Home > Kalākośa > Kalāsamālocana Series > List of Books > Prakrti Series > The Nature of Matter


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

Scientific Philosophy

with reference to Buddhist Thought

Raja Ramanna

Early Buddhist philosophy is very close to scientific philosophy of modern times, and many a distinguished scientist has expressed great admiration for the clear exposition of the Buddha on the Nature of the Universe and the interaction between its various components. The more recent discoveries of science make it necessary to study Buddhist epistemology in order to get a proper view of the Universe and man’s position in it.

We start with a classification of the Universe into three parts, a classification which must have had an early origin but is attributed to the great Bhakti Philosopher Ramanuja (11th century). This classification is not only scientifically appealing but is as valid today as it was a thousand years ago. Ramanuja divides the Universe into three parts: Achit, Chit and Isvara, and the interaction between the three divisions, brings Science and Philosophy into a proper focus. In this classification the original meanings of the divisions are:

Acit: Things which have no consciousness,

Cit: Things which have consciousness, and

Isvara: God.

We interpret the divisions hopefully without any distortion in the following manner:

Acit: All material things, and whose behaviour is best explained by modern science.

Cit: All things which have life and exhibit biological behaviour and hence possess a consciousness. The exhibited consciousness being higher in quality, depending on the evolutionary status of the concerned object.

Isvara: A power which develops a consciousness with a desire to do good to all life.

The definitions of the above classifications and the interactions between the sets, bring philosophy and science to a common plane. Some of the discoveries in modern science emphasise that a close interaction is necessary if we have to understand the Universe in all its aspects. There seem to be contradictions both mutually and internally in both aspects of knowledge and this paper strives to analyze some of them.

It will be observed that early Buddhist thought, based as it is on rationality and logic, comes closest to an understanding of the Universe in all its aspects without many arbitrary assumptions or coming into conflict with observed data.

Figure 1 shows the division of the Universe according to Ramanuja by Venn Diagrams. S(A) stands for the Acit set, S(C) stands for the Cit set and S(I) for the Isvara set.

We note that in its original definition the reality of S(I) is rejected by the Carvaka materialistic philosophers, Mechanistic Science, early Buddhism, Jainism and in general by the Sankhya philosophers.


Figure 1 : Universal Classification

S(I) as an Anthropomorphic Absolute Entity isolated from the world and as a father figure, is the description in the Jewish, and hence the Christian religions and Islam. The contact with life and the material world is held through prophets, saints and in the case of Christianity a Messiah (son of God).

A kind of anthropomorphic entity of a polytheistic nature exists in Puranic Hinduism, but the entity is not isolated from ordinary life and is one in which the God or Gods identify themselves with human weakness and errors, much like the Greek divinities. However, Vedantic influence has brought all these divinities together by a monism of the most comprehensive type.

The Vedantic interpretation of S(I) is very abstract and as we shall see later it interacts with the other sets in a very subtle way as interpreted by Sankara (8th century) and Ramanuja. This interaction is denied by Madhva (14th century) and God is completely separate from Cit and Acit and in this sense his interpretation of Vedanta begins to resemble the conclusions of the Mediterranean religions.

Later Buddhism admits of the Divinity of the Buddha which seems like an obvious influence of Hinduism. The phase of Buddhism during which the Sunyata theory was developed, is another interesting phase of philosophy which has parallels in scientific thought. We discuss this in some detail.

All the interpretations of the interactions between the sets, depend on the meaning of Reality. This word is a deeply intuitive one. Even in science the word has found no clear definition and its meaning has been and is still being debated at great length. One would have expected that Science with its dependence on quantification, the language of mathematics and possibilities of experimental verification, would have no difficulty in defining Reality, but this has not been the case.

To return to the Venn diagrams, Figure 2 gives the way the Carvaka and Mechanistic Scientists look at the interactions. There is no Reality for S(I), and S(C) is embedded in S(A), i.e., consciousness is created by material forces.


