A Comparison of Vedic and Buddhist Epistemology
By Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya
The epistemological concepts of shabda-pramana ("the Divine Word as a means of valid cognition") and agama-pramana ("tradition, or scripture, as a means of valid cognition") have as their fields of inquiry a broad range of objects of knowledge (prameya). As understood in the Sanatana Dharma tradition, shabda-pramana represents the only epistemic mechanism specifically designed to reveal transcendent truths (brahma-vidya), which would remain otherwise non-accessible to human cognitive faculties. For Buddhism, only agama-pramana is capable of revealing objects of knowledge that are of a completely imperceptible (atyantaparoksha) nature. While cursorily arising from the very different metaphysical stances of two differing Dharmic religious traditions, it is my contention that shabda and agama pramanas share both a common epistemic process, as well as object of knowledge. They are two interdependent functions of the same mechanism. Agama (scripture), for Sanatana Dharma, is the concretized literary form of shabda, while shabda is the experiential ontic condition necessary for the arising of agama. This said, it is simultaneously undeniable that cursorily mainstream, contemporary Buddhism lacks the transcendent element (namely, Brahman - the Transcendent Absolute) that gives the specifically Sanatana Dharma notion of agama its necessary grounding. The crucial disagreement over whether agamic knowledge has a real transcendent referent forms the fundamental issue of the debate between Sanatana Dharma and Buddhist epistemologists.
While the nature of the highest object of knowledge has always been a topic of discussion throughout the long history of Dharmic philosophy, the pursuit of indubitable knowledge via formulaic rules of logic and reasoning finds its first systematic expression in the Nyaya-sutras (c. 200 CE) of Akshapada Gautama. Sometime after this seminal treatise on logic was written, we also find the Nyaya-bhashya commentary of Pakshilasvamin. The later birth of Buddhist logic can be directly attributed to the ideas formulated in these texts of the Sanatana Dharma school of Nyaya logic.
Similarly, later Sanatana Dharma epistemologists would find themselves adopting several innovations in logic and pramana-theory that were discovered by Buddhist philosophers. While the Nyaya school specifically accepts as valid the four pramanas of pratyaksha (sense impression), anumana (inference), upamana (analogy) and shabda (divine word), and the Vedanta school generally accepts all of the above with the exclusion of upamana, mainstream Buddhism has traditionally only recognized two pramanas. These are pratyaksha (knowledge derived through sense perception) and anumana (knowledge derived through reason and intellect). This limitation is in keeping with the Buddhist denial of any metaphysical or transcendent reality. Mainstream Buddhism only recognizes the physical and mind-substance realms as having any meaningful reality. Thus, in contemporary Buddhism, there is no God or eternal self (atman).
Both shabda and agama pramanas are predicated upon apta-vakya, or the statements of reliable persons. In the case of the Sanatana Dharma tradition, the apta is specifically an apta-rishi, an individual who has achieved a state of perfect samadhi - uninterrupted absorption of his meditational focus on the positive Absolute - and who is thus a liberated being. Such a state of samadhi has yoga as its direct cause and tatta-vijnana (knowledge of truth) as its subsequent result.
The way in which the aptahood of an individual sage can be objectively determined is by the radically heightened compassionate awareness and virtuous personal and behavioral qualities of the person in question. The truths of scripture are grounded upon the personal trustworthiness of the apta sage who revealed the scripture. In turn, the trustworthiness of the apta is directly inferred by the virtuous attributive excellences exhibited by the apta sage in his or her daily behavior.
A truly enlightened, and thus reliable, sage must be moral, kind, patient, soft-spoken, humble, gentle, giving, not greedy, innocent, non-violent, wise, noble, visionary, knowledgeable, grave and sober, disciplined, chaste, forebearant, equipoised, self-satisfied, honest, pure in character and behavior, tolerant, simple in his needs, renounced, absent of false ego, unattached to material things, free from illusion, firm and resolute, ethical, and has constant and unalloyed devotion to the Absolute. In the Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavan Sri Krishna adds the following essential characteristics of any true sage:
"The Blessed Lord said: Fearlessness, purification of one's existence, cultivation of spiritual knowledge, charity, self-control, performance of sacrifice, study of the Vedas, austerity and simplicity; nonviolence, truthfulness, freedom from anger; renunciation, tranquility, aversion to faultfinding, compassion and freedom from covetousness; gentleness, modesty and steady determination; vigor, forgiveness, fortitude, cleanliness, freedom from envy and the passion for honor--these transcendental qualities, O son of Bharata, belong to godly men endowed with divine nature." (16:1-3)
The true guru, as well as the true disciple, must have wholehearted sincerity.
