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  • Retrieving the Vivekacūḍāmaṇi:The Poles of Religious Knowing
  • Thomas A. Forsthoefel

Recent scholarship in the epistemology of religious experience has focused on broader mechanisms of knowing in order to determine the epistemic significance of religious experience.1 At the same time, scholars writing in this journal have engaged in lively and controversial analyses of religious experience (anubhava) in Śaṅkara, arguing for or against the pramāṇic status of anubhava and, in their own way, probing the epistemic boundaries of consummate experience.2 In this essay, I wish to combine and extend these projects, using the rubrics "externalism" and "internalism" from contemporary anglophone epistemology and applying them to a post-Śaṅkara text, the Vivekacūḍāmaṇi.

Externalism and internalism attempt to answer the perennial epistemological questions of how we know and how we know that we know. These epistemological models have been applied recently, with considerable creativity and controversy, to the processes of "religious knowing." This is especially evident in the work of William Alston and Alvin Plantinga. Although Western epistemologists have not used the terms "externalism" and "internalism" unambiguously, a generalization can be made that applies to the account of knowledge and the degree of justification that obtains in the claims that follow religious experience. Internalism, as the term suggests, holds that the relevant epistemological processes are in the main internal; more specifically, internalism suggests that the justifying factors in the account of knowledge are somehow directly and cognitively accessible to a subject. What is it that is "internal"? The usual relevant candidates are foundational beliefs, beliefs about perceptual states, and even the perceptual states themselves. All three are germane to analyses of Advaita, but especially the latter, for a common refrain in the history of Advaita holds that an authoritative, self-guaranteeing, self-luminous experience of the nondual real is available upon introspection.

Externalism, on the other hand, suggests that at least some of these processes need not be internally accessible; they may be external to the agent, and they may be contingent as well. Frequently, externalism is associated with causal theories and reliabilism. In other words, among the significant factors that justify a belief is an "appropriate causal ancestry" of that belief. Sometimes this is understood as a doxastic practice whose process and outcome are measured in terms of reliability, and so one important version of externalism is reliabilism. Plantinga, whose own work in this area finally indexes epistemology to theism, recognizes the value of reliabilism but adds further constraints on externalism by insisting on the proper function of cognitive faculties in an appropriate cognitive environment. The work of both Plantinga and Alston suggests that the outcomes of such doxastic practices [End Page 311] enjoy at least prima facie justification, and such justification, in the face of competing claims that follow religious experience, invites significant evaluative work from philosophers and theologians.

What I shall show is that the Vivekacūḍāmaṇi fluctuates between the poles of internalism and externalism with considerable social and epistemic consequences; when the epistemology of religious experience represented in the text operates more fundamentally from externalism, its version of Advaita is indexed to a local (Brahmin) culture. Failing to see the heavy doses of externalism in Śaṅkara and in later Advaita renders at least problematic, if not incoherent, its use by neo-Advaitin apologists, for the externalism presumed here-minimally, texts, tradition, and teacher-vitiates the universalism presupposed by Advaita metaphysics. Epistemically, prima facie justification of the claims that follow religious experience offers critical and constructive programs for philosophers and comparative theologians; such an agenda includes developing methods and criteria for adjudicating claims about the nature of reality. This clearly is a difficult task, but it holds much promise: by taking seriously metaphysical claims, rather than dismissing them out of hand as, say, mere epiphenomena of political structures, we may instead increase human self-understanding and the understanding of our environment in its most complete context. These two goals, of course, constitute the agenda of philosophical anthropology and metaphysics, programs that continue to be well served by careful readings of texts and traditions across cultures.

The Vivekacūḍāmaṇi

The Vivekacūḍāmaṇi is a text that traditionally has...