A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 3

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

This page describes the philosophy of ramanuja’s theory of illusion—all knowledge is real: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the third part in the series called the “philosophy of the ramanuja school of thought”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 3 - Rāmānuja’s theory of Illusion—All knowledge is Real

Rāmānuja says that all illusion may briefly be described as perception in which a thing appears to be different from what it is (anyasya anyathāvabhāsaḥ). It is unreasonable to imagine that the illusory content of perception must be due to no cause, or is something wholly unperceived or wholly unknown (atyantā-paridṛṣṭā-kāraṇaka-vastu-kalpanā-yogāt). If such a wholly chimerical thing is imagined to be the content of illusory perception, then it must be inexpressible or indescribable (anirvacanīya); but no illusory object appears as indescribable; it appears as real. If it appeared as an inexpressible entity, there would be neither illusion nor its correction. So it has to be admitted that in all illusions (e.g. in conch-shell-silver illusion) one thing (e.g. the conch-shell) appears in another form (e.g. silver). In all theories of illusion, whatever may be the extent of their error, they have ultimately to admit that in all illusions one thing appears in the form of another.

Speaking against the Śaṅkarites, it may be asked, he urges, how is their inexpressible (1 anirvacanīya) silver produced ? The illusory perception cannot be the cause; for the perception follows only the production of the indescribable silver and cannot precede it to be its cause. It cannot be due to the defects in our sense-organs; for such defects are subjective and therefore cannot affect the nature of objective reality or object. Moreover, if it is inexpressible and indescribable, why should it appear under certain circumstances in the specific form of a particular kind of appearance, silver ? If it is urged that this is due to the fact of there being a similarity between silver and conch-shell, it may again be asked whether this similarity is real or unreal. It cannot be real, since the content is illusory; it cannot be unreal since it has reference to real objects (e.g. the real silver in a shop). So such a theory of illusion is open to many criticisms.

Rāmānuja seems to have himself favoured the anyathā-khyāti theory of illusion, and says that there will be no explanations of contradiction of knowledge involved in illusory knowledge, or of consequent failure of behaviour as suggested by such knowledge, unless error is ultimately explained as the wrongful appearance of one thing as another. He also says that all the other theories of illusion (except possibly the yathārtha-khyāti view, as suggested in the Śruta-prakāśikā commentary— yathārtha-khyāti-vyatirikta-pakṣeṣu anyathā-khyāti-pakṣaḥ prabalaḥ) would ultimately have to accept the analysis of error as the wrongful appearance of one thing as another (khyāty-antarāṇāṃ tu sudūram api gatvā anyathāva-bhāsaḥ āśrayaṇīyaḥRāmānujabhāṣya). Rāmānuja further points out that even the ākhyāti theory of illusion (i.e. illusion considered as being due to the non-apprehension of the difference between the presentation of the “this” of the conch-shell and the memory of silver) is a form of anyathā-khyāti; for ultimately here also one has to accept the false identification of two characters or two ideas.

Veṅkaṭanātha, commenting on this point in his Nyāya-pariśuddhi, says that the appearance of one thing as another is the indispensable condition of all errors, but the non-apprehension of difference must always be granted as an indispensable condition which must exist in all cases of false identification and has therefore the advantage of a superior simplicity (lāghava); yet the anyathā-khyāti theory gives the proper and true representation of the nature of illusion, and no theory of illusion can do away with the need of admitting it as a correct representation of the phenomenon of illusion. So Veṅkaṭanātha says that Rāmānuja, while he agrees with the anyathā-khyāti view as a theory of illusion, yet appreciates the superior simplicity of the ākhyāti view as giving us the indispensable condition of all forms of illusion.

