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 VIII - The Soul-Theory of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika

The philosophers of this school postulate the existence of a soul-entity, which is eternal and ubiquitous like space and though unconscious in itself is the background and support of thinking, feeling and willing. The soul, though unconscious in and by itself, develops consciousness when acted upon by the sense-object contact, which in its turn is brought about and determined by an unseen destiny operating in the soul. Thus, though eternal, it comes to discharge the function of an agent, when it develops cognitive and volitional activity and is again looked upon as an enjoyer, when it experiences pleasure and pain. And it is regarded as undergoing a birth, when it comes to be invested with a physical system, in which a new order of cognitive and volitional experiences is exercised by it. The dissolution of a present physical system with its corresponding psychical complex is regarded as death. And any injury done to the physical system is construed as an injury to the self, connected with it. Thus the soul or self, though distinct and eternal and as such not subject to origination or decay, comes to possess all these various processes, when it is associated with a psycho-physical organism and this association is brought about and determined by an unseen destiny, i.e., merit and demerit, acquired through previous actions.[1]

Now there is no difference of opinion between the Buddhists and the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school of thinkers that consciousness is a distinct principle apart from the physical system and the organs of sense. But the Buddhist demurs to accept the position that this thinking principle is something different and distinct from the states of consciousness and as such is an eternal verity, which owns the psychical processes that occur therein. The Buddhist also denies that this thinking principle or the self is an all-pervading substance (vibhu). Thus the theory of soul of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school postulates three things that the self is something distinct from the passing psychical states, of which it is a substratum or receptacle; secondly, that this self is an eternal, unchanging verity; thirdly, that it is all-pervading (vibhu) like space (ākāśa). The Buddhist denies all these three assumptions and we propose to examine the arguments, both for and against this theory, as advanced by the respective schools.

The Vaiśeṣika’s arguments can be summed up as follows:—

(1) There must be a separate and distinct soul-entity, standing behind the psychical phenomena, which are cognised by it. A cognition has got to be perceived in its turn like other objects and this cogniser must be the ‘self,’ that cognises the different cognitions which form the sumtotal of our life of experience.

(2) Our cognitions, feelings and conations, being either products or actions must inhere in some substratum like colour produced by heat, which is seen to inhere in a substratum, say, a jug. If the cognition is looked upon as an action, it also must have a supporting base like the action of cutting and that wherein it inheres is the self.[2]

(3) The fact that our different cognitions are all referred to and held together by a common ego-principle, which is the unifying factor of these varying states, shows that there is a distinct category, viz., the self. Unless a common unifying principle is postulated, the different cognitions would fall asunder, and the fact that these discrete, successive psychical facts are synthesised in a subjective experience-whole proves the existence of an in dependent soul, which owns them up.[3]

(4) The fact that a totally distinct word such as ‘self? or ‘soul’ has to be employed for denoting ‘self,’ which has nothing to do with the accepted synonyms of ‘intellect,’ ‘understanding,’ ‘sense organs’ and the like, proves that the self is a distinct principle which is not covered by the expressions denoting varying psychical facts and the like.

(5) The self must be postulated to account for the exercise of vital functions by a physical body. If there be no self in the living organism, it will be like a lifeless body as dead and unconscious as a jug or a plate.

The last three arguments have been put forward by Uddyotakara in support of the soul as a distinct entity.

Praśastapāda in his Padārthadharma-saṅgraha and Śrīdhara in his Nyāyakandalī have also advanced elaborate arguments in support of the existence of a self as the basic support of the psychical and vital activities.

The arguments are summed up as follows:—

(1) There must be an operator to guide and operate the sense-organs, which are so many instruments of knowledge like ordinary instruments. And as instruments have no autonomous activity, these sense-organs must have an intelligent operator, which is the self.

(2) The different cognitions of sound, smell and the like must have a cognising subject, who will possess them and exercise them.

(3) Our physical activities are planned and directed by an intelligent agent with a view to acquisition of what is good and avoidance of what is evil. Without an active, intelligent guide these activities will occur haphazardly and will fail to express a well-regulated, teleological plan, which we find in a living organism.

(4) The vital activities of a physical organism, which manifests growth and development and the capacity for healing wounds and abrasions, point to the existence of an intelligent owner, who improves and repairs his tenement.

(5) From the contact of the mind with the sense-organs, which occurs at regular and stated intervals, we can infer the existence of an intelligent, active self, who moves them and connects them with the desired object.

