Buddhism The Philosophical Works and Influence of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti
Dan Arnold
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0085


Dignāga (also spelled “Diṅnāga,” b. c. 480–d. c. 540 CE) and Dharmakīrti (b. c. 600–d. c. 660 CE) decisively influenced the course not only of Buddhist philosophy, but of Indian philosophy more generally. Previous to Dignāga, Buddhist philosophical thought had been advanced predominantly in the discourse of Abhidharma literature; this was largely intramural in character, typically involving arguments driven by exegetical considerations. Though heir to generally Ābhidharmika intuitions about how to understand cardinal Buddhist claims, Dignāga first advanced systematically epistemological arguments in support thereof, arguments that might in principle be persuasive across party lines. His brief Hetucakraḍamaru (Drum of the cycle of reasons) formalized valid argument forms, concisely presenting what Dignāga took to be all possible relations between the terms of a formally stated inference. He refined epistemological terms of art (familiar from earlier Nyāya literature) like pramāṇa, which denotes reliable epistemic “criteria” (as one might translate the term); while many Brahmanical schools of thought affirmed that language or the testimony of tradition ought to be reckoned among such criteria of knowledge, Dignāga claimed that only pratyakṣa (perception) and anumāna (inference) have this status, with all other ways of arriving at valid beliefs being reducible to one of these. Engaging rival schools of Indian thought in his magnum opus—the Pramāṇasamuccaya (Compendium of pramāṇas)—Dignāga deployed pramāṇa discourse to advance characteristically Buddhist claims, first introducing such influential doctrines as the nominalist apoha (exclusion) theory of linguistic meaning. Dharmakīrti, who is traditionally represented as Dignāga’s grand-disciple, framed his most extensive work—the Pramāṇavārttika (Critical commentary on pramāṇa)—as a commentary on Dignāga’s magnum opus. Benefiting from intervening Brahmanical critiques of Dignāga, Dharmakīrti greatly elaborated and in some respects revised Dignāga’s thought, advancing what many Indian philosophers would take to be the definitive arguments for characteristically Buddhist positions. Indeed, Dharmakīrti’s influence effectively eclipsed Dignāga’s, and for subsequent Indian philosophers (Brahmanical and Buddhist alike), Dharmakīrti’s work epitomized “the Buddhist position” in matters philosophical; to this day, his work represents the epistemological cornerstone of many Tibetan Buddhist monastic curricula.

Philosophical Overviews

Warder 1980 provides a thorough survey of the history of Indian Buddhism, including useful treatments of both Dignāga and Dharmakīrti. Mookerjee 1975, a seminal treatment of the overall project of these thinkers, remains useful, as does the historically significant Stcherbatsky 1962; both works, however, exemplify a tendency (common among scholars both traditional and modern) to read Dignāga through the lens of Dharmakīrti, misleadingly suggesting that these thinkers represent a monolithic school of thought. A good philosophical treatment of Dignāga’s thought is given in Hayes 1988, which is sensitive to some important differences between Dignāga and Dharmakīrti. Dreyfus 1997, though considering Dharmakīrti particularly in light of some Tibetan interpreters of him, gives an extensive and philosophically sophisticated treatment of Dharmakīrti’s thought; the similarly thorough overview by Dunne 2004, in contrast, sticks to Dharmakīrti’s earliest Indian commentators, aiming for an account that stays as close as possible to Dharmakīrti’s texts. Eltschinger 2010, an outstanding article-length presentation of Dharmakīrti’s thought, gives a philosophically sensitive overview that is remarkably complete given its relative brevity. Matilal 1986 is a touchstone for the philosophical study of Indian epistemology in general.

  • Dreyfus, Georges B. J. Recognizing Reality: Dharmakīrti’s Philosophy and Its Tibetan Interpreters. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

    NNNPrincipally considering two divergent strands of Tibetan interpretation of Dharmakīrti, Dreyfus—whose access to Dharmakīrti’s works is mainly through Tibetan translations and interpretations thereof—draws on Wilfrid Sellars and others in offering a philosophically comparative introduction to Dharmakīrti’s project.

  • Dunne, John D. Foundations of Dharmakīrti’s Philosophy. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004.

    NNNDunne introduces Dharmakīrti’s philosophy according to his earliest Indian commentators (Śākyabuddhi and Devendrabuddhi, whose works are extant only in Tibetan translations). Invoking a “sliding scale of analysis,” Dunne argues that Dharmakīrti’s claims differ depending on whether taken from an empiricist perspective or from the idealist Yogācāra view Dharmakīrti finally upholds.

  • Eltschinger, Vincent. “Dharmakīrti.” Revue Internationale de Philosophie 64.3 (2010): 397–440.

    NNNGiven its relative conciseness, this is a remarkably thorough overview, touching on a whole range of philosophical and contextual issues relevant to the characterization and understanding of Dharmakīrti’s project. Includes a lengthy (if hard-to-read) bibliography.

  • Hayes, Richard. Dignāga on the Interpretation of Signs. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-2899-2

    NNNA philosophically sophisticated presentation of Dignāga’s thought, which (against interpretive trends both traditional and modern) Hayes takes to differ significantly from Dharmakīrti’s. Understanding Dignāga to exemplify an authentically Buddhist skepticism, Hayes focuses particularly on Dignāga’s logic, including translations of lengthy sections of the Pramāṇasamuccaya’s chapters on inference and apoha.

  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna. Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

    NNNThough not focused particularly on Dignāga or Dharmakīrti—their work is here addressed passim, but Matilal typically presents the Brahmanical Nyāya tradition most extensively and sympathetically—this work is foundational for the philosophically engaged study of Indian epistemology.

  • Mookerjee, Satkari. The Buddhist Philosophy of Universal Flux: An Exposition of the Philosophy of Critical Realism as Expounded by the School of Dignāga. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975.

    NNNA dated but still valuable book, this work offers an unusually comprehensive account of the overall project of Dignāga (read in light of Dharmakīrti). Mookerjee often characterizes Dignāga’s thought in terms of the larger Indian philosophical conversation that is its native context. First published in 1935.

  • Stcherbatsky, F. Th. Buddhist Logic. 2 vols. New York: Dover, 1962.

    NNNThis historically significant work by a pioneering scholar of Buddhist studies—though it reflects rather dated neo-Kantian interpretive predilections, and is surely superseded by the works of Dreyfus and Dunne—remains valuable. Volume 1 gives a survey of Dignāga’s and (especially) Dharmakīrti’s philosophy; Volume 2 gives a complete translation of Dharmakīrti’s Nyāyabindu (with Dharmottara’s commentary), plus selections from Indian critics like Vācaspatimiśra. First published in 1932.

  • Warder, A. K. Indian Buddhism. 2d rev. ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980.

    NNNAn unusually comprehensive treatment of the Indian Buddhist tradition, with a focus (uncommon in works of this scope) on doctrinal matters, Warder’s book usefully characterizes the works of Dignāga (pp. 448–465) and Dharmakīrti (pp. 469, ff.) relative to the complex textual traditions of which they were part.

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