A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1922 | 212,082 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of sautrantika theory of perception: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the fourteenth part in the series called the “buddhist philosophy”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 14 - Sautrāntika Theory of Perception

Dharmottara (847 A.D.), a commentator of Dharmakīrtti’s[1] (about 635 A.D.) Nyāyabindu, a Sautrāntika logical and epistemological work, describes right knowledge (saṃyagjñāna) as an invariable antecedent to the accomplishment of all that a man desires to have (saṃyagjñānapūrvikā sarvapuruṣārthasiddhi)[2]. When on proceeding, in accordance with the presentation of any knowledge, we get a thing as presented by it we call it right knowledge. Right knowledge is thus the knowledge by which one can practically acquire the thing he wants to acquire (arthādki-gati). The process of knowledge, therefore, starts with the perceptual presentation and ends with the attainment of the thing represented by it and the fulfilment of the practical need by it (arthādhigamāt samāptah pramānavyāpāraḥ).

Thus there are three moments in the perceptual acquirement of knowledge:

  1. the presentation,
  2. our prompting in accordance with it,
  3. and the final realization of the object in accordance with our endeavour following the direction of knowledge.

Inference is also to be called right knowledge, as it also serves our practical need by representing the presence of objects in certain connections and helping us to realize them. In perception this presentation is direct, while in inference this is brought about indirectly through the liṅga (reason). Knowledge is sought by men for the realization of their ends, and the subject of knowledge is discussed in philosophical works only because knowledge is sought by men. Any knowledge, therefore, which will not lead us to the realization of the object represented by it could not be called right knowledge. All illusory perceptions, therefore, such as the perception of a white conch-shell as yellow or dream perceptions, are not right knowledge, since they do not lead to the realization of such objects as are presented by them. It is true no doubt that since all objects are momentary, the object which was perceived at the moment of perception was not the same as that which was realized at a later moment. But the series of existents which started with the first perception of a blue object finds itself realized by the realization of other existents of the same series (nīlādau ya eva santānaḥ paricchinno nīlajñānena sa eva tena prāpitah tena nīlajīiānam pramāṇam)[3].

When it is said that right knowledge is an invariable antecedent of the realization of any desirable thing or the retarding of any undesirable thing, it must be noted that it is not meant that right knowledge is directly the cause of it; for, with the rise of any right perception, there is a memory of past experien ces , desire is aroused, through desire an endeavour in accordance with it is launched, and as a result of that there is realization of the object of desire. Thus, looked at from this point of view, right knowledge is not directly the cause of the realization of the object. Right knowledge of course directly indicates the presentation, the object of desire, but so far as the object is a mere presentation it is not a subject of enquiry. It becomes a subject of enquiry only in connection with our achieving the object presented by perception.

Perception (pratyakṣa) has been defined by Dharmakīrtti as a presentation, which is generated by the objects alone, unassociated by any names or relations (kalpanā) and which is not erroneous (kalpanāpodhamabhrāntam)[4] . This definition does not indeed represent the actual nature (svarūpa) of perception, but only shows the condition which must be fulfilled in order that anything may be valid perception. What is meant by saying that a perception is not erroneous is simply this, that it will be such that if one engages himself in an endeavour in accordance with it, he will not be baffled in the object which was presented to him by his perception (tasmādgrāhye art he vasturūpe yadaviparyastam tadabhrāntamiha veditavyam). It is said that a right perception could not be associated with names (kalpanā or abhilāpa). This qualification is added only with a view of leaving out all that is not directly generated by the object. A name is given to a thing only when it is associated in the mind, through memory, as being the same as perceived before. This cannot, therefore, be regarded as being produced by the object of perception.

