Friday 17 February 2012

The Mimansa Principles of Interpretation

The Mimansa Principles of Interpretation
by Justice Markandey Katju*

Cite as : (1993) 1 SCC (Jour) 16

In ancient and medieval India there was tremendous development not only in the fields of Science and Philosophy, but also in the field of law. However, the advent of British rule denied us the benefits of these developments as the alien rulers made it a policy to demoralise and denigrate us by propagating the idea that Indians were a race with no worthwhile achievement to their credit.
In this article only one aspect of our native Jurisprudence, viz. our traditional principles of interpretation, has been dealt with, and the aim is to show that the propaganda of Westerners is false.
As is well known, the principles of interpretation of statutes mainly relied on in our law courts are those dealt with in the works of Western jurists like Maxwell and Craies. However, in our country we had developed from very early times a scientific system of interpretation known as the Mimansa Principles1 and these were regularly followed by our renowned jurists like Vijnaneshwara (author of Mitakshara), Jimutvahana (author of Dayabhag), Nanda Pandit (author of Dattak Mimansa) etc. Whenever there was any conflict between the Smritis e.g. Manusmriti and Yagnavalkya Smriti, or ambiguity in a Shruti or Smriti, the Mimansa Principles were applied. Most of these principles are rational and scientific, and in some respects superior to the principles obtaining in Western Law. At present there is no reason why we should not apply them in appropriate cases.
As a Judge I think it should be my effort to revive the use of these principles. In a recent case, Tribhuwannath v. D.I.O.S., Writ Petition No. 17544 of 1990 decided on 30-3-19922 one of these principles was applied. In this case the petitioner, who was the seniormost teacher in an Intermediate College, had filed a writ petition in the Allahabad High Court claiming that he should have been appointed ad hoc Principal on the retirement of the previous Principal, but the management had superseded him. In the course of hearing two Division Bench decisions apparently conflicting with each other, were cited. While the Division Bench ruling written by Hon'ble R.M. Sahai, J. had held that the seniormost teacher should be appointed ad hoc Principal the Division Bench ruling delivered by Hon'ble V.N. Khare, J. had held that it is the discretion of the Management as to who is to be appointed. By way of employing the Samanjasya principle of Mimansa it was easy to reconcile the conflicting decisions by holding that the former decision should be interpreted to mean that ordinarily the seniormost teacher should be appointed Principal, while the latter decision should be interpreted to mean that in exceptional cases, viz., if there are grave charges against him, he can be superseded by a reasoned order, though only after giving him a show-cause notice.
The Mimansa or the Purva Mimansa Rules to be exact, were laid down by Jaimini in his Sutras written around 600 B.C. That they are very ancient is proved by the fact that they are referred to in many Smritis which themselves are very old. Thus, the Apastamba Sutras copiously refer to Jaimini's principles. Since these Sutras are written in very concise form it became necessary to explain them. Many commentaries were written on them, the main ones being of Sabara, who lived around Second Century A.D., and Kumarila Bhatta and Prabhakara, who lived around the Eighth Century A.D.
Before mentioning some of the Mimansa Principles it is necessary to give a short background. Classical Hindu Philosophy has six schools (shatdarshan) all of which aim at Moksha (liberation). Purva Mimansa is one of these schools, and according to it one can achieve Moksha by performing Yagya (sacrifice) in accordance with the Shastras. The Shastras consist of Shruti and Smriti, the former being superior to the latter. Shruti consists of the four Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyaks and the Upanishads. Brahmanas are treatises written in prose which prescribe methods of performing various Yagyas. To every Veda one or more Brahmanas are attached. Thus, the Aitareya Brahmana is attached to the Rig Veda, the Taitareya Brahmana to the Black Yajur Veda, the Shatapatha Brahmana to the White Yajur Veda, and the Tandya Brahmana to the Sama Veda.
After Shankaracharya's renowned victory over Mandan Misra, Purva Mimansa, as a philosophic system, declined in importance. Shankaracharya was a proponent of Uttar Mimansa (also known as Vedanta), according to which Moksha can be achieved by knowledge of Brahma. Shankaracharya preached that Jnanakanda (the Vedantic Path) is superior to Karmakanda (the performance of Yagya). He shifted the emphasis in the Shrutis from the Brahmanas to the Upanishads, and his view was accepted, and ever since Vedanta became the dominant school of Hindu philosophy.