Figure 2 : Mechanistic and Charvaka (Pre-Buddhist)

In Figure 3a and Figure 3b are shown the interactions as given in Vedanta. S(I) is considered as the only Reality. It is, however, so pure and isolated that only through the forces of Maya the material world has become observable/measurable. The Universe has become observable because of our consciousness. In this way S(A) is a subset of S(C). The relationship of the abstract Isvara set to that of S(C) and S(A) is one of projection through maya. The interesting aspect of the Vedantic theory is that Brahman is in all living things. In fact it leads to the famous aphorism ‘Thou Art That’. It implies that S(C) and therefore S(A) are a part of S(I). An important aspect of this interpretation is that it points to a unification of the entire Universe. Just as all the laws of Physics will presumably be unified, the Brahman takes the role of that Unification. The interpretation of Brahman and Maya is due to Sankara (8th century) but it is clearly enunciated in the Vedanta.

Sankara’s theory has, however, been modified by Ramanuja by denying that the Isvara set is an abstract one. He believes that the set interacts with human consciousness in a direct way through Bhakti, i.e., love and affection. It is in this way the love of fellowmen and mankind in general arises. In Advaita Vedanta, S(I) is the only set having Reality, the rest is a projection of that Reality through Maya. The Madhva version of Vedanta insists that God and the rest are separate (Dvaita) and thus S(I) is separate from the other sets. In this way it resembles the Mediterranean religions.



Supreme, Symmetric, Pure, Unchangable

Projection or Illusion

(Due to Unchangability to Supreme Brahman)

Evolution: Symmetry to Symmetry (Chandyogya Upanisad)

"..... though some held that chaos alone was before a second, and order come ot it, how can it ever be so. Order indeed was alone in the beginning...."


Figure 3 (a) : Advaita (Shankara, 8th century)






Real Therodynamic

Consideration to express human feelings possible in this process


Evolution : From Chaos to Symmetry



Figure 3 (b) : Visista-Advaita (Ramanuja, 11th century)

In Figure 4 the view of the Mediterranean religions is shown

S(I) represents a fatherly anthropomorphic entity whose relationship with the rest of the world is through parental concern and fear.

God as Father


Anthropomorphic Separate

Evolution : Act of God

Social Forces, Fear, Inherent Love of Humanity

Figure 4 : Mediterranean Religions & Madhav (Dvaita)

In Figure 5 the Buddhist view is given. To be as accurate as possible we quote from Stcherbatsky’s1 book on Buddhist Logic, which effectively summarises the Buddhist standpoint.

At the time of Buddha, India was seething with philosophic speculation, and thirsty of the ideal of Final Deliverance. Buddhism started with a very minute analysis of the human personality into the elements of which it is composed. The leading idea of this analysis was a moral one. The elements of a personality were, first of all, divided into good and bad, purifying and defiling, propitious to salvation and averse to it. The whole doctrine was called a doctrine of defilement and purification. Salvation was imagined and cherished as a state of absolute quiescence. Therefore life, ordinary life, was considered as a condition of degradation and misery. Thus the purifying elements were those moral features, or forces, that led to quiescence. The defiling ones were those that led to, and encouraged, the turmoil of life. Apart from these two classes of conflicting elements, some general, neutral, fundamental elements were also found at the bottom of every mental life, but nothing in the shape of a common receptacle of them could be detected: hence no Ego, no Soul, no Personality. The so-called personality consists of a congeries of ever-changing elements, of a flow of them, without any perdurable and stable element at all.

This is the first main feature of early Buddhism, its Soul-denial. The No-Soul theory is another name for Buddhism.

The external world was also analysed in its component elements. It was the dependent part of the personality, its sense-data. There were other systems of philosophy which preceded Buddhism and which envisaged the sense-data as changing manifestations of a compact, substantial and eternal principle, the Matter. Buddhism brushed this principle away and the physical elements became just as changing, impermanent and flowing, as the mental were found to be. This constitutes the second characteristic feature of early Buddhism: no Matter, no Substance, only separate elements, momentary flashes of efficient energy without any substance in them, perpetual becoming, a flow of existential moments.

However, instead of the abandoned principles of a Soul and of a Matter, something must have come to replace them and to explain how the separate elements of the process of becoming are holding together, so as to produce the illusion of a stable material world and of perdurable personalities living in it. They were in fact, substituted by causal laws, laws of physical and moral causation. The flow of the evanescent elements was not a haphazard process. Every element, although appearing for a moment, was a ‘dependently originating element’. According to the formula ‘this being, that arises’ it appeared in conformity with strict causal laws. The idea of moral causation, or retribution, the main interest of the system, was thus receiving a broad philosophic foundation in a general theory of Causality. This is the third characteristic feature of early Buddhism. It is a theory of Causation.


