THE PROBLEM OF KNOWLEDGE AND THE FOUR SCHOOLS OF LATER BUDDHISM
BY DURGACHARAN CHATTERJI, M. A.
Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona
vol.XII 12:3, 1931.04. p. 205-215
The problem of knowledge pre-supposes a subject
that knows and an object that is known and the method
by which the subject or the knower acquires knowledge
of the object as well as the knowledge which is the
resultant of the former three. Vatsyayana aptly
remarks," He who is led to an action out of any
desire to accept or to reject a thing is the cogniser
(pramatr). The object that is cognised is the
cognisable (prameya ), The knowledge of the object
is the cognition (pramiti). And the apparatus whereby
an object is cognised is the instrument of cognition
(pramana) . With these four, pramatr, prameya,
pramiti, and pramana the circuit of the cognition of
an object completes itself.(1)" If any of these four
were wanting there could be no cognition. One is a
cogniser only in relation to what is cognised as
well as the cognition (pramiti or prama). Again, the
cognisable has come to be what it is only because it
becomes the object of
1. yasyepsajihasaprayuktasya pravrttih sa pramata sa
yenartham praminoti tat pramanam yo'rthah
pramiyate tat prameyam yadarthavijnanam sa
pramitih catasrsu caivamvidhasv arthatattvam
parisamapyate. Vatsyayana: Introduction to his
Bhasga on the Nyayasutra. Vacaspati echoes the
same note in the Bhamati on the Sankarabhasya of
the Vedantasutra. 2. 2. 28.
cognition. There must be also some pramana, some
apparatus of correct cognition without which the
pramatr and the prameya would remain strangely apart
and be never related. So also pramiti is necessary in
quest of which the three, pramatr, prameya and
pramana co-operate and function together. Thus these
four pramatr, prameya, pramana, and pramiti are
relative and interdependent.
Now all the schools of Brahmanic philosophy have
posited some permanent entity, i.e. soul as the
cogniser to which cognition is variously related. The
Buddhists have, however, denied the existence of any
such permanent entity. The aggregates of rupa,
somjna, samskara, vedana and vijnana,- the first
corresponding to what we call material elements and
all the rest to mental elements - are the stuff of
which an individual is made. Cognition which is not
subservient to any intelligent being, is referred to
the samjna skandha or the vijnana skandha according
as it is determinate (savikalpa) or indeterminate (
nirvikalpa).(1) The place of the transcendental atman
is taken by vijnana. It is the continuity of
cognition (santana ) which holds together, unifies
and synthesizes the fleeting moments of cognition and
seems to give us the notion, though erroneous, of a
subject or a knower acquiring knowledge both
presentative (nirvikalpa or svalaksana and
representative (savikalpa or samanyalaksana). This is
in general the Buddhist view on the nature of the
pramatr or the subject.(2) But there are some notable
points of difference among
1. rupavijnanam rasavijnanam ityadi nirvikalpakam
visistajnanam vijnanaskandhah samjnanamittodgrahanatmakah
pratyayah samjnaskandhah tetra samjna gaurityadika
gotvadikam ca tatpratipattinimittam tayorudgrahana yojana.
tadatmakah pratyayo namajatyadiyojanatmakam savikalpam
jnanam samjnaskandhah. Nyayavarttikatatparyaparisuddhi
(Bib. Ind. ) pp. 213-214. Again savikalpam vijnanam
samjnaskandhah nirvikalpakam jnanam vijnanaskandhah.
Saddarsanasamuccaya (Bib. Indica), p. 26.
2. For a detailed exposition of the Buddhist therory of
soul or rather not-soul ( nairatmya ) the following
may be consulted.
(a) Stcherbatsky Soul theory of the Buddhist.
(b) Rhys Davids : Soul ( Buddhist), Encyclopaedia of
Religion and Ethics.
(a) Keith: Buddhist Philosophy, Chapter IV.
(d) Stcherbatsky :Central Conception of Buddhism.
the various schools. It would therefore be better if
we discuss the problem of cognition with reference to
each of the four different schools of later Buddhism,
which was responsible for the growth and development
of Buddhist logic.
Buddhism in the beginning though branching out
into, as many as eighteen schools, settled itself
later to four principal ones viz. Vaibhasika,
Sautrantika, Yogacara and Madhyamika.
