Matthew Dasti

Creation, Karma, and Intelligent Design in Nyaya and Vedanta

vishnu shesha 4The phrase “intelligent design” gets a lot of currency these days, from both its champions and foes. Its proponents contend that the organized structure found within the universe indicates an intelligent cause whereas its opponents claim that undirected natural processes are enough. I have heard some people claim that the notion of intelligent design is merely an attempt to repackage Christian creationism in a respectable way. But, this is clearly false. It’s a Hindu notion as well.

People with an interest in Indian philosophical and religious traditions will find it noteworthy that many of classical Hinduism’s greatest thinkers subscribe to a notion of intelligent design. To my knowledge, one of the earliest instances of the term intelligent designer is found in Sanskrit philosophical literature. Hindus of various schools put forth arguments meant to establish a sentient being who fashions the world of common experience. The being was described by terms like buddhimat-karta (creator possessed of intellect), cetana (conscious being) or prashasita (director).

India’s Nyaya school was a leading proponent of such arguments. Among the orthodox Hindu schools, Nyaya is known for its influence in the development of logic and the theory of knowledge. It claimed that the existence of a creator divinity could be established by logic alone. One of the early arguments for the existence of God is found in the work of Uddyotakara (550 CE), a Nyaya pioneer. The gist of his argument, which influences many later thinkers, is that the operation of insentient materials or instruments to produce some effect is only possible when they are guided by a sentient being. Since primal matter (pradhana), atoms, and karma are insentient, they require the guidance of a conscious agent (buddhimat-karta).

“Pradhana, atoms and karma act as guided by an intelligent agent which precedes their action. This is because they are insentient, like an axe. As something like an axe, being insentient, acts only under the guidance of an intelligent carpenter, so too do pradhana, atoms and karma. Therefore, they too are guided by an intelligent agent.” (Commentary on Nyaya-sutra 4.2.21)

Classical Indian argument relies heavily on vyapti, (invariable relation). The idea is that we can legitimately infer the existence of something if we have evidence of the existence of something else which we know to be invariably related to it. For example, where there is smoke, there is fire.

The Nyaya claim is that organized effects whose building blocks are insentient are invariably related to intelligent agency. In common experience, we do not find that things like chairs or houses just come together without intelligent agency behind them. Nyaya argues that the same should hold for the fundamental workings of the universe. Primal matter, atoms and karma all function together to create a world of complicated and variegated effects. This is impossible, claims Nyaya, without intelligent agency to guide them. I find Uddyodtakara’s argument, which infers the existence of God from the workings of karma, interesting. If karma is (at least in part,) an impersonal moral law, it would make sense that it was developed by an agent who understands moral value, wants to increase it, and is competent to match actions with moral rewards or punishments.

Design arguments also appear in Vedanta, though they are never used as independent means to establish the existence of God. For Vedantins, the teachings of the Upanishads serve as the highest evidence to establish the existence and nature of Brahman. Logic and argument play a supporting role.

Commenting on Brahma-sutra 2.2.18, Shankara argues that the Buddhist notion of creation is untenable. Since the things which make up the world are themselves insentient (acetana), they could not come together to form the structured world of common experience without an overseeing creator (a creator denied by classical Buddhists). Brahma-sutra 1.1.5, as read by both Shankara and Ramanuja, claims that matter (pradhana) cannot be the ultimate source of reality. Rather, Brahman is, since Brahman is sentient, and the Upanishads teach that creation is always preceded by volition and thought.


Related Posts: More Thoughts on Ritual / Meditation as Sacrifice

Above Image: “Vishnu Reclined on Serpent Adisscchen” Handcoloured engraving by Frederic Shoberl from his work ‘The World in Miniature: Hindoostan’. London: R. Ackerman, 1820’s

2 Responses to “Creation, Karma, and Intelligent Design in Nyaya and Vedanta”

  1. Dear Matthew

    Thanks for the post. You mention “the Upanishads teach that creation is always preceded by volition and thought”. Could you share some examples? Also, I would be interested if you could expand a bit on the Brahma-sutra texts you quoted and their commentaries.


  2. Hey Kaustubhaji.

    The classic text in regard to volitional creation, cited by Ramanuja and Shankara, is from the early portion Sixth chapter of the Chandogya Upanishad, “May I become many.”

    A loose translation of text 1.1.5, based on the commentaries of Shankara and Ramanuja is “on account of seeing (or thinking), the pradhana, which is unscriptural, is not the cause of creation.” The short story is the in this passage, the Vedantins, led by Badarayana are arguing against a classical Samkhyin who claims that mere matter or pradhana can account for creation, without need for volitional agency.

    In 2.2.18, the text says (again loosely) “Though you claim that the composite (the world of composite things) has two causes, it cannot happen (on your account).” In this case, Shankara interprets the verse as a response to Buddhists who claim that the world of common experience arises out of the aggregation of elemental substances and the skandas. Shankara claims that the Buddhist notion of creation doesn’t suffice to account for how the world of experience and of karma, etc. could arise without volitional agency behind it.