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 XVIII - Prāpyakāritvavāda or Relation of the Sense-organ with the Object

Perceptual knowledge arises when the sense-organ operates on the perceivable object in some fashion or other. The sense-organ is located in the physical organism and the object lies outside; and unless some relation is instituted between these two indispensable factors of knowledge, knowledge cannot be supposed to come into being. If this knowledge were independent of such relation, there is no reason why it should not appear always or never at all. There must be a determining factor for this regularity in our psychological life and this determinant is not the sense-organ or the object jointly or severally, because they are present side by side and virtually enjoy an autonomous existence. A tertium quid has therefore to be postulated, which can bring these two autonomous realms into occasional relation, that results in the emergence of perceptual knowledge.

Philosophers have propounded various theories to explain this phenomenon and these theories, barring differences in details, have been broadly divided into two classes, to wit,

  1. Prāpyakāritvavāda, which assumes some sort of actual, physical contact between the two;
  2. and aprāpyakāritvavādā, which denies physical relationship and seeks to explain the relation in non-physical terms.

There is again divergence of views in respect of particular sense-organs. In view of the extraordinary importance of the problem we propose to pass under review the various theories of the rival schools of philosophers and the Buddhist position will naturally be dealt with last of all. The Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika and Mīmāṃsā schools hold almost identical views and the differences are of minor importance. The Sāṃkhya, Vedānta and Yoga schools are in full agreement in this respect. The Jainas hold an intermediate position and the Buddhists are ranged in the opposite camp. We accordingly propose to discuss the theories in the order indicated above and shall take care to point out mutual divergence wherever it exists.


The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and Mīmāṃsā schools

The tongue and the skin-surface apprehend objects ' that are in close contact with themselves; the taste and touch of objects situated at a distance from these sense-organs are not amenable to perception. There is absolutely no room for controversy with regard to their immediate contactual relationship with their objects so far as these two sense-organs are concerned. About the organ of smell, too; there is practical unanimity that there is actual physical contact with odorous objects. The molecules of a fragrant substance are wafted by the wind directly into the interior of the nasal membrane and odour is perceived by the nasal organ in its own region. This functional peculiarity of the nasal organ is so notorious that authorities on religious law have enjoined the performance of expiatory rites if odours of impure substances are smelt. The implication of such injunctions is that there is actual contact of the impure objects with the nasal membrane and the penance is advised to get rid of sin that accrues on the contact of unholy substances. And we can extend this functional peculiarity to other external sense-organs as well, viz., to the visual and auditory organs by obvious analogy. Moreover, it is absurd to suppose that the sense-organs are the efficient causes of perception of external objects and they can exercise this causal function from a position of sacred aloofness. An efficient cause operating from a respectful distance is contradictory to experience. If it is assumed that organs have an inherent unseen power by virtue of which they take cognisance of objects situated apart, then the non-apprehension of objects separated by a wall and the like would become unaccountable, because energy or power being incorporeal cannot be resisted by a physical barrier. The Buddhists regard the eye-ball as the organ of vision. They contend that the organ of vision cannot be supposed to be made of light or some fiery substance, as in that case a treatment of the eye-ball could not result in the improvement of eye-sight or any injury thereof would not entail deterioration in the power of vision. So the eye-ball possessed of a special energy should be regarded as the seat of the faculty of vision and this applies to all other organs as well. But the Naiyāyika regards this objection of the Buddhist as absolutely devoid of substance. The eye-ball is the seat of the faculty of vision, no doubt; but this need not argue that the organic vision cannot go over to the object, as it is not the fleshy ball but something more refined and subtle in nature. The improvement or the deterioration of' the eye-ball has a corresponding effect on the faculty of vision, because the former is the medium or the residence of the latter. An improvement of the locus can have a salutary effect on the content. It is also a medically attested fact that treatment in other parts of the body, say in the foot, also results in improved vision.[1] So the medical argument, used by Dignāga, has no cogency.

If the faculty of vision were confined to the eye-ball, it could not possibly go over to the region of the object. But in that case how can it be explained that the eye apprehends distant mountains and trees and not the collyrium painted on the ball? If the sense-faculty is supposed to be something distinct from the fleshy organ, which can travel to the place of the object, the difficulty is at once solved. With regard to the auditive organ, which is believed to be nothing but ether enclosed in the ear-cavity, it cannot of course go over to the region of object, as ether (ākāśa) is all-pervading and devoid of locomotion. But even in this case also, there is actual physical contact as sound itself travels to the region of the object. There is a theory that sound moves in the fashion of a wave and one sound-wave creates another sound-wave until it reaches the ear-cavity. There is another theory which supposes that a particular sound, when produced, creates other sounds in all directions and so persons standing on all sides can simultaneously come to have sound-perccption.

