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The Ancient Science of Logic and Debate: Introduction to Nyaya Philosophy

In the last article of our Veda101 series, I talked about the first of six Vedic philosophy systems, Sankhya Darshana.

In this article, we’re going to talk about Nyaya Darshana, or Nyaya Philosophy, in more detail.

Nyaya is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as both “to rule,” or ”to justify,” and “a method” or “procedure.” With that basic breakdown, you can probably already assume that this system has something to do with the right way to analyze something… and you would be correct!

Nyaya Darshana gives us an entire framework to effectively distinguish a justifiable belief or theory from a random opinion. It does so by examining logic with the concept of debate. By looking to answer questions such as

  • “What are the conditions required for something to even be considered knowledge?”

  • “What are its sources?”

  • “What is its structure?”

  • “What are its limits?”

  • And others.

But one of the most beautiful things about Nyaya is that is does so with the goal of relieving humankind from the suffering that would result from our disconnection from the reality of the universe (what we talked about in our Sankhya article ;).

According to the Nyaya Sutras, there are only four effective and valid ways to gain knowledge, which they call the “Pramanas,” or truths/means of knowledge.

These four Pramanas are:

  1. Perception (Pratyaksha)

  2. Comparison (Upamana)

  3. Inference (Inference)

  4. Verbal Testimony (Aptodesha)

The first of the four Pramanas is Pratyaksha, or direct perception. The Nyaya sutras describe it as the "Non-erroneous cognition produced by the interaction of the sense-organs with the objects, which is not associated with a name and well-defined." In other words, to directly perceive something is to be seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and/or even tasting it yourself. Even if you have no words to describe what you are experiencing, you are still receiving the truth- your sensory organs do not lie to you.

For example, let’s say you are driving and off the side of the road, you witness a fire. You are seeing it the flames, smelling the smoke, and depending on how close you are, you may be hearing the crackling, feeling it the warmth, and maybe even tasting the smoke in the air. You are directly perceiving the fire through your five senses, and so if you were asked the question “is there a fire?” you would answer “yes,” and your answer would be a valid truth. So Pratyaksha is what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, etc.

The next, pramana is Anumana, or inference. When we infer something, we are attempting to connect the dots or put two and two together based on the knowledge we already have.

Continuing with the fire example: Let’s say you are driving, but the fire had occurred a few hours ago and was already put out by the time you were driving by its location. Now when you pass by, you just see a cloud of black smoke and a distinguishable smell of something burning. Based on those two factors, you might infer that there was a fire earlier because of what you know about the sights and smells you are seeing. Another way to put it is that you didn’t actually see the fire burning, but based on what you do know, you can infer that there had been a fire recently. So Anumana is what you have learned.

Upamana, or comparison, is the third Pramana. In the sutras, it is said to be “the relationship between a word and the object denoted by the word.” With Upamana, we can compare what we know and can infer with whatever is happening in the present situation.

For example: Maybe you left even later after the fire has been put out. There is no more smoke in the air or strong scent to smelled, but you see a dark black and burnt area that you know wasn’t there before. By comparing what you are seeing with what you know about fires and their aftermath, you can assume that there was a fire at some point to cause those marks. We are comparing similar situations. Upamana is what I now know.

Verbal testimonies or Aptodesha, the final Pramana, would be getting a statement from a trustworthy source. And before the eye roll- it does also describe how to determine if the source and/or their information is trustworthy and true.

The easiest example would be turning on your TV and seeing on the news that there was a fire, including video coverage, etc. Another example: let’s say you left so early that day that the fire hadn’t even started yet, but later on, a colleague you trust tells you that they just saw the fire.

So what are forms of or ways to attain knowledge that are not considered valid?

  • Memory

  • Error

  • Doubt, and

  • Hypothetical arguments

Nyaya philosophy empowers us with a basis to weed through misinformation, which can be extremely powerful in this current age of information overload! Within Nyaya philosophy, there are four Pramanas, or valid ways to attain information, and they are:

  • direct perception- actually witnessing it in person

  • inference- putting two and two together to infer an answer

  • comparison- using past experiences to draw a conclusion

  • verbal testimony- trusting what someone told you

So what are forms of knowledge that are considered invalid or incorrect?

  • Memory

  • Error

  • Doubt, and

  • Hypothetical arguments

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