A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

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

This page describes the philosophy of vedanta dialectic of shriharsha (a.d. 1150): a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the sixteenth part in the series called the “the shankara school of vedanta (continued)”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 16 - Vedānta Dialectic of Śrīharṣa (a.d. 1150)

Śrīharṣa flourished probably during the middle of the twelfth century A.D. Udayana, the great Nyāya writer, lived towards the end of the tenth century, as is evident from the colophon of his Lakṣaṇāvalī[1]. Śrīharṣa often refutes the definitions of Udayana, and therefore must have flourished after him. Again, the great logician Gaṅgeśa of Mithilā refers to Śrīharṣa and refutes his views, and, since Gaṅgeśa lived in A.D. 1200, Śrīharṣa must have lived before that date. Accordingly Śrīharṣa was after Udayana and before Gaṅgeśa, i.e. between the tenth and twelfth centuries a.d. At the end of his book he refers to himself as honoured by the King of Kanauj (Kānyakubjeśvara). It is probable that this king may be Jayacandra of Kanauj, who was dethroned about A.D. 1195[2].

In his poetical work Naiṣadha-carita he mentions at the end of the several chapters many works of his, such as

The fact that he wrote a work eulogizing the race of the kings of Gauda leads one to suspect that he may have been one of the five Brahmans invited by Adiśūra of Bengal from Kanauj in the early part of the eleventh century, in which case Śrīharṣa would have to be placed at that time, and cannot be associated with Jayacandra, who was dethroned in A.D. 1195. Śrīharṣa’s most important philosophical contribution was the Khaṇḍana-khaṇḍa-khādya (lit. “the sweets of refutation”), in which he attempts to refute all definitions of the Nyāya system intended to justify the reality of the categories of experience and tries to show that the world and all world-experiences are purely phenomenal and have no reality behind them. The only reality is the self-luminous Brahman of pure consciousness[4]. H

is polemic is against the Nyāya, which holds that whatever is known has a well-defined real existence, and Śrīharṣa’s main point is to prove that all that is known is indefinable and unreal, being only of a phenomenal nature and having only a relative existence based on practical modes of acceptance, customs and conventions. But, though his chief polemic is against the Nyāya, yet, since his criticisms are almost wholly of a destructive nature like those of Nāgārjuna, they could be used, with modifications, no less effectively against any other system. Those who criticize with the object of establishing positive definitions would object only to certain definitions or views of other schools; but both Śrīharṣa and the nihilists are interested in the refutation of all definitions as such, and therefore his dialectic would be valid against all views and definitions of other systems[5].

He starts with the proposition that none of our awarenesses ever stand in need of being further known or are capable of being the objects of any further act of knowledge. The difference of the Vedānta from the idealistic Buddhists consists in this, that the latter hold that everything is unreal and indefinable, not even excepting cognitions (vijñāna) ; while the Vedānta makes an exception of cognitions and holds that all the world, excepting knowledge or awareness, is indefinable either as existent or non-existent (sad-asadbhyāṃ vilakṣaṇam) and is unreal[6]. This indefinableness is in the nature of all things in the world and all experiences (meya-svabhāvānugāminyām anirvacanīyatā), and no amount of ingenuity or scholarship can succeed in defining the nature of that which has no definable nature or existence.

Śrīharṣa undertakes to show that all definitions of things or categories put forward by the Nyāya writers are absolutely hollow and faulty even according to the canons of logical discussions and definitions accepted by the Naiyāyika; and, if no definition can stand or be supported, it necessarily follows that there can be no definitions, or, in other words, that no definitions of the phenomenal world are possible and that the world of phenomena and all our so-called experiences of it are indefinable.

So the Vedāntist can say that the unreality of the world is proved. It is useless for any one to attempt to find out what is true by resorting to arguments; for the arguments can be proved to be false even by the canons on which they are based. If anyone, however, says that the arguments of Śrīharṣa are open to the same objection and are not true, then that would only establish his own contention. For Śrīharṣa does not believe in the reality of his arguments and enters into them without any assumption of their reality or unreality. It can be contended that it is not possible to argue without first admitting the reality of the arguments.

