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 XII - The Soul-theory of the Vātsīputrīyas

The Vātsīputrīyas, who profess to be followers of the Buddha, do strangely postulate the existence of the self under the name of pudgala (the principle of individuality), which they affirm as neither identical with, nor different from, the psychical aggregates, called skandhas. The pudgala (individual) is not held to be a distinct entity from the aggregates, because that would amount to acquiescence in the position of the heretical schools. Nor can it be held to be non-distinct from the skandhas either, as in that case the individual will be split up into a multiplicity. So the individual is described as an indefinable and inexpressible principle. Thus, if the individual is something absolutely distinct from the psychical elements, it will of necessity be an eternal verity; but this is logically unsound, as an eternal verity, being unamenable to any modification like space, cannot possibly discharge the functions of an agent and enjoyer, the very functions for which an individuality is postulated. And this would be directly in opposition to the teaching of the Master, who has denied an eternal soul. If, on the other hand, it is regarded as absolutely non-distinct from the psychical complexes, the individuality will stultify itself being reduced to a plurality of psychical factors. Moreover, it will be momentary like the psychical phenomena and will be subject to absolute extinction like them. But this will involve the absurdity of loss of karman and the consequent negation of metempsychosis, a contingency which is opposed to reason and the Master’s teaching alike. So with a view to avoiding the two extremes of absolute existence (śāśvatavāda) and absolute extinction (ucchedavāda), which have been condemned by the Master as absurd, the Vātsīputrīyas have advocated a principle of individuality, called the pudgala, which has the metaphysical virtue of explaining the continuity of the empirical ego to the avoidance of the fallacy of the eternal self, posited by the heretical thinkers. The contradiction of identity and difference, involved in the conception of the pudgala, need not deter us, as experience and metaphysical necessity alike call for such a conception.

[1] (this note is either for the last part of the above paragraph or the first part of the paragraph below, for it’s original textual position is not present [])

The Sautrāntika philosopher has, however, opposed this doctrine with all the emphasis he could command. Śāntarakṣita, an exponent of the former school, observes that this pudgala, which has been ushered into existence with so much pomp and ceremony by the Vātsīputrīyas, is but a metaphysical fiction like the sky-lotus. Because, a thing which cannot be described either as identical with, or different from, another is nothing but an unreal idea, a logical and a psychological fiction. Identity or difference can be predicated of a reality and not an unreal fiction. So this pudgala, which is neither identical with, nor different from, the psychical complexes will be an absolutely hollow, unreal voidity and to claim objective reality for such a figment of imagination betrays a sad lack of even elementary logical thought. Such a thing can exist in the imagination of a morbid mind, but not in reality. To say that a pudgala is different and non-different from the aggregates is a contradiction in terms. If it is different, it cannot be non-different; if non-different, it cannot be different. So when you say that the pudgala is not different from the aggregates, you at once admit the identity of the two. When again you say that, that the pudgala is not the aggregates, you admit they are distinct and different. When things are found to be possessed of mutually incompatible attributes, they are set down as different and distinct, as the criterion of difference is the possession of contradictory attributes, and this is incompatible with the identity of the substratum. You say that the pudgala is indescribable either as identical or as distinct. But the aggregates are describable as distinct from each other; thus, the aggregate of ‘physical elements’ or sense-data (rūpa) is different from that of feelings (vedanā). The aggregates again are describable as impermanent, but not so the pudgala. So the pudgala and the aggregates as a class apart, are absolutely distinct categories, because they are possessed of mutually contradictory attributes, viz., the fact of being describable or indescribable. The pudgala therefore must be set down as an absolute unreality, having no locus standi except in the coloured imagination of the Vātsīpulrīyas. The impossibility of predication of identity or difference with respect to the pudgala does not alone prove its unreal, imaginary character; its unreality is also brought home by the fact that it cannot be described as momentary either. We have proved beyond the shadow of doubt that existence means causal efficiency and this causal efficiency, it has been demonstrated by irrefragable logic, is restricted to momentary reals.[2] So a thing, which cannot be described as momentary, must be set down as a fiction, pure and simple. How can a non-momentary thing have causal efficiency?[3]