But, though Rāmānuja himself prefers the anyathā-khyāti view of illusion, he could not very well pass over the yathārtha-khyāti view, as advocated by the senior adherents and founders of the school of thought which he interpreted, viz. Bodhāyana, Nāthamuni and Varada Viṣṇu Miśra. Rāmānuja is thus faced with two different theories, one that he himself advocated and the other that was advocated by his seniors. Fortunately for him, while his own theory of anyathā-khyāti was psychological in character, the other theory of yathārtha-khyāti was of an ontological character, so that it was possible for one to hold the one view psychologically and the other view ontologically. Rāmānuja, therefore, offers the yathārtha-khyāti view as an alternative. Veṅkaṭanātha says that this yathārtha-khyāti view can only be put forward as a theory based on scriptural evidence, but cannot be supported as a philosophical theory which can be experienced and therefore as a scientific theory of illusion. We have to make up our minds between the two plausible alternative theories of anyathā-khyāti and akhyāti.

Rāmānuja, to distinguish the yāthārtha-khyāti theory of his seniors, whom he refers to by the term “Vedic school” (veda-vidāṃ matam), develops this view in a number of verses and says that he understands on the strength of the scriptural texts that the material world was created by the intermingling of the three elements, fire, water and earth, so that in each object there are all the three elements. When a particular element predominates in any material object, it is found tc possess more qualities of that element and is designated by its character, though it still holds the qualities of other elements in it. Thus it may in some sense be said that all things are in all things. A conch-shell possesses also the qualities of tejas, or silver, and it is on that account that it may be said to resemble silver in some sense. What happens in the case of illusion is that through defects of organs, etc., the qualities or characters in a conch-shell representing other elements are not noticed and hence the perception can only grasp the qualities or characters of silver existing in the conch-shell, and the conch-shell is perceived as silver. So the knowledge of silver in a conch-shell is neither false, nor unreal, but is real, and refers to a real object, the silver element existing in the conch-shell[1].

In this view of illusion all knowledge is regarded as referring to a real object (yathārtha-khyāti)[2]. The difference between this view and that of Prabhākara is this, that, while Prabhākara was content with the negative condition of nonapprehension of the difference between the present perception of a glittering conch-shell and the memory of silver in the shop as the cause of the illusion, and urges that knowledge is real either as perception or as the memory, and that illusion has been the result of non-apprehension of the distinction of the two, Rāmānuja is more radical, since he points out that the perception of silver in a conch-shell is due to the real perception of the element of silver in a conch-shell and the non-apprehension owing to defects (doṣa) of the other elements present in it which would have shown its difference from silver. So what is called the illusory perception of silver in the conch-shell has a real objective basis to which it refers.

Dreams are explained by Rāmānuja as being creations of God, intended to produce corresponding perceptions in the minds of the dreamers. The case of the appearance of a conch-shell as yellow to a person with jaundiced eyes is explained by him as due to the fact that yellow colour emanates from the bile of his eyes, and is carried to the conch-shell through the rays of the eyes which turn the white shell yellow. The appearance of the conch-shell as yellow is therefore a real transformation of the conch-shell, noticed by the eye of a jaundiced person, though this transformation can be noticed only by him and not by other persons, the yellow being very near his eyes[3].

The ākhyāti and the yathārtha-khyāti views agree in holding that the imposed idea has a real basis as its object. But, while the former holds that this real basis is a past presentation, the latter holds that it is given as a presentation along with the object, i.e. the silver element, being mixed up with the conch-shell element, is also presented to the senses, but owing to some defects of circumstances, organs of sight, etc., the conch-shell, which ought to be the main part, is not perceived. Thus, it is only the silver part that forms the presentation, and hence the error. So non-perception of the conch-shell part is common to both the views; but, while the ākhyāti view holds that the silver part is only a reproduced image of past experience, the yathārtha-khyāti view grounds itself on the trivṛt-karaṇa texts of the Upaniṣads and holds that the silver part is perceived at the time.

