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The Six Khyatis : Theories of Error in Indian Philosophy

by Swami Sivananda


An understanding of the characteristics of our judgments of truth and error forms an integral part of philosophical knowledge. This understanding is necessary for the discovery of the deeper implications of experience. Knowledge, ordinarily, presupposes a subject of knowledge and an object corresponding to it. The nature of this knowledge is dependent upon the mind and the cognitive organs of the knowing subject, as well as on the conditions in which the object is situated in relation to the subject. The knowledge of colour through eyes which are affected with jaundice may be incorrect, since there is every possibility of its being the perception of an apparently objective yellow colour, though what is really objective may be of some other colour. In the same manner, a distant object may be mistaken for something else, though the organs of perception may be in a healthy condition and this error may be caused by a peculiar relation obtaining between the percipient and the position of the object. Our perceptions of things greatly influence what we infer and decide, which means that our whole life is judged by us in accordance with the modes of our perception and the knowledge based on them. As every inference is based on previous perception, erroneous perception will nullify the value of the inferences built upon it.

The different schools of philosophy have advanced different theories of error in accordance with their avowed theories of knowledge. These theories concerning the nature of erroneous cognition are technically called Khyatis. There are six important Khyatis in Indian philosophy, They are: 1. Satkhyati, 2. Akhyati, 3. Anyathakhyati, 4. Atmakhyati, 5. Asatkhyati and 6. Anirvachinayakhyati.

The theory of Satkhyati is held by Ramanuja and his followers. According to this theory, there is no error in fact. What is experienced is real. Satkhyati, Akhyati and Anyathakhyati may be brought under the general head, Satkhyati, which is in opposition to Asatkhyati. The general theory of Satkhyati advocates the view that in wrong knowledge there is cognition of some kind of reality or existence. In a sense, even Atmakhyati may come under Satkhyati, for it admits the reality of cognition within. The theory of Asatkhyati is advanced by the Madhyamikas or Sunyavadins, who hold that in wrong knowledge there is cognition of unreality or non-existence. The Anirvachaniya- khyati is the view of the Advaitin, that experienced objects are indeterminable and that the object of erroneous cognition is neither real, nor unreal, nor real-unreal, i.e., it is Sadasadvilakshana. Atmakhyati is the theory of the Vijnanavadins, the Vaibhasikas and the Sautrantikas, having different theories of perception that the internal concept appears as the external percept, in erroneous cognition. Akhyati is the theory of the Sankhya, Yoga and the Prabhakara school of Purva-Mimamsa, according to which, in error, there is non-distinction between a memory-image and a percept. Anyathakyati is the view of the Nyaya, Vaiseshika and Kumarila Bhatta's school of Purva-Mimamsa, and this holds that the substratum and the percept of erroneous cognition are real independently.

A discussion of these several theories is an essential part of Indian epistemology.


Statement: According to Satkhyati, all objects exist independent of the knowledge which others have of them. The nonexistent cannot be perceived. Truth is the correspondence between knowledge and an object which has independent existence. The erroneous cognition of silver in nacre is not really the cognition of something unreal as such, for it refers to something which exists. The elements of silver that are contained in nacre are responsible for the perception of silver in nacre, though these elements require the aid of a peculiar constitution of the perceiving sense-organs. Though erroneous judgment may be due to defective sense-organs, the absolutely nonexistent cannot be perceived at any time. As, by the process of quintuplication, every element contains parts of other elements, it is possible that anything can contain any other thing. Even the perception of yellow colour in things by a person affected with jaundice is not the perception of some colour which is really not in objects, but of what all objects possess in some degree, though this cannot be perceived by all eyes. The eye which is affected with jaundice, being favourably conditioned, can see it. Hence, the distinction which is ordinarily made between truth and error does not really exist. But, in order that truth may be practically useful in life, it should correspond not merely to some existent thing, in some degree, but to the element which is preponderating others in that object which is perceived. Hence, only these elements which, being commonly predominant in things, are equally perceived by all others also, alone can be really useful in life. When something is perceived only by one individual, privately, and not by others, it becomes the so-called unreal or the illusory. But even the content of this private perception by an individual has existence, though it cannot be seen by others. What is called correction of error is not the negation of what is existent, but only the cessation of effort in regard to the non-predominant element in the object.

Refutation: In quintuplication, the gross physical elements are not quintuplicated; only the subtle rudimentary principles of these elements are quintuplicated. Else, one would perceive silver in a stone-pillar. The constituents of nacre and silver are not mixed up in one object. If silver is really contained in nacre, the silver part of the nacre should melt when the nacre is thrown into fire. A snake is not present in the rope as one of the constituents of the latter.


