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 XXI - The Theory of Perception as propounded by Dharmakīrti and Dharmottara

Perception according to Dharmakīrti consists in the apprehension of an object in its own specific character (svalakṣaṇa) having nothing in common with other objects similar or dissimilar and is thus completely free from association with names and verbal expressions—an association which presupposes and is made possible by relational thought. The object of perception is the reality which is immediately revealed to the mind and not such other ideas as generality (sāmānya), quality (guṇa), action (kriyā), substratum (dravya), or name (nāman), which are not a part of the presented sense-data but are supplied by imagination (vikalpa). The criterion of reality from unreal creation of fancy or imagination is this: that which by its position of nearness or distance affects the presentative character of perception is alone real. Thus, a jug or rather its presentation is seen to vary as faint or distinct according to its situation in relation to the percipient. But ah idea, which is supplied by memory-association or conjured up in imagination, does not undergo any variation whether the object represented be situated near to or distant from the perceiving subject. This reality is alone endowed with practical efficiency (arthakriyā-kāritva) and not the fancied or inferred object, which is not presented through sense-medium. The test of reality therefore is practical efficiency alone and not any thing else.

The Theory of Perception of Dharmakīrti, or of the Sautrāntika school for the matter of that whose system is expounded by Dharmakīrti in his Nyāyabindu, is rather an intricate one. All existents being momentary in character, the thing that is in contact with the sense-organ at one moment is not contemporaneous with the idea that springs up in the mind at the second moment. Thus perception is impossible inasmuch as the mind cannot come in direct relation with the extra-mental reality but through the medium of sense-organs only. In view of this difficulty it has been postulated that a sense-object has the power to leave behind an impress of its image in the consciousness through the sense-channel. By virtue of this peculiar efficiency a sense-object is regarded as an object of perception.[1] What really is immediately perceived is not the external object but a copy or image of it imprinted on the consciousness. And this mental image is regarded as a faithful representation—an exact copy of the extramental reality existing in its own right. It is evident therefore that external reality can never be an immediate object of perception but can at best be mediately known—in other words, it can only be inferred by its supposed likeness presented in the idea. Perception of an external object is therefore only the perception of the idea believed to be a copy or picture of the same.

In this connection an interesting but extremely difficult question has been raised as to the immediate cause of perceptual knowledge (pramāṇa). Our consciousness is seen to be ever active varying with a constantly variable content. The conscious character is however common to all the different cognitions forming the sumtotal of consciousness, the differentiating factor being the varying contents. What is the cause of this variation of contents in consciousness? Certainly, the Sautrāntika observes, it is nothing but the objective reality lying outside the mind but coming in contact with it.

But this objective reality lying outside the mind, cannot, as has been shown above, be directly cognised by the mind because of its momentary character. It is only the image or copy of it that is directly cognised and the supposed likeness of the percept, that is the idea in the mind, to the extra-mental reality is to be regarded as the cause and warrant of its validity (arthasārūpyam asya pramāṇam, tadvaśād arthapratītisiddheh); and the cognition as such is regarded as the resultant of the same. Thus, the cognition of ‘blue’ has a particular form which is different from that of the cognition of ‘red.’ The conscient character is common to both; what varies is only the form, that is, the content. So the immediate cause of a particular cognition (pramāṇam) is the form or the likeness impressed on it and not sense-organs as supposed by the Naiyāyikas. It is the particular form or likeness which determines the character of a cognition and not sense-organ, which is common to cognitions of red, blue, white and so forth.[2]

A difficulty has been raised in this connection by rival schools of thinkers. The cognition and its likeness (sārūpyam) are not two distinct things but one. So Dharmakīrti makes the same thing pramāṇa (cause of knowledge) and pramāṇaphala (the resultant cognition), which is absurd. Pramaṇa is the cause of cognition and the effect of it is the cognition itself revealing a particular object.[3] To make the same thing both cause and effect only betrays confusion of thought.

