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 indefinability of world-appearance: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the ninth part in the series called the “controversy between the dualists and the monists”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 9 - Indefinability of World-appearance

It is urged by Vyāsa-tīrtha that it is difficult for the Śaṅkarites to prove that the world-appearance is indefinable (anirvācya), whatever may be the meaning of such a term. Thus, since it is called indefinable, that is in itself a sufficient description of its nature; nor can it be said that there is an absence of the knowledge or the object which might have led to a definition or description; for in their absence no reference to description would be at all possible. Nor can it be said that indefinability means that it is different from both being and non-being; for, being different from them, it could be the combination of them. To this Madhusūdana’s reply is that the indefinability consists in the fact that the world-appearance is neither being nor non-being nor being-and-non-being. Indefinability may also be said to consist in the fact that the world-appearance is liable to contradiction in the context wherein it appears. It cannot be said that the above position does not carry us to a new point, since one existent entity may be known to be different from any other existent entity; for the negation here is not of any particular existence, but of existence as such. If it is possible to assert that there may be an entity which is neither existence nor non-existence, then that certainly would be a new proposition. Madhusūdana further points out that “existence” and “nonexistence” are used in their accepted senses and, both of them being unreal, the negation of either of them does not involve the affirmation of the other, and therefore the law of excluded middle is not applicable. When it is said that the indefinability consists in the fact that a thing is neither being nor non-being, that means simply that, all that can be affirmed or denied being unreal, neither of them can be affirmed; for what is in itself indescribable cannot be affirmed in any concrete or particularized form[1].

Vyāsa-tīrtha contends that the inscrutable nature of existence and non-existence should not be a ground for calling them indefinable; for, if that were so, then even the cessation of avidyā, which is regarded as being neither existent nor non-existent nor existent-nonexistent nor indefinable, should also have been called indefinable. The reply of Madhusūdana to this is that the cessation of avidyā is called unique, because it does not exist during emancipation; he further urges that there is no incongruity in supposing that an entity as well as its negation (provided they are both unreal) may be absent in any other entity—this is impossible only when the positive and the negative are both real. Madhusūdana further says that being and non-being are not mutual negations, but exist in mutually negated areas. Being in this sense may be defined as the character of non-being contradicted, and non-being as incapability of appearing as being. It may be argued that in this sense the world-appearance cannot be regarded as different from both being and non-being. To this the reply is that by holding the view that being and non-being are not in their nature exclusive, in such a way that absence of being is called non-being and vice versa, but that the absence of one is marked by the presence of another, a possibility is kept open whereby both may be absent at one and the same time. Thus, if eternity and non-eternity be defined as being-associated-with-destruction and being-unassociated-with-destruction, then they may be both absent in generality, which has no being; and, again, if eternity be defined as absence of a limit in the future, and non-eternity be defined as liability to cessation on the part of entities other than being, then negation-precedent-to-production (prāg-abhāva) may be defined as an entity in which there is neither entity nor non-entity; for a negation-precedent-to-destruction has a future and at the same time cannot be made to cease by any other thing than a positive entity, and so it has neither eternity nor noneternity in the above senses. So the false silver, being unreal, cannot be liable to contradiction or be regarded as uncontradicted.

The opponent, however, contends that the illustration is quite out of place, since generality (sāmānya) has no destruction and is, therefore, non-eternal, and negation-precedent-to-production is non-eternal, because it is destroyed. To this Madhusūdana’s reply is that the Śaṅkarites do not attempt to prove their case simply by this illustration, but adduce the illustration simply as a supplement to other proofs in support of their thesis. The reason why the qualities of being and non-being may be found in the world-appearance without contradiction is that, being qualities of imaginary entities (being and non-being), they do not contradict each other[2]. If an entity is not regarded as non-eternal in a real sense, there is no contradiction in supposing it to be non-eternal only so long as that entity persists. Madhusūdana puts forward the above arguments to the effect that there is no contradiction in affirming the negation of any real qualities on the ground that those qualities are imaginary[3], against the criticism of Vyāsa-tīrtha that, if the world-appearance is pronounced by any person for whatever reasons to be indefinable, then that itself is an affirmation, and hence there is a contradiction. To be indefinable both as being and as non-being means that both these are found to be contradicted in the entity under consideration. When it is said that the imaginary world-appearance ought not to be liable to being visible, invisible, contradicted or uncontradicted, there is a misunderstanding; for it is certainly outside such affirmations in any real sense, but there is no incongruity in the affirmation of these qualities as imaginary appearances, since they are presented in those forms to all experience. The whole point is that, when qualities that are contradictory are in themselves imaginary, there is no incongruity in their mutual negation with reference to a particular entity; if the mutual negation is unreal, their mutual affirmation is equally unreal. Vyāsa-tīrtha argues that indefinability of the world-appearance (anirvācytva) cannot mean that it is not the locus of either being or non-being; for both non-being and Brahman, being qualityless, would satisfy the same conditions, and be entitled to be called indefinable. It cannot be said that Brahman may be regarded as the locus of imaginary being, for the reply is that the same may be the case with world-appearance.

Again, since Brahman is qualityless, if being is denied of it, absence of being also cannot be denied; so, if both being and absence of being be denied of Brahman, Brahman itself becomes indefinable. The reply of Madhusūdana is that the denial of both being and non-being in the world-appearance is indefinable or unspeakable only in the sense that such a denial applies to the world appearance only so long as it is there, whereas in the Brahman it is absolute. Whereas the main emphasis of the argument of Vyāsa-tīrtha is on the fact that both being and nonbeing cannot be denied at the same time, Madhusūdana contends that, since the denial of being and the affirmation of it are not of the same order (the latter being of the Vyāvahārika type), there is no contradiction in their being affirmed at the same time. In the same way Madhusūdana contends that the denial of quality in Brahman (nirviśeṣatva) should not be regarded as a quality in itself; for the quality that is denied is of imaginary type and hence its denial does not itself constitute a quality. Vyāsa-tīrtha further urges that, following the trend of the argument of the Śaṅkarites, one might as well say that there cannot be any contradiction of the illusory conch-shell-silver by the experiential conch-shell, the two being of two different orders of existence: to this Madhusūdana’s reply is that both the illusory and the experiential entities are grasped by the sākṣi- consciousness, and this constitutes their sameness and the contradiction of one by the other; there is no direct contradiction of the illusory by the experiential, and therefore the criticism of Vyāsa-tīrtha fails.

Footnotes and references:


na ca tarhi sad-ādi-vailakṣaṇyoktiḥ kathaṃ tat-tat-pratiyogi-durnirūpatā-mātre prakaṭanāya, na hi svarūpato durnirūpasya kiṃcid api rūpaṃ vāstavaṃ sambhavati.
p. 621.


dharmiṇa eva kalpitatvena viruddhayor api dharmayor abhāvāt.
p. 622.


atāttvika-hetu-sad-bhāvena tāttvika-dharmabhāvasya sādhanena vyāghātā-bhāvāt.
p. 623.

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