To find the place where Buddhist philosophy can be included in the diagram given in Figure 5 involves the following modifications. Buddhism does not explicitly assume the existence of a God. Therefore the interpretation of the Isvara state is not that of a God, but all the unifying forces based on causal laws which includes the status of Nirvana. Cit and Acit are clearly defined except that the overlap between the Cit and Acit takes into account the dynamics involved in the state of the universe and evolution in the state of conscious matter.

Sunyata Theory

Later Buddhism, through the work of Nagarjuna (around 2nd century a.d.), Dignaga (5th century), Dharmakirti and Dharmottana (8th century), has many interesting contributions to make towards the philosophy of causality (Sunyavada) and logic.

Nagarjuna in a most general way shows in his Sunyavada that while one can have ontological monism, it is possible for dual states to exist in epistemology — a conclusion of great implications to science.

In order to be as accurate and at the same time concise, a note from the Encyclopaedia Britannica2 on Nagarjuna and Sunyavada is given in the appendix. The note also includes Buddhist views on ego-consciousness and memory, and pure sensation as perception. All these have a bearing on what follows on physical reality.

(A) Early Buddhism


  1. No God

  2. No Soul

  3. Interaction purely by Causal Laws

  4. S (C) mainly dealing with Good and Evil and prosper knowledge as part of Causal Laws. Origin big bang or bangs.

  5. Existence of Nirvana (as absorption into nothingness)

(B) Buddhism : Middle Period


S (I) now represents the Buddha as a Divine personality

S (A), S (C) interaction dealing with individual salvation

Nirvana - close to the idea of Vedantic Brahman

(C) Buddhism : Final Period

Theory of Sunyata

Figure 5 : Buddhist View

One would have expected that in Science there could hardly be any conflicting views on Reality, but as we shall see from what follows this is not the case and problems of philosophy enter the domains of pure science in no uncertain way.

We now consider the problems of Physical Reality.

It is to the credit of physics that all words used have a meaning defined within the framework of mathematics. However, in recent times the foundations of physics and the foundations of mathematics have been rudely shaken by new discoveries which not only make the older definitions ambiguous but lead to inconsistencies which would just not have been allowed in the past.

The two problems which have caused this situation are in the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics and the discovery of the Godel Theorem in mathematics. We consider here only the first of the problems, since it involves the concept of Reality, a concept which as we have seen has been discussed over the ages.

Most scientists are very happy with the successes of new Quantum Mechanics, (Q.M. for short), as opposed to Newtonian mechanics, in explaining a wide and complex range of physical phenomena. This, however, has been possible by not only introducing new laws of physics but even revising basic concepts concerning Reality itself. The scientists are so satisfied with the way Q.M. has worked, that if any blemish in its foundations is pointed out, they would rather call the questioner a person of unsound mind than take the criticism seriously. Even the great Einstein himself was treated in this manner, when he objected to the claim that quantum theory was a complete theory of all matter, and pointed out some inconsistencies which could lead to a paradox of a serious nature. His criticisms, however, require a clear understanding of Reality which has, as we know, metaphysical overtones.

The other great scientist of the period Niels Bohr, believed that the inconsistencies pointed by Einstein were the result of an obsolete method of viewing the methods of Physics. In order to clarify the new approach, Bohr proposed a principle, known as the Complementarity Principle which permits different (even contradictory) aspects of physical phenomena, particularly in the microscopic world to exist. To support this, Bohr suggested that in the description of phenomena, inconsistencies are bound to come up, when Quantum effects dominate, but this has to be pictured in a classical sense. The principle of complementarity envisages situations where a system can exhibit particle-like properties and wave-like properties, though they are opposite descriptions of nature. However, it is expected that both the descriptions never appear simultaneously.

Most scientists have supported the interpretation of Bohr, since it provided an epistemological base to describe many observed phenomena quantitatively, particularly in the atomic and nuclear regime. While most scientists were happy with the new mechanics even if it contained inconsistencies, only Einstein, Schroedinger and a few others, though impressed by the predictive successes of Q.M., were never convinced of the validity of the principle of complementarity. In recent times, more people have come out against the views of Bohr. One of the ways of raising objections is to discuss the problem with the aid of ‘imaginary experiments’ and interpret it, based on Q.M. which would show up the parodoxes, if any. This was the method used by the above-mentioned scientists. The use of imaginary experiments is a method of creating idealised situations for the sake of discussion to show the consistency of the assumptions that have been made. However, in recent time technologies have greatly advanced, such that these idealised experiments can now be actually performed and their results are used to clinch issues.

