Vedānta: Contradiction vs Paradox

Rami Sivan, Priest, Dharma teacher, counsellor, Gov. Advisor (1998-present)
April 25th, 2020

Contradiction is a logical error and applies to literal readings of a text or statement. A contradiction needs to be resolved by applying hermeneutics.

There may be contradiction in one single text; —

Example:

Manu 5:35. But a person who, being duly engaged (to officiate or to dine at a sacred rite — yajña), refuses to eat meat, becomes after death an animal during twenty-one existences.

Manu 5:48. Meat can never be obtained without injury to living creatures, and injury to sentient beings is detrimental to (the attainment of) heavenly bliss; let one therefore shun (the use of) meat.

or between 2 or more different texts;

Example

Manu 9:65. In the sacred texts which refer to marriage the appointment (of widows) is nowhere mentioned, nor is the re-marriage of widows prescribed in the rules concerning marriage.

Paraśara 4:30 When the husband disappears, dies, goes forth to a mendicant life, becomes impotent, or falls from social status, then in all these five cases remarriage is ordained for women.

In the case of a contradiction in texts there are three options:—

1. Samuccaya (orderly co-ordination) — combine the two injunctions together and work out a compromise.

2. vikalpa (option) — choose one or the other courses of action.

3. bādha (annulment) — follow neither course of action as the one annuls the other.

virodhī yatra vākyānāṁ pramāṇaṁ tatra bhūyasam | tulya pramāṇaktve tu nyāya eva prakīrttitaḥ || Kātyāyana Smṛti 28:17)

When there is a contradiction, the decision of the majority is considered as authority. Where evidence is of equal weight, reason is described as the authority

Paradox is a tool that is used to explain the inexplicable or to introduce an extremely abstract concept by using the tension between 2 opposites.

tad ejati tan naijati tad dūre tadvantike | tad antarasya sarvasya tad u sarvasyāsya bāhyataḥ || 5 ||

It moves and It moves not; It is far and It is near; It is within all this and It is also outside all this. (Iśāvāsya Upaṇiṣad 5.)

These apparently contradictory statements are not suggestive of the mental unbalance of the writer. He is struggling to describe what he experiences through the limitations of human thought and language. The Supreme is beyond the categories of thought. Thought is symbolic and so cannot conceive of the Absolute except through negations; yet the Absolute is not a void. It is all that is in time and yet is beyond time.

It is far because it is not capable of attainment by the ignorant and it is very near to the wise because It is their very Self.

Solving the Inevitable Contradictions

There are three avenues for resolving contradictions between two or more passages:

  1. The statement in question comes from a less authoritative source than the other. E.g. from the Puraṇas or Smṛtis rather than from the Veda.
  2. Proving that the contradiction is only apparent by demonstrating that the provisions of the two have in mind two different groups of individuals or two different periods in the same person’s life.
  3. When these two fail and the contradiction is between to equally authoritative texts then an option is created.

Hyperbole

Hyperbole are exaggerated claims or outrageous statements that are forms of arthavāda and not to be taken literally. Hyperbole is common in many cultures, and is all too frequent in Hindu literature.

The numerous phala-śrutis or declared benefits of reciting certain stotras is one such device.

raṅganātha aṣṭakaṃ puṇyaṃ prātar utthāya yaḥ paṭhet | sarvān kāmān avāpnoti raṅgi sāyujyam āpnuyāt || 10 ||

  1. Those who recite this hymn on Sriranganatha upon waking in the morning attain the fulfillment of all their goals and are completely unified with Sri Ranganatha.

Another is the benefits of taking a bath in a holy river or even just mentioning he name of the river:—

gaṅgā gaṅgeti yo bruyād yojanānāṃ śatairapi | mucyate sarva pāpebhyo viṣṇu-lokā sa gacchati ||

The person who simply recites the name Ganga, Ganga, even though thousands of kilometers away, will be absolved of all sinful reactions and will attain the realm of Vishnu.

A particularly nasty prescription is allegedly by Gautama who says:

Now, if a Sudra listens intentionally to the recitation of the Veda, his ears shall be filled with molten tin or lac. (Gautama 12:4)

It is extremely doubtful whether this was ever taken seriously or any such punishment was ever metered out. Certainly neither Manu nor Apastamba mention it. It has been the custom in South Indian temples for centuries to recite the Vedas during services and the majority of people attending the ceremonies would have been Sudras. During the daily, monthly and annual processions of the deities the Brahmins walk around the town with the palanquin of the deity loudly reciting the Vedas in the hearing of everyone standing within range.

Degree of Authority of Injunctions (Vidhi), Mantra & Corroborative Statements (Arthavāda).

“Authority” is defined as “the ability to influence somebody to do something that (s)he would not have, or could not have done”.

The Injunctions (vidhi) constitute Dharma and are therefore the essence of the śabda [Revelation].

Dharma is that act which is enjoined by the Veda through its injunctive passages and which is conducive to the happiness of all beings (abhyudaya).

Arthavādas as such are authoritative only in so far as they serve the distinctly useful purpose of helping the injunction or prohibition.

Mantras convey a distinct meaning indicative in most cases of the deity connected with the sacrifice enjoined elsewhere and therefore in themselves, have no authority whatsoever.