Causation in Indian Philosophy

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Indian philosophical theories, from their earliest speculative cosmologies and explorations of the nature of human existencein the Vedas and Upanisads, whose compositions were completed by roughly the first half of the first millennium BCEemphasized the plight of humans and their struggle towards a soteriological goal. An understanding of the evolution of the world and the place of human beings within it held out the hope of improving their lot, either in some other place after death or in the next life in the round of deaths and rebirths. Or even, as the Upanisads suggested, in the ultimate avoidance of rebirth itselfa theme adopted by much Indian philosophy thereafter.

As in Western metaphysical speculations about the nature of the cosmos and man's place within it, the Indian thinkers made central and vital use of the concept of a causekarana in Sanskritand progressively developed a sophisticated understanding of this concept.

Vedas and Upanisads

The earliest Vedic answers to the question of cosmological evolution suggested a god or gods, variously named and described, as creating and ruling over the human world. Such views invoked probably the most obscure and difficult application of the concept of causationthat of creationbut had at least the merit of putting men and gods in a continuing relationship. Men could worship their gods, and indeed could wield a degree of control, through religious ceremonies that aimed to elicit benefits from them.

The Upanisads took a more subtle turn, concentrating on a deeper understanding of the nature of man himself. The "inner self," the atman, was distinguished from its physical embodiment and was taken to proceed through a series of rebirths according to a causal law of karma whereby moral merit or demerit dictated the nature of the next rebirth. Ultimately it would hopefully achieve release from rebirths and acquire its final state of bliss (moksa ).

The period from the fourth to the second century BCE was one of quite subtle developments, with new and deeper ideas of the causal operation of the law of karma, of the nature of human existence, and of the nature of and route to the soteriological end for man. The Hindu Bhagavad Gītā was composeda part of the great epic the Mahabharata (the actual period of composition is still much disputed)and two nonorthodox systems of ideas were introduced: Jainism and Buddhism. Interestingly, both Jainism and Buddhism have no place for deities in their systems, human existence and progression to the ultimate state of release from rebirth being said to depend on the efforts of the individual. We will look at these three systems, and at just some of the later developments through the classical period of Indian philosophy.

Bhagavad GĪtĀ

The Bhagavad Gītā (Song of the Lord) takes the form of a dialogue between the warrior-prince (ksatriya ) Arjuna and Lord Krishna, who is a human manifestation (avatara ) of the god Vishnu. Arjuna hesitates to lead his army into battle against his cousins who have usurped control of the state, suffering a confusion about which duty he should follow: fight to rectify the wrong they have done to society or refrain from fighting to protect his family and caste. Krishna argues that Arjuna should fight. The world is in a final epoch of the cycle of evolution and corruption, a process of dissolution that requires his coming to advise mankind on correct behavior. As Vishnu, he has designed the nature of human society with its hierarchy of castes and their associated socioreligious duties. By the law of karma, the ātman of each individual goes through the process of birth-death-rebirth (sāmsara ), gaining merit according to good deeds and demerit according to bad. Karma in this context therefore has moral, religious, and soteriological dimensions. Moksa, final release, is achieved through individual effort. And the central theme of the Bhagavad Gītā is the doctrine of karma-yoga, a route to salvation that involves acting according to established socioreligious duties, for the sake of maintaining the social fabric and for pleasing god.

Quite apart from the question whether karma-yoga actually resolves a conflict of duties such as Arjuna's, there is a further question: whether the Bhagavad Gītā really leaves any room for freedom of action for Arjuna, or indeed mankind in general. The text ascribes such enormous powers to Vishnu that individual human effort seems futile. Naturethe world in which the atman becomes embodiedis a creation of Vishnu. It involves the interplay between three "strands" (gunas ), called sattva, rajas, and tamas which can be translated as "goodness," "passion," and "inertia," respectively. All nature is but the playing out of the interaction between these gunas in a mechanistic, deterministic way. The balance of the gunas in a particular individual also dictates his character and hence his actions. The atman cannot affect the gunas, and there seems no chance of choosing to follow the path of karma-yoga, much less any other activities.