In order to show that the Quantum Theory was at best only a working theory but incomplete, and would one day have to be modified, Einstein and two of his collaborators Podolsky and Rosen in 1956, published a paper (usually referred to in literature as EPR), to show that Q.M. has in its structure inconsistencies which if properly interpreted could lead to a serious paradox. The paper generated heat at the time when it was published some forty years ago, but it was not taken as too serious an objection, because much of it centered round the almost metaphysical problem as to what is Reality, and metaphysics is not popular among physicists. Further, the arguments on both sides relied on idealised experiments. They could only be discussed at a philosophical plane and not actually performed and the best bet then was that the results of the experiment would confirm the ideas of Bohr.

Now that new technologies have made difficult experiments possible, the results of the experiments have to be taken into account and they do not seem to support the Theory of Complementarity conclusively.

Through this paper, we state the foundations of physics, first in the way a classical physicist would like to have it. They have now had to be given up, in view of all the information we now have on microscopic phenomena, which has clearly shown that classical theory is untenable. The latest experiments,3 also seem to suggest all is not well with the definition of Reality as proposed in Q.M. also.

We start by summarising the relevent differences between the classical (Newtonian) approach to physical problems with that of Q.M., if at least to show that the latter is an entirely new theory, with a very different epistemology. Later we indicate why the Complementarity Principle of Bohr was introduced — in an effort to bridge the gap between the classical and the quantum views — taking note of the fact that while microscopic phenomena are governed by Q.M., the observer is however a macroscopic object and thus guided by the earlier concepts.

The main differences between the two theories can be summarised as follows:

Classical Theory

1. The theory is deterministic. Given the initial conditions and the laws of motion, it is in principle, even in the most complicated of cases, possible to predict the behaviour of the system at a subsequent time and place.

Quantum Systems and Theory

1. The theory is basically probabilistic and abstract.

2. It requires the intervention of an observer to determine its state, and this intervention suddenly makes the observation deterministic.

3. Objects under examination can behave in a contradictory manner from the point of view of classical theory, e.g. an object can exhibit itself as either a particle or a wave. Such descriptions are mutually contradictory in the framework of classical physics but it is this duality that gives Q.M. its flexibility to explain phenomena.

4. A measurement interferes with the state of the object under measurement. A measurement of one of the parameters, of the object under study, can make the measurement of an associated parameter uncertain, to the extent that a simultaneous measurement of both parameters is impossible. This is known as the Uncertainty Principle.

Since finally the measurement has to be made by an observer — eventually a macroscopic being, the principles of the two theories come into conflict. Thus we have a situation where Classical Theory which at first sight seems to be rational is unable to explain all observed phenomena. At the same time, we have Quantum theory able to explain nearly all observed phenomena, but with assumptions which are at variance from the observer’s point of view.

We now take up the question of what is Reality. According to Classical Physics a system is real if the parameters of the system under consideration for example Position, Momentum etc. have a definite value even before it is actually measured. Further the process of measurement should not, in principle, affect the system.

In Q.M. every observable is somewhat abstractly connected with a mathematical operation. When this operation is carried out, specific rules tell one what its likely values are. The moment the measurement is made the wave aspect of the system collapses and the system assumes a particular value, which it may not have had earlier (Figure 6).

It is with a view to interpreting these abstract processes, Bohr proposed his Principle of Complementarity. Essentially it states the wave-particle duality is something that nature follows. This duality forces on us the fact that the theory can only give the probabilities of the parameter that are being measured. But only a measurement determines the value of the parameter. In this way, we can say that prior to measurement the system had no particular predetermined value and it is the measurement process that created the value of the concerned parameters. All these aspects of Q.M. lead up to a Reality which states that nothing that is not directly observable (measurable) has an existence. All this happens only because of the dual nature of matter which gets more prominent as the object becomes smaller. These effects become negligible as we go into the macroscopic region.


Interaction to allow for:

a.  Collapse of wave function

b.  Immeasurability (Uncertainity)

c.  Holistic Approach

S (C) U  S (A)

Evolution : Molecular and Symmetry Process

Figure 6 : Quantum Mechanics

Several distinguished scientists of the period, like Einstein and Schroedinger to name only a few, were unhappy with the principle of Complementarity. They believed Quantum theory can only be an incomplete theory and one day a new theory would arise in which determinism would return and duality would disappear.

Reality in Q.M. is thus at variance with Classical Reality which insists that the system can exist before one noticed it. In Q.M., it acquires its quantitative existence only after measurement which itself is restricted by many constraints, e.g. the Uncertainty Principle. In this way Q.M. Reality depends not only on the system but the measuring instrument and the observer.

In order to show that Q.M. is an incomplete theory, Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen (EPR) proposed the following experiment. If performed, the experiment would show that the assumptions of Quantum Theory would lead to a situation, where interactions can take place between systems, which are so far away that the signal from one to the other will have to travel at a speed faster than the velocity of light, or one has to invoke a "mysterious superfast interaction at a distance". Both these possibilities would be untenable to a physicist. The rejection by the physicist is based on a fundamental principle known as Causality, which means that there is a physical cause for every-thing. A principle of deep significance in a discussion in early Buddhist philosophy. A more restricted Causality called Local Causality is one when something is real only if it changes within a system and can be measured within it or sufficiently near it, so that the principle of the Theory of Relativity, i.e., no signals can travel faster than the velocity of light, is not violated.

To understand the implications of the ‘imaginary experiment’ and its consequences requires a knowledge of physics. However, a very sketchy description of it is given as it introduces the concept of Local Causality.

Consider a system which emits two photons, i.e., light simultaneously in opposite directions. Such systems are now available. Q.M. states that the position of each of the particles (x), (y) can be determined by some suitable experiment and another experiment can determine the momenta (p), (q) of each of the particles. However (x) and (p) cannot be measured simultaneously, because of the Uncertainty Principle. Similar is the case with (y) and (q). The paradox appears when we take into account that the distances between the particles are always known and the total momenta of the two particles are fixed. If this is so, by measuring (x) of the first particle and later the momentum (p) of the same particle, one can know all about the second particle without having made any measurements directly on the second particle and not disturbing it in any way. In this way we have already violated the principles of Q.M.

If however, the supporter of Q.M. objects to the fact that the parameters (x) and (p) have not been measured at the same time, and what was measured earlier would have lost its validity, the paradox worsens in that the second particle somehow seems to have got to know the sequence of measurements made on the first particle, [since any change in (x) and (p) has to show itself on (y) and (q), because x-y and p and q are fixed]. With Q.M. as it is presently formulated, this effect on the other must take place however far off the distance between the photons, perhaps even thousands of kilometres or more and the interaction must be instantaneous. This can happen only if the information is travelling faster than that of light!

The epistemological problems of Q.M. involve the dual behaviour of matter. In a measurement, the wave function representing the particle has to collapse. How or why this happens has never received a proper explanation. It has been pointed out that one may have to accept the existence of a human consciousness on the completion of a measurement, which is responsible for the collapse of the wave function, and to make the measurement deterministic. These are complex issues but are stated here only to show even physicists wedded to physical reality are forced to invoke the physical existence of consciousness.

The comparison with Buddhist philosophy becomes relevant if we consider ontological monism as the situation before measurement and epistemological dualism as equivalent to wave-particle dualism. These ideas require greater study especially using the original works of Nagarjuna. Physicists who are interested in Reality must take these earlier works into account because of their generality.

As stated earlier the complementarity principle has come under severe scrutiny in recent years. Some new experiments3 using optical methods seem to indicate that a particle can be observed to be both wave-like and particle-like simultaneously and not one or the other as assumed by complementarity. Figure 7 gives the experimental set-up based on an earlier experiment done by J.C. Bose, a hundred years ago, to demonstrate the wave nature of micro-waves.


Figure 7

In conclusion, by referring to Figure 7, we note that the registrations by the counter 2 to measure the tunnelling rate pertain to a propagation of light pulses which is consistent with a classical wave picture. However, at the same time let us consider the rates measured by the coincidence counter (connected to detectors 1 and 2) when the incident light pulses are in states that are close approximations to single photon states. If the coincidence rates are found to be lower than the minimum bound derived from the classical wave picture (perfect anti-coincidence for ‘ideal’ single photon states), as reported by Mizobuchi and Otake,3 the propagation cannot be comprehended using a classical wave-picture, but is amenable to a description in terms of the particle picture. We, therefore, contend that an understanding of this experiment in terms of classical pictures [which Bohr’s complementary principle (BCP) necessarily requires] can only be obtained by using both particle and wave-pictures; in other words, the experimental data recorded in the three counters of Figure 7 contain both wave-like and particle-like information about the propagation of light pulses. It is in this sense that the experiment ‘confronts’ BCP by showing that there is a situation allowed by the formalism of quantum mechanics where the notion of ‘mutual exclusiveness of classical pictures’ is not applicable.

The purpose of referring to the experiment is to show the methods of science to decide on the complexities of interpretation. Even then one cannot be sure that the last word has been said about the subject because one is never sure how ontology affects epistemology which is basically a philosophical question.

Philosophy has always had a place in science. The following quotation from Einstein4 on ‘pre-established harmony’ shows how science cannot quite depend on epistemology alone:

The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them. In this methodological uncertainty, one might suppose that there were any number of possible systems of theoretical physics all equally well justified; and this opinion is no doubt correct, theoretically. But the development of physics has shown that at any given moment, out of all conceivable constructions, a single one has always proved itself decidedly superior to all the rest. Nobody who has really gone deeply into the matter will deny that in practice the world of phenomena uniquely determines the theoretical system, in spite of the fact that there is no logical bridge between phenomena and their theoretical principles; this is what Leibnitz described so happily as a ‘pre-established harmony’. Physicists often accuse epistemologists of not paying sufficient attention to this fact.


Ontological Monism and Epistemological Dualism

Developments in Mahayana, Nagarjuna and Sunyavada. Though the beginnings of Mahayana are to be found in the Mahasangikas and many of their early sects, Nagarjuna gave it a philosophical basis. Not only is the individual person empty and lacking an eternal self, according to Nagarjuna, but the dharmas also are empty. He extended the concept of sunyata to cover all concepts and all entities. ‘Emptiness’ thus means subjection to the law of causality or ‘dependent origination’ and lack of an immutable essence and an invariant mark (nihsvabhavata). It also entails a repudiation of dualities between the conditioned and the unconditioned, between subject and object, relative and absolute, and between samsara and Nirvana. Thus, Nagarjuna arrived at an ontological monism; but he carried through an epistemological dualism, i.e., a theory of knowledge based on two sets of criteria between two orders of truth: the conventional (samratti) and the transcendental (paramartha). The one reality is ineffable. Nagarjuna undertook a critical examination of all the major categories with which philosophers had sought to understand reality and showed them all to involve self-contradictions. The world is viewed as a network of relations, but relations are unintelligible. If two terms, A and B, are related by the relation R, then either A and B are different or they are identical. If they are identical, they cannot be related; if they are altogether different then they cannot also be related, for they would have no common ground. The notion of "partial identity and partial difference" is also rejected as unintelligible. The notion of causality is rejected on the basis of similar reasonings. The concepts of change, substance, self, knowledge, and universals do not fare any better. Nagarjuna also directed criticism against the concept of pramana or the means of valid knowledge.

Nagarjuna’s philosophy is also called Madhyamika, because it claims to tread the middle path, which consists not in synthesizing opposed views such as "The real is permanent" and "The real is changing" but in showing the hollowness of both the claims. To say that reality is both permanent and changing is to make another metaphysical assertion, another viewpoint, whose opposite is "Reality is neither permanent nor changing". In relation to the former, the latter is a higher truth, but the latter is still a point of view, a drsti, expressed in a metaphysical statement, though Nagarjuna condemned all metaphysical statements as false.

Nagarjuna used reason to condemn reason. Those of his disciples who continued to limit the use of logic to this negative and indirect method, known as prasanga, are called the prasangikas; of these, Aryadeva, Buddhapalita, and Candrakirti are the most important. Bhavaviveka, however, followed the method of direct reasoning and thus founded what is called the svatantra (independent) school of Madhyamika philosophy. With him Buddhist logic comes to its own, and during his time the Yogacaras split away from the Sunyavadins.

