A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 4

Indian Pluralism

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1949 | 186,278 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of illusion and doubt: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the fourth part in the series called the “a general review of the philosophy of madhva”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

The above discussion of self-validity of knowledge naturally leads us to enquire concerning the Madhva theory of illusion and the way in which it refutes the other theories of illusion accepted by other schools of Indian Philosophy. Illusion is in Madhva’s system of Philosophy knowing of an object in a manner different from what it is (anyathā-vijñānam eva bhrāntiḥ), and the contradiction (bādha) of illusion consists in the knowing of the illusory form as false through the rise of the right knowledge (samyag-jñāna). What this means is that this illusion is a knowledge in which one entity appears as another; that which is non-existent appears as existent, and that which is existent appears as non-existent[1]. The illusions are produced by the senses affected by the defects. The defects do not only obstruct; they can also cause a wrong representation of the object, so they are not only responsible for non-observation, but also for mal-observation. Now the point arises that that alone can be an object of knowledge which can in some way affect its production; in an illusory knowledge of silver in respect of conch-shell, the silver, being non-existent, cannot have any part in producing the knowledge and therefore cannot be an object of knowledge. To this Jaya-tīrtha replies that even a nonexistent entity may be an object of knowledge; we all infer past events and refer things to persons who have long ceased to exist. In such cases the non-existent entities may be said not to have produced the knowledge, but to have determined (nirūpaka) it[2].

Such determination, it may be held, does not presuppose the immediate existence of that entity, since it may well be considered as limited to the idea, concept or knowledge produced, without having reference to the presence or existence of any corresponding objective entity. It may be objected that in the case of the visual perception of an object, it is definite that it is produced by the object through sense-contact; but in the case of illusion of silver in the conch-shell the silver is really absent, and therefore it cannot have any sense-contact, and consequently no visual perception of it is possible. The answer given to this objection is that it is the affected visual organ that, being in contact with conch-shell, causes the rise of a cognition representing it as a piece of silver which did not exist at all[3]. It ought not to be argued, says Jaya-tīrtha, that, if there can be knowledge without an object, then no knowledge can be trustworthy; for as a rule knowledge is self-valid (autsargikaṃ jñānānāṃ prāmāṇyam). The self-conscious agent (sākṣī) perceives and certifies to itself the validity of the mental states without the mediation of any other process or agent. This direct certitude or “belief as true,” realized by ourselves in our capacities as conscious perceivers in every case where the knowledge produced is not affected or influenced by defects which cause mal-observation and non-observation, is what is understood as the self-validity of knowledge[4]. In the case of an illusory perception (e.g., of a piece of conch-shell as silver) there is an appearance of one thing as another, and that this is so is directly perceived or felt (anubhava); had it not been that a piece of conch-shell was perceived as silver, why should a man who sought silver stoop to pick up the conch-shell? The illusory perception of silver does not differ in appearance from a case of a real perception of silver.

Jaya-tīrtha, in arguing against the Mīmāṃsā view of illusion of conch-shell-silver as consisting of the memory of silver and the perception of conch-shell and the inability to distinguish between them, says that the appearance of silver in such cases has none of the characteristics of memory, and the activity generated by this false belief cannot be explained merely by the supposition of a non-distinction of difference between a memory-image and a visual percept. A mere negation involving the non-distinction of two entities cannot lead anyone to any definite choice. Moreover, if one is conscious of the memory-image as what it is and of the percept as what it is, then how is it that their difference is not realized?

Against the explanation of illusion by the Śaṅkara school Jaya-tīrtha urges that the view that conch-shell-silver is indescribable or indefinite (anirvācya) is also not correct, for such an indescribable character would mean that it is neither existent, nor non-existent, nor neither existent-nor-existent. Of these the first and the last alternatives are accepted on the Madhva view also. The second view cannot be correct; for it cannot be denied that even the non-existent silver did appear to us as being before us. It can be replied that such an appearance was due to the presence of the defect; for that which was non-existent could not be the object of knowledge, and, as the followers of Śaṅkara think that the knowledge of the locus (adhiṣṭhāna), the “this,” is a true mental state, how can any defect interfere?[5] If it is indescribable, why should conch-shell-silver appear as existent at the time of perception and non-existent later on, and why should it not appear as indescribable at any time? Moreover, the Śaṅkarite will find it immensely difficult to explain what non-existence is.

