Philosophy of Mimamsa Dharma

Philosophy of Mimamsa Dharma

Mīmāṃsā, a Sanskrit word meaning “revered thought,” is the name of one of the six astika (“orthodox”) schools of Hindu philosophy, whose primary inquiry is into the nature of dharma (duty) based on close hermeneutics of the Vedas. Its core tenets are ritualism (orthopraxy), anti-asceticism and anti-mysticism. The central aim of the school is elucidation of the nature of dharma, understood as a set of ritual obligations and prerogatives to be performed properly, in order to maintain the harmony of the universe and further the personal well-being of the person who performs them.

Mimamsa is more accurately known as Pūrva Mīmāmsā, “prior inquiry,” since it investigates the “earlier” (pūrva) portions of the Vedas, the Samhitas and Brāhmanas. Its earliest commentator was Jaimini during the third to first centuries B.C.E.; later commentators include Śābara (fifth century), Kumarila Bhatta, and Prabhākara (c. 700 C.E.). Mimamsa made important contributions to Hindu thought in the fields of logic and epistemology, and its literature is closely allied to the Hindu legal system. Mimamsa’s arguments against Buddhism may have contributed in some part to the decline of Buddhism in India.

Mimamsa is the name of one of the six astika (“orthodox”) schools of Hindu philosophy, whose primary inquiry is into the nature of dharma (duty) based on close hermeneutics of the Vedas. Its core tenets are ritualism (orthopraxy), anti-asceticism, and anti-mysticism.  The Sanskrit word “mimamsa” literally means “revered thought” and was originally applied to the interpretation of the Vedic rituals which commanded the highest reverence. The word is now used to signify any critical investigation. Mimamsa gives both rules according to which the commandments of the Veda are to be interpreted, and a philosophical justification for Vedic ritualism.

Purva Mimamsa

Mimamsa and Vedanta are treated as allied systems of thought. Both are based on the Vedas, and both are attempts to interpret the Vedas. The earlier portion of the Vedic texts, the Samhitas and Brāhmanas, is called Karmakānda and deals with rituals and sacrifices. The latter part, the Upanishads, is called the Jnānakānda and deals with the knowledge of reality. Mimamsa is more accurately known as Pūrva Mīmāmsā, “prior inquiry,” since it investigates the “earlier” (pūrva) portions of the Vedas, while Uttara Mīmāmsā (“posterior or higher inquiry”) is the opposing school of Vedanta. Pūrva Mīmāmsā deals with Dharma, and Uttara Mīmāmsā deals with Brahma, so Mimamsa is sometimes referred to as Dharma-Mimamsa, and Vedanta as Brahma-Mimamsa. A number of teachers of Vedanta have regarded the two schools as part of the same system, considering the study of Purva Mimamsa as a good means of purification of the soul, or even a necessary prerequisite for the study of Vedanta.

Mimamsa is a priestly scholastic science, which defines the inherited patterns of Brahmanic liturgical life. These liturgical patterns were not always clearly elucidated in the Vedas themselves; in the later Brahmanas, the term “mimamsa” is associated with elaborations on points of ritualistic practice. Over the centuries, as priestly interpretations proliferated, there was an increasing demand for this type of definitive elaboration. The foundational text for the Mimamsa school is the Purva Mimamsa Sutras (written third to first century B.C.E.) of Jaimini, a student of Badarayana, containing about 3,000 sutras. The text, commenting on the early Upanishads, aimed at an exegesis of the Vedas with regard to ritual practice (karma) and religious duty (dharma), and summarized discussions that had been ongoing for centuries.  A major commentary on the Purva Mimamsa Sutras was composed by Śābara around the fifth or sixth century. The school reached its height with Kumarila Bhatta and Prabhākara (fl. c. 700 C.E.). Bhatta produced several seminal theses on Mimamsa, such as Mimamsaslokavarttika, and his arguments against Buddhism, and in particular against its attack on the Vedic sacrificial system, may have contributed in some part, to the decline of Buddhism in India. For some time in the Early Middle Ages, the Mimamsa school exerted near-dominant influence on learned Hindu thought, but it fell into decline during the High Middle Ages and today is all but eclipsed by Vedanta.


Mimamsa considers the Vedas to be eternal, authorless (apaurusheyatva), and absolutely infallible. They are uncreated; sages and seers apprehend them and transmit them to the rest of humankind. Dharma can be known only from revelation in the Veda, which is its source, and not through either perception or reasoning.


