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Debating with Fists and Fallacies: Vācaspati Miśra and Dharmakīrti on Norms of Argumentation

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The tradition of Nyāya philosophy centers on a dispassionate quest for truth which is simultaneously connected to soteriological and epistemic aims. This article shows how Vācaspati Miśra brings together the soteriological concept of dispassion (vītarāga) with the discourse practices of debate (kathā), as a response to Buddhist criticisms in Dharmakīrti’s Vādanyāya. He defends the Nyāyasūtra’s stated position that fallacious reasoning is a legitimate means for a debate, under certain circumstances. Dharmakīrti argues that such reasoning is rationally ineffective and indicates unvirtuous qualities. For Vācaspati, fallacies are a way to prevent the spread of morally weighty falsehoods when no other method is available to a debater. After showing textual relationships between Vācaspati’s defense and Dharmakīrti’s earlier criticism, it evaluates their arguments, concluding that Vācaspati’s position involves irresolvable tensions with other Nyāya commitments.

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  1. All references to Nyāyasūtra (NS) in Nyāyavārttikatātparyaṭīkā (NVTṬ).

  2. For discussion of his dates, see Muroya 2016.

  3. For example, see pages 249 and 414 in Solomon 1976.

  4. Important literature on this topic includes Solomon (1976) and Matilal (1998). See Phillips (2017) for discussion of fallacies and defeaters in early Nyāya.

  5. pramāṇatarkasādhanopālambhaḥ siddhāntāviruddhaḥ pañcāvayavopapannaḥ pakṣapratipakṣaparigraho vādaḥ (NVTṬ 270.3–4).

  6. tattvādhyavasāyasaṃrakṣaṇārthaṃ jalpavitaṇḍe bījaprarohasaṃrakṣaṇārthaṃ kaṇṭakaśākhāvaraṇavat (NVTṬ 638.8–9).

  7. Pragma-dialectical approaches to debate emphasize the situated nature of argumentation in their concern with pragmatics or the rhetorical aspect of debate, coupled with attention to normative rationality or dialectics. The focus on two distinct dialogical roles, the concern with argumentative effectiveness judged against audience response, and the concern with the temporally indexed and situationally specific speech acts (as opposed to purely formal reconstructions of logical structures) all resonate with Nyāya, and indeed, more broadly Indian, theorizing about debate. See van Eemeren (2018) for an introduction.

  8. nyāyavādinam api vādeṣu asadvyavasthopanyāsaiḥ śaṭhā nigṛhṇanti tanniṣedhārtham idam ārabhyate (VN 1.2–3).

  9. For a summary, see Gokhale 1993: xiv–xxvii, translation 56–57.

  10. na hi tattvacintāyām kaścic chalavyavahāraḥ (VN 21.22).

  11. chalavyavahāro ’pi vijigīṣuṇāṃ vāda iti cet. na durjanavipratipattyadhikāre satāṃ śāstrāpravṛtteḥ. na hi parānugrahapravṛttā mithyāpralāpārambhātmotkarṣaparapaṃsanādīn asadvyavahārān upadiśanti. na ca paravipaṃsanena lābhasatkāraślokopārjanaṃ satām ācāraḥ. nāpi tathāpravṛttebhyaḥ svahastadānena prāṇinām upatāpanaṃ satsam matānāṃ śāstrakāraśabhāsadāṃ yuktam. na ca nyāyaśāstrāṇi sadbhir lābhādyupārjanāya praṇīyante. tasmān na yogavihitaḥ kaścid vijigīṣuvādo nāma (VN 22.8–16).

    In my translation, I follow Śāntarakṣita’s commentary, which glosses yogavihita with nyāyya, but not his implication that Dharmakīrti is concerned with the method and not desire for victory: tasmān na yogavihitaḥ nyāyyaḥ kaścid vijigīṣu vādo nāma yacchalādibhiḥ kriyata ity adhyāharaḥ (Vipañcitārtha 70.48b). See Gokhale (1993: 167) for discussion.

  12. Interestingly, Jha’s translation, perhaps seeing Dharmakīrti’s worry, inserts in brackets something not in the Sanskrit text: “and being anxious to guard the Truth against attack” (1984, 4: 1661). This is how Vācaspati puts things, as we will see, but not Uddyotakara.

  13. For instance, the phrase lābhasatkāraśloka- comes up several times as examples of negative characteristics that Bodhisattvas should give up to attain irreversible enlightenment (Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā 11.3, 17.1, 29, 30.1).

