The Buddhist Philosophy of Universal Flux

by Satkari Mookerjee | 1935 | 152,014 words | ISBN-10: 8120807375

A systematic and clear presentation of the philosophy of critical Realism as expounded by Dignaga and his school. The work is divided into two parts arranged into 26 chapters. Part I discusses the Nature of Existence, Logical Difficulties, Theory of Causation, Universals, Doctrine of Apoha, Theory of Soul and Problem of After-life. Part II deals wi...


The present work is an humble attempt to give a critical exposition of the philosophy of the Medieval school of Buddhism that was ushered into existence by Dignāga and Dharmakīrti and later on systematized and developed by Śāntarakṣita, Kamalaśīla, Ratnakīrti and other authors of repute. Of this philosophy, again, the purely idealistic side has been left untouched in the present work. The interest and character of this work are purely philosophical and critical and not historical. There have already appeared in the field several brilliant expositions and accounts of Buddhist philosophy and religion, which have dealt with the historical side with varying degrees of fullness. The monumental works of Prof. Sir S. Radhakrishnan and Prof. S. N. Dasgupta have provided an important place for Buddhist philosophy, and though, from the very nature and scope of these works, the treatment might appear not to be exhaustive, the account and exposition constitute a Substantial contribution to Buddhist scholarship. The writings of Prof. Lcuis de La Vàlle Poussin, Prof. Steherbatsky, Prof. Guieseppe Tucci, Prof B. M. Barua, Prof. A. B. Keith, Dr. Nalinaksha Datta, Dr. E. J. Thomas and other scholars have already provided the learned world interested in Buddhism with elaborate and fairly wide account of the growth and development of Buddhist philosophy and religion. Any attempt in that line would necessarily involve a repetition or reduplication of much the same thing, though it is not denied that there is room for expansion and elaboration even in that direction.

The present work has however, steered clear of the historical side and is chiefly preoccupied with the dry metaphysical and epistemological sides of the Sautrāntika philosophy. What particularly impressed the present writer is the fact that the whole course of philosophical speculations in Indian systems of thought, Brāhmaṇical and non-Brāhmaṇical alike, from the third century A.D. down to 1000 A.D., which may be described as the adolescent and fruitful period of Indian philosophy, bears unmistakable evidence of Buddhist influence. Even Vātsyāyana and Śabarasvāmin are not immune from it. Of course, they have borrowed little or nothing from the Buddhists and their chief interest in Buddhist philosophy is only negative, all their energies being directed to a refutation of the Buddhist position. But this adverse criticism does not minimise their debt; on the other hand, it is proof positive of their obligation.

It has been very aptly observed by a modern philosopher that

“Every writer on philosophical subjects is indebted, beyond all possibility of adequate acknowledgment, to the great thinkers of the past.........But the debt is one which he makes for himself, or at least incalculably increases, by free and honest criticism. If the labours of those whom he criticizes have rendered his criticism possible, it is only by criticizing that he is brought to the intelligent appreciation of their work.”[1]

The real development of the Nyāya philosophy may be legitimately believed to commence with Uddyotakara, who, on his own avowal, derived his incentive to write his commentary from the hostile critics, whose sophistical (according to Uddyotakara) arguments went a long way to bring discredit on the Nyāya Philosophy. Uddyotakara’s taciturnity in regard to names is notorious. Vācaspati Miśra has supplied the lacuna and tells us that it was the adverse criticism of Dignāga and men of his ilk that gave the much-needed fillip to Uddyotakara for writing his masterpiece. In fact, the sole justification for this attempt lay in the necessity of a refutation of Dignāga’s animadversions which created a perilous situation for Nyāya.[2]