It may be contended that as causal efficiency is incompatible with a non-momentary thing, a non-momentary cannot be a real entity. But this pudgala is not accepted by us as absolutely non-momentary. What we contend is that- the pudgala cannot from its very nature be described cither as momentary or non-momentary. If we categorically affirmed its non-momentary character, the charge of unreality could be brought home to us. But as we neither affirm nor deny the non-momentary or momentary nature with regard to the pudgala the charge cannot be substantiated. If we categorically affirmed it to be non-momentary, causal efficiency could be denied of it. But we admit its momentary character as well; so there is nothing to prevent its exercising causal efficiency. But this only seeks to draw a red herring across the line of real dispute. The indubitable and irrefutable fact remains that there is contradiction between the two incompatible attributes of momentariness and non-momentariness. If one is true, the other must be false. If one is false, the other cannot but be true. There is no half-way house between two mutually exclusive terms. A thing cannot be permanent and non-permanent both. What is the connotation of permanence? Obviously it is the fixed and unalterable nature of a thing. A thing is said to be eternal, which does not perish at any time.[4] The non-eternal is that which does not persist always, but ceases to exist at some point of time. So, how can an identical thing be conceived as existing for all time and again ceasing to exist at some point of time? This is sheerly an inconceivable situation. The affirmation of one presupposes the denial of another and vice versa. You cannot have it both ways or neither. If it is eternal, it must be admitted to be an unreal fiction like a rabbit’s horn. If momentary, it cannot be an unreal existence, which, however, is claimed by the Vātsīputrīyas with a shameless naivete. So when the pudgala is not categorically a momentary entity, it must be devoid of causal efficiency, as causal efficiency is the invariable concomitant of the momentary.

As for the seeming scriptural and textual discrepancies, they have been fully explained by the noble Vasubandhu in his Abhidharmakoṣa and Paramārthasaptati. The curious reader is advised to consult those works. We are here concerned with the metaphysical issues involved in the position of the Vātsīputrīyas and we have shown that the whole doctrine is vitiated by a flagrant breach of the ‘Law of Contradiction.’ It betrays slipshod logic from top to bottom and can be held out as the best illustration of the heights of absurdity to which a man can be led by a pet superstition.

About the teaching of the Master, one word is sufficient to indicate the method which was adopted by him. The sermons of the master were inspired by the enquiries of inquisitive persons and the Master had to consider the intellectual calibre and equipment of these enquirers before giving answers to their queries—otherwise his words would become incomprehensible to them.

This point has been explained (by Kumāralābha) thus:

“The Buddha was pleased to construct his doctrine concerning the elements of existence (with the greatest caution), like a tigress who holds her young by her teeth (her grasp is not too tight in order not to hurt him, nor is it too loose in order not to let him fall).”[5]

So when, the Buddha said, “There is a being spontaneously born,”[6] it must be understood to mean the continuity of the stream of conscious life after death in other regions. This does not lend any support to the existence of an eternal ego-principle. The Buddha did not point-blank deny the existence of the soul, as that might be misconstrued by inferior intellects as denial of all post-mortem existence.

The Vātsīputrīyas have made capital out of the sermon of the Master, which is in the following terms—

“O Brethren, I will explain to you the burden, the taking up of the burden, the laying aside of the burden and the carrier of the burden. Of these, the burden is the five aggregates, which are the substrates (of personal life); the taking up of the burden is the craving for a continuation of life, accompanied by a sense of satisfaction; the laying aside of the burden is emancipation; and the carrier of the burden is the individual.”

They have stressed in it the distinct mention of the individual apart from the aggregates, and have taken care to point out that unless the individual is recognised to be a distinct principle from the aggregates which have been described as the burden of life, the burden and the burden-bearer will be the same thing, which is absurd on the face of it.[7]

But such an interpretation of the parable, though to all appearances it seems to be in conformity with the text, cannot be accepted as embodying the real intention of the master. Because, the individual spoken of as the carrier of the burden is nothing distinct from the aggregates: the preceding aggregates which culminate in the production of the succeeding aggregates, are called the burden and the latter are the burden-carrier, being the inheritors of all that has gone before. That this is the sense intended is apparent from the very epithets with which the pudgala has been hedged round. Thus, the individual (pudgala) has been spoken of as the subject, bearing such and such a name, such and such a caste, coming of such a family, living on śuch food-stuffs, experiencing such pleasure and pain, and having such a span of life allotted to him and so on. Certainly these adjectives are ill-adapted to an eternal self or any real self, having a distinct existence apart from the elements of consciousness.[8] So this sermon cannot be interpreted as evidence of a soul-entity.

This should be a clincher to the Vātsīputrīyas’ contention. But Uddyotakara, to suit his purpose, has gone out of his way to seize hold of another text and has twisted it so as to make it appear as evidence of the existence of a distinctive soul-principle.

