A comparative study between Buddhism and Nyaya

by Roberta Pamio | 2021 | 71,952 words

This page relates ‘Comparative study on Perception’ of the study on perception in the context of Buddhism compared to Nyaya (a system of Hindu philosophy). These pages researches the facts and arguments about the Buddhist theory of perception and its concerned doctrines while investigating the history of Buddhist epistemology (the nature of knowledge). The Nyaya school (also dealing with epistemology) considers ‘valid knowledge’ the means for attaining the ultimate goal of life (i.e., liberation).

2. Comparative study on Perception

The Nyāya and the Bauddha schools accept pratyakṣa as the source of valid cognition. Both the systems are also unanimous regarding the highest degree of strength of pratyakṣa pramāṇa. For the Buddhists it is only pratyakṣa by which we can grasp realities (svalakṣaṇas). In the strict sense of the term “pramā” it is pratyakṣa alone that can be so named. For the Naiyāyikas where there is scope of perceiving the objects by our senses no other pramāṇa has any scope for knowing that object. Pratyakṣa is said to be prativandhaka of other pramāṇas. So for both the Buddhist and the Nyāya systems pratyakṣa is the strongest pramāṇa.

The definition of pratyakṣa given by Diṅnāga and Dharmakīrti unambiguously highlights the indeterminate character of perception which is free from conceptual construction (kalpanāpoḍham).[1] It may be noted at the out-set that Diṅnāga was not the only thinker to define pratyakṣa in this way. Vindhyavāsin, an elder contemporary of Vasubandhu also defined pratyakṣa as not characterized by anything which is existent in the auditory organ (śrotrādivṛttir avikalpikā).[2]

The contribution of Diṅnāga was to provide a logical base for nirvikalpaka pratyakṣa. The svalakṣaṇa is the variety of object with which perception deals with. The svalakṣaṇa is the bare particular without any property or character what-so-ever. Perception is that type of cognition which is free from conceptual construction. Like the sensation of a child or of a dumb, such a piece of cognition can never be verbally communicated in as much as any connection with a verbal expression would necessarily involve an element of construction. Therefore, the definition of pratyakṣa given by Diṅnāga and Dharmakīrti applies only to the nirvikalpaka form of pratyakṣa.

In Buddhist epistemology, the perception and the percept are ever fluctuating and mutually determinant. The cognition of common character is not conditioned by the real object because it makes no difference whether the object is perceived from a distance or from vicinity (nearness). The apparent distinctness of the class-character of a thing, for instance, cowness, when a cow is observed closely is due to its association with the svalakṣaṇa or the unique character of the cow, which is given in indeterminate perception. On the other hand, savikalpaka pratyakṣa involves conceptual construction (kalpanā) i.e. association of name, class, character, etc. and for this reason, it is erroneous perception. Thus, Buddhist philosophers deny the validity of such perception.[3]

According to Diṅnāga, svalakṣaṇas (unique particulars or point-instants) alone are real objects of cognition proper. According to the Vaibhāṣikas, the realities are in the form of unique particulars[4] and pratyakṣa alone is the means of apprehending such unique particulars. These unique particulars are momentary and are equally self-sustained and self-destructive. In each moment a unique particular destroys itself and a similar (not the same) unique particular emerges in its place. This is what is meant by “universal flux” or “instantaneous being”. Dharmakīrti interprets such unique particulars as characterized by a sort of productivity (arthakriyā-sāmarth), distinguished from everything, beyond the reach of words (śabdasya aviṣaya) and shorn of all kinds of adjuncts or qualifications or conceptual constructions (avikalpaka).

Dharmakīrti established the existence of svalakṣaṇa on the evidence of sāmānyalakṣaṇa. He argues that there is no doubt that there are constructed objects in this world. Now if we begin to withdraw all constructions from the entities on which the constructions are imposed, what will remain there? The pure entities constitute the real answer. The cognition of these entities is called nirvikalpaka jñāna. Although the cognition of those pure entities is not expressible, we can very well notice it while noticing those entities. Such cognition cannot be denied because there is agreement both in presence and in absence between those entities and their pratyakṣa. Where there is pure entity there is pratyakṣa (provided there is no exterior obstruction) viz. pratyakṣa of blue patch. Again, where there is no pratyakṣa there is no pure entity viz. son of a barren woman.[5] This argument of Dharmakīrti, has an idealistic flavour.