The subsequent career of Nyāya philosophy and of Post-Dignāga Philosophy, for the matter of that, is but a progressive record of the daring and desperate fights between these two schools, which were fought on a hundred and one battle-fields. The fight was keen and vigorous and continued with unabated enthusiasm down to the days of Vācaspati, Jayanta, Udayana and Śrīdhara, on the one hand, and Śāntarakṣita, Kamalaśīla, Ratnakīrti and their followers, on the other. But we have omitted to mention another philosopher, a towering personality and a hero of a thousand and one battle-fields, I mean, Kumārila Bhaṭṭa. Kumārila came after Uddyotakara and he was, to all intents and purposes, a greater fighter, who fought clean and hard. Uddyotakara’s polemics smacked of rankling jealousy and were rather full of transparent sophistry and claptrap. So the Buddhists did not find it very hard to expose his fallacies. In Kumārila, however, they found a veritable Tartar. It is not seldom that the Buddhists were compelled to revise their old theories and to re-formulate them in the light of Kumārila’s criticism.[3] In fact, a more formidable critic, so firmly posted in the niceties of Buddhist philosophy and dogmas, could hardly be imagined. Kumārila’s sledge-hammer blows were telling in their effect and the replies of Śāntarakṣita, Dharmottara,[4] Ratnakīrti and subsequent writers indirectly acknowledged the justice of his criticism iu more places than one, inasmuch as they had to re-shape their theories in fundamental aspects.

What is, however, particularly refreshing in this tense atmosphere of fighting is the (act of the earnestness of the fighters. Though all cannot be regarded as equally honest or honourable in their methods, their earnestness and sincerity are beyond doubt or cavil. The fighting has all the freshness of life and reality. There is no air of unreality about it. In fact, they fought for what they believed to be a question of life and death. Philosophy was not a matter of academic interest in India. Change of philosophy meant the change of entire outlook and orientation in life. Victory in a philosophical debate, therefore, was essential to the preservation of one’s religion and mode of life, and defeat spelt inglorious death or apostacy from the accepted faith. There was, in fact, no line of demarcation between philosophy and religion in India. A religion without a philosophical backing was unthinkable.

The cleavage between philosophy and religion is pronounced where religion is held to be a matter of unquestioning faith irrespective of a philosophic sanction. But in India the two were identical. So even the atheists had their own religion, because philosophy and religion were one. Belief had to submit to the test of logic, and a faith that was not warranted by philosophic conviction, was rightly regarded as perverse dogmatism which has no right to the allegiance of a man of sound education and culture. It is this fact of intellectual honesty and spiritual earnestness that account for the intensity and desperate character of this fighting for opinions among ancient philosophers of India.

As has been aptly observed by Prof. Dasgupta with his characteristic insight,

“The systems of philosophy in India were not stirred up merely by the speculative demands of the human mind, but by a deep craving after the realisation of the religious purpose of life.”[5]

Ignorance of this peculiarity of the Indian mind has been responsible for the so-called charge of scholasticism that has been laid at the door of Indian philosophy. Philosophy was not the fad of intellectual circles that indulged in these metaphysical gymnastics for mere intellectual satisfaction or for the purpose of whiling away their idle hours. It was, on the contrary, the earnest quest of truth and life’s purpose and nothing short of truth could give its votaries peace or satisfy their ardent minds. And the intensity of this craving was not appeased except by a thoroughgoing and meticulous application of the truth to every detail of life. Accordingly no fictitious barrier between religion and philosophy was tolerated.

If religion was not sanctioned and inspired by philosophy, it was regarded as a useless superstition. If philosophy was not lived in actual religion, it was rightly held to be a mere waste of time and a dereliction from life’s true purpose and mission.

As Prof. Sir S. Radhakrishnan observes with his inimitable felicity of expression,

“In many other countries reflection on the nature of existence is a luxury of life. The serious moments are given to action, while the pursuit of philosophy comes up as a parenthesis. In ancient India philosophy was not an auxiliary to any other science or art, but always held a prominent position of independence.”[6]

The true criterion of philosophy and scholasticism therefore should be sought not in the identity of the interests of religion and philosophy, which, to my mind, far from being an occasion of halting apology, constitutes the very apex and perfection of both of them. The criterion, in my humble judgment, should be the crucial test as to whether or not the pursuit of philosophy is inspired by an unremitting and unhesitating enquiry after truth and whether it is only an after-thought, a metaphysical eyewash, or a clever subterfuge to bolster up a pet dogma. If this criterion is accepted and applied, Indian philosophy will, we believe, come out in triumphant glory. Unquestioning, blind faith may be shameful superstition, but the studious endeavour to keep religion apart from philosophy is a perversity of mind, of which we should be equally ashamed. To keep up philosophy again in a water-tight compartment and to prevent it deliberately from finding its fulfilment in religion constitutes an unpardonable case of moral

cowardice, insincerity of purpose and shallow dilettantism.

