Dharmakirti's Theory of Truth by S. Katsura

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Article appeared in the Journal of Indian Philosophy, 1984 pp215-35

Transcript of Dharmakirti's Theory of Truth by S. Katsura


    D H A R M A K I R T I ' S T H E O R Y OF T R U T H

    In the tradition of Buddhist logic and epistemology established by Dignfiga (ca. 480-540), Dharmakfrti (ca. 600-660) yielded probably the greatest influence upon succeeding Buddhist and non-Buddhist logicians in India. The aim of this article is to try to reconstruct Dharmakfrti's theory of truth from the remarks on pramdna (a means/source of true knowledge) scattered in his works. 1 It is to be noted at the outset that by the word 'truth' I do not mean metaphysical or religious truth, such as the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, but rather empirical truth. For Indian theories of truth (prdmd.nya- vdda) deal with empirical knowledge alone 2 and Dharmakfrti in his preserved treatises is primarily concerned with the epistemological and logical problems of our worldly experience. Although the Sanskrit original for the word 'truth', prdmdnya, literally means 'the property of being a means of true knowledge', to Dharmakfrti it means 'the property of true knowledge' (or 'the truth of knowledge') as well. For as we shall see, he insists upon the essential identity between the means of knowledge and the resultant knowlege. Hence the word 'pramd.na' in this article carries both the sense of 'a means of true knowledge' and that of 'true knowledge' itself.

    If I may state my conclusion first, Dharmakfrti seems to hold two different criteria of true knowledge or truth, one pragmatic and the other purely epistemological. According to the pragmatic criterion which is found in his discussion of the definition of pramd.na, true knowledge should not be contradicted (avisathvddin) by our experience, but lead to the satisfaction of our expectation towards the object, and the object of true knowledge should be both real and something new. Now, when we closely examine Dharmak~rti's analysis of perception (pratyaksa) - more precisely, sensation - and inference (anumdna), the only two kinds of pramd.nas recognized by him, we discover that the former alone is regarded as 'non-erroneous' (abhrdnta). According to Dharmak~rti, sensation is total and direct knowledge of an object and possesses the true representation of the object, while inference is a partial and indirect understanding of the object because it grasps only one of the many general characteristics of the object. In a purely epistemological sense, sensation alone

    Journal of Indian Philosophy 12 (1984) 215-235. 0022-1791/84/0123-0215 $02.10. 1984 by D. R eidel Publishing Company.


    is free from error and ul t imately true because it keeps some real 'corres- pondence ' with the actual object, namely resemblance (sdrapya) of the forms or images; inference, however, is ul t imately 'erroneous' (bhrdnta) because it does not grasp an object as it really is. Nonetheless, t ruth of inference should not be doubted in practice as long as it leads to an expected result. As a mat ter o f fact, from a pragmatic point of view, inference is in a sense truer than sensation, for in order to be pragmatically valuable the latter should be followed by some conceptual knowledge (vikalpa) which alone enables us to have some decision (ni~caya/adhyavasdya) about an object, while the former does not require such knowledge. In what follows, I hope to present as clearly as possible this somewhat complicated theory o f truth. However, before embarking on the main discussion, it may be helpful to clarify some fundamental presuppositions of Dharmakfrt i 's ontology and epistemology.


    One of the fundamental doctrines of the Buddhists is that everything is impermanent , except for some 'uncaused/uncondit ioned' (asarhskr. ta) items, such as Nirvana. Dharmakfrti believes this doctrine in its most rigorous form: namely, whatever exists is momentary (ksanika) because only momentary existence can produce an effect (arthakriyd-samartha). 3 Thus, according to him, to be is to be capable of producing an effect, 4 so that what really exist are innumerable point-instants or moments (ksa.na) of material objects (r@a) and mental phenomena (citta). 5 Such moments are considered to form a sort of natural flow, for each moment is believed to cause the immediately succeeding moment o f a similar kind until such a process is obstructed for some reason. For instance, a moment of seed ( A I ) causes the next moment of seed (A2) which in turn will cause the next moment of seed (Aa); this will continue until a seed of moment i (Ai) with enough matur i ty produces the first moment of sprout (B1) with the help of such co-operating conditions (sahakdrin) as the earth, water, heat, etc. of the moment L 6 Thus what appears to us as a solid seed that continues to exist at least for some period of time, is, according to Dharmakfrti , actually a series of moments of seeds. Without yogic power, however, we are incapable of recognizing each moment distinctly; 7 hence, we are forced to deal with a sort of apparent continuum (santdna) of moments insead o f moments themselves.