The Sautrāntika Buddhists hold that relational thought, which, of necessity, is carried on by the use of words, cannot be a true measure of reality, since an entity is unique and unrelated (svalakṣaṇa), being entirely cut off from the rest of the word of similar as well as dissimilar things. What, however, is perceived in direct experience in this unique, self-characterized real, which has nothing in common with others. All real are momentary point-instances, absolutely independent of each other and they only emerge into being under the inexorable law of pratītyasamutpāda (causality) and exercise a causal efficiency, which is peculiarly individualistic. Relations, therefore, are only ideal constructions (vikalpas) and have nothing corresponding to them in the objective world. These constructions are purely subjective and independent of both sense-data and sense-organs. It cannot be urged that as: this relational thought arises due to the senseobject contact, it should be valid as much as non-conceptual and non-relational (nirvikalpa) cognition. Because, this sequence is purely accidental and as relational thought it is seen to arise even in the absence of such contact. Again even in the presence of sense-object contact there may be no relational thought, unless and until words expressive of the objects perceived are actually or implicitly associated with the latter. If sense-object contact had competency for the generation of relational thought, it could not fail to do so even in the first instance. Even if the sense-object contact is seen to persist, the determinate, relational knowledge cannot be set down to its credit, as the act of remembrance, which is a non-sensuous and purely psychical fact, would detach the resultant experience from the objective reality.

All conceptual knowledge refers to ideal constructions, having nothing whatever to do with reality.

These ideal constructions are of five types, viz.,

  1. class-character (jāti),
  2. quality (guṇa),
  3. action (kriyā),
  4. name (saṃjñā), and
  5. substance (dravya).[6]

These are regarded as ideal constructions, as they proceed on the assumption of difference where there is identity and of identity, where there is difference. Thus, the class-character (jāti) is not anything distinct from the individual but it is fancied to be distinct. The quality and action is really non-distinct from the substratum, but they are imagined to be distinct and so they are called “false constructions”.[7] On the other hand, name and individual are actually distinct and different, one being a word and the other being a substantive object. But they are regarded as identical, as for instance, “he is Caitra”. Here, “Caitra” being a mere name. The identification is so complete that a man invariably responds when his name is called out. And the substance is illustrated by such verbal usage as “He is a staff-bearer” (daṇḍi ayam). Here the staff and the man are distinct as poles apart, but there is identification of the two.

According to the Naiyāyikas, aviśiṣṭa viṣaya can be cognized only by nirvikalpaka pratyakṣa. The Naiyāyikas, Prācina or Navya, alike accept the concept of viṣaya as the ground of our cognition of specific objects. According to them, cognition always refers to some object. That is to say, cognition is always cognition of or about something like cognition of a pot, of a cow, etc. and there is no such thing as pure or mere cognition, otherwise called “pure consciousness” which is no cognition of or about some object.[8] Not only this, according to them the referred object is always some real entity, the real entity turns into the object of that cognition. Even an invalid cognition like the cognition of a snake in case of a rope refers to some entity existent in this world. The object of an invalid cognition is a complex entity. The viśeṣya of this complex is not, however, actually so qualified by the qualifier that becomes the object of the cognition there. There, the qualification is through some cognition and not through the actual presentation of the reals but that cognition must refer to that real though in some other context. It seems the complex object that appears in invalid cognition may not be obtaining as itself a fact in the world of reals, though each and every part of this complex is always some real. This is equally true in the case of cognition of nonexistent entities like sky-lotus or hare’s horn.

In Nyāya epistemology, Gautama has used the term “avyapadeśyam” in his Nyāyasūtra 1.1.4. The term “avyapadeśyam” means “that which cannot be expressed by words”. According to Vācaspati Miśra[9], it refers to nirvikalpaka pratyakṣa, for it is not specified by a genus, and is, therefore indefinite. The term “vyavasāyātmakaṃ” means “that which is definite or certain”, pointing to something specified by its genus and name. It refers to savikalpaka pratyakṣa. Nirvikalpaka pratyakṣa is not a cognition of an entity as qualified, where a qualificandum is cognized as qualified by a qualifier. But savikalpaka pratyakṣa is cognition of a qualificandum qualified by a qualifier, where the qualifier is provided by a prior cognition. It has subject-predicate relation. Nirvikalpaka pratyakṣa is an earlier stage of pratyakṣa and the savikalpaka pratyakṣa is a later stage of pratyakṣa.[10]

Gaṅgeśa offers the following argument to prove the actual occurrence of nirvikalpakapratyakṣa. He starts with:

nanu gauritipratyakṣaṃ viśeṣanajñānajanyam, viśiṣṭajñānatvāt anumitivaditi.”[11]

