A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1932 | 241,887 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of maha-vidya and the development of logical formalism: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the fifteenth part in the series called the “the shankara school of vedanta (continued)”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 15 - Mahā-vidyā and the Development of Logical Formalism

The Buddhists had taken to the use of the dialectic method of logical discussions even from the time of Nāgārjuna. But this was by no means limited to the Buddhists. The Naiyāyikas had also adopted these methods, as is well illustrated by the writings of Vātsyāyana, Uddyotakara, Vācaspati, Udayana and others. Śaṅkara himself had utilized this method in the refutation of Buddhistic, Jaina, Vaiśeṣika and other systems of Indian philosophy. But, though these writers largely adopted the dialectic methods of Nāgārjuna’s arguments, there seems to be little attempt on their part to develop the purely formal side of Nāgārjuna’s logical arguments, viz. the attempt to formulate definitions with the strictest formal rigour and to offer criticisms with that overemphasis of formalism and scholasticism which attained their culmination in the writings of later Nyāya writers such as Raghunātha Śiromaṇi, Jagadīśa Bhattācārya, Mathurānātha Bhattācārya and Gadādhara Bhattācārya. It is generally believed that such methods of overstrained logical formalism were first started by Gaṅgeśa Upādhyāya of Mithilā early in the thirteenth century. But the truth seems to be that this method of logical formalism was steadily growing among certain writers from as early as the tenth and eleventh centuries. One notable instance of it is the formulation of the mahā-vidyā modes of syllogism by Kulārka Paṇḍita in the eleventh century.

There is practically no reference to this mahā-vidyā syllogism earlier than Śrīharṣa (a.d. 1187)[1]. References to this syllogism are found in the writings of Citsukha Ācārya (a.d. 1220), Amalānanda, called also Vyāsāśrama (a.d. 1247), Ānandajñāna (a.d. 1260), Veṅkata (a.d. 1369), Śeṣa Śārṅgadhara (a.d. 1450) and others[2]. The mahā-vidyā syllogisms were started probably some time in the eleventh century, and they continued to be referred to or refuted by writers till the fifteenth century, though it is curious to notice that they were not mentioned by Gaṅgeśa or any of his followers, such as Raghunātha, Jagadīśa and others, in their discussions on the nature of kevalānvayi types of inference.

In all probability mahā-vidyā syllogisms were first started by Kulārka Paṇḍita in his Daśa-śloki-mahā-vidyā-sūtra containing sixteen different types of definitions for sixteen different types of mahā-vidyā syllogisms. Assuming that Kulārka Paṇḍita, the founder of mahā-vidyā syllogisms, flourished in the eleventh century, it may well be suggested that many other writers had written on this subject before Vādīndra refuted them in the first quarter of the thirteenth century. Not only does Vādīndra refer to the arguments of previous writers in support of mahā-vidyā and in refutation of it in his Mahā-vidyā-viḍambana, but Bhuvana-sundara Sūri also in his commentary on the Mahā-vidyā-viḍambana refers to other critics of mahā-vidyā. Recently two different commentaries have been discovered on mahā-vidyā , by Puruṣottama-vana and Pūrṇaprajña. Veṅkata in his Nyāya-pariśuddhi refers to the Mahā-vidyā , the Māna-manohara and the Pramāṇa-mañjarī, and Śrīnivāsa in his commentary Nyāya-sāra on the Nyāya-pariśuddhi describes them as works which deal with roundabout syllogisms (vakrānumāna)[3]. This shows that for four or five centuries mahā-vidyā syllogisms were in certain quarters supported and refuted from the eleventh century to the sixteenth century.

It is well known that the great Mīmāṃsā writers, such as Kumārila bhaṭṭa and his followers, believed in the doctrine of the eternity of sounds, while the followers of the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika, called also Yaugācāryas, regarded sound as non-eternal (anitya). Mahā-vidyā modes were special modes of syllogism, invented probably by Kulārka Paṇḍita for refuting the Mīmāṃsā arguments of the eternity of sounds and proving the non-eternity of sounds. If these modes of syllogism could be regarded as valid, they would also have other kinds of application for the proving or disproving of other theories and doctrines. The special feature of the mahā-vidyā syllogisms consisted in their attempt to prove a thesis by the kevalānvayi method. Ordinarily concomitance (vyāpti) consists in the existence of the reason (hetu) in association with the probandum and its non-existence in all places where the probandum is absent (sādhyābhāvavad-avṛttitvam). But the kevalānvayi form of inference which is admitted by the Naiyāyikas applies to those cases where the probandum is so universal that there is no case where it is absent, and consequently it cannot have a reason (hetu) whose concomitance with it can be determined by its non-existence in all cases where the probandum is absent and its existence in all cases where the probandum is present.

