A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 3

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1940 | 232,512 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of shankara and ramanuja on the nature of reality as qualified or unqualified: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the first part in the series called the “philosophy of the ramanuja school of thought”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 1 - Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja on the nature of Reality as qualified or unqualified

Śaṅkara says that Brahman, as pure intelligence (cin-mātram) entirely divested of any kind of forms, is the ultimate reality (paramārtha), and that all differences of the knower, the known, and the diverse forms of cognition are all imposed on it and are false. Falsehood with him is an appearance which ceases to exist as soon as the reality is known, and this is caused by the defect (doṣa), which hides the true nature of reality and manifests various forms. The defect which produces the false world appearance is ignorance or nescience (avidyā or māyā), which can neither be said to be existent nor non-existent (sad-asad-anirvacanīyā), and this ceases (nivṛttā) when the Brahman is known.

It is, indeed, true that in our ordinary experience we perceive difference and multiplicity; but this must be considered as faulty, because the faultless scriptures speak of the one truth as Brahman, and, though there are the other parts of the Vedas which impose on us the performance of the Vedic duties and therefore imply the existence of plurality, yet those texts which refer to the nature of Brahman as one must be considered to have greater validity; for they refer to the ultimate, whereas the Vedic injunctions are valid only with reference to the world of appearance or only so long as the ultimate reality is not known. Again, the scriptures describe the Brahman as the reality, the pure consciousness, the infinite (satyaṃ jñānam anantaṃ brahma); these are not qualities which belong to Brahman, but they are all identical in meaning, referring to the same difference-less identical entity, absolutely qualityless—the Brahman.

Rāmānuja, in refuting the above position, takes up first the view of Śaṅkara that the Brahman as the ultimate reality is absolutely unqualified (nirviśeṣa). He says that those who assert that reality can be unqualified have really no means of proving it; for all proofs are based on the assumption of some qualified character. This unqualifiedness could not be directly experienced, as they believe; for there can be no experience without the assumption of some qualified character, since an experience, being my own unique experience, is necessarily qualified. Even if you tried to prove that one’s own experience, which is really qualified in nature, is unqualified, you would have to pick up some special trait in it, in virtue of which you would maintain it was unqualified; and by that very fact your attempt is defeated, for that special trait would make it qualified.

Intelligence is itself self-revealing, and by it the knower knows all objects. It may also be shown that even during sleep, or swoon, the experience is not characterless. Even when the Brahman is said to be real, pure consciousness, and infinite, it means that these are the characters of Brahman and it is meaningless to say that they do not indicate some character. The scriptures cannot testify to the existence of any characterless reality; for they are a collection of words arranged in order and relation, and each word is a whole, comprising a stem and a suffix, and the scriptures therefore are by nature unable to yield any meaning which signifies anything that is characterless.

As regards perception, it is well established that all determinate perception (sa-vikalpa-pratyakṣa) manifests an entity with its characters; but even indeterminate perception (nirvikalpa-pratyakṣa) manifests some character for its indeterminateness means only the exclusion of some particular character; and there can be no perception which is absolutely negative regarding the manifestation of characters. All experiences are embodied in a proposition—“This is so”—and thus involve the manifestation of some characters. When a thing is perceived for the first time, some specific characters are discerned; but, when it is perceived again, the characters discerned before are revived in the mind, and by comparison the specific characters are properly assimilated. This is what we call determinate perception, involving the manifestation of common characters or class characters as distinguished from the perception of the first moment which is called indeterminate perception. But it does not mean that indeterminate perception is not the perception of some specific characters. Inference is based on perception and as such must necessarily reveal a thing with certain characteristics; and so not one of the three sources of our knowledge, perception, scriptures and inference, can reveal to us any entity devoid of characteristics.