But Sudarśana Sūri refers to the views of other teachers (kecid ācāryāḥ) and says that the trivṛt-karaṇa view may well explain the misapprehension of one element (bhūta) for another; but in the cases of misapprehension due to similarity trivṛt-karaṇa is not of much use, for trivṛt-karaṇa and pañcī-karaṇa can explain the intermixture of bhūtas, but not of the bhautikas, or the later modifications of the five elements into the varied substances such as conch-shell and silver, which are mutually misapprehended for each other on account of their similarity. It has, therefore, to be maintained that in these Mwta-modifications also the trivṛt-karaṇa principle applies to a certain extent; for here also the molecules or atoms of things or substances are made up of large parts of some Mwta-rnodification and smaller parts of one or more of other Mwta-modifications. The conch-shell molecules are thus made up of large parts of conch-shell material and smaller parts of the silver material, and this explains the similarity of the one element to the other. The similarity is due to the real presence of one element in the other, and is called the pratinidhi-nyāya, or the maxim of determining similarity by real representation.

So in all cases of misapprehension of one thing as another through similarity there is no misapprehension in the strict sense, but a right apprehension of a counterpart in the other object constituting the basis of the similarity, and the non-apprehension of the bigger and the larger part which held the counterpart coeval with it. It is because the conch-shell contains a major part of conch-shell element (śukty-arrtśd) and only a minor part of silver that it passes as conch-shell and not as silver. Conch-shell cannot serve the purpose of silver, despite the silver element in it, on account of the obstruction of the major part of the conch-shell element; and it is also on account of this that under normal circumstances the silver element in it is hidden by the conch-shell element, and we say that we perceive conch-shell and not silver. When it is said that this is conch-shell and not silver (nedaṃ rajataṃ), the “not silver” has no other meaning than that of the conch-shell, the apprehension of which dispelled the idea of silver. It is the conch-shell that is designated in its negative aspect as “not silver” and in its positive aspect as conch-shell.    .

Rāmānujācārya, alias Vādihamsāmbuvāhācārya, the maternal uncle of Veṅkaṭanātha, seems to support the Rāmānuja method of sat-khyāti by showing that all the other three rival theories of illusion, such as that of anyathā-khyāti, akhyāti, and the anirva-camya-khyāti, cross each other and are therefore incompatible. But he takes great pains to show that the sat-khyāti theory may be supported on the basis of the logical implications involved in both the anyathā-khyāti and the ākhyāti types of realism. He starts the discussion by taking for granted the ākhyāti type of realism and its logical implications. He holds that it also would ultimately lead to anyathā-khyāti, and that therefore (excepting the sat-khyāti), of all the khyātis, anyathā-khyāti is perhaps the best. He says in his Nyāya-kuliśa that, since the way of knowledge requires that the sense-organs should reach their objects, even in illusory perception there must be some objects which they reach; for they could not convey any knowledge about an object with which they were not in contact[4]. The defect (doṣa) cannot account for the production of new knowledge, for it only serves to obstruct anything from being perceived or known.

Defects only obstruct the course of the natural sequence of cause and effect[5], just as fire would destroy the natural shooting powers of seeds[4]. Moreover, taking the old example of the conch-shell-silver, it may be asked how, if there was no silver at all objectively present, there could be any knowledge of such an absolutely non-existing thing? Since our awareness cannot refer to non-existing entities, all forms of awareness must guarantee the existence of corresponding objects. What happens in the case of the illusion of conch-shell-silver is that there is memory of silver previously experienced and the “this,” which is experienced at the time of the illusion; and it is on account of the defects (doṣa) that it is not grasped that the silver is only a memory of past experience, while it is only the “this” in front of us that is experienced at the time (doṣāt pramuṣita-tadavamarśaḥ)[6].

Vādihamsāmbuvāha, weighing the various arguments of the rival theories of anyathā-khyāti and ākhyāti, deals w ith the arguments of the anyathā-khyāti view which holds that it is the conch-shell that appears as silver. As against the objections raised by such a view in opposition to the ākhyāti view', viz., if each thing is different from every other thing, how can an illusion be explained as being due to the non-apprehension of the difference between the silver remembered and the “this” perceived directly in experience? Arguing in its favour, he says that the difference which is not apprehended here consists of that characteristic which exists in things by virtue of which one thing is not confused with or misapprehended as another thing, and it is the non-apprehension of this differentiating characteristic that causes the misapprehension of the conch-shell as silver (saṃsarga-virodhi-vaidharmya-viśeṣa-rūpa-bhedā-grahaīi pravṛtti-hetuh)[7]. But the real objections to holding this akhyāti view of illusion to be ultimately sufficient consists in the fact that it cannot do away with the necessity of the synthetic operation (saṃsarga-vyāpāra) consisting of a thing being regarded as such-and-such, as found in all discussions of disputants, in all our behaviours and concepts of error and illusion. This forces us to accept the anyathā-khyāti view as an unavoidable and ultimate explanation[8].

