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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Asian Non-Buddhist Traditions > Basic Tenets of the Nyaya and Vaisheshika Schools of Indian Philosophy

Basic Tenets of the Nyaya and Vaisheshika Schools
of Indian Philosophy

Alexander Berzin
August 2004, revised May 2008


The Vaisheshika (bye-brag-pa) school of Indian philosophy bases itself on The Sutra of Particulars (Skt. Vaisheshika Sutra) by the sage Kanadi (Drang-srong gZegs-zan), as commented on in the fifth century CE by Prashastapada. The slightly later Nyaya (rigs-can-pa) school bases itself on The Logic Sutra (Skt. Nyaya Sutra) by Gautama – also known as the brahmin Akshapada (Bram-ze rKang-mig) – as commented on in the fourth century CE by Vatsyayana.

The Vaisheshika and Nyaya schools share many features in common. Vaisheshika emphasizes the types of entities that exist; Nyaya emphasizes the types of entities involved in cognizing and proving the existence of those entities. Just as Samkhya asserts 25 classes of phenomena of knowable phenomena, Vaisheshika asserts six types of entities (tshig-gi don, Skt. padartha), with a seventh, negation phenomena, added later. Nyaya asserts sixteen.

[See: Basic Tenets of the Samkhya and Yoga Schools of Indian Philosophy.]

The term translated as “type of entity” literally means “the referent object of a word” and all members of this classification scheme have true findable existence as what the words for them refer to. They are explained as the causes for being able to affix the words and concepts for them. Thus, in this sense, they all perform a function, although some are static, unaffected phenomena. They are also all self-sufficiently existent, in the sense that they do not depend on other phenomena in order to be truly existent distinct things, although they might not exist separately on their own. Certain of the types of entities serve as the support for other entities such as qualities, and serve as the causes for certain invariable relationships being inherent in them.

List of the Types of Entities

For Vaisheshika, the seven types of entities are

(1) basic things (rdzas, Skt. dravya)

(2) qualities (yon-tan, Skt. guna)

(3) activities (las, Skt. karma)

(4) categories or universals (spyi, Skt. samanya)

(5) particularities or individualities (bye-brag, Skt. vishesha)

(6) inherent, invariable relationships (‘ du-ba, Skt. samavaya)

(7) nonexistences (ma-yin-pa, Skt. abhava).

For Nyaya, the sixteen types of entities are

(1) valid ways of cognizing things (tshad-ma. Skt. pramana)

(2) validly comprehensible objects (gzhal-bya, Skt. prameya) – comprising the original six Vaisheshika types of entities

(3) doubt (the-tshom, Skt. samsaya)

(4) purposes or aims of proofs (dgos-pa, Skt. prayojana)

(5) examples used in proofs (dpe, Skt. drstanta)

(6) established conclusions of proofs (grub-mtha’, Skt. siddhanta)

(7) members of syllogisms in logic (yan-lag, Skt. avayava)

(8) logic (rtog-ge, Skt. tarka) – for analyzing hypotheses

(9) decisive settlements of logical disputes (gtan-phabs, Skt. nirnaya)

(10) debates (rtsod-pa, Skt. vada) – in order to discover the truth

(11) disputation (brjod-pa, Skt. jalpa) – constructive or destructive argumentation aimed merely for victory

(12) angry objections (sun-‘byin, Skt. vitanda) – destructive argumentation

(13) fallacies in syllogisms (gtan-tshigs ltar-snang-ba, Skt. hetvabhasa)

(14) quibbling (tshig-dor, Skt. cala) – deceptive tricks used in logic

(15) specious and unavailing objections (ltag-chod, Skt. jati)

(16) vulnerable standpoints (tshar-gcod-pa’i gnas, Skt. nighrahasthana) – occasions for appealing a logical proof.

Let us look only at the types of entities accepted in common by both systems, the original Vaisheshika six, plus the Vaisheshika seventh.

The Nine Kinds of Basic Things

There are nine kinds of basic things. They are bases for qualities and activities and are connected with these qualities and activities by the various types of relationships, somewhat like two balls connected by sticks.

(1) earth (sa, Skt. prthivi)

(2) water (chu, Skt. ap)

(3) fire (me, Skt. tejas)

(4) wind or air (rlung, Skt. vayu). These four refer to partless, eternal material particles (Skt. paramanu). As individual items they do not have time and location, only grosser material objects composed from them have time and location.

(5) space (nam-mkha’, Skt. akasha). Space is immaterial, partless, infinite, all-pervasive, and not composed of particles.