The senses present the objects by coming in contact with them, and the objects also must of necessity allow themselves to be presented as they are when they are in contact with the proper senses. But the work of recognition or giving names is not what is directly produced by the objects themselves, for this involves the unification of previous experiences, and this is certainly not what is presented to the sense (pūrvadṛṣṭāparadṛṣṭañcārthamekīkurvadvijñānamasannihitaviṣayam pūrvadṛṣasyāsannihitatvāt). In all illusory perceptions it is the sense which is affected either by extraneous or by inherent physiological causes. If the senses are not perverted they are bound to present the object correctly.

Perception thus means the correct presentation through the senses of an object in its own uniqueness as containing only those features which are its and its alone (svalakṣaṇam). The validity of knowledge consists in the sameness that it has with the objects presented by it (arthe a saha yatśārūpyam sādṛśyamasya jñānasya tatpramāṇamiha). But the objection here is that if our percept is only similar to the external object then this similarity is a thing which is different from the presentation, and thus perception becomes invalid. But the similarity is not different from the percept which appears as being similar to the object. It is by virtue of their sameness that we refer to the object by the percept (taditi sārūpyam tasya vaśāt) and our perception of the object becomes possible. It is because we have an awareness of blueness that we speak of having perceived a blue object.

The relation, however, between the notion of similarity of the perception with the blue object and the indefinite awareness of blue in perception is not one of causation but of a determinant and a determinate (vyavasthāpyavyavasthāpakabhāvena). Thus it is the same cognition which in one form stands as signifying the similarity with the object of perception and is in another indefinite form the awareness as the percept (tata ekasya vastunaḥ kiñcidrūpam pramāṇam kiñcitpramānaphalam na virudhyate). It is on account of this similarity with the object that a cognition can be a determinant of the definite awareness (vyavasthāpanaheturhi sārūpyani), so that by the determinate we know the determinant and thus by the similarity of the sense-datum with the object (pramāna) we come to think that our awareness has this particular form as “blue” (pramānaphala). If this sameness between the knowledge and its object was not felt we could not have spoken of the object from the awareness (sārūpyamanubhūtam vyavasthāpanahetuḥ). The object generates an awareness similar to itself, and it is this correspondence that can lead us to the realization of the object so presented by right knowledge[5].

Footnotes and references:


Dharmakīrtti calls himself an adherent of Vijñānavāda in his Santānāntara-siddhi, a treatise on solipsism, but his Nyāyabindu seems rightly to have been considered by the author of Nyāyabinduṭīkātippanī (p. 19) as being written from the Sautrāntika point of view.


Brief extracts from the opinions of two other commentators of Nyāyabindu, Vinītadeva and Śāntabhadra (seventh century), are found in Nyāyabitiduṭīkāṭippanī , a commentary of Nyāyabinduṭīkā of Dharmmottara, but their texts are not available to us.


Nyāyabitiduṭīkāṭippanī, p. II.


The definition first given in the Pramāṇasamuccaya (not available in Sanskrit) of Diñnāga (500 A.D.) was “Kalpanāpodham” According to Dharmakīrtti it is the indeterminate knowledge (nirvikalpa jñāna) consisting only of the copy of the object presented to the senses that constitutes the valid element presented to perception. The determinate knowledge (savikalpa jñāna), as formed by the conceptual activity of the mind identifying the object with what has been experienced before, cannot be regarded as truly representing what is really presented to the senses.


See also pp. 340 and 409. It is unfortunate that, excepting the Nyāyabindu, Nyāyabinduṭīkā, Nyāiyabindutīkātippanī (St Petersburg, 1909), no other works dealing with this interesting doctrine of perception are available to us. Nyāyabindu is probably one of the earliest works in which we hear of the doctrine of arthakñyākāritva (practical fulfilment of our desire as a criterion of right knowledge). Later on it was regarded as a criterion of existence, as Ratnakīrtti’s works and the profuse references by Hindu writers to the Buddhistic doctrines prove. The word arthakriyā is found in Candra-kīrtti’s commentary on Nāgārjuna and also in such early works as Lalitavistara (pointed out to.me by Dr E. J. Thomas of the Cambridge University Library) but the word has no philosophical significance there.

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