Solipsism in Sanskrit philosophy: Preliminary thoughts

How do Sanskrit philosophers deal with solipsism?

Some Buddhist epistemologists just accepted it, as a necessary consequence of their idealism. The example of Ratnakīrti’s “Rejection of the existence of other continuous sequences [of causes and effects leading to the illusion of a separate mind]” comes to mind. In my opinion, Ratnakīrti has a specially strong argument in favour of his view, namely: The Buddhist epistemological school denies the ultimate mind-independent existence of external objects. But once one accepts that, and thus accepts idealism, how can one safeguard intersubjectivity? If there is no reality other than our representations, how comes we can understand each other? Would it not be much more economical to imagine that there is only one representation?

Others rejected it based on analogy (basically: I am a mind, i.e., a continuous sequence of causes and effects; other people behaving similarly must be a mind too). The first and main example of this reasoning is Dharmakīrti’s “Establishment of the existence of other continuous sequences” (santānāntarasiddhi).

The Pratyabhijñā and the Advaita Vedānta schools are ultimately forms of solipsism. In the former case, there is only Śiva’s mind, and the appearance of other minds is part of his līlā ‘playful activity’. In the latter (at least after Śaṅkara), there is only brahman, and the appearance of other minds is due to māyā. What is the different explanatory power of līlā vs māyā? That māyā’s ontology is hard to explain, whereas once one has committed to the existence of a personal God, with Their likes and dislikes, then līlā is a perfectly acceptable solution. Thus, AV is light on the Absolute’s ontology, but implies a leap of faith as for māyā, whereas the opposite is the case for the Pratyabhijñā school.

What about the realist schools? Some of them established the existence of the self based on aham-pratyaya, i.e., our own perception of ourselves as an ‘I’ (so the Mīmāṃsā school). Some thinkers within Nyāya (like Jayanta) used inference to establish the existence of the self.

Is this enough to establish the existence of other selves?

Yes, in the case of Mīmāṃsā, because other minds seem prima facie to exist and due to svataḥ prāmāṇya (intrinsic validity) such prima facie view should be held unless and until the opposite is proven.

Yes, according to Jayanta, because other selves can be inferred just like the own self is.

Realistic Vedāntic schools will rely on either the Mīmāṃsā or the Nyāya paradigm. Thus, the question at this point will rather be: What is consciousness like, if one subscribes to this or the other school?

Some schools (like Pratyabhijñā, Yoga…) claim that we can have direct access to other minds, through yogipratyakṣa or intellectual intuition. However, yogipratyakṣa is possible only to some exceptional individuals. Moreover, Pratyabhijñā thinkers like Utpaladeva think that even this is not an evidence of the existence of separate other minds.

(Cross-posted on my personal blog,

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.

14 Replies to “Solipsism in Sanskrit philosophy: Preliminary thoughts”

  1. These are really interesting thoughts, Elisa. I don’t know if I’d really describe Advaita or Pratyabhijñā as solipsism, since the one mind that exists is not that of the individual ego. But I’m more interested in the view you ascribe to Ratnakīrti. I don’t think I understand it. Is he arguing for an Advaita-like universal self?

    • Thanks, Amod. I replied collectively to your first point, since it had been raised also by others.
      As for Ratnakīrti, his point seems to be a logical critique of Dharmakīrti’s Santānāntarasiddhi based on the same form of reductionism that led Dharmakīrti etc. to Vijñānavāda: Just like one gives up on external objects because they are never grasped independently of our experience of them, why would this not apply to other minds? The end-result is just a series of cognitions, not a single, timeless and contentless consciousness as in AV.

  2. Nice summary! Thanks.

    I think a lot depends on how one uses terms like “solipsism” and “idealism.” For instance, in Western philosophy I think “solipsism” tends to mean something like “everything is MY mind,” which can’t be Ratnakīrti’s view since there is no “me” to own this mind!

    I plan to look at Ratnakīrti’s text in more depth soon, but I’m starting to think you could read him as saying something more like, “because Buddhist non-dualism of subject and object is true, there can be no fundamental distinction between minds and/or the very concept of a discrete mind is incoherent.” Whether this ultimately amounts to some kind of solipsism broadly construed is worth considering, but it seems differently motivated and in different terms than the traditional Western “problem of other minds,” which is an issue about inferring other minds from my private personal sense-data.

    On a related note, I will have two posts soon on Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses and whether it makes sense to discuss it in Western terms like “skepticism,” “idealism,” “phenomenalism,” “phenomenology,” etc. (I am rethinking some of my previous work on that text after having read Sonam Kachru’s recent excellent book on Vasubandhu). I wonder if it makes more sense to see both Vasubandhu and Ratnakīrti as working out the epistemological consequences of Buddhist non-dualist metaphysics, which is at the very least a different kind of idealism than anything in the West or in the Brahmanical schools, if it even makes sense to use the label “idealism” at all.

    • Thank you, Ethan.
      Yes, Ratnakīrti is differently motivated from many of his European colleagues (who, also, were differently motivated among each other, one might add) and you are right in inviting me to be cautious in the use of labels such as ‘idealism’ and ‘solipsism’. Still, his Santāna-antara-dūṣaṇa is a direct reply to Dharmakīrti’s Santāna-antara-siddhi, which develops an argument from analogy about the existence of other minds, thus I am not sure that the parallel is entirely misleading.

  3. Rather than a form of solipsism, I see Advaita Vedanta as a form of idealistic monism. It’s the mirror image of atomism (e.g classical Buddhist schools like the Sarvastivada): instead of partless elements being primary and making complex objects out of them, here you have Brahman as a single all-encompassing conscious primary existent, and particulars are understood to be (falsely) individualized facets of it. Hence the the apparent contradiction: 1) Brahman is real, 2) the world [seen as separate from Brahman] is unreal, 3) the world is [real as] Brahman.

    Within this framework, I don’t see maya as being such a leap of faith really. Among the infinite possibilities of a totality of consciousness, why wouldn’t “forgetting itself” be one of them?

    • Thank you, Skaladom!
      As for your first point (solipsism and AV), see the collective answer to all of you.
      Concerning māyā, how can “forgetting oneself” be a possibility for a timeless, contentless and inherently blissful consciousness? AV avoids the problem by speaking of an anādi avidyā, and this solves the chronological problem, but not the logical one (and in fact they say that it is anirvacanīya).

  4. Many thanks for your comments, Amod, Ethan, Sergio and Skaladom!

    I see your point re. AV and “solipsism”. What I meant was just “existence of a single mind”. Even if in AV and Pratyabhijñā we are not talking about a *limited* mind, still the only mind I have access to and whose existence I can therefore be sure about, is, by definition, mine. Even if the only existing mind is broader than mine, still mine is a portion of it (distinct from it through māyā or līlā).

    • The distinction you speak of here is not actual and one’s own doing because Maya is not a metaphysical claim that is being made in AV and so no confusion must persist with regard to the ontology unless wants one it to be a problem. Isvara as controller of Maya is necessarily only so long as the misconceived notion of separation continues – a consequence of having accepted oneself as an individual with body-mind, and so this idea itself is challenged through Adhyasa, there is no scope for leap of faith here because this Maya is perceived directly but also interrogated and found to be Mithya, which again is subjective.

      Your claim that AV leads to solipsism is so built on an already preconceived framework of dualism – including the question that can there be other minds. While in nondualistic traditions of the East, the basis of the mind itself is understood in a radically different manner, like the Vijnanamaya kosha which gives the sense of doership in waking state is relative (Mithya) and so transcended on a daily basis in sleep. Constantly changing. But since the idea of ‘mind’ itself is a superimposition, a mere delusion due to not recognizing this evident reality, and so one mind idea is also illusory eventually.

      Vasubandhu utilizes the same tool of Adhyaropa from the Shvetasvatara very clearly in his twenty verses, making similar but again unique arguments. Verse 21 : “Since one isn’t acquainted with the ineffable manner in which the mind [both another’s and one’s own] is known to the Buddhas, one’s awareness of both another’s and one’s own minds turns out to be illusory; for [in such awareness] the misleading appearance of a distinction between the graspable object and the grasping awareness isn’t dispelled”.

      Where Advaita differs is in saying that this appearance has for its basis this blissful reality but as such Jagat is Ananda only, not dependent on anybody’s apprehension of it, whereas Vijnanavada stops at clarifying there is no need to continue the mental confusion of subject-object dichotomy, be it for world or dharma or self or even mind, so it’s still not solipsism in that sense. Neither can it be idealism as such.

  5. Hi Elisa,

    I am interested in the ethical ramifications of Ratnakīrti’s solipsism. Would it mean giving up the ideal of compassion for other suffering beings? Perhaps this is outside the scope of your inquiry, perhaps not. If some ramification is an aniṣṭāpatti given one’s siddhānta, then that is one (conservative) consideration in favor of rejecting it.

    • Sorry, I mangled the phrasing. What I meant is:

      If the ramification of some view is an aniṣṭāpatti given the siddhānta of one’s tradition, then that is one (conservative) consideration in favor of rejecting the view.

      (But really I am just interested in what Ratnakīrti thinks the ethical ramifications of his view are, even if that is only a side issue here.)

      • Thank you, Boram, great question. However, the problem is already acute for all Vijñānavādins, given that there are no “people” who are suffering, just sequences of causes and effects. Hence, what I call the “Bodhisattva paradox”: You see through the appearances and notice that there are no individuals, and yet help them… As for RK, he insists that at the conventional level (saṃvṛtisat), other minds exist.

  6. Pingback: Intersubjectivity in Buddhism – Viewpoints which Matter

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