The Bhagavad Gītā adds further worries for its karma-yoga theme, for Vishnu has foreknowledge of all that will happen, and retains a tight control over all actionsovert and psychologicalof all human beings. "The Lord abides in the hearts of all beings, O Arjuna, causing them to turn round by His power as if they were mounted on a machine," declares Krishna in the final chapter. So the Bhagavad Gītā is a brave but flawed attempt to teach an ethics of engagement in traditional socioreligious duties. The law of karma was supposed to allow human beings to strive towards moksa, the law itself being a creation of Vishnu to ensure a just outcome for our efforts. The text's failure to sustain this account perhaps goes a long way toward explaining why a good deal of later philosophical speculation (if not common religious practices), including much of so-called orthodox or Hindu philosophy, found no room for a deity as originating and controlling human existence.


Jainism was founded in the sixth century BCE by Vardhamanawho became known as Mahavira (Great spiritual hero)and is named after the Sanskrit word for conqueror (jina ). (Though Vardhamana left no texts, a particularly important text was composed by Umasvati some nine centuries later: Tattvarthadhigama Sutra, or Discourse on the Nature of Things.) It is system that supposedly commends itself to reason. Rejecting the authority of the Vedas, it nevertheless keeps the idea of a spiritual substance, a jiva. Entrapment in the round of births and deaths is seen as a consequence of fine polluting karmic dust that restricts the all-knowing ability of the jiva. The route to salvation involves the elimination of this pollution, to achieve the state of perfect knowledge (kevala ). In contrast to the complex interpretation of the workings of the law of karma in the orthodox tradition, the Jain account might appear a straightforward theory of physical causation. Yet the process of karmic improvement nevertheless has a serious moral dimension, for it involves a commitment to five "vows of restraint": nonviolence (ahimsa ), truthfulness (satya ), no theft (asteya ), sexual continence (brahmacharya ) and nonattachment to worldly pleasures (apigraha ). By the individual's own efforts, therefore, the desired end of perfect knowledge is achieved.


Buddhism was founded, also in the sixth century BCE, by Siddartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha (the Enlightened One) and spent many years proclaiming his insights into the predicament of the cycle of births and deaths and the route to release into nirvana. He left no writings of his own, but his teachings are recorded in the collection known as the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali work the Tripitaka (Three baskets of tradition). The Buddha taught a system of ideas that was in stark contrast to the earlier orthodox Vedic tradition, rejecting any reliance on those texts, on the priestly caste (the Brahmins), and on the orthodox depiction of salvation. Nothing brings out this contrast more than claim that reality has these three marks: impermanence (anitya ), no-soul (anatman ) and suffering (duhkha ). A standard depiction of reality (brahman ) by the Hindu tradition is quite the opposite: being as a permanent (sat ), consciousness (cit ) and bliss (ananda ).

The Buddha's system is supposedly based upon observation, both of the world outside him and of the inner workings of his mental world. Crucially, he could not observe an atman. Instead, he reports as his fun-damental discovery that all the ingredients observedobey a general principle of "dependent origination" (pratityasamutpada ). Whatever comes into existence is the causal consequence of previous existents. Causal generation has a complex form where a number of such previous existents produce together the new existent. And each and every existent is momentary. Applying this general principle to the specific case of a sentient being, he classified all its momentary causal ingredients into five groups (skandhas ). These can be rendered as these (following their later interpretation in the work Milindapanha, or Questions of King Milinda): thoughts (vijnana ), feelings (vedana ), volitions (samskara ), perceptions (samjna ) and bodily ingredients (rupa ). And, most crucially, there being a complex interplay between the ingredients both within and across the groups, he identifies as the fundamental causal factor driving them allthrough this life and through into rebirthsthe thought "I am a permanent entity."

This cognitive error, involved as it is in the Hindu idea of the ātman, is the root cause of all graspingfor fame, for power, and for all other worldly goodsand therefore the root cause of suffering and rebirths. Only the correction of this error can lead to salvation. Moreover, this correction leads to a general change in motivations for action, whereby selfish desires are replaced by altruistic ones such as compassion, and the adoption of such altruistic desires in its turn helps to achieve the cognitive correction.

Within this new account of the human predicament is clearly embedded a sophisticated theory of causation. Dependent origination, the momentariness of the ingredients of causal chains, and the necessity linking the steps in causal development, together offer an impressive analysis of karana. Later Buddhist thinkers further sophisticated these ideas and indeed developed the theme that each new causal product is genuinely new, for the effect is not already existent in the cause. Such is the doctrine of asatkaryavada, the nonexistence of the effect in the cause.


Sankhya is an orthodox school that, in common with Jainism and Buddhism, finds no room for a deity. The earliest authoritative text of the school is the Sankhyakarika (Verses on discrimination) of Isvarakrishna. Though this was probably composed in the fifth century CE, it is thought that the system of ideas can be traced back into the Vedic period.

There are, in this system, two kinds of substance: the experiencer and the experienced. The former (comparable to the atman of the Upanisads) is purusa, an inactive "silent witness" of the latter, prakrati or nature. Purusas are eternal and numerous, whereas prakrati is eternal and singular. The account of prakrati in Isvarakrishna's text is a complex story about its evolution out of an original state of equipose between the gunas.

Sattva is the strand of nature that is productive of consciousness or intelligence; rajas is the strand productive of activity; tamas the strand productive of resistance. The original state of equipose is pradhana, meaning "the inferred one" because its existence is claimed on the basis of inference by analogy from experience. The first evolute is Mahat (the Great One) or buddhi (the subtle material that forms the basis of consciousness). Next comes ahamkara (the basis of individuation or self-sense), and then evolution takes two directions where either sattva or tamas predominates. Through the sattva route evolve manas (mind, of perhaps better brain), the five organs of perception, and the five organs of action. Through the tamas route evolve the five subtle elements (essences of sound, touch, taste, smell, and sight), and the five gross elements (ether, air, light, water, and earth) that are the constituents of all gross matter.

At first sight the process seems to be a cosmic evolution, with at least some roots in the early Vedic tradition. Yet it clearly is also designed to explain the nature of sāmsara and moksa for individual purusas. But why does nature evolve in this way? There is no deity to start it and plan its process. A purusa becomes entrapped in samsara by becoming engrossed in the play of nature before it, and, losing its awareness of its distinction from prakrati, it conceives itself as an embodied self, as an actor within the natural world. To achieve moksa it needs to regain its awareness of its distinct status as the pure inactive witness of prakrati. The Sankhyans indeed identify the following two purposes behind the evolution of prakrati : it evolves to provide experience for puruas yet at the same time to provide the possibility of this ultimate release from sāmsara.

Sankara's Critique

Sankara, the eighth-century Hindu philosopher, criticizes the Sankhyan system's explanation of the evolution of prakrati as follows: neither prakrati nor puruas can provide the efficient cause (nimitta karana ) of this evolution, for prakrati is insentientit lacks cit, or intelligenceand purusas are inactive. Such evolution cannot be spontaneous, for no spontaneous activity is evident in experience. However, the Sānkhyans believe they can find such cases; but the important issue between them and Sankara seems to be more fundamental. The Sānkhyans are working with the idea of the purpose of evolution, as opposed to causation. The evolution of prakrati is a natural development that serves the purposes of puruas, and no intelligent designer is required contrary to Sankara's insistence. We might well compare the Sānkhyan approach to that of Aristotelian teleological explanation.

Sankara's criticism comes in his major text, the Brahma-sutra-bhasya (Commentary on the verses concerning reality). He is a major figure in the Vedanta school, which takes its inspiration from the ancient Upanishads. Unlike the Sankhyans, he is unwilling to engage in speculative reasoning beyond the words of those texts and claims to be merely restating their essential message. Other figures in the Vedanta tradition also wrote commentaries on the Brahma sutra, and we can judge Sankara's philosophical inventiveness from the quite striking differences in the contents of those commentaries.

Both Sankara and the Sānkhyans adopt a view of causation whereby the effect preexists in the material cause (upadana karana )called satkaryavada. They differ, however, in the detail. For the Sankhyans the evolution of prakrati is a real process of natural unfolding out of the potentialities of the gunas a position known as parinamavada. Sankara, however, finds difficulties with the notion of potentiality and argues instead for the more extreme position of the identity of the effect with the causethere is only a merely apparent transformation from cause to effect. Applying this claimknown as vivartavada to the case of the emergence of the experienced world out of the one real thing, Brahman, which is undifferentiated consciousness, the implication is that the experienced world is but an illusory appearance of Brahman. The route to moksa is the realisation of this difficult truth.


Nyaya is another orthodox school, beginning with the third-century BCE text by Gautama, the Nyāya Sutras (Verses on argument). Important commentaries were written by Vatsyayana and Uddyotakara in about the third and sixth centuries CE, respectively, and substantial developments continued with the Navya-nyāya (or "new Nyāya") thinkers of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. Since argument or reasoning is often concerned with causal relations in the observed world, the Nyāya philosophers gave considerable attention to an analysis of such relations.

Causation, on their understanding, is the real production of new things out of the parts of matter (ultimately atoms). This is another version of asatkaryavada, for the effect is a new existent. From threads we can make a cloth, and from clay we can make a pot: The cloth and the pot are new products of the causal process. They do, however, stand in a special relationship to the threads and clay, a relationship called samavaya (inherence). The cloth, for example, is said to inhere in the threads as one in many, one thing in many things; just as much as the threads are parts of the cloth as many in one. The idea of a material cause (upadanakarana ) is given this new interpretation by this schoolthe matter or parts out of which something is made is called the "inherent cause"(samvayikarana ).

Causation also involves an efficient cause (nimittakarana ) or causes, such as the work of the weaver and the motions of the loom. Any case of causal production is likely to involve a multitude of factorsactions or material ingredients and all their individual qualitiesand the Nyāya philosophers duly classify such factors further in terms of their efficacious or peripheral role in the process. A cause, in the final analysis, is the sum of the causal factors that are the invariant and unconditional antecedent of the effect.

The Nyāya account was criticized by both Buddhists and Sankara. For the Buddhists it is in stark contrast to the aggregate (skandha ) theory, according to which the "new" product is merely the sum of the parts, and they try to fault the special relation of inherence that the Nyāya theory makes central to its account. Sankara, too, finds this relation logically flawed, since it leads to an infinite regress. If the parts and the new object are related by this samavaya relation, what relates it to the parts and the object? It seems it would have to be another case of samavaya, and then the same question arises againwithout end.

See also Atomic Theory in Indian Philosophy; Brahman; God in Indian Philosophy; Negation in Indian Philosophy.


Gambhirananda, S., trans. Brahma-sutra-bhasya of Sri Sankaracarya. 2nd ed. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1972.

Hiriyanna, M. Outlines of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1932. An established substantial introduction to Indian philosophy.

Jaini, J. L., trans. Umasvati's Tattvarthadigamasutra. Arrah, India: The Central Jaina Punlishing House, 1920.

Jha, G. Nyayasutras of Gautama. Poona: Oriental Book Agency, 1939.

O'Flaherty, W. D., ed. The Rig Veda. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981.

Radhakrishnan, S., ed. The Principal Upanisads. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Radhakrishnan, S., and C. A. Moore, eds. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957. A useful resource containing extracts and sometimes complete translations (including the Bhagavad Gītā ) of primary source materials.

Sastri, S. S. S., trans. The Sankhyakarika of Isvara Krishna. Madras: University of Madras, 1948

Warren, H. C., ed. Buddhism in Translations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1915.

Brian Carr (2005)

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Causation in Indian Philosophy

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