Kumārila Bhaṭṭa (Devanagari: कुमारिल भट्ट, fl. roughly AD 700) was a Hindu philosopher and Mimamsa scholar from Prayag (Now Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India). Little is known about his biography, but he is famous for many of his seminal theses on Mimamsa, such as Mimamsaslokavarttika. Bhatta was an staunch believer in the supreme validity of Vedic injunction, a great champion of Purva-Mimamsa and a confirmed ritualist. The varttika is mainly written as a commentary of Jaimini's Mimamsa Sutras.
Scholars differ as regards Kumarila's views on a personal God. For example, Manikka Vachakar believed that Kumarila promoted a personal God (Parabrahman), which conflicts with the Mimamsa school's Aparabrahman. However, in his varttika he goes to great lengths to argue against the theory of a creator God. He is also credited with the logical formulation of the Mimamsic belief that the Vedas are unauthored (apaurusheya). In particular his defence against medieval Buddhist position on Vedic rituals, is noteworthy. (This may have contributed in some part, to the decline of Buddhism in India.) His work strongly influenced other schools of Indian philosophy, most notably Advaita Vedanta.
Kumarila Bhatta and his followers in the Mimamsa tradition (known as Bhāṭṭas) argued for a strongly Compositional view of semantics (called abhihitAnvaya). In this view, the meaning of a sentence was understood only after understanding first the meanings of individual words. Words were independent, complete objects, a view that is close to the Fodorian view of language.
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 sphoṭa theory.
Essentially the prābhākaras argued that sentence meanings are grasped directly, from perceptual and contextual cues, skipping the stage of grasping singly the individual word meanings, similar to the modern view of linguistic underspecification, which relates to the Dynamic Turn in Semantics, that also opposes purely compositional approaches to sentence meaning.
With the aim to prove the superiority of Vedic scripture, Kumarila presented several novel arguments:
1. "Buddhist (or Jain) scripture could not be correct because it had several grammatical lapses." He specifically takes the Buddhist verse: ime samkhada dhamma sambhavanti sakarana akarana vinassanti (These fermentations arise when the cause is present and perish when the cause is present). Thus he presents his argument:
The scriptures of Buddhists and Jains are composed in overwhelmingly incorrect (asadhu) language, words of the Magadha or Dakshinatya languages, or even their dialects (tadopabhramsa). Therefore false compositions (asannibandhana), they cannot possibly be true knowledge (shastra) ... By contrast, the very form itself (the well-assembled language) of the Veda proves its authority to be independent and absolute.
This argument of Bhatta relies heavily on his idea that the meanings of each individual word should be complete for the sentence to have a meaning. It may be noted, that the Pali Canon was intentionally recorded in local dialects and not in languages germane only to the scholarly.
2. Every extant school held some scripture to be correct. In order to show that the Veda was the only correct scripture, Kumarila ingeniously said that "the absence of an author would safeguard the Veda against all reproach" (apaurusheya). There was "no way to prove any of the contents of Buddhist scriptures directly as wrong in spirit...", unless one challenges the legitimacy and eternal nature of the scripture itself. It is well known that the Pali Canon was composed after the Buddha's parinirvana. Further, even if they were the Buddha's words, they were not eternal or unauthored like the Vedas.
3. The Sautrantika Buddhist school believed that the universe was momentary (kshanika). Kumarila said that this was absurd, given that the universe does not disappear every moment. Further, no matter how small one would define the duration of a moment, one could divide the moment into infinitely further parts. Kumarila argues: "if the universe is does not exist between moments, then in which of these moments does it exist?" Further, because a moment could be infinitesimally small, it essentially means that the Buddhist was claiming that the universe was non-existent. This, in a lot of ways was consistent with his literal Sanskrit understanding of the word Shunya (literally 'zero'), found in the Pali Canon and well commented by several later Buddhists. It is noteworthy here, that the Pali Canon says that 'samsara' is characterized as 'anicca' (impermanent, not momentary). Further, the Mimamsic (and Vedantic) understanding of Shunya is inconsistent with the meaning as described in the Pali Canon.
4. The Determination of perception (pratyaksha pariccheda). Kant's Critique of Pure Reason has a lot of similarities with this work, although they are not the same or even on the same subject matter.
Kumarila Bhatta's understanding of Buddhist school was far greater than that of any other non-Buddhist philosopher at the time. His junior contemporary Sankara (whom most modern Vedantists consider to be greater) also did not understand Buddhism so well.
According to legend, Bhatta went to study Buddhism at Nalanda (the largest 4th century university in the world), with the aim of refuting Buddhist doctrine in favour of ritualist Vedic religion. He was expelled from the university when he protested against his teacher (Dharmakirti) ridiculing the Vedic rituals. Legend has it that even though he was thrown off of the university's tower, he survived with an eye injury. (Modern enthusiastic mimamsa scholars and followers of Vedanta believe that this was because he imposed a condition on the infallibility of the Vedas.)
Kumarila Bhatta left Nalanda after that and settled down in Prayag (modern day Allahabad). Two years later, he challenged his teacher to a debate on grammar and logic. Life was at stake in this debate - the defeated one was to endure a slow death by self-immolation. It is said that overcome with guilt of causing his teacher to die, he too chose to commit suicide in the same manner.
One medieval work on the life of Sankara (considered most accurate) claims that Sankara challenged Bhatta to a debate on his deathbed. The work however does not expressly clarify if the deathbed was this pile of slow burning fire.
Another work on Sankara's life however claims that Sankara implored Bhatta not to commit suicide. Another contradictory legend however says that Bhatta continued to live on with two wives several students, one of whom was Prabhakara. According to this legend, Bhatta died in Varanasi at the age of 80.