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...

Chapter IV - A Critical Estimate of the Sautrāntika Theory of Causation

From the elaborate exposition of the theory of causation with its confused tangle of criticism and counter-criticism, that has been reproduced in the previous chapter, one cannot resist the impression that the Sautrāntika has failed, in spite of his logical acumen and wealth of dialectic, to carry conviction. The fact of the matter is that causation is as unintelligible in the theory of flux as in the theory of the permanent cause. Nāgārjuna and Śaṅkara have elaborately proved by their irrefragable dialectics that causation is an inexplicable phenomenon, whether the theory of satkāryavāda (production of a potentially existing effect) or of asatkāryavāda (production of a previously nonexistent effect) is adopted. The Sautrāntika is an adherent of the latter theory and when questioned why the sesame seed should produce oil and not any other substance, though they are all equally non-existent in the causal entity, he only says in reply that there can be no questioning with regard to the ultimate laws of nature, which are unthinkable and beyond the scope of philosophy. They are to be accepted as facts without question.[1] There is no means of divining the inner powers of things by intuition; they can be known only when the particular effects are seen to be produced. There is an unknown law which regulates the powers of things and the determinate effects that are seen to issue from particular causes are determined by this unknown law. But it has been urged that determination connotes the idea of delimitation, and when the other limit, viz., the effects, is absent, how can you speak of determination? It is understandable if the effects are existent in some form or other, otherwise it is only a word without a meaning.[2] The Buddhist allows the justice of the objection that the word ‘determination’ is inapplicable in the absence of the other limit, viz., the effect. But the position he seeks to establish simply amounts to this: that the causal entity, the unique fact, which is seen to be invariably attended by another entity, styled the effect, is undeniable as a real substantive fact, though the particular expressions usually employed to characterise it may fail to convey a correct idea of its real nature.[3] Words are but convenient symbols, employed according to the taste and purpose of a speaker and are by no means to be regarded as integral parts of things-in-themselves. So the objection with regard to an expression does not touch the essential nature of things. However objectionable and defective may be the language one may use to interpret the causal relation, the existence of the two entities, one following closely in the heels of another, is unquestionable.[4] All existents being momentary, they can have neither a past nor a future history and their momentary existence is interpreted as origination by a necessary fiction of the understanding.[5]

The question of their previous existence or non-existence cannot therefore arise, as a momentary entity is, ex hypothesi, destitute of all continuity. It is, however, by a fiction of the understanding supposed to be non-existent in the past, as it is only seen to emerge closely on the heels of another entity. But in reality neither existence nor non-existence can be predicated of it, as a non-existent can never be existent or vice versa. The idea of one thing being the cause and another being the effect is also an intellectual fiction—a mere form of understanding called into being by the necessity of interpreting the relation of two events, which however has nothing to do with the objective order of reals. What happens in reality is that one entity follows closely after another.[6]

And this is endorsed by an ipse dixit of the Buddha,

“O thou Mahāmati (take it) that all these phenomena have no origination, as neither existent nor nonexistent can be produced.”[7]

But this account of the Sautrāntika throws overboard causation in toto. It reduces causation to a merely mechanical sequence and confesses its inability to explain the character of necessity, which distinguishes causal relation from cases of accidental sequence. The Sautrāntika plays into the hands of the Śūnyavādin, who declares that causation is an appearance and not reality. The Śūnyavāda and the theory of Māyā have however the virtue of logical consistency to their credit, as they make no scruple to declare that the phenomenal order of things is unintelligible and inexplicable, that the entire cosmos is a mysterious appearance of which no logical explanation is possible. But the Sautrāntika realist seems to hold with the hare and run with the hound by his insistent demand to regard the momentary units of existence as absolutely real, although he denies in the same breath the reality of all relations. But if the relations are ideal constructions and not integral parts of the order of objective reality, what remains of the objective order of reals? A universe of reals, each unique and momentary, having no relations among them to link them together into one system of reality, but marching onward to eternity, seems to be little short of a chaos. Does this order of reality give any metaphysical satisfaction? What is this world minus its inter-relation? If one is false, the other cannot be true. And if it be true, what docs this truth really signify? The Sautrāntika may rejoin that this philosophy is the most perfect possible explanation of the objective world and is absolutely immune from the logical difficulties, which are the besetting sins of other realistic philosophies. But the justice and validity of this claim have been disputed by Nāgārjuna and Sankara, who have shown in unmistakable language that causation is the hidden rock on which the barque of realism has suffered shipwreck.

