Buddhist Philosophy 2: The Orthodox & Unorthodox Schools of India

For this lecture, please read this selection and this also from the Upanishads.

Vedanta: The End of the Vedas

Vedanta Society San Francisco

As mentioned last class, Vedanta means ‘End of the Vedas’ and is the further systematizing of the Upanishad wisdom. While the Vedic hymns to the gods and rituals were kept, the Upanishads suggest again and again that self-discipline and philosophical insight are the inner meaning of the outer rituals just as the mind is the inner meaning and essence of the outer body. This is the true knowledge (vidya) of the ritual, and it is knowledge rather than ritual that dispels ignorance (avidya). Just as ritual was thought to please and nourish the gods, the Vedanta schools taught that knowledge and wisdom are the life’s blood of the cosmos, the nourishing of the cosmos through the nourishing of the self. As the self grows in wisdom, the self expands the cosmos and the cosmos expands the self.

SV-AS10 ImageData

This implies that the original position of the self is one of ignorance and darkness that is to be overcome through wisdom and enlightenment.  Just as the Jains and Buddhists share much of the Upanishads’ outlook, they share the idea that the cosmos and self, as it first appears in a disjointed and articulated state, is maya or illusion.  Sometimes maya was personified as a benevolent god (Maya, lord of illusion), sometimes as a demon as with some early Indian Buddhist schools.  In some stories, Maya is a playful trickster, while in some accounts of the enlightenment of the Buddha Maya, also called Mara, is king of the demons and sends all he can at the Buddha to prevent him from achieving enlightenment.


There were several Vedanta schools with their own teachers and teachings. The two most famous are the monistic school of Shamkara and the theistic school of Ramanuja. Shamkara pushed beyond the personified gods towards the monism of the One and All, while Ramanuja criticized Shamkara by name as well as other ‘liberal worshipers’ like those admonished in the Vedic hymn we read, for abandoning the gods and Bhakti devotional worship as inessential to participation in the unity of the cosmos. For Ramanuja, the gods and darshana are an important and essential part of rising into the unity of All. Shamkara, the more progressive, pictured here, like the Buddhists and Jains understanding the Upanishads to be higher than the Vedas and thus beyond them, while Ramanuja, the more traditional, sees the Upanishads and Vedanta as essentially rooted in the theism of the Vedas and thus requiring them.

The Vaisheshika School of Atoms & Elements

Kanada Vaisheshika

Kanada, like the country up North but with a K, is the founder of the Vaisheshika school. While there are subtle criticisms of the Vedas in the Vaisheshika Sutra, it is considered one of the orthodox Hindu schools of thought. Kanada’s dates are debated. Chinese scholars sometimes put his texts at 1000 BCE, while our scholars often put them at 200 BCE or even 100 CE. This is quite political, because the Chinese tradition comes very much from India and the European tradition comes very much from Greece. The publisher of this texts says it is safe to say that Kanada lived and taught by 600 BCE at the latest.

brazilian skeptical owl

Kanada’s name means One who eats grain, but it could also mean one who gathers particulars/particles.  He is also known as ‘The Owl’, or Uluka.  Legend has it that he was so ugly in appearance that he frightened young women, so he only ventured out at night, sneaking into granaries to eat corn and rice grains/particles.  Another story is Shiva taught him in the form of an owl.  Notice that there are many traditions and versions, some mixed with the stories of the Vedic gods and others not.

kanada atomist

Kanada began what is known as the Vaisheshika school, and thus his text is the Vaisheshika Sutra.  Vaisheshika means particular, but also particle, atom, particular, special, specific, and distinction.   Kanada may have been the first logician and first atomist in recorded human history.  Gotama’s Nyaya (Logic/Debate) school borrowed much from Kanada in forming rules and manuals of debate.  It is believed that Jainism and Buddhism took both of these systems and developed them in a skeptical and relativistic direction.  Thus, Kanada and Gotama are analytic logicians who are seeking fixed atomic truths (universal, necessary and certain), much like early British and American Positivists, and the Jains and Buddhists are skeptical logicians who criticize positivistic thinking with relativity and skepticism, much like German and French Existentialists and Postmodernists.  Once again, this is an excellent example of what Hegel saw as the back and forth between dogmatic absolute truth and skeptical relative truth.  Kanada set out his Vaisheshika system and its seven objects of knowledge to understand the cosmos, which involved debating well to arrive at the truth.  Gotama, who we will study next, was concerned primarily with debate and logical argument.