Kumārila is not particular about the physical relation and observes that the Mīmāṃsā theory of perception is not affected whichever position is adopted. He, however, observes that there is no difficulty in the theory of contactual relation also. Pārtha-sārathimiśra in his Nyāyaratnākara and Śāstradīpīkā has elaborately defended the theory of contactual relation and practically sides with the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school.[2]

The Sāṃkhya school also thinks that sense-faculties travel to the region of the respective objects and in this respect there is practically no difference with the Naiyāyikas. There is, of course, difference in regard to the constitution of the organs, which the Naiyāyikas hold to be elemental products (bhautika).and the Sāṃkhyas believe to be evolved from ahaṃkāra (the ego-sense), a particular tattva (principle) of the Sāṅkhya theory of evolution. The Vedāntists of the Śaṅkara school have accepted the Sāṃkhya theory almost in toto. Dharmarājādhvarīndra, the author of the Vedāntaparibhāṣā, however, holds that even the auditory organ in common with the organ of vision travels to the region of the object. There is no reason to deny locomotion to the auditive faculty, as it is equally circumscribed like the ocular organ. And only on this supposition we can account for the perception of the source of sound, as is evidenced in such judgments as ‘I have heard the sound of a drum.’ Unless the auditive faculty actually perceives the sound in its place of origin the affiliation of sound to the source would be indefensible. Nor can we accept the suggestion of Kumārila that such perception is erroneous, as there is no sublative experience to prove the error.[3]


The Nyāya position recapitulated

We have seen that the Naiyāyika holds that there is actual physical contact between the sense-organ and the sense-datum and this contact takes place either by the sense-organ going over to the region of the object as in ocular perception, or the object coming over to the locus of the sense-faculty, as in the case of olfactory and auditory perception. With regard to gustatory and tactual perception, however, there is no divergence of opinion. The real controversy relates to the remaining three organs. Dignāga seems to have been the first philosopher who opposed it on the ground that the perception of objects situated at a distance or possessing greater dimension than the sense-organ would be unaccountable if the sense-faculty and the object actually coalesced together. There is no such peculiarity in the case of gustatory and tactual perception, where the immediate contact is an undisputed fact.[4] The eye-ball possessed of ocular faculty is the actual instrument of ocular perception, as medical treatment of the eye-ball is seen to result in the improvement of the faculty.[5] And even if it be conceded that the faculty of vision travels outside, the faculty would be inoperative as in that case one could see an object even after shutting up the eyes immediately after the contact has taken place.[6] But all this is contrary to experience. Uddyotakara in reply observed that the perception of distance is with reference to the physical organism and does not militate against the theory of contactual relation. With regard to gustatory and tactual perceptions, the contact takes place in the organism and hence distance is not felt. Vācaspati Miśra explains that this feeling of distance is actually a case of perversion. People regard their organisms as their own selves and so whatever is outside of this organism is looked upon as something foreign and distant.[7] The perception of greater dimension is possible because the faculty of vision is of the nature of light and light proceeding from a small lamp is seen to pervade a larger amount of space. The perception of dimension is conditional on the dimension of the. object and not of the sense-organ.[8]


The Buddhist Position fully Elucidated:
the Jaina position

The Jainas hold that contactual relation subsists between  all other sense-organs and sense-data except tbe sense of vision. The fact of externality and distance, so vividly apprehended in visual perception, cannot be explained, so argues the Jaina philosopher, if the visive faculty and the object are supposed to coalesce in any form. With regard to the rest of the organs the Jainas are entirely in agreement with the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school. The real controversy, therefore; centres round the Buddhist position and so we propose to give an exposition of the Buddhist position, as vindicated by Śāntarakṣita.