The problem of pre-existence of the effect is not the only logical difficulty in the theory of causation, propounded by the Sautrāntika, but the precise office and function of the subsidiaries also present an insuperable difficulty. The Naiyāyika and the Sautrāntika, or for the matter of that all realistic schools of thought, are unanimous that no single cause can produce an effect, but an entire collocation of all the conditions— the full complement of the subsidiaries and the main, basal cause.[8] But do the subsidiaries really assist the main cause or not? If they do not assist, they will not be necessary, as they will have no function in the causal operation. But the idea of assistance is not any more intelligible. Assistance mams the production of supplementation. But if the cause be a momentary unit, how can it be the receiver of this supplementation, as it will disappear in the next moment along with the subsidiaries and so supplementation can neither be produced nor received? And the permanent cause also will equally fail to receive this supplementation as supplementation can be of real service to the permanent, provided there is a relation between the two and if this relation is external to the cause, it will not relate. And if this adventitious supplementation is regarded to be identified with the main cause (which is, however, impossible, as two distinct entities of contradictory nature can never be identified), the cause will forfeit its permanency and become fluxional. But this is an inconceivable position, as a thing cannot be supposed to take leave of its essential character and assume that of another without stultifying itself. The argument that the causal entity develops its peculiar causal efficiency in question in combination with the subsidiaries, though the subsidiaries are without any action on the same, is an argument of despair and fails to give logical satisfaction. If the cause develops its efficiency of its own inherent, constitutional force, why does it not do so when the subsidiaries are absent? The subsidiaries are certainly ineffective with regard to the causal energy that is evolved by the main cause of its own inherent force. To say that such is the nature of things, which has to be presumed on the evidence of the result produced, is certainly no answer. It totally fails to carry conviction. To cite the failure of the rival theory is no proof of its correctness. The weakness of one cannot be construed, by any manner of quibbling, as the strength of the other.

Another fatal objection against the flux-theory of causation is that it does not explain the necessity of one entity being followed by another. If it be its nature to perish in the second moment, what warrant is there that it should be followed by another entity, which will be an exact facsimile of itself? To say that experience warrants such supposition is no explanation Philosophy does not concern itself with recording experience, but with finding a meaning for it. Moreover, destructive opposition is left behind as an inexplicable mystery quite as much as in the theory of permanent cause. Between two opposite entities, one is seen to perish altogether and the other to prevail. But what is the explanation that one should become defunct and another should go on merrily in the process of reduplicating itself, though both are equally existent and have the same claim to exist in the series? To take a concrete example, why should fire prevail in its tussle with cold, which meets with absolute doom, as continuity in the process of the series is denied to the latter? Why should not the tables be turned? What is the reason that cold should not prevail and fire should not go to the wall? To adduce the testimony of experience as a metaphysical explanation of the phenomenon should be scouted as unphilosophic, as the supreme task of philosophy is to give a rational explanation of experience and where such explanation is impossible, honesty requires that philosophy should take courage in both hands and declare that it is an appearance and not a reality. But the Sautrāntika claims absolute reality for both the terms of a causal relation and gives an explanation which is only a show of it.

Footnotes and references:


niyatācintyaśaktīni vastūnī’ha pratikṣaṇam |
bhavanti nā’nuyojyāni dahane dāhaśaktivat || 
    T. S., Śl. 438.


avadhīnām aniṣpatter niyatās te na śaktayaḥ |
sattve tu niyamas tāsām yuktaḥ sāvadhiko nanu || 
    Ibid, Śl. 29.


nai’vaṃ teṣām aniṣpattyā mā’ bhuc chabdas tathā param |
sarvopādhiviviktasya vasturūpasya na kṣatiḥ || 
    Ibid, Śl., 30.


na nāma rūpaṃ vastūnāṃ vikalpā vācakāś ca te- |
viśvakalpāḥ pravarttante yathābhyāsam abhedini || 
    Op. cit., Śl. 131.


vastūnāṃ pūrvāparakoṭiśūnyānāṃ kṣaṇamātrā- |
vasthāyī svabbāva evo’tpāda ity ucyate || 
    Op. cit., p. 33.


utpādo vastubhāvas tu so’satā na satā tathā |
sambadhyate kalpikayā kevalaṃ tva’satā dhiyā ||
yad idaṃ vastuno rūpam ekānantaram īkṣyate |
prāg āsīn ne’ti tad bījaṃ prāgbhūte tvi dam asti na ||
       T. S., Śls. 32 and 33.


anutpannā Mahāmate sarvadharmāḥ sadasator anutpannatvāt.
       T. S. P., p. 32.


na kiñcid ekam ekasmāt sāmagryāḥ sarvasambhavaḥ (Dignāga?)
      T. S. P., p. 155.

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