(6) time (dus, Skt. kala)

(7) location (phyogs, Skt. dik). Time and location are all-pervasive objective realities and are simply measures.

(8) souls (bdag, Skt. atman) or persons (skyes-bu, Skt. purusha) or individual beings (gang-zag, Skt. pudgala). Souls are multiple in number, and each is all-pervasive and eternal. By themselves, they lack consciousness.

(9) physical minds (yid, Skt. manas). A physical mind, like earth, water, fire, and wind, is a type of material particle, but in this case, a material particle of awareness (sems-pa, Skt. cetana). In other words, awareness is something physical. It relates persons to the external world and does so through concepts. Thus, physical mind particles are always conceptual awarenesses.

The Twenty-four Qualities

There are 24 qualities, which refer to particular qualities of particular basic things. Each pertains to one or more basic things. None of them can exist independently on its own, although each is distinct.

The 24 include various types of

(1) color and shape (gzugs, Skt. rupa)

(2) taste (ro, Skt. rasa)

(3) smell (dri, Skt. gandha)

(4) tactile sensation (reg-pa, Skt. sparsha)

(5) sound (sgra, Skt. shabda).

Various levels of

(6) weight (lci-ba, Skt. gurutva)

(7) viscosity or liquidity (gsher-ba, Skt. dravatva)

(8) oiliness (snum-pa, Skt. sneha).

Various types or instances of

(9) number (grangs, Skt. samkhya)

(10) dimension or size (tshad, Skt. parimanu)

(11) distinctiveness (so-sor, Skt. prthaktva) – individuality on the side of objects, not only making one vase distinct another, but a vase distinct from a pillar

(12) conjunction, conglomeration (sbyor-ba, Skt. samyoga) or possession (ldan-pa). Conjunction or possession of qualities or activities and conglomeration of particles are dependent on causes and conditions. Because they are contingent, they are not invariable; they are fleeting.

(13) disjunction (rnam-par dbye-ba, Skt. vibhaga) – separation from being a contingent conglomerate or from contingently possessing something

(14) proximity (gzhan-pa-nyid, Skt. paratva) – in space or time

(15) non-proximity (gzhan ma-yin-pa-nyid, Skt. aparatva) – in space or time

Various types or levels of

(16) sensory awareness (blo, Skt. buddhi) or perceiving (shes-pa, Skt. jnana), referring to the five types of sense consciousness

(17) happiness (bde-ba, Skt. sukha)

(18) unhappiness or suffering (sdug-bsngal, Skt. duhkha)

(19) desire or wish for something (‘ dod-pa, Skt. iccha)

(20) aversion from something (sdang-ba, Skt. dvesha)

(21) effort or endeavor (‘ bad-pa, Skt. yatna)

(22) affecting variables (‘ dus-byas, Skt. samskara), which include (a) physical momentum (shugs), produced from effort exerted by a physical mind particle on earth, water, fire, and wind particles, (b) habits (bag-chags), produced by a moment of consciousness and capable of producing a future moment of consciousness, and (c) reversion of state (gnas-pa ‘jig-pa), the reversion of something material to its former state, such as an unfolded leaf, that was previously folded, automatically folding again.

(23) moral force (chos, Skt. dharma) that produces happiness as its not-yet-seen result

(24) immoral force (chos ma-yin-pa, Skt. adharma) that produces unhappiness and suffering as its not-yet-seen result.

In the Tibetan formulation, the last two qualities are counted together as one, called “ not-yet-seen” (Skt. adrshta) – the karmic force for producing happiness or unhappiness as its not-yet-seen result. It then adds to the list temperature (dro-ba).

Souls and Their Nine Contingent Qualities

The nine qualities contingently associated with a soul or person are

(1) sensory awareness or perceiving

(2) happiness

(3) unhappiness

(4) desire or wish for something

(5) aversion from something

(6) effort or endeavor

(7) affecting variables, namely habits

(8) moral force for not-yet-seen happiness

(9) immoral force for not-yet-seen unhappiness and suffering.

A soul is a basic thing, though nonmaterial. It is the basis for a relationship of contingent possession of these nine qualities. It is an objective entity different from the body (made of material particles), sensors (light-sensors, sound-sensors, and so on, made of derivative material particles), and physical mind particles (awareness). By nature, a soul or person does not have any of these nine properties, and liberation is gained by realizing that it is totally without them.

Because, by nature, a soul does not have the quality of sensory awareness or perceiving, it only knows objects through physical mind particles, which are the instrument for sensory awareness. Thus, souls are distinct entities from mind particles, as well as distinct entities from activities; although conventionally, souls or persons are the experiencers of happiness and unhappiness and the agents of activities.