Any person today claiming to be a true and authentic guru, acharya, babaji, paramahamsa, Yoga master, Swami, spiritual teacher, or enlightened sage must - at a shear minimum - display all the above qualities consistently in their everyday lives, and in all of their words, thoughts and actions. If they do not, then they are clearly not enlightened, and thus do not possess the ability to deliver life-changing spiritual knowledge. Such false teachers ultimately harm both their innocent students, and kill their very own spiritual prospects if they continue to teach despite being morally and spiritually unequipped to do so, and must be strongly discouraged from continuing to cheat their students.
Later Buddhist epistemologists would generally agree with most of these limited criteria for what constitutes an apta, or reliable spiritual authority. While similar to the Sanatana Dharma version of aptahood, however, the Buddhist conception of a person of authority differs in some rather significant ways. Whereas for the Sanatana Dharma tradition, transcendental shabda (divine word) necessarily precedes agama (the word in literary form), this cannot be the case for Buddhist epistemology. For Sanatana Dharma, agama, or Shastra-pramana, is merely the literary manifestation of shabda. Shabda is eternal and non-created (apaurusheya) truth revealed in sonic quality, whereas agama is that same eternal, sonic truth rendered in concretized written form. Shabda and agama are thus two functionally distinct and sequentially ordered aspects of the same phenomenon. Shabda is the ontological/epistemological side of the coin; while agama is the soteriological/epistemological side. Shabda is itself a metaphysical Real (tattva). In turn, the concept of shabda is predicated on the concept of a transcendent and eternally unchanging reality - Narayana, or God. Thus, shabda is apaurusheya, not created by any living being - including God - but is co-eternal with God. Therefore, it is an ultimate and unalterable Real.
For Buddhism, on the other hand, all potential metaphysical realities are, without exception, only illusory realities residing solely within the minds of suffering living entities. Given the allied metaphysical concepts of pratityasamutpada (the dependent origination of all instances of existents) and kshanikavada (the absolute momentariness of every instance of purported realness), coupled with the denial of any metaphysically transcendent reality, the idea of gaining access to an eternal shabda is an unmeaningful, and thus non-consequential, concept for contemporary Buddhism. There is not an intrinsic grounding for agama, or scripture, according to Buddhism, other than the sheer epistemic reliability of the sagacious person whose words constitute the scripture.
Since, for Buddhism, anything resembling an eternal conscious grounding of reality - whether limitedly subjective (atman) or unlimitedly macrocosmic (God) in nature - is purely illusory in an ultimate sense, all knowledge is necessarily knowledge of perceptual and conceptual realities only. All meaningful pramanas (valid ways of knowing) are thus necessarily exclusively cognitive in nature. Corresponding with the ultimately perceptual and conceptual grounding of knowledge, the only pramanas that are recognized are those two which directly correspond to the perceptual and conceptual: pratyaksha and anumana, respectively. Moreover, whereas for Sanatana Dharma epistemologists there is a necessary distinction between the means of valid cognition (pramana) and the fruit of this means (pramanaphala), for Buddhism, both are ultimately interpreted as jnana, or cognitions.
In light of these important metaphysical - and subsequent epistemological - distinctions between the Sanatana Dharma and Buddhist perspectives on the ultimate grounding and source of knowledge, let us now summarize the similarities and differences between the two traditions' respective views on the nature of agama.
For the Sanatana Dharma philosopher: 1) Agama (scripture) is capable of revealing supersensible information. 2) Agama is perfectly reliable. 3) Aptahood (authoritative reliability on spiritual matters) is revealed via the individual's personal virtues. 4) Apta-vakya (the words of the reliable sage) is the basis for agama. On these four premilinary points Buddhist philosophers would be in agreement. They would, however, disagree with the following two additional Sanatana Dharma points: 5) Shabda necessarily precedes apta-vakya. 6) Shabda-pramana is the necessary means of cognition for revealing supersensible knowledge. Before we can attempt a philosophical analysis of the differences and similarities between these two epistemologies, it is crucial that we first explore in more depth the historical development and internal disputes of the Buddhist school of epistemology.
It is not until the writing of the Nyaya-sutras and the Vaisheshika-sutras in the tradition of Sanatana Dharma that a systematized Dharmic account of pramana proper is encountered. In Buddhism itself, we find practically no attempts at a systematic presentation of logic or epistemology in the earliest Pali sources. In the Tipitaka there is some attempt at a classification of knowledge, as well as a reference pointing to the existence of a school of logicians known as the Takkika. A clear reference to logical analysis as a distinct branch of learning is made only in the later Sanskrit Buddhist literature. In the Lalita-vistara, there is a specific mention of this discipline under the term hetu-vidya. It is arguably not until Nagarjuna (c. 2nd - 3rd centuries CE), however, that Buddhist logic begins to truly develop.
