What is the scope of logical reasoning according to Shri Shankara

The only proof of the existence of Brahman is the Shruti. Then what is the scope of logical reasoning according to Shri Shankara?

Do a little research work – “Brahma Sutra” Book 2, section 1, Sutra 11. In the commentary Shri Shankara comments on this problem Also Book 2, section 1, Sutra 6 and Book 2, section 1, Sutra 9. In the commentary on these Sutras, Shri Shankara has defined his position on what logic is used for, how far it can go, and what it cannot do.

Brahma Sutra Book 2, section 1, Sutra 11

11. If it be said that, in consequence of the ill- foundedness of reasoning, we must frame our conclusions otherwise; (we reply that) thus also there would result non-release.

In matters to be known from Scripture mere reasoning is not to be relied on for the following reason also. As the thoughts of man are altogether unfettered, reasoning which disregards the holy texts and rests on individual opinion only has no proper foundation. We see how arguments, which some clever men had excogitated with great pains are shown, by people still more ingenious, to be fallacious, and how the arguments of the latter again are refuted in their turn by other men ; so that, on account of the diversity of men’s opinions, it is impossible to accept mere reasoning as having a sure foundation. Nor can we get over this difficulty by accepting as well-founded the reasoning of some person of recognised mental eminence, may he now be Kapila or anybody else; since we observe that even men of the most undoubted mental eminence, such as Kapila, Kanada, and other founders of philosophical schools, have contradicted one another.

But (our adversary may here be supposed to say), we will fashion our reasoning otherwise, i.e. in such a manner as not to lay it open to the charge of having no proper foundation. You cannot, after all, maintain that no reasoning whatever is well-founded ; for you yourself can found your assertion that reasoning has no foundation on reasoning only; your assumption being that because some arguments are seen to be devoid of foundation other arguments as belonging to the same class are likewise devoid of foundation. Moreover, if all reasoning were unfounded, the whole course of practical human life would have to come to an end. For we see that men act, with a view to obtaining pleasure and avoiding pain in the future time, on the assumption that the past, the present, and the future are uniform.

Further, in the case of passages of Scripture (apparently) contradicting each other, the ascertainment of the real sense, which depends on a preliminary refutation of the apparent sense, can be effected only by an accurate definition of the meaning of sentences, and that involves a process of reasoning. Thus Manu also expresses himself: ‘ Perception, inference, and the sastra according to the various traditions, this triad is to be known well by one desiring clearness in regard to right.—He who applies reasoning not contradicted by the Veda to the Veda and the (Smriti).doctrine of law, he, and no other, knows the law’ (Manu Smriti XII, 105, 106). And that ‘want of foundation’, to which you object, really constitutes the beauty of reasoning, because it enables us to arrive at unobjectionable arguments by means of the previous refutation of objectionable arguments (1) . (No fear that because the purvapaksha is ill-founded the siddhanta should be ill-founded too 😉 for there is no valid reason to maintain that a man must be stupid because his elder brother was stupid. —For all these reasons the want of foundation cannot be used as an argument against reasoning.

Against this argumentation we remark that thus also there results ‘ want of release.’ For although with regard to some things reasoning is observed to be well founded, with regard to the matter in hand there will result ‘ want of release,’ viz. of the reasoning from this very fault of ill-foundedness. The true nature of the cause of the world on which final emancipation depends cannot, on account of its excessive abstruseness, even be thought of without the help of the holy texts ; for, as already remarked, it cannot become the object of perception, because it does not possess qualities such as form and the like, and as it is devoid of characteristic signs, it does not lend itself to inference and the other means of right knowledge.—Or else (if we adopt another explanation of the word 1 avimoksha ’) all those who teach the final release of the soul are agreed that it results from perfect knowledge. Perfect knowledge has the characteristic mark of uniformity, because it depends on accomplished actually existing, things; for whatever thing is permanently of one and the same nature is acknowledged to be a true or real thing, and knowledge conversant about such is called perfect knowledge; as, for instance, the knowledge embodied in the proposition,’ fire is hot.’ Now, it is clear that in the case of perfect knowledge a mutual conflict of men’s opinions is impossible.

