology the reader would be better advised to consult Deepak Sarma's An Introduction to Madhva Vedanta [Ashgate, 2003].)
The present reviewer is not privy to the "insider-outsider debate" apparently current in some centers of Religious Studies, and I state at the outset that I cannot see what all the fuss is about. If one is not a member of a private club, one probably doesn't care about what goes on within its walls. If a tradition is closed to nonmembers, successfully concealing its beliefs and practices (in the manner of some versions of Freemasonry), that's the end of the matter. If texts are really not accessible (p. 6), the activities that the philosopher can pursue are not just "severely restricted"! If what a tradition involves is public (even allowing for esoteric elements revealed only to initiates and for rituals of restricted participation), there are still "outsiders," but they are not debarred from appreciation, discussion, and critical philosophical [End Page 126] analysis of its truth claims. Albeit a middle-aged male member of the Church of England, I can understand (in the conventional sense of the term, which is the only one it has) the Dvaitin adoption of the unusual reading "atat tvam asi" (Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 et seq.).
What is meant by "insider epistemology"? Sarma says:
[T]here are two kinds of communities that uphold insider epistemologies. One is centred around experiential data and claims that outsiders can neither know nor understand what it is like to be an insider. The other simply does not permit outsiders to access root texts. Though actual communities are likely to lie somewhere between these two, or combine elements from each, this bivalent taxonomy is useful as a heuristic device [sic]. (p. 9)
The Madhvas, insofar as they deny noninitiates access to some of their basic texts, belong to the second group. (Members of the first are what can politely be called eccentric.) Madhvāchārya, the founder, prohibited outsiders from reading certain texts and from learning from teachers. These restrictions on eligibility, it is claimed, "insulated his position from criticism and evaluation."
Even if outsiders' views of core Madhva school doctrines are deemed irrelevant by insiders, Sarma's assertion that Madhvāchārya's views are immune to rational consideration by people who do not belong to the same tradition will astonish anyone familiar with medieval Vedāntic debates. The second chapter describes the historical context in which Madhvāchārya's "insider epistemology" was established. The problem here for the author's insistence on some particularly exigent sort of Dvaitin exclusivity is that there is nothing strikingly un-Vedāntic about that tradition's claims where eligibility for hearing and understanding Scripture (shruti) is concerned. As the author makes clear, Vedāntic theological enquiry, the systematic elucidation of the Upanishads and Brahma-sūtras in the context of dialectic between rival schools, was the preserve of males born into the higher three castes who could understand Sanskrit. This constraint is sometimes intensified by sectarianism, where cultic initiation is additional to caste-based qualification. In the latter respect, the Madhvas are comparable to Shrī Vaishnavas and sundry Shaiva cults. But none of this impeded a plethora of rational disputation! Had the Madhva school prohibited outsiders from "accessing its texts altogether," argument could never have gotten off the ground. But it certainly did. Moreover, the restrictions on eligibility or qualification (adhikara) to study Scripture amount to the claim that there are moral and intellectual preconditions for a proper understanding of some subject matter. At its most...