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Indian ThoughtBuddhist Systems

The Buddhists, while accepting the notions of karma, samsara, and moksa (or nirvana in common Buddhist parlance), reject many of the core assumptions of the Naiyayikas, as well as important doctrines of the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta. One of the cornerstones of Indian Buddhist schools is the doctrine of "no-self" (anatman), which rejects the Brahmanical belief in a permanent, unchanging soul. The Buddhists rely mainly on the pramanas of direct perception and inference, and reject the atman as a conceptual construct that is unfindable either by the senses or by reasoning. The Buddha pointed out that the central reality of all existence is change. All phenomena come into being as a result of causes and conditions, they change in every moment, and eventually they pass away. If there were some disembodied, unchanging entity, it would have no relation to any individual, and because it lies beyond the world of the senses it could never be perceived.

Epistomological tradition.

The "Epistemological" (Pramana) tradition, whose most influential exponent was Dharmakirti (c. 530–600), further contends that an unchanging entity would have no causal efficacy, and so it would be entirely unrelated to the world. Dharmakirti's approach is pragmatic and empirical: he asserts that there is no point in discussing things that can never be verified by sense experience and that have no impact on the physical world. In his pragmatist system, all statements and cognitions are subject to falsifiability: a statement is true only as long as subsequent perceptions and analysis do not show it to be false. In addition, Dharmakirti believes that there is no point in discussing merely theoretical topics (such as the atman) and that an essential test of validity is the possibility of effective activity (artha-kriya). Practical application is one of the conditions of valid knowledge. In his system, statements become true through a process of verification: they must be able to withstand subsequent analysis and be corroborated by relevant perceptions. Those that meet this test may be accepted as true, while others (even statements contained in Buddhist scriptures) should be rejected.

In his major work, the Commentary on [Dignaga's] Compendium of Valid Cognition (Pramana-varttika), Dharmakirti only accepts the pramana s of direct perception and inference, and rejects others that are accepted by the Naiyayikas, such as comparison (upamana) and scriptural testimony. The former is unreliable because it is not based on direct experience, and the latter only convinces those who already accept the cited scriptures as normative. Dharmakirti asserts that any truth claim must be verifiable by analytical reasoning and direct perception. Direct perception is defined as being "free from conceptuality and incontrovertible." In his system, only the first moment of perception counts as direct perception, and subsequent moments are overlaid with conceptuality. They are not produced by cognition of a directly perceived sign, but instead are merely based on the initial perception and interpreted by the mind.

The epistemological tradition also claims that the nonexistence of the atman can be confirmed by developing a special cognitive capacity called "yogic direct perception" (yogipratyaksa), which allows meditators to directly perceive truths that are hidden from ordinary beings. In most Indian philosophical traditions, there is a close link between meditative practice and philosophy, and the training regimens of the various schools begin with study of doctrine, which is reinforced by yoga. The paths of Indian philosophical/religious traditions are intended to ensure that meditators directly perceive the tenets of the system in which they are training, and philosophy is often a reflexive exercise that uses reasoning to argue for the insights gained in meditation. Doctrine is derived from practice, and those whose experiences differ from the tradition's doctrines are either brought into line or expelled (and sometimes they become founders of new schools).

Transmigration and liberation.

In rejecting the atman, the Buddhists were widely seen as being vulnerable on the question of what transmigrates from life to life. The Buddha is said to have taught that the belief in a permanent self is shared by all ordinary people, but despite its universality it is a false concept, and one that leads to grasping after material things and mistaken notions about reality. Those who seek liberation must overcome the innate belief in a self, and this requires meditative training. In searching for the atman through introspective meditation, Buddhists find that there is no enduring essence (either atman or Brahman), and that instead individuals are composites of five "aggregates" (skandha): form, feelings, discriminations, consciousness, and compositional factors. The first refers to physical form, and the second comprises one's emotional responses to phenomena. These are discriminated into positive, negative, and neutral, and this process leads to desire for certain phenomena and aversion toward others. The aggregate of consciousness encompasses one's mental events and includes phenomena that are generally regarded as part of the unconscious in Western psychology. Compositional factors are other elements that are part of the innate sense of self, and mainly consist of karmic factors.

According to most Buddhist schools, consciousness is the aggregate that transmigrates from life to life. It is commonly described as being of the nature of "clear light" (prabhasvara), and all defilements are said to be adventitious (agantuka). One's volitional actions produce karmas, which move consciousness in certain directions and determine the nature of one's rebirth, but consciousness, unlike the atman, changes in every moment and is directly affected by the vicissitudes of one's life. Meditative training aims to remove mental defilements like anger, desire, and obscuration, while simultaneously cultivating good qualities like patience, morality, and wisdom.

In classical Indian philosophy, Buddhism was one of the main "heterodox" (nastika) systems. The Buddhists rejected the authoritativeness of the Vedas and claimed that their own scriptures contained correct doctrines and the only truly effective path to liberation. They asserted that the core existential problem is suffering (duhkha) and that it is caused by ignorance. Because beings misunderstand the true nature of reality, they make choices that lead to suffering and result in continuing transmigration. Since the problem is a cognitive one, the solution is also cognitive: liberation requires that one overcome mistaken ideas and acquire correct understanding. One of the most basic misconceptions, according to the Buddhists, is the notion of the atman. They assert that anyone who clings to a permanent self or to an ultimate reality (whether conceived as God or Brahman) will inevitably continue to transmigrate from life to life, and they hold that only those who free themselves from such false notions are able to attain liberation.

For all of the traditions discussed in this essay, the central concern of philosophy should be liberation. Indian philosophical texts commonly state in their introductions that the purpose of composition is to aid others in the pursuit of moksa, which indicates that philosophy is not viewed as an exercise in discussing semantic problems, but ideally should be a matter of profound concern for anyone seeking to comprehend reality as it is and thus attain the ultimate goal.


Chakrabarti, Kisor K. Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyaya Dualist Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Dreyfus, Georges B. J. Recognizing Reality: Dharmakirti's Philosophy and Its Tibetan Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Griffiths, Paul J. "Pure Consciousness and Indian Buddhism." In The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy, edited by Robert K. C. Forman, 71–97. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Gupta, Bina. CIT: Consciousness. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Matilal, Bimal K. Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

Mohanty, J. N. "Understanding Some Ontological Differences in Indian Philosophy." Journal of Indian Philosophy 8, no. 3 (1980): 205–217.

Potter, Karl H. Presuppositions of India's Philosophies. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1972.

John Powers

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshConsciousness - Indian Thought - Brahmanical Systems, Buddhist Systems, Bibliography