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American Academy of Religion

Why the Veda Has No Author: Language as Ritual in Early Mms and Post-Modern
Theology
Author(s): Francis X. Clooney
Source: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Winter, 1987), pp. 659684
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Journal of the American Academy of Religion. LV/4

WHY THE VEDA HAS NO AUTHOR:


LANGUAGE AS RITUAL IN EARLY MIMAMlISA
AND POST-MODERN THEOLOGY
FRANCISX. CLOONEY

Traditionalreligious discourse has been the subject of increasingly


radical analysis in the "post-modern"West. Some of the most important work in theology and the study of religion no longer centers on
questions about the nature of God, the revelatory capacity of Scriptures, or the explanation of religious experience in ways satisfying to
the contemporary mind. Rather, scholarsnow ask: "Whatkind of theology can be done after the death of God? How does one determine
and organize the meanings of a sacred text without appealing to the
idea of an author who establishes meaning? What indeed is the meaning of 'meaning' when we no longer agree on a common human
nature or an anthropocentric cosmos?" The ability to talk coherently
about religious issues has itself become a subject of questioning. The
discussion of religion has been systematically detached from the sure
unifying foci-God, Scripture, and the meaning of life-that have traditionally afforded at least minimal coherence within even the most
acrimonious discussions.
This unsettling deconstruction (to use the term in a general sense)
is a challenge of the first order to traditionalreligious discourse and to
those who have articulated their faith and understanding of religion in
terms of that discourse. But it also is a promising basis on which to
purify, recover, and rebuild our manner of thinking and talking about
the same traditionalreligious ideas. By calling into question the validity of the operative concepts that have made religious discourse possible, this critique clears the way for a fresh re-envisioning of the
entirety of that discourse, a way beyond the present fragmentation in
"church and academy."
It is premature to venture even the outline of a new synthesis, and
I do not venture here to describe what theology and the study of reliFrancis X. Clooney, S.J.,is Professorof Theology at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
02167

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Journal of the American Academy of Religion

gion will look like after deconstruction and reconstruction. Rather, I


wish to highlight an additional, often unheeded, observation about the
status of our current situation and then to develop an example that
illustrates it.
However new our situation in regard to religion and its understanding may seem to us, it is not without precedent. Our questions
and problems are not achievements unique to contemporary thought
or to our civilization, with its strong Judaeo-Christianand Hellenistic
roots. Even if we grant that no situation merely replicates what has
gone before, it is misleading to accept and employ notions of "progress" and "post-modernity"as if the latest scholarship were the one
unambiguous and undoubted achievement characteristic of our age.
There are all kinds of precedents for our current debates, and we will
benefit greatly in our quest for understanding if we attend to the ways
our dilemmas have been debated in other times and places.
A school of thought in ancient India discussed many of the same
issues that perplex us today and posed and answered questions in a
way that should help us in our current situation. The school is known
as the Mimamsa,a worldview and mode of inquiry that developed in a
context of reflection on the meaning of the action of sacrifice. In
Mimamsa,notions such as "God,"the "sacred text," the "author"and
the "anthropocentricordering of reality" were already subjected to a
radical critique more than two thousand years ago, and the primary
vehicle of this critique was an uncompromising commitment to a
reworking of religious discourse on a ritual basis. In the following
pages I wish to explore aspects of the Mimamsa inquiry and its relevance to the modern study of religion.
The earlyI Mimamsa school took a definite shape in a text known
as the Pdrva Mmindmsd
Sitras, which is attributed to a teacher named
aimini
and
was given a comprehensive commentary by
(c.200
BCE)
J
Sabara (c.200 CE). Basic to the text are the following conclusions:
1) religion includes meanings and values appropriateto human beings,
but the sum of its meaning necessarily exceeds the human perspective;
2) the sacred Sanskrit-languageScripture known as the Veda is not a
"book" to be read, nor a source of information about a world exterior
to itself; and 3) the Veda has no author, no meaning beyond the words
and the sacrificialactions themselves; one cannot appeal to a pre-verbal intention to get beyond the words.
1I refer throughout to the "early"Mimmasabecause I have restricted my consideration to the system before the development in the 7th and 8th centuries CE of its two
great schools,those of KumarilaBhatta and Prabh&kara
Migra. I do not mean to suggest
a radical division beween the earlier and later periods, but only that the debates
between the two later schools would require a lengthy analysisbefore it would be possible to state succinctly how they contribute to the issues discussed in this paper.

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Clooney: Language as Ritual

661

Each of these points is directly relevant to the modern study of


religion. In addition, a school of thought known as the Vedanta or
"Later Mimaimsd"responds to the Mimamsdwith a "post-Mimamsr"
rethinking of religious discourse that also contributes to the solution of
contemporary problems in theology and religious discourse.
The environment in which Mimalmsadeveloped extends back
well before the second century BCE, when Jaimini's Sitras took a
fairly definitive shape. Some evidence of those earlier stages is evident
in the text and Sabara'scommentary. From the beginning, the text of
the Stitras was incomplete in the sense that it intentionally remained
in need of both elaboration in commentary and testing by example in
ritual case studies. The tradition of commentary remained oral for
centuries, and it was only four or five centuries later that Sabaracomposed a definitive explication of Jaimini'ssystem. In turn, Sabara'stext
itself invited further elaboration in a process that continues even
today.
The religious world of the
was comprised of two
interconnected systems. First, there
were the traditional sacrifices,
Mim.imsakas
which had been practiced and described even a thousand years earlier. In their primary and modified forms these sacrificesnumbered in
the hundreds and ranged from the simple, which took moments to
perform, to the elaborate, which took years. But the basic form of a
sacrifice was straightforward: when a deity is invoked and something
material burnt in a fire "for" that deity, a sacrifice occurs. However
complex a sacrifice might become, its core action is the destruction of
something from one's property in a fire, in the presence of an invoked
deity. Throughout this article I reserve the word "sacrifice"for this
core action, while using the word "ritual"in a broader sense, to indicate the entire set of texts, actions, performers, deities, material things,
and attitudes about life and death that constituted the environment in
which sacrificing could make sense.
The second system was that of the Veda, the totality of the texts
relevant to the sacrifices. Some texts described what was needed for
the various sacrifices,who was allowed to perform them and for what
reasons, when they were appropriately performed, which sacrifices
were suited for which gods, when and why the sacrifice was first performed "in the beginning," etc. Other texts were the prayers recited
during the sacrifices themselves, paired with specific actions.
The twelve books of the Pdrva Minamsd Stitras consist of discussions that deal with the corpus of orthodox sacrificesand orthodox texts
in three basis ways. First, there are discussions that seek to resolve
smaller and larger inconsistencies and ambiguities that pertain to the
performance of particular sacrifices and to the interpretation of the
texts about them. A discussionmight focus on whether the designated