Vādihamsāmbuvāha urges that, since the silver is felt to be in that which is only a piece of conch-shell, this must imply the imposition of the one on the other (which is the essential part of anyathā-khyāti). Just as in the real perception of a piece of silver the object before us is experienced as silver, so in the conch-shell-silver illusion, the object before us is experienced as silver, and here also it is the conch-shell that appears as silver. When the illusion is dispelled, we say that “this is not silver”; this cannot mean the mere presence of the conch-shell, but it must mean the denial of the imposition that was made previously. For, if negations could be treated as positive entities, then there would be no difference between positives and negatives (bādhyasya vidhi-rūpatve vidhi-niṣedha-vyatyāsaṃ ca niṣedhe bādha iti tulyārthatvāt)[9]. The akhyāti view speaks of non-apprehension of absence of association (e.g. of conch-shell-silver, asaṃsargāgraha) to be the cause of illusion. It may well be asked, What is this absence of association? It cannot be the mere thing itself; for, had it been so, we should expect that the thing itself (say the conch-shell) is not perceived and this alone constitutes error, w'hich is impossible.

Moreover, the silver is felt to be in front of us as the object we perceive and not as something which we remember. We know that, when we perceive illusorily that “this is silver,” there is the perception of a false association (bādhaka-saṃsarga-grahaṇam); but the concept of non-apprehension of difference (bhedāgraha) never seems to be practically realized in experience. If we inquire into the nature of w hat constitutes falsity or contradiction (e.g. in conch-shell-silver), we find that it is not the fact that a conch-shell when burnt becomes ash while silver, when burnt, may be made into a finger-ring that constitutes error, but the fact that what was believed to be capable of being rendered into a finger-ring by being put into fire cannot be so done (yadi tv-aṅgulīyakādi-hetutayābhimatasya vyavahārasya bhasma-hetutvako hy atra viśeṣaḥ). If this is what is really meant by falsehood, it is nothing but the apprehension of the cause of one kind of action as being another cause (anya-hetu-vyavahāro ’nya-hetutayāvagataḥ). This will be anyathā-khyāti; for, if even here it is urged to be non-apprehension of difference, then the experience in such cases of the belief of one thing as another is not explained[10]. In all such cases the final appeal must be made to experience, which attests all cases of illusion as being the appearance of one thing as another[11].

But though Vādihamsāmbuvāhācārya thus tries to support the anyathā-khyāti view of illusion, yet he does not dismiss the ākhyāti view of error curtly, but admits that it may also properly explain facts of illusion, when looked at from another point of view. For, if there was not the non-apprehension of difference between silver and conch-shell, the conch-shell could not be mistaken as silver. So, even in anyathā-khyāti, there is one element of ākhyāti involved ; for in order that one may behave towards a piece of conch-shell in the same way as one would do to a piece of silver, it is necessary that one should not be able to distinguish between what one sees before one and what one remembers. But, though the negative fact of ākhyāti, i.e., non-apprehension of difference, may be regarded in many cases as a necessary stage, yet the positive fact of association (saṃsarga) or synthesis has to be admitted as an indispensable process, connecting the different elements constituting a concrete perception.

The root-cause of all our behaviour and action, being of the nature of synthetic association, it would be wrong to suppose that non-apprehension of difference could by itself be made a real cause of our actions

(na ca mūla-bhūte saṃsarga-jñāne pravṛtti-kāraṇe siddhe tad-upajīvino nirantara-jñānasya pravṛttihetutvam iti yuktaṃ vaktuṃ)[12].