  14. yadāyaṃ subhūte bodhisattvo mahāsattva evam enāṃ prajñāpāramitām anugamiṣyati, vyavacārayiṣyati avatariṣyati avabhotsyate cintayiṣyati tulayiṣyati upaparīkṣiṣyate bhāvayiṣyati sarvamāyāśāṭhyavivarjitair manasikāraiḥ, sarvamanyanāvivarjitair manasikāraiḥ, ātmotkarṣaṇavivarjitair manasikāraiḥ, sarvakausīdyavivarjitair manasikāraiḥ, parapaṃsanāvivarjitair manasikāraiḥ, ātmasaṃjñāvivarjitair manasikāraiḥ, sattvasaṃjñāvivarjitair manasikāraiḥ, lābhasatkāraślokavivarjitair manasikāraiḥ, pañcanīvaraṇavivarjitair manasikāraiḥ, īrṣyāmātsaryavivarjitair manasikāraiḥ, sarveñjanāvivarjitair manasikāraiḥ, tadā nāsya durlabhā bhaviṣyati sarvaguṇānāṃ paripūriḥ, buddhakṣetrasyānuttarāṇāṃ ca buddhadharmāṇāṃ paripūrir iti. (Sanskrit text accessed through the Thesaurus Literaturae Buddhicae, part of the Bibliotheca Polyglotta at the University of Oslo. Available at:

  15. tasmāj jigīṣatā svapakṣaś ca sthāpanīyaḥ parapakṣaś ca nirākartavyah (VN 24.1).

  16. loke ’vidyātimirapaṭalollekhanas tattvadṛṣṭer vādanyāyaḥ… (VN 68.10).

  17. See Dunne (2013: 60–62) for a discussion of the way in which reasoning (yukti) plays a role in Dharmakīrti’s soteriological-philosophical project of removing ignorance, and Eltschinger (2010) for a more detailed study of the relationship between ignorance and Dharmakīrti’s soteriology. Of course, while assent to the proposition “There is a self,” is part of Dharmakīrti’s concern, the ignorance involved is more robust, being, as Dunne (2013: 61) puts it, a “cognitive habit” in which one erroneously thinks experiences have their basis in a self that persists, unchanging, over time. Thus, ignorance leads to grasping at pleasures for the sake of this “I” with which one continually, mistakenly, identifies.

  18. tattvālokaṃ timirayati taṃ durvidagdho jano ’yaṃ… (VN 68.11).

  19. parānugrahapravṛttās tu santo vipratipannaṃ pratipādayanto nyāyam anusareyuḥ satsādanābhidhānena bhūtadoṣodbhāvavena vā sākṣipratyakṣaṃ tasyaivānuprabodhāya. tad eva nyāyānusaraṇaṃ satām vādaḥ ukte nyāye tattvārthī cet pratipadyeta tadapratipattāv apy anyo na pratipadyeteti (VN 22.16–21).

    Contra McClintock, I take the reference to the perception of eyewitnesses (sākṣipratyakṣa) as not “in the presence of witnesses, in order to bring just that [other person] to knowledge” (2010: 70), but as a distinct concern for the audience’s knowing, which we will see echoed in his language below.

  20. In this article, I am intentionally agnostic about the thorny problems of how Dharmakīrti understands the ultimate reality of pramāṇas, leaving the discussion at the level of the conventional. On this point, see, for example, Dunne 2013; Eltschinger 2014; and Tillemans 1999.

  21. The recent discourse in the United States over “punching Nazis” and other white supremacists suggests that, for some, the reductio is not a reductio. See Stack 2017 and West 2017. But both Dharmakīrti and Vācaspati, as we will see, do not countenance violence even against morally reprehensible interlocutors.

  22. tattvarakṣaṇārthaṃ sadbhir upahartavyam eva chalādi vijigīṣubhir iti cet na nakhacapeṭaśastraprahārādīpanādhibhir apīti vaktavyam. tasmān na jyāyān ayaṃ tattvarakṣaṇopāyaḥ (VN 22.23–24).