A judgmental or qualificative cognitive state (viśiṣṭa-jñāna) about a relational or related object is always of the form “this is qualified by that”. Now the “that” part of this cognitive content can be cognized as qualifying or characterizing the “this” part, only if it has been previously cognized. Similarly, a qualificative cognition with a singular viśeṣaṇa must be preceded by an unqualified qualifier. “This cow” (gau) and “a man with a stick” (daṇḍipuruṣaḥ) are the instances of such complexly related objects of qualificative cognition. When one cognizes “this cow” or “a man with a stick” the cognition is causally determined by one’s prior cognition of “cowness” or of “stick” which serves as the qualifier in the particular cognition in question. In this way, through inference we do, and have to arrive at some cognition by acquaintance of a bare qualifier unqualified by any further qualifier. And such an acquaintance of the bare qualifier is called nirvikalpaka pratyakṣa. The above two cognitive instances are qualificative, but not of the same type. The former instance is technically known as “viśiṣṭajñāna”. The qualifier of this cognition does not involve any further qualifier. But the later instance is a more complex type of cognition technically known as viśiṣṭa-vaiśiṣṭyajñāna. The qualifier of this more complex cognition involves a further qualifier. The cognition of “stick”, like that of “a man with a stick”, is thus qualificative” (saprakāraka). Gaṅgeśa’s point here is that a qualificative cognition, irrespective of its degree of complexity, is necessarily preceded by the cognition of its qualifier. Now if that cognition is relatively less complex (viśiṣṭajñāna) then the preceding cognition of its qualifier cannot but be non-qualificative perceptual cognition. But if that cognition is relatively more complex then, as the qualifier of that cognition has a further qualifier, it cannot be non-qualificative. That cognition of the saprakāraka qualifier, however, must be preceded by some further cognition of that further qualifier. This applies not merely to qualificative perceptual cognition but equally to each and every type of qualificative cognition (tathāpi viśiṣṭajñānamātraṃ prati viśeṣaṇajñānatvena kāraṇatā, vādhakābhāvāt). Not only this, the cognition of the qualifier in such cases need not even necessarily be perceptual. To stop the vicious infinite regress, we are forced to admit in this process a first or bare qualifier (prāthamika viśeṣaṇa) which does not involve any further qualifier (bhāne vāanavasthā nirvikalpakāsiddhiśca).[12] In our first acquaintance with that first qualifier, only that bare qualifier can be said to be present. This nonqualificative simple apprehension of the first qualifier may be said to be nirvikalpaka pratyakṣa.[13]

Thus we see that both the Naiyāyikas and the Buddhists take the help of the same type of argument to prove the simplest units of cognition. The same hetu (viśiṣṭajñāna of the Naiyāyikas and sāmānyalakṣaṇa of the Buddhists) i.e. complex type of cognition ultimately presupposes the factuality of simplest type of viṣaya (aviśiṣṭa viṣaya for the Naiyāyikas and svalakṣaṇas for the Buddhist). Whether those simplest viṣayas are stable or momentary does not matter here. The same type of argument proves the existence of stable aviśiṣṭa viṣaya for the Naiyāyikas and momentary svalakṣaṇas for the Buddhists. The cognitions of those simplest viṣayas are designated as nirvikalpaka pratyakṣa by both the schools of philosophy. As the stable aviśiṣṭa viṣaya of the Naiyāyikas can easily lead to viśiṣṭajñāna called savikalpaka pratyakṣa in the next moment, the authenticity of savikalpaka pratyakṣa is beyond question in Nyāya system. But svalakṣaṇa being momentary it is destroyed in the very next moment and the question of savikalpaka pratyakṣa cannot arise at all in Buddhist philosophy. That is why savikalpaka pratyakṣa has no place in Buddhist epistemology.

Footnotes and references:


H.N. Randle, op.cit., p. 71.


M. Hattori, op.cit., p. 82.


B.K. Matilal, Epistemology, Logic and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis, p.39.




Th. Stcherbatsky, op.cit., vol. I, p.155.


S. Mookerjee, op.cit., p. 289.


B.K. Matilal, op.cit., p. 35.


For the Naiyāyikas, “consciousness” and “jñāna” are synonyms. According to them, there is no cognition without object. The existence of the objective reals is not a mere postulation taken for granted, it had been proved from the fact that the object is one of the causes of cognition.


S.C. Vidyabhusana, op.cit., p.137.




S. Bhattcharya, Gangeśa’s Theory of Indeterminate Perception., p.9.




B.K. Matilal, op.cit., p.85.

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