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Journal of the American Academy of Religion

prayer for a certain sacrifice is to be used without modification if the


designated god of the sacrifice actually goes by a different name than
the one mentioned in the prayer; or as often happens, when several
small sacrifices are combined as stages in a complex one, the Mima.msaka asks if all the details pertaining to each still need to be performed
for each or if, to avoid needless repetition, some might be done "once
for all."
Second, the
sought to articulate the invariable rules
such
could
be resolved. Thus (to use the same
which
Mimai.sakas
problems
by
the
Mimamsakasproposed, refined, and qualified rules govexamples),
erning "changes in the names of gods in prayers"and rules governing
the evaluation of "real and apparent useless repetitions in sacrificial
performance." Moreover, the goal was not only the discovery of a
complete set of particularrules, but also the complete set of the "metarules" that would regulate the application of rules in various cases.
fasioned rules such as, "In any given sacrifice,
Thus, the
the material
used
are instrumental to relation to the actions
Mim.msakas
objects
are
connected
with"
and "Rules pertaining to only one context
they
take precedent in that context over rules that also pertain elsewhere."
Each generation of Mimarnsakassought to elaborate more and more
sweeping rules by which to govern the preceding set of meta-rules,
although the search for generality was constantly subverted by the
precise demands posed by the concrete ritual situations to which the
interpreter eventually would have to return.
Third, the Mimamsakasoccasionally stepped back and discussed
the presuppositionsof their whole endeavor. They asked, for instance,
about the overall purpose of sacrifices, or the basis on which one can
say that the Vedic scriptures are absolutely true, or the manner of verifying the efficacy of sacrifices that apparently did not produce the
material results promised to those who performed them. Many of
these questions were raised clearly in response to objections from
outside the Mimamsa itself.
These three kinds of discussions can be found throughout the
Sgtras, often juxtaposed and intertwined, one kind of discussion shifting without warning into another kind. The first kind of discussion is
the most frequent, and one gets the impression that the Mimamsa
began with the effort to resolve inconsistencies in text and action and
then expanded its realm of inquiry from there. But even if their proposed conflict-resolutionswere of use to performers, the points at issue
would not have warranted the immense project that
Mimad.msa
became. There were other texts that described the performances
step
by step and in detail and resolved by some compromise most practical
problems that would arise. Thus, concern for the larger rules governing the ritual world probably was the primary focus of
Mima.msa

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Clooney: Language as Ritual

663

from the start;its ultimate concern had to do with the why of sacrifice
and with the intelligibility and predictability of a religious path
founded on the performance of particular actions according to certain
texts. Certainly, it was on the basis of its more general rules and metarules that Mimaimsainfluenced much of later Indian thinking.
The question of intelligibility demanded attention because
took shape in a world in which the traditionalintelJaimini's
Mimim.sa
ligibility undergirding Vedic orthodoxy had lost its power to convince.
It was no longer self-evident, for instance, that sacrificeswould please
deities and lead to rewards, that offering sacrificeswould hold the universe together, or that the Veda itself was a reliable source of information. The Buddhists and Jainas, as well as world-renunciants still
within the Vedic fold, de-mythologized the idea of sacrifice and contended that these actions were not qualitatively different from, and
would lead to results no more permanent than, other actions. Skeptics
of all sorts charged that the sacrificesdid not produce what they promised to produce, while those whom today we might label "Vedic fundamentalists" simply put aside questions of meaning and asserted that
sacrificeshad to be performed, no matter what one might think about
them. Called into question, it seems, was the notion that there could
be any perspective from which the whole of the ritual world could be
comprehended and hence kept intact. The pieces were all there-brahmin priests, fires, rice to be cooked, words to be chanted, gods to
be invoked, etc.-but they no longer cohered convincingly.
response to the whole range of criticisms was to
Mimairmsa's
rethink
its world without reliance on any single viewpoint, effectively
undercutting the possibility of a single perspective. It sought a justification for sacrifice that needed no external validation, either from
active gods or satisfiedhumans, and that required the positing neither
of any supernaturalrealities nor a reliable world order beyond that of
good Sanskrit texts, well-performed sacrifices, and a set of rules for
integrating the two.
:ncerned
Jaimini and his commentator Sabara primarily wel
with achieving a right understanding of the rules of sacrificialaction
and sacrificialtext so as to ensure that what one saw and heard at a
sacrifice would cohere--be intelligible-regardless of what anyone
might say about it from some particular perspective. In discovering
these rules they sought to replace the "laws of the cosmos" with the
"laws of language and ritual," and reliance on gods and humans (as
norms for meaning) with an appreciation for the harmony of text and
action (and everything accompanying them, even in orthodox society
as a whole) that underlay the well-wrought sacrifice.
Such rules were desirable, since rules are by nature humanly intelligible (so that they can be obeyed) and not dependent on the humans

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Journal of the American Academy of Religion

who observe them (so that they must be obeyed). When the rules are
known and obeyed, they depend on no particular opinion, any more
than do the rules of grammar. Because they govern the totality of
experience, they overcome fragmentation by making the location and
relation of any particular fragment-be it a god, a human, a wordmore important than the stability of the thing itself. In the course of
articulating these rules, the Mimamsakasmade the three claims cited
above, to which we will now turn, attending as well to their modern
analogues.
1. Religion includes meanings and values appropriate to human
beings, but the sum of its meaning necessarily exceeds the
human perspective.
It is central to the Mimamsaanalysis that sacrificesare not merely
the instruments of the sacrificerswho perform them, even if these sacrificers act only because they want the promised rewards of cows, sons,
heaven, etc. and wish to use the sacrifices to get those rewards. The
have no problem admitting that humans may think that
the
sacrificesexist strictly for their satisfaction,and it is reasonable that
Mim.msakas
the situation appear this way to performers. But the Mimamsakasalso
insist that this human perspective contributes to a more comprehensive primary goal: the enactment of the particular body of words and
actions that constitute a particular sacrifice and, ultimately, the whole
body of orthodox rites. The Veda states unequivocally that sacrifices
are to be performed, and human performers are obviously required if
any sacrifice is to be completed. No offering can actually be burnt in
the fire unless some potential sacrificer is sufficiently motivated to
expend the required effort and money. But, the Mimamsakasreason,
if the sacrificer'sgain were the "absolute"motivation of the sacrificial
performances, there would be no basis for the obligatory nature of the
command to sacrifice. If human satisfactionwere the only warrant for
the performances, there might eventually be a cessation of sacrifices
altogether.
The Mimamsakassituate the performer in a world rightly ordered
around the sacrifice, and this order is called dharma. When a sacrifice
is properly performed-with all the words uttered at just the right
point in the action, and all the actions performed in the right sequence
using the right materials, by performers from the right families who
have received the right education, etc.-this right performance
embodies dharma, the ultimate value to which all else is subordinate.
That humans contribute to dharma is what matters, whether or not
they are aware of their role in it. In fact, if humans act out of selfinterest, they are likely to play their parts better than if they do not,

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Clooney: Language as Ritual

665

and nothing of value is lost due to that self-interest. Self-interested


humans are "themselves," just as a rice grain is "itself."
This relocation of the human perspective-from center stage to a
supporting role-is an intellectually useful position that enables the
Mimamsakas to affirm the human significance of sacrifice without
reducing it to an expression of this or that human meaning. The
meaning of sacrificeis multiple, projected from different positions, and
irreducible to one perspective-even if someone might say, for example, "This is for me" or "That is just a necessary part of the sacrifice."
There is indeed human meaning in ritual, but there is also much more
than that.
The Mimamsakas achieve this restructuring of meaning by
profound reflection on how and what words and actions mean and by
developing rules for the ascertaining of meaning that do not depend
on attention to the views of the human speakers and doers. Consideration of the Mimamsa treatment of one Sanskrit word, artha, offers a
shorthand way of appreciating the convergence of multiple meanings
their analysis suggested. Artha is frequently and legitimately translated as "meaning" and is often used to refer to the meaning of words.
Yet artha is not only "word meaning" (s'abda-artha),even if the
Mimiimsakasnever forget that it is such; it is also "the purpose of
action" (kriyd-artha),which integrates a set of ritual materials and a
group of words by giving them an intrinsic finality-a goal that is the
intended proper completion of an action.2 A ritual includes many
words, things, and minor actions, which mean only through their relationship to one another as parts of the ritual act. Even if the connection of each individual word and its meaning is innate, words, in the
plural, are expressive of dharma only when composed into statements
which refer to and contribute to the ritual. (1.1.26)3
Later in the Stitras, the purpose around which the text-performance as a whole coheres is differentiated into two kinds of purpose: the
human goal (purusa-artha) a person (purusa) has in performing
actions-"meaningfulness", and the sacrificial purpose (kratu-artha),
the meaningful interconnections of the parts of the sacrifice,its words,
actions, utensils, offering materials-"inherent cohesion." The notion
of "inherent cohesion" provides a rule by which to judge how certain
actions and things fit at certain points in the ritual (4.1-2), while the
notion of "meaningfulness"organizes sacrifices and parts of sacrifices
2 When the word artha appears, it is often difficult to discern whether a verbal or ritual
artha is meant; as a general principle one can assume that it is a ritual goal supported by
a verbal elucidation.
3 "Words already (individually) formed (before use) are handed down together (to
express) a ritual purpose. This (handing down together) is the cause (of the knowledge of
dharma)."

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Journal of the American Academy of Religion

according to how they directly or indirectly contribute to the satisfaction of human desires (4.3-4).4 These further determinations of "purpose" guide both the reading of texts and the performance of actions.5
In its treatment of the human perspective and meaning, the
Mimramsaanticipated by millennia the current debate over the meaningfulness of ritual. By noting the comparable structures of the perspective of the performer of ritual and the speaker of language and
placing them firmly within a ritual whole--the meaning of which
extends beyond both perspectives-the Mimams.kas defend the variety of meanings a human being may give ritual and text, but they deny
any such perspective the privilege of being the meaning. A ritual can
appear meaningful and meaningless at the same time, from different
perspectives, because meaning depends on where one is standing. It
can appear to be solely one or the other, if one forgets that there are
the other perspectives. Ritual is "for its own sake" (sva-artha), from
the performer'sviewpoint, when participationis interpreted as strictly
instrumental toward the accomplishment of the larger goal; in this
case the performer is "for the other" (para-artha),for the ritual. Conversely, when the performer interprets ritual as ordered exclusively to
the satisfactionof personal interests, he acts "for his own sake" and the
ritual is "for the other."
The necessary appreciation of multiple perspectives recalls the
parallel position proposed by S.J. Tambiah, who suggests that rituals
are not static but dynamic and embody both a conservative tendency
toward the loss of their semantic component and a revivalist tendency
toward the infusion of new, purified meaning. The two tendencies are
in tension, and the interpretation of ritual has to take into account the
continuing movement from one extreme to the other and back. When
Mimamsdallows the multiple perspectives on artha to remain in operation without further simplification, it invites a similarly "dynamic"
reading.
To say then that ritual is meaningless because it is "for itself"
(Staal, 1979; 1986) is according to
partially true but needsensational.
the
that
"what the Mimunms
Mima.msa
claim
lessly
Notwithstanding
in fact ended up teaching is that the rituals have to be performed for
their own sake" (Staal, 1979:7),it is evident that even the most general
Mimamsakanotion of sacrificialdharma never excludes the satisfac4 For a fuller examinationof the meaning of artha in the Sutras,see my 1984 University
of Chicago Ph.D. dissertation, "Retrieving the Pfirva Mima.msuof Jaimini", due to
appear as Volume 17 in the series, Publicationsof the De Nobili ResearchLibrary, Indological Institute, University of Vienna--especially Chapter IV, and the briefer 1986
exposition.
5 In commenting on 12.4.37 Sabaraasserts that in cases of conflict the "inherent cohesion" of the ritual takes precedence over "meaningfulness."

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Clooney: Language as Ritual

667

tion of human desires and needs, including the demand for intelligibility. The sacrifice does serve its performer's interests, even if it does
not have that as its sole or primary purpose. Penner (13) is correct in
his criticism of Staal's strained effort to interpret as meaningless what
is evidently meaningful to the ritualistswho performed and described
the elaborate rites. Semiotics aside, one can simply point to the
Mima-msaelaboration of the complex structure of meanings within and
around the sacrifice to see that we have-at least as far as the Indian
ritual theorists themselves are concerned-not a lack of meaning but a
lack of an exclusive determination of meaning by self-interested
performers.
2. The sacred Sanskrit-language Scripture known as the Veda is not
a "book"to be read, not a source of information about a
world outside itself
We have seen that the Mima~sa systematically implicates the
human perspective within the ritual whole of word and action and
subordinatesit to that whole. The early Mimrmsaalso elected to make
language inseparable from ritual. It stated that the Veda is not a book
or text that can be considered in isolation from the performance of the
sacrifices it refers to. There are all kinds of intelligible statements
made in the Veda, but none of them is meant to be understood "for its
own sake," as providing neutral information about its future use. Of
course, many religions similarly argue that their sacred texts have a
specific religious usefulness and command a certain kind of behavior in
response, but Mimrnmsaworks out the details of this position more
thoroughly than any other school.
At the beginning of the Stitras, Jaimini gives the fundamental
tenet that underlies the Mimuamsa
contextualization of the Veda: "The
between
word
and
relationship
purpose (or meaning) is innate (autpatAt
issue
first
of all is how (or when) Vedic statetika, "original";1.1.5).
ments get their meanings. Jaimini'sview is that they are not assigned
meanings by a conventional, societal process; instead, the statementreferent relationship precedes any speaker's use of either the statement or the words comprising it. This point is defended by Jaimini in
a complex argument. First (1.1.6-23),he argues in favor of the position
that speech presumes a prior "always-there"relation of the individual
word and its referent. His position is elaborated by the later commentators, with increasingly complex linguistic arguments. Then (1.1.2445) he defends the view that the meaning of statements cannot be
learned from adding together the meanings of the words in the statement, but only by noting that to which the whole statement purposefully refers-usually an action rather than a thing, and usually a ritual

