Buddhism Dignāga
Dan Lusthaus
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0227


Dignāga (also spelled Diṅnāga) revolutionized logic and epistemology in India. He lived in southern India sometime around the 5th century. Seeking to establish an ecumenical field in which different Indian traditions could debate with rather than talk past each other, he devised a system that required disputants put their proprietary presuppositions aside, and argue from mutually agreed axioms toward conclusions that therefore would be compelling to both parties. Since different groups adhered to different scriptures, scripture could not be a basis for making a truth claim to someone adhering to different scriptures or tenets. Not only did Buddhists value different scriptures than non-Buddhist Indians, Buddhists even disagreed among themselves on which texts to accept as authoritative. Prior to Dignāga, Buddhists accepted scripture (proof texts) and reasoning as the primary tools for making knowledge claims. Dignāga followed the lead of the Vaiśeṣikas, who allowed only perception and inference as providers of valid knowledge. Dignāga tightened the rules for making and recognizing valid inferences, which forced all his rivals, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, to eventually revise their own doctrines and treatises. Treatises up to that point treasured by various schools that failed to satisfy these new criteria soon disappeared. Dignāga drew on and refined the work of Asaṅga (Tucci 1947, cited under Dignāga’s Commentarial Side) and Vasubandhu (Frauwallner 1959, cited under Works Contextualizing Dignāga’s Role in Buddhist Epistemology; Hattori 1968, cited under Translations 1: Pramāṇasamuccaya), the half-brother founders of the Yogācāra school of Buddhism. In India and East Asia, Dignāga was considered unambiguously an exponent of the Yogācāra school (Yamaguchi 1953 and Ui 1958, both cited under Translations 2: Ālambana-parīkṣā and Other Works; Huntington 1989 and Eckel 2008, both cited under Dignāga’s Critics). The Tibetan tradition viewed him through the prism of Dharmakīrti (7th century), and over the centuries doxographically turned him into little more than a foreshadowing of Dharmakīrti. The Tibetans also came to equivocate on whether he should be considered a Sautrāntika or a Yogācāra. With a few notable exceptions (e.g., Hayes 1988), most Western studies have treated Dignāga through the Tibetan prism, though more recently scholars have grown more cautious. However, since Dharmakīrti and most subsequent Indian developments never made it to China or East Asia, Dignāga remained the main luminary of Buddhist logic and epistemology in East Asia until the 20th century when Sanskrit and Tibetan materials became accessible and were studied. In addition to his contributions to logic and epistemology, he is also credited as the author of a commentary on Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya that only survives in Tibetan, a concise summary of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā sūtra (Tucci 1947), and—according to Yijing, a Chinese pilgrim who visited India late in the 7th century and translated several of Dignāga’s works into Chinese—Dignāga was also considered a poet of repute in India, though none of his nonphilosophical verse survives, aside perhaps for a drama containing some verses called Kundamālā that survives in Sanskrit (Sastri 1964, cited under Dignāga’s Commentarial Side).

Dignāga’s Texts

Most of Dignāga’s texts do not survive intact in their original Sanskrit. Hattori 1968 contains a thorough bibliography of all the texts attributed to Dignāga with their editions and translations. The major addition to that list is the recovery of the Sanskrit version of Jinendrabuddhi’s (8th century) commentary on what is usually considered Dignāga’s most important work, Pramāṇasamuccaya. Previously only available in two questionable Tibetan renderings, the recovery of the Jinendrabuddhi’s commentary in Sanskrit, which includes perhaps 70 percent of Dignāga’s root text, promises to revolutionize Dignāga studies. This is part of a large international project centered in Vienna and Beijing that is making available critical editions of previously lost important Sanskrit texts found in Tibet. So far two volumes of the Jinendrabuddhi have appeared: Steinkellner 2005a and Lasic, et al. 2012, both cited under Modern Critical Editions. Yijing states that eight Dignāga treatises were especially studied in India. Yijing’s list was not intended to be exhaustive since Yijing himself translated an additional Dignāga text, Hastavālaprakaraṇa (掌中論 Zhangzhonglun, T.31.1621, tr. in 702), which already had been translated into Chinese in the mid-6th century by Paramārtha (Jiejuan lun 解捲論, T31.1620). An English translation is in Thomas and Ui 1918 (cited under Dignāga’s Commentarial Side). Generally, of Dignāga’s writings, these eight are considered his logic and epistemology (hetu-vidyā) texts.

  • Dignāga. Ālambana-parīkṣā.

    Critique of mostly Buddhist atomic theories, arguing that what we perceive does not resemble individual atoms and cannot be caused by various types of groups of atoms. Surviving in two Chinese translations—Paramārtha’s 真諦 tr: Wuxiang si hen lun 無相思塵論 T.31.1619; Xuanzang’s tr: Guan suoyuanyuan lun 觀所緣緣論 T.31.1624; Yijing’s tr, embedded in Dharmapāla’s commentary: Guan suoyuan lun shi 觀所緣論釋 T.31.1625; and Tibetan dmigs pa brtag pa, Derge 4205 and dmigs pa brtag pa’i ‘grel pa, Derge 4206.

  • Dignāga. Hetu-mukha.

    Presumably this was an introduction to logical reasoning (hetu is the logical reason in an inference). (Not extant.)

  • Dignāga. Hetvābhāsa śāstra.

    Presumably this dealt with types of logical fallacies. (Not extant.)

  • Dignāga. Nyāyamukha.

    Surviving only in Chinese. Aside from a few additional phrases at the beginning, Yijing’s translation is almost a verbatim repeat of Xuanzang’s version. There are reports that a Sanskrit version has been found among the Lhasa texts, but this has not been published or made available to scholars yet. English translation in Tucci 1930 (cited under Translations 2: Ālambana-parīkṣā and Other Works). Preserved in two Chinese translations: Xuanzang in 650, Yinming zhengli men lun 因明正理門論本 T.32.1628; and Yinming zhengli men lun 因明正理門論 T.32.1629, tr. by Yijing in 711.

  • Dignāga. Pramāṇasamuccaya.

    Considered Dignāga’s magnum opus, it deals with theories of perception, logical inference, language, and so on. See Hattori 1968 (cited under Translations 1: Pramāṇasamuccaya), Hayes 1988 (cited under Translations 1: Pramāṇasamuccaya), Steinkellner 2005a (cited under Modern Critical Editions), Lasic, et al. 2012 (cited under cited under Modern Critical Editions), and Pind 2009 and Pind 2011 (both cited under Translations 1: Pramāṇasamuccaya).

  • Dignāga. Sāmānya-lakṣaṇa-parīkṣā.

    Verse text on how to understand general classes of things conceptually instead of as metaphysical universals. Translated into Chinese by Yijing in 711, Guan zongxiang lun song 觀總相論頌, T 1623.

  • Dignāga. Trikāla-parīkṣā.

    Examination of time in terms of past, present, and future. Only survives in Tibetan. Dus gsum brtag pa zhes bya ba, translated by Śāntākaragupta; Derge 4207.

  • Dignāga. Upādāya-prajñapti (prakaraṇa).

    Critiques three types of nominalized generalizations (prajñapti) mistaken for actual entities: (1) groups taken as wholes (samūha), such as “forest,” which is actually a collection of distinct trees, earth, etc., which are themselves groupings of parts; (2) continuity (sambandha); and (3) distinct stages (avastā) through which a presumed substrative self-same entity traverses changes of situation. Since these nominalizations are misinterpretations of causal processes and lead to ideas of a permanent metaphysical self, Dignāga deconstructs them. Only survives in Yijing’s Chinese translation: Quyin jiashi lun 取因假設論, T.31.1622, tr. in 703. Abridged English translation in Kitagawa 1965 (cited under Translations 2: Ālambana-parīkṣā and Other Works).

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