It is urged by Śaṅkara and his followers that perception refers to pure being and pure being alone (san-mātra-grāhī); but this can never be true, since perception refers to class-characters and thus necessarily involves the notion of difference; even at that one particular moment of perception it grasps all the essential characteristic differences of a thing which distinguish it from all other objects. If perception had reference only to pure being, then why should it manifest to us that “here is a jug,” “here is a piece of cloth”; and, if the characteristic differences of a thing are not grasped by perception, why are we not contented with a buffalo when we need a horse ? As pure being they are all the same, and it is being only which, it is urged, is revealed by perception. Memory would not then distinguish one from the other, and the cognition of one thing would suffice for the cognition of everything else. If any distinctive differences between one cognition and another is admitted, then that itself would baffle the contention of the characterlessness of perception. Moreover, the senses can grasp only their characteristic special feature, e.g. the eye, colour, the ear, sound, and so on, and not differencelessness. Again, Brahman is said to be of the nature of pure being, and, if the same pure being could be experienced by all the senses, then that would mean that Brahman itself is experienced by the senses. If this were so, the Brahman would be as changeable and destructible as any other objects experienced by the senses, and this no one would be willing to admit. So it has to be granted that perception reveals difference and not pure characterlessness.

Again, it has been argued that, since the experience of a jug, etc., varies differently with different space and time, i.e. we perceive here a jug, there a piece of cloth, and then again at another moment here a toy and there a horse, and we have not the one continuous experience of one entity in all space and time, these objects are false. But why should it be so? There is no contradiction in the fact that two objects remain at the same place at two different points of time, or that two objects remain at two different places at one and the same point of time. Thus there is nothing to prove that the objects we perceive are all false, and the objects are by nature pure being only.

Again, it has been urged that experience or intuition (e.g. as involved in perception) is self-revealing (svayaṃ-prakāśa)\ but this is true only with reference to a perceiver at the particular time of his perception. No intuition is absolutely self-revealing. The experience of another man does not reveal anything to me, nor does a past experience of mine reveal anything to me now; for with reference to a past experience of mine I only say “I knew it so before,” not “I know it now.” It is also not true that no experience can be further experienced; for I can remember my own past experience or can be aware of it, as I can be aware of the awareness of other persons; and, if the fact that one awareness can be the object of another would make it cease from being an experience or intuition (saṃvid or anubhūti), then there would be no anubhūti or experience at all. If a man could not be aware of the experiences of others, he could use no speech to express himself or understand the speech of other people, and all speech and language would be useless. That jug, etc., are not regarded as intuition or experience is simply because their nature is altogether different therefrom and not because they can be objects of cognition or experience; for that would be no criterion at all.

It is again urged that this intuition or experience (anubhūti or saṃvid) is never produced, since we do not know any stage when it was not in existence (prāg-abhāvādy-abhāvād utpattir nirasyate). It is also urged that any experience or awareness cannot reveal any state in which it did not exist; for how can a thing reveal its own absence, since it cannot exist at the time of its absence ? Rāmānuja, in reply to such a contention on Śaṅkara’s side, debates why it should be considered necessary that an experience should reveal only that which existed at the same time with it; for, had it been so, there would be no communication of the past and the future. It is only sense-knowledge which reveals the objects which are existing at the time when the senses are operating and the sense-knowledge is existing; but this is not true with regard to all knowledge. Memory, inference, scriptures, and intuitive mystic cognition (yogi-pratyakṣa) of sages can always communicate events which happened in the past or will happen in the future. Arguing in the same way, one could say that even in the case of the experience of ordinary objects such as jug, etc., it can be said that the perception which reveals their presence at any particular time does not reveal their existence at all times. That they are not so revealed means that the revelation of knowledge (saṃvid or anubhūti) is limited by time. If revelation of knowledge were not itself limited in time, then the objects revealed by it would also not be limited in time, which would be the same thing as to say that these objects, such as jug, etc., are all eternal in nature; but they are not.

This sort of argument may also be applied to the revelation of knowledge in inference; and it may well be argued that, since the objects must be of the same type as the knowledge which reveals them, then, if the knowledge is not limited in time and is eternal, the objects also will be eternal. For there can be no knowledge without an object. It cannot be said that at the time of sleep, drunkenness, or swoon, the pure experience is experienced as such without there being an object. If the pure experience were at that time experienced as such, one would remember this on waking; for except in the case of experiences at the time of universal destruction (pralaya), and in the period when one’s body is not in existence, all that is experienced is remembered. No one, however, remembers having experienced an experience at the time of sleep or swoon, so that no such pure revelation of knowledge exists at that time.