Although Vādihamsāmbuvāha spends all his discussions on the relative strength of ākhyāti and anyathā-khyāti as probable theories of illusion, yet he refers to the view of illusion mentioned by Rāmānuja that all things are present in all things and that therefore no knowledge is illusory. He considers this view as the real and ultimately correct view. But, if this were so, all his discussions on the ākhyāti and anyathākhyāti theories of illusion would be futile. Vādihamsāmbuvāha does not, however, attempt to show how, if this theory be admitted, the other theories of ākhyāti or anyathā-khyāti could be supported[13]. He further criticizes the anirvacanīya-khyāti (illusion as the indescribable creation of, say, the appearance of silver in the conch-shell-silver illusion), a view of illusion as held by the Śaṅkarites, in the stereotyped form with which we are already familiar.

Anantācārya, a writer of the nineteenth century, laid stress on the view of illusion which held that all things were contained in all things, and hence the perception of conch-shell as silver was neither false knowledge nor non-apprehension of the difference between what is perceived and what is remembered; for the perception “this is silver” is a complex of two perceptions, “this”and “silver.” Had not this been a case of actual perception, we should not have felt as if we perceived the “this” before us as “silver.” The function of doṣa (defect) was only to hide the conch-shell part (mixed up with the silver part) from perception. To say that all perceptions have objective entities corresponding to them (yath-ārtha) does not mean that things are as they are perceived, but it means that it is not true that what is perceived has not an objective basis corresponding to it[14].

That sort of tejas-substance which forms the material cause of silver certainly exists in the elemental tejas, and, the earth-particles forming the material cause of conch-shells being present in the elemental earth-substances, these substances get mixed in the primitive stage of compounding by trivṛt-karaṇa, and this explains the presence of the objective substratum of silver in the illusory perception of silver[15]. It is evident, argues Anantācārya, that conch-shell cannot appear as silver; for, since conch-shell is not silver, how can it appear as silver? In order properly to accTount for the perceptual experience “this is silver,” it is necessary to assume that the two constituents, “this” and “silver,” of the complex “this is silver” are both perceptually determined; for it is only in this way that one can justify the perception “I perceive this silver.”

Footnotes and references:


See Śruta-prakāśikā, pp. 183-6.


According to Sudarśana Sūri this view is the traditional view (sāmpra dāyika) accepted by Bodhāyana, Nāthamuni, Rāma Miśra and others, which Rāmānuja, as a faithful follower of that school, had himself followed.

Thus, Rāmānuja says:

yathā-rthoṃ sarva-vijñānam iti veda-vidāṃ matam
śruti-smṛtibhyaḥ sarvasya sarvā-tmatva-pratītitaḥ.
and Śruta-prakāśikā, p. 183.


Other types of errors or illusions are similarly explained by Rāmānuja as having a real objective existence, the error being due to the non-apprehension of other elements which are objectively existent and associated with the entity which is the object of illusory perception, but which owing to defects are not perceived. See ibid. pp. 187, 188.


indriyāṇāṃ prāpya-kāritvcnn apraptā-rtha-prukāśana mipapatteḥ.
Madras Ciovt. Oriental MS. No. 4910.


doṣāṇāṃ kārya-vighāta-mātra-hetutvena kāryā-ntaro-pajanakatvā-yogat, na hy agni-saṃspṛṣṭasya kalama-vījasya aṅkuro-tpādane sāmarthyam asti.


idam iti purn-vastuni anubhavaḥ rajatam iti ca piirvā-nubhuta-rajata-viṣayā smṛtiḥ.


Madras Govt. MS. No. 4910.