(6) The unity of this conscious subject is established by the fact that after the visual perception of the colour and form of an object, there often arises in the mind a desire to experience the taste of it. This proves that the agent, who sees the colour, is the same as that once enjoyed the taste of it. So the self cognising through the two sense-organs has been compared to a spectator, who sees through two windows. And this common subject of two different cognitions cannot be the sense-organs, even granting that they are intelligent. Because each of the sense-organs would perceive separately only the taste or the colour, for which it is competent and the integration of the diverse items of experience in a separate judgment would be left unaccounted for.

(7) Pleasure, pain, desire, aversion and effort are so many qualities and always associated with an ego-consciousness as in the expressions, ‘I am pleased,’ ‘I am pained’ and the like. And as this ‘ego-consciousness’ cannot refer to the body or the sense-organs, or the mind, it must be taken to relate to a permanent substratum, viz., the self.

These arguments, it is apparent, stress three points, viz., the synthetic unity of our conscious life; secondly, the teleological character of our physical, biological and psychological activities; thirdly, that these activities, being of the nature of qualities and actions, must inhere in a substratum.

As regards the two other characteristics of the self, viz., permanence and ubiquity, Aviddhakarṇa, an older Naiyāyika, has put forward the following arguments: —

(1) All the different cognitions beginning with the first cognition of the new-born baby must be held to be cognised by a common subject, because they are regarded as cognitions of a particular subject. This shows that the subject must be a permanent unitary principle, cognising as it does the different cognitions occurring at various periods of time.

(2) All objects, existing far or near, must be connected with my ‘self’ like my body, because they are corporeal. This shows that the self must be ubiquitous.

The ubiquity of the ‘Self’ has been proved by Śrīdhara in his Nyāyakandalī by the following arguments: ‘The ubiquity of the self can be inferred from the upward flaming of fire and the slanting motion of wind. These motions are certainly caused by an unseen destiny (merit and demerit) and this destiny cannot be operative, unless it is directly connected with the substances (fire and wind), which are the receptacle of these actions...... Nor is it possible for the unseen destiny, which inheres in the soul, to be connected with other substances unless they are connected with the soul, which is its substratum. This proves that the soul is all-pervading, because it is connected with all material substances.

But it may be objected that the upward motion of fire is due to its nature and not to any unseen destiny. But what is this precious nature ? Is it the distinctive individuality of fire (vahnitva) or its burning power or its particular colour? If it were any one of these, we could expect this character in the red-hot iron also. If it be supposed to consist in the fact of its being produced from a particular fuel, we would not find this in lightning and the like, which are independent of any fuel. If as a last resort it is supposed to be something supersensuous, which being present in some cases of fire, produces the upward flaming in them, then why should you refuse to regard it as a quality of the self, particularly when it is supported by the following argument: An action, which is not caused by gravity, fluidity or velocity, is produced by a specific quality of the self, as the movement of the hand is effected by an effort of the self. And as regards the upward flaming and slanting motion of the fire and wind respectively, they cannot be set down to the agency of gravity and the like, as they are absent in the substances concerned and as they would on the contrary produce other results. So these should be regarded as effected by a specific quality of the self and this would be impossible unless the self is ubiquitous so that it can be connected with all material substances.[4]

Now after having summed up the arguments of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school, we propose to give the Buddhist position particularly on the points raised by the former.

The first argument that our cognitions are cognised by a distinct cogniser does not affect our (Buddhist’s) position as we too admit that the omniscient saint or even a thought-reader can cognise the cognitions and feelings of another person. But if the argument seeks to make out that the cognitions as such have to be cognised by a distinct principle before they can be operative, we agree to differ, because we maintain that all cognitions are self-revelatory and self-cognisant and as such do not stand in need of a second cogniser to illumine them. Not alone the cognitions of another person, which are independent of such extraneous illumination from a foreign subject, but even our own cognitions are self-revealing. We do not see what particular purpose will be served by this gratuitous assumption of an independent knowing subject. On the other hand it introduces logical complications. Certainly a cognition, which is unrevealed and unillumined by itself, cannot reveal the object. It would be tantamount to holding that a candle, unlighted and unillumined in itself, will make other objects visible. And if for the illumination of the primary cognition, a second cognition is requisitioned, this ‘second’ again will require a third exactly like the first, as it equally lacks original light and so on to infinity. The result will be that no knowledge will be possible. If to avoid this difficulty it is supposed that some ultimate cognition will be self-illumined, then the whole argument will fall down like a bouse of cards. If one cognition can be independent of the aid of a foreign subject as the supplier of its light, all cognitions should be certified to be so independent. If however the ultimate cognition is supposed to be unillumined like the first it will be equally inoperative.