In reply to this objection Dharmottara says that the relation of pramāṇa and pramā is not a causal relation but one of determination. When in contradistinction to the perception of a red object we have a cognition of blue, we feel that the particular cognition refers to a thing which is different from the red that was perceived immediately before. What enables us to differentiate the cognition of blue from the cognition of red is the peculiar blue-form experienced in the percept. Thus the cognition is ascertained to be one of blue and not of any other, only when the particular likeness imprinted on it is perceived.[4]

So the objection that the same cognition cannot be both pramāṇa and pramā has no force as the relation supposed is not one of cause and effect but that of determinant and determinable.[5] They are one as relating to one single cognition, but different only on account of one aspect having a determining force and the other being determined.[6]

We have seen how the selfsame cognition can alternately discharge the dual function of pramāṇa and pramā, in other words, how a cognition can be both the condition and the result of itself. It is effected by a change of emphasis. Thus when the emphasis is laid upon the particular form of the cognition, the form is regarded as the condition of perceptual knowledge and when the emphasis is transferred to the quality of consciousness endowed with a particular content, the consciousness is said to be determined or conditioned by the likeness imprinted on it, which is thus regarded as the determining condition. The Buddhists had recourse to this rather cumbrous theory because they did not acknowledge the existence of a separate spirit-entity standing aloof behind the mental apparatus and illumining the psychical processes going on therein. The Jainas are at one in this respect with the Buddhists, as they also denied the existence of a spirit-entity as separate and distinct from the mind.[7] The logical consequence of this identification of consciousness with the varying mental states has been the doctrine of momentary consciousness—consciousness reduced to a series of transitory mental states in perpetual flux. The notion of continuity has been explained away as an illusion, being due to the homogeneity and the free unimpeded career of the conscious states. The Jainas have avoided this consequence by their peculiar doctrine of relativity (anekāntavāda), which possesses the miraculous efficiency of reconciling all contradiction.

The Sāṃkhyas and the Vedāntists have avoided this pitfall by positing the existence of a spirit-entity standing aloof, detached and unaffected by the varying psychical processes though animating them all the while with the light of knowledge. The consciousness in the psychical states is only apparent; it is at best borrowed from the eternal spirit-entity (sākṣī). But with the Buddhists and the Jainas there is no soul distinct from the mind. Vijñānabhikṣu is very severe upon the Buddhists for their identifying consciousness with the passing psychical states with the result that consciousness has been reduced to a congeries of momentary conscious units having no real nexus between.[8]

Be that as it may, a question has been raised as to why a perception free from determination (nirvikalpa) is alone regarded as reliable evidence of reality, though it has no practical utility unless and until it is made determinate. It can be converted into useful knowledge only when determinative reflection (vikalpa) is brought to bear upon it and this determinative process is considered to be purely intellectual having nothing to do with reality proper. Indeterminate perception however has no practical value unless and until it is determined as perception of some thing. And this determination is rendered possible only by the reflective, intellectual activity, which certifies ‘it is blue that is perceived and not red or any other thing.’ Unless and until it is determined as such, the experience is as good as non-existent (asatkalpa), because it cannot lead to any activity and so there is no acquisition of any thing. As perception, determined by an intellectual activity is alone endowed with practical efficiency, it is determined perception (savikalpa pratyakṣa) that should alone be regarded as valid experience (pramāṇa)’, and if vikalpa is invalid by its very nature, how cau it refrain from infecting it with its own invalidity?[9]