Like the seniors referred to by Rāmānuja, Prabhākara also considers all knowledge to be valid (yathārtḥaṃ sarvam eve’ha vijñānam iti, Prakaraṇa-pañcikā, p. 32), though the former does so on ontological grounds and the latter on psychological and experiential grounds. Śālikanātha, representing Prabhākara’s view, says that, whatever is the content of awareness, that alone is known, and at the time of the conch-shell-silver illusion, what is known is “this is silver,” but there is no knowledge of conch-shell, since it is not the content of awareness at the time. Thus it cannot be said that the illusory knowledge consists of knowing the conch-shell as silver, but of the “this” as silver; for, when there is the knowledge of illusory silver, there is no knowledge of conch-shell. What happens in illusory perception is that through defects the differentiating characteristics of the conch-shell are not apprehended and the conch-shell is perceived only in its general character as an object.

Then there is memory of silver, and through a defect in the mental process (mano-doṣāt) the silver is not remembered with its original association of time and place as that silver which was perceived there, but is simply remembered as an image of silver (tad-ity-aṃśa-parāmarśa-vivarjitam). Though there is no such definite experience that I remember silver, yet the idea of silver has to be admitted to be due to memory; for it cannot be due either to perception or to inference or to any other source of knowledge. Thus, through the elimination of all other sources of knowledge, silver has to be admitted to be due to memory (ananya-gatitaḥ smṛtir atrā'vagamyate).

On account of the absence of a feeling that I remember a past experience, the memory of silver cannot be distinguished from a percept; for it is only these facts that distinguish a present percept from a reproduced image; and so we fail to differentiate between this memory and the actual perception of some object before us (the differentiating characteristics of which are entirely lost to us through defects of sense-organs or the like). On account of the non-apprehension of the distinction, these two different kinds of awareness themselves produce the illusion of a direct and immediate perception of silver w hich is not there at the time, and even tempt us to stretch our hands to pick it up, as if there were a real piece of silver before us. (See Prakaraṇa-pañcikā, Ch. iv, Naya-vīthi.)

Sudarśana Sūri, commenting on the akhyāti view in his Śruta-prakāśikā in connection with his commentary on the yathōrtha-khyāti view of Rāmānuja’s seniors, says that the akhyāti view has the advantage of superior simplicity or the minimum assumption, viz. that in illusion only an indefinite object is seen, and the distinction between this and the image roused in memory by it is not apprehended. This has to be admitted in all theories of illusion, and in addition other assumptions have to be made.


Nyāya-kuliśa of Vādiharnsāmbuvāha Rāmānujācārya, Govt. Oriental MS. No. 4910.


yadi cā’tra’pi bḥedā-graḥaḥ śaraṇaṃ syāt tato’bhimāna-viśeṣa-kṛta-bādha-vyavastḥā na sidḥyet.
     Govt. Oriental MS. No. 4910.


katham ayaṃ loka-vyavaḥāro vṛtta iti, na hi kañcid upādhim anālambya loke śabda-prayogo’vakalpyate, tasmādbādhya-bādhaka-bhāvā-nyathā-nupapattyā any-athā-kḥyāti-siddhiḥ.




yady api bhūtānāṃ pañcīkaraṇa-labdha-paraspara-vyāptyā śuktikāyām api sādṛśyāt rajatai-kadeśo vidyata eva iti siddhāntaḥ tathāpi na vidyata iti kṛtvā cintya te vādy-udāharaṇa-prasiddhy-anurodhāya.
     Govt. Oriental A 1 SS. No. 4910.


tad-viṣayaka-jñāna-sāmānyaṃ viśeṣyāvṛtti-dharma-prakārakatvā-bhāvavad iti yathñrthaṃ san a-vijñānatn.
MSS. No. 4884.


yādṛśa-dharmā-vacchitmāt tejo’ṃśād rajatā-rambhuḥ tādṛśa-dharmā-vacchinnānām apy aṃśānātti mahā-bhūtātmake tejasi sattvena śukty-ārambhakatā-vacchedaka-dharmā-vacchinnānāṃ pārthiva-bhāgānām api mahā-pṛthivyāṃ sattvena tayoḥ mahā-bhūta-trivṛt-karaṇa-daśāyām eva melanā-sambhavācchukty-ādau rajatā-sad-bhāvo-papatteḥ.

This is an answer to the already noted objection raised by the Śruta-prakāśikā.

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