Monthly Archives: April 2016

Discussions, Debates and Arguments: Ancient India – Part Two

 Continued from Part One

 Vaada, Jalpa and Vitanda


Vaada is a debate between two persons of equal standing. The term Vaada by itself means a theory, doctrine or thesis. In the debate, the proponent who puts forward arguments in support of his doctrine (Vaada) is termed as Vadin. The opponent who refutes that theory through his counter-arguments is termed as Prati-vadin. Unlike in Samvada, there is no teacher-taught relationship here; nor is it a discourse. 

Ideally, both the parties to the Vaada should have mutual regard, respecting each other’s learning and status; and should participate with an open mind in order to explore various dimensions of the subject on hand; to examine it thoroughly by applying the accepted norms of logic and reasoning (Tarka), supported by passages from  texts of undisputed authority (Sabda Pramana). The principal aim of a wholesome Vaada is to resolve the conflict; and, to establish ‘what is true’. The proceedings of the Vaada should be characterized by politeness, courtesy and fair means of presenting the arguments. You might call it a healthy discussion. 

Vatsayana in his commentary Nyāya Bhāya, says that congenial debate (Anuloma Sambasha) takes place when the opponent is not wrathful or malicious; but , is learned , wise , eloquent and patient  ; is well versed in the art of persuasion ; and is gifted with sweet speech. 

As regards the benefits ( Sambasha prashamsa or prayojana )  of such peaceful and congenial debates  : If a learned person debates with another scholar, both versed in the same subject, it would increase the depth of their knowledge, clear misapprehensions, if any, and lead them to  find certain minor details which hitherto might have escaped their attention . Besides, it would heighten their zeal to study further; and bring happiness to both.   

But, in cases where two scholars hold contrary views, the Vadin and Prati-vadin will each try very hard to establish the doctrine which he believes is true; and to convince the other to accept its veracity through fair and effective presentation and arguments. At the same time, each is willing to understand and appreciate the arguments of the other; and accept any merit they might find in it. In case, one is in doubt or unable to respond  satisfactorily , one can take a break to re-group his position or to re-examine the issue to see whether he can refute the opponent’s argument more effectively or put up a sounder defense.

And, if one is convinced that the doctrine and the argument presented by the opponent is valid, he adopts it with grace.   And, at the end, one of the two might be proven wrong; or both could be right.  In any case, they accept the outcome of the debate, whatever be it; and, part their ways without rancor. 


The Buddhist text Milinda Panha (Questions of Milinda) dated between second and first century BCE is said to be a record of the conversations that took place between the Indo-Greek king Menander I Soter  (who is said to have ruled over the regions of Kabul and Punjab) and the Buddhist monk Nagasena. 

At the outset, Nagasena remarks that the debate they would be having would be one between two wise men; and it would not be a debate for the King.

Then, King Menander enquires as to the distinction between the two. 

Monk Nagasena explains:   

When scholars debate, your Majesty, there is summing up and unraveling of a theory, convincing and conceding; there is also defeat, and yet the scholars do not get angry at all.   

When the Kings debate, your Majesty, they state their thesis, and if anyone differs from them, they order him punished, saying ‘Inflict punishment upon him’. 

Thus, in a good debate there could be defeat or censure or clincher (Nigraha-sthana) but no animosity.

 [ Dr. Sangeetha Menon, in her scholarly article, though she writes about Savāda, she is actually referring to Vada:

(Sa)vāda, is meant to lead to transforming experiences, in the process of which attempts are made jointly to (i) ascertain what is true knowledge, (ii) to understand new ideas, and,  (iii) to understand the nature of the inquirer herself/himself.

(Sa) vāda plays a central role in understanding Indian philosophy as well as Indian psychology. It has references not only to logical and epistemological methods but also to states of mind which are important in the discussion about the primal nature of self. Hence, the discussions on metaphysical and ontological issues are always interrelated to understanding ethical, axiological, aesthetic and spiritual issues. There is a constant attempt to reconcile and integrate different experiences, and the existence of contradictions so as to generate worldviews based on an understanding of life with answers for fundamental questions about self-identity, nature of world, creation, purpose of life, nature of knowledge, value systems etc.

Apart from the content of the dialogue, the process of dialogue plays an important role in contributing to the well-being of the partners involved. It gives total and one-time attention to how world views are formed, how mental and physical discipline are significant to conceive an idea, how way of living is connected with the self-identity of the inquirer.

Being and Wellbeing In Upanishadic Literature  by Dr. Sangeetha Menon ]



Nyaya Sutra in its First Book enumerates the steps or the categories (padartha) of the methods (Vadopaya) for structuring the argument and for presentation of the subject under debate, while the rest of the four Books expand on these steps. The Vada-marga (the stages in the course of a debate) is classified under sixteen steps: 

1) Pramana (the means of knowledge); 2) Prameya (the object of right knowledge); 3)  Samsaya (creating doubt or misjudgment ); 4) Prayojana (purpose); 5) Drshtanta  ( familiar example); 6) Sidhanta ( established  tenet or principle); 7) Avayava ( an element of syllogism); 8) Tarka ( reasoned argument); 9) Niranaya (deduction or determination of the question);  10) Vada (discussion to defend or to arrive at the truth); 11) Jalpa (wrangling or dispute to secure a win ); 12) Vitanda (quibble or mere attack); 13) Hetvabhasa (fallacy, erratic  contrary , ill-timed challenges); 14) Chala (misleading or willfully misinterpreting the words); 15) Jati (futile objections founded on similarities or otherwise) and 16) Nigrahaslhana ( disagreement in principle or  no purpose in arguing further or the point nearing  defeat). 

These sixteen steps are meant to ascertain and establish ‘what is true’ (yathartha).The first four steps deal, mainly, with logic; while the latter seven perform the function of preventing and eliminating the errors. Among the first fou; Pramana with its four reliable means of obtaining knowledge is of cardinal importance [ Pratyaksha (perception), Anumana (inference), Upamana (comparison) and Sabda (reliable verbal testimony)].

As said earlier, these sixteen categories are discussed in detail in four sections of the Nyaya Sutra.  The Nyāya Sūtra (verse 1.1.2) declares that its goal is to study and describe the attainment of liberation from wrong knowledge, faults and sorrow, through the application of above sixteen categories of perfecting knowledge.


Nyaya Sutra (1.2.1) states that Vaada, the good or honest debate, is constituted by the following characteristics:

 1. Establishment of the thesis and refutation of the counter thesis should be based upon adequate evidence or means of knowledge (pramana) as well as upon proper reasoning (tarka). Pramana, the valid knowledge, is defined as the cognition of the objects as they actually are, free from misapprehension (tatha bhuta rtha jnanam hi pramanam uchyate); and, anything other than that is invalid A-pramana or Bhrama – the cognition of objects as they are not (atha bhuta rtha jnanam hi apramanam). Pramana stands both for the valid -knowledge, and for the instrument or the means by which such valid knowledge is obtained.

 2. The conclusion should not entail contradiction with analytical or ‘accepted doctrine’; 

3.  Each side should use the well-known five steps (syllogism) of the demonstration (Sthapana) explicitly.

 4.  They should clearly recognize a thesis to be defended and a counter thesis to be refuted. 


Nyaya Sutra (1.1.32 and 1.1.39) lays down a five-part syllogism for proper presentation of the elements of the arguments (Vaada).  It states that any valid argument must include the following five factors, as they help to establish the object of right knowledge. These five steps also combine in themselves the four means of cognition: viz., Pratyaksha (perception), Anumana (inference), Upamana (comparison) and Sabda (reliable verbal testimony):

1. Pratijna – the proposition or the enunciation of the object – that needs to be proved in the light of the approved texts (Sabda)

2. Hetu – the reason or evidence through the vehicle of inference (Anumana); it furnishes a means to prove the proposition;

3. Udaharana – the citation of examples (well recognized, universally acceptable and independently verifiable) that illustrates (Pratyaksha) the  common principle underlying the subject in question and the example  . It provides the supporting reason or evidence;

4. Upanaya – the application (validity of the example cited- Upamana) evidencing that present thesis is essentially similar to example cited.


5. Niranaya – the conclusion eliminates all plausible contrary conclusions against the proposition; and re-states the proposition or the thesis as proved and established beyond doubt – derived by bringing together all the four means of right knowledge (proposition, reason, example and application)


Pratijna is enunciation of the thesis that is sought to be proved – (e.g. Purusha is eternal). Sthapana is establishing the thesis through a process employing reason  (hetu), example (drstantha ) , application of the example( upanaya)  and  conclusion (nigamana) — (e.g. the statement – Purusha is eternal- has to be supported by valid reasoning (hetu)- because he is uncreated; by examples (drstantha) – just as the sky  (Akasha ) is uncreated and it is eternal ;  by showing similarity between the subject of the example and the subject of the thesis (Upanaya) – just as Akasha is uncreated a , so the Purusha is uncreated and eternal : finally establishing the thesis (Nigamana) –therefore Purusha is eternal.

Prativada is refuting the proposition or thesis put forth by the proponent. Thus when the proposition of the thesis Sthapana is Purusha is eternal, the   Prati-stapana, the counter proposition, would be Purusha is non-eternal; because it is perceivable by senses and the jug which is perceivable by senses is non-eternal; Purusha is like the jug; therefore Purusha is non-eternal


At the commencement of the Vaada, the Judge or the arbiter (Madhyastha) lays down rules of the Vaada. The disputants are required to honor those norms and regulations. They are also required to adhere to permissible devices; and not to breach certain agreed limits (Vada maryada). For instance; in the case of debates where the Vadin and Prati-vadin both belong to Vedic tradition it was not permissible to question the validity of the Vedas or the existence of  God and the Soul. And, any position taken during the course of Vaada should not contradict the Vedic injunctions.

In the case of the Vada where one belongs to Vedic tradition and the other to Non-Vedic traditions (say, Jaina or Bauddha) they had to abide by the rules and discipline specifically laid down by the Madyastha.

As mentioned earlier, according to Nyaya Sutra (1.2.1) Vaada comprises defense and attack (Sadhana and Upalambha). One’s own thesis is defended by means of genuine criteria of knowledge (Pramana) and the antithesis (opponent’s theory) is refuted by negative dialectics of Tarka (logic). But, when defense or attack is employed excessively, merely for the sake of scoring a win, then there is the risk of the debate degenerating into Jalpa.

It is said; Vaada and Jalpa are contrasting counterparts. In Vaada, the thesis is established by Pramana-s; and the anti-thesis is disproved by Tarka or different set of Pramana-s. Whereas in Jalpa, the main function is negation; the Pramana-s do not have much use here.  Jalpa tries to win the argument by resorting to quibbling, such as Chala, Jati and Nigrahasthana. None of these can establish the thesis directly, because their function is negation. But, indirectly , they help to disprove anti-thesis. Thus, Jalpa in general is the dialectical aid for Vada (Nyaya Sutra: 4.2.50-51

[It is said; at times, the Madhyastha might allow or overlook ‘Jalpa-like’ tactics ‘for safeguarding the interests of truth, ‘just as a fence of thorny hedges is used to protect the farms’.]

It is at this stage in the Vaada that the Madyastha might  intervene  to ensure that the participants, especially the one who is at the verge of defeat (Nigraha-sthana) do not resort to tricks such as quibbling (Chala) , false rejoinder (Jati)  etc. 

The Madyastha may even call off the Vada; and award to the candidate who in his view performed better. 

The Vada could be also treated as inconclusive (savyabhicara) and  brought to an end if there is no possibility of reaching a fair decision; or the very subject to be discussed is disputed (Viruddha); or when arguments stray away from the subject that is slated for discussion (prakarana-atita) ; or when the debate prolongs beyond a reasonable (Kalatita).

In this context, it is said the debate could be treated as concluded and one side declared defeated: a) When a proponent misunderstands his own premises and their implications; b) when the opponent cannot understand the proponent’s argument; c) when either party is confused and becomes helpless; d) when either is guilty of faulty reasoning or pseudo-reasoning (hetvabhasa); because, no one should be allowed to win using a pseudo-reason; or e) when one cannot reply within a reasonable time. 