The text is as follows:

“O Venerable sir, I am not colour; and so again I am not feeling, name, conformation and cognition. Likewise, thou too, O monk, art not the colour; nor art thou any more the feeling, name, conformation and cognition.”[9]

‘The specific negation of the aggregates,’ argues Uddyotakara,

‘element by element, as the object of ego-consciousness, shows that there is a self apart and aloof from the contents.’

If negation of the self as such had been the purport, it could have been conveniently expressed by a categorical negation of the self ‘as thou art not.’ But the specific negation of the aggregates, one by one, points to the existence of an independent self, as for instance, the statement ‘I do not see with my left eye’ indicates that he sees with the right eye. If seeing as such was to be negated, the specific negation of the instrumentality of the left eye would be unmeaning. So it follows by way of implication that there is a self distinct from the psychical complexes, no matter whether it be an indefinable entity as the Vātsīputrīyas would have it or any other variety.[10]

But the contention of Uddyotakara is based on a misunderstanding of the real purport of the text. The sermon was addressed to persons who had these particular misconceptions with a view to their enlightenment. So the purport of the text is purely negative and cannot in any way be construed as an affirmation of the self, express or implied.[11]

Footnotes and references:


skandhebhyaḥ pudgalo nānya ity eṣā’nanyasūcanā |
skandho na pudgalaś ce ti vyaktā tasye’yam anyatā |
viruddhadharmasaṅgo hi vastūnāṃ bheda ucyate |
skandhapudgalayoś’ cai’va vidyate bhinnatā na kim |
      T. S., 343-44.


arthakriyāsu śaktiśca vidyamānatvalakṣaṇam |
kṣaṇikeṣv eva niyatā tathā’vācye na vastutā |
      T.S., 347.


‘anityatvena yo’vācyaḥ sa hetur na hi kasyacit.’
      Quoted in T.S.P., p. 128.


The Soul Theory of the Buddhists by Th. Stcherbatsky, vide p. 847.

Cf. “daṃṣṭridaṃṣṭrāvabhedaṃ ca bhraṃśaṃ cā’vekṣya karmaṇām |
deśayanti jinā dharmaṃ vyāghrīpotāpahāravat.”
      quoted in the T. S. P., p. 129.



‘asti sattva upapādukaḥ’ Prof. Stcherbatsky renders it by ‘apparitional spontaneous self-birth.’ The learned Professor has translated Hiuen Tbsang’s version as follows:—

“......... if the five skandhas (of the intermediate state) proceed to a new life, which begins neither in the womb, nor in an egg. nor in warm moisture, then the result is called transfigurated being.”
      Ibid, pp. 844 and 957.

“In this way are born: gods, the inhabitants of hell and all men in the intermediate state between death and a new birth, i.e., without a seed, not from previous elements, as the Vāts (the Vātsīputrīyas) believe.”
      Op. cit., p. 946.

Cf. Amarakoṣa, “divyopapādukā devāḥ,”

Bhānuji comments:

“nārakavyāvṛttaye divyapadam. mātāpitrādidṛṣṭakāraṇanirapekṣā adṛṣṭasahakṛtebhyo’ ṇubhyo jātā ye devāḥ, te divyopapādukā ucyante.”

We have it from Prof. Stcherbatsky,

“The whole theory of apparitional or miraculous self-births is exposed and discussed in the III Section,”
      Op. cit., p. 966.


‘bhāraṃ vo bhikṣavo deśayiṣyāmi, bhārādānaṃ bhāranikṣepaṃ bhārahāraṃ ca, tatra bhāraḥ pañcopādānaskandbāḥ, bhārādānaṃ tṛptiḥ, bhāranikṣepo mokṣo, bhārahāraḥ pudgalā iti.’

I have adopted the translation of Prof. Stcherbatsky with slight alterations.


ata eva Bhagavatā, ‘Bbārahāraḥ katamaḥ pudgala’ ity uktvā ‘yo’sāv āyuṣmān nevaṃnāmā, evaṃjātiḥ, evaṃgotra, evamābāraḥ, evaṃ-sukha-duḥkhaṃ pratisaṃvedī, evaṃ dīrghāyur’ ityādinā pudgalo vyākhyātaḥ.


T. S. P., pp. 180-31.


T. S. P., pp. 180-31.


viśeṣapratiṣedhaś ca taddṛṣṭīn prati rājate.
      T. S., śl 349.

For a thorough-going and detailed exposition of the soul theory of the Vātsīputrīyas, vide ‘The Soul Theory of the Buddhists’ by Prof. Stcherbatsky, and Prof. Louis de La Vallee's Abhidharmakoṣa and his brilliant exposition.

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