There might be a semblance of justification or excuse for the charge of scholasticism against the course of philosophic thought in some Brāhmaṇical schools (which, we believe, we have succeeded in proving to be without foundation); but this indictment cannot be brought against Buddhist philosophy with any show of plausibility. From the very beginning Buddhism has been critical in its spirit. Lord Buddha was an intellectual giant and a rationalist above anything else.

He exhorted his disciples to accept nothing on trust.

“Just as people test the purity of gold by burning it in fire, by cutting it and by examining it on a touchstone, so exactly you should, O ye monks! accept my words after subjecting them to a critical test and not out of reverence for me.”[7]

These words of the Buddha furnish the key to the true spirit of Buddhist philosophy throughout its career. And this freedom of thought encouraged by Buddha was responsible for the schism in the Buddhist church and for division of Buddhist philosophy into so many divergent schools. This should not be regarded as a matter of regret; on the contrary, we should read in it the signs of pulsating life. Dead level monotony and formal uniformity in a religion may have a practical value in that it may conduce to the solidarity and cohesiveness of the body of its followers. But this uniformity and solidarity may have been purchased at the cost of intellectual expansion. So the bargain is not profitable, as it may appear at first sight. Honest difference of opinion, on the other hand, need not necessarily mean faction and feud. It is undoubtedly the sign of intellectual growth. Uniformity, absolute and unqualified, can be secured only if all the members of a community reach the same level of ['progress or if all intellectual growth is rendered impossible. Deny the privilege of education and men will not put awkward questions. So difference of opinion and birth of diverse philosophies should not be banned, as this would prove fatal to the intellectual growth and progress of mankind. We have therefore no reason to mourn the lack of uniformity in the philosophical speculations of ancient India. They furnish the evidence of real life. Liberty of thought and difference of opinion are not incompatible with the harmonious growth or solidarity of a] nation. After all, if exclusive emphasis is not laid upon, the points of difference we can never fail to.find out fundamental unity and a common platform in our social, political and economic relations. The differences, on the other hand, may really be a source of inspiration for philosophic thought and thus be a real factor in the development of a nation. History contains numerous and brilliant proofs of this truth. The sharp differences of the Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools of thought did not lead to any calamity; rather they stimulated and enriched philosophical thought in India. In one sense divergence of thought is the very condition of growth and development of real philosophy. A critical and sympathetic study of the history of Indian philosophies will bear out the position we have put forward.