Vādirāja points out in his Yukti-mallikā that in ordinary perception the eye comes into contact with an entity, the “this” before it, which may be regarded as the substantive (viśeṣya), and by grasping the substantive, the entity, its character as “jug” is also grasped, because the one is associated in a relation of identity with the other. But in illusory perception the character “silver” is not associated with the substantive “this,” and hence through sense-contact with the “this,” the conch-shell, the silver cannot be known; and hence such illusory knowledge can only be explained by supposing it to be due to the presence of defects. So the data of knowledge (jñāna-sāmagrī) in the case of right knowledge and illusory knowledge are different; in the case of the former we have the ordinary datum of knowledge, whereas in the case of the latter we have an extraneous influence, namely that of doṣa. And absence of doṣa, being but the natural characteristic of any datum of knowledge, cannot be regarded as an extraneous cause of right knowledge[6].

Right knowledge, it should be observed, is distinguished from two other kinds of knowledge, namely illusory knowledge (viparyaya) and doubt (saṃśaya), by virtue of the fact that it alone can lead to a definite and settled action[7]. Some say that doubt may be considered to be of five kinds[8]. The first is due to the observation of common characteristics of two objects; thus, finding an object at some distance to be as high as a man, one might be led to remember both the stump of a tree and a man, and, not being able to distinguish the' special features of each, viz., the holes, the rough and hard surface, etc. (in the case of the tree) and the movement of the head, hands and feet (in the case of a man), one would naturally doubt “is it the stump of a tree, or a man?” Again, seeing that the special characteristic (asādhāraṇo dharma) of ākāśa is sound, one might doubt if sound (śabda) is eternal as sound. Again, seeing that followers of Sāṃkhya and Vaiśeṣika quarrel (vipratipatti) regarding the physical nature (bhautikatva) of the senses, there may be doubt whether the senses are physical or not. Again, when after digging a well we find (upalabdhi) water, there may be a doubt whether the water was already there and only manifested by the digging operation, or whether it was non-existent but produced by the digging operation. Again there maybe a rumour that a ghost resides in a certain tree, but, when we go to it and do not see (anupalabdhi) it, there may be a doubt whether the ghost really was there and was not seen by reason of its power of rendering itself invisible, or whether it did not exist at all in the tree. Others, however, include the fourth and the fifth views, those of finding and not finding (upalabdhi and anupalabdhi), within the first type, viz., that of the perception of common characteristics (sādhāraṇa dharma), and thus hold that there are only three kinds of doubt[9].

Jaya-tīrtha, however, thinks that the other two varieties, that of the special characteristics (asadhāraṇa dharma) and that of conflicting views (vipratipatti) may also be included in the first type; for a special characteristic cannot by itself lead to the remembering of two objects leading to doubt. To know that sound is the special characteristic of ākāśa is not to remember any two objects between which there may be doubt, and doubt must be preceded by the remembering of two objects. Common characteristics may either be positive or negative. Thus space (ākāśa) has a set of characteristics which are not to be found in eternal things and a set of characteristics which are not to be found in non-eternal things (nitya-vyāvṛttatva-viśiṣṭam ākāśa-guṇatvam and anitya-vyāvṛttatva-viśiṣṭam ākāśa-guṇatvam). There may be doubt whether sound, which is a special characteristic of ākāśa, is one of those qualities which the ākāśa has in common with eternal things or with non-eternal things. Thus, this doubt also is to be classed with doubts of the first type, viz., that of the perception of common features. The followers of Madhva, by virtue of their theory of specific particulars (viśeṣa), can agree to the existence of two opposite sets of qualities in a thing. So, in the case of conflicting views (vipratipatti) also, the doubt may be said to rise through perception of the common qualities in physical and non-physical objects, so that one might very well doubt whether the senses, on account of certain qualities which they have in common with physical objects, are physical or whether, on account of the other qualities which they have in common with non-physical objects, are non-physical.