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Journal of the American Academy of Religion

action (in the religious context).6


The larger point to be drawn is that the "Word"-the Veda as a
whole-is in an innate, original, and indivisible harmony with the
larger "purpose" (artha), which is the continuing enactment of the
corpus of Vedic sacrifices. The Veda intends the performance of the
sacrifice, and a sacrifice is impossible without words that determine its
saw language and lanstructure and illuminate its meaning.
Mimasa
guage questions "with ritual eyes" and effectively undermined the
notion of a separate text or "book."
Because of the centrality and importance of this ritual implication
of language, I wish to examine in detail several examples of how the
ritually interpret language-terms that might easily have
Mimdamsakas
been
otherwise used. First I will consider the terms "statement" or
"sentence" and "context," and then mantra ("prayer")and brdhmana
("rubric").All four terms are used to make the Veda inseparable from
the sacrificialperformance.
"Statement" (vdkya;often translated as "sentence") is defined by
Jaimini as: "A group of words serving a single purpose forms a sentence (vdkya), if on analysis the separate words are found to have
mutual expectancy" (2.1.46).7 To begin with a simple example of my
own making, consider these two statements: "I ate" and "I ate. After
dinner I returned home." While one can say "I ate" without adding
"After dinner I returned home", one cannot omit the first "I" and say
"ate." Therefore, "I ate" and "After dinner I returned home" can be
considered separate sentences, while "I ate" is a single statement, the
words of which "need" one another.
For centuries this definition has served in India as a basis for linguistic and philosophical definitions of the sentence, since it stresses
both the single overall meaning of the group of words and the "bonding" of the words, the insufficiencyof each without the others. Yet it is
not meant to be primarily a contribution to grammar. It occurs within
a discussionof the kinds of texts found in the Veda (2.1.30-49), and it is
introduced in order to clear up a ritual difficulty. "Statement"
designates one kind of text, the prose passages (yajurs)recruited dur6 How sentences come to mean what they mean is a subject of heated debate in later
Mimamsa. Around 700 CE the schools of Kumrrila Bhatta and Prabhakaratook the
positions, respectively, that the sentence meaning is in some way communicated
through the sum of word meanings or that the sentence meaning cannot be traced back
to the word meanings;the subtleties of their positions,however, go far beyond what can
be said in this context. In my view, the Prabhdkaraschool more faithfully represents
Jaimini'sMimamsa.
7 I.e., if they "need" one another to make complete sense. The translationis that of K.
KunjunniRaja,p. 152. His comments (152 ff.) on the later use of Jaimini'sdefinition are
pertinent.

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Clooney: Language as Ritual

669

ing the ritual. The priest told to recite a yajur (identified merely by its
starting words) may not be sure where the yajur ends or when he is to
stop reciting, since there is no necessary linguistic stopping point in a
prose passage.
This would not be the case with the other two kinds of texts, "rgs,"
which are poetic verses divided into metrical feet, and "sdmans,"
which are verses set to music and sung, most often some of the same
rgs. Hearing either of these, one would come to natural stopping
points without having to refer to meaning.
Jaimini'sdefinition of "statement" solves the problem by identifya
ing prose unit as a group of words with a complete meaning (artha),
which "lacks nothing." But this "meaning" is a ritual referent, some
aspect of the ritual referred to by the words in the prose passage, and
not a coherent syntactical meaning separable from the ritual context.
This ritually grounded "statement" can be comprised of two or more
grammatical sentences, however many are required to denote properly the ritual referent at hand. For example, in discussing the definition of "statement," (PMS 2.1.40) the commentator Sabaraintroduces
the following text from the Taittiriya
(1.1.4.2), one of the
Vedic collections of texts related to the Sam.hita
sacrifices:
On the impulse of the god Savitr,with the arms of the
Agvins,withthe handsof Pisan, I offerthee dearto Agni,to Agni
and Soma.8
Correct reading of the passage allows for repetition of the verb, "I
offer," with each phrase-"I offer on the impulse ... I offer with the
arms ... etc."-and there would then be no strictly grammatical reason that each should not be a separate sentence. But in the appropriate context of the Dariapfirnamisa sacrifice, it is clear that only one
offering is at issue, modified by the mentioned deities-Savitr, Aivins,
etc. This ritual location, not an independent reading of the words
themselves as a grammatical unit, determines the limits of the unit of
meaning. One cannot read properly without knowing the ritual
context.
The second term in this first pair is prakarana, often translated as
"context" or "leading subject matter." It too has a more than verbal
reference and is carefully distinguished by the Mimramsakasfrom
"place" (sthdna), which more closely refers to words or ideas placed
contiguously "on a page" or, better, placed together in the units to be
memorized in a particular school of Vedic practice.9 The notion of
prakarana comes into use for the following reason. Sacrificesare often
8 As translatedby A.B. Keith.
9 Sthdna too has a ritual meaning, referring to the location of things in the sacrificial
arena.

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enjoined in abbreviated rules, with only their main sacrificial action,


designated deity, and promised result identified. For actual performance, they require the addition of nearby means of performance (such
as accessory actions, preparations, or foresacrifices), which are
observed normally to accompany this kind of ritual even if there is no
text that makes the connection explicit. Conversely, these accessory
actions would never be performed-fruitless in themselves, they
would be pointless-unless there were some purposeful primary sacrifice with which they are connected and that motivates their
performance.
Thus, an offering into fire cannot be made without a prior lighting
of a fire, and the lighting is pointless unless there is to be an offering.
These actions "need" one another. They are, in Sabara's words, a
"the declaration of that which needs to be
"context"
of a manner of doing."10 In the Mimrimsaframework,
(prakaran.a),
done, in need
"context" pertains only secondarily and by extension to words in need
of one another, i.e., the other words one needs to know (the other
sentences that have to be read) in order to understand the point of any
particular sentence. One must take into account other-usually, but
not always, physically-nearby statements to understand what one is
reading. Originally, this too pertained to the texts accompanying the
above-mentioned primary and accessory actions, but by extension it
came to refer to any text and its context(s).11
These examples of "statement" and "context" show that in
Mrh-nisa the meaning of texts is ascertained by reference to ritual
actions, which are themselves meaningful; meaning contributes to
purposefulness, and purpose is first of all ritual purpose. The position
suggests that for the Milmarmsakas,intelligibility-in the widest
sense-is a property neither of independent texts, nor of the actions
taken separately from the words pertaining to them, nor of external
referents such as performers and gods, both of whom are merely actors
within the language-ritualprocess. Rather, meaning is disclosed in the
complex, multi-perspectival sacrificialevent, which includes all these.
The interdependence of sacred text and ritual action is generalized when the Mimnimsakasdivide the Veda into two major portions,
each of which is ritually defined: mantras and brdhmanas, with
10Bhdsya on 3.3.14. Cf. 3.3.11 and Bhdsya.
11In commenting on PMS 3.3.14, Sabaragives as an example of "context"the case of
the ritual of royal consecration [the rdjasdya],which consists of a series of sacrifices. In
one of these only, one particular myth is told to illuminate the action taking place.
Because the same myth is needed to illuminate all the sacrificesin the series, it is understood to belong to all of them. The myth and the series of sacrifices form a single
"context."

