The Metaphysics of the Act (HT23)

Location: OCHS Library
Speaker: Professor Gavin Flood FBA
Date: January 26, 2023
Time: 2.00pm – 3.00pm

These lectures will reflect on metaphysical speculation in the history of Indian religions paying particular attention to the ways in which doing, or practice, connects with thinking, or philosophy, and how metaphysical concerns address problems of the relation of self to world, the nature and meaning of sacrifice, the category of the self in relation to person and transcendence, and the nature of language. Although the chronological span of these lectures will be wide, we will nevertheless focus on the early medieval (i.e., the post-Gupta) period for by this time the different schools were established and there is a history of discourse that we can examine. The implicit thesis of the lectures is that action, and in particular ritual action, is the backbone of tradition and that philosophical reflection emerges from the nature of humans as creatures who act. We will not simply present and assess arguments, but rather try to open out or enter into the world in which metaphysical thinking occurs through examining ritual and meditative literature as well as philosophical commentaries and independent works. Examples chosen will mostly be from the religions of Śiva and the Goddess but not exclusively so.

Lecture 1: The Metaphysics of the Act

Sacrifice is at the foundation of the history of Indian thinking about the nature of the world, God, and human beings. There is a large literature that focusses on ritual action from early Vedic texts to ritual manuals (paddhatis) in the medieval period. This emphasis on action in the Brahmanical imagination led to the development of the school of Vedic exegesis, the Mīmāṃsā, which presents a philosophy of action that the lecture will explore. For the Mīmāṃsā, the most significant feature of human reality is that we act: action is the most distinctive human feature, more important than cognition, because action has consequences in the world. Above all, as human beings we need to be concerned with action as enjoined by scriptural revelation, thus ritual action. The ritual act for the Mīmāṃsā, namely the sacrifice, is performed not to achieve a specific purpose, such as going to heaven at death, but because it is enjoined by scripture. The Mīmāṃsā is thus reflection not so much on ritual per se but on the nature of Vedic anguagee. We should act in conformity to dharma, truth or duty, and the founding text of the philosophical school, Jaimini’s Mīmāṃsā Sūtra, opens with the statement: ‘Now the inquiry into Dharma’.