Dharma as understood by Mimamsa can be loosely translated into English as “virtue,” “morality,” or “duty,” the set of ritual obligations and prerogatives that, if properly performed, maintains the harmony of the world and furthers the personal well-being of the person who performs them.  Jaimini defines “dharma” as a command or injunction which compels people to action. It is the supreme duty, the “ought,” the categorical imperative. “Artha” (wealth, worldly status) and “Kama” (aesthetic enjoyment), which deal with ordinary common morality, can be learned through worldly intercourse. Dharma and Moksa (liberation), which deal with true spirituality, are revealed only by the Veda. Dharma consists in the commands of the Veda, and action is the final import. Dharma is not something which exists by itself; it can only be produced by acting according to the injunctions of the Vedas. By necessity, an action is associated with its effect or consequence. An action performed during earthly life produces an unseen potency, apurva, in the soul of the agent, which, when obstructions are removed and the time becomes ripe, yields fruit.


Mimamsakas are pluralistic realists, believing in the reality of the external world and of individual souls. Mimamsa does not admit the existence of any God as the creator and destroyer of the universe. There is no reason to suppose that the universe ever had any beginning in time, or that any God created it. God has no body with which to fashion the world. The school has a mechanistic view of creation; everything comes into existence through natural processes, as children are born from parents. Mimamsa emphasizes the operative Law of Karma, Unseen Power (apurva), and God is ruled out as unnecessary hypothesis. Mimamsa does not deem it necessary, as Nyaya does, that the process of dharma and adharma should have God as a supervisor. Dharma and adharma (merit and demerit) pertain to the agent performing them, and no one can have any knowledge of them.

The self

The Vedic injunctions promising rewards to be enjoyed in another world assume the reality of individual selves. The self is distinct from the body, the senses and the understanding. Prabhakara and Kumarila both admit plurality of individual souls, and regard the self as an eternal (nitya), omnipresent (sarvagata), ubiquitous (vibh), infinite (vyapaka) substance (dravya) which is the substratum (ashraya) of consciousness, and which is a real knower (jnata), enjoyer (bhokta), and agent (karta). Consciousness is not regarded as the essence of the self. The self is characterized by the potency to know. Self is always the subject of any kind of knowledge, is a necessary element of every knowledge experience, and therefore can never become an object of knowledge or cognition.  Mimamsa views liberation as the enjoyment of life in heaven, and not the state of ultimate release found in most other systems of Indian thought. Later Mimamsa thinkers were influenced by other systems of thought; Prabhakara (seventh century C.E.) defines liberation as “the absolute cessation of the body caused by the disappearance of all dharma and adharma (merit and demerit).” Kumarila Bhatta considers it to be the state of the self free from pain.

Verbal cognition and semantics

The Mimamsa school traces the source of the knowledge of dharma neither to sense-experience nor inference, but to verbal cognition (knowledge of words and meanings). In this respect it is related to the Nyaya school. In order to understand the correct dharma for specific situations, it is necessary to rely on examples of explicit or implicit commands in the Vedic texts. An implicit command must be understood by studying parallels in other, similar passages. If one text does not provide details for how a priest should proceed with a particular action, the details must be sought in other, related Vedic texts. This preoccupation with precision and accuracy required meticulous examination of the structures of the sentences conveying commands, and led to an extensive exegesis of the Vedas and a detailed analysis of semantics.

Kumarila Bhatta and his followers (known as Bhāttas) argued for a strongly compositional view of semantics called abhihit Anvaya, in which the meaning of a sentence was understood only after first understanding the meanings of individual words. Words were regarded as independent, complete objects. This view was debated over some seven or eight centuries by the followers of Prabhakara school within Mimamsa, who argued that words do not directly designate meaning; any meaning that arises is because it is connected with other words (anvitAbhidhAna, anvita = connected; abhidhā = denotation). This view was influenced by the holistic arguments of Bhartrihari’s sphota (flash, insight) theory. Essentially the Prābhākaras argued that sentence meanings are grasped directly, from perceptual and contextual cues, skipping the stage of grasping singly the meanings of individual words.

Sanskrit , the holy language of the Vedas, was regarded, not as a historical tongue based on convention, but as an emanation of being (sat) in sound (sabda), giving the sacred Vedas and mantras the power to touch the essence of truth, and work magic. It was this power that made sacrifices effective, rather than divine intervention, for though the offerings were addressed to deities, the deities themselves were supported by the power of the sacrifices.

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