  23. sādhanaprakhyāpanaṃ satāṃ tattvarakṣaṇopāyaḥ sādhanābhāsadūṣaṇaṃ ca tadabhāve mithyāpralāpād atra paropatāpavidhāne ’pi tattvāpratiṣṭhāpanāt. anyathāpi nyāyopavarṇane vidvatpratiṣṭhānāt. tasmāt parānugrahāya tattvakhyāpanaṃ vādino vijayaḥ bhūtadoṣadarśanena mithyāpratipattinivarttanaṃ prativādinaḥ (VN 23.1–5).

  24. Dharmakīrti includes disputation (vitaṇḍā) in his criticism: “With this very same idea, disputation is argued against, because there is no debate (vivāda) when there is no proposal (abhyupagama).” etenaiva vitaṇḍā pratyuktābhyupagamābhāve vivādābhāvāt (VN 61.1–2).

  25. tarkānugṛhītapramāṇamūlā avayavāḥ paramārthato bhavantu mā bhūvan vādiprativādinos tv abhiprāyo bhavatu pramāṇamūlā avayavā iti (NVTṬ 272.8–9).

  26. etāvataiva pramāṇatarkasādhanopālambhatā vādasya vītarāgakathātvena tattvanirṇayāvasānatvāt. jalpavitaṇḍayos tv apramāṇamūlatvaṃ viduṣāpi prativādinā chalādibhiḥ pratyavastheyam. ekāntaparājayād varaṃ saṃśayo ’stv itīcchatā vijigīṣuṇā. yathā cāsya śāstre vyutpādanaṃ nāsadṛśaṃ yathā caiṣa satām ācāraḥ tathā jalpalakṣaṇe vakṣyāmaḥ (NVTṬ 272.9–13).

  27. “Efficacious behavior has as its cause what is experienced—it is hinted at (by Uddyotakara) that efficacious behavior has its beginning with passion, though not for those who are dispassionate. For what is experienced has no connection with the results characteristic of niḥśreyasa, arising from their behavior, since niḥśreyasa is beyond ordinary experience.” dṛṣtam pravṛttisāmarthyaṃ hetur iti rāgādimatpravṛttisāmarthyam upanyastam na tu vītarāgāṇām na hi tatpravṛtter niḥśreyasādhigamalakṣaṇaphalasaṃbandho dṛṣṭo niḥśreyasasya alaukikatvāt (NVTṬ 8.21–9.2).

  28. jvalanātmako hi sa bhavati. naivaṃ vairāgyam. alaṃ pratyayo hi sa ity apratikūlaṃ duḥkhahānam ity arthaḥ (NVTṬ 202.20–21). For further discussion of Vācaspati on vairāgya, see Chakrabarti 1983 and Framarin 2009. Here I accept Chakrabarti’s general understanding, which Framarin calls the “standard interpretation,” that Vācaspati understands vairāgya as a dispassionate kind of desire, lacking phenomenologically salient grasping. But see Chapter Six of Framarin for an interpretation on which, for him, all desire is excluded.

  29. Translation from Dunne 1996: 537.

  30. “‘Its purpose,’ that is, the purpose of investigation—in such a discussion, eligibility belongs only to a proponent and opponent who are dispassionate.” tadarthaṃ parīkṣārthaṃ tasmin vāde ’dhikāro vītarāgayor eva vādiprativādino (NVTṬ 282.4–5). See translation of Uddyotakara’s commentary in Jha (1984, 1: 512–13) for full context.

  31. tattvādhyavasāyasaṃrakṣaṇārthaṃ jalpavitaṇḍe bījaprarohasaṃrakṣaṇārthaṃ kaṇṭakaśākhāvaraṇavat (NVTṬ 638.8–9).

  32. yaś ca kudarśanābhyāsāhitamitthyājñānāvalepadurvidagdhatayā sadvidyāvairagyād vā lābhapūjākhyātyarthitayā vā kuhetubhir īśvarāṇāṃ janādhārāṇāṃ purato vedabrāhmaṇaparalokādidūṣaṇapravṛttas taṃ prati vādī samīcīnadūṣaṇam apratibhayāpaśyan jalpavitaṇḍe avatārya vijigīṣayā taṃ vigṛhya jalpavitaṇḍābhyāṃ tattvakathanaṃ karoti vidyāparipālanāya (NVTṬ 638.15). In contrast to Dasti and Phillips (2017: 172) I take kudarśana--vidagdhatayā not as a dvaṃdva (two sorts of pride), but as a tatpurūṣa functioning as a subordinate instrumental reason paired with the ablative reason (Tubb and Boose 2007: 207).