Śāntarakṣita was perhaps the first Buddhist philosopher, who took up the defence of Dignāga and gave crushing replies to Uddyotakara’s animadversions, Śāntarakṣita maintains that the theory of contactual relation is a superfluous hypothesis, and even if it is adopted, we shall have to posit, as an indispensable condition, over and above, that sense-faculties have a natural aptitude for the apprehension of their respective objects; and this alone is sufficient to determine the scope of perception. It may be urged that mere aptitude in the absence of physical contact cannot account for the non-perception of distant objects, as aptitude remains unimpaired even in distance. If physical relationship is regarded as the determinant factor, the position becomes understandable. But this contention, the Buddhist observes, betrays confusion of thought. Why should not there be a physical contact with distant objects? If the loss of efficiency is the answer, it is better and more logical to hold that the sense-organs do not possess this aptitude in regard to distant objects and so distant objects cannot come within their ken. And why should not the faculty of vision apprehend the quality of taste along with the colour, though the two co-exist in one substratum and the physical contact is a factual occurrence? To say that the contact does not take place in respect of taste and hence taste is unperceived may be calculated to throw dust into the eyes of an unthinking person. But we ask, the Buddhist queries— ‘why should not the contact take place at all?’ If the natural constitution of the object is supposed to offer the explanation of the problem, then, the Buddhist pleads, this should alone be postulated as the determinant and to posit physical relationship as an intermediary is superfluous, if not absurd, A magnet attracts a piece of iron from a considerable distance and no physical relationship between the two is observable Of course, Vācaspati Miśra holds that magnets too must be supposed to exercise an energising influence like the faculty of vision, otherwise there would be nothing to prevent attraction of iron even when the latter is situated at too great a distance or intercepted by. a partition.[9] But this is only begging the question. If it is supposed that the magnet throws its light (prabhā) over the iron-stick and so attraction takes place, we can only remark that such light is not observed by experience and there is absolutely no ground for supposing it to exist. And even if it is conceded, the question pertinently arises why should not the light of a magnet draw on timber and the like, though it may be found in close association with iron? If natural affinity or constitution be the cause, it can hold alike in the absence of such relationship and the assumption of physical contact does not make it more intelligible.

The contention, that in the absence of physical contact a sound will be heard simultaneously by all and sundry irrespective of the distance between the persons, has no force against the Buddhist, as the latter holds that objects are perceived simultaneously by all. But why should there be a variation in the insensity and volume of the sound perceived, according to the distance or proximity of the hearers? The Buddhist answers that the intensity or otherwise of the quality of perception does not depend on the physical relation at all; the explanation of this qualitative variation is to be sought elsewhere. The difficulty is not minimised in the theory of contactual relation also. If the sense-faculty apprehends the object in close contact, the question of distance need not introduce any difference and the sense-object should be perceived by all alike. If, however, the sense-faculty or the object is supposed to suffer deterioration owing to the distance travelled, the Buddhist is not precluded from resorting to some such analogous hypothesis even without physical contact. On the other hand, the theory of contactual relationship fails to explain all cases of perception. If the faculty of vision actually travels forth to meet the object, we cannot account for the simultaneous perception of the moon and the bough of the tree, which are separated by thousands of miles from each other. Uddyotakara’s argument that the rapidity of the succession of the two cognitions makes us slur over the temporal distinction in perception is only an eye-wash. We have proved that rapidity of movement is not antagonistic to perception of succession as is evidenced in the cognition of succession of letters in pronounced words. Nay, there would be no idea of succession at all, as our cognitions are all momentary and follow closely one upon the other. Again, the contention of Uddyotakara (N. V., p. 36, Ben. Edn.) that to become an object of perception is to be related to consciousness through the sense-organ does not carry any sense. Relation is not the conditio sine qua non of perceptual knowledge. When we say that the real becomes the object of knowledge, we only mean that the real is one of the causes of knowledge and the relation of causality is not necessarily contingent on physical contact, as is sufficiently proved by the behaviour of the magnet and iron.

It may be urged why should the self-identical object cause different kinds of presentation in different persons at different places? Why should the selfsame reality be presented differently, as vague and distinct, intense and feeble? Different presentations should have different causes, else taste and colour could be affiliated to the selfsame sense-datum. But the difficulty is rather on the other side. When actual contact of the sense-organ with the datum is the invariable condition of perception, the object should be perceived alike, irrespective of the relative-distance of the percipients. If you suppose that the organic faculty suffers loss of energy in proportion to the distance travelled, the Buddhist can with equal logic and cogency suppose that distance proportionately detracts from the presentative character of the object and hence different presentations of the same object are possible. On the other hand, the contactual theory miserably fails to explain auditory perception in all its varieties. If the sound proceeds in the fashion of a wave and enters into the ear-cavity and is perceived in its own region, there is no reason why there should be any difference in the various sound-perceptions, say, that of the thundering of a cloud and the whistling of a feather twirled within the ear-drum. They should be felt alike as all sounds are apprehended within the ear-drum according to the theory of contactual relationship.

But in reality tbe thundering of the cloud is perceived to be distinct from and external to the percipient. Uddyotakara’s plea, that spatial distinction is felt when the contact takes place outside the physical organism, cannot, however, hold good in the case of auditory perception, as the contact takes place within the eardrum and hence inside the organism. Kumārila’s contention, that perception of distance, and for that matter, of externality in sound-perception, is a perverted illusion, has been nailed to the counter. The conclusion is, therefore, irresistible that the ear and the eye apprehend objects from a distance and that without any movement from any side to bridge over the gulf separating the two. In the case of olfactory perception also, there is the same lack of physical contact, as perception of distance and externality is as much present in it as in others. The doctrine of the Sāṃkhya and Vedānta schools that the mind moves out to meet the object in its own place is absurd on the very face of it and does not deserve any refutation. Uddyotakara has been misled by the false analogy of the tactual and gustatory organs.

Analogical inference is more often than not an unreliable and unsafe guide and the present case affords a curious commentary on its treacherous and guileful character. Though there is analogy in point of their externality as compared to the mind and their incapacity to apprehend objects separated by an opaque medium, there is fundamental disagreement in other respects viz., their structure, constitution and distribution over the body, and what is the most damaging factor of all is their perception of distance and externality. The external organs of sense, therefore, barring the tactual and gustatory organs, do not differ at all from the mind so far as the absence of physical contact is concerned. The position of Dignāga has, at any rate, the redeeming feature of not making any gratuitous assumption of an invisible and unwarrantable relationship, which instead of straightening matters, rather complicates the situation, so far, at least, as auditory perception is concerned. The Buddhist position, thererefore, has better claims to commend itself to our acceptance, if simplicity in philosophical speculation is regarded as a virtue.



  1. N.V., pp. 33-6.
  2. T.T., pp. 116-22.
  3. N.M., pp. 478-79.
  4. T.S., śls. 220-28.
  5. S.D.S., T.R.D,—p. 260.
  6. S.V., Pratyakṣa, śls. 40-51.

Footnotes and references:


cikitsādiprayogaś ca yo’dhiṣṭhāne prayujyate |
so’pi tasyai’va saṃskāra ādheyasyo’pakārakaḥ ||
... cakṣurādyupakāraś ca pādādāv api dṛśyate ||
      S. V., p. 147, śls. 45-46.


Vide S. V., pratyakṣa.
Śā. Dī (Bom. ed.) pratyakṣa,.


śabde tv ādhikyavicchedau bhrāntyai’vo’ktāv asambhavāt |
      S. V., P. 143, Śl. 51.


yatho’ktaṃ Dignāgena—‘sāntaragrahaṇaṃ na syāt prāptau jñāne’dhikasya ca |’
      T. T., p. 118.


‘adhiṣṭhānād babir nā ’kṣaṃ taccikitsādiyogataḥ.’
      loc. cit.


saty api ca bahirbhāve na śaktir viṣayekṣaṇe |
yadi ca syāt tadā paśyed apy unmīlya nimīlanāt ||
      loc, cit.


śarīram avadhiṃ kṛtvā sāntaranirantare bhavataḥ. na punar indriyaprāptyaprāptinimitte bhavataḥ, yatra śarīram indriyaṃ co’bhayam arthena sambadhyate tatra nirantaragrahaṇaṃ bhavati. tasmāt sāntara iti grahaṇasyā’nyanimittatvān na sāntaram iti grahaṇād aprāpyakāritā sidhyatī’ti.
      N. V. p. 35.

śarīrāvacchinnāḥ khalv ātṃānaḥ śarīram evā’tmānam abhimanyamānā arthān anubhavanti, tatra ya eva śarīrasambaddha ity anubhūyate tam eva sāntara iti manyate...... śarīrasambandhena tatra sparśādau na sāntaratvābhimāna ity arthaḥ.
      T. T., p. 119.


yathā vartideśe piṇḍitam api tejaḥ prāsādodaraṃ vyāpnoti...... svabhāvataḥ prasarad api na svaparimāṇānuvidbāyinaṃ pratyayam ādhatte, kintu viṣayabhedānuvidhāyinam, viṣayanirūpaṇādhīnanirūpaṇā hi pratyayā ne’ndriyādhīnanirūpaṇāḥ. 
      T. T., p. 120.


ayaskāntamaṇer api cakṣuṣa iva vṛttibheda eṣitavyah, anyathā vyavadhānaviprakarṣayor api lohākarṣaṇaprasaṅgāt.
      T. T., p. 122.

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