Thus in the proposition,

“This is describable or nameable (idam abhi-dheyam) because it is knowable (prameyatvāt),”

both the probandum and the reason are so universal that there is no case where their concomitance can be tested by negative instances. Mahā-vidyā syllogisms were forms of kevalānvayi inference of this type, and there were sixteen different varieties of it which had this advantage associated with them, that, they being kevalānvayi forms of syllogism, it was not easy to criticize them by pointing out defects or lapses of concomitance of the reason and the probandum, as no negative instances are available in their case. In order to make it possible that a kevalānvayi form of syllogism should be applicable for affirming the non-eternity of sound, Kulārka tried to formulate propositions in sixteen different ways so that on kevalānvayi lines such an affirmation might be made about a subject that by virtue of it the non-eternity of sound should follow necessarily as the only consequence, other possible alternatives being ruled out.

It is this indirect approach of inference that has been by the critics of mahā-vidyā styled roundabout syllogism. Thus mahā-vidyā has been defined as that method of syllogism by which a specific probandum which it is desired to prove by the joint method of agreement and difference (3, anvaya-vyatireki-sādhya-viśeṣaṃ vādy-abhimatam sādhayati) is proved by the necessary implication of the existence of a particular probandum in a particular subject (2, pakṣe vyāpaka-pratītya-paryavasāna-balāt), affirmed by the existence of hetu in the subject on kevalānvayi lines (1, kevalān-vayini vyāpakepravartamāno hetuḥ).

In other words, a reason which exists in a probandum inseparably abiding in a subject {pakṣa) without failure (proposition 1) proves (sādhayati), by virtue of the fact, that such an unfailing existence of that probandum in that subject in that way is only possible under one supposition (proposition 2), namely, the affirmation of another probandum in another subject (e.g. the affirmation of the probandum “noneternity” to the subject “sound”), which is generally sought to be proved by the direct method of agreement and difference (proposition 3). This may be understood by following a typical mahā-vidyā syllogism.

Thus it is said that by reason of knowability (meyatva) as such the self, dissociated from the relations of all eternal and non-eternal qualities of all other objects excepting sound, is related to a non-eternal entity

(ātmā śabdetarānitya-nitya-yavṛttitvānadhikaraṇānitya-vṛtti-dharmavān meyatvād ghaṭavat).

Now by the qualifying adjunct of “self” the self is dissociated from all qualities that it shares with all other eternal and non-eternal objects excepting sound, and the consequence is that it is left only with some kind of non-eternal quality in relation with sound, as this was left out of consideration in the qualifying adjunct, which did not take sound within its purview. Since many relations are also on the Nyāya view treated as qualities, such a non-eternal relation of the self to sound may be their mutual difference or their mutual negation (anyonyābhāva). Now, if the self, which is incontestably admitted to be eternal, has such a non-eternal quality or relation to sound, then this can only be under one supposition, viz. that sound is non-eternal.

But, since all other non-eternal relations that the self may have to other non-eternal objects, and all other eternal relations that it may have to other eternal objects, and all other such relations that it may have to all eternal and non-eternal objects jointly, except sound, have already been taken out of consideration by the qualifying phrase, the inseparable and unfailing non-eternal quality that the self may have, in the absence of any negative instances, is in relation to sound; but, if it has a non-eternal quality in relation to sound, then this can be so only under one supposition, viz. that sound is itself non-eternal; for the self is incontestably known as eternal. This indirect and roundabout method of syllogism is known as mahā-vidyā. It is needless to multiply examples to illustrate all the sixteen types of propositions of mahā-vidyā syllogism, as they are all formed on the same principle with slight variations.