But that cognitions founded on reasoning do conflict is generally known; for we continually observe that what one logician endeavours to establish as perfect knowledge is demolished by another, who, in his turn, is treated alike by a third. How therefore can knowledge, which is founded on reasoning, and whose object is not something permanently uniform, be perfect knowledge?—Nor can it be said that he who maintains the pradhana to be the cause of the world (i.e. the Sankhya) is the best of all reasoners, and accepted as such by all philosophers ; which would enable us to accept his opinion as perfect knowledge.—Nor can we collect at a given moment and on a given spot all the logicians of the past, present, and future time, so as to settle (by their agreement) that their opinion regarding some uniform object is to be considered perfect knowledge. The Veda, on the other hand, which is eternal and the source of knowledge, may be allowed to have for its object firmly established things, and hence the perfection of that knowledge which is founded on the Veda cannot be denied by any of the logicians of the past, present, or future. We have thus established the perfection of this our knowledge which reposes on the Upanishads, and as apart from it perfect knowledge is impossible, its disregard would lead to ‘ absence of final release ’ of the transmigrating souls. Our final position therefore is, that on the ground of Scripture and of reasoning subordinate to Scripture, the intelligent Brahman is to be considered the cause and substance of the world.


(1). The whole style of argumentation of the Mimamsa would be impossible, if all reasoning were sound; for then no purvapaksa view could be maintained

Book 2, section 1, Sutra 6

6. But it is seen.

Your assertion that this world cannot have originated from Brahman on account of the difference of its character is not founded on an absolutely true tenet. For we see that from man, who is acknowledged to be intelligent, non-intelligent things such as hair and nails originate, and that, on the other hand, from avowedly non-intelligent matter, such as cow-dung, scorpions and similar animals are produced.—But—to state an objection—the real cause of the non-intelligent hair and nails is the human body which is itself non-intelligent, and the non-intelligent bodies only of scorpions are the effects of non-intelligent dung.—Even thus, we reply, there remains a difference in character (between the cause, for instance, the dung, and the effect, for instance, the body of the scorpion), in so far as some non-intelligent matter (the body)  is the abode of an intelligent principle (the scorpion’s soul), while other non-intelligent matter (the dung) is not.

Moreover, the difference of nature — due to the cause passing over into the effect—between the bodies of men on the one side and hair and nails on the other side, is, on account of the divergence of colour, form, &c., very considerable after all. The same remark holds good with regard to cow-dung and the bodies of scorpions, &c. If absolute equality were insisted on (in the case of one thing being the effect of another), the relation of material cause and effect (which after all requires a distinction of the two) would be annihilated.

If, again, it be remarked that in the case of men and hair as well as in that of scorpions and cow-dung there is one characteristic feature, at least, which is found in the effect as well as in the cause, viz. the quality of being of an earthy nature ; we reply that in the case of Brahman and the world also one characteristic feature, viz. that of existence (satta), is found in ether, &c. (which are the effects) as well as in Brahman (which is the cause).— He, moreover, who on the ground of the difference of the attributes tries to invalidate the doctrine of Brahman being the cause of the world, must assert that he understands by difference of attributes either the non-occurrence (in the world) of the entire complex of the characteristics of Brahman, or the non-occurrence of any (some or other) characteristic, or the non-occurrence of the characteristic of intelligence. The first assertion would lead to the negation of the relation of cause and effect in general, which relation is based on the fact of there being in the effect something over and above the cause (for if the two were absolutely identical they could not be distinguished).

The second assertion is open to the charge of running counter to what is well known ; for, as we have already remarked, the characteristic quality of existence which belongs to Brahman is found likewise in ether and so on. For the third assertion the requisite proving instances are wanting; for what instances could be brought forward against the upholder of Brahman, in order to prove the general assertion that whatever is devoid of intelligence is seen not to be an effect of Brahman ? (The upholder of Brahman would simply not admit any such instances) because he maintains that this entire complex of things has Brahman for its material cause. And that all such assertions are contrary to Scripture, is clear, as we have already shown it to be the purport of Scripture that Brahman is the cause and substance of the world. It has indeed been maintained by the purvapakshin that the other means of proof also (and not merely sacred tradition) apply to Brahman, on account of its being an accomplished entity (not something to be accomplished as religious duties are); but such an assertion is entirely gratuitous.