To this Dharmottara says that there are two kinds of vikalpa and though both the varieties are equally unreliable and invalid by their very constitution, there is a vital difference in their functional character. There is a kind of vikalpa which interprets the perceptual experience and makes it clear and intelligible. It does not assert its independence but functions in the background. The other variety of vikalpa is pure imagination without any touch with external reality. This latter variety is absolutely unreliable as evidence of reality. But the reflective thought, which arises in the trail of perception and is generated under its influence (pratyakṣabalotpanna), stands in a different category. It does not assert its independence as pure imagination does, but only serves to determine the perceptual knowledge as knowledge of something. The nirvikalpaka perception is a simple, homogeneous, unitary cognition, in which the subject and the object, perception and perceptual matter, are not distinguished but given in a lump, as it were. But such knowledge is entirely useless and has no pragmatic value. It is only when perceptual knowledge is interpreted by a subsequent act of reflection, which analyses it into a subjective and an objective element and imposes a relation upon them, that it can be made useful in our practical life. It is however the primary, homogeneous experience (nirvikalpa pratyakṣa) that can be accepted as reliable testimony of the external reality and the reflective thought and the relational knowledge, which is the result of it, are purely subjective facts and are no index to the objective reality—the thing-in-itself (svalakṣaṇa). But the purely subjective character of this reflective process, which is necessary for the interpretation of perception, does not in any way detract from or add to the evidentiary value of perceptual knowledge. The analytic-cum-synthetic process, which is involved in the reflective activity, gives us purely perceptual data and not imaginary things. It is perception all the while even when interpreted by reflective thought. This interpretation only serves to put the perceptual knowledge in a clear light and neither supersedes nor overshadows it. The contention that perceptual knowledge together with vikalpa should be held as valid testimony therefore falls to the ground. Vikalpa is purely subjective and though requisitioned to interpret perceptual experience does not enter into the composition of the perceptual data. The apprehension therefore that vikalpa should infect perceptual knowledge with its own invalid character is without a foundation and only betrays lack of clear vision. The vikalpa, which is imagination pure and simple, is absolutely without touch with reality. It only gives us purely fictitious data, in which our knowledge is of the form ‘I imagine the blue’ and not ‘I perceive the blue.’ It is not attended with that sentiment of belief and sense of security which invariably distinguish perceptual knowledge.[10] This distinction in this functional character is fundamental and must be kept in view for our proper understanding of Dharmakīrti’s theory of Perception.

Footnotes and references:


bhinnakālaṃ kathaṃ grāhyam iti ced grāhyatāṃ viduḥ |
hetutvam eva ca vyakter jñānākārārpaṇakṣamam ||
      Quoted in S. D. S., p. 16 and Tāt. tī., p. 153.

Cf. na hi mukhyato yādṛśaṃ jñānasyā’tmasaṃvedanam tādṛg evā’rthasye’stam, kiṃ tarhi svābhāsājñānajanakatvam evā’rthasya saṃvedyatvam.

(also,) ’sākārajṅānapakṣe ca tannirbhāsasya vedyatā |’
      T. S. P., under śls. 2034-35.

Compare Dharmottara: “nīlanirbhāsaṃ hi vijñānaṃ yatas tasmād nīlasya pratītir avasīyate. yebhyo hi cakṣurādibhyo vijñānam utpadyate na tadvaśāt tajjñānaṃ nīlasya saṃvedanaṃ śakyate’vasthāpayitum. nīlasadṛśam tv anubhūyamānaṃ nīlasya saṃvedanam avasthāpyate.”
      N. B. T., p. 19.


See Pt. I, pp. 78-9. Dharmakīrti in the Nyāyabindu and so also Dharmottara emphatically maintain the possibility of sense-perception of an objective reality. The mental likeness is regarded as the means of objective perception and not as the object or its substitute. In fact if the objective reality were deemed to have only an inferential status as in Cartesian or Lockian epistemology, the division of perception into sense-perception, etc., would be unmeaning. Dharmakīrti’s theory of sense-perception in my judgment seems to have greater affinities with that of the Critical Realists of America than with the naīve realism of the Cartesian school. This is evident from the emphasis laid by Dharmakīrti on the mediumistic character of the psychical content.

Cf. arthasārūpyam asya pramāṇaṃ, tadvaśād arthapratītisiddheḥ.