When one party is silenced in the process, the thesis stays as proven.  Hence, in Vaada, there is no explicit ‘defeat’ as such. The sense of defeat (Nigraha-sthana) becomes apparent when there are contradictions in logical reasoning (hetvabhasa); and the debate falls silent.

And, at the end, one of the two might be proven wrong; or both could be right.  In any case, when one is convinced that the doctrine and the argument presented by the opponent are valid, he adopts it with grace. Ideally, whatever might be the outcome of a Vaada, it should be accepted; and, both – Vadin and Prati-vadin  should part their ways without rancor.

 [The most celebrated Vaada is said to be the one that took place between the young monk Sri Sankara and the distinguished Mimamsa scholar, householder, Mandana Misra.  Considering the young age of the opponent, Mandana Misra generously offered Sri Sankara the option to select the Madyastha (Judge) for the ensuing debate. Sri Sankara, who had great respect for the righteousness of Mandana Misra, chose his wife Bharathi Devi, a wise and learned person.  

During the course of the lengthy debate when Mandana Misra seemed to be nearing Nigrahasthana (clincher) Bharathi Devi raised questions about marital obligations.  Sri Sankara being a monk had, of course, no knowledge in such matters. He requested for and obtained a ‘break’ to study and to understand the issue. It is said; he returned after some time equipped with the newly acquired knowledge, renewed the Vaada and won it. Thereafter, Mandana Misra and Bharathi Devi accepted Sri Sankara as their teacher, with grace and respect.]





As per the classification made by Akshapada Gautama in his Nyaya Sutra (1.2.2), while Vaada is a ‘good’  or congenial debate ( anuloma sambasha or Sandhya sambasha), Jalpa along with Vitanda is treated as ‘bad’ or hostile  argument (Vigrahya sambasha).

Jalpa is described as debate between two rivals who are desperate to win, by fair or foul means. It is characterized as clever or tricky disputation and a quarrelsome verbal fight that is often noisy.

Unlike Vaada which is an honest debate aiming to ascertain ‘what is true’, Jalpa is an argument where each strives to impose his thesis on the other. The question of ascertaining the ‘truth’ does not arise here. Each party to the Jalap is already convinced that his thesis is true and perfect; while that of the opponent is false and totally wrong. Each is not prepared to understand and appreciate the rival argument; but, is over anxious to ensure the opponent is ‘defeated’ and is made to accept his thesis. Even while it   becomes apparent  that one might be on the verge of defeat , he will not accept the position;  instead , he will  try to  devise a strategy or  will take a ‘break’  to gather  some material or to  concoct  a fallacious argument  to evade defeat and , if possible, to prove the other wrong.

Both the Vadin and the Prati-vadin work hard to establish their thesis through direct and indirect proofs. In Jalpa, the Pramana-s, the means of valid knowledge do not have much role to play. The arguments in Jalpa relay more on negation or negative tactics, such as: discrediting the rival argument, misleading the opponent or willfully misinterpreting rival’s explanations. The main thrust of the arguments in Jalpa is not so much as to establish the thesis directly, as to disprove or refute the rival’s thesis, through circumvention.

The reason why Jalpa is labeled as tricky is that apart from traditional means of proving one’s thesis and for refuting the opponent’s thesis, the debater can use elusive and distracting devices such as: quibbling or hair-splitting (Chala); inappropriate rejoinders (Jati), and any kind of ruse that tries to outwit and disqualify the opponent (nigrahasthana),    circumvention, false generalization and showing the unfitness of the opponent to argue; without, however, establishing his own thesis.

Nyaya Sutra gives a fairly detailed treatment to the negative tactics of Jalpa. Nyaya Sutra (1.2.11-14; 5.1.1- 39; and 5.2.1-25) enumerates three kinds of quibbling (Chala); twenty-four kinds of inappropriate rejoinders (Jati); and twenty-two kinds of clinchers or censure-situations (Nigrahasthana).

It is said; such measures or tricks to outwit the opponent are allowed in Jalpa arguments, since the aim of the debate is to score a victory. However, those maneuvers are like double-edged swords; they cut both ways. Over-indulgence with such tactics is, therefore, rather dangerous.    One runs the risk of being censured, decaled unfit and treated as defeated, if the opponent catches him at his own game.


Quibbling (Chala) is basically an attempt to misinterpret the meaning of an expression (Vak-chala); or, improperly generalize its meaning (samanya-chala); or by conflation of an ordinary use of a word with its metaphorical use (upacara-chala), with a view to derange the argument.

For instance; when one says: the boy has a nava kambala (= new) blanket; the other would look horrified and exclaim:  why would a little boy need nava (=nine) blankets !

And, when one says: he is a hungry man (= purusha) , the other would generalize Man – Purusha as ‘ humans’ , and ask why are all the human beings hungry?

Similarly, term ‘mancha’ ordinarily means a cot; but, its metaphorical meaning could be platform or dais or the people sitting on it.

Improper rejoinder or futile rejoinder (Jati) is generally through falsifying the analogy given; and ridiculing it.

For instance; when one says: sound is impermanent because it is a product, such as a pot; the other would ignore the ‘impermanent’ property of the analogy (pot), but would pick up a totally un-related property of the analogy (say, the hollow space or emptiness in the pot) and say that a pot is filled with space (akasha) which is eternal, then how could you say that a pot is impermanent? And, further pot is not audible either.

Censures or the point at which the Jalpa could be force-closed (Nigrahasthana)  by pointing out that the opponent is arguing against his own thesis  ; or that he is willfully abstracting the debate; or to his inappropriate ways. 


There are also some statements that defend the Jalpa-way of arguments.

One reason adduced for allowing in the debate the diverse interpretations of the terms is said to be the flexibility that the Sanskrit language has, where compound-words can be split in ways to suit one’s argument; where words carry multiple meanings; and where varieties of contextual meanings can be read into with change in structure of phrases, sentences and context of topics.   

And, the other is that the ancient texts in Sutra format – terse, rigid and ambiguous – can be read and interpreted in any number of ways. Each interpretation can be supported by one or the other authoritative text. There is therefore, plenty of scope for legitimate disputation.

It is said; that Jalpa way of arguments is at times useful as a defensive measure to safeguard the real debate (Vada),just as the thorns and branches are used for the protection of the (tender) sprout of the seed’.

It is also said that Jalpa-tactics might come in handy to a novice or an inexperienced debater. If such a person, without adequate skills,   enters into a debate, he might not be able to come up with proper rejoinder at the right time to safeguard his thesis. In such a crisis, he may get away with such tricky debate. In any case, if the opponent is not quick witted, the (novice) debater may gain some time to think of the proper reason. Thus, he may even win the debate and the sprout of his knowledge would be protected.

However, this justification was not altogether acceptable.


The next question would be why would a debater resort to such tactics as quibbling and dishonest rejoinder?  Or why would anyone waste his time and effort in learning those tactics?

Bimal Krishna Matilal in his The Character of Logic in India explains:

‘ Uddyotakara, in the beginning of his commentary on chapter five of the Nyaya Sutra explains that it is always useful to learn about these bad tricks, for at least one should try to avoid them in one’s own debate and identify them in the opponent’s presentation in order to defeat him. Besides, when faced with sure defeat, one may use a trick, and if the opponent by chance is confused by the trick, the debater will at least have the satisfaction of creating a doubt instead of courting sure defeat.

This last point was, however, a very weak defense; and not convincing at all , as the Buddhist scholar Dharmakirti (c. 600-660) elaborately pointed out in his book on debate, Vada-nyaya.’


The crucial difference between Vada and Jalpa  appears to be that in the case of Vada the ‘truth’ is established by positive evidence; and, the invalid knowledge (A-pramana) masquerading as a good reason (that is, a hetvabhasa) is detected and eliminated. No one is really defeated and the truth is established.

In the case of Jalpa, it mainly depends on negation (which is non-committal) and on effective refutation of the proponent’s argument. There is no earnest effort to build positive irrefutable proof. And, the fear of defeat overhangs the whole proceedings.

 The scholarly opinion is that the rejection or refutation of a position may not always amount to the assertion of a counter-position. And, determination and establishment of truth depends upon positive evidence; and not merely on refutation.




In Akshapada’s Nyaya-Sutra (1.2.3), Vitanda is classified as a ’bad’ or hostile argument (Vigrahya sambasha) or wrangling. In terms of merit, it is rated inferior to Jalpa, which also employs such trickery as quibbling and illegitimate rejoinder. While Jalpa tries to argue for the success of its thesis by whatever means, Vitanda does not seriously attempt to put up any counter-thesis. That is because, its debater has no thesis of his own to put forward. In other words, the debater here tries to ensure his victory simply by refuting or demolishing the thesis put forward by the other side, by browbeating or misleading or ridiculing the opponent. The whole purpose its exercise seems to be to prove the opponent wrong and incompetent; and to humiliate him.  Vitanda is therefore termed as a destructive debate.

Vitanda is a ruthless debate, the major part of which is spent in denying the opponent’s views, in discrediting him or in quarrelling. Vaitandika, the one who adopts Vitanda style of argument, might at times pick up the opponent’s thesis (though he himself might not believe in it) and argue in its favor just to demonstrate that the opponent is not doing a ‘good job’; and rebuke him saying that his thesis might not be after all so bad, but he made it look worse by making a terrible mess of it.

Vaitandika makes it a point to disagree with the other, no matter what the other says. It is a way of saying: you are wrong, not because your statement by itself is wrong; but, it is wrong because you said it. He tries to effectively undermine the credibility of the opponent; and demonstrate to him that he is neither competent nor qualified to discuss the subtleties of the logic. Then he would shout:” go back and study for one more year at the feet of your teacher; you have done enough for today”.

What the Vaitandika says might be irrational or illogical; but, he tries to effectively silence the opponent. In such type of debates either ‘valid knowledge’ or ‘truth’ has no place.

In a Vitanda, where both the parties employ similar tactics, the debate would invariably get noisy and ugly. The Madhyastha or the Judge plays a crucial role in regulating a Vitanda. He has the hard and unenviable task of not merely controlling the two warring debaters and their noisy supporters, but also to rule on what is ‘Sadhu’ (permissible) or ‘A-sadhu’ (not permissible) and what is true (Sat) what is just a bluff (A-sat). And, when one debater repeatedly oversteps and breaches the accepted code of conduct, the Madyastha might have to disqualify him and award the debate to the other; or, he may even disqualify both the parties and scrap the event declaring it  null and void.


Vatsayana, the commentator of the Nyaya Sutra finds the Vitanda debate irrational and rather pointless. He observes that it is unfair that a debater is simply allowed to get away with irresponsible statements, particularly when he is neither putting forward a thesis nor is defending one. In fact, most of the times, he has no position of his own, but attacks rabidly whatever the other debater utters. This is a travesty and abuse of the platform.

According to Vatsayana, the format of Vitanda is totally wrong. Vatsayana insists, whatever might be the tactics adopted by Vaitandika, he must be forced to specify his stand. And, when the opponent states his thesis, the Vaitandika must be asked either to accept it or oppose it.  If he concedes, the debate is virtually over. And, if he argues against the thesis, he must argue logically, in which case he gives up his status of Vaitandika (refuter). And, if he does not choose either of the options then, his rationale should be questioned; or, the debate be brought to an end, if need be, by disqualifying him.

Vatsayana’s observations and recommendations are sound and healthy. But, sadly, they were hardly acted upon.


