Sri Madhvacharya (Madhva)
Madhvacharya (c. 1238–1317) was the most fascinating of the Hindu sage-philosophers and one of the greatest theistic thinkers of all time.
Every thousand years or so, there comes a thinker whose life is as striking as his or her intellectual output is stunning. Viewed from this perspective, it is remarkable indeed that within a period of 300+ years, the world was to witness the convergent odysseys of four titans of thought who set the agenda for the study of reality at every level. This is the period I like to call the Golden Age of human thought. Between them, Avicenna of Persia(980–1037), Moses Maimonides of Egypt (1135–1204), Thomas Aquinas of Italy (c. 1225–1274) andMadhvacharya of India (c. 1238–1317) created a magnificent monument of thought that underpins the very possibility of the scientific enterprise. It was the mother of all Theories of Everything, one that was validated both by its inherent logic and the success of modern science.
My thesis is that the foundational framework of modern science, with the key idea of laws of nature, was born and bred in the theistic world-vision. What is more, prior to this and within a time window of 300 years, the four finest thinkers of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam framed a meta-scientific Theory of Everything that underpins the scientific enterprise. This intellectual superstructure, which we shall call the Matrix, provided a systematic rationale for the foundations of science. Its starting-point and core principle was an “equation of God.” Interestingly the great scientists who founded modern science, Copernicus, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, Dirac and numerous others, were Prophets of the Matrix in the sense that they passionately proclaimed the root-and-fruit embeddedness of science and religion. The Matrix is the common platform that supports both science and religion.
In terms of personal charisma, intellectual rigor and scholarly breadth and depth, Madhvacharya (c. 1238–1317) was the most fascinating of the Hindu sage-philosophers and one of the greatest theistic thinkers of all time. He was an Indian Wittgenstein whose rapier-sharp critiques matched his memorable and profound aphorisms. More to the point, he was an intellectual juggernaut who single-handedly reversed the slide toward monism and re-established theism as a dominant force. He was also an accomplished wrestler, mountaineer and singer!
Born near Udupi in South India, he left his family at the age of 16 (some accounts say 12) to take up life as a religious ascetic. As was common in those times, he had a guru (teacher) who was responsible for his intellectual and spiritual formation. The guru, like most of his contemporaries, was under the spell of Advaita (monist) Vedanta. But from the beginning, Madhvacharya would trust only his own experience and the principles of reason. Rejecting Advaita on rational and religious grounds, he systematically laid out the case for theism, eventually convincing even his guru. He visited the major intellectual centers of the day, debating monists and drawing attention to the theism of the Hindu scriptures. By the time of his death he had written 37 books, converted the most prominent Advaita scholars in India to theism, and assembled eight disciples to carry on his work. His defense of theism and his critique of monism were continued by numerous subsequent thinkers, most notably Jayatirtha and Vyasatirtha, the two greatest logicians in the history of Indian thought.
Madhvacharya’s task was two-fold: (1) to show that theism is taught by experience, reason and the Hindu scriptures and (2) to refute the monism that was popular in his time. He was motivated by four principles:
- A determination to remain true to experience above all, in the spirit of science
- A commitment to sound reasoning
- A fervent devotion to a personal God that drove all his actions
- Fearless tenacity in expounding his vision in the most hostile environments.
The underlying theme in all Madhvacharya’s work was his famous exposition of the five differences:
“The difference between the jîva (soul) and Îshvara (Creator), and the difference between jada (insentient things, e.g., matter) and Îshvara; and the difference between various jîvas, and the difference between jada and jîva; and the difference between various jadas, these five differences make up the universe.” —Madhvacharya (quoting from the Paramopanishad in a commentary on the Hindu scriptures)
Madhvacharya presented a very simple vision of the world. It was clear to him that there were differences and distinctions in the world. Matter was distinct from mind. One material thing was distinct from another, one person from another. Above all, there was a radical difference between God and the world. This in a nutshell is his doctrine of Panchabeda or five differences, which stated that there was an absolute distinction between God and the soul, God and matter, souls and matter, each individual soul and another, and each material thing and another. There is an unbridgeable gulf between God and all other beings because God is the only independent Reality.
The theme of difference, individuality and uniqueness is fundamental in Madhvacharya’s thought as it was for John Duns Scotus in the West. By the very fact that something is what it is, says Madhvacharya, it is obviously different from everything else, and this is shown to us by both reason and our senses. The substance of each particular thing is a unique combination of many properties. While many other things could possess these same properties, the difference between each and every thing is the uniqueness of the specific combination of properties. At the very least there is a difference in location for physical things. Scotus spoke of this same uniqueness as “the individualizing” that makes one thing different from another.
And the source of all these properties and their unique combination is God the great inventor and sustainer. “God Himself,” said Madhvacharya, “is the determining cause of the distinctive natures of the various tastes, their essences and their characteristics themselves, in a special sense. It is not to be understood that those special characteristics and essences are determined by the intrinsic nature of the substances themselves. Far from it. Not only the substances, but their respective essence and characteristics and the characteristics of those characteristics themselves are all derived from his immanent powers and presence in them.”
In understanding the five differences, we come to grasp the properties of all the things in the world and the relationships between them. Most important of all, we come to realize our total dependence on God.
Starting with the five principles, Madhva focused his attention on three areas:
- How We Know. We are able to know what is the case about things through three sources: experience, reason and divine revelation. The primary guarantor of truth and certainty in our coming to know something is a capability he called Sakshi. His theory of knowing and truth is very important because it stands in sharp contrast to the skepticism of his contemporaries.
- God and the World. Reality may be divided into that which is independent and dependent God is wholly independent and the world is entirely and always dependent on God. God is infinitely perfect.
- Matter and Spirit. The world is made up of two kinds of substance, matter and spirit, material things and souls. The individuality and uniqueness of each and every thing is an obvious fact of experience
We can understand the relevance of Madhvacharya’s insights here by pointing out where he differed from Buddhists and Hindu monists. Unlike these two thought-forms, he affirmed that:
- We really do exist
- We have a consciousness and an individual identity that we will retain permanently
- We can know things
- God exists and we are distinct from and dependent on God; God has attributes that can be known
- The ultimate goal of life is union with God, a union in which we retain our distinctive identities.