Defending God in Sixteenth-Century India

The Śaiva Oeuvre of Appaya Dīkṣita

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Jonathan Duquette
Oxford Oriental Monographs
  • Oxford University Press
    , March
     2021.
     304 pages.
     $100.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198870616.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jonathan Duquette’s monograph, Defending God in Sixteenth-Century India: The Śaiva Oeuvre of Appaya Dīkṣita, is a comprehensive and detailed work that outlines and contextualizes Appayya Dīkṣita’s decades-long project to establish the theological system of Śivādvaita Vedānta (Śaiva-focused non-dualism) in contradistinction to the Vaiṣṇava-dominated Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta system (qualified non-dualism) that was prevalent in South India and elsewhere during Appayya’s lifetime. Duquette outlines Appayya’s intellectual growth and the evolution of his argumentation for Śaivism while serving at the court of Cinnabomma; in its early stages, his argumentation consists of simply straightforward polemics (with no apparent awareness of Śrīkaṇṭha’s Brahmamīmāṃsābhāṣya), but it then takes a more scripturally grounded and hermeneutical turn with the composition of one of his major works, the Śivārkamaṇidīpika (an exhaustive sub-commentary on Śrīkaṇṭha’s text). In doing this, Appayya made an original contribution to Hindu theology and South Asian intellectual history in that he “articulates the view that the canonical Brahmasūtras cent[er] on Śiva as the conceptual and semantic equivalent of Brahman, the absolute reality eulogized in the Upaniṣads” (3).

This work brought renewed focus to Śrīkaṇtha’s original commentary on the Brahmasūtras, and established a new theological position (siddhānta) and accompanying school of thought. The study and exegesis of Vedānta (which consists of the Upaniṣads, the Bhagavad Gītā, and the Brahmasūtras) held largely no place for Śaivas before Appayya’s breakthrough work; it had been the purview of the Viśiṣṭādvaitins mentioned above, along with the (also Vaiṣṇava-leaning) Dvaitins (dualists) and the Advaitins of Śaṅkarācārya (non-theistic non-dualists) beforehand. It is Duquette’s view in particular (and one I wholly agree with) that the prominence of Viśiṣṭādvaita elicited Appayya’s polemical response along with his (Śaiva-centric) attempt to match or better their theological and hermeneutical perspicacity (8). 

Although the Śivārkamaṇidīpika and related works and Appayya’s relationship with Śrīkaṇṭha’s work are discussed at length, one of the simultaneous strengths of this book is the way Duquette ably uses a number of Appayya’s less “philosophical” works (including some of his stotras or devotional poems, and his commentaries on the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, for example) to flesh out the contours of his Śivādvaita project and his overall intellectual and religious life. In section 2.4, Duquette outlines Appayya’s argumentation in the Bhāratasārasaṃgrahastotra, a hymn in which he asserts the centrality and superiority of Śiva in the Mahābhārata over Kṛṣṇa/Viṣṇu and challenges the readings of previous Vaiṣṇava scholars.

What I found noteworthy here was the fact that Appayya was responding to more than just his usual Viśiṣṭādvaitin adversaries (Madhva and the Dvaitins had previously offered Viṣṇu-focused readings of the epic), and his use of prior Sanskrit literary theory/poetics (alaṃkāraśāstra), particularly Ānandavardhana’s theory of dhvani (“suggestion”) to assert his view. Not only does a text of this sort elucidate his argumentation in defense of Śiva, it keenly demonstrates the intellectual and stylistic breadth of his scholarship, thought, and writing. The inclusion of this and other texts allows us to see how Appayya advanced his thought in different genres without arbitrarily creating “silos,” or privileging certain types of literature (i.e., philosophical or exegetical prose) at the expense of others. More integrated approaches in recent scholarship such as this grant us a clearer and more complete picture of various intellectual figures throughout South Asian history.

One area where I was left with questions, and which will undoubtedly invite future research from Duquette and others, was the book’s conclusion. The book certainly succeeds in its endeavor to provide a more nuanced portrait of Appayya Dīkṣita as a “multifaceted intellectual” and social agent who made breakthroughs in Śaiva theology. Yet the conclusion also asks difficult questions pertaining to Appayya’s dual commitment to Śaivism and philosophical non-dualism (218). Duquette emphasizes here Appayya’s parallel commitment to Advaita Vedānta throughout his career (two of his most important texts in this field, the Siddhāntaleśasaṃgraha and the Parimala were written before and after his Śivārkamaṇidīpika, respectively), but it surprised me that he waited to address this significant part of Appayya’s intellectual life until the very end of the book.

One particularly fruitful place where this discussion could have been entertained (and one that may also stimulate further study) is in section 4.3, where Duquette outlines Appayya’s reaction to his opponent Sudarśanasūri’s defense of the doctrine of “Aikaśāstrya” (the idea that the Mīmāṃsāsūtras of Jaimini and the Brahmasūtras constitute a single textual corpus). The hermeneutical discussion centers around the semantics and meaning of the very first of the Brahmasūtras (athāto brahmajijñāsā, “Now, therefore, the inquiry into Brahman”), which, pointedly, also mimics word-for-word the beginning of the Mīmāṃsāsūtras (athāto dharmajijñāsā) (152, translation is Duquette’s). Appayya of course refutes the view of Ramānuja and his Vaiṣṇava descendants (Sudarśanasūri, et al.) that the two sūtras constitute a single text, but what is interesting is that in doing so, Appayya is refuting the views of Śrīkaṇṭha as well. In acknowledging the texts bear some logical connection but do not necessarily constitute a single work, Appayya actually seems to be endorsing Śaṅkara’s perspective above all others, as Duquette points out (158).

This section along with the conclusion raised tantalizing questions for me: what was Appayya’s possible intent here in accepting Śaṅkara’s position at the expense of Śrīkaṇṭha? What is the theological significance in viewing these texts as aikaśāstrya or not, and what are the stakes for Appayya here? More broadly, to what degree can we conclusively say Appayya was perhaps an Advaitin at heart (see page 220), considering his long and deep commitment to Śaiva philosophy (as outlined throughout the book!)? Is he ultimately more indebted to Śrīkaṇṭha or to Śaṅkara? Does he merge their philosophies in unprecedented ways? Appayya Dīkṣita is a famously complex intellectual figure, yet Jonathan Duquette’s monograph outlining his vast Śivādvaita oeuvre grants us a clearer and more nuanced picture of his religiosity and intellect. It is a portrait of one of South Asia’s seminal thinkers and makes a significant contribution to the study of the history of Hindu philosophy and theology while also raising fascinating questions for future scholarship.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Leveille is a PhD student at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
October 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Duquette is Affiliated Researcher in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge.

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