Semantic Reasoning




Nyāya is one of the Six Systems of Vedic philosophy, and Nyāya Sūtra is the oldest and most authoritative text on this philosophy. This book translates and comments on this ancient text.

Nyāya presents an alternative system of logic and reasoning in which reality exists as a potential, and it manifests an answer based on a question. This question is called “absence” and the answer is called “presence”. We are all combinations of some presence and absence—i.e., some answers and questions. Our interactions with the world are thus described just like conversations between two people.

Happiness is created when the answers match the questions and the questions match the answers. Unhappiness is produced when the questions and answers are mismatched. This match or mismatch is based on the meanings in the question and answer; hence all reality must be studied as a text. It is just like sentences comprised of words and letters, not physical matter, force, or deterministic laws.

The sequence of questions and answers is not deterministic because each question can be answered in different ways, and each answer can lead to different questions. Therefore, this scheme of logic is not contrary to free will. Free will in this description of logic is the ability to ask a different question based on a given answer, or the ability to provide a different answer to a given question. By exercising this choice of changing our questions and answers, the soul can alter its trajectory in the world.

The Nyāya system of philosophy dwells on the following key topics:

  • It identifies a five-step syllogism in which the first and the last steps represent the goal to be achieved and the conclusion established by the process of reasoning. This five-step syllogism includes the use of ‘examples’ which is a method to ensure that reasoning is not merely rational, but also real; the distinction between real and rational is seen in modern logical systems which can postulate arbitrary axioms, but those axioms are never realized in the real world. The text then also discusses various forms of irrational or illogical methods of argumentation and categorizes them into classes such as fallacious, ignorant, useless, gossip, deception, and others.
  • It describes a model of scientific description that comprises four components—wholes, parts, a system to control the parts from the whole, and a system to reconcile the parts in the whole. By the method of reconciling the parts in the whole, the whole doesn’t break apart into separate wholes. And by the method of controlling the parts through the wholes, the parts get a functional nature where they are engaged in unique roles within the whole. The whole is identified not physically as the aggregation of the parts, but as the head, or the leader of a system that controls the parts. The head must be reconciled to the parts, otherwise, the system will break into many distinct wholes with their own leaders. And the leader must be in control of the parts giving them direction.
  • It discusses an isomorphism between language and reality, by virtue of which, reality comprises language. It is owing to this isomorphism that rational conclusions drawn in language are applicable to reality, and a rational discussion—carried out in a language—becomes the basis for the understanding of reality. The most elementary ingredients of reality are identified as the letters in the alphabets of language; and just as sentences are created by the combination of such letters, similarly, all reality is also constructed out of the combination of linguistic atoms. Just as the linguistic atoms have meaning, similarly, the reality is also semantic. The rules or laws of nature are then the rules of combining the semantic atoms. Rationality is the production of one semantic reality from another. This production involves choices, and the laws of actions involve not just results, but also consequences, which are called karma. This karma is just like the consequences of speech and argument—namely, they either lead to ignorance and bondage, or to knowledge and liberation. Thus, by the correspondence between reality and language, a further correspondence between reasoning and the purpose of life—i.e., freedom from entanglement—is established.
  • Inherent to the Nyāya system is the idea that reality exists as a potential, only some of which are manifest at a given time, place, and situation. Thus, as many different aspects of reality are manifest, a seeming contradiction on the “true” nature of a thing is created. The text describes how the “true” nature of a thing is that which reconciles all the myriad manifestations of possibility in different times, places, and contexts. The semantic reality is therefore also aspected (i.e., it has many aspects), and the whole truth is the reconciliation of these aspects into a coherent nature of the whole.
  • Unique to Nyāya is the idea of ‘nothingness’ which is presented in two ways—doubt and absence. Just as a premise exists but is incomplete, which then leads to doubt, and the doubt then leads to a resolution in the form of an answer or a solution, similarly, the reality exists in an abstract form, and details are produced from this reality due to doubt or absence. The term ‘doubt’ refers to the incomplete understanding of what something truly is, and ‘absence’ refers to the desire in the whole to complete that understanding. A doubt could exist perpetually, but the absence is created; the creation of absence is the desire to completely know the nature of a thing. Reality thus expands from a primordial abstract form into a contingent detailed form because, in each abstract state, there is a doubt about what it really is, which then leads to an absence or desire to overcome that incompleteness. This doctrine forms the basis of a rational process of creation in which a primordial abstract semantic reality expands into many details—because this process of detailing overcomes doubt and produces completeness. Reality can therefore be understood as a primordial consciousness that tries to define its true nature, and in that process, expands into the world as the method by which its true nature is known to itself. Just like an artist creates works of art only to know who he truly is, similarly, a primordial reality expands to discover its true nature.
  • The process of absence is also used to solve some difficult problems in logic whereby each presence contains some absences. For instance, if you see a cow, you know that it is (a) not a dog, and (b) not other cows. The opposition between words in a language is thus inherited in logic as the ideas of mutual exclusion and non-contradiction because there is an absence of other things inside the presence. This absence is an ontological reality, not merely an epistemological or logical reality. Thereby, the logical contradictions between opposites, and the existence of opposites in language, are attributed to the problem of absences that are present in each thing. If this absence is converted into a presence, then the knowledge of the other thing is realized within each thing. In short, everything exists inside everything as absence; when this absence is converted into a presence, then we say that we “know” the other things. The possibility of knowledge—in which the vision of apple is just like the apple and yet not the apple—is thus based on the absence. By this principle, the knowledge of everything also exists in each of us; when we know something, we are just manifesting a detail from within us. Although this potential is generally manifest due to an external trigger,  it could be manifest from within too. Thus, the knowledge of the truth can be obtained without any external observation, and this is the basis of pure rationalism.
  • Finally, Nyāya presents a unique understanding of the Absolute Truth in which the origin of everything has many aspects such that each aspect is present within the other aspects. The eyes of the Lord are therefore not merely eyes; they are also His tongue, hands, legs, genitals, etc. Of course, the Lord can see with His eyes, but He can also taste with His eyes, walk with His eyes, hold with His eyes, and impregnate by His eyes. Due to the presence of every aspect in every other aspect, the form of the Lord is not ordinary; every part of the form is the whole truth, but at a given moment, in one place and one context, one of these truths is manifest. It also means that the Lord has infinite forms and, in each form, some aspects of the whole are manifest, while the other aspects remain hidden. All these forms are the same person and yet different personalities. The parts of the form are not like the parts of our bodies, and hence, the central contention of impersonalism—i.e., that the Lord has no form because forms are material—is refuted. Similarly, attributions of polytheism or the plurality of forms are rejected. All ideas of non-dualism in Vedic philosophy rest on this understanding of the Lord, and Nyāya is thus the cornerstone of Vedic philosophy.

We can thus see how Nyāya addresses the conflict between experience and reason in Western philosophy. It addresses the question of why language is useful in describing the nature of reality. It discusses how contradictions in language are not merely logical and epistemological but also ontological. And it establishes an understanding of God, on which the Vedic religion (where many forms are worshipped as one, without impersonalism or polytheism) rests.

The Nyāya system uses Sāṅkhya in many ways. First, it recognizes the reality of the five elements of Sāṅkhya. Second, it echoes the philosophy of Satkāryavāda in which an effect is produced from within the cause as it was previously latent in the cause. The Vedanta doctrines of Advaita, Abheda, Advaya, etc. are invoked in the understanding of the whole and part—the whole doesn’t reduce to the parts, and the parts are not identical to the whole. The principle of non-difference is supported on the basis of the semantic or linguistic nature of reality in which the parts are examples and illustrations of the whole; therefore, they are not identical to the whole, and they are not separate from it. The whole truth exists without its examples and illustrations; therefore, the Lord exists independent of His empirical confirmation—i.e., the manifestation of the visible world. But because empirical confirmation illustrates the whole truth, and is manifest from it, therefore, the empirical reality is not independent of the complete truth; in fact, the empirical reality is a method of understanding the whole truth—it explains that reality through examples and illustrations.

Due to the logical independence of the whole truth, the fundamental premise of rationalism—namely, that the truth can be known via pure reason is established. The whole truth exists as a person whose nature can (in principle) be grasped by pure reason. Similarly, because the whole truth is illustrated by examples, therefore, empiricism—or the knowledge of the truth by observation—is also established. Then, because the Absolute Truth is semantic, His nature can be expressed in words, and authoritative scriptures are also ways of knowing the truth. Finally, because the Absolute Truth is semantic, it can also appear within the partial truths, and this entry constitutes the mystical appearance of the Lord in our minds. Based on the possibility of this entry, it is possible to experience the Lord—not only through the world but also directly.

Thus, if you are a rationalist, the truth is available to you by pure reason. If you are an empiricist, the truth is available via observation. If you are interested in the study of scriptures, then truth is available through authoritative sources. And if you are a mystic, then the truth is available via direct experience. All these methods of knowing the truth can be employed individually, or in combination, as they are equally capable processes for understanding the truth. If even one method is perfected, the results of the other methods are gained.

Nyāya thus establishes the foundations of Vedic epistemology. All other Vedic texts present the details on how reason, observation, scripture, or mysticism can lead a person to the truth, without grounding this epistemology into the nature of reality. To those who take these methods for granted, Nyāya seems unnecessary, although people argue about which method is superior. The understanding of Nyāya establishes how all of them are equally feasible and lead to the same conclusion. Each person can choose a method for themselves. And all the claims about there being fundamental contradictions between science, philosophy, reason, observation, mysticism, scriptures, etc., are just myths.