The Nyāya theory of perception maintains that when sense-object contact takes place, the object becomes revealed, and in this, sense-perception itself remains uncognised, which, however, is cognised by a separate mental perception. You cannot formulate the proposition that the cause of the cognition concerned should be also cognised, as we sec that this rule breaks down in the case of the sense-organ, which is universally admitted to be the cause of sense-perception, as sense-organs operate though uncognised. But this is a case of false analogy. The sense-organ cannot be regarded to cause the revelation of the object, the cognition concerned that reveals it. And the question is how can a cognition, though unrevealed in itself, reveal a foreign object? We do not see any such instance. The light of the candle reveals other objects, only when it shims and reveals itself. If it were otherwise, we could expect the light to reveal other objects, even when it be hidden under a cover. So a cognition, which is believed to reveal other objects that come within its range, cannot be uncognised. The objection that the same thing cannot be the subject and the object, the revealer and the revealed of the same action, is also baseless. Because, the nature of cognition is to shine and this means self-revelation. So we see there is no force in the contention of the Naiyāyika that a cognition has got to be cognised by a cogniser, and this cogniser will be the self (Ātman).

The argument that cognitions, being of the nature of either products or actions must have a supporting base has no force cither. If by this supporting base it is meant that these cognitions must have a cause of their own, it does not affect our position. We also admit that a cognition is produced by the combination of four causes.[5] If however it is meant that these must have a substratum or a receptacle, it will be an idle hypothesis, because these cognitions are not gravitating objects like plums and the like, which would fall asunder unless there were a receptacle to hold them together.

The next argument that our cognitions are not discrete elements but are synthesised by reference to an ego-principle and this ego-principle is the ‘self’ is not conclusive enough. This synthesis and unification is due to a false abstraction and cannot be made the ground of a philosophical argument. That this idea of unity of consciousness is an illusion will be fully explained hereafter. If the different cognitions be held to be the products or states of an eternal ego-principle, the sequence of these states will be unaccountable. The cause of cognitions being eternally present, there is no reason why these cognitions should not take place all at once. Certainly an eternal principle cannot stand in necessity of other factors, because being eternal, it cannot be subject to any supplementation or detraction that may be occasioned by external auxiliaries.

Furthermore, it has been argued that the very fact that altogether a new and a distinct word is employed to designate the self is indicative of the self as a distinct category, which cannot be subsumed under any psychical or physical phenomenon. But we do not see much force in this argument of nomenclature. Names are fictions, pure and simple; and the identity of designation cannot be seriously put forward as an argument for the identity of the thing designated. Sometimes distinct objects are designated by an identical name in view of their identical or similar practical efficiency. Thus, myrobalan, sodibicarbonate, and magnesium salts are all designated by the common name of ‘purgative;’ but no body is ever deluded into regarding them as identical. So also the self in question is nothing but a particular conscious state, as qualified by the impression of unity due to the similarity of the conscious units. Nor do we think that the self cannot be subsumed under any one of the psychical phenomena, because the self is nothing but a conscious state modified by ego-consciousness, which is an illusory idea. Moreover, we shall prove in our Chapter on Perception that words are mere symbols and have nothing to do with reality as such. The meanings of words are determined by convention and convention is nothing but an arbitrary agreement, dependent entirely upon the wish of the persons concerned.

As regards the inference of the existence of the self from the vital functions, we need only observe that it proves nothing. If there were any established relation between the self and vital functions, the absence of the self might entail the absence of the latter. But so long as this relation is not established, the argument is inconclusive, proving neither one nor the other. Let us consider the nature of the relation that may subsist between the self and vitality. This relation may be either identity of essence or causality. It is not identity of essence, to be sure, as the self is conceded to be eternal and ubiquitous, while vitality is exactly the reverse of these. Nor can the self be regarded as the cause of vital functions, as in that case the cause being eternally present, the effect, viz. vital functions, will invariably and eternally follow. And the argument that desire, aversion, effort, pleasure, pain and cognition are the properties of the self and as such indicate the existence of the self is equally hollow. How can these psychical phenomena be indicative of the existence of the self, unless they are proved to have mutual relation? And this relation, we have seen in the case of vital functions, can neither be identity nor causality. So one cannot be indicative of the other. These psychical phenomena are not identical with the self, as they are regarded as the attributes of the latter. Nor can they be supposed to be causally related, as in that case they will emerge invariably and all at once, as the cause in the shape of the self is present intact, being eternal. Nor can the successive appearance of auxiliaries be held responsible for the successive emergence of these phenomena. Because an eternal cause can have no necessity for auxiliaries, as they can have no effect upon it. So these arguments of quality and substratum have no substance and they prove nothing. As regards the teleological argument of Praśastapāda, it is also not worth much. The teleological plan can prove the existence of an unseen destiny and this unseen destiny is admitted by the Buddhist also.