Statement: The theory of Akhyati holds that the inability to discriminate (Aviveka) between cognitions of different kinds and between their corresponding objects is error. Error is not the perception of something existent, but the non-perception of difference between different cognitions of different characteristics and contents. The two cognitions are real independently, without reference to each other. In the perception of silver in nacre, the perception of 'Idamta' or 'this-ness' is true perception, but the vision of the silver is only a memory of what was previously perceived. The non-perception of the difference between the two real distincts is due to some defect in sense-perception. Perception and memory, the object of perception and the object of memory, are different from one another. But this difference is not perceived in erroneous perception. Memory is mistaken for perception. As there is this inherent mistake in perception, this perception does not lead to successful activity corresponding to the perception. Correction of error is the subsequent consciousness of the distinction between what is perceived e.g., nacre) and what is merely remembered (e.g., silver). But in correction there is no cancellation of either nacre or silver; only their distinction and the distinction of perception and memory are recognised. In perception through a jaundiced eye the distinction between the yellowness of the bile and the real colour of the object perceived is not seen. Really speaking, there is no such thing as real error. The so-called error is only absence of the true relation between the two elements in knowledge. But the contents of knowledge are never unreal or false. Truth may not be known fully, but there cannot be, strictly speaking, knowledge of untruth or falsehood.

Refutation: The Purvapakshin admits that the perception of an object implies the perception of the difference of that object from another object. There is the negation of cloth in a pot, and vice versa and without this negation being implied in the perception of a cloth or a pot, neither of these can be perceived. And the perception of distinction is the same as that of reciprocal relationship among objects. Distinction is the essential nature of every object. Without the perception of distinction there is no perception at all. Hence, it is not true that the distinction between nacre and silver is not cognised, though the two objects are cognised in perception and memory respectively. As knowledge is accepted to be self-luminous, the moment it is manifest, it should reveal difference. And when any object is known, its distinction from other objects should also be known simultaneously. Thus, the possibility of the non-cognition of difference does not arise.

Further, it is not true that the non-discrimination between percept and memory obtains in all forms of experience. In dream when, really, all experience is only a memory except that of the Self which alone is known directly, a distinction between this direct experience and memory is made; else, there would not be perception of dream-objects. If the object seen in dream as a memory-image is non-distinguished from direct experience, one would have the knowledge: I am the object, and not this is the object. It cannot also be said that two memory-images are non-distinguished in error, for, in that case, there would be no experience of error.


Statement: According to Anyathakhyati, error is not the non-distinction between a percept and a memory or between their contents. The silver that is not seen in nacre is not a mere memory. A memory-image cannot be directly perceived. But it is true that the silver that is seen in nacre is not really where it is seen. If the silver seen in nacre is absolutely unreal, there would be no perception of silver at all. An absolutely non-existent entity cannot be perceived as existent. But it is also true that the silver in question is not really present in the nacre. This is proved by the failure of this silver to conform to practical workability. Error is the cognition of a composite situation brought about by a kind of subsistence of 'silverness' in the 'this-ness' (Idamta) in the cognition.

The fact is that nacre, in erroneous perception, is not perceived as it is. It is not the character of nacre but the 'this-ness' of nacre with a character of glittering that is perceived in erroneous perception. A memory of silver arises in the mind of the perceiver when the character of glittering which is attributed to silver is perceived. Now, what is perceived erroneously is neither nacre fully nor silver really, but the 'this-ness' of nacre with the quality of 'silverness' attributed to the fact of glittering. So, what is perceived is not merely a memory of silver, but the silver existing somewhere else brought into relation with the perceiving eye by the memory arisen in the mind. Really, it is a relation that is there, but it gets identified with actual perception on account of memory. Though the relation between the 'this-ness' and the eye is ordinary, the relation between the silver and the eye is extraordinary, and not natural. But some kind of relation is obtained between two things in erroneous cognition. Though nacre is not silver, it appears to the eyes as silver, through the extraordinary relation mentioned above.

In erroneous cognition two factors are involved one that is 'there' and the other that is 'not there', observed by the eye through the 'natural' and the 'non-natural' relations of the contents with the eye. In the correction of error, what is negated is not silver itself, but the supposed relation between the 'this-ness' and the silver. What is negated is not a non-existent silver, for the non-existent cannot be seen. The silver must exist somewhere. And it must he somewhere else, for its negation is experienced in correction of error.

Refutation: In erroneous cognition silver does not appear as a distant object, but is identified with something which is existent before the eyes. The existence of silver somewhere else has no bearing on the silver that is perceived in nacre. The so-called actual perception of silver in erroneous judgment is only of an appearance of silver in nacre and for this a really existent silver is unnecessary. Moreover, when the error is corrected, one feels: this is not silver, and not there is no relation between the 'this-ness' of this nacre and the distant silver. What is cancelled in correction is the silver perceived there and not merely a relation of silver with 'this-ness'. And a relation which is unreal cannot, according to the Anyathakhyativadin himself, be negated; and if it is real, it cannot, again, be negated. And further, the admission of extraordinary perception makes inference useless, for the process of extraordinary perception can be applied to inference, and vice versa.


Statement: According to this theory, the silver perceived in nacre is not silver really existing somewhere outside. This silver is real as an object of internal cognition, but unreal as an object of external perception. It is not absolutely non-existent, for it is perceived. It has subjective existence and objective non-existence. This silver is an object of the mind and not of the senses. It is ideal and not real, psychological and not physical; and error is the projecting outward, as a material object, of the internal mental concept which is non-material. In error, the mental is mistaken for the material. In the correction of error, it is not the silver that is negatived, but only its apparent externality of being. In correct perception (i. e, of nacre after removal of error), the silver is recognised as an internal concept. The Vaibhashikas and the Sautrantikas accept that there is an externally real basis, the 'this', the former holding that this basis is directly perceived and the latter that it is only inferred. But both these admit that the silver perceived in nacre is projected from within on the external substratum, whether this substratum is perceived or inferred. The Vijnanavadins hold that there is nothing externally real, and the cognised object is only cognition externalised by error. They hold that there is non-distinction, at the the of cognition, between cognition and the cognised, which proves that the cognised is cognition itself.

Refutation: That the cognised and the cognition are non-distinct is not a fact. Cognition of the cognised and the existence of the cognised at the time of cognition naturally appear to be simultaneous; but simultaneity is not identity. The manifestation of light and the revelation of an object with its aid are simultaneous events; but the light and the object are not identical with one another. The cognitive consciousness cannot be said to be the same as the cognised object. How can something appear outside when there is nothing outside? There cannot be an appearance without some reality underlying it. We can have changing cognitions of the same object and also more than one object can be cognised by the same cognitive consciousness. This proves that objects outside are not mere internal cognitions. Objects exist prior to perception of the same; objects are in space outside, while the cognitive consciousness is within. There is thus a temporal and spatial distinction between cognition and its objects. And further, there would be no distinction between truth and error, if all objects are merely mental. Something independent of cognition is to be admitted if truth is to be distinguished from error. Without this independent existence, there cannot be common perception of things by all alike, and thus there would be no such thing as truth other than private fancy. But common perception disproves the Vijnanavada position of the ideality of external things.


Statement: This theory holds that what is cognised in erroneous cognition is absolutely non-existent. If the silver perceived in nacre were real, it could not be sublated afterwards on correct perception. As silver seen in erroneous perception is not seen in correct perception, it is clear that the silver of erroneous perception does not really exist. Due to the power of Avidya or ignorance, cognition manifests a non-existent silver. The impression of the previous perception of silver becomes responsible for the perception of an appearance of silver in erroneous judgment. As correction of error reveals the non-existence of silver in nacre, we have to conclude that Sunya or the non-existent is the object of erroneous cognition.

Refutation: Avidya cannot create the non-existent silver, for the non-existent cannot be created at any time. If the unreal does not even appear, it is not possible even to say that the unreal does not appear, as one cannot say: My mother is barren. Further, cognition, which is the substratum of Avidya, cannot be caused by Avidya to manifest an unreal object. The cause cannot be directed or influenced by the effect. Hence, cognition possessing the power of Avidya cannot produce the non-existent silver in nacre. And, moreover, no kind of relation can be established between cognition and silver, for there can be no relation between the existent and the non-existent. Without a relation between the cognition and the object cognised, no cognition is possible. What is cognised in erroneous cognition is not the non-existent, and not also the truly existent, but only an appearance or Pratibhasikasatta which is devoid of Vyavaharikasatta or practical reality and value. The illusion of Vyavaharikata in Pratibhasikata is cancelled in correction of error, but it is not true that even Pratibhasikata is absent in erroneous cognition. The Pratibhasikasatta appears as an external object, and not merely as a notion or an idea within. Objective reality is of two kinds; Vyavaharika and Pratibhasika. The latter is called the unreal in practical life. Mistaking this latter for the former is error. Error is corrected when the objective basis (Vyavaharikasatta) of the appearance (Pratibhasikasatta) is discovered in one's cognitive consciousness.


The Anirvachaniya Khyati which is the theory of the Advaitin is the logical conclusion arrived at through a criticism of the various other views on error. The silver seen in nacre is neither real, nor a memory, nor existent somewhere else, nor an internal idea, nor absolutely non-existent like a human horn. This silver is not different from the real alone, not different from the unreal alone, and not different from both the real and the unreal alone. One cannot definitely describe the nature of the silver perceived in nacre. It is not real, for it is sublated. It is not unreal, for it is perceived. It is not both real and unreal, for this is self-contradictory. Hence the silver in nacre is Anirvachaniya, indeterminable. Objects which have Pratibhasikasatta have the characteristics of indeterminability mentioned above, and they are Anirvachaniya. The indeterminability of appearances like this, which do not conform to the laws of empirical action, is of one kind and can be said to constitute empirical error; and the indeterminability of the objects of correct perception in waking life is of a different kind altogether, and can be said to constitute transcendental error. This latter can be understood only through reason, scripture and direct realisation. The indeterminability of the nature of the world of waking life is explained by the admission in life of a distinction between empirical reality (Vyavaharikasatta) and Absolute Reality (Paramarthikasatta). With reference to Vyavaharikasatta, Pratibhasikasatta is Anirvachaniya, and with reference to Parmarthikasatta, Vyavaharikasatta is Anirvachaniya. It is quite obvious that anything which cannot be called either real or unreal or real-unreal must be called indeterminable, Anirvachaniya.

The Anirvachaniya character of silver perceived in nacre can be established by the proof of Arthapatti, i.e., Presumption or implication. The silver in question, as it has been shown above, is not real. It is not unreal. And it is not also real-unreal. So it ought to be indeterminable. This is the process of Arthapatti. What other relation than Anirvachaniyatva can obtain between reality and appearance? Yet, this Anirvachaniyasatta has an objective basis. In the case of empirical erroneous cognition, e.g., the cognition of silver in nacre, this basis is nacre. In transcendental erroneous cognition, i.e., the cognition of the universe in Brahman, the basis is Brahman. The object of cognition in empirical erroneous cognition is cognised due to a psychological error; and the basis for this cognised object is a physical object which is empirically real. And the object of cognition in transcendental erroneous cognition is cognised due to a metaphysical error; and the basis for this cognised object is the Absolute-Consciousness which is transcendentally, absolutely real.

The unreality of the silver in nacre is different from the unreality of such things as a man's horn. The latter cannot be perceived, for it is never manifest in experience; the former is perceived, and it has some sort of objective existence. It has Pratibhasikasatta which man's horn does not have. But this Pratibhasikasatta has no Vyavaharikasatta, and so it is negatived in correct perception, i.e., in the perception of nacre as such. Silver in nacre is an Anirvachaniyavastu. Even the nacre as such does not have Paramarthikasatta, and so it, too, gets negatived in the realisation of Brahman. Nacre as such, also, is an Anirvachaniyavastu. The Anirvachaniya is not the absolute non-existent, but the indefinable empirical and apparent. The empirical belongs to Isvarasrishti and is the product of Maya, while the apparent belongs to Jivasrishti and is produced by Avidya.

The theories of Drishtisrishti (creation on perceiving) and Srishtidrishti (perception on creating) pertain to Pratibhasika and Vyavaharika objects in two different levels of perception. The silver perceived in nacre is Drishtisrishti for it exists only so long as it is seen, and it is created by perception caused by individual Avidya. But the nacre as such exists whether it is perceived by an individual or not. Hence it is independent of Drishtisrishti. As its perception is posterior to its existence, it is a case of Srishtidrishti. But this nacre is the product of the Drishti of Isvara through the cosmic Maya. And nacre cannot exist when Isvaradrishti is withdrawn; it exists only so long as Isvaradrishti exists. Thus the Vyavaharikasatta is Drishtisrishti from Isvara's standpoint, though it is the basis of Srishtidrishti from Jiva's standpoint. The Pratibhasikasatta is purely Drishtisrishti even from the standpoint of the Jiva. When nacre is seen, the silver vanishes. When Brahman is realised, the universe vanishes. When reality is known, the appearances superimposed on it vanish.

The fact that in the negation of error the silver perceived in nacre is found to be absolutely non-existent, does not prove that the silver at the time of its being perceived was absolutely non-existent. As it has been already said, the absolutely non-existent cannot manifest before the perceptive consciousness. The perceptions of dream are found to be absolutely non-existent during the waking state; but this does not prove that dream-objects are absolutely non-existent, for they were experienced during dream. The Vedanta makes a distinction, therefore, between Pratibhasikasatta and Vyavaharikasatta. Silver in nacre and dream-objects belong to the former category; nacre and all the objects of the universe belong to the latter.

Thus it is established that the silver appearing in nacre is Anirvachaniya. Otherwise the perception and sublation of one and the same thing cannot be explained. In the same way it is to be understood that the universe superimposed on Brahman is Anirvachaniya. Maya and Avidya are both Anirvachaniya, and what they manifest also should be regarded as Anirvachaniya.

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