But such reality cannot be established without first employing the pramāṇas or valid means of proof; and the employment of the pramāṇas would require further arguments, and thest; further employment of the pramāṇas and so on until we have vicious infinite regress. If, however, the very arguments employed in accordance with the canons of the opponents to destroy their definitions be regarded as false, this would mean that the opponents reject their own canons, so that the Vedāntic arguments in refuting their position would be effective. The Vedānta is here interested only in destroying the definitions and positions of the opponents; and so, unless the opponents are successful in defending their own positions against the attacks of the Vedānta, the Vedānta point of view is not refuted. So the manifold world of our experience is indefinable, and the one Brahman is absolutely and ultimately real.

Regarding the proof that may be demanded of the ultimate oneness Śrīharṣa says that the very demand proves that the idea of ultimate oneness already exists, since, if the idea were not realized, no one could think of asking for a proof of it. Now, if it is admitted that the idea of absolute oneness is realized (pratīta), then the question arises whether such realization is right knowledge (pramā) or error (apramā). If it is a right idea, then, whatever may have produced it, this right idea is to be regarded as valid proof. If such an idea is false, one cannot legitimately ask the Vedāntist to adduce any proofs to demonstrate what is false. It may be urged that, though the Naiyāyika considers it false, it is regarded by the Vedāntist as true and hence the Vedāntist may be called upon to prove that the way in which or the means of proof through which he came to have his idea was true.

This, however, the Vedāntist would readily deny; for, even though the idea of the absolute oneness may be right, yet the way in which one happened to come by this idea may be wrong. There may be a fire on a hill; but yet, if one infers the existence of such a fire from fog appearing as smoke, then such an inference is false, even though the idea of the fire may itself be right. Leaving aside the discussion of the propriety of such demands on the part of the opponents, the Vedāntist says that the Upaniṣadic texts demonstrate the truth of the ultimate oneness of reality.

The ultimate oneness of all things, taught in the Upaniṣad texts, cannot be said to be negatived by our perceptual experience of “many.” For our perception deals with individual things of the moment and therefore cannot apply to all things of the past, present, and future and establish the fact of their all being different from one another. Perception applies to the experience of the immediate present and is therefore not competent to contradict the universal proposition of the oneness of all things, as taught by the Upaniṣads. Again, as Śrīharṣa says, in our perception of the things of experience we do not realize the differences of the perceptual objects from ourselves, but the differences among the objects themselves. The self-revelation of knowledge also fails to show its difference from all objects of the world.

The difference, again, of the perceived objects from all other things is not revealed in the nature of the perceived objects themselves as svarūpa-bheda , or difference as being of the nature of the objects which are differenced—if that were the case, then the false and erroneous perception of silver would also at once manifest its difference from the object (the conch-shell) on which the false silver is imposed. In this way Śrīharṣa tried to prove that the purport of non-duality, as asserted in the Vedic texts, is not contradicted by any other, stronger, proof. Most of these arguments, being of a verbal nature, may better here be dropped.

The main stress seems to rest on the idea that the immediate differences between the things perceived do not in the least suggest or imply that they, in their essence or in their totality, could not ultimately, as a result of our progressive and better knowledge of things, be considered as one identical reality (as is asserted in the Upaniṣads). If perception cannot prove anything, inferences by themselves cannot stand alone or contradict the non-duality taught in the Upaniṣads. In our world of phenomenal experience our minds are always impressed with the concept of difference; but Śrīharṣa says that the mere existence of an idea does not prove its reality. Words can give rise to ideas relating even to absolutely non-existing things.

Again, the concept of “difference” can hardly be defined. If it lies involved within the essential nature of all things that differ, then difference would be identical with the nature of the things that differ. If difference were different from the things that differ, then it would be necessary to find out some way of establishing a relation between “difference” and the things that differ, and this might require another connection, and that another, and so we should have a vicious endless series. He says that “difference” may be looked upon from a number of possible points of view.

Firstly, “difference” is supposed to be of the nature of things. But a “difference” which is of the nature of the things which differ must involve them all in one; for there cannot be any difference without referring to the things from which there is difference. If by “book” we mean its difference from table, then the table has to enter into the nature of the book, and that would mean the identity of the table and the book. There is no meaning in speaking of “difference” as being the thing, when such differences can only be determined by a reference to other things. If “difference” be the nature of a thing, such a nature cannot be in need of being determined by other things.