Vādīndra in his Mahā-vidyā-viḍambana refuted these types of syllogism as false, and it is not known that any one else tried to revive them by refuting Vādīndra’s criticisms. Vādīndra styles himself in the colophon at the end of the first chapter of his Mahā-vidyā-viḍambana ‘‘Hara-kiñkara-nyāyācārya-parama-paṇḍita-bhaṭṭa-vādīndra,” and in the concluding verse of his work refers to Yogīśvara as his preceptor.

The above epithets of Hara-kiñkara, nyāyācārya, etc. do not show however what his real name was. Mr Telang points out in his introduction to the Mahā-vidyā-viḍambana that his pupil bhaṭṭa Rāghava in his commentary on Bhāsarvajña’s Nyāya-sāra, called Nyāya-sāra-vicāra , refers to him by the name Mahādeva. Vādīndra’s real name, then, was Mahādeva, and the rest of the epithets were his titles. bhaṭṭa Rāghava says that the name of Vādīndra’s father was Sāraṅga. bhaṭṭa Rāghava gives his own date in the Śaka era.

The sentence however is liable to two different constructions,giving us two different dates, viz. a.d. 1252 and 1352. But, judging from the fact that Vādīndra was a religious counsellor of King Śrīsimha (also called Śiṅghana), who reigned in Deva-giri a.d. 1210-1247, and that in all probability he lived before Veṅkata (a.d. 1267-1369), who refers to his Mahā-vidyā-viḍambana, Mr Telang suggests that we should take a.d. 1252 to be the date of bhaṭṭa Rāghava; and, since he was a pupil of Vādīndra, one may deduct about 27 years from his date and fix Vādīndra’s date as a.d. 1225.

Mr Telang points out that such a date would agree with the view that he was a religious counsellor of King Śrīsimha. Vādīndra refers to Udayana (a.d. 984) and Śivāditya Miśra (a.d. 975-1025). Mr Telang also refers to two other works of Vādīndra, viz. Rasa-sāra and Kaṇāda-sūtra-nibandha, and argues from allusions contained in Vādīndra’s Mahā-vidyā-viḍambana that he must have written other works in refutation of mahā-vidyā. Vādīndra’s Mahā-vidyā-viḍambana consists of three chapters. In the first chapter he gives an exposition of the mahā-vidyā syllogisms; the second and third chapters are devoted to the refutation of these syllogisms.

Vādīndra’s Mahā-vidyā-viḍambana has two commentaries, one called Mahā-vidyā-viḍambana-vyākhyāna , by Anandapūrṇa (a.d. 1600), and the other, called Vyākhyāna-dīpikā, by Bhuvana-sundara Sūri (a.d. 1400). In addition to these Bhuvanasundara Sūri also wrote a small work called the Laghu-mahā-vidyā-viḍam-bana and a commentary, Mahā-vidyā-vivaraṇa-tippana, on a Mahā-vidyā-daśaślokī-vivaraṇa by an unknown author.

The main points of Vādīndra’s criticisms may briefly be stated as follows: He says that it is not possible that there should be a proper reason (hetu) which has no negative instances (kevalānvayi-hetor eva nirvaktum aśakyatvāt). It is difficult to prove that any particular quality should exist everywhere and that there should not be any instance or case where it does not occur. In the third chapter he shows that not only is it not possible to have kevalānvayi hetm , but that even in arguments on the basis of such kevalānvayi hetu there would be great scope for fallacies of self-contradiction (sva-vyāghāta) and fallacies of illicit distribution of the middle term (anaikāntikatva) and the like. He also shows how all these fallacies apply to all the mahā-vidyā syllogisms invented by Kulārka Paṇḍita.

It is needless for our present purposes to enter into any elaborate logical discussion of Vādīndra; for the present digression on mahā-vidyā syllogisms is introduced here only to show that scholastic logicisms were not first introduced by Śiīharṣa, but had already come into fashion a few centuries before him, though Śrīharṣa was undoubtedly the most prominent of those who sought to apply these scholastic methods in philosophy.

It will thus be seen that the fashion of emphasizing the employment of logical formalism as a method in philosophy was inherited by the Naiyāyikas and Vedāntists alike from Buddhists like Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva and others in the third and the fourth centuries and their later successors in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries. But during the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries one notices a steady development on this side in the works of prominent Nyāya writers such as Vātsyāyana, Uddyotakara, Vācaspati Miśra and Udayana and Vedāntic authors such as the great master Śaṅkarācārya, Vācaspati Miśra and Ānandabodha Yati. But the school of abstract and dry formalism may be said to have properly begun with Kulārka Paṇḍita, or the authors of the Māna-manohara and Pramāṇa-mañjarī in the latter part of the eleventh century, and to have been carried on in the works of a number of other writers, until we come to Gaṅgeśa of the early thirteenth century, who enlivened it with the subtleties of his acute mind by the introduction of the new concepts of avacchedakatā , which may be regarded as a new turning point after vyāpti.

