Mīmāṃsā on the Vedas and Halakhah

What do the Vedas mean in Hinduism? They mean what the tradition interprets them to mean. Originally the meaning was via a philosophy called Mimamsa and in contemporary time it is through Advaita. However, leaders of the faith study both.

The original meaning of the vedas according to Mimamsa is a set of procedural ritual laws to follow and that is it. For a follower of Mimamsa, the introduction to your Western paperback edition is wrong. For Mimamsa, the bronze age gods of the Vedas of fire, of wind, of the Sun were already a memory to the first centuries of the CE. Schopenhauer may have found them ennobling and heroic, but the Brahmins did not.

The Vedas are an eternal revelation of eternal truths consisting only of rituals to follow. All the stories, gods, metaphysics we don’t understand and don’t bother with. Veda are unauthored, eternal, transcendent and they are called teaching “veda” because they show practical actions of how to live the dharma.

According to Mimamsa, we only see what we can perceive. We cannot perceive morality and we have no direct access to morality.The Vedas are our only instrument to know truth and morality. We also have no reason to believe that there ever were exceptional humans who could perceive morality. Meaning that the Rishees (Seers) who receive the vedas were not using human perception, rather they were conduits for the eternal truth.

The ceremonial details of the rituals absorb its interest, rather than the gods themselves who gradually recede and fade into mere grammatical datives. A Vedic deity comes to be described not by its moral or intellectual qualities, but as ‘that which is signified, in a sacrificial injunction, by the fourth case-ending’ (the sign of a dative, .to which something is given). In Short, a deity is necessary merely as that in whose name an oblation is to be offered at a sacrifice. But the primary object of performing a sacrifice is not worship : it is not to please any deity. *Nor is it purification of the soul or moral improvement. A ritual is to be performed just because the Vedas commands to perform them.

All other works in Hinduism only have the correct action or are giving the correct law if they are based on the vedas as understood by mimamsa. Vedas are only source of what is to be done therefore they cannot be falsified since there is no acceptable outside source. There is no “ethic outside of the vedas.” It is a rigid form of the Divine Command Theory” without the Divine command. In Euthyphro terms, is good because it is in the vedas not because the vedas are good. God is not subject to inquiry but we may subjectively serve God or gods as our own devotion or for our own needs

The origins of Mimamsa lie in the scholarly traditions of the final centuries BCE, when the priestly ritualism of Vedic sacrifice was being marginalized by Buddhism and Vedanta. To counteract this challenge, several groups emerged dedicated to demonstrating the validity of the Vedic texts by rigid formulation of rules for their interpretation. The foundational text for the Mīmāṃsā school is the Purva Mīmāṃsā Sutras of Jaimini (ca. 3rd to 1st century BCE).


The school gathers momentum in the Gupta period with Śābara, and reaches its apex in the 7th to 8th centuries with Kumārila Bhaṭṭa and Prabhākara. The school was a major force contributing to the decline of Buddhism in India. Vedānta Deśika’s Śeśvara Mīmāṁsā was an attempt to combine the views of the Mīmāṁsā and the Vedānta schools.

Human agency is only how one is made into an agent by Vedic injunctive. One trains oneself to desire the right things. Nyaya, similar to Western scholastics, holds that cognition leads to volition and from there to action. Mimamsa cuts out the intellect and volition and holds that desire to action, in which desire means recognition that one has an obligation. If you desire heaven then you sacrifice. Efficacy of ritual is more important than effect on person It also keeps discussions of atman (the self, soul, consciousness) out of the picture.

Mimamsa even removes God and Divine agency from the discussion. An agent needs a body, God has no body so God is not a legal agent. Mimamsa has no discussion or place for a personal God since no we have no access to God therefore no legal intention. People used to debate whether Mimamsa is atheist or theist because the law is followed solely because it is the revealed eternal truth without reference to God. From a halakhah point of view, it is similar to keeping all the commands with a knowledge (daat) that the action is a required commandment without a need for any specific intention (kavvanah).