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671

arthavdda as an important "subdivision"of the two.12


Mantras are verses sung or recited in the course of the performance of a sacrifice; usually their utterance inaugurates the particular
action, within the whole, with which each is associated. Their role is to
name and thereby focus attention on some sacrificialelement, be it the
action itself, or the material used, or the deity who is the recipient of
the sacrifice (2.1.30-31; 3.2.1). Thus, for instance, the mantra "I am
cutting the grass which becomes the seat of the gods" (cited by Sabara
at 3.2.1) illuminates with meaning the act of cutting grass blades to use
at the altar. Because the mantras are used directly in the performance
(2.1.31; 5.1.16), they are more authoritative than the accompanying
injunctive texts (brdhmanas),which talk about the action of the sacrifice. If the words of a mantra imply something that contradicts what
an injunctive text states, whatever fits best with the mantra's meaning
is preferable. Thus, if the way mantras are listed in their portion of the
Veda suggests an order of performance different from the prescriptions given in the injunctive portion, the former takes precedence
over the latter. This very precedence permanently imbeds the mantras in the ritual; they are essential to it, but unimportant (useless) in
any extra-ritual context. Mimaimsarejects the notion that mantras
have separable, intrinsic value apart from the sacrifice.
Brdhmanas, by contrast, define and make possible the performance by enjoining it and organizing its components. For the most part
they are in the form of injunctions,"ordering"words, although there is
a wide variety of literary forms in which the intended ordering is
made known. By these brdhmanas, hitherto commonplace elements
of daily experience are identified, gathered, prepared, and related to
one another in special ways. The right performers are made to perform the right actions, with the right materials, for the right purposes,
and with the right results in mind. Thus, as Sabaraillustrates in commenting on 2.1.33, the statement "The branch of the udumbara tree is
of the same height as the sacrificer"is meant to guide the cutting of
the branch by telling us how long a branch is to be cut off. These
brdhmanas are certainly statements with meaning-they communicate-but they have no purpose apart from the ritual that they enjoin
and order. The Mimi~imsakas'
focus on ritual purpose disallows any
effort to glean from the brdhmanas knowledge not related to the ritual. We do not need a sacred text to know about udumbara trees and
men who cut branches, but only the Vedic text will relate the tree and
the man to the cutting action in this particular way. The view that
12My intention is to understandwhat Mimdmsakassay about mantras and brdhmanas,
although they are not the only ones to divide the Veda into such parts, and probablynot
the first (cf. for example Apastamba Srauta Sutra 24.1).

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the Veda is comprised only of texts used in the performance of sacrifices and texts about sacrificesl3provoked a sensible objection: What
about those parts of the Veda that give us information about this
world, the gods, creation, etc.? Can we not turn to the Veda for this
information? Jaimini is aware of this question. Soon after he has
defined the Veda as sacrificially-oriented(1.1.25-26), the thesis is proposed that since the sacrificially-orientedparts of the Veda have a purpose, guide action, and hence are "truly authoritative." The rest,
lacking this orientation, must be irrelevant, whatever the meaning of
the words may be. (1.2.1)
Jaimini knows that there apparently are purely informational
statements in the Veda and does not wish to concede that a large part
of the Veda is useless. But he insists equally that there are no texts that
merely give us information. He therefore introduces the category of
"supportive statements" (arthavdda):14 statements in the Veda
neither uttered in the performance nor helpful in organizing it. Such
statements, he says, are in "praise"of what is being done (1.2.7). They
assist the performance by encouraging the performer, describing the
results in glowing terms, explaining how the world is such that the
sacrifice works, etc. Such information found in the Veda is useful only
when identified as supportive of the ritual. Thus, for instance, after
potential performers have been urged to sacrifice an animal dedicated
to the god Vayu, a text says "For Vayu is the swiftest of all deities."
The point of this citation, Sabaraexplains (1.2.7), is not to give us information about Vayu, but rather to encourage us to sacrifice, since Vayu
is a god who will surely be swift in awarding the desired results.
3. The Veda has no author, no meaning beyond the words and the
sacrificial actions themselves; one cannot appeal to a preverbal intention to get beyond the words.
If we connect the ritual implication of language with the earlier
claim that in a sacrificethe sacrificeris only an instrument, and neither
the creator of the rites nor their finality, it should not come as a surprise that like the sacrifices themselves, the Veda has no creator, no
author. People do not invent their rituals, nor author their sacred
texts, says Mimfamsa.
This authorlessnessis based on a homologization of the speaker or
text-performer to the sacrificial-performer.Because the Veda is insep13It is interesting to note in addition that the division of the Veda into three Vedas is a
ritual one, grouping texts to be used by the three active priests at major rites: texts for
the chanter (hotr)are in the Rg Veda, for the singer (udgatr)in the Sdma Veda, and for
the priest performing the actions (adhvaryu)in the YajurVeda.
14But without using this term until a subsequent discussionof the
meaningfulness of
mantras, in 1.2.43.

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673

arable from the ritual, the "performer"of the Veda, the expounder or
reciter of its words, is likewise inseparable from it. His function with
regard to the text is subject to the same strictures governing the performer of sacrificial actions: he speaks it because it makes sense to
insist that the content of
him, either in its content (and Mimurmsakas
the Vedic texts should be understood) or because he hopes to attain
some goal, such as the reward accruing to the sacrifice,but he does not
determine the meaning. His participation is necessary, but he makes
no creative contribution; he utters them, he can understand them as
he wishes, but he cannot change them or "own" them. He "activates"
the text by making it audible, but has no role in its composition, which
is already set and inter-structuredwith the ritual. He is ever preceded
by the word.15
The position is presented without fanfare and briefly in the Stitras.
When, near the beginning of the Sttras, an opponent proposes the
argument that the Vedic scriptures cannot be a source of certain
knowledge because their authors may be fallible, Jaimini simply states
that the sacred text is prior to and, in regard to its composition,
independent of those who have taught it; i.e., it has speakers but no
authors: "It has been explained that word is prior (to its speakers)."
(1.1.29-30) Only later was the assertion formalized as the doctrine of
the "authorlessness"(apauruseyatva)of the text.16
The reduction of the author to speaker/expounder makes it
15As suggested above, this notion of subordinateagency, in speech as well as ritual, is
supported by the fundamental structures of the Sanskritlanguage, and later Mimamsakasnote this point. Thus Prabha.kara,an important eight-century Mim&imsaka,
offers
citationsfrom Panini'sgrammarin defense of Jaimini'stheory. But Jaiminirelies simply
on an understanding of how ritual uses its performers to indicate the limited role of
apparent authors.
16The idea of authorlessnessin ancient India can be analyzed from a variety of perspectives. For instance, one could look at the grammar of classical Sanskrititself, in
which most Indiantheological and philosophicaltexts were composed. Sanskritdoes not
understandthe structureof a sentence to be that of subject/predicate,but rather that of
a verb qualifiedby various relationships,including to agent and instrument, place, etc.
The "subject"of the sentence is, grammaticallyspeaking,only apparent. Edwin Gerow
has explored at length the relationship between certain grammaticalstructures in the
Sanskritlanguage and philosophicalstructuresin Vedanta philosophyin particular. His
observationson the impersonalstructure of Sanskritare pertinent for a comprehensive
understandingof the notion of "authorlessness."
Or, one might begin by attending to the general orthodox Brahmanicalnotion that
the originalseers (rsis)saw the Veda at the beginning of the age but did not compose it.
I have chosen to place the notion of authorlessnessagainst the specifically Mimamsa
background because it is in this school that the important connection of language to
ritual is most clearly explored, and the "theological"implicationsof authorlessnessmost
developed; also, because it is in response to this school'sformulationof the matter that
some of the most interesting theological responses are formed. I do not intend, however, to suggest that the Mim~msaviewpoint developed in isolation from grammatical