As regards the two other characters of the Self, viz., ubiquity and eternality, they need not require any refutation, as the very self of which they are regarded as characteristics, has been proved to be an illusion. Certainly no body cares to prove either existence or non-existence of the beauty of a barren woman’s son.

Uddyotakara, Bhāvivikta and Śrīdhara[6] on the other hand maintain that the self (ātmā) is an object of direct perception. The ego is directly perceived by means of the mind and this ego is the Self. But this is evidently a piece of misconception. The ego cannot stand for the self as conceived by Kaṇāda and Akṣapāda who bold that the self is eternal and ubiquitous. Certainly the ubiquity and eternity of the self are not cognised in the ego-consciousness. On the other hand, the ego-consciousness is always mixed up with physical attributes as in the expressions ‘I am fat,’ ‘I am fair’, ‘I am confined in this room’ etc. Certainly these attributes which are mixed up with the ego can never pertain to the self, as in that case the self will be of limited dimension and impermanent like the body. And such usages cannot be regarded as figurative expressions, as there is no incompatibility of the primary sense experienced by us. Nor can such expressions as ‘my body’ and the like be put forward as proof of the ego as a distinct and a separate entity from the body. Because, even such usages as ‘my soul’ are also not rare. So the idea of the seif as something distinct from the body cannot be derived from direct intuition of the ego, which is never dissociated from the body.

Śaṅkara and Vācaspati Miśra in the Śārīraka-bhāṣya and the Bhāmatī respectively have proved that the expressions ‘I am fair,’ ‘I am fat’ and the like are natural expressions and cannot be held to be figurative. Figurative usages are possible only when there is a knowledge of the difference of the primary and the secondary meanings, as in the expression ‘The boy is a lion.’ But there is no such idea of the ego, as distinguished and disentangled from bodily attributes. The expressions ‘my body’ and the like on the contrary should be regarded as figurative, as ego-consciousness can never be dissociated from physical attributes. This is proved by the fact that even the man, who uses such expressions as ‘my body,’ points with his ñnger to his own body, when questioned about his identity. Were the self an object of direct perception, there could arise no dispute about its existence.

It may be contended that the existence of the self is a matter of positive proof, the dispute arises only with reference to its real nature, just as in the case of perception, though the blue is perceived, its momentary character is disputed. But the analogy is not on all fours. The momentariness is not certified as known by the determinate perception and so arises the dispute. But the self is certified as known by a determinate perception on your own showing and there can be no false imposition regarding an object, which is known by a deliberate determinate cognition. So it must be admitted that the self as conceived by the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school is an abstract idea and is not supported by perceptual or inferential evidence.

The conclusion therefore is irresistible that the different acts of feeling, willing and knowing, emerging as they do in succession, do not relate to a permanent self but are self-subsistent. Were it otherwise, these would arise simultaneously and all at once as the cause is present intact. The momentary character and selflessness of our internal conscious life can be inferred exactly like those of external phenomena from their existence, as existence means causal efficiency and the latter is impossible in a permanent substratum. The self as an eternal principle proves to be an illusory myth, conjured up by the false ideas of the heretical thinkers.