    'Moment ' and 'continuum' seem to be the two key words to the under- standing of Dharmark~rti's ontology and epistemology. They are characterized by him in the following manner.

    (i) A moment is characterized by the causal power (arthakriya-~akti) and regarded as ultimately real (paramdrtha-sat). A continuum, on the other hand, is a mere conceptual construct imagined by us upon a series o f actual moments o f a similar kind, and consequently it is not real but fictional. A continuum is characterized by its lack of causal power.

    (ii) Each moment is unique in the sense that it is distinguished not only from other moments of a similar kind (say, a seed) but from those of a dissimilar kind (non-seed). 8 Hence it is called 'particular' (svalak.sa.na). A continuum represents some universal or general characteristic (s~m~nya- laksana) common to every moment which constitutes that continuum. It gives rise to our sense of continuity and identity. It is to be noted here that such a continuum of, say, seed-moments distinguished from other continua of seed-moments somewhat corresponds to our concept o f an 'individual' seed and that a universal or general characteristic superimposed upon a group of seeds distinguished from non-seeds corresponds to a 'generic ctass' of seed. 9

    (iii) A single moment is changeless because it cannot be subject to any external influence due to its momentary nature. As for a continuum, however, we can conceive of various kinds of external influence upon it and speak of its gradual change, e.g. the gradual maturation of a seed. 1

    (iv) A moment or particular is the object of sensation, while a continuum or universal is the object of such conceptual knowledge as inference, judgement and verbal knowledge. The former gives rise to a clear image of an object, the latter merely to an obscured image.ll

    (v) A moment or particular is inexpressible because only a continuum or universal can be the object of our verbal expression.12 Consequently, it is to be noted that whenever I refer to a moment by a word like 'seed', the word is used only in a metaphorical sense, for a continuum of seed-moments alone can be called 'seed'.

    In summary, a moment is causally efficient, real, unique, changeless, inexpressible, particular and related to sensation, while a continuum is causally inefficient, ficitional, common or general, changeable, expressible, universal and related to judgement, etc.

    According to Dharmak~rti, knowledge too forms a natural, momentary flow. For example, a moment o f sense perception is the result of a set of


    co-operating causes (sdmagrf) belonging to the immediately preceeding moment , viz. knowledge, the sense-organ, an object, at tention, light, etc. 13 As long as such a set o f causes continues to produce additional similar sets, there will arise a series of moments o f similar sense perception.14 It is essential for such a set of causes to be in approximation (sarhnidhi/pratydsatti) in space and time with each other in order to produce their expected result. Is The resultant sense perception is essentially unique in nature because of its momentariness; yet, it is characterized by a variety of properties due to its variety of causes: it is knowledge because it is the result of the preceeding knowledge, it takes a particular object (say, color) because it is caused by a particular sense-organ (the eyes), it resembles its object because it is the result o f that object, and so on. 16 The theory that knowledge resembles its object or knowledge possesses the form or image of its object (sdkdrajadnavdda) is one of the fundamental presuppositions of Dharmakfrti 's epistemology: According to him, the object of knowledge should be the cause of knowledge which is capable of projecting its image into knowledge.IT

    If we may focus on the object of knowledge, a moment of the object possesses the causal power to produce a sensation of it in the next moment . It may be called 'particular causal power ' of the object.18 By sensation, the object (say, a seed) is grasped as it really is and with all its specific properties, e.g. seedness, momentariness, reality, roundness, minuteness, brown color, etc. Each of such specific properties, however, is to be grasped in its general form by judgements or conceptual knowledge which follow the sensation.19 Consequently, it may be said that a moment of the object possesses a sort of 'general or universal causal power ' , as well, which produces judgement of a specific proper ty of the object, such as 'this is a seed