For Brahman, as being devoid of form and so on, cannot become an object of perception; and as there are in its case no characteristic marks (on which conclusions, &c. might be based), inference also and the other means of proof do not apply to it; but, like religious duty, it is to be known solely on the ground of holy tradition. Thus Scripture also declares, That doctrine is not to be obtained by argument, but when it is declared by another then, O dearest! it is easy to understand ’ (Ka. Up. I, 2, 9). And again, ‘ Who in truth knows it? Who could here proclaim it, whence this creation sprang? ( Rig-v. Samh. X, 129, 6). These two mantras show that the cause of this world is not to be known even by divine beings (Ishvara) (1) of extraordinary power and wisdom.

There are also the following Smriti passages to the same effect: ‘Do not apply reasoning to those things which are uncognisable (2);’ ‘Unevolved he is called, uncognisable, unchangeable;’ ‘Not the legions of the gods know my origin, not the great rishis. For I myself am in every way the origin of the gods and great rishis’ (Bha. Gi. X, 2). —And if it has been maintained above that the scriptural passage enjoining thought (on Brahman) in addition to mere hearing (of the sacred texts treating of Brahman) shows that reasoning also is to be allowed its place, we reply that the passage must not deceitfully be taken as enjoining bare independent ratiocination, but must be understood to represent reasoning as a subordinate auxiliary of intuitional knowledge.

By reasoning of the latter type we may, for instance, arrive at the following conclusions: that because the state of dream and the waking state exclude each other the Self is not connected with those states; that, as the soul in the state of deep sleep leaves the phenomenal world behind and becomes one with that whose Self is pure Being, it has for its Self pure Being apart from the phenomenal world; that as the world springs from Brahman it cannot be separate from Brahman, according to the principle of the non-difference of cause and effect, &C.1

The fallaciousness of mere reasoning will moreover be demonstrated later on (II, i, ii).—He  moreover, who merely on the ground of the sacred tradition about an intelligent cause of the world would assume this entire world to be of an intellectual nature would find room for the other scriptural passage quoted above (‘ He became knowledge and what is devoid of knowledge’) which teaches a distinction of intellect and non-intellect; for he could avail himself of the doctrine of intellect being sometimes manifested and sometimes non-manifested. His antagonist, on the other hand (i. e. the Sankhya), would not be able to make anything of the passage, for it distinctly teaches that the highest cause constitutes the Self of the entire world.

If, then, on account of difference of character that which is intelligent cannot pass over into what is non-intelligent, that also which is non-intelligent (i.e. in our case, the non-intelligent pradhana of the Sankhyas) cannot pass over into what is intelligent.—(So much for argument’s sake,) but apart from that, as the argument resting on difference of character has already been refuted, we must assume an intelligent cause of the world in agreement with Scripture.


1 On isvara in the above meaning, compare Deussen, p. 69, note 41.

2 The line prakritibhya param,’ &c. is wanting in all MSS. I have consulted.

3. Let us finally assume, merely for argument’s sake, that a vailakshawya of cause and effect is not admissible, and enquire whether that assumption can be reconciled more easily with «n intelligent or a non-intelligent cause of the world.

Book 2, section 1, Sutra 9

9. Not so ; as there are parallel instances.

There is nothing objectionable in our system.—The objection that the effect when being reabsorbed into lts cause would inquinate the latter with its qualities does not damage our position ‘ because there are parallel instances,’ i. e. because there are instances of effects not inquinating with their qualities the causes into which they are reabsorbed. Things, for instance, made of clay, such as pots, &c., which in their state of separate existence are of various descriptions, do not, when they are reabsorbed into their original matter (i. e. clay), impart to the latter their individual qualities ; nor do golden ornaments impart their individual qualities to their elementary material, i. e. gold, into which they may finally be reabsorbed.