So on Madhva’s system doubt is of one kind only. Jaya-tīrtha says that the followers of the Vaiśeṣika think that apart from doubt and illusion (viparyaya) there are two kinds of false knowledge, viz., uncertainty (anadhya-vasāya) and dreams. Uncertainty is different from doubt; for it is not an oscillation between two entities, but between an infinite number of possibilities, e.g., what is this tree called? Jaya-tīrtha says that uncertainty in such cases cannot be called knowledge at all; it is a mere enquiry (saṃjñā-viṣayaṃ jijñāsā-mātraṃ) : thus, though I know that this tree is different from many other trees which I know, I still do not know its name and enquire about it. Most dreams are due to sub-conscious memory impressions and so far as these are there they are not false; the error consists in our conceiving these, which are mere memory images, as actually existing objectively at the time; and this part is therefore to be considered as illusion (viparyaya). Probability (saṃbhāvanā, also called ūha) is also to be considered as a kind of doubt, in which the chance of one of the entities is greater than that of the other (e.g., “it is very probable that that is the man who was standing outside the house”)[10].

It is evident from the above that doubt is here considered only as a mental state of oscillation; its importance in stimulating philosophical enquiry and investigation, its relations to scepticism and criticism are wholly missed. The classifications of Vātsyāyana, Uddyotakara and Kaṇāda are of hardly any philosophical importance. This being so, it is much better to take doubt in the way in which Jaya-tīrtha has done.

Footnotes and references:


Nyāya-sudhā, p. 46.


Ibid. p. 48.


śuktikā-sannikṛṣṭaṃ duṣṭam indriyaṃ tam eva atyantāsadrajatātmena avagrāhamānam jñānaṃ janayati.
p. 48.


Ibid. p. 48.


māyā-vādi-mate adhiṣṭḥāna-jñānasya antaḥkaraṇa-vṛttitvena satyatvān na doṣa-janyatvam.
p. 55.


Yukti-mallikā, Guṇa-saurabha, ślokas 460-500.


avadhāraṇatvaṃ ca niṣkampa-pravṛtti-janana-yogyatvam.
      Janārdana’s Jaya-tīrtha-vijaya (a commentary on the Pramāṇa-paddhati), p. 10.


Vātsyāyana, in interpreting Nyāya-sūtra, I. 1. 23, thinks that doubt is of five kinds, viz., through

  1. samāna-dharma,
  2. aneka-dharma,
  3. vipratipatti,
  4. upalabdhi
  5. and anupalabdhi,

the first two being objective occurrences of common and uncommon features, and the last two subjective conditions of presence and absence of knowledge. The examples as given by him are the same as have been given below.

Uddyotakara, however, interprets the above rule to refer only to the first three types of doubt, viz.,

  1. samāna-dharmopapatti,
  2. aneka-dharmopapatti and
  3. vipratipatti (Nyāya-vārttika, pp. 87, 96-9).

Kaṇāda, in his Vaiśeṣika-sūtras, (II. 11. 17, 18, 19, 20) speaks of doubt as being of two kinds, internal (e.g., when anyone doubts whether the predictions of the astrologer, which were found true in some cases and false in others, are likely to be correct in any particular case) and external (e.g., when one doubts whether a stump before him is a tree or a man). External doubt is again of two kinds,

  1. when the object is seen in totality, and
  2. when a part of it only is seen.

Nyāya-kandalī, pp. 175-6.


Pramāṇa-paddhati, pp. 10-13; also Jaya-tīrtha-vijaya thereon.


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