Uddyotakara has raised a difficulty, which is more linguistic than philosophical, that negation of tbe soul or the self is impossible without an implict affirmation of its existence. But the Buddhist rejoins that the objection is futile. That material objects like pots and plates are without any animating principle in them is the proposition of the Naiyāyika. So soullessness is not an unknown idea and the Buddhist only affirms this fact of soullessness of all phenomena on the analogy of pots and plates. Whatever exists is momentary and is governed by the law of causation. So the self as an eternal category outside the range of causation is nothing but an illusion. Moreover, the contention that negation presupposes previous affirmation is to be accepted with a qualification. If this previous affirmation be interpreted as an evidence of its real existence, we enter our emphatic protest, because a thing existing as a verity, cannot be non-existent, which is the implication of negation. Only an unreal fiction, supposed to be existent, is capable of being negated. Even when we negate the existence of a pen in a particular place and time we negate not the objective reality but only a conceptual fact, falsely imagined as a real object. So when we deny the self or the soul, we deny it in the sense of a false idea fondly believed to be an objective fact. Furthermore, the conception of ātman (the self) is logically absurd. The soul is posited to function as the background of the psychical complex, the manifold of feeling, willing and knowing, which are supposed to be produced in the self by the action of twofold, threefold or fourfold contact (catuṣṭaya-sannikarṣa),[7] as the case may be. Now, unless these psychical phenomena are related to the self, the self cannot be regarded as a necessary condition of knowledge. And how can these psychical facts be related to the self, unless they enter into the constitution of the self and become identified with it? If they are identified, the self will be a transitory event like the cognition. If however the cognition remains distinct, it will not be related and the self need not be posited as a condition of it. Likewise, pleasure and pain are looked upon as qualities of the self; but being transitory modifications they cannot belong to the self and if they could belong to it, then the self being modifiable would become non-eternal. The explanation of Śrīdhara that the emergence and disappearance of pleasure and pain do not affect the real nature of the self and so there is no incongruity about it is only a pious hope and has no logic in its support.[8] These qualities will either belong or not belong to the self. On the first alternative, the self cannot but be a fluxional entity like pleasure and pain; on the second alternative, the hypothesis of a self as the ground and condition of the psychical manifold will be absolutely unnecessary.

Footnotes and references:


sadehasya manoyoge dharmādharmābbisatkṛtaḥ.
      T.S., 175. Vide T.S., 171-176.


jñānaṃ kvacid āśritaṃ kriyātvāc chidi-kriyāvat, yatre’dam ā ś ritaṃ sa ātmā.
      N. K., p. 71.

(Also,) icchādayaś’ ca sarve’ pi kvacid ete samāśritāḥ |
vastutve sati kāryatvād rūpavat sa ca naḥ pumān |
      T.S., 178.


Devadattasya rūparasagandhasparśapratyayā ekānekanimittā, mayeti pratyayena pratisandhīyamānatvāt. pratisandhānaṃ punar mayā dṛṣṭaṃ mayā śrutam ity evam-ādīnām......... ekajñātṛnimittatvena ghaṭanam............sarvathā pratisandhānam ucyate yad ekam arthaṃ nimittikṛtya pratyayānāṃ sambandhanam.’
      T. S. P., p. 81.


Vide Nyāyakandhalī, p. 88.


For on account of this fourfold cause see the chapter on “The Buddhist theory of ‘Causal’ factors in Perception,” Part II, Caturbhiś cittacaittā hī’ti vacanāt, T.S.P., p. 84.


Vide T. S. P., p. 90 and Nyāyakandalī, p. 71.
anyair ityādinā punar apy Uddyotakara-Bhāviviktāder matam āśaṅkate.
      T. S. P.

“yady apy ātmā’haṃ mame’ti svakarmopārjitakāyakaraṇa-sambandhopādhikṛta-kartṛtva-svāmitva-rūpa-sambhinno manasā saṃvedyate, tathāpy atra apratyokṣatvavācoyuktir bāhyendriyābhiprāyeṇa.”
      N. K., p. 71.


Praśastapāda speaks of fourfold contact as a necessary condition of sense-perception. This fourfold contact is the contact of the soul, the mind, the sense-organ and the object.

Vide Padārtha-dharmasaṅgraha, p. 136 and the Nyāyakandalī,

antareṇā’tmamanaḥsaṃyogam, manaindriyasaṃyogam indriyārthā-saṃyogaṃ ca pratyakṣābhāvāc catuṣṭayasannikarṣaḥ kāraṇam. p. 189.

‘As sense-perception is not possible without the contact of the self with the mind, of the mind with the sense-organ, of the sense-organ with the object, fourfold contact is the cause thereof.’


“nanu sukhaṃ duḥkhaṃ ce’mau vikārāv iti nityasya ātmano na sambhavataḥ, bhavataś cet so’pi carmavad anityaḥ syāt; na, tayor utpādavināśābhyāṃ tadanyasyā’tenanaḥ svarūpāpracyuter abhāvāt. nityasya hi svarūpavināśaḥ svarūpāntarotpādaś ca vikāro ne ’ṣyate, gupanivṛttir guṇāntarotpādaś cā ’viruddha eva.”
      N.K. p. 85.

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