Sanskrit Debate

Vasubandhu’s "Vīmśatikā" versus Kumārila’s "Nirālambanavāda"

by William Cully Allen (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 138 Pages


Sanskrit Debate: Vasubandhu’s ‘Vīmśatikā’ versus Kumārila’s ‘Nirālambanavāda’ illustrates the rules and regulations of classical Indian debate literature (pramānaśāstra) by introducing new translations of two Sanskrit texts composed in antithesis to each other’s tradition of thought and practice. In the third century CE, Vasubandhu, a Buddhist philosopher-monk, proposed that the entire world of lived experience is a matter of mind only through his Vīmśatikā (Twenty Verses). In the seventh century CE, Kumārila, a Hindu philosopher-priest, composed Nirālambanavāda (Non-Sensory Limit Debate) to establish the objective reality of objects by refuting Vasubandhu’s claim that objects experienced in waking life are not different from objects experienced in dreams. Kumārila rigorously employs formal rules and regulations of Indian logic and debate to demonstrate that Vasubandhu’s assertion is totally irrational and incoherent.
Vīmśatikā ranks among the world’s most misunderstood texts but Kumārila’s historic refutation allows Vīmśatikā to be read in its own text-historical context. This compelling, radically revolutionary re-reading of Vīmśatikā delineates a hermeneutic of humor indispensable to discerning its medicinal message. In Vīmśatikā, Vasubandhu employs the form of professional Sanskrit logic and debate as a guise and a ruse to ridicule the entire enterprise of Indian philosophy. Vasubandhu critiques all Indian theories of epistemology and ontology and claims that both how we know and what we know are acts of the imagination.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1 Classical Indian Philosophy
  • Politics of Liberation
  • The Controversy
  • Uncommon Ground of Common Sense
  • Classical Indian Ontology: What There Is to Know
  • Classical Indian Epistemology: How to Know What There Is to Know
  • Vasubandhu’s Textual Foundation: Prajñāpāramitāsūtras
  • Vasubandhu’s World as Consciousness
  • Kumārila’s Textual Foundation: Vedas
  • Kumārila’s World as Sacrifice
  • Endangered Species of Literature: Pramānaśāstra
  • Vasubandhu’s Vision via Kumārila’s Vedic View
  • 2 Vimśatikā and Auto-Commentary in Text-Historical Context
  • Historical Prologue
  • Vasubandhu’s Vexing Voice
  • Border Crossing
  • Mind-Only Versus Buddha’s Word-Only
  • Profundities in Profanities
  • Logic Goes to Hell
  • Making Horse-Sense of Action
  • Vasubandhu’s Veiled View of Objects
  • Vasubandhu Splits the Atom
  • Vasubandhu’s New Contact Lenses
  • Beyond the Blue Horizon of Reflective Awareness
  • Butchers, Murderous Yogis and Other Minds-Only
  • The Comedic Monk
  • 3 Translation of Vimśatikā and Auto-Commentary
  • Preamble
  • Logic Goes to Hell
  • Mind-Only Versus Buddha’s Word-Only
  • Vasubandhu’s Veiled View of Objects
  • Vasubandhu Splits the Atom
  • Beyond the Blue Horizon of Reflective Awareness
  • Butchers, Murderous Yogis, and Other Minds-Only
  • 4 Nirālambanavāda in Text–Historical Context
  • Historical Prologue
  • Kumārila’s Vedic Vision
  • Ritual Recession
  • Issues at Stake
  • Duplicitous Double Talk of Twin Truths
  • Beyond the Shadows of Doubt
  • Clearing the Air of Accusations
  • Examination of Paksa
  • Examination of Sādhya
  • Examination of Hetu
  • Examination of Dristanta
  • Revoking Yogācārins’ Right to Debate
  • Sowing Seeds of Doubt about Vasubandhu’s Vāsanās
  • Kumārila’s Dramatic Death and the Demise of Buddhism in India
  • 5 Translation of Nirālambanavāda
  • Issues at Stake
  • Duplicitous Double Talk of Twin Truths
  • Clearing the Air of Accusations
  • Examination of Paksa
  • Examination of Sādhya
  • Examination of Hetu
  • Examination of Dristanta
  • Revoking Yogācārins’ Right to Debate
  • Sowing Seeds of Doubt about Vasubandhu’s Vāsanās
  • 6 The Verdict
  • References
  • Chapter One
  • Chapter Two
  • Chapter Three
  • Chapter Four
  • Chapter Five
  • Bibliography of Sources Cited
  • Index
  • Series Index

| ix →


Translating Sanskrit requires learning Sanskrit which cannot be well done without knowledgeable teachers. At Harvard University Michael Witzel taught me Sanskrit grammar. At The University of Pennsylvania, Rosane Rocher trained me to read Classical Sanskrit prose where also Wilhelm Halbfass introduced me to Sanskrit philosophical literature. At Temple University, Bibhuti Singh Yadav supervised my translations of the Sanskrit texts presented in this book, Vasubandhu’s Vīmśatikā and Kumarila’s Nirālambanavāda, for which Temple Univeristy awarded me the Ph.D. At Banaras Hindu University, Śrinarayanmisra read with me both texts in entirety, line by line, several times each, during the final twenty years of his life. I could never have navigated these texts without my teachers. Magistra Cynthia Anne Eberly Allen edited reader friendliness into an otherwise demandingly difficult discourse, Sanjay David produced the index and Professor Stephen Inbanathan formatted the manuscript for publication. I want to also thank Jackie Pavlovic, my production supervisor at Peter Lang Publishing, for her support and Series Editor, Professor Quazi Moumin, for including this work in Peter Lang’s South Asian Literature, Arts and Culture Studies series.

| 1 →


Classical Indian Philosophy

In the fourth century of the Common Era, Vasubandhu, a Buddhist from North India, proposed that objects experienced in ordinary everyday waking consciousness are no different from objects experienced in dreams. In a terse twenty-odd verse text, Vasubandhu asserts and defends the proposition that the whole wide world of lived experience is a matter of mind-only. Kumārila, the seventh century champion defender of Mīmāmsā, an ancient and enduring Vedic ritual tradition, composed a detailed refutation of Vasubandhu’s claim. Though several centuries separate Kumārila and Vasubandhu, Sanskrit philosophical discourse unites them in perennial controversy concerning objects of consciousness. Sanskrit Debate demonstrates the terms, methods, and procedures of Classical Sanskrit philosophical disputation in action within two competing texts composed in historical antitheses to each other’s tradition of thought and practice. The two texts, Vasubandhu’s Vīmśatikā—A Collection of Twenty Odd Verses and Kumārila’s Nirālambanavāda—Non-Sensory-Limit-Debate—illustrate exactly how philosophical discourse in Classical India was performed. My aim is to make the terms and procedures of Classical Sanskrit philosophical discourse accessible to anyone interested in Indian intellectual heritage.

Reader friendliness is a quality sometimes inherent in books but other times the readers must bring their own friendliness to an otherwise ancient, alien, inaccessible culture of words and concepts. In this way, we, the writer and reader, negotiate a balance of friendliness. There are only two prerequisites for understanding the intricacies of Classical Sanskrit philosophical discourse, namely a sincere desire to know and the capacity to learn. Sanskrit grammarians inform us that words have a special power of their own to yield up their meanings to those who devote their full attention to them. (1) Sanskrit strangers are introduced in this book as new friends instrumental for mediating new meanings through ancient words.

What do competing systems of Classical Indian philosophy entail and what are they trying to tell us? A world vision entails a position which presents a consistent, comprehensive, coherent construction of meaning. It is a complete system, explaining how to know—epistemology—and what there is to know—ontology, addressing such controversial categories as substance, quality, action, relation, time, space, mind, self, intention, memory, and recognition. To have a total coherent vision of life involves taking a position and listening to what others have to say, carefully considering what categories others use to present their views, what criticisms the opponents have, and answering their accusations. Competing systems of meaning are different worlds of discourse ← 1 | 2 → which come face to face in debate. Each position is driven by the need to say something about its world.

Politics of Liberation

In Classical India, philosophical debate was the politics of liberation from psycho-social-economic suffering. It thrived on political privilege, patronage and patriotism. Kings sponsored and hosted formal philosophical debates, transforming their opulent royal palaces into theatres where dramatic discourses were staged. Like Classical Sanskrit drama, the purpose of debate was to temporarily relieve the tragedy of human suffering. Public philosophical debate between competing and conflicting established traditions of thought made for good entertainment; people liked to witness professionals perform. Audiences were participant observers by affiliation with one side or the other. Sometimes two opposing kings sponsored rival philosophers but one person had to stand tall above it all as the impartial moderator and mediator of the proceedings. A referee wielded the scepter of ultimate authority to declare victory and defeat. Winners often received enormous sums of money, jewelry, costly clothing, and grants of land on which to build temples and monasteries with revenues from the crown. Philosophical debate was competition for political patronage, privilege and power.

There was much at stake in debate, in rare cases death to the defeated, sometimes banishment from the region, and often the vanquished were compelled and constrained to confess conversion to the victor’s views. There was as much to be gained as lost. Winners and their affiliated communities were fed, clothed and accommodated with lodging, not merely for the duration of the debate, but in perennial patronage. Professional philosophers were representatives of religious institutions who competed for their funding by fighting each other philosophically for fiscal favors from kings. Kings took pundits, priests and monks into their confidence for consultation on political and personal problems. Professional philosophers were by definition politicians, lobbying for the preservation and promotion of their own traditions’ positions.

Classical Indian philosophy is driven by ultimate questions and concerns about liberation from suffering. However, Kumārila and Vasubandhu espouse radically different visions of liberation from suffering and the means for achieving it. Kumārila’s approach is external and formal, focusing on the employment of real objects as the means to fulfill prescribed, predictable, premeditated ends. Kumārila equates liberation with his vision of the moral and material happiness of humanity in life beyond the world. Vasubandhu’s approach is internal, focusing on images in the mind, and locates both the cause of suffering and the means for obtaining liberation in the mind-only.

Vasubandhu and Kumārila are both political proponents of their particular paths to liberation from psycho-physical pain and socio-economic suffering. ← 2 | 3 → Vasubandhu and Kumārila are arch rivals persistently provoking each other in irrepressible and irreconcilable differences. As translator and interpreter of Vasubandhu’s and Kumārila’s competing texts, I perform the function of moderator and mediator, leading the reader in a reasonable exchange rate on the meaning of words spoken between two textual traditions that announced their respective ways of seeing and being in the world in total opposition to each other.


X, 138
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
debate literature Indian philosophy epistemology antithesis ontology
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 138 pp.

Biographical notes

William Cully Allen (Author)

William Cully Allen studied Sanskrit at Harvard University, The University of Pennsylvania, and Banaras Hindu University before earning his PhD in South Asian religion at Temple University. Allen has taught for twenty-five years at Temple University, Austin College, Bucknell University, Muhlenberg College, and the University of the Arts.


Title: Sanskrit Debate