In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Epistemology (Pramāṇas)

  • Introduction
  • Wide-ranging Studies of Pramāṇa Theory and Hindu Epistemology
  • The Nature of Cognition, Knowledge, and Positive Epistemic Status
  • Perception
  • Inference
  • Testimony
  • Postulation
  • Marginal pramāṇas and relevant non-pramāṇa cognitive instruments
  • Relevant Interlocutors, Skeptics, and Non-Hindu Pramāṇa Theorists

Hinduism Epistemology (Pramāṇas)
Matthew R. Dasti, Malcolm Keating
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0169


In classical Hindu philosophy and classical Indian thought more generally, questions of epistemology, rationality, and public debate were typically framed in terms of pramāṇas, “means of knowing.” The term pramāṇa is sometimes used to refer to cognition itself, especially by Buddhist interlocutors, but more commonly pramāṇa refers to processes or causes of veridical cognition such as perception, inference, and testimony. Hindu thinkers were concerned with identifying and understanding such processes for two major reasons: first, they thought that an individual’s well-being depended on navigating the world effectively, which in turn depended on understanding it properly. As such, achieving life goals hinged on cognitive success. Understanding what sort of processes lead to knowledge as opposed to ignorance or doubt was crucial to sustained cognitive success and hence living well. Second, schools of thought and praxis had to defend their views and ways of life in the culture of robust debate pervading classical Indian intellectual life. Illustrating that one’s view or perspective was indeed supported by genuine pramāṇas, and that their opponent’s view was not, was one way to do this. Pramāṇas were thus often crucial to debates about fundamental questions in philosophy, as well as theology and ethics. And these questions were deeply tied to concerns about the best way to live. By way of example, for Mīmāṃsā, the need to defend the ultimate moral and religious authority of the Veda motivates them to develop a sophisticated epistemology of default justification for cognition, which is then applied to the Vedic testimony. For Nyāya, defending the existence of the self against Buddhist challengers leads to myriad inferences in support of its existence; these are held to be binding, as properly formed inference is a widely recognized pramāṇa. Articulating what constitutes a well-formed inference is then the basis of Nyāya developments in logic and the epistemology of inferential cognition. Vedāntic thinkers are both concerned with defending the Upaniṣadic literature (and denigrating yogic experience) as a source of knowledge of brahman, and characterizing the state of the deep self as a witness to the events of consciousness. In short, Hindu thinkers are deeply concerned with identifying, analyzing, and engaging in debate over what sorts of processes are basic irreducible means of knowing and how such processes generate epistemic normativity.

Wide-ranging Studies of Pramāṇa Theory and Hindu Epistemology

Mohanty 1988 is an article-length investigation of the nature of pramāṇas in general that would serve as a useful introduction to the topic. Chakrabarti 1997, Mohanty 1998, and Ganeri 2001 all begin from the question of rationality: how did Indian thinkers conceive of rationality and norms of reasoning? Chakrabarti’s paper engages Hindu literature widely, while Mohanty considers the scholastic literature of the darśana period in a comparative vein; Ganeri 2001 studies the work of varied thinkers and schools as snapshots of rationality as articulated by Indian thinkers. Datta 1960 focuses on Advaita Vedānta with an eye toward some major interlocutors such as Mīmāṃsā. Matilal 1986 is a classic study of Indian epistemology, with significant comparative philosophical engagement, managing to have wide scope while capturing much nuance and detail regarding important views and debates. Bronkhorst 2010 reflects on the attitudes Indian (largely Hindu) philosophers had toward their inherited mythology and other topics that may admit of nonliteral interpretation. Ram-Prasad 2001 considers how knowledge contributes to the ultimate good in major Indian (mostly Hindu) schools of thought. Perrett 2000 collects important works from the mid-to-later twentieth century that provide varied excursions into Indian epistemology by professional philosophers who are also Sanskritists. Bhushan and Garfield 2011 contains a number of important works by modern Indian philosophers (largely neo-Vedāntic in spirit) on questions of cognition and human knowledge.

  • Bhushan, Nalini, and Jay L. Garfield. Indian Philosophy in English. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199769261.001.0001

    This volume is devoted to identifying the important thinkers and traits of modern Indian philosophy. These thinkers are often neo-Vedāntic in spirit, taking what is thought to be perennially relevant in classical Hindu thought and bringing it to bear on classical philosophical problems. Many articles, especially those in parts 3 and 4, are focused on problems of consciousness, knowledge, and our cognitive engagement with the world.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. “What did Indian Philosophers Believe?” In Logic and Belief in Indian Philosophy. Edited by Piotr Balcerowicz, 13–38. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2010.

    Large-scale consideration of whether Indian thinkers were committed to a literal understanding of their mythology, scriptural revelation, sacred cosmology, and philosophical holdings. Engages a wide range of texts and individual authors.

  • Chakrabarti, Arindam. “Rationality in Indian philosophy.” In A Companion to World Philosophies. Edited by Eliot Deutsch and Ron Bontekoe, 259–278. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

    A sensitive investigation into the question of what constitutes rationality in classical Hindu literature, philosophy, and culture, with rich textual engagement from ancient to contemporary sources.

  • Datta, D. M. Six Ways of Knowing: A Critical Study of the Advaita Theory of Knowledge. 2d ed. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press, 1960.

    Organized around the six knowledge sources accepted by Advaita Vedānta. Also engages with competing Indian schools as well as Western philosophy, although the former is from the point of view of Advaita Vedānta and sometimes not objectively presented. Accessible to non-specialists, the text is a useful introduction to pramāṇa theory in one of the major intellectual traditions of India.

  • Ganeri, Jonardon. Philosophy in Classical India: The Proper Work of Reason. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

    Wide-ranging examination of philosophical developments within various schools, centered on the notion of rationality or reason, from some of the earliest discussions of debate-centered rationality in Sanskrit literature, to technical developments in the late classical period. Speaks to contemporary concerns in epistemology.

  • Matilal, B. K. Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

    The leading work of the dean of Indian philosophical studies in the second half of the twentieth century. While it begins with concerns over the epistemic status of perception, the book is a broader study of major themes within Indian theories of knowledge and cognition, including responses to skepticism as well as the nature of error and perceptual illusion across schools.

  • Mohanty, J. N. “A Fragment of the Indian Philosophical Tradition—Theory of Pramāṇa.” Philosophy East and West 38.3 (1988): 251–260.

    DOI: 10.2307/1398865

    Succinct introduction to pramāṇa theory. Focuses on the basic criteria for a knowledge source to count as an independent pramāṇa. Useful article for a beginning student on the subject.

  • Mohanty, J. N. “Phenomenology and Indian Philosophy: The Concept of Rationality.” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 19.3 (1998): 269–281.

    DOI: 10.1080/00071773.1988.11007873

    Examines pramāṇa-theoretic rationality in conversation with Husserlian phenomenology. Useful in providing a broader perspective on contemporary philosophical dialogue with Indian texts, which tend to have primarily an “analytic” bent. Also includes a few interesting snippets of intellectual autobiography by one of the leading lights of contemporary philosophical work on classical Indian thought.

  • Perrett, Roy, ed. Indian Philosophy: A Collection of Readings. Vol. 1, Epistemology. New York and Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2000.

    Collects a number of articles from the formative period of contemporary investigation of Indian philosophy. Includes scholars with both philological and philosophical expertise. Of special importance are papers by Mohanty and Potter, which debate translations of Sanskritic terms for knowledge, cognition, justification, etc. Some essays are now slightly dated, and some translations of technical terms most certainly are dated as well, but the book contains a number of important pioneering works.

  • Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi. Knowledge and Liberation in Classical Indian Thought. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403913739

    Examines the epistemology of a handful of major Indian schools (including Mīmāṃsā, Nyāya, and Advaita Vedānta), focused on how each school relates knowledge to the ultimate good, typically conceived of as liberation from the pains of embodied life. Underscores the general trend of Hindu thinkers’ pragmatic concern with cognition as instrumental to important goals of life.

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