Here the objective likeness of the mental content is regarded as the medium or instrument of perception and not as the object, exactly in the same fashion as sense-organ is regarded as the instrument by the upholders of the presentative theory of perception. The difference lies in this: the mental likeness is substituted for the sense-organ as the instrument or medium of perception, but the instrumental character is never lost sight of. That wo are in direct touch with the objective reality lying outside is apparent from the text of Dharmakīrti himself, where he speaks of the object of perception as the self-characterised unique real (svalakṣaṇa), whose proximity or distance causes variation in tbe presentative character of perceptual knowledge. This text would be reduced to nonsense if the object of perception be believed to be the mental content. This fact distinguishes Dharmakīrti’s theory of perception from that of Kant, who believes the thing-in-itself (svalakṣaṇa of Dharmakīrti) to be unknown and unknowable and from that of the naïve realists, who makes human knowledge a closed circle out of all touch with external reality. I have therefore not hesitated to characterise the realism of Dharmakīrti’s school as Critical Realism in contra-distinction to tbe naīve Realism of the Cartesian school. In fact the theory of perception of the Sāṃkhya and Vedānta schools too should be believed to be presentative, as direct contact with reality is emphasised. If and how far this theory of perception can be logically justified is a different question, which cannot be discussed in the present context.


‘pramāṇasya phalam arthaprakāśaḥ arthasaṃvedanam’—Hemacandra’s Pramāṇamīmāṃsā, 1.1.35.


sadrśam anubhūyamānaṃ tad vijñānaṃ yan nīlasya grāhakam avasthāpyate niścayapratyayena tasmāt sārūpyam anubhūtaṃ vyavasthāpanahetuḥ, niścayapratyayena ca taj jñānam avasthāpyamānaṃ vyavasthāpyam.............................. vyavasthāpakaś ca vikalpapratyayaḥ pratyakṣabalotpanno draṣṭavyaḥ.
      N. B. T., p. 19.


nā’sato hetutā nāpi sato hetoḥ phalātmatā |
iti jaomani doṣaḥ syād vyavasthā tu na doṣibbāk ||
      P. Mīm., 1.1.35.


ekajñānagatatvena pramāṇaphalayor abhedaḥ, vyavasthāpyavyavasthāpakatvena tu bhedaḥ.
       Ibid, under 1. 1. 38.


The Jainas hold that all knowledge exists in an accomplished state in the soul and it becomes manifest only when the veil of passion is removed from it. The veil of passion envelops the soul and not the mind, as the soul and mind are not distinct but identical;

cf. “nā’pi manasas tair āvaraṇam ātmavyatirekeṇā’parasya manaso niṣetsyamānatvāt.”
      P. M. S. Laghu-Vṛtti of Anantavīrya, p. 19 (A.S.B. En.).

Also cf. ‘cittavyatirekeṇā’tmano’niṣṭatvāt.’
      Kamalaśīla, T. S. P., p. 119.


Cf. Vijñānabhikṣu—
“naivā’lpamatinā śakyo viveko vṛttibodhayoḥ |
tārkikā yatra saṃmūdhāḥ Sāṃkhyānāṃ śreṣṭhatā yataḥ ||
jñānātmatvaśrutau mūḍhā ime bauddhāṣ tamasvinaḥ |
vṛttibodhāvivekena menire kṣaṇikām citim ||”
      Sāṃkhyasāra, Ch. III. śls. 16-17, uttarabhāga.


nanu nirvikalpakatvāt pratyakṣam eva nīlabodharūpatvenā (na)’tmānam avasthāpayituṃ śaknoti. niścayapratyayenā’vyavasthāpitaṃ sad api nīlabodharūpaṃ vijñānam asatkalpam eva. tasmān niścayena nīlabodharūpaṃ vyavasthāpitaṃ vijñānaṃ nīlabodbātmanā sad bhavati tasmād adhyavasāyaṃ kurvad eva pratyakṣaṃ pramāṇam bhavati............ yady evam adhyavasāyasahitam eva pratyakṣam pramāṇaṃ syān na kevalam.
      N. B. T., p. 20.


Op. cit., p. 20. 11.    7 et seq.

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