  33. See Halbfass (1991: 293–94) for discussion of stereotyped descriptions of Cārvāka thinkers. Also, in Jayanta Bhaṭṭa’s Much Ado About Religion (Āgamaḍambara), it is the Cārvākan Vṛddhāmbhi who says he will “do away with God, set aside the world-to come, demolish the validity of the Vedas…” (īśvaraṃ parākṛtya paralokaṃ nirasya vedaprāmāṇyaṃ pratikṣipya) (Dezső 2005: 154–55).

  34. This term also comes up several times in Jayanta Bhaṭṭa’s Much Ado about Religion which centers on a series of debates among religious groups in Kashmir during the reign of Śaṅkaravarman (883–902 CE). Here, we see that even though the Buddhists are characterized as being foremost among those who engage in collapse of the Veda (vedaviplava), the Mīmāṃsā protagonist engages in debate with them, after agreeing to standards that include both avoidance of equivocations but also a particular moral frame of mind (Dezső 2005: 65). The chronological and conceptual relationship between Jayanta Bhaṭṭa and Vācaspati is still a matter of scholarly investigation, so not too much should be made of the former’s use of the term except to identify a roughly contemporary and analogous use.

  35. This is more explicit later, under NS 5.1.1, where Uddyotakara and Vācaspati note that if you do know what has gone wrong in an opponent’s argument at the time, you should state that, rather than using a fallacy.

  36. There is another point where Vācaspati denies that desire for material goods is the motivation: under NS 5.5.1. Here, however, he has to explain why Uddyotakara explicitly says that futile rejoinders are used by someone who desires wealth, honor, or fame. His solution is to appeal to the grammatical principle that “and” (ca) can express something which is subordinate. Thus, he says that the word “and” is for expressing something that is subordinate: “[When Uddyotakara says] ‘And one who desires wealth, honor, or fame,’ the word ‘and’ is used to express something subordinate. It is established first that the purpose is the protection of the truth. This being the case, there is a further subordinate thing expressed—this is the meaning.” lābhapūjākhyātikāmaś cety anvācaye cakāraḥ. prasiddhaṃ tāvat tattvaparipālanaṃ prayojanaṃ. tasmin saty evaitad apy anvācīyata ity arthaḥ (NVTṬ 642.6–7). Thus, pace Nicholson (2010: 91fn81), early Nyāya does not uniformly think desire for victory and truth are “mutually exclusive” and the interpretation he attributes to eleventh–twelfth century Hemacandra, of primary and subsidiary goals, is present earlier in Vācaspati’s work.

  37. mā bhūd īśvarāṇāṃ mativibhrameṇa taccaritam anuvartinīnāṃ prajānāṃ dharmaviplava iti. idam api prayojanaṃ jalpavitaṇḍayoḥ. na tu lābhakhyātyādi dṛṣṭam. na hi parahitapravṛttaḥ paramakāruṇiko munir dṛṣṭārthaṃ paravañcanopāyam upadiśatīti (NVTṬ 639.1–4).

  38. The term viplava not only appears, as mentioned earlier, in the Nyāya philosopher Jayanta Bhaṭṭa’s play characterizing the impact of unorthodox religious groups, but as Squarcini (2011: 62–63) notes, in his Nyāyamañjarī, as well as early dharmasūtras such as the Gautamadharmasūtra. The word suggests a range of negative consequences by unorthodox criticism. Solomon translates Vācaspati’s particular use strongly as “total chaos in Dharma” (1976: 119). Jayanta motivates what he takes to be Nyāya’s purpose, protecting the Vedas, by observing: “For, when their confidence in the Vedas becomes shaky because their validity is destroyed by the bad speculation of philosophers (tarkikaracitakutarkaviplāvitaprāmāṇyeṣu), then how can good people care about the performance of the objects of the Vedas which is accomplished through spending a lot of money, energy and so on” (Kataoka 2006: 164; emphasis added). The epistemological question of whether validity can be destroyed would take us too far afield—“undermined” might be a better translation here. Rather, the point is the social impact of Vedic criticism. I thank an anonymous reviewer for raising the question about the scope of suffering that fallacies could allay on Vācaspati’s view.

  39. yathākathañcit prayogeṇa. tadanena prakāreṇa tattvasaṃrakṣaṇārthatvāt nāsadācāraḥ. na ca śāstrakārāṇāṃ chalādivyutpādanam asadṛśam, na ca khaṭacapeṭādyabhidhānaprasaṅgaḥ vāgyuddhe teṣām aprasaṅgād iti (NVTṬ 284.11–14).

  40. The content of his thought, marked off by the disquotative iti, is ekāntaparājayād varaṃ saṃdeho ’py astu kathaṃcit paraparājayo vā (NVTṬ 641.19).

  41. Vācaspati clearly accepts this principle, as shown in his discussion at NS 1.1.1, translated in Dasti and Phillips: “A pramāṇa’s non-deviation amounts to the fact that there will never be a contradiction anywhere, anytime, in any other conditions, between the nature of the object and the mode of presentation provided by the pramāṇa” (2010: 538).

  42. And if the audience is not yet convinced, resorting to violence might sway them towards the opponent, since it would suggest they have no alternative strategy. Thanks to Mark Siderits for this suggestion.

  43. na hi sahasreṇāpy andhaiḥ pāṭaccarebhyo gṛhaṃ rakṣyata ity arthaḥ (NVTṬ 284.1–2).

  44. “First, in discussion, even if these do not have the capacity for refutation (vighāta) of the proposition (sādhana), still, being ignorant on the true nature of these methods, a person who is [as Udydotakara says] ‘carried away,’ in other words, confused (vyāmohita) by the thought, ‘With these I will refute the proposition,’ continues [with them].” vāde tāvad yadyapi na sādhanavighātasamarthāni tathāpi teṣāṃ tattvam avidvān ebhir ahaṃ sādhanaṃ vihaniṣyāmīty anayā buddhyā apahṛtaḥ vyāmohitaḥ pravartate tasmād vāde bhrameṇopādānam eteṣām ity arthaḥ (NVTṬ 284.4–6).

  45. yatra tv eṣāṃ tattvaṃ vidvān pravartate, na sa vādaḥ, kiṃ tu jalpo vitaṇḍā vety āha yatra caitānīti (NVTṬ 284.6–7).

  46. See Todeschini (2010) for a fuller treatment of the rational, cooperative, and goal-directed nature of Nyāya debate in the context of the points of defeat. More cross-cultural work like Todeschini’s, engaging with argumentation theory and pragmatics, not just the time-worn question of whether Nyāya epistemology is “deductive or inductive” in nature is a desideratum.

  47. I thank an anonymous referee for raising this objection.

  48. ke ’tra samyakpratipannāḥ ke mithyeti śrotuḥ saṃśayo bhavati (NV 91.4).

  49. As Dasti (2013: 627) has pointed out, this could be a useful point of future research, since peer disagreement is an important part of Nyāya philosophy itself, and yet Naiyāyikas do not doubt all of their tenets simply because they hear opposing viewpoints. Relatedly, perhaps we might think there are different epistemic standards for when doubt might arise based on the topic under discussion, and likewise different epistemic standards for resolving that doubt. However, I see no such context-sensitivity explicitly in early Nyāya, including Vācaspati's NVTṬ. Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this question.

  50. jalpe tu puruṣaśaktiparīkṣālakṣaṇe ’pratibhādināpi parājayopapatter nāvaśyaṃ tattvanirṇayaḥ (NVTṬ 54.9–10). The reference to the two kinds of people who are the subject of disputation and wrangling occurs just a bit later in this same discussion of NS 1.1.1. He calls them durjñānāvalepadurvidaghdha (NVTṬ 54.22).

  51. “Therefore, it is settled that the discussion’s difference from disputation is its resulting in the truth among two viewpoints.” tasmād anyataranirṇayāvasānatvena jalpād bhedo vādasyeti siddham (NVTṬ 54.10–11).

  52. Mill in fact takes up the question of “belief in God and in a future state,” arguing that even if one were to think such views are immoral and impious, dangerous to society, someone who does not allow full hearing to them “assumes infallibility” (2002: 25).


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Thanks to Alessandro Graheli for resources on the relationship between Jayanta Bhaṭṭa and Vācaspati Miśra; Sudo Ryushin for an early email conversation about the term vītarāga; Matthew Dasti for conversations about early Nyāya on debate practices; Alex Grzankowski and the audience at Birkbeck, University of London for helpful questions on a presentation version of this paper; and Mark Siderits for feedback on an early draft.

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Keating, M. Debating with Fists and Fallacies: Vācaspati Miśra and Dharmakīrti on Norms of Argumentation. Hindu Studies 26, 63–87 (2022).

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