Whetherr these schools arose one after another or
side by side is a question which cannot be easily
answered. So without entering into this moot point,
we shall begin with the Vaibhasika - a procedure
which, though it may not be chronologically true, can
be supported from the standpoint of the evolution of
The Vaibhasikas share with the general Buddhist
schools the doctrines of soullessness and the
skandhas. Vijnana is the pramatr. And the prameyas
are the sense-data of colour, sound, odour, taste and
Corresponding to these five prameyas there are five
senses, sense of vision, sense of audition, sense of
smelling, sense of taste and sense of touch
(caksu-srotra-ghrana-jihva-kayendriyani) which apprehend
the prameyas or the sensibles.
The Vaibhasikas admit the reality of external
things though they acknowledge them to be momentary.
They do not, like the Yogacaras, the Buddhist
idealists, hold that the external objective world is
only a manifestation of internal consciousness
(vijnanaparinama). According to them "our knowledge
or awareness of things not mental is no creation but
only discovery.(1) Had it not been for perception no
determination of vyapti or the invariable
concomitance between the probans and probandum would
be possible, as it follows from repeated observations
of the probans and probandum associated together. In
the absence of the perceptibility of the external
world no concomitance can be determined and hence no
1. Radhakrishnan; "Indian Philosophy " vol. I, p. 614.
2. vijneyanumeyatvavade pratyaksikasya kasyacid
Sarvadarsanasamgraha, Bhandarkar Oriental Research
Institute, Poona City, 1924, Bauddha-darsana, p. 43.
Cognition, however, according to the Vaibhasikas
is devoid of any form belonging to subject cognised.
Cognition is coexistent with the object and has for
its origin the same conditions as the object itself.
If the cognition and the object be thus mutually
related, the former becomes pramana with reference to
the latter.(1) Jayanta in his Nyayamanjari develops
the doctrine which he has introduced there as a
purvapaksa. Cognition and object are but two
co-existent momentary entities, as they are
originated by kindred cause-complex
(tulyasamagryadhina). Cognition in any particular
moment is due to the cognition of the previous moment
as its material cause (upadana-karana) together with
the object of the previous moment as the auxiliary
cause (sahakarikarana). Again, the object at any
particular moment is due to the object of the
previous moment as the material cause together with
the cognition of the previous moment as its auxiliary
cause. Thus both cognition and object depend on a
kindred cause-complex (samagri) and the cognition
which rightly corresponds to the object is the
pramana of that object. In spite of the fact that
every thing cognition as well as object, is of a
momentary character, human life and its activities
have been rendered possible only on the continuity of
cognition and object in the above process.(2)
Cognition being of the nature of illumination is
regarded as the knower or the subject (grahaka). The
object being of the nature of insentience is regarded
as the knowable (grahya).(3)
Then comes the Sautrantika school of Buddhist
philosophy. Like the Vaibhasikas they do not
recognise the perceptibility of the
1. nirakarabodho' rthasahabhavy
Saddarsanasamuccaya (B.I., P. 26 ).
2. ksanabhangisu padarthesu
santatijananena ca lokayatramudvahatsu
jnanajanmani jnanam upadanakaranam arthah sahakari
karanam arthajanmani cartha upadanakaranam jnanam
sahakarikaranam iti jnanam ca jnanarthajanyam
ekasamagryadhinataya tam artham avyabhicarato
jnanasya tatra pramanyam iti. Nyayamanjari, p.
3. jnanam prakasasvabhavam iti grahakam artho
jadatmeti grahyam iti. ibid p. 16.
external objects. According to them the world of
matter is not directly apprehended; nevertheless it
has a real existence of its own. Objects can be
cognised by inference. Cognition assumes the form of
the object which itself cannot be intuited. So the
object is to be inferred from the form it imprints
on our cognition. Consciousness is, as it were, the
mirror in which the external realities are
The Yogacara or Vijnanavada is another school of
Buddhist philosophy which does not admit the reality
of external things. The reality of the objective
world, according to this school, is an illusion. It
is nothing more than a creation of the mind. The
objective world is merely the transformation of our
consciousness (vijnanaparinama) . An itinerant
ascetic, an amorous person and a dog, all catch sight
of a woman, but they have three different notions.