Nor does the fourfold complex of organic beings which springs from earth impart its qualities to the latter at the time of reabsorption. You (i. e. the purvapakshin), on the other hand, have not any instances to quote in your favour. For reabsorption could not take place at all if the effect when passing back into its causal substance continued to subsist there with all its individual properties. And1 that in spite of the non-difference of cause and effect the effect has its Self in the cause, but not the cause in the effect, is a point which we shall render clear later on, under II, 1, 14.

Moreover, the objection that the effect would impart its qualities to the cause at the time of reabsorption is formulated too narrowly because, the identity of cause and effect being admitted, the same would take place during the time of the subsistence (of the effect, previous to its reabsorption). That the identity of cause and effect (of Brahman and the world) holds good indiscriminately with regard to all time (not only the time of reabsorption), is declared in many scriptural passages, as, for instance, ‘ This everything is that Self’ (Bh. Up. II, 4, 6); ‘The Self is all this’ (Kh. Up. VII, 35, 3); ‘The immortal Brahman is this before’ (Mu. Up. II, 3, 11); ‘All this is Brahman ’ (Kh. Up. Ill, 14, 1).

With regard to the case referred to in the Sruti-passages we refute the assertion of the cause being affected by the effect and its qualities by showing that the latter are the mere fallacious superimpositions of nescience, and the very-same argument holds good with reference to reabsorption also.—We can quote other examples in favour of our doctrine. As the magician is not at any time affected by the magical illusion produced by himself, because it is unreal, so the highest Self is not affected by the world-illusion.

And as one dreaming person is not affected by the illusory visions of his dream because they do not accompany the waking state and the state of dreamless sleep; so the one permanent witness of the three states (viz. the highest Self which is the one unchanging witness of the creation, subsistence, and reabsorption of the world) is not touched by the mutually exclusive three states. For that the highest Self appears in those three states, is a mere illusion, not more substantial than the snake for which the rope is mistaken in the twilight. With reference to this point teachers knowing the true tradition of the Vedanta have made the following declaration, ‘ When the individual soul which is held in the bonds of slumber by the beginningless Maya awakes, then it knows the eternal, sleepless, dreamless non-duality ’ (Gaudap. Kar. I, 16).

So far we have shown that—on our doctrine—there is no danger of the cause being affected at the time of reabsorption by the qualities of the effect, such as grossness and the like.—With regard to the second objection, viz. that if we assume all distinctions to pass (at the time of reabsorption) into the state of non-distinction there would be no special reason for the origin of a new world affected with distinctions, we likewise refer, to the ‘ existence of parallel instances.’ For the case is parallel to that of deep sleep and trance. In those states also the soul enters into an essential condition of non-distinction ; nevertheless, wrong knowledge being not yet finally overcome, the old state of distinction re-establishes itself as soon as the soul awakes from its sleep or trance. Compare the scriptural passage, ‘All these, creatures when they have become merged in the True, know not that they are merged in the True.

Whatever these creatures are here, whether a lion, or a wolf, or a boar, or a worm, or a midge, or a gnat, or a mosquito, that they become again ’ (Kh. Up. VI, 9, 2; 3). For just as during the subsistence of the world the phenomenon of multifarious distinct existence, based on wrong knowledge, proceeds unimpeded like the vision of a dream, although there is only one highest Self devoid of all distinction ; so, we conclude, there remains, even after reabsorption, the power of distinction (potential distinction) founded on wrong knowledge. Herewith the objection that, according to our doctrine, even the finally released souls would be born again is already disposed of. They will not be born again because in their case wrong knowledge has been entirely discarded by perfect knowledge.

The last alternative finally (which the purvapakshin had represented as open to the Vedantin), viz. that even at the time of reabsorption the world should remain distinct from Brahman, precludes itself because it is not admitted by the Vedantins themselves. Hence the system founded on the Upanishads is in every way unobjectionable.




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