Nagarjuna makes a distinction between two separate metaphysical realities, as well as two corresponding levels of knowledge. The first is samvriti, or phenomenal illusory existence. The second is known as paramartha, or real existence, which transcends the grasp of conceptuality. On the paramartha realm, pratyaksha and anumana pramanas - the only two pramanas recognized by Nagarjuna - simply do not obtain. As will be seen, later Buddhist philosophers were to take a more positive approach to the question of the nature of knowledge.
Several hundred years after Nagarjuna, we encounter another important figure in the history of Buddhist philosophy. Vasubandhu (c. 4th-5th century CE) was an important scholar of both the Sarvastivada and the Yogacara schools. Vasubandhu maintains the traditional acceptance of there being only two pramanas - pratyaksha and anumana. It is when we arrive at the writings of Dignaga and Dharmakirti that we begin to encounter an inter-Buddhist debate about the possibility and potential efficacy of a third means of grasping truth.
Dignaga (c. 480-540 CE) was a Yogacarin who dealt very extensively with epistemological issues. On an initial reading of his writings, Dignaga seems to concur with previous Buddhist thinking on the number of valid pramanas. For Dignaga, there are ostensibly only two pramanas - perception (direct knowledge) and inference. While he recognizes instances of upamana (knowledge via analogy) and even shabda (knowledge via verbal testimony), these are ultimately merely reduced by Dignaga to pratyaksha and anumana, respectively.
There are, according to Dignaga, four distinct modes of perception. These include 1) sensory awareness proper, 2) the mental awareness of sensory impressions, 3) the mental awareness of emotional states, and 4) the perceptions of yogis. The first seems to correspond to the Sanatana Dharma notion of the indriyas (senses), the second and third with manas (mind). It is the last perceptual mode that is of most significance to this present exploration, since the Sanatana Dharma tradition very specifically equates the samadhi-induced perceptions of yogis with the phenomenon of agama. Dignaga seems to be in agreement with the Sanatana Dharma tradition when he holds that the primary qualifying factor that makes the apta (who is a perfected yogi) a reliable source of agamic knowledge is the fact that the yogi has the ability to view an object of knowledge without the need of a via medium, or a mediating tool or mechanism by which the yogi perceives truth.
Further, in his enumeration of the various pramanas by which one can conclusively prove the non-existence of an object, Dignaga specifically mentions three different means. These are pratyaksha (sense perception), anumana (reasoning and inference) and apta-vakya, or the reliable statement of an expert. At the very least, then, there seem to be the seeds of some internal tension within Dignaga's own thought about the natures of both the apta and agama, as well as the precise number of actual pramanas to be accepted as legitimate. Despite what seems to be some evidence that Dignaga would support the notion that the historical Buddha, at least, would qualify as a living agama (or alternately, as a pramana-purusha), not all of his philosophical descendents would agree. Among the most important of these post-Dignaga Buddhist epistemologists was Dharmakirti.
Dharmakirti lived from approximately 530-600 CE and is known to have authored several important works on epistemology. For Dharmakirti, an apta-vakya (the basis of agamic knowledge) must 1) not be incoherent; the meaning cannot be shielded in incomprehensibly mysterious language, as this would negate its epistemic usefulness. 2) It must provide the correct means to the end (artha), and 3) it must be useful information. It must yield information that will specifically assist its hearer toward the ultimate goal of liberation.
Dharmakirti does not seek to negate the concept or efficacy of apta-vakya or agama. Rather, what Dharmakirti seems to create in his epistemology is a sense of apta-pramana and agama-pramana that is devoid of any metaphysical dependency. In keeping with Buddhist orthodoxy, Dharmakirti seeks to firmly ground the functioning of apta/agama in the perceptual and inferential. For example, while acknowledging that atyantaparoksha, or supersensible objects of knowledge can be ascertained via the statements of reliable persons, he simultaneously demands that the truth-content of the statements of such reliable persons be inferred as a result of the trustworthiness of such individuals' information about objects of knowledge that are not supersensible. If an authority is capable of delivering accurate knowledge about something that is apparent to the senses (drishtartha), then he/she must also be reliable about objects not apparent to the senses (adrishtartha) as well, so the argument proceeds.
In this insistence, he is in agreement with Akshapada Gautama's statement in the Nyaya-sutras: mantrayurvedapramanyavac ca tatpramanyam aptapramanyat, "And the fact that the [Vedas] are means of valid cognition [i.e. have authority] like the fact that incantations and medical science are a means of valid cognition [i.e. have effective authority, is derived] from the fact that experts are a means of valid cognition." (Nyaya-sutras, 2.1.69) In other words, the sages who revealed the Vedas, which deals with supersensible objects, are the same individuals who revealed the Ayurveda system of medicine, as well as healing mantras, which deals with sensible objects. Since we know they were correct in their revelation of these more empirically confirmable and practical sciences, they must by extension also be correct in their empirically non-confirmable statements concerning purely spiritual phenomena. This criterion that the earlier Sanatana Dharma Nyaya-sutras treatise had formulated seems to have also been adopted much later by Dharmakirti.
While it would be quite unfair to the inherent dignity of both systems of thought to claim that the Sanatana Dharma and Buddhist epistemological positions on agama are in any manner synonymous, there are nonetheless an overwhelming number of similarities between them. The fact that there are similarities is little surprising given the yogic and meditational traditions that formed the very basis of both Sanatana Dharma and Buddhism. These similarities include the idea that truth can be revealed via a person who has experienced the truth (an apta); that such a person can be known to be an apta as a result of the person's intrinsic-virtuous qualities, and that there is a necessary process for becoming such an apta. The concepts of apta-pramana and agama-pramana, though not sharing in the same transcendental ontological grounding, are found in both traditions. Moreover, historically there has been a clear inter-exchange of ideas between the two traditions. The differences that exist between the Sanatana Dharma and the Buddhist accounts of agama are a reflection of the two systems' respective ontological presuppositions - Sanatana Dharma basing its ontology on the transcendent element of Brahman, or God, and Buddhism denying any such transcendent element.
About the Author
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya is universally acclaimed as one of the world's most respected and qualified Dharma teachers and Hindu spiritual leaders alive today. He personifies what it means to be a true and authentic guru.
Dr. Deepak Chopra has exclaimed in 2002: "You've done truly phenomenal work teaching the pure essence of Yoga". In a similar manner, Dr. David Frawley has said about Sri Acharyaji, "Sri Acharyaji represents the Sankalpa [the will] of the Hindu people and the cause of Sanatana Dharma. I urge all Hindus everywhere to give him your full support, assistance, and encouragement in his crucial work. He needs and deserves our help."
Sri Acharyaji began his personal spiritual journey over 35 years ago at the tender age of ten when he read the Bhagavad Gita for the very first time. He coupled his decades of intense spiritual practice and study with advanced academic achievements, earning a B.A. in philosophy/theology from Loyola University Chicago, as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He has lectured on Dharma at dozens of top universities, such as Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Cornell, and Northwestern. He has also served as a consultant for such Fortune 500 companies as Ford Motor Corporation and Lucent Technology.
Explaining to his doctoral advisor that "I don't want to just study the history of religion…I want to make religious history", Sri Acharyaji eventually left academia to devote himself exclusively to spiritual teaching and to the preservation of the great tradition of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism).
Today, Sri Acharyaji occupies his full time teaching Dharma spirituality to diverse audiences. In addition to leading classes, satsanghas, seminars and lecturing on Sanatana Dharma widely, Sri Acharyaji is a renowned author, as well as a personal spiritual guide (guru) to a rapidly increasing following of enthusiastic students from both the Indian and the non-Indian communities.
Sri Acharyaji was the Resident Acharya (Spiritual Preceptor) of the Hindu Temple of Nebraska (2007 - 2009), which represents the first time in American history that a Hindu temple has ever made such an esteemed appointment. He is the Founder-President of the International Sanatana Dharma Society, a global movement dedicated to teaching Dharma in its most authentic form.
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Sri Acharyaji's teachings stress the achievement of enlightenment through the practice of meditation, Yoga, and directly experiencing the presence of the Divine. Another overarching aspect of Sri Acharyaji's teachings focuses on the importance of love, compassion and service toward all living beings.
Whether speaking to an audience of thousands, or having a heart-felt discussion with only one person, Sri Acharyaji vividly conveys a deeply moving sense of compassion, peace, humility, and spiritual insight that has endeared him to thousands of students and admirers throughout the world.
Some of his books include:
"Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Natural Way"
"Living Dharma: The Teachings of Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya"
"Radical Universalism: Does Hinduism Teach that All Religions are the Same?"
"Taking Refuge in Dharma: The Initiation Guidebook"
"The Vedic Way of Knowing God"
"The Shakti Principle: Encountering the Feminine Power of God"
"The Art of Wisdom: Affirmations for Boundless Living"
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