The ascetic looks upon her as a mere carcass, the
voluptuary takes her to be an object of amorous
delight while the dog takes her to be something
eatable.(2) Thus with reference to one and the same
body of a woman, diverse judgments arise according to
the pre-conception and the mental inclination of the
different observers. Similarly, the diversity of
judgment on our part of the empirical world is due to
the individual susceptibilities of the subject.
Consciousness is indivisible and unitary in its
nature. To the people of perverse intellect it
appears as divided into a perceptible object, a
percepient subject as well as perceptive
1. According to Prof. Stcherbatsky the Brahmanic
account of the Sautrantika theory of cognition,
viz. bahyarthanumeyatvavada (the theory that the
external objective world is not directly intuited
but cognised inferentially ) is due to some
confasion between the Sautrantika and the Yogacara
doctrines. (Stcherbatsky-Central Conception of
Buddhism, p. 63 f. n. 5 ). He also observes that
with regard to the process of cognition there is
not much difference between the Vaibhasika and the
2. parivrat kamkasunam ekasyam pramadatanau. kunapah
kamini bhaksyam iti tisro vikalpanah.
Sarvadarsanasamgraha. p. 30.
3. avibhago hi budhyatma viparyasitadarsanaih.
grahyagrahakasamvittivedavan iva laksyate.
Sarvadarsanasamgraha. p. 33.
According to them there are two kinds of
consciousness (vijnana): one is the alaya vijnana and
the other pravrtti vijnana. Alaya vijnana is the
continuous store-consciousness which is identified
with the notion of the self (ahamaspadam). And the
manifold vijnanas or awarenesses we experience in our
common life viz. knowledge of red, blue etc., are
cases of pravrtti vijnana. Alaya vijnana is not in
itself of a steady and permanent nature but it
appears to be so owing to the continuity (santana) of
the basic consciousness at each moment, just like the
water of a river in which no one current of water is
the same as the other. One Brahmanic writer says,
alayavijnana is the cogniser, pramatr and the five
aggregates of rupa, vedana, vijnana, samjna and
samskara are the prameyas which undergo changes every
moment.(1) The entire world (of sense perception )
involving as it is does, the tripartite division of a
knower, knowable and knowledge is impressed as it
were in the current of a continued succession of
consciousnesses in the shape of notion of a self.(2)
"The Alaya-vijnana is a series of continuous
consciousness. It is, to use the modern psychological
term, a stream of consciousness. It is always running
and changing. It is the sole substratum of the
transmigration in samsara. The Alaya-vijnana of the
Buddhist has for its counterpart in the Atman of the
orthodox Hindu system of Philosophy with this
difference that the Atman is immutable, while Alaya
vijnana is continuously changing."(3)
Vacaspati also suggests if alayavijnana be
regarded as a permanent entity it is in other words
1. ksane ksane praliyamanam utpadyamanam
ksane ksane pranikarmanusarens viliyamanotpadyamana
ca svabhavena suranaranarakarupena parinatim
uparatim ca yanti prameyam.
Sarvamatasamgraha, Trivandrum Sanskrit Series, p.19.
2. grahyagrahakagrhanatmakam sarvam idam jagad
3. Sogen: System of Buddhistic thought; Calcutta University,
4. tad yadyekam sthiram asthiyetatatonamantarena atmaiva.
Bhamati on the Vedantasutra, s.2.2.18.
The Tattvsaratnavall of Advayavajra( G.O.
Series) refers to two schools of Yogacaras, one
advocating sakaravada (i. e. cognition has some form
in which it appears to represent an external object )
and the other nirakaravada (i. e. cognition has no
form whatsoever).(1) The first scool argues: If
cognition has the form of a blue (object) or the
like, why one should admit external things? If again,
cognition has no form of a blue (object) or the like,
how one can admit external things? In the first case
cognition itself serves the purposes of external
things and in the second case in the absence of any
form in a cognition, external things, if any, cannot
be established as there is no other means of
cognising objects except through cognition which must
have some form.(2)
The second school says:-There is no external
reality as has been supposed by ignorant people.
Consciousness under the influence of vasana appears
as external entities. All appearances are mere
illusions (maya). Cognition is devoid of any form but
has a self-illuminating nature. In reality, mind is
free from any imprint of a supposed external object
and is like the sky clear and infinite.(3)
Though the above view of the Yogacara school is
true from the metaphysical and transcendental
standpoint, they have tentatively subscribed to the
ordinary notions of subject and object, without which
every day life becomes an absurdity.(4)
While the Yogacaras refuse to admit any
extramental reality and explain every thing in terms
of vijnana or cognition, the Madhyamikas go one step
further and discard vijnana also. To them both mind
and matter are equally appearances and not reality
which is rather inexpressible sand hence sunya-in the
1. yogacarasca dvidhah sakaranirakarabhedena.
