The Meta-Ethics of Viraha Bhakti: The Philosophical Writings of J. L. Mehta

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Thomas B. Ellis. (2022). The Meta-Ethics of Viraha Bhakti: The Philosophical Writings of J. L. Mehta: Journal of Vaishnava Studies. Journal of Vaishnava Studies, 16(2), 75–95. Retrieved from


The twentieth-century Indian philosopher J. L. Mehta presents a contemporary philosophical interpretation of viraha bhakti. When placed in a comparative context with the philosophies of Edmund Husserl and Jacques Derrida, Mehta’s viraha bhakti amounts to a “negative messianic” critique of transcendental idealism. Associated not only with Husserl but also and importantly with the Advaita Vedanta, idealism suggests that “the other” is an effect of the self’s intentional life, in which case the other is not truly other. As a solipsistic philosophy, such idealism precludes the conditions necessary for morals and ethics. Derrida employs “the messianic” to issue an ethical challenge to Husserlian idealism by suggesting that the other is still to come, that is to say, the other is not presently present and thus reducible to the self’s intentions.
Despite the ethical impetus, this critique still operates within the larger philosophical horizon of presence—that same horizon presupposed by idealism and thus fails. Mehta’s viraha bhakti articulates a description of the other as withdrawn. In opposition to the messianic and its emphasis on the “other to come (to presence),” viraha bhakti and its emphasis on the “other as withdrawing” articulates a negative messianic. This interpretation emerges over the course of Mehta’s engagement with the various literary tropes in the Hindu corpus. From Indra conquering Vritra to the gopis’ loving devotion to the withdrawn Krishna, Mehta’s logic traces a progression from aggressive idealism to meta-ethical devotion. Viraha bhakti and its negative messianic structure accomplish the ethical criticism of Husserlian (and Advaita Vedantin) idealism first undertaken but left incomplete by the Derridean messianic.

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