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Journal of the American Academy of Religion

unnecessary to defend textual authority by defending the competence


and sincerity of authors. A veda composed by human authors would
depend on them and be fallible as they are, and even divine authors
may have intentions not perfectly expressed in their words, or may
even intentionally obscure what they mean. Authorlessnessallows one
to concede these points without the risk of damage to the Veda; it does
not really matter what an apparent author may have intended, since
what actually is constructed in language according to the rules of language and gleaned from it by the rules of interpretation transcends
the author's intentions and only by chance coincides with what this
author may have meant. The Veda in effect uses the instrumentality
of an "author"to express itself.
Penner approaches Jaimini's viewpoint when he takes up this
issue of the author.
Neitherritualsnormythshavean author.Thusthereis a sensein
which performersof rituallearnto performa ritualas we learn
how to speakour languagein spite of the fact that we cannot
explainthe ruleson whichboth are based. In eithercase it simply will do no good to searchfor an originalperformerwho first
taughtthe ritualor the language,for this simplyleadsus into a
infiniteregress.(13)
doctrine explicitly, Penner
Although he does not refer to the Mimadmsd
actually presents with admirable clarity the substance of that view on
ritual/scriptural authorlessness.
The larger effect of the implication of performer, text, and
speaker in the ritual action is to define dharma, the entirety of ritual
and scripturalintelligibility, as a closed system: complex and nuanced,
but internally- and self-justifying. The coherence of rules in relation to
one another makes both speaking and acting meaningful without making that meaning depend solely on the intentions of an external referent, an author. Understanding the rules of the text allows one to use it
and perform its corresponding actions, but without the added illusory
effort to understand some intended meaning beyond what is written
and done.
Later Mimamsa elaborates this theory of authorlessness, in support of the basic point that (ritual)text, like (ritual)act, has no personal
originator. In their general theory of interpretation, which later on is
not made to rest explicitly on a ritual foundation (although this may
simply be presumed as obvious), they refuse to equate tdtparya, the
"intent" of the text, with the author's intent. ". . . the
maintain that the tdtparya or the real purport meant by itMim.msakas
can be studand mythical perspectives; it may be properly understood as an effort at a formal conceptualization of ideas implicitly available elsewhere in Indian thought.

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Clooney: Language as Ritual

675

ied objectively without any reference to the intention of the speaker."


(Kunjunni Raja: 184). They seek rather to ascertain the meaning of
texts strictly on the basis of internal evidence, the stated topics of
paragraphs,conclusions drawn, etc.
The Mimrnimsitheory of authorlessness, with its underlying concern to "liberate" the sacred texts from its author, approaches Michel
Foucault's influential interpretation of the common (though not uiversal) way in which the author-function is used as a societal tool to
restrain language, assign responsibility, and confine the meaning of
texts. Foucault shows how this author-function--despite its appeal to
the "infinite creative resources" which are culturally supposed to lie
within the speaker- actually restricts texts by ordering them to a designated author, whose intentions determine what the texts are allowed
to mean. Authors are used to confine the encompassing, unbounded
"event" of language within manageable limits. Foucault likewise reexamines the notion of subject connected with the author-function,and
questions
the absolute character and founding role of the subject ... not in
order to reestablish the theme of an originating subject, but to
grasp the subject's points of insertion, modes of functioning, and
system of dependencies ... it is a matter of depriving the subject
(or its substitute)of its role as originator,and of analyzing the subject as a variable and complex function of discourse. (118)

By refusing to take for granted the author-text relationship, Foucault


seeks to free the text from the "system of constraint"that is the author;
but he admits that some other constraint might yet emerge.
I think that, as our society changes, the authorfunction will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts
will once again function according to another mode, but still with
a system of constraint--one which will no longer be the author,
but which will have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced.
(119)

Mimaimsasought to secure the authority of the Veda by founding


it on an ever-precedent weaving of word into ritual action. It decided
that reference to the author as the privileged source of meaning limited the Veda, cut it off from its ritual context, and made it liable to the
mistakes and limitations of the author. By locating author and performer in the ritual context, the instrumental role of the speaker of
words is accounted for, yet in proper subordination.
Foucault's suggestion that focus on the author overly restricts the
text likewise points to an appreciation that text and language possess
horizons and scopes of significance wider than those belonging to any
given set of authors and readers. Indeed, his search for some other
"system of constraint" seems open to the way in which something like

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Journal of the American Academy of Religion

ritual might constrain the text, or in which grammar (particularly if


ordered as Sanskrit grammar is) might be given precedence over
authors' meanings. The two projects illuminate and reinforce one
another, and it is perhaps unfortunate the Foucault was not familiar
with the Mimuamsdanalogue to his position. Anyone seeking to
develop the implications of Foucault's position has a very promising
resource available in the Indian material.
The remaining question I wish to address takes us in a different
direction. I am concerned about the viability of traditional religious
discourse after Mimamsa'sdeconstruction of the notion that sacrificeis
anthropocentric, the notion of Veda as a distinct, independent text,
and the notion of author (divine or human). Conversely, we may ask
whether or not the Mimamsdpositions are of any use to people who
wish to remain religious and continue to use some of the traditional
categories and limits. One medieval commentator is reported to have
said that "the study of Mimamsdwithers the soul." We must at least
consider the possibility that a thorough
leaves
series of sacrificialper"Mima.msification"
hardly anything to religion but a never-ending
formances, or a religion so peculiarly defined that just about no one
can believe in it.
Analogously, one must wonder what is left of religion after modern deconstructionism, or what, if anything, deconstruction might
mean for theologians in Christianityand other highly developed traditions. Referring to Derrida's claim that "in the void remaining after
the death of God, veils veil veils and masks mask masks,"MarkC. Taylor has vividly summarized the larger and initially devastating effect of
this phenomenon:
Such ceaseless masking has a domino effect on much Western
philosophy and theology. One after another, central concepts
and dominant notions-God, self, history, book . . .-tumble. As

entanglementin a very differentworldonce led us to suspect...

this domino effect carries serious consequences for all of western


society and culture. (Wyschogrod,et al.: 549)

Elsewhere he has shown how the "God is dead" theme is necessarily


connected with other important "deaths" which together shake the
whole of traditional religion:
God, self, history, and book are, thus, bound in an intricate relationship in which each mirrorsthe other. No single concept can
be changed without altering all of the others. As a result of this
thorough interdependence, the news of the death of God cannot
really reach our ears until its reverberations are traced in the
notions of self, history and book. The echoes of the death of God
can be heard in the disappearanceof the self, the end of history,
and the closure of the book. (1984: 7-8)