cow with dewlap

The two schools of Kanada (Vaisheshika) and Gotama (Nyaya) focus on inherence, how  particular individuals are included as members of the general group, and inference, conclusions that can be drawn about a particular individual when one knows the general group.  For example, both schools used the example of cows having a dewlap, which I previously thought was the hump on the backs of Indian cows, but it turns out are the folds of skin beneath their necks.  Because many individual cows inhere in the group of all cows, and because, according to Kanada, all cows have dewlaps (as far as he knew in India), we can infer that if someone is a cow, then they have a dewlap.  Two types of inherence which allow us to make valid inferences include speciation (groups that have typical qualities, such as cows having dewlaps) and causation (events in time that lead from one to another, such as rain always being caused by clouds, an example Kanada also uses).

Kanada’s Seven Objects of Knowledge include:

Sir Isaac Newton light refraction experiment

1) Substance (dravya), nine in number: air, water, fire, earth, ether, time, space, self and mind.  These are composed of particles or atoms that are eternal and uncreated, and thus they can’t be created or destroyed.  Newton, like medieval alchemists before him but unlike modern physics and chemistry, believed in ether, the glue element that sticks the others together in combinations.

2) Attribute (guna): quality (color, texture, odor, taste) and quantity (number, measure, distinction, conjunction, disjunction).  Kanada argues in the text that attributes are not substances, but reside in substances and can cause substances, other attributes and actions.

3) Action (karma): Note that karma is the physical energy and motion that makes kicking someone cause pain and also gets the kicker reborn as a cockroach.  Kanada argues that substances and attributes can cause actions but actions themselves cannot produce other actions.  He also argues action belongs to one substance, not many.

bart simpson sound of one hand clapping

It is very possible that, in opposition to this theory, the Buddhist “sound of one hand clapping” is a counter example to this, and Gotama differs from Kanada on this also. While the Zen koan certainly has deeper value as a contemplation device, it is also contemplating the impossibility of sound, an action, being produced exclusively by one thing, an example of the Buddhist doctrine of codependent arising, that things are always caused by complex situations and not single isolated things. Buddhists certainly want us to be aware that if something is making you upset, it is not that thing alone, but you as well that is making you upset, two things creating an effect together much like two hands creating the sound of clapping together.

rain clouds

4) General (samanya): the universal or group, such as the general group (speciation) of all cows or the general event (causation) of a rainstorm (in which clouds cause rain).

5) Particular (vishesha): the individual or specific, such as the individual cow or the individual event of a cloud causing rain.

6) Inherence  (samavaya): the particular being included and conforming to the general.  We can make inferences based on inherences.  If we know that the general group of cows have horns, then we know that this particular cow must have horns.  Likewise, if we know that generally rainclouds cause rain, then we can infer that this particular rain must have been caused by clouds.

7) Non-existence or Emptiness (abhava): non-being, nothingness and void.


Kanada discusses fire as energy.  It is interesting that fire was the most common form of energy seen and used in the ancient world, whereas electricity is the most common form seen and used in the modern world.  Thus, the Egyptians, Greeks, Indians and Chinese thought of energy as fire whereas we think of energy as electricity.

Kanada argues that sound is caused and therefore it is impermanent.  Some have argued this seems to be a subtle critique of the earlier Vedic tradition (like arguing “paper is perishable” as a safe and subtle way of suggesting that the Bible must be temporary, not eternal).  Like Shamkara, Kanada may be saying, as we read in the Upanishads, that the oral tradition of the Vedas are the lower form, and his jnana yoga investigations of nature and the mind are a superior higher pursuit.

Smoke Upward

Kanada argues that things move downward naturally, so things must have additional causes/forces to move sideways or upward (thus, smoke shows additional force or energy, namely that it has fire in it and fire moves upward. He also argues thus that water moves upward by sun/fire in it, then comes downward in cycles. Then, when the water collects in clouds, it causes the fire to be released as lightning. He argues that the arrow flies first from cause and then from inherent tendency to remain in motion, similar if not identical to the modern concept of ‘inertia’.

The Nyaya School of Logic & Debate

Gautama Nyaya Sutra

Gautama, who lived sometime about 250 BCE, is considered the founder of the Nyaya school and the author of the Nyaya Sutra, a textbook and manual on logical debate. The Nyaya Sutra was not the first Indian text concerned with logical argument and analysis, but it became one of the most popular and thus foundational for the Nyaya school. It is believed that the Jains and Buddhists, who are more skeptical thinkers about logic but very involved in debate, later took much from the Nyaya Sutra and school. Nyaya means “right”, “just”, “justified” or “justifiable”, the same way we use ‘logical’ to mean ‘right debate or speech’. The school reached its height in 150 CE, but it traces itself back to Gautama and his teachings.

brick well

Gautama is also called ‘Akshapada’, ‘Eyes in the Feet’, from a legend that he was so deeply absorbed in thought one day on a walk that he fell into a well, and Brahma gave him eyes in his feet to prevent this from happening again. Notice that, like the Vaisheshika ‘particular’ school, Nyaya is concerned with putting particular things into categories and relationships. Objects and substances can be called the ‘feet’ of things, and their families or causes (generalities) the head or mind of things.

Giant Buddha Indian Temple

The Buddha, who also lived sometime around 550 BCE is also called Gautama or Gotama. Some scholars used to argue that Gautama may have been the Buddha himself, but in fact they were two different founders of two different schools who were both from the Gautama region in Northern India which is how they share the name. Gautama, Buddha and Mahavira (the founder of Jainism), were also of the warrior caste, the second class in the Indian caste system beneath the first class Brahmins, the Vedic priests and scholars.

jackal head

This shows that the period produced new thinkers with new ideas that were questioning the established Vedic tradition, and the schools of this period are known to have become very popular because they were open to people of all castes including the lowest. A story from the period says that a scholar who gave up on the Vedas and turned entirely to logic turned into a Jackal. This story was obviously told by Vedic scholars and priests who found the new systems a threat to the old established traditions. Like science in Europe, however, the new ways were gradually added to the old ways, until the new system was an old standard alongside the Vedic traditions.


The Nyaya Sutra is one of many debate manuals that was written for Indian philosophical or cosmological debates. Questions asked included: “Is the self/soul/mind eternal or temporary?”, “Is the world and its laws eternal or temporary?”, “Is it better to renounce or indulge in luxuries?”, “Are there particular things which are sacred or is everything equally sacred?”, and, a question seen in Kanada’s text, “Is sound (and thus the oral tradition of the Vedas) eternal or temporary?”. This last question is central to the Nyaya text and Gautama’s form of proof that we will study. It is noticeable that many of these debates are concerned with distinguishing the eternal from the temporary. In ancient world cosmology, the eternal was the sacred and the object of true knowledge. If one could determine which things and laws are eternal, one would grasp the ways of the cosmos.

indian sage

Notice that these debates (vadas) are also all of the form Is X Y or not Y?  This is the typical form of Nyaya debate or Nyaya Vada.  If one could justifiably claim that all X are Y, one could then argue for further truths based on the established truths.  Jains and Buddhists also took this form as fundamental.  For instance, the Vedic priests argued that the self/soul/mind was eternal, while the Jains and Buddhists argued that it is temporary.  In Greek thought, particularly with Plato and Aristotle, this arguing back and forth between opposite positions is called dialectic.  Later, in Buddhist debates after Nyaya hits its height, three areas of debate for a proposition were conducted in order:  “Is X always Y?”, “Is X everywhere Y?” and “Is X Y in everything?”.

peacock sitting

In ancient India, a king, authority or rich patron would organize a debate and banquet, invite participants from various schools of thought to debate (often the teachers of competing rival schools, like a competition in a Kung Fu movie). This put them in good standing with the public. Women were not unheard of as debate participants, but not nearly as common as male debaters (one can unfortunately say this of American and British philosophical departments today).

Arabic Aristotle

Debate manuals like the Nyaya Sutra were designed to introduce students and scholars to typical forms of argument as well as methods of attack and defense. They also listed fallacies, types of false arguments that sound solid but have flaws. The Nyaya Sutra tells us that the best debater will not take cheap moves, ‘quibbles’ or ‘clinchers’, but one is free to make them at one’s own risk. The text is surprisingly honest and insightful on this point. By using deceptive reasoning, you could win the debate but you could also could lose if your opponent points out your errors or shortcuts. This is still true of argument today even in the most casual setting, and a good reason that looking into old Logic texts like the Nyaya Sutra is still useful today. Aristotle’s Organon, his ‘Tool’, are six books that cover different areas of debate and knowledge, similarly dealing with construction of argument and fallacies. Aristotle also must straddle the sometimes contrary goals of arguing truth and winning the debate.

