A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

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

This page describes the philosophy of brief survey of the evolution of buddhist thought: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the nineteenth part in the series called the “buddhist philosophy”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 19 - Brief survey of the evolution of Buddhist Thought

In the earliest period of Buddhism more attention was paid to the four noble truths than to systematic metaphysics. What was sorrow, what was the cause of sorrow, what was the cessation of sorrow and what could lead to it ? The doctrine of paṭiccasamuppāda was offered only to explain how sorrow came in and not with a view to the solving of a metaphysical problem. The discussion of ultimate metaphysical problems, such as whether the world was eternal or non-eternal, or whether a Tathāgata existed after death or not, were considered as heresies in early Buddhism. Great emphasis was laid on sīla, samādhi and paññā and the doctrine that there was no soul. The Abhidhammas hardly give us any new philosophy which was not contained in the Suttas. They only elaborated the materials of the suttas with enumerations and definitions.

With the evolution of Mahāyāna scriptures from some time about 200 B.C. the doctrine of the non-essentialness and voidness of all dhammas began to be preached. This doctrine, which was taken up and elaborated by Nāgārjuna, Aryyadeva, Kumārajīva and Candrakīrtti, is more or less a corollary from the older doctrine of Buddhism. If one could not say whether the world was eternal or non-eternal, or whether a Tathāgata existed or did not exist after death, and if there was no permanent soul and all the dhammas were changing, the only legitimate way of thinking about all things appeared to be to think of them as mere void and non-essential appearances. These appearances appear as being mutually related but apart from their appearance they have no other essence, no being or reality.

The Tathatā doctrine which was preached by Aśvaghoṣa oscillated between the position of this absolute non-essentialness of all dhammas and the Brahminic idea that something existed as the background of all these non-essential dhammas. This he called tathatā, but he could not consistently say that any such permanent entity could exist. The Vijñānavāda doctrine which also took its rise at this time appears to me to be a mixture of the Śūnyavāda doctrine and the Tathatā doctrine; but when carefully examined it seems to be nothing but Śūnyavāda, with an attempt at explaining all the observed phenomena. If everything was non-essential how did it originate? Vijñānavāda proposes togivean answer, and says that these phenomena are all but ideas of the mind generated by the beginningless vāsanā (desire) of the mind. The difficulty which is felt with regard to the Tathatā doctrine that there must be some reality which is generating all these ideas appearing as phenomena, is the same as that in the Vijñānavāda doctrine.

The Vijñānavādins could not admit the existence of such a reality, but yet their doctrines led them to it. They could not properly solve the difficulty, and admitted that their doctrine was some sort of a compromise with the Brahminical doctrines of heresy, but they said that this was a compromise to make the doctrine intelligible to the heretics; in truth however the reality assumed in the doctrine was also non-essential. The Vijñānavāda literature that is available to us is very scanty and from that we are not in a position to judge what answers Vijñānavāda could give on the point. These three doctrines developed almost about the same time and the difficulty of conceiving śūnya (void), tathatā, (thatness) and the ālayavijñāna of Vijñānavāda is more or less the same.

The Tathatā doctrine of Aśvaghoṣa practically ceased with him. But the Śūnyavāda and the Vijñānavāda doctrines which originated probably about 200 B.C. continued to develop probably till the eighth century A.D. Vigorous disputes with Śūnyavāda doctrines are rarely made in any independent work of Hindu philosophy, after Kumārila and Saṅkara. From the third or the fourth century A.D. some Buddhists took to the study of systematic logic and began to criticize the doctrine of the Hindu logicians. Diñnāga the Buddhist logician (500 A.D.) probably started these hostile criticisms by trying to refute the doctrines of the great Hindu logician Vātsyāyana, in his Pramāṇa-samuccaya. In association with this logical activity we find the activity of two other schools of Buddhism, viz. the Sarvāstivādins (known also as Vaibhāṣikas) and the Sautrāntikas. Both the Vaibhāṣikas and the Sautrāntikas accepted the existence of the external world, and they were generally in conflict with the Hindu schools of thought Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and Sāṃkhya which also admitted the existence of the external world. Vasubandhu (420-500 A.D.) was one of the most illustrious names of this school.

We have from this time forth a number of great Buddhist thinkers such as

  • Yaśomitra (commentator of Vasubandhu’s work),
  • Dharmmakīrtti (writer of Nyāyabindu 635 A.D.),
  • Vinītadeva and Sāntabhadra (commentators of Nyāyabindu),
  • Dharmmottara (commentator of Nyāyabindu 847 A.D.),
  • Ratnakīrtti (950 A.D.),
  • Paṇḍita Aśoka,
  • and Ratnākara Sānti, some of whose contributious have been published in the Six Buddhist Nyāya Tracts , published in Calcutta in the Bibliotheca Indica series.

These Buddhist writers were mainly interested in discussions regarding the nature of perception, inference, the doctrine of momentariness, and the doctrine of causal efficiency (arthakriyākāritva) as demonstrating the nature of existence. On the negative side they were interested in denying the ontological theories of Nyāya and Sāṃkhya with regard to the nature of class-concepts, negation, relation of whole and part, connotation of terms, etc. These problems hardly attracted any notice in the non-Sautrāntika and non-Vaibhāṣika schools of Buddhism of earlier times. They of course agreed with the earlier Buddhists in denying the existence of a permanent soul, but this they did with the help of their doctrine of causal efficiency. The points of disagreement between Hindu thought up to Saṅkara (800 A.D.) and Buddhist thought till the time of Saṅkara consisted mainly in the denial by the Buddhists of a permanent soul and the permanent external world. For Hindu thought was more or less realistic, and even the Vedānta of Śaṅkara admitted the existence of the permanent external world in some sense.

With Saṅkara the forms of the external world were no doubt illusory, but they all had a permanent background in the Brahman, which was the only reality behind all mental and the physical phenomena. The Sautrāntikas admitted the existence of the external world and so their quarrel with Nyāya and Sāṃkhya was with regard to their doctrine of momentariness; their denial of soul and their views on the different ontological problems were in accordance with their doctrine of momentariness. After the twelfth century we do not hear much of any new disputes with the Buddhists. From this time the disputes were mainly between the different systems of Hindu philosophers, viz. Nyāya, the Vedānta of the school of Saṅkara and the Theistic Vedānta of Rāmānuja, Madhva, etc.

Help me keep this site Ad-Free

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: