An Introduction to Nyāya-darshanam

Nyāya-darshanam is one of the six systems of Indian Philosophy, called Shad Darshanāni, that are subordinate texts to the Vedas, or Upāngas. Like Physics, Chemistry and Biology present different aspects of the world around us, the six Darshan Shastras study the three basic components of this Universe – inanimate Matter, animate Individual Souls, and the animate Paramatmā. They try to establish their existence, study their properties and their relationship with each other. Akshapāda Gautam’s Nyāya-darshanam discusses the process of establishment of Truth vis à vis Falsity. Thus, it forms the bedrock for the remaining five Darshanas, and references to its elements are found in all of them. In this way, this Darshana is fundamental to all the others, indeed to Learning itself, because how do we accept something as true unless we know the basics of establishing the Truth? 

Maharishi Gautam’s Nyāya is, in fact, the oldest known treatise of its kind in the world detailing the Syllogistic System of Logic. It’s most ancient and authoritative commentator was Pakśilaswami Vātsyāyana. That commentary still holds sway, even though many authors have since made a multitude of enhancements to the original. In fact, a whole new system of Navya Nyāya has made its appearance, and is arguably more popular, due to its tractability to common persons. This article concentrates on the basic principles laid down in the original text of Gautam. These principles are sufficient for even a lay-person to be able to argue on the veracity of a topic.

Gautam recommends that truth be determined based on Pramānas, or evidences, and Siddhāntas, or established principles. Pramānas are four in number, with their meanings as below:

  1. Pratyakșa – objects directly perceived by the five senses, with the caveat that the perception be un-expressible by words, without hindrance or doubt, and definite. Thus, seeing a person at a distance without recognizing him would not qualify as Pramāna, nor would an indistinguishable whisper. However, if we see an earthen pot (ghata) in front of us, and have no doubt about it being a pot, that is Pratyakșa Pramāna. Alternatively, if we hear a sound and identify it as the strains of a Sarangi, that is also Pratyakșa Pramāna
    Words form a separate category as the perception involved there is quite different, as also the rules to determine their veracity.
  2. Anumāna – logical deduction based on a cause and effect relationship. The deduction is grounded on what has been known by Pratyakșa earlier. Once something has been known by Pratyakșa, a part of it can be made to prove the whole, e.g., seeing that smoke is always associated with fire, when we later observe only smoke, we can deduce that there must be a fire below it. 
    Anumāna is of three types –
    1. Poorvavat – Where the effect is deduced from the cause, e.g., if somebody has consumed poison, we can surmise that this person will die.
    1. Śeșavat – Where the cause is deduced from the effect, e.g., if it has rained, we can deduce that there must have been clouds.
    1. Sāmānyatodŗșta – Where a relationship exists, but is not of the direct cause-effect type, e.g., having seen the Sun in the morning, when we see the same Sun at a different location in the afternoon, we can surmise that the Sun and us have moved relative to each other. This represents common knowledge that requires no proof. Essentially, it is an Axiom.

A subset of this method is what is known as Deductive and Inductive Logic in Modern studies. A number of subjects, like Mathematics are based considerably on this method of deduction.

  • Upamāna – Analogy based on a well-known trait, e.g., the stars in the night sky are like the Sun. This Pramāna is very often perceived to be a bit dubious in its application. However, the critical point for its strength is that the common trait being compared between the two objects must be ‘well-known’, and so not allow misinterpretation. For example, Suresh tells Ramesh that you can identify Ram in the crowd by the fact that his hair is as long as Shyam’s. Obviously, this identification is not unique, and so, this is not an Upamāna Pramāna.On the other hand, this method is extremely powerful, because it can introduce you to something that may not be accessible to you otherwise. For example, we may never see an atom, but scientists have given us a good picture of it through the Upamāna of the solar system. Indeed, we understand the solar system itself through the Upamāna of balls rotating around a central ball.
  • Śabda – Assertion by an authority on the subject, and one who can be trusted to tell the truth under the given circumstances. The assertion is made through verbal communication. Thus, when a scientist tells you that the Earth is round, you accept it without harbouring a doubt. However, if an accused person says that he did not commit the crime, this is not accepted at its face-value.
    Śabda is sub-divided into two –
    • Dŗșta – That which can be perceived, e.g., an astronaut can claim that the Earth is round because she saw it that way.
    • Adŗșta – That which is beyond the senses, e.g., a philosopher asserts the existence of the Law of Karma.

Siddhantas are also of four types –

  1. Sarvatantra – A principle that is accepted by all branches of learning, e.g., the existence of an atom is accepted by Physics, Chemistry and Biology.
  2. Pratitantra – That which is accepted in its own branch, but not outside, e.g., the principle of Relativity is accepted in Physics but not in Chemistry and Biology (it may be considered redundant there, but, in fact, it has not been given any thought at all in these subjects. So, it is as good as unproven.)
  3. Adhikarana – A principle that proves another, i.e., a theorem that has a corollary(s).
  4. Abhyupagama – A postulation to test the theory, i.e., a temporarily accepted principle (assumption) to see what conclusions it leads to. If the assumption leads to a contradiction, it can be summarily rejected; otherwise further investigation may be called for.

These Pramānas and Siddhāntas are then woven into causal statements, called Hetu, that provide the connection between the proven and the deduced (example given later).

Gautam lists four types of debates –

  1. Tarka – This is an informal brainstorming to discover the truth of a subject that is unclear to all parties. Being informal there are few rules for the debate, other than accepting only Pramānas and Siddhāntas as proof.
  2. Vāda – This is a formal debate to discover the truth. Here there are two parties holding two different views. They have no doubt about their views and the idea is to discover whose view stands the test of Nyāya. The debaters have to follow a 5-point proof format, reminiscent of Euclid’s proofs in his book ‘Elements’ (Euclid’s proofs actually combine 3 of these parts into the Body, thus giving no directions to the composition of the Body of the proof). These are called Panchāvayava and are as follows –
    1. Pratijńā – or Hypothesis. This statement puts forth the view held by the debater, and which she seeks to prove. For example, “A King is mortal.”
    1. Hetu – statement of proof/principle (Pramāna/Siddhānta) which proves the debater’s point of view – “All men are mortal.”
    1. Udāharana – statement revealing how the case in question comes under the purview of the Hetu – “The King is a man.”
    1. Upanaya – statement of deduction from the Udāharana to the Pratijńā – “Therefore, like men, the King is also mortal.”
    1. Nigamana – the Q.E.D. statement of Euclid’s proof stating the deduction from the Hetu of the Pratijńā – “Because all men are mortal, the King is also mortal.”
  3. Jalpa – This is a Vāda where either one or both of the participants are not really interested in establishing the truth, rather they want to establish their point-of-view by hook or by crook. The ‘Hook or Crook’ are classified as –
    1. Chhala – Where the meaning of the opponent is understood, but deliberately twisted in order to create confusion, e.g., in the above argument, an opponent says, “Dogs are also mortal. So, the King is a dog, as per your logic.”
    1. Jāti – Where a contradiction is brought out by more intricate arguments. These are arguments that look like the real thing, but have a flaw in them. They are thus, also called Hetvābhāsa = statements that resemble Hetus. For example, in the above argument, the opponent says, “The King is the representative of God on Earth. God is immortal. Therefore, the King is also immortal.” Chapter 5, Section 1 of Nyāyadarshanam gives many types of Jātis
      In Tarka and Vāda, too, an incorrect argument is present. Else, how could one be right, and another wrong? The difference there is that the debaters believe in their argument, rather than being aware of its falsity, as here. That is, Tarka and Vāda have Hetvābhāsas, but not Jātis.
    1. Nigrahasthāna – When a participant contradicts her own self, or is unable to give an answer in time, it is taken to be a defeat of that person. Chapter 5, Section 2 gives all the Nigrahasthānas.

Thus, Jalpa is a debate where an individual is ‘defeated’, rather than the issue. 

  • Vitandā – This is a Jalpa where one of the participants does not have, or does not disclose his viewpoint, rather he only questions the other person’s arguments. Thus, this is a one-sided debate.

Gautam has given many snippets of debates in Chapters 2, 3 and 4, to illustrate the above concepts.

Since Hetvābhāsas are the main cause of our misinterpretation, they must be understood very thoroughly. Gautam has devoted one whole chapter (Chapter 5) to it, and indicated that this still does not cover all possible cases. For illustration, I detail here one of the main Hetvābhāsas. This is the Savyabhicāra, or AnaikāntikaHetvābhāsaHere, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the cause and the effect. Therefore, one cannot be deduced from the other. As an example, consider –

  1. “It has rained. So, there must have been clouds.” This Śeșavat Anumāna is correct, because the rain (effect) has one and only one cause – clouds.
  2. If we make the opposite deduction – “There are clouds. So, it will rain.” Then, this Poorvavat Anumāna is not correct, since the cause (clouds) have two effects – ‘rain’ and ‘no rain’.

Being a Rshi, Gautam has included some fundamentals of Indian philosophy in the very first chapter of his text, in a most concise fashion. For your benefit, I include some of these here –

  1. How does one determine whether an object is imbued with a Soul or not? Gautam says, “If the object shows Desire, Revulsion, Effort, Happiness, Sorrow and Knowledge, know it to have a Soul.” Can you now apply this to the much-touted Artificial Intelligence (AI) of Computers, and see why AI will never be able to mimic, let alone surpass, humans?
  2. Gautam has shown the path to Moksha – First, remove Wrong Knowledge. This will remove Wrong Attitude – Desire and Hatred for material things. The removal of Wrong Attitude will remove Wrong Action – actions to achieve material gains. Cessation of Wrong Action will lead to cessation of the Fruits of Action, and therefore, Birth. Cessation of Birth is Moksha.
  3. Nyāya operates on the very first step of the above – removal of Wrong Knowledge. However, Gautam clarifies that Samādhi is also extremely important for attaining the Right Knowledge. (Samādhi is the subject matter of another Darshan – Yogadarshanam.)

In this way, Nyāyadarshanam is indispensable for the Seeker of Truth. There are those who believe that another path for Moksha exists – that of Bhakti. They should understand that, while Jnāna necessarily leads to Bhakti, Bhakti does not necessarily lead to Jnāna. And the Bhakti of Jnāna is true – it cannot be trapped in extolling the childish pranks of Kŗshna, or the ornaments of the Lord’s statue. If we want to know the Truth, let us debate with ourselves alone, if nobody else will join us. Let us identify and reject the Untruth, and find and accept the Truth!