There are a manifold number of souls, and each is partless, eternal, and static, unaffected by anything. According to Vaisheshika, each soul is all-pervasive; while according to Nyaya, each soul is the size of a minute particle. According to the texts of Kunkyen Jamyang-zheypa (Kun-mkhyen ‘ Jam-dbyangs bzhed-pa Ngag-dbang brston-‘grus), although Nyaya asserts that the soul that has the relationship of contingent conjunction or disjunction with a physical mind particle is the size of a particle; nevertheless, Nyaya accepts that, in general, each soul is all-pervasive.

The aim of the spiritual path is to attain liberation, referred to as “total divestment” (Skt. apavarga), by realizing that, by nature, the soul does not have the nine properties and is not invariably associated with physical mind particles (awareness) or activities. In a state of total divestment, a soul, therefore, does not experience happiness or suffering, since it is without awareness; and it does not do anything. The path for attaining total divestment entails not only realizing the nature of one’s soul, but also ethical practices such as fasting, ablution, and celibacy (tshangs-spyod, Skt. brahmacharya) while living in the home of one’s spiritual teacher.

There are both individual living souls (Skt. jivatman) and a single, supreme, all-pervasive, partless, eternal, static soul (Skt. paramatma), which is the creator god Ishvara (Shiva). Although Ishvara is not mentioned in the oldest texts of the two traditions, by Kanadi and Gautama, he is discussed in their commentaries by Prashastapada and Vatsyayana. Unlike the Yoga formulation of Ishvara, however, according to Nyaya and Vaisheshika, everything that happens in the universe derives from the will of Ishvara.

[See: Basic Tenets of the Samkhya and Yoga Schools of Indian Philosophy.]

The Five Types of Activities

The five types of activities are:

(1) lifting up (‘ degs-pa)

(2) putting down (‘ jog-pa)

(3) contraction (brkyang-pa)

(4) extension (bskum-pa)

(5) going (‘ gro-ba).

Categories or Universals

Categories or universals are the appearing objects of conceptual cognitions. They can only be known through cognizing individual particular items and are the same in each particular item. Categories do not exist within particular items; but rather, particular items are the indicators or revealers (Skt. vyanjaka) of categories.

Categories are of two types

(1) the all-pervading category (khyab-pa’i spyi, Skt. sarvasarvagata). This refers to the category objective existence (yod-pa-nyid). Out of the seven types of entities, it pertains only to substances, properties, and activities. It does not apply to categories, particularities, inherent invariable relationships, or negation phenomena. This twofold division of the seven types of entities is similar to the Buddhist Sautrantika division of objective entities (rang-mtshan) and metaphysical entities (spyi-mtshan). In both Nyaya-Vaishashika and Sautrantika, both groups of phenomena have truly established existence, though only the first group is objectively “real.”

(2) specific categories (nyi-tshe-ba’i spyi, Skt. vyaktisarvagata). These apply only to some items, such as the category of “table” applying only to all tables.

Particularities or Individualities

Particularities or individualities are what are apprehended by a conceptual cognition when cognizing two distinct or individual objects that would otherwise be alike, either in terms of the all-pervading category of being objectively existent (such as with a vase and a pillar) or in terms of a specific category, for instance, of being a table (such as with two tables).

The Five Types of Inherent, Invariable Relationships

There are five types of inherent, invariable relationships: the relationships between

(1) basic things (other than souls) and properties

(2) basic things (other than souls) and activities

(3) particular items and categories

(4) ultimate substances (referring to partless particles of earth, water, fire, wind, and physical minds) and particular items made of their contingent conglomerations

(5) a whole and its parts, such as a body and its limbs, or inherently abiding material causes (Skt. samavayikarana) and their products, such as clay and a clay pot made of it.

These five pairs always come together.

The Four Types of Nonexistence

There are four types of nonexistence:

(1) antecedent nonexistence (Skt. pragabhava) – for instance the nonexistence of a vase before it is made.

(2) perished nonexistence (Skt. pradhvamsabhava) – for instance the nonexistence of a vase after it has perished

(3) mutual nonexistence (Skt. anyonyabhava) – mutual exclusion, such as the nonexistence of a vase being a pillar and a pillar being a vase.

(4) eternal nonexistence (Skt. atyantabhava) – the absolute nonexistence of something that never has, never will, and never can presently exist. According to some explanations, this type of nonexistence refers to the total absence of an object in locations other than where it presently is.