However, though Purva Mimansa lost prominence to Vedanta in Philosophy, its importance remained as paramount as before in the legal sphere. It must however be clarified that the Mimansaks were not jurists. Their aim was to perform the Yagya properly, for they sincerely believed that this was the means to achieve moksha. For the conduct of Yagyas in accordance with the rules they had to devise a system of interpretation to resolve the conflicts, ambiguities, etc. in the Shrutis, which were aggravated by the archaic, pre-Panini Sanskrit employed in the Vedic texts. No doubt the principles of interpretation were initially evolved to resolve conflicts that arose in connection with the meaning of rules governing performance of the Yagya, but gradually these principles came to be accepted for interpreting legal texts also which were mixed up with religious rules in the Smritis. It was therefore natural that our great commentators like Vijnaneshwara, Jimutvahana, etc. had utilised these Mimansa principles whenever faced with any ambiguity or conflict in the various Shastras.
Unfortunately, there has not been much effort to explain these principles. The advent of Anglo-Saxon Law must have been responsible for this lack of study.
The Mimansa principles are in two respects superior to Maxwell's principles of interpretation, viz.: (1) They can be utilised not only for interpreting statutes but also judgments, whereas Maxwell's principles can only be used for interpreting statutory law, (2) They are more detailed and systematic.
The Mimansa Principles distinguish between obligatory statements and non-obligatory statements. The main obligatory rule is called a Vidhi (or a Pratishedh, if it is in negative form). Vidhis are of 4 types, (1) Utpatti Vidhi, or a substantive injunction (e.g. 'perform the agnihotra'), (2) Viniyoga Vidhi, or applicatory rules (e.g. 'with curdled milk perform the agnihotra'), (3) Prayog Vidhi, or rules of procedure, and (4) Adhikara Vidhis (rules regarding rights and personal competence). Apart from these Vidhis proper (mentioned above) there are also certain quasi Vidhis called niyamas and parishankhyas, but it is not necessary to go into details here. Vidhis are found in Brahmanas.
The main non-obligatory statement is known as an Arthavada. An Arthavada is a statement of praise or explanation. Most of the Vedas proper consist of Arthavadas as much of the Vedic hymns are in praise of some god, and do not lay down any injunction. Arthavada is like the preamble or statement of objects in a statute. An Arthavada has no legal force by itself, but it is not entirely useless since like a statement of objects or preamble it can help to clarify an ambiguous Vidhi, or give the reason for it. Sometimes a Vidhi is also seen couched in the form of Arthavada. This situation has necessitated the need for evolving a system of interpretation. Six axioms of interpretation have therefore been developed for the interpretation of shastras3 They are:
(1) The Sarthakyata axiom, which means that every word and sentence must have some meaning.
(2) The Laghava axiom (Gauravah doshah), 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. Such a double meaning is known as a Vakyabheda, and is a fault (dosh).
(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 axiom4 which states that all attempts should be made at reconciliation of apparently conflicting texts. Jimutvahana has applied this principle for reconciling conflicting texts of Manu and Yajnavalkya on the right of succession.
(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. Thus where one of the rules is a higher legal norm as compared to the other, e.g. a Shruti in relation to Smriti, by the Badha principle5 the former prevails.
It may be mentioned here that the Mimansaks made every effort to reconcile conflicts, and held that Vikalpa was to be resorted to only if all other means of reconciliation failed, for Vikalpa had eight faults (dosh).
Apart from the above mentioned axioms of interpretation there are the four well-known general principles of interpretation in Mimansa, viz.:
(1) the Shruti Principle, or the literal rule. This is illustrated by the well-known Garhapatya maxim. There is the Vedic verse "Aindra garhapatyam Upatishthate" (with the Indra verse one should worship Garhapatya). Now this Vidhi can have several meanings e.g. (1) One should worship Garhapatya (the household fire) with a verse addressed to Indra, (2) One should worship both Indra as well as Garhapatya, (3) One should worship either of the two. The correct interpretation, according to the Shruti principle, is the first interpretation.
(2) the Linga principle (also called Lakshana artha) or the suggestive power of words or expressions. This principle can be illustrated by the decision of the Supreme Court in U.P. Bhoodan Yagna Samiti v. Brij Kishore6, where the words "landless person" were held to refer to landless peasants only and not to landless businessmen.
(3) the Vakya Principle, or syntactical arrangement, and
(4) Prakarana, which permits construction by referring to some other text in order to make the meaning clear.
The first principle (Shruti) is to be resorted to if (1) the meaning of the text is clear, and (2) it accords with the intention. But there are texts whose meaning seems to be clear, but to give that literal meaning would totally undermine its intention. For example, if a literal meaning is to be given to the English law which forbade a layman to 'lay hands' on a priest, the layman who wounded a priest with a weapon would not be doing anything illegal. Similarly on a literal construction when the Turkish Sultan Mohammed II sawed the Venetian Governor's body in two it was no breach of his promise to spare his head, and Tamarlane's burying alive a garrison was no violation of his pledge to shed no blood.
We see therefore that the literal rule will sometimes lead to absurdity and totally efface the intention of the law. In fact, as Lord Denning7 has pointed out, the modern method of interpretation is to seek the intention rather than to follow the literal rule. This is signified in the decision of the Supreme Court of India in Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India8 The Mimansaks were great intention seekers, and the Linga, Vakya and Prakarana principles all aim at finding the intention of the law.
Only the broad outlines have been indicated above, but it has to be noted that the Mimansa Principles go into minute details and systematically arrange the principles of interpretation into categories and sub-categories with all their ramifications. For example, the Vakya principle (mentioned above) include adhayahara and anusanga (supplying of missing words and expressions), upakarsha and apakarsha (transference of clauses up or down in the sentence), etc.
To give an illustration of the anusanga principle9 (elliptical extension) it is interesting to see how Jimutavahana interpreted the text of Manu which states "Of a woman married according to the Brahma, Daiva, Arsha, Gandharvaand Prajapatya form, the property shall go to her husband, if she dies without issue. But her wealth, given to her on her marriage in the form called Asura, Rakshas and Paisacha, on her death without issue shall become the property of her parents". Jimutavahana employing the anusanga principle interpreted this text to the effect that the words "wealth given to her on her marriage" should also be inserted in the first sentence after the words "the property".
The difference between the Linga principle and the Vakya principle may also be noticed. In the former no violence is done to the wording of the text, but the words or expressions are construed differently from the literal sense, and hence Linga is really construction by context. In Vakya, however, some violence is done to the text e.g., by connecting two separate sentences, or by adding words or expressions, or by transferring words or expressions up or down a sentence. This violence may sometimes become necessary to save the text from becoming meaningless or absurd, just as the surgeon may have to do violence to the body (by operation) to save the patient's life. For this purpose the Uha principle (use of reason) is employed.10 In this connection it may be mentioned that Maxwell also permits doing violence to the statute in exceptional situations. He says "where the language of a statute, in its ordinary meaning and grammatical construction, leads to a manifest contradiction of the apparent purpose of the enactment, or to some inconvenience or absurdity, hardship or injustice, presumably not intended, a construction may be put upon it which modifies the meaning of the words, and even the structure of the sentence. This may be done by departing from the rules of grammar, by giving an unusual meaning to particular words, by altering their collocation, by rejecting them altogether, or by interpolating other words, under the influence, no doubt, of an irresistible conviction that the legislature could not possibly have intended what the words signify, and that the modifications thus made are mere corrections of careless language and really give the true intention". This approach seems to have been followed by the Supreme Court in S.S. Kalra v. Union of India11, wherein it has observed that sometimes courts can supply words which have been accidentally omitted.
Apart from the above mentioned principles of interpretation there are also a large number of popular maxims (nyayas) which are in essence illustrations of the above principles. Thus, in theTribhuwannath case 1 (supra) the maxim of the lost horses and burnt chariot (Nashtashvadagdharatha nyaya) was applied for harmonising two apparently conflicting decisions of the Allahabad High Court. Similarly, there is the maxim 'the popular sense prevails over the etymological sense' which is illustrated by the word 'Pankaj'. This word literally means anything born in mud and therefore can refer to dozens of things. But by usage it has come to mean only lotus.
There are various other such maxims (nyayas) e.g., the Aruni maxim, holika maxim, barhi maxim, shodashi maxim, garhapatya maxim, the maxim of the wooden sword (sphadi nyaya) the partridge (kapijjala) maxim, the maxim of the two monsters (sundopsunda nyaya), the maxim of the larger fish eating the smaller fish (matsya nyaya) etc.12 Nyayas are extremely useful in understanding the principles of interpretation. In fact many of these maxims have been used by our commentators.13
Application of Mimansa principles sometimes lead to different results. For example, there is a text of Vasishta which says "a woman should not give or take a son in adoption except with the assent of her husband". This has been interpreted in 4 different ways by our commentators. (1) The Dattak Mimansa holds that no widow can adopt a son because the assent required is assent at the time of adoption, and the husband being dead no assent of his can be had at the time of adoption. Vachaspati, of the Mithila School of Mitakshara, is of the same opinion, but for a different reason. According to him, adoption can only be resorted to after performing the homa, and since a woman cannot perform the homa with Vedic mantras, she cannot adopt. (2) The Dayabhaga view is that the husband's assent is not required at the time of actual adoption, and hence if the husband had given assent in his lifetime his widow can adopt after his death. (3) The view of the Dravida School of Mitakshara is that the words "except with the assent of the husband" are only illustrative, and hence assent of her husband's agnates or father-in-law's agnates is sufficient. (4) The Vyavaharmayukha and Nirnayasindhu hold that assent is required only for the woman whose husband is living and hence a widow can freely adopt unless she had been expressly forbidden by her late husband. To give another example, both the Mitakshara and Dayabhaga use mimansa principles in interpreting the Smritis but with different results. For example, the word 'sapinda' has been interpreted differently in Dayabhaga and Mitakshara. Both these systems lay down that the nearest Sapinda has the right to inherit, but according to Dayabhaga 'Sapinda' means the person who has the right to offer the pinda (rice balls) in the shraddha ceremony to the deceased, while the Mitakshara interprets the word 'pinda' to mean particles of the body, and not rice balls, and hence sapinda means one having the same particles as the deceased (i.e. nearer in blood).
The fact that Mimansa principles sometimes lead to different results however does not diminish their utility. Maxwell's principles also lead to different results. This only shows that principles of interpretation should not be applied blindly. Principles of interpretation are good servants but bad masters, as observed by the Supreme Court in Keshavji Ravji and Co. v. C.I.14 They are to be utilised for discovering the meaning of the legal text, but they are not to be applied without having regard to the context and commonsense and reason. They are, after all, not rules of law but a methodology for resolving certain difficulties.
It is also pertinent to mention the mimansa principles were originally evolved for interpreting the religious texts pertaining to the Yagyas, and hence all of them may not be relevant for interpreting legal texts.
In conclusion I would like to clarify that it is not my opinion that we should not use the sound and useful ideas of Western jurists like Maxwell. It would be foolhardy to discard the good ideas of Western jurists. It has never been the Indian tradition to reject foreign ideas, merely because they are foreign. There are many good things we have to learn from Westerners. But at the same time we should not blindly ape the Westerners and discard our own traditional ideas if they are found still useful and relevant. After all we too have produced great thinkers, and we can utilise their sound ideas wherever appropriate after making suitable adaptations to suit the prevailing conditions.
Utilization of Mimansa Principles
Knowledge of Mimansa Principles enables one to creatively develop the law. A few examples of utilization of Mimansa Principles in some of my judgments is given below:
1. In Sardar Mohammad Ansar Khan v. State of U.P.15 the controversy was as to which of two clerks appointed on the same day in an Intermediate College would be senior, and hence entitled to promotion as Head Clerk. Now there is no rule to cater to this situation. However, Chapter 2, Regulation 3 of the U.P. Intermediate Education Regulations states that where 2 teachers are appointed on the same day, the senior in age will be senior. Using the atidesh Principle of mimansa it was held that the same principle which applies to teachers should be also applied to clerks, and hence the senior in age would be senior. The atidesh principle originated in the practical difficulty of performing certain yagyas. There are some yagyas (e.g. agnihotra, darshapurnamani, etc.) whose method of performance is given in detail in the Brahmanas. These are known as prakriti yagyas. However, thereare other yagyas whose rules are not given any where, and these are known as vikriti yagyas. The question arose how these latter are to be performed? The atidesh principle was created to resolve this difficulty, and according to this principle the vikriti yagya is to be performed according to the rules of the prakriti yagya belonging to the same genus.
2. In Tribhuwan Misra v. D.I.O.S. (supra) the Samanjasya principle was used to reconcile 2 apparently conflicting Division Bench rulings. This technique avoided reference to a Full Bench which would have tied up 3 or more Judges for several days in resolving the conflict. No doubt this decision (as a Single Judge) curtailed the full effect of the 2 Division Bench decisions, but that was done on the authority of the maxim of the lost horse; and burnt chariot (Nasrhtashva Dagdharatha Nyaya). This is based on the story of two men travelling in their respective chariots. One of them lost his horses and the other's chariot was burnt through the out break of fire inn the in where they were spending the night. The horses that were left were harnessed to the remaining chariot, and the two men pursued their journey together. Its teaching is union for mutual advantage, which has been quoted in the 16th Vartika to Panini, and is explained by Patanjali. It is referred to in Kumarila Bhatta's 'Tantravartika'.
