Ethics and other normative action in Indian thought
The theory of creative adaptation perhaps began to evolve in the Indian tradition with the need to find adequate sacrificial materials as stipulated in Vedic texts even when the early Indian people were on the move across different environments. Types of plants, fruits , woods etc. that were previously found in abundance may later be unknown in a new environment. As Radhika Herzberger explains –
“The problem of finding substitutes for materials prescribed in the context of certain rituals must have become acute as the Indo-European tribes migrated east. The problem was two-fold: to find substitutes and to justify their substitution, ensuring that the Vedic injunction prescribing the ritual is not violated.”
This early need resulted in the development of a sort of logic of substitution, which articulated well-reasoned principles of legitimate substitution, that is, what new material should be used in the ritual in place of the one that is unavailable, and a justification for why that particular substitute and only that is adequate for the ritual.
Such adaptation of scriptural injunctions for ritual could be modified for a variety of purposes, including applicability to scenarios not considered by the original Vedic writings. The ninth century philosopher Bhaṭṭa Jayanta references a famous example of such a substitution process in ritual, where the general form of the ritual is modified by substituting a milk-pail for a wooden bowl. This modification is made to reflect the fact that the patron of the ritual acts from a desire for cattle, i.e. a human purpose, rather than out of a duty to maintain the performance of the ritual, i.e. a ritual purpose.
‘[Water] should be carried [towards the east] using a milk-pail [for the sake] of one who desires cattle’ — here, because of the reference to cattle as the desired object, the milk-pail is for the sake of humans, so, even though [they] thus deal with different [things] due to [their being used] for the sake of ritual and for the sake of humans, there is a single effect of the wooden bowl and milk-pail called ‘carrying’, so when that [carrying water] by the milk-pail is being accomplished, the wooden bowl ceases [to be applicable].
From the very beginning, then, such creative adaptability was motivated by pragmatic considerations and was able to find a balance between conservatism and faithfulness to the original practice on the one hand, and innovation and creative dynamism on the other. This early encounter with the need for adaptability seems to have provided a foundation for the later Hindu tradition in which rituals, rules, laws, social customs and all kind of normative practices can be creatively adapted through passage of time and change of circumstance. Indeed, the Sanskrit grammar of Pāṇini also draws on such a logic of adaptation. As Eivind Kahrs writes –
“a well-developed methodological procedure in Pāṇinian grammar and in the ritual Sūtras [is one where] the linguistic derivational process are accounted for by saying ‘Y occurs in the place of X’ as opposed to ‘X becomes Y’. … In other words, something automatically applies (prāpnoti) unless there is some specific instruction, ādeśa, to overrule it. In practice this comes down to ‘substitute’, and the usage of the term ādeśa in grammar is accordingly nothing more than a special application of its liturgical use.”
Theoreticians working in the field of Mīmāṃsā contined the activity of providing rules of interpretation for Vedic passages, sifting out extracts that had some prescriptive force about how rituals are to be performed, including injunctions (vidhi) and prpohibitions (niśedha) from other types of statements which may have descriptive or explanatory significance rather than normative force. Important Mīmāṃsā theoreticians include Śabara and Kumārila, whose voluminous work Tantra-Vārttika is considered rather definitive on Vedic interpretation.
However, these writers also went beyond this by formulating very general principles of interpretation and hermeneutics, including detailed analysis of the ways in which language functions in communication at the level of syntax, semantics and pragmatics. Many of their discussions anticipate much more recent work in the philosophy of language. As a result, these principles of interpretation could be applies in other domains where linguistic interpretation is germane, including in Hindu law, where Mīmāṃsā principles of linguistic analysis continue to be drawn on in applying statute to cases in India even today.
The creative adaptability inherent in the Hindu tradition is also connected with the religious pluralism practised and affirmed by Hindus. As a result of not taking the route towards outright monotheism, Hinduism seems to have evolved its own distinctive tradition of religious pluralism, resulting in an integrity of the Hindu religion without any narrowly defined set of dogmas or doctrines or articles of religion. Thus as Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson of the Ásatrúarfélagið explains in the similar context of Asatru –
“This is a good thing about polytheism versus monotheism. Monotheism is one truth for the masses, but polytheism is many truths for the individual … Nobody can teach you. You have to find it yourself.”
Part of this pluralism is certainly the acceptance and affirmation of diverse beliefs and practices within an expansive conception of religion. But I believe another part of this is about the idea that a single coherent system can be enriched rather than weakened when it integrates multiple diverse aspects into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Thus Hinduism also constitutes a syncretic tradition that melds together various different aspects of doctrine and practice in ways that may appear prima facie irreconcilable.
This is why we witness such figures as the Advaita philosopher Śankara setting out a conception of abstract and impersonal Brahman yet also composing verses such as Bhaja Govindam. Similarly, the seventeenth-century Mīmāṃsā theorists who argued against the idea of a divinity as the source of religious scripture or normative guidance in conduct and against the idea of a creator god also engaged in devout Śrīvaiśṇava practice each day. This syncretic approach is also found in many verses of the Rig Veda, and especially in the Nāsadīya Sūkta, Book 10 Verse 129, which syncretises atheism, agnosticism, theism and seems to suggest a human role in articulating the divine as follows –
Their [The Poets’ —कवयः ] Measuring String Stretched Across;
Was There Above? Was There Below?
There Were Begetters; There Were Powers;
Nature Below; Exertion Above
[RV 10.129.5 of Ṛṣi Prajāpatiḥ Parameṣṭhī; my own translation]
The well-known Verse 164 of Rig Veda Book 1 shows a similar tendency to syncretise the worship of diverse gods, as follows –
They say ‘Indra’, ‘Mitra’, ‘Varuṇa’, ‘Agni’,
And he is the bird with beautiful wings.
[There] being One, the wise proclaim many names;
They say ‘Agni’, ‘Yama’, ‘Mātariśvan’.
[Rig Veda 1.164.46 of Ṛṣi Dīrghatamā Aucithyaḥ; my own translation]
We can easily envision how the different tribes or societies spread across the Vedic janapadas, worshipping different religious local gods could have been reconciled into a kind of federation through such syncretic endeavours. As India deepens its engagement with the global economy in a myriad of ways, we may ask how this syncretic tradition is being carried forward today to enrich and renew religious thought and practice in India and across the world.