It may be hoped that the importance and utility of the study of Indian philosophy in all its varieties and branches will not be denied by any serious student of human thought. It has all the strength and weakness of human life, and we are inclined to believe that the, life of philosophy in ancient and medieval India was never languid or at a low ebb. There is a prevalent superstition that too much interest in philosophy brought about the political downfall of India. It is said that Indians were more interested in the problems of the next world than in the stern realities of present life. Things of the earth were looked upon with contempt. Like the proverbial star-gazer of old their eyes were fixed upon heaven and the result was a deterioration of physical and economic prosperity. It enervated the people and paved the way for foreign invasion. This charge against Indian philosophy has the apparent sanction of history, and the present degradation and misery of India lend an easy justification for same. But here also we beg to differ. The downfall of India is not the result of vigorous pursuit of philosophy in the past. The vulgar mind easily detects a family relationship between culture and indolence and outward appearance yields an easy support to this facile condemnation. But this very accusation carries with itself its own condemnation and a lesson for the necessity of close thinking, which refuses to be led away by appearances and dares penetrate deep below the surface. The average mind will put a premium on physical and tangible results and will ignore or slur over the hidden springs of activity. But all grand achievements of mankind have a prolonged preparation behind them. They are but the outward expression and efflorescence of a long-drawn-out intellectual discipline. Ultimately it is the brain that works and moves the body, though its activity is not apparent to the superficial observer. In point of fact all great political upheavals came after a long course of philosophical discipline. Though the causal relation is not easily discoverable, the coincidence is significant. Alexander came after Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Candragupta and Aśoka came after the Buddha. These may be regarded as chance coincidences, pure and simple. But look at the life of the Buddhist monks, who are believed to be apostles of peace and exponents of a negative philosophy. The extra-worldly interests of the Buddhists are too well-known to need emphasis. But were they a lot of idlers? The answer is an emphatic ‘No.’ These peace-loving Buddhists crossed the Himalayas and the seas, at considerable personal risk and in the face of deterring privations and discomforts, to preach the gospel of the impermanence of the world and the message of peace. The great protagonist of Vedānta, I mean Śaṅkarācārya, whose philosophy is believed to have weaned away the Indian masses from their worldly interests and thus hastened the political downfall of India was, however, one of the most indefatigable workers that the world knows. Were these philosophers then false to their own teaching? The truth lies rather in the contrary supposition. There is no antagonism between a vigorous philosophy and a vigorous life. It is only when the living inspiration dies and people fall out of tune with true philosophy that they sink down to idleness. It is lack of intellectual vigour and mental lassitude that are at the root of national despair and degeneration. The vulgar mind, which will not and cannot probe deep into the bottom and through sheer inertia take the surface-appearance for the reality, causally connects the two events, though the distance of time and presence of other factors will prove the hollowness of the conclusion to the discerning student. Philosophy stirs up the intellect and disciplines the will and prepares a man for great sacrifice, without which nothing great has ever been achieved in the world. We must therefore learn to pay no heed to the croakers and Philistines who find nothing but waste of time and energy in the pursuit of philosophy. They look for direct practical results. But philosophy is slow in its results direct or indirect. Then, again, its results are more often than not apt to be affiliated to the immediate causes preceding them. Only a penetrating insight and a sturdy intellect, that can look long and far, deep and sure, can appraise them at their true worth and find out the truth. Whatever may be the case, the truth can be proclaimed from house-tops that philosophy, which trains the intellect and makes it active and alert, can never encourage idleness. It is a libel against philosophy which seems to have acquired plausibility by sheer reiteration. It will be a calamity if men are not found who will pursue the enquiry after truth irrespective of the opinion of the masses and consideration of material advantages. The present degradation of India is the result not of pursuit of philosophy but rather of the want of it. It is the result of the death of philosophy, of the unreasoning and unquestioning acquiescence in the inevitable, which all philosophy in India condemns in unqualified and unequivocal language.

We now propose to turn our attention to the special claims of Buddhist philosophy on our thought. Buddhist philosophy, particularly of the Mahāyāna schools, came as a challenge and as a surprise to the happy-go-lucky and self-complacent attitude of contemporary philosophers. It gave a tremendous shock to the naive, common-sense realism of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and Mīmāṃsā schools. By its bold denial of a permanent ego-principle it invited and called forth the indignant protests of the entire philosophical world. The self-complacent realism of the Vaibhāṣikas was unceremoniously brushed aside and covered with ridicule and contempt equally with the Brāhmaṇical and Jaina schools of thought. The Yogācāra school by advocating an extreme form of subjective idealism, with its consequent denial of the objective world, came in for vigorous attacks from the realistic and absolutistic schools alike. The climax was reached when Nāgārjuna and his followers propounded their philosophy of absolute negativism with its undisguised distrust of the empirical testimony of our sense and intellect. The result was an all-round panic and confusion. It provoked vigorous thought and spirited criticism. Whatever might be the merits of these philosophies, one thing is certain and undeniable that they produced the expected result; they broke the placid contentment of the contemporary philosophic thought in India. They created a sense of alarm and thus gave the fillip to vigorous thinking in all schools to look out for the ways and means to protect their vested interests. But, however formidable might have been these Buddhist philosophies, the most upsetting were the dialectics of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti and their redoubtable successors. This is evidenced by the vitriolic attacks of the Brāhmaṇical and Jaina philosophical writings of the period.