Ego Consciousness and Stored Consciousness

Contributions of Vasubandhu and Asanga. Converted by his brother Asanga to the Yogacara, Vasubandhu wrote the Vijnaptimatratasiddhi ("Establishment of the Thesis of Cognitions Only"), in which he defended the thesis that the supposedly external objects are merely mental conceptions. Yogacara idealism is a logical development of Sautrantika representationism: the conception of a merely inferred external world is not satisfying. If consciousness is self-intimating (svaprakasa) and if consciousness can assume forms (sakaravijnana), it seems more logical to hold that the forms ascribed to alleged external objects are really forms of consciousness. One only needs another conception: a beginningless power that would account for this tendency of consciousness to take up forms and to externalize them. This is the power of kalpana, or imagination. Yogacara added two other modes of consciousness to the traditional six: ego consciousness (manovijnana) and storehouse consciousness (alaya-vijnana). The alaya-vijnana contains stored traces of past experiences, both pure and defiled seeds. Early anticipations of the notions of the subconscious or the unconscious, they are theoretical constructs to account for the order of individual experience. It still remained, however, to account for a common ‘world-which’ in fact remains the main difficulty of Yogacara. The state of Nirvana becomes a state in which the alaya with its stored ‘seeds’ would wither away (alayapravrtti). Though the individual ideas are in the last resort mere imaginations, in its essential nature consciousness is without distinctions of subject and object. This ineffable consciousness is the ‘suchness’ (tathata) underlying all things. Neither the alaya nor the tathata, however is to be construed as being substantial.

Vasubandhu and Asanga are also responsible for the growth of Buddhist logic. Vasubandhu defined ‘perception’ as the knowledge that is caused by the object, but this was rejected by Dignaga, a fifth-century logician, as a definition belonging to his earlier realistic phase. Vasubandhu defined ‘inference’ as a knowledge of an object through its mark, but Dharmottara, an eighth-century commentator pointed out that this is not a definition of the essence of inference but only of its origin.

Pure Sensation as Perception

Contributions of Dignaga and Dharmakirti. Dignaga’s Pramanasamuccaya ("Compendium of the Means of True Knowledge") is one of the greatest works on Buddhist logic. Dignaga gave a new definition of ‘perception’: a knowledge that is free from all conceptual constructions, including name and class concepts. In effect, he regarded only the pure sensation as perception. In his theory of inference, he distinguished between inference for oneself and inference for the other and laid down three criteria of a valid middle term (hetu), viz., that it should ‘cover’ the minor premise (paksa), be present in the similar instances (sapaksa), and be absent in dissimilar instances (vipaksa). In his Hetucakra ("The Wheel of Reason"), Dignaga set up a matrix of nine types of middle terms, of which two yield valid conclusions, two contradictory, and the rest uncertain conclusions. Dignaga’s tradition is further developed in the seventh century by Dharmakirti, who modified his definition of perception to include the condition ‘unerring’ and distinguished, in his Nyayabindu, between four kinds of perception: that by the five senses, that by the mind, self-consciousness, and perception of the yogins. He also introduced a threefold distinction of valid middle terms: the middle must be related to the major either by identity ("This is a tree, because this is an oak") or as cause and effect ("This is fiery, because it is smoky"), or the hetu is a non-perception from which the absence of the major could be inferred. Dharmakirti consolidated the central epistemological thesis of the Buddhists that perception and inference have their own exclusive objects. The object of the former is the pure particular (svalaksana), and the object of the latter (he regarded judgements as containing elements of inference) is the universal (samanyalaksana). In their metaphysical positions, Dignaga and Dharmakirti represent a moderate form of idealism.

Notes & References

  1. F. Th. Stcherbatsky, Buddhist Logic, Vol. 1, Oriental Books Reprint Corporation. pp, 3-5, 1984.

  2. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, Vol 21, pp 201-02, 1992.

  3. Partha Ghose, Dipankar Home and G. S. Agarwal, An Experiment to Throw More Light on Light Implications, Preprint.

  4. Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, Rupa and Co, Calcutta, pp 226, 277, 1992.


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

HomeSearchContact usIndex

[ Home | Search  |  Contact UsIndex ]

 [ List of Books | Kalatattvakosa | Kalamulasastra | Kalasamalocana ]

© 1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi