How to define valid cognition if you are Śālikanātha (analysis of various criteria)?

Śālikanātha discusses the definition of a source of knowledge (pramāṇa) at the beginning of his Pramāṇapārāyaṇa and analyses various criteria.

First of all, he discusses the criterion of avisaṃvāditva ‘non deviation’ (used by Dharmakīrti and his school) and shows how this is not enough to exclude memory (smṛti). Dharmakīrti could exclude memory because it is conceptual, but this would exclude also inference (anumāna).

Next suggestion (again from Dharmakīrti’s school): using causal efficacy (arthakriyā) as criterion. But in this way memory should again be considered a source of knowledge, since it can be causally efficacious. One could say that, unlike in memory, in the case of inference there is a connection (though indirect) with the object. But this, again, applies to memory as well!

A new attempt is to say that a source of knowledge is identified insofar as it leads to know something unknown (aprāptaprāpaka), which is a criterion typical of Kumārila. A variant thereof is to say that it causes to act people who were previously inactive (pravartakatva), but this would lead to the fact that non-conceptual cognitions (nirvikalpa) would not be sources of knowledge, given that they cannot promote any action.

Why not using aprāptaprāpaka as criterion? Because this would not apply to the case of continuous cognitions (dhārāvāhikajñāna). These are cognitions like the ones originated out of continuously looking at the same object. These count, according to Śālikanātha, as sources of knowledge, but would not be such if the criterion of aprāptaprāmāṇaka were to be the defining one.

What about dṛḍha ‘sure’ as criterion, then?
Here Śālikanātha can give voice to the Prābhākara theory of knowledge. First of all, he asks, what would dṛḍha exclude? If it excludes doubt, then this is wrong, since there is no doubtful cognition. What we call ‘doubt’ is instead the sum of two distinct cognitions (readers might want to recall the fact that for the Nyāya school, doubt is a cognition in which two alternatives are exactly equally probably).
As for erroneous cognitions, these also don’t need to be excluded from the definition of knowledge, because there are no erroneous cognitions. What looks like an erroneous cognitions, is at most an incomplete one. For instance, mistaking mother-of-pearl for silver means rightly recognising a shining thing on the beach + remembering silver. The latter part is not knowledge, but just because it is memory. Śālikanātha similarly treats the case of jaundice and other perceptual errors.

His conclusion is a minimal definition of knowledge: pramāṇam anubhūtiḥ “knowledge is experience”.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

10 Replies to “How to define valid cognition if you are Śālikanātha (analysis of various criteria)?”

  1. Thank you Elisa for putting this up. I find it very interesting, and want to know more. One reason why I find this interesting is because I wonder if the approach involves accepting that knowledge cannot be accurately defined, too many counterexamples, or to take the voice of another classical Indian philosopher, perhaps it is a foolish agenda. The thought would be, after a robust enough search, and because we cannot find a definition of knowledge that gets right just the things that we think fall under it, we ought to adopt a minimal notion of knowledge, where it is just experience. By adopting only what is essential and non-controversial about knowledge, we give an adequate, yet incomplete account of it.

    Of course by doing this, we can then ask: what is experience? For example, would S accept that an a person has an experience only if the content of the experience is true? And how might this relate to experiences where there is no content because there is no subject object relation? (if that at all makes sense to S)

    In addition, depending on how S would answer the question of truth in relation to experience, we might also wonder whether this is a conception of knowledge where normativity drops out. For example, to say that one knows something is often to invoke an achievement on the part of the person. They have accomplished something because they know as opposed to merely truly believe. However, if knowledge is experience, and experience doesn’t even have to be true, then knowledge is easy.

    I am curious if S has much more to say or look into, and what your thoughts are on this. Once again thanks for posting up. I find this view very interesting.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Anand!
    Most of what you say has to do with Śālikanātha’s interpretation of Prabhākara’s theory of error, which I will therefore need to address in a few words.
    First of all, we are in the world of svataḥ prāmāṇya ‘intrinsic validity’, all cognitions are deemed valid unless and until they are invalidated.
    Second, according to Śālikanātha’s interpretation of Prabhākara (from now on just “Śālikanātha”) there is no real error. In the Pramāṇaparyāṇa, chapter on perception, he discusses the case of a white conch looking yellow for someone who suffers of jaundice. Is this not a case of erroneous cognition? No, it’s not, because the conch is correctly represented and the yellow is correctly represented. The only problem is the incompleteness of the cognition: One fails to grasp that the yellow is on one’s cornea, not on the object. Thus, there is stricto sensu no error, only an incomplete cognition.
    What about the case of one believing a shiny object to be silver, although it is just mother-of-pearl? The “this” part in the cognition “This is silver” is correct (you do have something in front of you), whereas the “silver” part is not incorrect, it is just a memory (the silver you saw in the past, evoked by the shiny aspect of the present object). Your only problem is the failing to distinguish its being a memory.

    Re. normativity: You are spot on. Kumārila, who is the main upholder of intrinsic validity, says that one needs to do one’s best to check whether a cognition can be falsified, even though it is valid since its first moment. So, yes, some effort is required, but a posteriori.

    As for “experiences where there is no content because there is no subject object relation”, could you elaborate more?

    • Kumārila, who is the main upholder of intrinsic validity, says that one needs to do one’s best to check whether a cognition can be falsified, even though it is valid since its first moment. So, yes, some effort is required, but a posteriori.

      Could you point me to where he says this, and in what contexts? As you say, he definitely doesn’t think that checking adds anything to the original svataḥprāmāṇya, so it isn’t necessary to check for falsification in that sense. And he says at CDS 52,

      yadā svataḥ pramāṇatvaṃ tadānyan naiva gṛhyate
      nivarttate hi mithyātvaṃ doṣājñānād ayatnataḥ

      So it seems that a cognition which has svataḥ prāmāṇya has its being false precluded, without any effort, when no flaws are encountered. This suggests we don’t need to actively check that there are no such flaws. If we do encounter a doṣa, then we might need to go on investigating–but he says at 63 that this shouldn’t go on for ever, maybe three or four times (otherwise, we could always wonder if there is some possible flaw out there!).

      Is the checking just when an actual flaw (causal or otherwise) is encountered? When you are challenged? When the stakes are high? What do you think?

      • Kumārila can be differently interpreted. I like Sucarita’s straightforward analysis that we don’t need to make any effort —falsification will follow if the original cognition was wrong, just like you don’t need any effort to realise that you were just dreaming. However, Kumārila’s accent on “3–4” attempts seems to open the door to the fact that one needs to at least actively look for possible counter-evidence. Does this contradict intrinsic validity? I don’t think so, it rather means that as epistemic agents we are always under the obligation to be careful and open to the possibility of invalidating cognitions (i.e., no dogmatism, please). This attitude needs some effort. Or, so I would say…

        • I think we disagree on this one! I read Kumārila’s emphasis on three to four attempts in the context of the discussion of the arising of a second, later cognition (vs 57) and then possibly a third which contradicts the second (58) and then shows that the first cognition has had svataḥ prāmāṇya all along (whatever that is–warrant or truth). I don’t see that he thinks we need to actively look for further cognitions.

          And Sucarita’s view seems to be that after the first cognition, you’ll act, whether it’s erroneous or not (see his comments on vs 47) and then naturally, as you say, a second cognition would arise. I would say that it is in our acting confidently on cognitions which appear veridical that we’ll find counter-evidence. We should, as you say, take cognitions of doṣa-s seriously when they oppose prevous cognitions. And yes, that requires effort, but that effort only comes about once we do encounter such counter-evidence (as I read Sucarita).

          I think what I disagree with is (1) the claim that Kumārila *says* we should do our best to check for falsification (that is an interpretation of implications of his view–as there no place it’s clearly stated in the ŚV or elsewhere), and (2) the claim that openness to future countervailing evidence, as you put it, is the same as needing to check for falsification. I think these are importantly different (the first might lend itself to a parataḥ view, where prāmāṇya depends on knowing that there is no doṣa, rather than a non-cognition of a doṣa.)

          And as I read Sucarita, he strongly denies the idea that we should wonder, imagine, doubt (he uses utprekṣā along with other terms) that there is a flaw unless we actually encounter one. So we simply act on the basis of a cognition’s appearing to us as veridical, and the resultant niścaya (which is prāmāṇya for Sucarita).

          • Sure, Malcolm, I also agree that “openness to future countervailing evidence” is not the same as “needing to check for falsification”. As you know, Sucarita and Uṃveka disagree here and the mention of 3–4 attemps in Kumārila is ambiguous (if Sucarita is right, why mentioning 3–4 possible falsifications at all?). In general, I think that Kumārila would insist that svataḥ prāmāṇya does not mean that we are allowed to be lazy as epistemic subjects.

    • Hi Elisa

      Very helpful, thank you for providing this. By experiences where there is no subject object relation I was thinking of cases of nirvikalpa samadhi where one might be said to know something in the samadhi state, but there is no subject object relation, since in that state there is a collapse of the subject object relation. And now I see that maybe these cases do not apply to what S is talking about, since these might not be cases where error is possible. So, maybe there is just the remaining question: would S have thought that in a case of nirvikalpa samadhi there is knowledge, such that his claim that knowledge is experience applies?

      Thanks so much 🙂

      • Thanks, Anand. Śālikanātha seems not to believe in samādhi, but he accepts nirvikalpa cognitions as valid cognitions (see the original post). Nonetheless, even in these cases cognitions remain constituted of three elements (cogniser, cognised thing and cognition itself). The difference with savikalpa cognitions is only in the level of verbality and “discussability” of the cognitions (you cannot describe nirvikalpa ones distinctively nor can you speak about them).

  3. Thanks Elisa, very interesting. Something I want to look into more. The first time I came across Śālikanātha was listening to you discuss him at Malcolm’s conference in Singapore. And now that I am hearing more about him, I find him to be a very interesting figure. Thank so much 🙂

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