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Siddhārtha Gautama the Buddha is portrayed in Buddhist literature as ridiculing the sacrificial rituals of the Brahmans and accusing the priests of fabricating them for no better reason than to make money from the wealthy and to manipulate the powerful. Attacking the sacrificial practices of the Brahman priests in this way eventually led to challenging the authority of the Vedic literature that the priests considered sacred. An early Buddhist philosopher who challenged the authority of sacred texts was Nāgārjuna, whose arguments called into question the very possibility of justified belief. In a text called Vigrahavyāvartanī(Averting Disputes), Nāgārjuna argued that all opinions are warranted by an appeal to experience, or to various forms of reasoning, or to the authority of tradition. Now among the opinions that one may hold, said Nāgārjuna, is the opinion that all opinions are warranted in one of those ways. Nothing, however, seems to warrant that opinion. If one should claim that that opinion is self-warranting, then why not grant that all other opinions are also self-warranting? On the other hand, if that opinion requires substantiation, the result will be an infinite regress. Therefore, concluded Nāgārjuna, no opinion can be grounded. Realizing that one can never arrive at certainty thus becomes for Nāgārjuna the most reliable way of freeing oneself from the various delusions that cause unhappiness in the world. Dispelling delusions is therefore not a matter of discovering truth, but a matter of realizing that all opinions that pass as knowledge are not really knowledge at all.
Although Nāgārjuna’s scepticism managed to capture the spirit of some passages of Buddhist literature that depict the Buddha as questioning the authoritarianism of other teachers, it did not leave adequate room for distinguishing truth from error. Most Buddhist philosophers who came after Nāgārjuna, therefore, placed an emphasis on both eliminating error and securing positive knowledge. Dignāga, modifying theories of knowledge that Brahmanical thinkers had developed, argued that there are just two types of knowledge, each having a distinct subject matter unavailable to the other: through the senses one gains knowledge of particulars that are physically present, while the intellect enables one to form concepts that take past and future experiences into consideration.
In an important work called Ālambanaparīkṣa (Examining the Support of Awareness) Dignāga developed an argument that his predecessor Vasubandhu had made. Here Dignāga argued that a cognition is accurate only if the subject matter of the cognition is identical to that which causes the awareness to arise. So, for example, if one sees a dead tree in the dark and takes it to be a man, then the subject matter of the cognition is a man, which is not identical to the dead tree that is causing the cognition; the cognition is therefore inaccurate. Given this principle, said Dignāga, it follows that none of our sensory cognitions is accurate, because each of them is really caused by atoms massed together; nevertheless, we are never aware of anything as a mass of atoms. Instead, what we are aware of is such things as human beings, elephants and trees. These notions of things as human beings or elephants, however, are purely conceptual in nature and are not in accord with the realities that exist in the external world. Therefore, he concluded, the only objects of our awareness are concepts; we are never directly aware of realities as they occur outside the mind.
Dignāga’s essays rekindled an interest in epistemological questions among Buddhist philosophers that lasted for several centuries. As influential as his theories in logic and the sources of knowledge were, there was little in them that explicitly referred to previous Buddhist doctrine. It was left to the systematic philosopher Dharmakīrti to draw out the implications that questions of logic and epistemology had for people interested in the traditional Buddhist preoccupation with eliminating delusions concerning the nature of the self in order to win freedom from discontent.
Dharmakīrti’s system of epistemology was centred around his criticism of the Brahmanical doctrine of the special authority of the Veda, which the Brahmans supposed had been revealed to humanity by God. He combined this criticism with a defence of the doctrine that the Buddha was a source of knowledge. The Brahmanical claim of authority for their scriptures is based upon the notion that God is omniscient and compassionate; this idea, said Dharmakīrti, is extravagant and laughable. The Buddhist claim for the authority of the Buddha, on the other hand, is based on the modest claim that the Buddha was an ordinary man who could see the root cause of discontent, knew how to eliminate the cause, and took time to teach other human beings what he had discovered. Moreover, argued Dharmakīrti, the Buddha taught nothing but principles that every human being could confirm. Full confirmation of the Buddha’s teachings was said to be impossible for a person whose vision was still clouded by delusions. On the other hand, to a person who had learned to listen to wise counsel, reflect on it and then put it into practice, all the teachings of the Buddha on the question of winning nirvāṇa would be confirmed.
The form of reflection that Dharmakīrti recommended was based upon a systematic study of the principles of legitimate inference; most delusions, he contended, stem from forming hasty generalizations from limited experience. Most doctrinal matters about which philosophers dispute, he said, cannot be decided with certainty. In this respect, Dharmakīrti adopted the cautious attitude of the Buddha and Nāgārjuna towards unwarranted opinions and assumptions. At the same time, he tried to show that the extreme scepticism that had characterized the work of such thinkers as Nāgārjuna was also unwarranted. This epistemological ’middle path’, consisting of modest claims about the extent of the Buddha’s knowledge and yet insisting that the Buddha’s doctrines were true and distinguishable from falsehoods, set the tone for most of the Buddhist philosophy that evolved in India until the time that Buddhism stopped being an important factor in the philosophical milieu of the Indian subcontinent. The focus on epistemological issues enabled Buddhists to set aside the sometimes bitter disputes over the question of which Buddhist scriptures were authentic (see Epistemology, Indian schools of §1).
Hayes, Richard P.. Epistemology. Buddhist philosophy, Indian, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/overview/buddhist-philosophy-indian/v-1/sections/epistemology-16171.
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