What Rāmānuja maintains here, as will be shown later on, is that during sleep or swoon we have a direct experience of the self and not the pure formless experience of the revelation of pure consciousness. Thus there cannot be any state in which knowledge is pure revelation without an object. Hence it cannot be argued that, because knowledge does not reveal the state in which it did not exist, it must always be in existence and never be produced; for as each cognition is inseparably associated with its object, and as all objects are in time, knowledge must also be in time.

Again, the argument that, since knowledge is unproduced, it cannot suffer any further modification or change, is false. Granting for the sake of argument that knowledge is unproduced, why should it on that account be necessarily changeless? The negation preceding a particular production (prāga-bhāva) is beginningless, but it is destroyed. So is the avidyā of the Śaṅkarites, which is supposed to be beginningless and yet to be suffering all kinds of changes and modifications, as evidenced by its false creations of the world-appearance. Even the self, which is beginningless and destruction-less, is supposed to be associated with a body and the senses, from which it is different. This apprehension of a difference of the self from avidyā means a specific character or a modification, and if this difference is not acknowledged, the self would have to be considered identical with avidyā. Again, it is meaningless to say that pure intelligence, consciousness, experience or intuition (anubhūti or saṃvid), is pure self-revelation; for, were it so, why should it be called even self-revelation, or eternal, or one? These are different characters, and they imply a qualified character of the entity to which they belong. It is meaningless to say that pure consciousness is characterless; for at least it has negative characters, since it is distinguished from all kinds of material, non-spiritual or dependent objects which are considered to be different from this pure consciousness.

Again, if this pure consciousness is admitted to be proved as existing, that must itself be a character. But to whom is it proved? It must be to the self who knows, and in that case its specific character is felt by the self who is aware of it. If it is argued that the very nature of the self-revelation of consciousness is the self, then that would be impossible; for knowledge implies a knower who is different from the knowledge which reveals certain objects. The knower must be permanent in all his acts of knowledge, and that alone can explain the fact of memory and recognition. The consciousness of pleasure, pain and of this or that object comes and goes, whereas the knower remains the same in all his experiences. How then can the experience be identified with the person who experiences? “I know it,” “just now I have forgotten it”—it is in this way that we all experience that our knowledge comes and goes and that the phases are different from ourselves. How can knowledge or consciousness be the same as the knower or the self?

It is held that the self and ego or the entity referred to by “I” are different. The entity referred to by “I” contains two parts, a self-revealing independent part as pure consciousness, and an objective, dependent non-self-revealed part as “myself,” and it is the former part alone that is the self, whereas the latter part, though it is associated with the former, is entirely different from it and is only expressed, felt, or manifested by virtue of its association with the former. But this can hardly be admitted. It is the entity referred to by “I” which is the subjective and individual self and it is this which differentiates my experience from those of others. Even in liberation I am interested in emancipating this my individual self, for which I try and work and not in a so-called subject-object-less consciousness. If “I” is lost, then who is interested in a mere consciousness, whether that is liberated or not? If there is no relation with this ego, the self, the “I,” no knowledge is possible. We all say “I know,” “I am the knower”; and, if this individual and subjective element were unsubstantial and false, what significance would any experience have ? It is this ego, the “I,” which is self-luminous and does not stand in need of being revealed by anything else. It is like the light, which reveals itself and in so doing reveals others as well. It is one whole and its intelligent nature is its self-revealing character.

So the self-luminous self is the knower and not a mere revelation. Revelation, cognition or knowledge means that something is revealed to someone, and so it would be meaningless to say that the self and the knowledge are identical. Again, it has been maintained that self is pure consciousness; for this pure consciousness alone is what is non-material (ajaḍa) and therefore the spirit. But what does this non-materiality mean ? It means with the Śaṅkarites an entity whose nature is such that its very existence is its revelation, so that it does not depend on anything else for its revelation. Therefore, pleasures, pain, etc., are also self-revealing. There cannot be a toothache which is present and yet is not known; but it is held that pleasures and pains cannot be revealed, unless there is a knower who knows them. Well the same would be true for knowledge even. Can consciousness reveal itself to itself? Certainly not; consciousness is revealed always to a knower, the ego or the self.