This work was further carried on extremely elaborately by his later successors, the great writers of this new school of logic (navya-nyāya), Raghunātha Śiromaṇi, Jagadīśa Bhattācārya, Gadādhara Bhattācārya and others. On the Vedānta side this formalism was carried on by Śrīharṣa (a.d. i 187), Citsukha of about A.D. 1220 (of whom Vādīndra was a contemporary), Ānandajñāna or Anandagiri of about A.D. 1260 and through a number of minor writers until we come to Nṛsiṃhāśrama and Madhusūdana Sarasvatī of the seventeenth century.

It may be surmised that formal criticisms of Śrīharṣa were probably largely responsible for a new awakening in the Naiyāyikas, who began to direct their entire attention to a perfecting of their definitions and discussions on strict lines of formal accuracy and preciseness to the utter neglect of the collection of new data, new experiences or the investigation of new problems or new lines of enquiry, which is so essential for the development of true philosophy. But, when once they started perfecting the purely logical appliances and began to employ them successfully in debates, it became essential for all Vedāntists also to master the ways of this new formalism for the defence of their old views, with utter neglect of new creations in philosophy.

Thus in the growth of the history of the dialectic of logical formalism in the Vedānta system of thought it is found that during the eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries the element of formalism was at its lowest and the controversies of the Vedānta with the Buddhists, Mīmāmsists and Naiyāyikas were based largely on the analysis of experience from the Vedāntic standpoint and its general approach to philosophy. But in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries the controversy was largely with the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika and dominated by considerations of logical formalism above everything else. Criticisms became for the most part nothing more than criticisms of Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika definitions.

Parallel to this a new force was gradually growing during these centuries in the writings of Rāmānuja and his followers, and in the succeeding centuries the followers of Madhva, the great Vaiṣṇava writer, began to criticize the Vedāntists (of the Śaṅkara school) very strongly. It is found therefore that from the thirteenth or fourteenth century the Vedāntic attack was largely directed against the followers of Rāmānuja and Madhva. A history of this controversy will be given in the third and fourth volumes of the present work. But the method of logical formalism had attained such an importance by this time that, though the Vaiṣṇavas brought in many new considerations and points of view in philosophy, the method of logical formalism never lost its high place in dialectic discussions.

Footnotes and references:


gandhe gandhāntara-prasaṅjikā na ca yuktir asti; tadastitve vā kā no hāniḥ ; tasyā apy asmābhiḥ khaṇḍanīyatvāt.
       Śrīharsa’s Khaṇḍana-khaṇḍa-khādya, p. 1181, Chowkhambā edition.


athavā ayam ghaṭaḥ etadgḥaṭānyatve sati vedyatvānadhikaraṇānya-padār-hatvāt patavad ity-ādimahāvidyā-prayogair api vedyatva-siddhir apy ūhanīyā.

—Citsukha Ācārya’s Tattva-pradipikā,p. 13, also p. 304. The commentator Pratyag-rūpa-bhagavān mentions Kulārka Paṇḍita by name, evaṃ sarvā mahavidyās tacchāyā vānye prayogāḥ khaṇḍanīyā iti.

—Amalānanda’s Vedānta-kalpa-taru, p. 304 (Benares, 1895). sarvāsv eva mahāvidyāsu, etc.

—Ānandajñāna’s Tarka-saṃgraha, p. 22. Also Venkata’s Nyāya-pariśuddhi, pp. 125, 126, 273-276, etc., and Tattva-muktā-kalāpa with Sarvōrtḥa-siddhi, pp. 478, 485, 486-491.

Mr M. R. Telang has collected all the above references to mahā-vidyā in his introduction to the Mahā-vidyā-viḍambana, Gaekwad’s Oriental Series, Baroda, 1920.


See M. R. Telang’s introduction to the Mahā-vidyā-viḍambana.

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