One thing, say a book, is realized as being different from a table—the nature of the difference may here be described as being “the quality of being distinguished from a table”; but “the quality of being distinguished” would have no meaning or locus standi , unless “the table” were also taken with it. If anyone says that a book is identical with “the quality of being distinguished from,” then this will invariably include “the table” also within the essence of the book, as “the table” is a constituent of the complex quality “to be distinguished from,” which necessarily means “to be distinguished from a table.” So on this view also“the table” and all other things which could be distinguished from the book are involved in the very essence of all things—a conclusion which contradicts the very concept of difference.

It may also be pointed out that the concept of difference is entirely extraneous to the concept of things as they are understood or perceived. The notion of “difference” is itself different from the notion of the book and the table, whether jointly or separately. The joint notion of the book and the table is different from the notion that “the book differs from the table.” For understanding the nature of a book it is not necessary that one should understand previously its difference from a table. Moreover, even though the notion of difference may in some sense be said to lead to our apprehension of individual things, the apprehension of such individual things does not carry with it the idea that it is on account of such difference that the individual things are perceived.

It is through similarity or resemblance between two things—say between a wild cow (gavaya) and the domestic cow (go)—that a man can recognize an animal as a wild cow; but yet, when he so considers an animal as a wild cow, he does not invariably because of such a resemblance to a cow think the animal to be a wild cow. The mental decision regarding an animal as a cow or a wild cow takes place immediately without any direct participation of the cause which produced it. So, even though the notion of difference may be admitted to be responsible for our apprehension of the different individual things, an apprehension of an individual thing does not involve as a constituent any notion of difference. It is therefore wrong to think that things are of the nature of difference.

In another view, wherein difference is interpreted as “mental negation” or “otherness” (anyonyābhāva), this “otherness” (say of the book from the table) is explained as being the negation of the identity of one with the other. When one says that the book is other than the table, what is meant is that identity of the book with the table is denied. Śrīharṣa here raises the objection that, if the identity of the book with the table was absolutely chimerical, like the hare’s horn, such a denial of identity would be absolutely meaningless. It cannot, again, be suggested that this mental negation, or negation as otherness, means the denial of one class-concept in respect of another (e.g. that of book on the table); for there is in these class-concepts no such special characteristic (dharma) by virtue of which one could be denied of the other or they could be distinguished from each other, since the Naiyāyika, against whom Śrīharṣa’s arguments are directed, does not admit that class-concepts possess any distinguishing qualities.

In the absence of such distinguishing qualities they may be regarded as identical: but in that case the denial of one class-concept (say of the table) would involve the denial of the class-concept of the thing itself (e.g. the book),since the class-concepts of the book and the table, not having any distinguishing qualities, are identical; and, further, through mental denial both the book and the table would be devoid of the class-concepts of book and table, and so there would be no way of distinguishing one thing from another, book from table.

It is easy to see therefore that there is no way of making a special case regarding negation as otherness (anyonyabhāva). Again, if difference is regarded as the possession of opposite characters (vaidharmya), then also it may be asked whether the opposite characters have further opposite characters to distinguish them from one another, and these again others, and so there is a vicious infinite; if these are supposed to stop anywhere, then the final characters at that stage, not having any further opposite characters to distinguish them, would be identical, and hence all opposite characters in the backward series would be meaningless and all things would be identical. If ōn the contrary it is admitted at the very first stage that opposite or differing characters have no differing characters to distinguish them from one another, then the characters will be identical. Again, it may be asked whether these distinguishing characters are themselves different from the objects which possess them or not.

If they are different, one may again ask concerning the opposing characters which lead to this difference and then again about other opposing characters of these, and so on. If these infinite differences were to hold good, they could not arrive in less than infinite time, whereas the object is finite and limited in time. If, again, they came all at once, there would be such a disorderly medley of these infinite differences that there would be no way of determining their respective substrates and their orderly successive dependence on one another. And, since in the series the earlier terms of difference can only be established by the establishment of the later terms of difference, the forward movement in search of the later terms of difference, in support of the earlier terms of difference, makes these earlier terms of difference unnecessary[7].

It cannot, therefore, be said that our perception of differences has any such intrinsic validity that it can contradict the ultimate unity taught in the Upaniṣad texts. Śrīharṣa does not deny that we perceive seeming differences in all things, but he denies their ultimate validity, since he considers them to be due to avidyā or nescience alone[8].

The chief method of Śrīharṣa’s dialectic depends upon the assumption that the reality of the things that one defines depends upon the unimpeachable character of the definitions; but all definitions are faulty, as they involve the fallacy of argument in a circle (cakraka), and hence there is no way in which the real nature of things can be demonstrated or defined. Our world of experience consists of knower, known and knowledge; if a knower is defined as the possessor of knowledge, knowledge can only be understood by a reference to the knower; the known, again, can be understood only by a reference to knowledge and the knower, and so there is a circle of relativity which defies all attempts at giving an independent definition of any of these things. It is mainly this relativity that in specific forms baffles all attempts at definition of all categories.

Footnotes and references:


tarkāmbarāñka (906) pramiteṣv atīteṣu iakāntataḥ
varṣesūdayanaś cakre subodḥāṃ lakṣaṇāvalīm.
, p. 72, Surendralāl Gosvāmin’s edition, Benares, 1900.


Ānandapūrna in his commentary on the Khaṇḍana-khaṇḍa-khādya , called Khaṇḍana-phakkikā, explains Kānyakubjeśvara as Kāśīrāja, i.e. King of Kāśī or Benares.


None of these however are available.


Śrīharṣa at the end of this work speaks of having purposely made it extremely knotty here and there, so that no one could understand its difficulties easily except when explained by the teacher.

Thus he says:

grantha-granthir iha kvacit kvacid api nyāsi prayatnān mayā
prājñammanya-manā haṭhena pathitīmāsmin khalaḥ khelatu,
śraddhārāddha-guruḥ ślathīkṛta-dṛḍha-granthiḥ samāsādayat
tv etat-tarkarasormmi-majjana sukheṣv āsaṅjanaṃ sajjanaḥ.
p. 1341. Chowkhambā Sanskrit Book Depot,
      Benares, 1914.

Several commentaries have been written on this celebrated work by various people, e.g.

  • Khaṇḍana-maṇḍana by Paramānanda,
  • Khaṇḍana-maṇḍana by Bhavanātha,
  • Dīdhiti by Raghunātha Śiromani,
  • Prakāśa by Vardhamāna,
  • Vidyā-bharaṇī by Vidyābharapa,
  • Vidyāsāgarī by Vidyāsāgara,
  • Khaṇḍana-ṭīkā by Padmanābha Paṇḍita,
  • Ānanda-vardkana by Śaṅkara Miśra,
  • Śrī-darpaṇa by Śubhaṅkara,
  • Khaṇḍana-mahā-tarka by Caritrasimha,
  • Khaṇḍana-khaṇḍana by Pragalbha Miśra,
  • Śiṣya-hitaiṣiṇī by Padmanābha,
  • Khaṇḍana-kuṭhāra by Gokulanātha Upādhyāya.

At least one refutation of it was attempted by the Naiyāyikas, as is evidenced by the work of a later Vācaspati (a.d. 1350) from Bengal, called Khaṇḍanoddhāra.


Śrīharsa himself admits the similarity of his criticisms to those of Nāgāijuna and says:

tathā hi yadi darśaneṣu śūnya-vādānirvacanīya-pakṣayor āśrayaṇaṃ tada tāvad amūṣāṃ nir-bādhaiva sārva-pathīnatā,” etc. 

      Khaṇḍana-khaṇḍa-khādya , pp. 229-230, 
      Chowkhambā Sanskrit Book Depot, Benares, 1914.


By the idealistic Buddhists Śrīharṣa here means the idealism of the Laṅkāvatāra, from which he quotes the following verse:

buddhyā vivicyamānānāṃ svabhāvo nāvadhāryate
ato nirabhilapyās te nissvabhāvāś ca deśitāḥ.

     Laṅkāvatārasūtra, p. 287,
     Otani University Press, 1923.


prathama-bhedāsvīkāra-prayojanasya bheda-vyavahārāder dvitīya-bhedād eva siddheḥ prathama-bhedo vyarthaḥ syād eva, dvitīya-bhedādi-prayojanasya tṛtīya-bhedādinaiva siddheḥ so pi vyarthaḥ syāt.
on Khaṇḍana-khaṇḍa-khādya, p. 206.
      Chowkhambā Sanskrit Book Depot, Benares, 1914.


na vayaṃ bhedasya sarvatḥaivāsattvam abhyupagacchāmaḥ, kiṃ nāma na pāramārthikaṃ sattvaṃ; avidyā-vidyamānatvaṃ tu tadīyam iṣyata eva.
p. 214.

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