3. The Anusanga Principle of Mimansa has been used in Mahabir Prasad Dwivedi v. State16 The principle has been explained in great detail in this decision, which may be seen in the aforesaid journal. The conclusion reached in this decision could not have been reacted by any principle of Western Jurisprudence, and this illustrates the great use which can be made of Mimansa Principles to make the statute more democratic and equitable.
The Laghava Principle has been used in Vinay Khare v. State of U.P.17 The controversy in this case was that if in a competitive examination two candidates got equal marks whether the candidate who got more marks in the oral interview should be placed higher in the select list or the candidate who got more marks in the written test. It was held in this case that the candidate who got more marks in the written test should be placed higher because to interpret general suitability on the basis of marks in the written test is a short and simple interpretation and provides a clear objective test, whereas the criteria in the oral interview involves consideration of the candidate's personality, dress, physique, etc. which is complicated and in which there are more chances of favouritism and arbitrariness. 

* Judge, High Court of Allahabad, Allahabad. Return to Text
  1. Best explained in the book by K.L. Sarkar: The Mimansa Principles of Interpretation as applied to Hindu Lawwhich is a collection of Tagore Law Lectures delivered in 1905. Before K.L. Sarkar, Colebrooke, Col. Jacob and Mandlik had done pioneering work in this field, but since the British rulers did not wish to encourage any native science nothing much was done thereafter. It is, however, interesting to note that Sir John Edge, the then Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court in Beni Prasad v. Hardai Bibi, ILR 14 All 67 (FB) had referred to the Mimansa Principles. There is also a brief reference of these principles in the decision of the Supreme Court in U.P. Bhoodan Yojna Samiti v. Brij Kishore, (1988) 4 SCC 274. Return to Text
  2. 1992 A.L.R. 921 Return to Text
  3. See K.L. Sarkar: Mimansa Principles. Return to Text
  4. This is laid down in Book 1 Chapter II, Sutra 9 of Jaimini's Sutras. This principle is illustrated in the Dayabhaga by Jimutavahana. In the context of rule relating to succession on which there are inconsistent texts regarding the right of a son born after partition, Manu says "A son, born after division, shall alone take the paternal wealth", and this is also the view of Narada and Gautam. However, Vishnu says "Sons, with whom the father has made a partition, should give a share to the son born after the distribution". This is also the view of Yajnavalkya. Jimutvahana reconciles these texts by applying samanjasya principle holding that the former text applies to the self acquired property of the father, while the latter applies to property which is descended from the grand-father. See K.L. Sarkar, Mimansa PrincipleReturn to Text
  5. Badha principle signifies exclusion by repugnancy. For example, a special law prevails over a general law, a higher law prevails over a lower law, a clear law prevails over an unclear law, a law which serves a purpose immediately prevails over that which is of remote service, a manifest sense prevails over a sense by context, etc. See Shree Bhatt Sankar's Mimansa Valaprakash. Jaimini has described this principle in the tenth chapter of his work. Return to Text
  6. (1988) 4 SCC 274 Return to Text
  7. Lord Denning: The Discipline of Law, (1979) Butterworth, London. Return to Text
  8. (1990) 1 SCC 613 Return to Text
  9. See Jaimini: 2, 1, 48 Return to Text
  10. The uha principle, referred to in the ninth chapter of Jaimini's sutras, originally meant only adaptation. However, Kumarila Bhatta considerably widened its import, and made it equivalent to the use of reason for various purposes in interpretation. Return to Text
  11. (1991) 2 SCC 87 Return to Text
  12. Many of these nyayas are mentioned in Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of K.L. Sarkar's Mimansa Principles. Also see P.V. Kane:History of the Dharmashastras, Vol. 5 Pt. II, pp. 1339-51. Return to Text
  13. For example Nanda Pandit in his Dattak Mimansa has used the pranabhrit maxim to show that although the word 'substitute' was initially applied only to 5 descriptions of sons, later by general use it became applicable to all 12 descriptions. Return to Text
  14. (1990) 2 SCC 231 Return to Text
  15. 1993 ALR 89 Return to Text
  16. AIR 1992 All 351 Return to Text
  17. 1993 ALR 1 Return to Text


  1. Very enlightening.Thank you

  2. Nice to see this excellent article. However, I humbly disagree on translation of names of Vedas as "Black Yajurveda" and "White Yajurveda".

    1. With all due respect, sir, how else would you have translated Krshna and Shukla Yajurveda into English without failing to communicate the exact intention?