As we say “I am happy,” so we say “I know.” If non-materiality (ajaḍatva) is defined as revealing-to-itself in the above sense, such non-materiality does not belong to consciousness even. It is the ego, the “I,” that is always selfrevealed to itself by its very existence, and it must therefore be the self, and not the pure consciousness, which stands as much in need of self-revelation as do the pains and pleasures. Again, it is said that, though pure consciousness (anubhūti) is in itself without any object, yet by mistake it appears as the knower, just as the conch-shell appears by illusion as silver. But Rāmānuja contends that this cannot be so; for, had there been such an illusion, people would have felt “I am consciousness” as “this is silver.” No one makes such a mistake; for we never feel that the knowledge is the knower; but, as a matter of fact, we always distinguish the two and feel ourselves different from the knowledge—as “I know” (aham anu-bhavāmi).

It is argued that the self as changeless by nature cannot be the agent of the act of cognition and be a knower, and therefore it is only the changeful modifications of prakṛti, the category of ahaṅkāra, to which can be ascribed the capacity of being a knower. This ahaṅkāra is the inner organ (antafikaraṇa) or mind, and this alone can be called a knower; for the agency of an act of cognition is an objective and dependent characteristic, and, as such, cannot belong to the self. If the agency and the possibility of being characterized by the notion of ego could be ascribed to the self, such a self would have only a dependent existence and be nonspiritual, like the body, since it would be non-self-revealing. Rāmānuja, in answer to such an objection, says that, if the word ahaṅkāra is used in the sense of antaḥkaraṇa, or the mind, as an inner organ, then it has all the non-spiritual characteristics of the body and it can never be considered as the knower. The capacity of being a knower (jñātṛtva) is not a changeful characteristic (vikriyātmaka), since it simply means the possession of the quality of consciousness (jñāna-guṇāśraya), and knowledge, being the natural quality of the eternal self, is also eternal.

Though the self is itself of the nature of consciousness (jñāna-szarūpa), yet, just as one entity of light exists both as the light and as the rays emanating from it, so can it be regarded both as consciousness and as the possessor of consciousness (mani-prabhṛtīnāṃ prabhāśrayatzum iza jñanāśrayatvam api aviruddham). Consciousness, though unlimited of itself (svayarn aparicchinnam ez'a jñānam), can contract as well as expand (saṅkoca-vikāśārham). In an embodied self it is in a contracted state (sari-kucita-svarūpam) through the influence of actions (karmaṇā), and is possessed of varying degrees of expansion. To the individual it is spoken of as having more or less knowledge[1], according as it is determined by the sense-organs. Thus one can speak of the rise of knowledge or its cessation. When there is the rise of knowledge, one can certainly designate it as the knower. So it is admitted that this capacity as knower is not natural to the self, but due to karma, and therefore, though the self is knower in itself, it is changeless in its aspect as consciousness. But it can never be admitted that the nonspiritual ahaṅkāra could be the knower by virtue of its being in contact with consciousness (cit); for consciousness as such can never be regarded as a knower. The ahaṅkāra also is not the knower, and therefore the notion of the knower could not be explained on such a view. It is meaningless to say that the light of consciousness falls on the non-spiritual ahaṅkāra through contiguity; for how can the invisible consciousness transmit its light to the non-spiritual ahaṅkāra ?

Even in sleep one feels the self as “I”; for on waking one feels “I have slept happily.” This also shows that during sleep it is the “I” that both knew and felt happy. It has to be admitted tlujt there is a continuity between the “I” before its sleep, the “I” during its sleep, and the “I” after its sleep; for after waking the “I” remembers all that it had experienced before its sleep. The fact that one also feels “I did not know anything all this time” does not mean that the “I” had no knowledge at all; it means only that the “I” had no knowledge of objects and things which it knows on waking. There can be no doubt that the “I” knew during the sleep, since even a Śaṅkarite would say that during dreamless sleep the self (ātman) has the direct intuitive perception (sākṣī) of ignorance (ajñāna), and no one can have any direct intuitive perception without also being a knower. Thus, when after sleep a man says “I did not know even myself, I slept so well,” what he means is that he did not know himself w'ith all the particulars of his name, caste, parentage, etc., as he knows when he is awake. It does not mean that he had absolutely no knowledge at all. Even on liberation the entity denoted by “I” (aham-artha) remains; for it is the self that is denoted.