Advayavajrasamgraha, p. 18.
2. dhiyo niladirupatve bahyo'rthah kimnibandhanah
dhiyo'niladirupatve bahyo'rthah kimnibandhanah.
ibid. p. 18.
This karika has been attributed to Dharmakirtti.
3. bahgo na vidyate hyartho yatha balairvikalpyate
vasanaluthitam cittam arthabhasam pravartate.
yavad abhasate yacca tan mayaiva bhasate
tattato hi nirabhasah suddhantanabhonibhah.
ibid, p. 18.
4. vastuto vedyavedakakaravidhuraya api
Sarvadarsanasamgraha, pp. 32-33
all attributes have been abstracted from it. Their
creed is that reality is neither existence nor
non-existence, nor the combination nor the negation
But the conclusions of an uncompromisingly
rigorous logic cannot have any effect on ordinary
minds which are yet to be trained to enable them to
form a correct notion of reality (tattva) by means of
a graduated course of instruction. So the Madhyamika
teachers have introduced two kinds of truth--samvrti
and paramartha, so that the ordinary people may learn
to argue for themselves and choose the right one. Of
the two-fold truth samvrtti and paramartha, the
latter which is the real and highest truth transcends
intellect (buddhi), while the former belongs to the
region of intellect. Samvrti is the relative truth
referrable to our every day life and experiences. It
is called samvrti on account of the fact of its
veiling on all sides the real nature of things.(1) It
is characterised by the notion of name and nameable,
cognition and cognisable and the like.
It has been said that Buddha's teachings are
with reference to these two kinds of truth, viz.
samvrti and paramartha. Those who do not understand
the difference between these two truths, shall not
understand the spirit of the profound teaching of
Buddha. Candrakirti observes in connection with the
above that without admitting the concerns of the
work-a-day world, which are characterised by the
notion of names and namables and of knowledge and
knowables, ultimate truth cannot be discussed.(2) So
also Nagarjuna says, ultimate truth cannot be set
forth without referring to the practical concerns of
life and without realising ultimate truth there can
be no nirvana.(3)
1. samantadvaranam samvrtih ajnanam hi samantat
sa cayam abhidhanabhidheyajnanajneyadilaksanah.
Prasannapada on the Madhyamikakarika ( Bib.
Buddhica), p. 492.
2. ye'nayor na vijananti vibhagam satyayordvayoh
te tattvam navijananti gambhiram buddhasasane.
kimtu laukikam vyavaharam anabhyupagamya
bhidhanabhidheyajnanajneyadilaksanam asakya eva
paramartho desayitum. Ibid. p. 494.
3. vyavaharam anasritya paramartho na desyate
paramarthamanagamya nirvanam nadhigamyate.
M. K. 24.10.
Now samvrti has been divided into two classes for
practical purposes: (a) tathyasamvrti and (b)
mithyasamvrti. The cognition of a blue as blue by
means of some sense organ, viz. eyes, is a case of
tathyasamvrti. But hallucinations, a mirage and the
like which are due to some defect either in the
sense-organ or the sensing itself, are cases of
mithyasamvriti.(1) In terms of Nyaya, the former are
pramana and the latter are apramana. But in the
transcendental stage both tathyasamvrti and
mithyasamvrti are equally wrong, as it would seem to
a saint (arya).(2) We may refer in passing to the
Yogasutra where we read that yoga demands the
suppression of all mental states right or wrong.(3)
There pramana (correct knowledge) along with
viparyaya (incorrect knowledge ) is one of the
several vrttis to be got rid of in yoga.
The Madhyamika position also reminds one of
Samkara's observation which is strikingly similar to
it.(4) In his introduction
1. sa ca samvrtirdvividha lokata eva. tathyasamvrtir
mithya samvrti sceti. tatha hi kimcit pratityajatam
niladikam vasturupam adosavadindriyair upalabdham
lokata eva satyam. mayamaricipratibimbadisu pratitya
samupajatam api dosavadindriyopalabdham yathasvam
tirthikasiddhantaparikalpitam ca lokata eva mithya.
Bodhicaryavatarapanjika. p. 353.
2. etattad ubhayam api samyagdrsamaryanam mrsa
Compare the Vedantic division of truth into
paramarthika, vyavaharika and pratibhasika: the first
corresponds to the Buddhist paramartha and the last
two to tathyasamvrti and mithyasamvrti respectively.
3. yogascittavrttinirodhah......Yogasutra, p. 1. 2.
Yogasutra, 1, 6.
4. tam etam avidyakhyam atmanatmanoritaretaradhyasam
puraskrty sarve pramanaprameyavyavahara laukika
vaidikasca pravrttah sarvani ca sastrani vidhipratisedha-
moksaparani. katham punar avidyavadvisayani-
pratyaksadini pramanani sastraniceti. ucyate
pattau pramanapravrttyanupapatter na hindriya-
nyanupadaya pratyaksadivyavarah sambhavati na
to the commentary on the Brahmasutras,
Samkara says: "The mutual superimposition of the Self
and the non-self, which is termed Nescience, is the
pre-supposition on which there base all the
practical distinctions-those made in ordinary life as
well as those laid down by the Veda - between means
of knowledge, objects of knowledge( and knowing
persons ), and all scriptural texts, whether they are
concerned with injunctions and prohibitions (of
meritorious and non-meritorious actions ) or with
final release. But how can the means of right
knowledge such as perception, inference, etc., and
scriptural texts have for their object that which is
dependent on Nescience? Because, we reply, the means
of right knowledge cannot operate unless there be a
knowing personality, and because the existence of the
latter depends on the erroneous notion that the body,
the senses and so on, are identical with, or belong
to, the self of the knowing person. For without the
employment of the senses, perception and the other
means of right knowledge cannot operate. And without
a basis (i. e. the body) the senses cannot act. Nor
does any body act by means of a body on which the
nature of the self is not superimposed. Nor can in
the absence of all that, the self which in its own
nature is free from all contact, become a knowing
agent. And if there is no knowing agent, the means of
right knowledge cannot operate (as said above ).
Hence perception and other means of right knowledge,
and the Vedic texts have for their object that which
is dependent upon Nescience."(1)
Samkara goes on arguing as above and proves on
the analogy of men with animals that it is out of
Nescience that men betake themselves to the notion of
the means and objects of knowledge.
cadhisthanamantarenendriyanam vyaparah sambhavati.
na canadhyastatmabhavena dehena kascid vyapriyate na
caitasmin sarvasminu asatyasangasyatmanah pramatrtvam
upapadyate. na ca pramatrtvam antarena-
pramanapravrttirasti tasmad avidyavad visayanyeva
pratyaksadini pramanani sastrani ceti.
Samkara Bhasya on the Vedantasutras;
Anandasrama Editoin, 1890, pp. 12-14
1. The Vedantasutras with Samkara Bhasya (S.B.E.)
vol. XXXIV, pp. 6-7.
So the view that pramana has no place in the
transcendental vision of the reality, is shared
equally by some of the Buddhist and Brahmanic
From the views of the four Buddhist schools, as
sketched above, it would appear that the first two
admit the reality of an external objective world
which enters into our cognition, but the last two do
not admit such a reality. The objective world is, as
they would say, invested with reality by a mere
figment of imagination. This view of reality although
true from philosophical standpoint cannot accord with
our everyday life. So they have admitted tentatively
a relative truth to fit in with the practical
concerns of life.
It is from this aspect of truth in our everyday
experience that logical discussions are possible.
Logic or Nyaya is consistent with realism. The
Brahmanic Nyaya system is out and out realistic, as
well as the Jainn Nyaya. The Buddhist schools of
Vijnanavadin and of Madhyamika, as we have seen, have
obviated the difficulties in the way of logical
speculations by their realistic concessions. The
logical texts of the Buddhists we know of, all
belong to Mahayana and were written by Madhyamika and
Vijnanavadin authors. The Madhyamika and the
pre-Dinnaga Yogacara writers on logic mostly reverted
to Gautama's principles. Though Yogacara or
Vijnanavadin (idealists ) in their metaphysical
theories, Dinnaga and Dharmakirtti have for the
purposes of logic taken up the Sautrantika position
which represents the transition stage between
Hinayana and Mahayana. The Buddhist logicians that
flourished later on mostly adopted their principles.