eye anatomy

The Four Sources of Knowledge are Perception, Inference, Comparison, and Testimony.  All of these can potentially give valid knowledge, but there are problems with each.  Perception is seeing or experiencing something for oneself.  Perception can only be valid if it tells you something determinate that doesn’t vary or change.  Three examples of false perception given in the text are confusing smoke and dust, confusing a rope with a snake, and thinking that the hot earth is wet when in fact this is a mirage.

rain bridge japanese print

Inference is knowledge of an object produced by perception.  This shows induction of perception passing into deduction of inference which is still held in Philosophy and Psychology today.  Some authors have claimed that Aristotle’s syllogisms are deductively valid but the Nyaya proof is not and based on induction.  Actually, Aristotle has many syllogisms he admits are not deductively valid on their own and he also believes that one can only argue based on what one perceives and one can be mistaken exactly like the Nyaya School and Gautama.  We can see induction and deduction working together in both Aristotle’s syllogisms and Gautama’s form of proof.  As can see in the text, there are five steps but as the Buddhists correctly perceived the first and second are identical to the fifth and the fourth.  To make it easier, I have boiled it down to two steps.  The first is a general rule backed by an example.  The second step is a reason which leads to a conclusion.  The text gives us two examples:

Metal Indian Pot

Wherever there is smoke there is fire, as in a kitchen.  Because there is smoke on the hill, there is fire on the hill.

Whatever is produced is mortal, as a pot.  Because sound is produced, sound is mortal.

Both of these have the form All B are C (like the example), and because A is B, A is C.  This is similar if not identical to the first perfect form of Aristotle’s syllogism, with his famous central example being, “All men are mortal, so since Socrates is a man, Socrates is (or rather, was) mortal“.

Indian Court

Fallacies are mistakes commonly made in arguments.  Types of fallacies identified in the Nyaya Sutra include changing the thesis, contradicting the thesis, meaningless utterances, incoherent speech (‘colorless sleep furiously green’ is a famous example by Noam Chomsky), repetition, silence, ignorance (failing to understand typically), evasion (‘I am called by nature’, ‘I have another appointment’), sharing the fault (problem with both sides), overlooking fallacies, pointing out false fallacies.

Quibbling is objecting to an argument as a fallacy when it is not actually a fallacy.  If a fallacy is an error, quibbling is making an error about something being an error.  Quibbling can lose a debate just as surely as giving a fallacious argument.  The text gives three types: Term (ex: Someone claims to have a new (“nava”) blanket, but this is confused with the claim of nine (also “nava”) blankets), Genus (ex: Someone claims Brahmins are educated but the opponent objects that some Brahmins are two years old), and Metaphor (ex: Someone claims poetically, “The scaffolds cry out”, and the opponent objects, “Impossible, they are inanimate objects”).

The Charvaka School of Skepticism & Materialism

Jain carving

Now that we have covered three of the orthodox Hindu schools of thought that are concerned with practices other than Bhakti devotional worship, we will turn to one of the three unorthodox, non-Hindu schools of ancient Indian thought, the Charvakas. We will then in the next lecture be covering the second unorthodox school, Jainism, and then for the rest of the class the third unorthodox school, one of the largest schools of thought in world history, Buddhism.

indian sage

The Charvaka skeptics believed in perception, like the Vaisheshika and the Nyaya, but they did not believe in inference or theory of any kind. Not only did they believe in no gods or spirits or eternal soul, but they did not believe that the human mind can know things through inference but rather imagines simplified relations. This imaginary connection is an illusion. One can use inference as a tool, but it is always an imaginary illusion. Thus, they are agnostic about theory as well as theism. Only what is right in front of your eyes is real. This is very similar to Wittgenstein’s famous opening line of the Tractatus, the book that began modern truth table logic: “The world consists of facts, not of things”. The world may be real, but to us it is many imagined things and constructed facts, not a thing perceived directly. Thus, one can imagine and theorize that rain always requires clouds, but one cannot perceive all rain or all clouds or the connection between the two groups as a whole, and so one’s inference that rain always comes from clouds is an imaginary illusion, albeit a useful one to keep around.

Egyptian beer making

Other schools criticized the Charvakas for failing to explain the origin of consciousness. The Charvaka reply was that consciousness was like the fermentation of alcohol. When one mixes several ingredients in the right proportions and gives it time, alcohol is produced. As such, consciousness is a temporary combination of elements that dissipates back into the material world from which it arose.

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