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677

How is Christianity,for instance, to be visualized without "God," the


"Bible,"the "self" and "history?"Taylor argues, however, that deconstructionismby its radical extension of the death of God critique offers
a way beyond the perceived theological stalemate in the face of the
death of God: not by the denial of this "death,"but by the working out
of its implications in other areas of religious discourse.
relentless critique significantly shaped the
Similarly,
discourse that was to be essential to Hinduism. Taylor
new theological
Mima.msa's
himself has suggested that attention to non-Western religious traditions is invited and facilitated by the deconstructionist move, and even
that the connections of language and ritual in Buddhism might be specifically helpful.
Forexample,it mightbe possibleto establisha constructivecomparisonbetween the textual strategiesof deconstructionand
thosedeployedin someBuddhisttexts. Inasmuchas deconstructive criticssubscribeto a performativeview of language,it might
not be unreasonableto expect similaritiesbetween the practice
of deconstructionand certain Buddhistmeditativeand ritual
et. al.:553)
places. (Wyschogrod,
The suggestion of comparison with Buddhism is appropriate and
promises to be fruitful if seriously pursued. But I prefer to search out
the comparison with Mimamsa,precisely because the
were interested in reappropriating, albeit by drastic measures,
the
Mim~.amsakas
"old religion" of the Vedic Scripturesand sacrifices,placing them on a
new basis. Except perhaps in a very extended sense, the Buddhistsdid
not share this goal.
We have already seen that the Mimamsa,in its de-emphasis on the
gods and the human person and its reintegration of the Veda into a
ritual context precedent to any author or performer, parallels many
deconstructionist themes. For a few Hindus, perhaps, the Mimamsa
defense of the meaningfulness of the Veda was a sufficient rehabilitation of the tradition. But I wish now to explore a particularresponse to
Mim~msa, by a school of thinkers not entirely satisfied with the
Mimamsasynthesis but also unwilling and unable to revert to the preMimamsa orthodoxy. Certain developments within the Vedanta,
which has accurately been called the "Later Mimamsa," offer us a
model we should seriously consult in fashioning a post-deconstructionist religious thinking that is not in total disrupture from the recognizable religious tradition of Christianity.17
There were many responses to the Mimamsadoctrines, particularly their displacement of the human performer and the author. It
17For simplicity,from this point on I treat the problem of deconstructionas a problem
for Christiantheology although, of course, deconstructionchallenges all (religious)ways
of thinking.

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seems that even Sabara, the authoritative first commentator on


Jaimini, stepped back from Jaimini's radically non-anthropocentric
perspective and argued that the purpose of sacrificesis to bring about
the satisfaction of the performer's desires.'8 Some, such as the logicians of the Nydya school, sought to refute the notion of authorlessness
on the grounds that it made no sense to say that there are texts no one
has composed, and that since God is a perfectly reliable source of information, there is no need to doubt the reliability of texts God authors.
The Vedanta approach is most interesting because it develops
only in a context where the major stratgegies and achievements of
Mimamsdhave been taken seriously. The Vedinta, on the basis of the
late Vedic texts called the "upanisads," expounds the theory that
underlying all reality is a perfect, conscious absolute, brahman. On
the basis the Vedantins necessarily disassociate themselves from the
Mimamsakas,who do not recognize the authority of the upanisads.
Unlike the logicians, however, who departed from a Mima5msview of
the world by focusing meaning in a transcendent Lord, the Vedintins
sought to effect a re-centering without shifting the meaning of the system to a reality merely outside it. Like the Mimnmsakas,they also
resisted the introduction of the author concept, and declined to base
Vedic authority in the will or intention of a higher being; brahman
does not author the Veda.
The question of the relation of the Veda to brahman is raised in
the seminal Vedanta text, the Brahma Stitras of
first in
Badaraya.ia,
1.1.3 and later in 1.3.29 ff. The claim is two-fold:
the Veda has its
source in brahman and yet it is eternal, beginningless. Sankara(c. 700
CE), the first great Vedanta commentator, does not offer us a fully
elaborated theory of how this is so, but merely insists, with
Bddarayana,that brahman is the source and cause of the Veda (1.1.3),
and that even the periodic total destructions of the universe do not
include the dissolution of the Veda. It does not require re-creation by
brahman (1.3.30), and is simply manifest again in each new age. The
view that the Veda is eternal but somehow dependent on brahman is
more clearly explained by later commentators. The view of
PrakiSatman,the author of a commentary entitled Vivarana (c. 1200
C.E.), is summed up by SatchidanandaMurty:
At the beginningof each world-cycleGod merely utters the
Vedic sentences,just as todaywe might quote the sentencesof
the Mahabharata
(the great epic of India, generallyacknowledged to have a humanauthor).So the Vivaranaschoolsaysthat
the purportof the Vedais not to expressan 'opinion'-not even
18 Sabara thus sparked a controversy which occupied the two main
Mimamsa schools in
later generations. I developed this theme in Chapter 7 of my forthcoming book (see n.4
above).

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679

that of God;its purportthroughthe injunctionto studyconsists


in injunctions.(46)
Prakaiitman discards the model of an author-text relationship
rooted in intentionality and instead points to how a material cause
relates to its elaborated effects: "Brahmanis only the material cause of
the Veda, not its author."(Murty:48) A standardexample of material
causality is clay, which can be seen in many forms as a "cause" for
various things (a jug, a plate, a cup, etc.), without ceasing to be clay;
and the Vedanta thinkers appeal to such examples, even if they do not
hold any crassly material monism. What concerns them is to root the
Veda in brahman as the only reality in which anything can be rooted,
without resorting to the notion that language is the product or composition of an author'smind. The Veda is rather a dependent yet distinct
evolute of brahman, its externalization or "self-manifestation"(if this
term can be used without implying an intentional choice to communicate). Its eternity and unchangeability are founded directly in brahman's essence. It explicitates the otherwise unrecognized power of
brahman in an objectifiableform-just as a jug, for instance, gives clay
a material form under which it is perceptible to the senses.
The Vifistadvaita Vedanta school preeminently connected with
Ramnnuja(c. 1100 C.E.) interprets brahman not simply as pure conBut it too
sciousness, but as a personal absolute, the deity
Vis.nu.
the
a
to
divine
author
of
the
Veda
and
rejects
logicians' appeal
accepts
the same Mimamsa-Vedantatheory of authorlessness,but with a different nuance. Julius Lipner summarizes Rm~nanuja's
basic position thus:
The Vedas(duringthe periodicdissolutionsof the universe),in
some way exist continuously,eternally,in the mind of brahman-their sourceandgoal-who is eternal... the Vedasrepose
of brahmanin potencyproximate
deep withinthe consciousness
to theirpre-established
empiricalform... when the time for reemittingthe world arrives,they are evoked or manifested...
ratherthancomposedby the supremeperson.... (9)
The Veda eternally resides in and manifests the mind of brahman;
it is, as it were, God's "verbality,"his consciousness transformed into
word. Its eternity is dependent on and derives solely from his eternal,
complete thought; it is as unchanging-unchangeable even by him-as
his own essence. As Lipner rightly suggests, Rmnanuja'sposition is
analogous to that of the European scholastic theologians who distinguished between God's essence and God's will; for Ramanujathe Veda
is rooted in the former, not the latter (Lipner: 9) The difference,
Rmanuja says, between human teachers of the Veda and brahman in
regard to the set order of Vedic words, is not that brahman composes
while others see what has been composed, but that brahman "irrespective of mental impressions himself apprehends (the sequence)

