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  • A Note on Nirvikalpaka and Savikalpaka Perception
  • Johannes Bronkhorst

Some ten years ago an interesting discussion took place in the pages of this journal. It began with an article by Arindam Chakrabarti (2000) whose title betrays its intention: "Against Immaculate Perception: Seven Reasons for Eliminating Nirvikalpaka Perception from Nyāya." There followed a response by Stephen H. Phillips (2001), "There's Nothing Wrong with Raw Perception: A Response to Chakrabarti's Attack on Nyāya's Nirvikalpaka Pratyakṣa," which in turn was commented upon in Chakrabarti's "Reply to Stephen Phillips" (2001).

This discussion, as is clear from the titles, concerns the need and even possibility of nirvikalpaka perception. What Chakrabarti tries to do is "to show why we can easily do without nirvikalpaka perception inside the Nyāya epistemology" (2000, p. 3). Indeed, his project is "of purging Nyāya of indeterminate perception" (ibid.). These and other remarks show that Chakrabarti's intention is not to destroy Nyāya epistemology by showing its incoherence or impossibility. He is not just playing around with the idea whether there is a need for nirvikalpaka perception in a system that he considers otherwise inadequate. No, his reflections, as I understand them, clearly cover the issue whether there really is such a thing as nirvikalpaka perception. And his answer is no: there is no such thing as nirvikalpaka perception.

In this comment I will not continue the philosophical debate of Chakrabarti and Phillips. I will, however, consider the question whether there is such a thing as nirvikalpaka perception. Subsequently I will take up the question whether savikalpaka perception as conceived of in Nyāya is capable of doing its job all on its own, without nirvikalpaka perception.

A good point of departure for a discussion of the existence, or possibility, of nirvikalpaka perception is an Indian philosophical text different from Nyāya, namely the Pātañjala Yogaśāstra. This text does not merely state that nirvikalpaka perception is philosophically possible or even necessary, but goes to the extent of claiming that a state can be reached in which there is a place only for such perception. The relevant discussion starts at YS 1.9: śabdajñānānupātī vastuśūnyo vikalpaḥ, "Vikalpa results from knowledge of words and is devoid of objective referent." This definition seems to justify the rendering "conceptual construct" for vikalpa, at least provisionally. The same term occurs again in YS 1.42: tatra śabdārthajñānavikalpaiḥ saṃkīrṇā savitarkā samāpattiḥ, "The meditational attainment with vitarka is mixed with conceptual constructs regarding words, things and cognitions."1 It is understood in the immediately following sūtra, YS 1.43: smr tipariśuddhau svarūpaśūnyevārthamā-tranirbhāsā nirvitarkā, "When the memory is purified, [the meditational attainment] without vitarka, which is as it were empty of itself and in which only the object shines forth [comes about]." Given that YS 1.43 follows YS 1.42, it is clear that the [End Page 373] meditational attainment here presented is not "mixed with conceptual constructs regarding words, things and cognitions." This is confirmed by the Bhāṣya, with which we can in this respect agree without hesitation.

Here, then, the Yogaśāstra introduces a meditational state that is without vikalpa, that is, without conceptual constructs.2 We may be tempted to use philosophical arguments to dismiss this claim as no more than the outcome of scholastic speculation about the mental states of yogis. I would, however, counsel against such hasty dismissal. Philosophy may not be sufficient to deal with this issue. There are psychological reasons to believe that mental states without conceptual constructs can and do exist. They contrast with "normal" states of awareness, in the formation of which language acquisition plays, or has played, an important role. More precisely, human beings have two cognitive styles, which in normal circumstances are simultaneously active. One of these is due to language acquisition; I call it the symbolic cognitive style. The other cognitive style, the non-symbolic one, does not result from language acquisition. The non-symbolic style can exceptionally be experienced on its own, without the symbolic style (or with a reduced presence of the symbolic style). Such...


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