Sources and References:

A History of Indian Logic: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Schools

By Mahamahopadyaya Satis Chandra Vidyabhusana

The Character of Logic in India Edited  by Bimal Krishna Matilal, Jonardon Ganeri, Heeraman Tiwari

The Nyâya Sûtras of Gotama by Nandalal Sinha

Hindu Philosophy  by Theos Bernard

Categories of Cognition and Proof – Shodhganga

A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 1 By Surendranath Dasgupta

The Birth of Meaning in Hindu Thought  by  David B. Zilberman

History of Indian philosophy: The philosophy of the Veda and of …, Volume 1 By Erich Frauwallner


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Discussions, Debates and Arguments: Ancient India- Part One

Discussions, Debates    and Arguments:  SamvadaVaada –Jalpa and Vitanda

 Part One

 In the Indian traditions, including the Buddhist and Jain traditions, four formats of discussions, debates and arguments are described. These are named as:  Samvada, Vaada, Jalpa and Vitanda. The merit and esteem of each of these types of discussions is graded in terms of the honesty of their purpose, the quality of debate, the decorum and the mutual regard of the participants.

 Of these four forms of discussions, Samvada is regarded the noblest type of dialogue that takes place, in all earnestness, between an ardent seeker of truth and an enlightened teacher. Most of the ancient Indian texts are in this format.

While Samvada is a discourse or imparting of teaching, the other three – Vaada, Jalpa and Vitanda- are clever and structured (Tantrayukthi) debates and arguments between rivals.  

Let’s talk of  Nyaya ( well-organized logical ways of ascertaining the true nature of the objects and subjects of human knowledge ) and Samvada on one part; and, the debates/arguments on the other. 


Nyaya Sutra

As is well known, there was a long and a time-honored tradition in ancient India where philosophers and thinkers met to discuss metaphysical issues over which there were multiple views. There are detailed narrations of such discussions, debates and dialogues recorded in Chandogya Upanishad, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Prashna Upanishad.

The other early texts such as Aitareya Brahmana , Kathopanishad  and others  use terms  like : tarka (reasoning) , Vada  (debate) ,  Yukti ( sustained  arguments) , Prameya (object of knowledge)  , Pramana ( proof), Nirnaya (ascertainment)  etc.  which later became the principal terminologies of the Nyaya School. It is also said that the idioms of inquiry (Anveshiki) dealing with the theory of reasons (Hetu-vidya or Hetu-shastra) were mentioned in Manu-samhita and Panini’s Astadhyayi.

Although intellectual debates were quite common during the Upanishad-times, and even later, there was perhaps no well laid out theory or an approved structure for conduct of various types of debates.   It is said; it was during the Sramana and the Buddhist period that debates became really very serious.

As Bimal Krishna Matilal observes (in The Character of Logic in India):

.. The intellectual climate in India was bristling with controversy and criticism. At the center of controversy were certain dominant religious and ethical issues. Nothing was too sacred for criticism. Such questions as: “Is there a soul different from body?”; “Is the world (loka) eternal?”; ”What is the meaning, goal, or purpose of life?”; and, “Is renunciation preferable to enjoyment?” etc. were of major concern.  While teachers and thinkers argued about such matters, there arose a gradual awareness of the characteristics or patterns of correct, acceptable and sound reasoning. There were    also concerns to evolve the norms to distinguish sound reasoning from pseudo-reasoning (hetvabhasa) which is unacceptable. 

The debates tended to get more passionate, animated and even noisy.  Gradually, the notions of ‘good’ and acceptable debates took shape as distinct from wrong and ugly arguments. That gave rise to the development of a branch of study dealing with theories of reasoning and logic (Hetu-vidya or Hetu shastra). It was perhaps around the fifth century BCE that manuals came to be written for conduct of proper and successful debates (Tarka vidya or Vada vidya). Such manuals included instructions and learning methods for the guidance of aspiring debaters. The earliest known text of that genre was Tantra-yukti (structured argument) compiled perhaps in the sixth-fifth century BCE to systemize debates conducted in learned councils (Parishad). 

Debates and arguments then came to be recognized both as art of logical reasoning (Tarka-vidya) and science of causes (Hetu-shastra) following the path of a well-disciplined method of inquiry (ânvikŝiki) testing scriptural knowledge by further scrutiny. 

The monks and priests belonging to various Schools and sects were imparted training in Tarka–vidya: the art and skills of conducting impressive successful debates and disputations (Sambasha or Vada vidhi) in learned assemblies (parishad). Apart from  methods of presenting arguments as per a logically structured format, the training modules included ways to stoutly defend ones thesis  by means of genuine criteria of knowledge (Pramana) and to attack the opponent’s thesis by means of indirect arguments (Tarka); estimating the strengths and weaknesses of arguments of either side; establishing one’s own points while setting aside those of the opponent. They were also trained for handling different types of challenges, such as: how to vanquish a person of blazing fame; how to behave with a senior opponent; how to handle an aggressive and troublesome opponent; and,  how to conduct oneself in prestigious Parishads  , to influence the flow of debate and to impress the judges and the onlookers  etc.

These types of debates and arguments came under the purview of Nyaya or Nyaya Shastra.


Nyaya, as a system,  is one among the six Darshanas (systems of Indian philosophy). It deals with well-organized logical ways of ascertaining the true nature of the objects and subjects of human knowledge (Pramana-Sastra).  Nyaya is also called Tarka-vidya (logic) and Vada-vidya or Vada’rtha (reasoned argument); and is included among the fourteen principal branches of learning. 

Nyaya is founded on the belief that knowledge is not self-revealing; man must make effort to gain correct knowledge and to abandon incorrect knowledge, through a systematic process. It asserts that the analytical way of Nyaya is the greatest protection to a young person whose intellect is still in the process of growth and is yet to attain equanimity. And, it is only by thorough examination of the modes and sources of correct knowledge that a thinking person can gain a clearer perspective of life. It asks each one to think for himself; and, not to tacitly accept beliefs handed down by the older generation. And, therefore, it instructs, the teachings that have come down to us through traditions must be critically examined before accepting them.

Vatsayana in his Nyāya Bhāya , Commentary on Nyaya Sutra (1.1.1) , asserts that the analytical investigation and examination (Anveshiki) of issues which bring clarity into the intellectual aspects of man’s life help him to attain freedom (moksha) from delusions and confusions in life. Nyaya which enables us to discern the true from the false is therefore regarded as Moksha-Sadhana the way to absolute freedom or liberation.


Nyaya, in particular, also denotes a method or a scheme of logic employed to prove or to disprove a proposition through proper evidence (pramana). The employment of a Nyaya would become necessary when the subject discussed was either vague or was disputed; and when the other methods of reasoning were ineffective.

The Nyaya School was essentially logistic in its orientation. It tried to examine the sources and contents of valid knowledge. It built a logical link between the subject, the knower (pramata); the means or method of obtaining knowledge (pramana) ; and the object , the knowable (prameya) . In addition, it put forth analogy (Upama) as the fourth method. Analogy, it said, comprehensively included in itself the other three methods.

[ Prof. Surendranath Dasgupta explains in A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 1 (p.406):

Pramana in Sanskrit signifies the means and movement by which knowledge is acquired Pramata means the subject or the knower who cognizes, Prama –the result of pramana i.e., right knowledge, knowledge of reality or valid cognition, prameya–the object of knowledge and pramanya – the validity of knowledge acquired.  The verbal root ma of these terms derived with the prefix pra, means also to measure (apart from meaning to cognize.) Thus, what is to be measured is the prameya, and that by which to measure is pramana.]

[ In Sanskrit, the term Jnana stands for all kinds of knowledge – whether be it of truth or of falsehood. The term Prama, however, is used to designate only a true cognition (yatartha-jnana) as distinct from a false one (mithya-jnana). A Pramana is an active and a unique cause of Prama or knowledge. The Samkhya and Yoga Schools of Indian philosophy accept three means of cognition, Pramanas: Pratyakasha (direct perception) , Anumana (inference) and Sabda ( verbal testimony ). The Mimamsa School accepts six types of Pramanas: Pratyaksha, Anumana, Sabda, Upamana (analogy), Arthapatti (presumption) and Abhava (non-apprehension).  The same set of six Pramanas is also stated by Vedanta. There are, of course, variations among these Schools regarding the specific understang of each of the Pramans.

Within Vyakarana, Bhartrhari in his Maha-bhashya-tika accepts three Pramanas: Pratyasha (perception), Anumana (inference) and Agama or Sabda (scriptures). He argues that perception, at times, could be erranous because of weakness or improper functioning of sensory organs. Some even think, he says, that inference is superior to perception. But he asserts that Agama or Sabda which consists of the revealed (Sruti) or remembered (Smrti) scriptures is a strong Pramana; and, it is more dependable than inference.

According to Bhartrhari, it is not justifiable to replace scriptures (Sabda) with inference particularly in non- empirical matters. He also says that philosophical views (Vada) cannot be independent of the scriptures. He argues that inference alone, without the steadying influence of the scriptures is an inadequate means of valid knowledge. In his Vakyapadiya (1.34), it is said: ‘whatever is inferred with great effort through clever reasoning can easily be put aside  by a much more clever reasoning or argument’.

yatnenānumito+apy arthaḥ kuśalair anumātṛbhiḥ / abhiyuktatarair anyair anyathaivopapādyate -VP.1.34

The words of the Rishis convey super-sensory knowledge that cannot be set aside by inference. Thus, Bhartrhari asserts that Dharma or right conduct cannot be determined by reasoning alone, without the guidance of the scriptural traditions. Even the knowledge which the sages possess has the scriptures for its reference (Vakyapadiya: 1.30). Thus, tor true knowledge, the support of the scriptures (Sabda) is essential.

na jāgamād ṛte dharmas tarkeṇa vyavatiṣṭhate /  ṛṣīṇām api yaj jñānaṃ tad apy āgamapūrvakam – VP.1.30

 In this context, Bharthari says that the role of Vyakarana (Grammar) is very important,  as it helps  to safeguard the correct  transmission of the scriptural knowledge , and to assist the aspirant in realizing the the truth of the  revealed knowledge of  Sabda.]


The Sutra text attached to Nyaya School is the Nyaya Sutra ascribed to Akapāda Gautama (variously estimated between 6th-century BCE and 2nd-century CE). Nyaya Sutra treats mainly five subjects: Pramana (instruments or means of right knowledge); Prameya (the object of right knowledge); Vaada (debate or discussion); Avayava (the elements or steps of syllogism); and, Anya-matha-pariksha (review or examination of the doctrines of other Schools).

While discussing Vaada, Nyaya Sutra talks about sixteen padarthas  (topics or categories ) involved in the development of the debate (Vada marga);  the four reliable means of obtaining valid knowledge (pramāa) viz.:

Pratyaksha (perception), Anumana (inference), Upamana (comparison ) and Sabda (reliable testimony ); the five-part syllogism (Nyaya); the structure (vada vidhi); the ways of developing sound evidence (pramana); the logical reasoning (tarka) to support ones thesis which needs to be proved (Pratijna) and its object (nirnaya); the disciplined (anusasana) mode of presentation (vadopaya); and the exceptions (prthaka-prasthana), as also the limits or the ‘dos and don’ts’ (vada-maryada) of three formats of such debates.

Gautama’s text was followed by commentaries; the first of which being Nyāya Bhāya by Vātsyāyana (c. 450–500 CE). The commentary by Vatsayana was followed the ones by the Nyāya-vārttika of Uddyotakāra (c. 6th–7th century); Tātparya-tīkā by Vācaspati Miśra (9th century); Tātparya-pariśuddhi by Udayana (10th century); Nyāya-mañjarī by Jayanta (10th century); Nyaya-sara by Bhasarvajna (10th century); and Tatva-chintamani by Gangesa (12th  century). These commentaries further developed the Nyaya Sutra expanding upon Gautama’s work.

As per these texts, the debates and arguments are grouped under a broad head titled ‘Katha’. In Sanskrit, the term ‘Katha’, in general, translates as ‘to inform’, ‘to narrate’, ‘to address or to refer to somebody’. In the context of Nyaya Shatra, which provides the knowledge (Vako-Vakya or Vada-vidya) about the methods for presenting arguments as also the rules governing the debates, the term ‘Katha’ implies formal conversation (Sambasha) as in a debate. The conversation here is not in the casual manner as in day-to-day life. But, it is articulate, precise and well thought out utterances. Katha is described as ‘polemical conversation’, meaning that it is passionate and strongly worded , but a well balanced  argument against or in favor of somebody or something. That is why; the discussions (Vaada) are never simple. A Katha, in essence, is a reasoned and a well-structured philosophical discussion.

Vatsayana at the beginning of his commentary on Nyaya Sutra (1.2.1) mentions that Katha is classified into two kinds of debates (Dvi-vidha sambasha):  Vaada (the good-Sandhya sambasha) on one hand; and Jalpa and Vitanda (the bad- Vigrahya sambasha) on the other. Uddyotakara in his Nyāya Vārttika further explains that this threefold classification is according to the nature of the debate and  the status of the persons taking part in the debate.

The first variety ,  Vaada is an honest , peaceful  and congenial (sandhaya) debate that takes place between two persons of equal merit or standing, trying to explore the various dimensions of a subject with a view to ascertain and establish ‘what is true’.  The Vaada, at its best, is a candid friendly discussion (anuloma sambasha or sandhya sambasha) or debate in the spirit of: ’let’s sit-down and talk’.

The other two are hostile arguments (vigrhya sambasha) between rivals who desperately want to win. Thus, by implication, while the goal of a Vaada is establishment of truth or an accepted doctrine; and that of the other two hostile debates (Jalpa and Vitanda) is seeking victory.

Of the two types of hostile debates, Jalpa is described (in Nyaya Sutra 1.2.2) as a disputation or wrangling or a ’tricky’ debate between two rivals , where each is thoroughly convinced that he is absolutely right and the other (termed as the opponent – Prativadin) is hopelessly wrong. The first party to the debate is dogmatically committed to his own thesis, while the other party takes a rigid contrary position (Prati-paksha) on a given subject; and, sometimes at the cost of truth. Each is prepared to employ various deceptive or sophistic devices, such as quibbling (Chala); unreasonable (A-hetu) responses; shifting the reason or the topics ( Hetvantara or Arthantara); irrelevant rejoinders provoking the opponent to lose focus , to get perturbed and yet continue with the dispute (Jati) somehow; and , such other devices to outwit the opponent.

Unlike in Vaada, the purpose of Jalpa is not so much as to ascertain the truth, as to establish one’s own position or thesis, and to prove the opponent wrong; and, make him accept defeat. What is at stake here is the ‘prestige and honor’ of one’s School (Matha). And, therefore, each will try to win the debate by fair or foul means.   And, when one senses that he might be losing the argument (nigrahasthāna), he will try to invent every sort of face-saving device or ruse to wriggle out of a bad situation that is quickly turning worse. Jalpa, predictably, could be noisy and unpleasant.

And, Vitanda is the worst type of argument or squabbling descending to the level of quarrel and trickery. It is  described as a destructive type of argument; the sole aim of each party being not only to inflict defeat on the opponent but also to demolish and humiliate him . The Vaitandika , the debater who employs Vitanda, is basically a refuter; he relentlessly goes on refuting whatever  the proponent says. He has no thesis of his  own – either to put forward or to defend.  Sometimes he might pick up a thesis  just for argument’s sake, even though he may have no faith in the truth of his own argument. The aggressive Vaitandika goes on picking holes in the rival’s arguments  and destabilises his position , without any attempt to offer an alternate thesis. Both the participants in a Vitanda are prepared to resort to mean tactics in order to mislead, browbeat the opponent by fallacies (hetv-abhasa); by attacking the opponents statement by willful misrepresentation (Chala) ; ill-timed rejoinders (Atita-kala) and, make the opponent ‘bite the dust’. It is virtually akin to a ‘no-holds-barred’ sort of street fight. The ethereal values such as: truth, honesty, mutual respect and such others are conspicuously absent here.

It is said; in the case of Jalpa the contending parties have a position of their own, fight hard to defend it, and aim to make the rival accept it, by whatever means.  However, in the Vitanda, the disputant has neither a position of his own nor is he trying to defend any specific thesis.  He is merely trying to derange and humiliate the other party to the debate. Vatsayana in his Nyaya-sutra Bhashya calls one who resorts to Vitanda (Vaitandika) as self-destructive.

Even in the case of Jalpa and Vitanda, the disputants had to agree, beforehand, to certain rules, norms and devices, so that the defeat could be forced by the judge (Madyastha) on one or the other party.

A debate with the mere aim of win or humiliation of the other is looked down. Therefore, Jalpa and Vitanda are deemed contrary to the overall aim of the Nyaya Shastra which is oriented towards determination of the true nature of objects.

[The skills in waging debates and arguments (Vada-vidya) of the Jalpa and Vitanda might have been relevant during the medieval times when the inter–religious or intra-religious debates (Shastrartha) were held among the rival traditions (Sampradaya) or sects, each trying hard to prove the superiority of its Matha (thesis or sect) over the others. In the present context, such beliefs and arguments have become obsolete in India, though their techniques are very well preserved and practiced in Tibetan Buddhist debates.

Having said that , the syllogism, logical structure and methods of presenting reasoned arguments as described in the ancient texts  are still of great interest. Its methodology based on a system of logic is the same for us today in our lecture halls and programming desks as it was for the medieval scholars.]

 Let’s look at each of these types of discussions and arguments in a little more detail. 

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Samvada is a dialogue that takes between the teacher and the taught in all earnestness.  The one who approaches the teacher could be a disciple; student; friend (as in Krishna-Arjuna or Krishna-Uddhava) ; son ( as in Shiva-Skanda or Uddalaka-Swetaketu); or spouse (as in Shiva-Prvathi or Yajnavalkya-Maitreyi);   or anyone else seeking knowledge (as in Nachiketa -Yama or the six persons who approach Sage Pippalada in Prashna Upanishad). What characterizes the Samvada in such cases is the sincerity and eagerness of the learner; the humility in his/her approach; and the absolute trust in the teacher.  The wise teacher , in turn , gracefully imparts instructions out of enormous love for the ardent seeker of truth.

Samvada is thus a dialogue that teaches, imparts instructions or passes on knowledge. 

The bulk of the Upanishad teachings have come down to us in the form of Samvada, which took place in varieties of contexts. Apart from intimate sessions where an illumined teacher imparts instructions to an aspirant , there are instances of varied kind, say, as when : a wife is curious  to learn from her husband  the secrets of immortality; a teenage boy approaches Death itself to learn the truth of life and death; a king seeks instruction from an recluse sage who speaks from his experience ; Brahmans advanced in age and wisdom sit at the feet of a Kshatriya prince seeking instructions as also inspiration ; and , when sometimes the sages are women who are approached by kings .There are other sorts of dialogues , say, when Jabala is taught by bulls and birds (Ch. Up 4.4-9) , Upakosala by the sacred fires (Ch. Up. 4.10-15), and Baka is by a dog (Ch. Up 1.12). 

Nothing in the Upanishads is more vital than the relationship between a student and his guide. The teacher talks, out his experience, about his ideas of the nature of the world, of truth etc. or about particular array of phenomena visualized through mental images that stay etched in memory. 

An Upanishad-teacher ignites in the heart of the boy a spark that sets ablaze his desire to learn and to know the central principles which make sense of the world we live in. The guide inflames the sense of challenge, the urge to reach beyond the boy’s grasp and to know the unknown. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad calls upon :

‘You are what your deep, driving desire is; as your desire is, so is your will (sa yathā-kāmo bhavati tat-kratur-bhavati); as your will is, so is your deed (yat-kratur-bhavati tat-karma kurute) ; as your deed is, so is your destiny (yat-karma kurute tad-abhi-sapadyate”- (Brhu. Up. 4.4.5).

In the end, all achievement is fuelled by burning desire. 

The Bhagavad-Gita suggests that an ardent seeker of truth should approach a learned teacher in humility and seek instructions from him; question him repeatedly: 

Tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya I Upadeksyanti te jnanam jnaninas tattva-darsinah II (B G.; Ch.4; verse 34) 

The student questions the teacher not because he doubts (samshaya) the wisdom or the understanding of the teacher; nor is he / she questioning the authenticity of the teaching . The questions are asked with open mind and guileless heart; and, are meant to clear doubts, and to gain a flawless understanding of the teaching.

The teacher is neither annoyed nor does he discourage the student from asking questions.  On the other hand, he encourages the learner to examine, enquire and test the teaching handed down to him.  A true teacher, in a Samvada does not prescribe or proscribe. He lets the student the freedom to think, to ponder over and to find out for himself the answers to his questions. A student needs humility, persistence, and honesty of purpose to go further and to arrive at his own understanding. 

The Buddha, the best of the teachers, also adopted a similar approach. He insisted that his followers should not try borrowing ideas or experiences from him; but they should arrive at their own.  In the first sermon he delivered (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ) in the Deer-park (Miga-daya) at Isipatana (Saranath), soon after attaining enlightenment, he asked his listeners:

O monks and wise men, do not accept my Dharma merely out of respect for me, but analyze and test it the way a goldsmith examines a pieces of gold by  burning , cutting and rubbing it on a touchstone.(please  see the note below)

A teaching would not be true, valid or trustworthy merely because it was uttered by an eminent person of great renown. It would be so only in case it is thoroughly tested, clearly understood and truthfully brought into one’s own experience.  

The Buddha guides the aspirant on the path that leads to right-understanding. But he disclaims any personal authority; and asks the follower to work it out himself. The follower when he succeeds in attaining the enlightenment will not become a second Buddha or a replica of the Buddha. In the final analysis, both the Buddha and his follower free themselves from the bonds of samsara; yet, each retains his individuality.


[ This often quoted analogy of testing a piece of gold  appears in many texts ; such as :  Jnanasara-samuccaya (31) a Sanskrit text of a later period (perhaps a translation of the Tibetan text – sTug-po bkod-pa’i mdo ) ; in  Nyāya-bindu-pūrvapakṣa-saṃkṣipti, a commentary on Dharmakīrti’s, Nyāyabindu (1.18–1.21) and also  in Śāntarakṣita’s Tattva-saṁgraha (verse 3588) .

It reads in Sanskrit as :

Tāpāc chedāc ca nikasat svarnam iva panditaih / Parikshya blikshavo grāhyam madvaco na tu gauravāt

However, the kalama Sutta appearing in Aṅguttara Nikaya (III.653) , which is a part of Tipitaka, merely lays down the principle of taking an objective view after a thorough examination (charter of free inquiry ):

“Come, O Kālāmas, Do not accept anything thinking that thus have we heard it from a long time (anussava). Do not accept anything thinking that it has thus been handed down through many generations (paramparā). Do not accept anything on account of rumours (itikirā). Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures (piṭaka-sampadāna). Do not accept anything by mere surmise (takka-hetu); nor upon an axiom (naya-hetu). Do not accept anything by mere inference (ākāra-parivitakka). Do not accept anything by merely upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over (diṭṭhi-nijjhān-akkh-antiyā). Do not accept anything by coming under another’s seems ability (bhabba-rūpatāya). Do not accept anything merely because the monk-teacher says so (samaṇo no garū). Do not accept anything thinking that the ascetic is respected by us (and therefore it is right to accept his word.)

“Kalamas, when you know for yourselves —these things are immoral, these things are blameworthy, these things are censured by the wise, these things when performed and undertaken, conduce to ruin and sorrow – then indeed you do  reject them.

“But Kalamas, when you know for yourselves –  these things are good; these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise; these things when undertaken and observed, lead to well-being and happiness- enter upon and abide in them. ]



Continued in Part Two

..Vada, Jalpa and Vitanda

Sources and References:

A History of Indian Logic: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Schools By Mahamahopadyaya Satis Chandra Vidyabhusana

The Character of Logic in IndiaEdited by Bimal Krishna Matilal, Jonardon Ganeri, Heeraman Tiwari

The Nyâya Sûtras of Gotama by Nandalal SinhaH

indu Philosophy by Theos Bernard

Categories of Cognition and Proof – Shodhganga

A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 1 By  Prof.Surendranath Dasgupta

The Birth of Meaning in Hindu Thought by David B. Zilberman

History of Indian philosophy: The philosophy of the Veda and of …, Volume 1By Erich Frauwallner


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