According to one early 20th century commentator, the Vedic hymns are inspired by the living presence of the polytheistic deities in the place of worship, Mimamsa loses the living faith in deities. At best, the deities of the Mimamsa are like the immortal characters of classical Epics ; they do not belong to the space-time world; they are not existing parsons, but types. They are more thin characters because they are not the products of any imagination . In contrast, medieval and traditional commentaries actually assume they do not believe them at all.

For Mimamsa, according to the great commentary Kumarila, an embodied God is inherently contradictory because how could he be revered by different people in different places simultaneously if he were linked to a body. (Freschi p6 ftnt 10) So for this school and its interpretation of the Vedas, there are no embodied Divine, no incarnations, no physical attributes to God. Everything physical about God can only be from our perspective.

To compare halakhah with fiqh or shariah is so 2005, now there is a trend for composing law papers comparing Hindu law and Jewish law. For example, Prof. Donald Davis wrote an article “Before Virtue: Halakhah, Dharmasastra, and what the Law can Create” published in Duke Law Review (2008).

Dharmasastra is Hindu law, which Davis thinks is best understood in the categories of Mimamsa. According to Davis, Hindu Law creates the full ideal of what humans were meant to be. Davis finds that Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man and dharmashatra share this goal of creating the ideal human through law, the ideal halakhic man and the ideal dharmashastra man.

Davis points out that for both law and practice of law gives virtue without any prior need for values or aspired to virtue. In both the most important thing is to value the tradition and law is the instrument and embodiment of that conviction of sustaining tradition.
Returning to basics, Davis shows how Torah and Veda are both mediated by rules; one should not read them unmediated like from a paperback or archeology records. For both Torah and Vedas- people are not virtuous only actions are. A zaddik or a sadhu are holy and do lots of virtuous acts but they do not define virtue. For example in Maimonides, it is more important to do righteous acts the think about them. Torah (and Veda) is the tree of life

For Soloveitchik, the very command carries with it an endorsement of man’s existence and an affirmation of human responsibility. Davis quotes Prof. Francis X. Clooney who described Mimamsa as transcending anthropocentrism since man realizes that he is part of something larger than himself. The transcendent meaning is not the work of the gods or part of the cosmos but the here and now keeping of the law. In the repeated performances he experiences the transcendent. Law as worldly and still fully religious


The “Theory of Karma” is guided by Mimamsa Philosophy. “Karma” means “deeds”, “act” or “work”. The ‘theory of Karma’ states that good actions produce good fruit, evil actions produce evil fruits. Originally, karma in mimamsa was only based on vedic sacrifice, a ritual that needs to be done – later the term karma was expanded to all of life Mimamsa explain how a human being can achieve the mysterious, transcendent power produced by a correctly performed sacrificial ritual, not through the action of gods. Rather, the merit is only shown after the death of the person performing the ritual.

How many of this basic list seem similar to Rabbinics exegetical rules?I think for the third -we do the opposite. Klal uPrat- we follow the prat;they follwo the klal.

(1) The Sarthakyata axiom, which means that every word and sentence must have some meaning.
(2) The Laghava axiom, which states that that construction which makes the meaning simpler and shorter is to be preferred.
(3) The Arthaikatva axiom, which states that a double meaning should not be attached to a word or sentence occurring at one and the same place.
(4) The Gunapradhan axiom, which states that if a word or sentence purporting to express a subordinate idea clashes with the principal idea the former must be adjusted to the latter, or must be disregarded altogether.
(5) The Samanjasya axiom which states that all attempts should be made at reconciliation of apparently conflicting texts.
(6) The Vikalpa axiom, which states that if there is a real and irreconcilable contradiction between two legal rules having equal force, the rule more in accordance with equity and usage should be adopted at one’s option.

13 responses to “Mīmāṃsā on the Vedas and Halakhah

  1. Please try to limit your comments to the topic of this post to Mimamsa. Please save your comments on Advaita, Shankara, Yoga and other topic to posts devoted to those topics. In addition, original research on Judaism and Hinduism based on WIkipedia and chat rooms is less productive than you might think. Please try to limit your comments to things directly relevant to the post.

  2. jamesbradfordpate

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.

  3. Where do the Seers receive this eternal truth from according to the Mimasa? OK there is no god, but it seems there is an assumption of a non material reality. It would be interesting to hear how they see these interprenetrating..it seems perhaps similar to a Platonic approach..or even if they dont see it quite like Schopenhauer, is his idea of will something close to how they see it…would be interesting to know more

  4. You could think of other Jewish thinkers who would be a better Jewish comparison for Purva Mimamsa understandings of Dharmashastra for Davis: Isaac Arama, perhaps the Vilna Gaon,Yeshayahu Leibovitz. This is more similar to mitzvot as gezerot, without any ta’amim, mitva leshem mitzva. Islam probably has even better comparisons in terms of submission to the pure will of God. But none of these completely takes God out of the picture the way Mimamsa can. Rav Soloveitchik is just too Maimonidean and hence committed to taamei hamitzvot and virtue. Davis does seems right about Torah/Veda being mediated by rules/traditions/Church/Oral Law, but isn’t that the Rav’s adapatation of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics and isn’t that likely to be claimed by any orthodoxy?

    • Ira- for your first part you are correct. Davis had a pilpul in the Rambam that I did not reproduce. The second part I need to think about. But there is important to recognize especially from where we sit, that there is a Hindu Orthodoxy who biggest concern is that the rules are followed and not to saddle them with ancient beliefs even if a practice continues.

  5. Do I understand correctly that this school offers Commandment and Obligation without a Revelation or Commander? (If so, perhaps the apt comparison would be certain strains of Conservative Judaism.)

  6. 2 questions: [1] it seems to me that the Vedas are more consistent than “the rabbis” if only because they do a more consistent job in bracketing out the referent or signified, focusing solely and purely on the sign-act itself. or is there a Vedic theology that i’m not understanding. and a related question. [2] what often strikes me about the Bavli is the intense interest in material things (like stones, walls, animals, internal bodily viscera. are the Vedas like that also?

  7. I heartily agree, Alan, when you write that it “is important to recognize especially from where we sit, that there is a Hindu Orthodoxy who biggest concern is that the rules are followed and not to saddle them with ancient beliefs even if a practice continues.”
    I have been fascinated by my studies with Francis Clooney for over two years now. Our very first semester together was an in depth study of Mimamsa, and as a Halakhist, my mind began to explode with religio-legal comparative ponderings. I have been studying Dharmasastra from an intense religio-legal focus ever since. Thank you for posting and sorry for being AWOL due to a particularly grueling doctoral semester! Excited to be part of the conversation!

  8. I want to thank you for your excellent articulation and encapsulation of the Dharmasastric religio-legal mindset. You are helping my Halakhic and Dharmasastric minds come into sync.

  9. I am a follower of Sri Vaishnavam, a Vedic/Mimamsa based religion dating back to the 10th through 12th centuries. Its preeminent teacher, Sri Ramanuja taught of a God Who is both Personal and Impersonal. His Personal side is expressed in historic texts, myths, and poems as appearing in Avatara, but His Non-Qualitative Side serves as the Brahman, the solution to the Universe and its existence.

    I think this as close as we can find to the “God Far, God Near” approach which is spoken of in popular Jewish thought.

    • Do you mean the idea of God hiding His face? The idea of God’s absence? (Have you read Francis X Clooney’s “His Hiding Place is Darkness”? It is excellent. I am curious what you might think of it). Or do you mean the concept of Eyn Sof in Jewish Mysticism? Or the idea of the upper most of the ten sefirot being removed and detached in comparison with the tenth sefira, that which kisses the earthly realm? And when you refer to God’s personal side–as opposed to Brahman–are you referring to the facets of God that are expressed in names of supposed gods, which are really manifestations of various attributes of Brahman in his proximate mode?

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