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Journal of the American Academy of Religion

directly." (Lipner: 12) To learn of brahman from the Veda, therefore,


is not to learn of a message directed to us, but rather to become
engaged in the language itself and hence simultaneously in brahman.
ParaharaBhattar(c. 1150 C.E.), a disciple of Ramanuja,adds to our
set of explanatoryimages of the authorlessnessof the absolute and the
sacred text by suggesting that the Veda is the "body of God." In his
commentary on the litany called the Vis.nusahasrandma("The 1000
Names of Vis~nu")he explains the title veda-ariga as follows: "Veddaigah means that the Vedas, with all their innumberable branches, are
his limbs (ariga),body; because they manifest his inner portion."'19
The soul-body analogy is standard in
it is simRrminuja'sschool;
ply specified here in relation to the Veda. According to Rrmn.nuja,a
"body" is first of all "any substance that an intelligent being is able
completely to control and support for his own purposes, and the essential nature of which isentirely subservient to that intelligent self..."
(Carman:127). To say that the Veda is God'sbody is therefore to stress
its dependence on, essential inherence in, and its inseparability from
him. Dependence is mutual: because the Veda reflects his inner
being, God is not free to change it in any way, any more than he could
alter his own perfect being. Epistemologically, the interdependence is
even more striking: just as our bodies make us perceptible to other
people, the Veda is God's way of being known. Yet it is not God's
intentional, willed self-expression, it is not his word and he is not its
author. Its way of expressing God is not limited by the strictures of a
mind "behind the text." It is God's "word,"or, as suggested above, the
intrinsic "verbality"of divine being.
These developments within the Veddnta suggest a new "face" for
religious discourse after deconstruction, one that does not ignore or
minimize the radical depth and importance of that critique. The
notion that the Veda is either the material effect of brahman or God's
body (as a kind of verbal emanation, language as one's exteriority)
offers a way of reimagining what revelation in books like the Bible
might be about or "look like." In particular,the notion that the sacred
book as verbal-ritual event, in all its words, sound, images, patterns
and redactions, is God's externalization or "verbalization" seems to
offer a way of recovering, in a post-historicalage, an interpretation of
the whole of the Christian sacred texts that allows for "word-play"
without a complete forgetting of the canonical boundaries of the texts.
Two potential developments in this project exemplify what I have in
mind.
19"VedLngah"is the 132nd name, in the recently published Sanskrit-Englishedition of
the text: Sri Vishnu Sahasranamawith the Bhdsya of Sri ParSiarabhattar(Visishadvaita
PrachariniSabha: Madras,1983), 259-60.

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Clooney: Language as Ritual

681

First, however invaluable the historical-criticalinterpretation of


the Bible has been, the limitations of its effort to uncover the "mind"
of the original authors and communities have become evident on both
scholarly and pastoral levels. The religious power of a biblical text is
not adequately explained by discovering what its authors meant in
composing it, nor by trying to imagine what God must have meant in
allowing this or that community to fashion a certain kind of text. The
appeal to the historical author has been a useful corrective to other
kinds of abuses of the text, but is not sufficient to recover and maintain
its sacredness. Moreover, historical-criticalinterpretation has risked
fragmenting the Bible, transforming it from the (single) "Scripture"
into a collection of redacted documents (themselves often compilations and redactions) arranged according to various principles. The
notion that it is indeed a single "writing,"each part of which is written
with the rest in mind, has been obscured and almost ceased to be a
possibility to be conceived of-except, again, by an appeal to the
entire Israelite "people" as author. The Vedanta's effort to establish
the Veda as brahman or as God's body, in a context already "purified"
by Mimrmsd'scritique of authorial intent, supports current moves to
return to a "literary" and therefore multi-perspectival reading of
sacred texts and encourages the tendency to do so without being
restricted to the notion that a work of literature is an author's selfexpression.
Second, Wyschogrod (544) notes correctly that deconstruction
entails "a world that is scriptic but without Scriptures, a field of laterally interpenetrating texts . . . an ahistorical world;" Taylor's Erring,
she suggests, invites us into a "brilliantlycontrived maze . .. without
exit or closure"(544). This is a world of endless commentary, such as is
modelled by Mimimsa/Veddnta'sstill unfinished set of multiplying,
intertwined commentaries. What I find in need of critique, however,
is the prospect of commentary without a "text," "scripture"without a
"Scripture"-such that commentary and the commented on become
virtually indistinguishable. There is the danger that commenting and
interpreting may remain just an ultimately anthropocentric endeavor,
a game we play simply because we enjoy playing it-instead of something binding and transcending us in the manner of a ritual which,
though we may enjoy it and find it endlessly freeing, nevertheless constrains us by concerns and rules that are not reducible to our interests
and the confines of our creativity. The Mima~sa implication of the
Veda in ritual performance, the ritualization of its meaning, and its
systematic reduction of the author-function in a sense restores the
"canon" of Scripture without leaving it as something external to
human understanding and volition.
The Vedanta response too, shows us a way in which this can be

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682

Journal of the American Academy of Religion

transformed into a new kind of theology with its own thoroughly


revised understanding of how God is to be found in Scripture. Again,
Taylor speaks to the point:
Writingis an unendingplay of differencethat establishesthe
thoroughgoingrelativityof all "things."This complexweb of
is the divine milieu. Withinthis non-totalizinterrelationships
able totality,nothingis itself by itself,for all thingsemerge and
face throughthe interplayof forces... The absoluterelativityof
the divinemilieurendersall otherthingscompletelycorrelative.
et. al.:537)
(Wyschogrod,
I diverge from what Taylor is saying in my view that there is nothing about this recovery of the "unending play of difference" that
excludes "writing"in the specific sense of the "writing that has already
been definitively written"--a Bible, a Veda, a Qur'an-even if as such
it is then the subject of unending commentary. In this view the "absolute relativity of the divine milieu" can be read with the Vedanta as
"the relatedness of everything as the divine body." In suggesting this,
however, I freely concede that I am taking sides with the Mimmsakas
and Vedantins against their Buddhist opponents in that "post-Buddhist" reconstruction of Vedic orthodoxy that ultimately becomes
"Hinduism." Indeed, we might well suppose that as deconstructionism develops it will split more clearly in "Buddhist" and "Hindu"
schools.
The widest extension of what I have been suggesting is that we
must "demythologize" our notions of distance in time and space and
the disciplines we define in conformity with these notions. We locate
other religions and cultures and older periods in Europe's own tradition as objects of study, as if they are merely prior to our own evolving
modern/post-modern thinking, materials to use, but not peers to learn
from who have already grappled with questions comparable to those
we raise. Given the very fascinating and endangering problems which
today confront anyone who wishes to be and act and think religiously,
we cannot afford to ignore the ways in which our current problems
have been thought out before. Even if we have just been introduced
to Mimamsa,we might do well to learn to see this thinking as our own
thinking.20

20This paper is a significantly revised and greatly expanded version of a paper


presented at the AmericanAcademy of Religion AnnualMeeting at Anaheim in November, 1985 and at the South Asian Language Analysis Roundtable held at the University
of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana,in May, 1986.

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683

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