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Pramana (sources of knowledge, Sanskrit) is an epistemological term in Hindu[1][2] and Buddhist dialectic, debate and discourse.

Hetuvidya (因明) and Pramāṇavāda can be glossed in English as Indian and Buddhist Epistemology and Logic, respectively.


In Hinduism

Different systems of Hindu philosophy accept different categories of pramanas.

Pramana forms one part of a tripuţi (trio) concerning Pramā (the correct knowledge of any object arrived at by thorough reasoning, Sanskrit), namely,

  1. Pramāta, the subject, the knower
  2. Pramāņa, the means of obtaining the knowledge
  3. Prameya, the object, the knowable

Modern Buddhist schools do not use these three distinct terms particularly, but instead employ the 'three spheres' (Sanskrit: trimandala; Tibetan: 'khor gsum):

  1. subject
  2. object, and
  3. action.[3]

Advaita Vedanta

In Advaita Vedānta, the following pramanas are accepted[2]:

  • Pratyakşa — the knowledge gained by means of the senses
  • Anumāna — the knowledge gained by means of inference
  • Upamāna — the knowledge gained by means of analogy
  • Arthāpatti — the knowledge gained by superimposing the known knowledge on an appearing knowledge that does not concur with the known knowledge
  • Anupalabdi — non apprehension and skepticism in the face of non-apprehension
  • Āgama — the knowledge gained by means of texts such as Vedas (also known as Āptavākya, Śabda pramana)


According to the Sankhya school, knowledge is possible through three pramanas[2]:

  • Pratyakşa — direct sense perception
  • Anumāna — logical inference
  • Śabda — Verbal testimony


The Nyaya school accepts four means of obtaining knowledge (pramana), viz., Perception, Inference, Comparison and Word[2].

  • Perception, called Pratyakşha, occupies the foremost position in the Nyaya epistemology. Perception is defined by sense-object contact and is unerring. Perception can be of two types:
    • Ordinary (Laukika or Sādhārana), of six types, viz., visual-by eyes, olfactory-by nose, auditory-by ears, tactile-by skin, gustatory-by tongue and mental-by mind.
    • Extra-ordinary (Alaukika or Asādhārana), of three types, viz., Samanyalakshana (perceiving generality from a particular object), Jñānalakşana (when one sense organ can also perceive qualities not attributable to it, as when seeing a chili, one knows that it would be bitter or hot), and Yogaja (when certain human beings, from the power of Yoga, can perceive past, present and future and have supernatural abilities, either complete or some). Also, there are two modes or steps in perception, viz., Nirvikalpa, when one just perceives an object without being able to know its features, and Savikalpa, when one is able to clearly know an object. All laukika and alaukika pratyakshas are savikalpa. There is yet another stage called Pratyabhijñā, when one is able to re-recognise something on the basis of memory.
  • Inference, called Anumāna, is one of the most important contributions of Nyaya. It can be of two types - inference for oneself (Svarthanumana, where one does not need any formal procedure, and at the most the last three of their 5 steps), and inference for others (Parathanumana, which requires a systematic methodology of 5 steps). Inference can also be classified into 3 types: Purvavat (inferring an unperceived effect from a perceived cause), Sheshavat (inferring an unperceived cause from a perceived effect) and Samanyatodrishta (when inference is not based on causation but on uniformity of co-existence). A detailed analysis of error is also given, explaining when anumana could be false.
  • Comparison, which is the rough transplation of Upamāna. It is the knowledge of the relationship between a word and the object denoted by the word. It is produced by the knowledge of resemblance or similarity, given some pre-description of the new object beforehand.
  • Word, or Śabda are also accepted as a pramana. It can be of two types, Vaidika (Vedic), which are the words of the four sacred Vedas, or can be more broadly interpreted as knowledge from sources acknowledged as authoritative, and Laukika, or words and writings of trustworthy human beings.


Epistemologically, the Vaisheshika school accepts perception (pratyaksha) and inference (anumāna) as valid sources of knowledge[2].

In Buddhism

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Padmakara Translation Group (2005: p.390) annotates that:

Strictly speaking, pramana (tshad ma) means "valid cognition." In practice, it refers to the tradition, principally associated with Dignaga and Dharmakirti, of logic (rtags rigs) and epistemology (blo rigs).[4]

Buddhism, along with hard science and classical Western philosophy, rejects many of the premises of Hindu Pramana, especially the use of religious texts (Agama) as a source of valid knowledge alone.

In Buddhism, the two most important scholars of pramana are Dignaga and Dharmakirti.[5] They lived in a time of rigorous debate with the Hindu schools, and Dignaga developed a new logical approach in these debates. Dharmakirti continued that a century later.


Dignaga and Dharmakirti are usually categorized as expounding the view of the Sautrantika tenets, though one can make a distinction between the Sautrantikas following scripture (Tibetan: ལུང་གི་རྗེས་འབྲང་གི་མདོ་སྡེ་པ Wylie: lung gi rjes 'brang gi mdo sde pa) and those following reason (Tibetan: རིགས་པ་རྗེས་འབྲང་གི་མདོ་སྡེ་པ Wylie: rigs pa rjes 'brang gi mdo sde pa) and both these masters are described as establishing the latter.[6] Dignaga's main text on this topic is the Pramāṇa-samuccaya.

These two rejected the complex abhidharma-based description of how in the Vaibhashika school and the Sautrantika following scripture approach connected an external world with mental objects, and instead posited that the mental domain never connects directly with the external world but instead only perceives an aspect based upon the sense organs and the sense consciousnesses. Further, the sense consciousnesses assume the form of the aspect (Sanskrit: Sakaravada) of the external object and what is perceived is actually the sense consciousness which has taken on the form of the external object. By starting with aspects, a logical argument about the external world as discussed by the Hindu schools was possible. Otherwise their views would be so different as to be impossible to begin a debate. Then a logical discussion could follow.[6]

This approach attempts to solve how the material world connects with the mental world, but not completely explaining it. When pushed on this point, Dharmakirti then drops a presupposition of the Sautantrika position and shifts to a kind of Yogacara position that extramental objects never really occur but arise from the habitual tendencies of mind. So he begins a debate with Hindu schools positing external objects then later to migrate the discussion to how that is logically untenable.[6]

Note there are two differing interpretations of Dharmakirti's approach later in Tibet, due to differing translations and interpretations. One is held by the Gelug school leaning to a moderate realism with some accommodation of universals and the other held by the other schools who held that Dharmakirti was distinctly antirealist.[7]


A key feature of Dignaga's logic is in how he treats generalities versus specific objects of knowledge. The Nyaya Hindu school made assertions about the existence of general principles, and in refutation Dignaga asserted that generalities were mere mental features and not truly existent. To do this he introduced the idea of Apoha, that the way the mind recognizes is by comparing and negating known objects from the perception. In that way, the general idea or categories of objects has to do with differences from known objects, not from identification with universal truths. So one knows that a perceived chariot is a chariot not because it is in accord with a universal form of a chariot, but because it is perceived as different from things that are not chariots. This approach became an essential feature of Buddhist epistemology.[8]


The contemporary of Dignaga but before Dharmakirti, Bhavaviveka, incorporated a logical approach when commenting upon Nagarjuna. He also started with a Sautrantika approach when discussing the way appearances appear, to debate with realists, but then took a Middle Way view of the ultimate nature of phenomenon. But he used logical assertions and arguments about the nature of that ultimate nature.[6]

His incorporation of logic into the Middle Way system was later critiqued by Candrakirti, who felt that the establishment of the ultimate way of abiding since it was beyond thought and concept was not the domain of logic. He used simple logical consequence arguments to refute the views of other tenet systems, but generally he thought a more developed use of logic and epistemology in describing the Middle Way was problematic. Bhavaviveka's use of autonomous logical arguments was later described as the Svatantrika approach.[6]

In Tibet

When Madhyamaka first migrated to Tibet, Shantarakshita established a view of Madhyamaka more consistent with Bhavaviveka while further evolving logical assertions as a way of contemplating and developing one's viewpoint of the ultimate truth.[6]

In the 14th Century Je Tsongkhapa presented a new commentary and approach to Madhyamaka, which became the normative form in Tibet. In this variant, the Madhyamaka approach of Candrakirti was elevated instead of Bhavaviveka's yet Tsongkhapa rejected Candrakirti's disdain of logic and instead incorporated logic further.[6]

The exact role of logic in Tibetan Buddhist practice and study may still be a topic of debate[7], but it is definitely established in the tradition. Ju Mipham remarked in his 19th century commentary on Shantarakshita's Madhyamakalamkara:

The Buddha's doctrine, from the exposition of the two truths onward, unerroneously sets forth the mode of being of things as they are. And the followers of the Buddha must establish this accordingly, through the use of reasoning. Such is the unerring tradition of Shakyamuni. On the other hand, to claim that analytical investigation in general and the inner science of pramana, or logic, in particular are unnecessary is a terrible and evil spell, the aim of which is to prevent the perfect assimilation, through valid reasoning, of the Buddha's words[9]

See also


  1. ^ The Nine Tenets of Vedanta
  2. ^ a b c d e Pramana at Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia
  3. ^ Thub-bstan-chos-kyi-grags-pa, Chokyi Dragpa, Heidi I. Koppl, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche (2004). Uniting Wisdom and Compassion: Illuminating the thirty-seven practices of a bodhisattva. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-377-x. Source: [1] (accessed: February 4, 2009) p.202
  4. ^ Shantarakshita (author); Mipham (commentator); Padmakara Translation Group (translators)(2005). The Adornment of the Middle Way: Shantarakshita's Madhyamakalankara with commentary by Jamgön Mipham. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 1-59030-241-9 (alk. paper): p.390
  5. ^ Shantarakshita & Ju Mipham (2005) p.1
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Shantarakshita & Ju Mipham (2005) pp.32-39
  7. ^ a b Shantarakshita & Ju Mipham (2005) p.37
  8. ^ Shantarakshita & Ju Mipham (2005) pp.35-37
  9. ^ Shantarakshita & Ju Mipham (2005) pp.38-39


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