The present work concerns itself with this school of Buddhist philosophy and logic. It is the result of long years of study and thought. The present writer has endeavoured to present the philosophy of Dignāga’s school with all its strength and purity. The plan and arrangement are entirely original and a critical student of Buddhist philosophy will, it is hoped, not fail to detect in this book the working of a modern and critical mind. The subtle dialectic of the Buddhist philosophers is difficult in the extreme and demands the utmost critical thought and minutest attention from the student. It will be too much to expect that these difficulties have been minimised by the present attempt. But the present writer hopes that his exposition is at least easier than that in the original works. Nowhere has there been an attempt, conscious or deliberate, to avoid the difficulties. The present writer has boldly faced the difficulties and has tried his level best to present them to the modern mind in an intelligible form. Fidelity to the original has been the watch-word and motto with his humble self and, though the thoughts and arguments have been presented in the language of a modern thinker, there has not been the slightest departure from the original. The idea has all along been to let the philosophers speak for themselves and where linguistic and verbal fidelity threatened obscurity, he has not hesitated to give a free rendering of their ideas and thoughts without regard to the peculiarities of Sanskrit idiom. Nevertheless, there are places where the technicalities of Indian philosophy and dialectic have been presented in their original form and this has been done deliberately with a view to acquainting the student with the methodology of ancient thinkers.

In conclusion the attention of the reader is particularly invited to the chapters ‘The objections from the point of view of causation’ and ‘A critical estimate of the Sautrāntika theory of Causation,’ ‘Universals,’ ‘The doctrine of Apoha,’ and

‘Nirvāṇa’ in the first part and to ‘Universal Concomitance’ in the second part. Although the main character of this work is expository and the author has had to play the ro1e of an advocate for the most part, it will be found that on some fundamental points he has not hesitated to criticize the Buddhist position where he has not been able to see eye to eye with them. In short, an attempt has been made to give a critical and dispassionate presentation of the Buddhist philosophy of Universal Flux and, in this, particular care has been taken to steer clear of a partisan spirit.

A word of explanation seems to be necessary for my designating the philosophy of Dignāga’s school, in so far as it is presented in this book, as the philosophy of Critical Realism. The word ‘critical’ was adopted by Kant as the special appellation of his philosophy. This has not stood in the way of a school of American Realists from describing their system of philosophy as ‘critical.’ For similar reasons I too have not hesitated to adopt this expressive term in my designation of the realistic philosophy of Dignāga’s school. I felt that to put the same label on this philosophy and on that of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school would be inappropriate and rather misleading.

In fact, the philosophy of Dignāga’s school, in so far as it is realistic, will be found to have greater affinities with Kant’s philosophy than with the commonsense naive Realism of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and Mīmāṃsā schools. Like Kant the Buddhist Realist thinks the categories of thought and reality as a priori subjective concepts and the difference lies in the latter’s insistence on the evidentiary value of sensation, in which the thing-in-itself (svalakṣaṇa) is believed to be presented in its pure and unsullied character. Kant, however, thinks that the things-in-themselves are never revealed to the mind and as such, they are bound to remain unknown and unknowable. In spite of this fundamental divergence the two schools are found to agree in the proposition that all determinate knowledge, which is

knowledge in the real sense of the term, is the result of a synthesis of an a priori and an a posteriori element. In view of this agreement with Kant and of its fundamental difference in outlook and attitude from the other Realistic philosophies of India and Europe, the designation of ‘Critical Realism’ may not be looked upon as an unwarrantable misappropriation of a respectable term.

Footnotes and references:


H. H. Joachim, Preface to The Nature of Truth, p. 4.


yad Akṣapādaḥ pravaro munīnām | śamāya śāstraṃ jagato jagāda |
kutārkikājñānanivṛttihetuḥ | kariṣyate tasya mayā nibandhaḥ ||
     N. V. Intro.

Cf. yadyapi bhāṣyakṛtā kṛtavyutpādanam etas tathāpi Dignāgaprabhṛtibhir arvācīnaiḥ kuhetusantamasasamutthāpanenā’cchāditaṃ śāstraṃ na tattvanirṇayāya paryāptam ity Uddyotakareṇa svanibandhoddyotena tad apanīyata iti prayojanavān ayam ārambha iti.
      Tāt. ṭī., p. 2.



Vide the chapters on Apoha and Manovijñāna in particular.


Vide the chapter ‘Negative Judgement,’ Pt. II.


History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. I, p. 71.


Indian Philosophy, Vol. I, p. 22.


tāpāc chedāc ca nikaṣāt suvarṇam iva paṇḍitaiḥ |
pārīkṣya bhikṣavo grāhyaṃ madvaco na tu gauravāt ||
     Quoted in T. S. P., p. 12.

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