If there is no one to feel or to know in the state of liberation, who is it that is liberated, and who is to strive for such a liberation? To be revealed to itself is self-consciousness and implies necessarily the knower as the “I” that knows, and therefore the notion of “I” denotes the self in its own nature as that which knows and feels. But the entity denoted by the notion of “I” (aham-artha) should be distinguished from the non-spiritual category of mind or the antaḥkaraṇa, which is but a modification of prakṛti or the false feeling of conceit, which is always regarded as bad and is the cause of the implication of insult towards superior persons and this is clearly due to ignorance (avidyā).

The next point of discussion raised by Rāmānuja in this connection, to prove his point that there is no reality which can be regarded as characterless and unqualified in any absolute sense, is in the attempt that he makes to refute Śaṅkara’s contention that the scriptures give us sufficient ground for acknowledging such a reality, and their authority is to be considered as the highest and as absolutely irrefutable. Śaṅkara had urged that the testimony of the scriptures was superior to that of perception. But the scriptures are based on the assumption of plurality, without which no language is possible. These are for that reason false. For the superiority that is ascribed to the scriptures was due to their teaching of the doctrine that all plurality and difference are false, and that the reality is absolutely differenceless; but yet since the meaning and the expressions of the scriptures are themselves based on the assumption of difference, how can the teaching of the scriptures be anything but false? Again, since they are as faulty as perception on account of their assumption of plurality, why should they be regarded as having an authority superior to perception? When the scriptures are based on error, what is communicated by them must likewise be erroneous, though it may not be directly contradicted by experience. If a man who is absolutely out of touch with all men has an eye-disease which makes him see things at a great distance double, then his vision of two moons in the sky, though it may not be contradicted by his or any one else’s experience, is yet false.

So, when there is defect, the knowledge produced by it must be false, whether it is contradicted or not. Hence, avidyā being false, the Brahman communicated by it through its manifested forms, the scriptures, must also be false. And one may well argue, that, since Brahman is the object of knowledge produced by means tainted by avidyā, it is false, just as the world is false (Brahma mithyā avidyādy-utpanna-jñāna-viṣayatvāt prapañcavat). In anticipation of such objections Śaṅkara urges that even false dreams can portend real good or bad happenings, or an illusory sight of a snake may cause real death. Rāmānuja’s answer to this is that what is meant by saying that dreams are false is that there is some knowledge, corresponding to which there are no objects; so there is knowledge in illusion and real fear due to such knowledge, but the corresponding external object does not exist. So in these cases also the communication of truth, or a real thing, or a real fact, is not by falsehood, but real knowledge; for no one doubts that he had knowledge in his dream or in his illusion. So far as the fact that there was knowledge in dream is concerned, dreams are true, so that it is useless to sav that in dreams falsehood portends real fact.

Thus, from whatever point of view it may be argued, it is impossible to prove that the reality is characterless and differenceless, whether such a reality be pure being, or a unity of being, intelligence and bliss, or pure intuitional experience, and such a contention will so much cripple the strength of the scriptures that nothing can be proved on their authority and their right to supersede the authority of perception can hardly be established. But the scriptures also do not speak of any characterless and unqualified reality. For the texts referring to Brahman as pure being (Ch., vi. 2. 1), or as transcendent (Muṇḍ., 1. 1. 5), or where the Brahman is apparently identified with truth and knowledge (Tait., II. I. I), can actually be proved to refer to Brahman not as qualityless, but as possessing diverse excellent qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, all-pervasiveness, eternality and the like. The denial of qualities is but a denial of undesirable qualities (heya-guṇān pratiṣidhya). When Brahman is referred to in the scriptures as one, that only means that there is no second cause of the world to rival him; but that does not mean that His unity is so absolute that He has no qualities at all. Even where Brahman is referred to as being of the essence of knowledge, that does not mean that such an essence of knowledge is qualityless and characterless; for even the knower is of the essence of knowledge, and, being of the essence of knowledge, may as well be considered as the possessor of knowledge, just as a lamp, which is of the nature of light, may well be regarded as possessing rays of light[2].

Footnotes and references:


Śrī-bhāṣya, p. 45.


jñāna-svarūpasyaiva tasya jñānā-śrayatvaṃ maṇi-dyumaṇi-pradīpā-divad ity uktam eva.
      Śrī-bhāṣya, p. 61

The above is based on the discussions in the Śrī-bhāṣya known as mahā-pūrva-pakṣa and mahā-siddhānta.
      Śrī-bhāṣya, p. 10 et seq.

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