Nyaya Philosophy

M. R. Dwarakanath


The word Nyaya is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root नी – to lead or to convey. नियन्ति अनेन इति न्यायः। That by which the intellect is led to a valid conclusion is Nyaya. It deals with correct thinking and valid means of acquiring true knowledge of reality. This truth is arrived at by human reasoning as against being reached by testimony or other means. However, Nyaya accepts testimony as a valid source of knowledge. Both Nyaya and Vaishesika are common sense based philosophies as they take reason as the means for valid knowledge. Whereas Vaishesika’s focus is principally on ontology, Nyaya’s focus is on epistemology. Vaishesika incorporates empiricism into rationalism making it more akin to physical science. Nyaya philosophy examines knowledge through the sword of logic. Its chief contribution is an epistemological method to arrive at valid knowledge based on reasoning. It provided the rules for reasoning and debate. In the 13th century CE, The Nyaya and Vaishesika schools were merged in Bengal by Gangesha Upadhyaya and this new system took the name NavyaNyaya or new Nyaya. The actual transition was a slow process occurring over centuries.

The author of Nyaya Sutras is Akshapada Gotama who flourished in the3rd century BCE. The principal commentary (Bhashya) on these Sutras is by Vatsyayana (450 CE) and Udayanacarya (10th century CE.) The cannons of logic as prescribed by Nyaya are accepted by all schools of Indian philosophy. The word Nyaya also has the popular connotations of method, maxim, or just. Although the Nyaya system deals primarily with the cannons of logical proof, the ultimate aim is liberation from human suffering which is Samsara. This release is not caused by supernatural forces but from a proper understanding of Nyaya categories.

The opening Sutra states:

(प्रमाणप्रमेयसंशयप्रयोजनदृष्टान्तसिद्धान्तावयव-तर्कनिर्णयवादजल्पवितण्डाहेत्वाभासच्छल-जातिनिग्रहस्थानानां तत्त्वज्ञानान्निश्श्रेयसाधिगमः ॥१-१-१॥)

Final beatitude (supreme good) is attained by the knowledge of the true nature of the following categories: 1) Means of valid knowledge, 2) the object of right knowledge, 3) Doubt, 4) Purpose, 5) Example, 6) Established tenet, 7) Component parts of a syllogism, 8) Conjecture, 9) Conclusion / Affirmation, 10) Debate, 11) Wrangling, 12) Controversy / Irrational reasoning, 13) Fallacy, 14) Deception or unfair response, 15) Futile answer by false analogy, 16) Grounds for defeat or occasion for rebuke.

In Jalpa the aim is victory in debate over the opponent. Vitanda is where one does not establish one’s position but tries to refute the position taken by the other side. Hetu is the reason for an inference and Hetvabhasa is an invalid reason resulting in a fallacy. Chala is an unfair reply by misinterpreting the opponent. Jati is similar to Chala where the response is based on a false analogy. In Nigrahasthana, one does not understand one’s own position or changes the subject in contention, thereby conceding defeat. Nyaya is thus a rules-based system and the above categories are considerations in ascertaining the truth.

The second Sutra gives the metaphysics of Nyaya philosophy. It states the process of release as: (दुःखजन्मप्रवृत्तिदोषमिथ्याज्ञानानां उत्तरोत्तरापाये तदनन्तरापायदपवर्गः ॥१-१-२॥)

Release follows with the successive annihilation of the following in reverse order: 1) Sorrow, 2) Birth, 3) Activity, 4) Blemish and 5) Misconception. We see clearly, in this secular philosophy, a soteriological thread.

Nyaya Ontology: For the most part, Nyaya has co-opted Vaishesika ontology. They accept the 7 categories of Vaishesika. As the Nayayikas’ emphasis is on knowledge, they prefer to talk about objects of knowledge. These are the self, the body, the senses, the mind, sense objects, and activity. To this list they add the abstract notions of feelings, defects etc. In this system, Souls, Minds, Space, Time and Ether are regarded as eternal and immutable. They accept the atomic theory of Vaishesika but with a twist. The Atoms in Nyaya are the smallest particles discernible to the naked eye. This may be due to the extreme emphasis on Pratyaksha as a valid source of knowledge. The physical world is made up of 4 types of atoms corresponding to the gross elements – Earth, Water, Air and Fire.

Nyaya Metaphysics: Nyaya offers a realistic, pluralistic metaphysics. The self is a substance whose attributes are: desire, hatred, volition, pleasure, pain, consciousness. These attributes are different for each soul that inhabits its own body. There is no pure consciousness separate from a knower and the known. Consciousness is neither an essential attribute nor is it present without a body. The pluralistic categories are essentially borrowed from Vaishesika. Nyaya regards itself as a defender of Vedic Hindu theistic thought as seen from its opening aphorism. Its theism derives from the need for a conscious agent to drive the workings of an insentient world of atoms analogous to the self driving the insentient body. The existence of god is thus inferred from this need for an intelligent, sentient actuator and not so much from the testimony of the Vedas. It accepts testimony much as one would accept the evidence given by a credible person who exudes trustworthiness and expertise. आप्तोपदेशः शब्दः ॥१-१-७॥ defines testimony merely as the word of a reliable person. While Vaishesika emphasized Dharma as the ultimate good, Nyaya seems to prefer Moksha as seen from the opening Sutra. It accepts Karma and Adrsta for which no cause can be given.

Atma and Brahman: Brahman is the efficient cause of this creation, created from eternal atoms comprising matter, space, time and mind / consciousness. Brahman is the intelligence that holds this universe together. Even Karma being insentient is guided by Brahman. Atmas are infinite and eternal. One’s own Atma is accessible to perception. However both Brahman and other Atmas are known by inference from the observed effects. Brahman is known also through the scriptures and Adrsta or the unseen.

Nyaya Epistemology: Nyaya’s initial topic which is also its most important is epistemology or the theory of Knowledge. Nyaya admits of 4 sources of valid knowledge as 1) Perception, 2) Inference, 3) Reasoning by analogy and 4) Testimony. (प्रत्यक्षानुमानोपमानशब्दाः प्रमाणानि ॥१-१-३॥)

Nyaya makes a distinction between cognition and apperception. Cognition is mind independent external reality while apperception refers to mental states of individuals. It recognizes reality as existence out there. There is no room in Nyaya for skepticism as the starting point of philosophy.

Pratyaksha – Perception: Knowledge generated by the contact of the senses with the objects of sense, which is not expressible in words, error free and determinate is Pratyaksha. (इन्द्रियार्थसन्निकर्षोत्पन्नं ज्ञानमव्यपदेश्यमव्यभिचारि व्यवसायात्मकं प्रत्यक्षम् ॥१-१-४॥)

This definition expressly admits the objective reality of both the senses as well as sense objects. The definition uses three other qualifiers. First, not expressible in words seems to refer to ineffable experiences such as the redness of a red rose or the sweetness of a mango. These are called Qualia in modern neuroscience circles. The second requirement of being error free disqualifies the silver in nacre or the water in a mirage as Pratyaksha.  Finally, the requirement of being determinate disqualifies the snake in the rope as pratyaksha due to poor conditions for observation. Perception occurs in two steps – Nirvikalpa or indeterminate and Savikalpa or determinate. In the first stage, the features of the object are not fully integrated but in determinate perception the object is known as it is; in its essence. It is predicated judgment. Pratyabhijnana is recognition of a previously known object.

Anumana – Inference: Inference is knowledge preceded by perception and is of 3 kinds – a priori, a posteriori and ordinary. (अथ तत्पूर्वकं त्रिविधमनुमानं पूर्ववच्छेषवत्सामान्यतो दृष्टं च ॥१-१-५॥) When a cause is perceived and the effect inferred, like seeing lightning and expecting thunder, it is a priori. When the effect is seen and the cause is inferred, like seeing a river in spate in the valley and inferring rain in the mountains, is a posteriori. The ordinary is the oft quoted example of inferring fire from observing smoke. In all these examples, the common thread is concomitance or pervasion. The inferential argument consists of that which is to be established (साध्य,) the cause that proves the assertion (हेतु,) the locus of action (पक्ष,) pervasion (व्याप्ति) and example (दृष्टान्त.) The fire (साध्य) on the hill (पक्ष) is inferred by smoke (हेतु) as fire and smoke are always seen together (व्याप्ति) as in the kitchen (दृष्टान्त.) This is inductive logic which may be valid over numerous observations, yet could demonstrably fail. This type of logic is unlike deductive logic which stands on firmer ground. Inferences may be erroneous because of a variety of reasons. Inferring the approach of an ambulance because of the heard siren can be wrong because there are many other vehicles with a siren. This is a case of over-pervasion. Concluding fire by observing fog is a case of no pervasion at all. While smoke is always associated with fire, the reverse need not be true. There is no Vyapti here. However, the presence of certain conditions called Upadhi can bring about Vyapti. One may claim fires from wet fuel have smoke associated with them always.

The Naiyayikas held the view an inquiry made sense only if there existed some doubt and there was some possibility of arriving at a definite conclusion after the inquiry. They saw no point in a debate if the outcome was known or if it was deemed impossible to reach a conclusion. A very pragmatic approach! They also demanded some observational data in support of arguments. This being so, how could they defend the postulate of the existence of a soul?

The Nyaya-Vaishesika philosophy is one of pluralistic realism. There is no scope for skeptic thoughts. They subscribe to the notion: valid perception of a thing confers transcendental reality on it. The atoms and molecules that constitute one’s body as well as the world are real but they are also inert. They are seen to be active. To make them active requires a sentient agent. This sentient agent is the self of the individual and Isvara of the universe. This is termed Alaukika perception. This class includes perceptions of generalizations or association into classes. It also accepts Yogic intuition as valid knowledge.

Theory of Error: It is well known that errors occur in perception and inference. In perception, when an object is perceived the mind forms a representation of that object. When the representation is confused an error occurs. This type of error is termed Anyatha-Khyati or misplaced reputation. In inference, errors occur when the argument is irrational or when a seeming valid argument turns out to be wrong. This is Hetvabhasa (#13 in the list of 16) or a material fallacy. Nyaya defines 5 kinds of Hetvabhasa – Savyabhicara, Viruddha, Satpratipaksha, Asiddha and Badhita. These are due to the Hetu being 1) Irregular, 2) Contradictory, 3) Inferentially contradictory, 4) Not proven and 5) non-inferentially contradicted.

Comparison – Upamana: Argument by analogy or Comparison is a secondary means of gaining knowledge about the world. One can learn about a zebra as a donkey that has peculiar black and white stripes. When one comes across such an animal, one learns that it is a zebra. Recognition of an object or a person is by comparing the present perception to a stored perception or memory. This is Pratyabhijnana. Most systems subsume Comparison into perception and inference. The Carvakas do not accept comparison as they accept only direct sense perception. Analogic reasoning is used extensively in Vedanta to promote its theses. For example, dreams are often used as an analogy for the unreality of perceptual experience and the state of dreamless sleep to the blissful state in release etc.

Testimony – Shabda: Nyaya accepts both Vaidika and Laukika testimony. Vaidika testimony is accepted as the word of god or the super-sensory perception of seers. The emphasis is on Laukika testimony which demands reliability on the part of the speaker and clarity of statement but is still subject to challenge and overthrow by a more reliable source.

Summary: In Summary, Nyaya builds an epistemic philosophy on the ontological foundation laid down by Vashesika. It is fundamentally a text on the methodology for gaining correct knowledge. It sets the rules for conducting debates. The independent realities are: God, souls, minds and atoms operating in space and time. The individual soul is a substance that is not conscious but acquires it through the body. The cannons of logic laid out by Nyaya are generally accepted in Indian philosophical disputations. It is a pluralistic, realistic and theistic philosophy; adopting a commonsense view of the world. The theism accepts a designer creator but release is conditioned on a proper understanding of its categories. The more important Sutras and their meanings are given in the book on Indian Philosophy by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan for further study.

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