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The Pramāṇavārttika (T. tshad ma rnam 'grel), or Commentary on Pramāṇa, is an influential text on Buddhist logic and epistemology by the Indian scholar Dharmakīrti. This treatise is generally considered to be Dharmakīrti's most important work.[1][2]

The Pramāṇavārttika was the first of a series of seven works by Dharmakīrti known as the seven treatises on pramāṇa (tshad ma sde bdun) in the Tibetan accounts.[2]

The Princeton Dictionary states:

The “Pramāṇa” in the title of text is a reference to Dignāga’s Pramāṇasamuccaya; Dharmakīrti’s work is ostensibly a commentary on Dignāga’s text, although in fact Dharmakīrti’s work makes significant refinements in, and occasional departures from, Dignāga’s views. The Pramāṇavārttika is written in verse, with a prose commentary by the author, in four chapters, dealing with inference for oneself (svārthānumāna), the proof of valid knowledge (pramāṇasiddhi), direct perception (pratyakṣa), and inference for others (parārthānumāna).[3]

Tom Tillemans states:

As all who have struggled with the Pramänavärttika know, its terse style and dense argumentation is virtually unapproachable without the aid of commentaries and the parallel passages found in the other works of Dharmakīrti.[4]


The Pramanavarttika is a commentary on an earlier work by the Buddhist logician Dignaga, the Pramāṇasamuccaya.[5]

The text is divided into four chapters which discuss the following topics:[3][6][7]

  1. inference for oneself (svārthānumāna),
  2. the proof of valid knowledge (pramāṇasiddhi),
  3. direct perception (pratyakṣa), and
  4. inference for others (parārthānumāna).

Some scholars present these chapters in a different order, presenting pramāṇasiddhi as the first chapter, followed by pratyakṣa, svārthānumāna and parārthānumāna.[8]

Chapter 1

The first chapter discusses "inference for oneself" (svārthānumāna).[3][6]

John Dunne provides a general overview of this topic:

Pramāṇa Theorists generally speak of two forms of inference: “inference-for-oneself (svārthānumāna) and “inference-for-others” (parārthānumāna). The former is simply an inferential cognition: one looks at a smokey room, for example, and (with other conditions in place), one infers that fire is present. In contrast, an inference-for-others is one that is stated verbally so as to induce an inferential cognition in another person. In other words, this latter “inference” (which is actually a series of statements and not an inference) is meant to result in another person having his own inference-for-oneself with regard to the question at hand. In this sense, inference-for-oneself lies at the core of these thinkers’ inferential theory. But ironically, the structural elements that are necessary for one to have an inference-for-oneself are primarily explored in discussions of inference-for-others.[9]

This chapter includes a discussion of apoha (exclusion) theory, which is a critical aspect of inference, according to Dharmakīrti. Dan Arnold explains the concept of apoha as follows:

This concept elaborates the idea that concepts are more precise or determinate (more contentful) just to the extent that they exclude more from their purview; the scope of cat is narrower than that of mammal just insofar as the former additionally excludes from its range all mammals in the world that are not cats.[10]

The latter half of this chapter includes a critique of Brahmanism. Tom Tillemans states:

In the latter half of the first chapter of Pramāṇavārttika, Dharmakīrti proceeds to a detailed attack on the authority of the Vedas, the Brahmins that expound them, the Brahmanical ideas about the efficacy of mantras, and the system of caste (see Eltschinger 2000). It is noteworthy that a frequent Sanskrit term for “universal”, “kind”, i.e., jāti, is also the term for “caste.” As Eltschinger (2000) shows, the discussions on the unreality of universals and the unreality of caste were related for Dharmakīrti and were explicitly taken to be related by commentators like Śākyabuddhi and Karṇakagomin. Castes were natural kinds explainable through universals for non-Buddhists, and they were not arbitrary or man-made customary distinctions. An obvious pay-off of Dharmakīrti’s nominalism, then, was that Buddhists could further distance themselves from Brahmanical principles of social organization and ethics by attacking the metaphysical foundations of caste.[11]

This chapter also discusses the role of scripture. Tillemans states:

On the role of scripture Dharmakīrti actually had a nuanced position. In Pramāṇavārttika I.213–217 et sq. and in IV.48–108 he maintains that scripture shouldn’t be used on factual or rationally decidable matters; perception and logical reasoning trump the scriptures of one’s own school; one is not to be faulted for rejecting one’s school’s scriptures when reason dictates it; on rationally undecidable matters, however, that is on so-called “radically inaccessible things” (atyantaparokṣa), like the specific details of the law of karman (exactly what actions in past lives lead to what results in the future?), scriptural accounts need to be relied upon because of the absence of any other means (agatyā) (I.216). Scripture, if it passes certain conditions, can be designated as being an inferential source of knowledge, but is always fallible and not to be considered a full-fledged source of knowledge, as “it has no claim to certainty” (nāto niścayaḥ), unlike bona fide inferences (Svavṛtti ad I.318).[11]

Chapter 2

The second chapter discusses pramāṇasiddhi (translated as "proof of valid knowledge,"[3] "the establishment of authority,"[6] etc.).

Roger R. Jackson states:

The Pramāṇasiddhi chapter...seeks to define authority and to demonstrate that the Buddha, both because he is genuinely accomplished and because he speaks the truth, is uniquely authoritative for those intent on spiritual freedom.[6]

Jackson also states that this chapter presents "in systematic fashion a logical proof of the reality of past and future lives, the truth of the four noble truths and the possibility of enlightenment."[12]

Eli Franco states:

The Pramāṇasiddhi chapter... is unique in Dharmakīrti's writings. Dharmakīrti... is the sort of author who writes on the same issue several times, elaborating and refining his thoughts in the process, sometimes modifying them radically. Of course, the major and general subjects of classical Indian epistemology, namely, perception and inference, are treated in one form or another in all of Dharmakirti's writings, but there are also some specific topics, such as the determination of vyāpti, that run like a leitmotif through his work. In stark contrast, religious issues are dealt with nowhere else but in the Pramāṇasiddhi chapter. This chapter, therefore, stands apart as representing the only period, early in his career, in which Dharmakīrti wrote on religious issues (albeit in a philosophical manner) such as karma and rebirth, modes of meditation, the four noble truths, the Buddha's compassion, the path to enlightenment, etc.[13]

Franco also states:

Pramāṇasiddhi 34-131ab ... can be considered structurally as a commentary on a single compound jagaddhitaiṣin ("seeking the benefit of all living beings"), in the maṅgalaśloka of Dignaga's Pramāṇasamuccaya, thematically as forming a paralokasiddhi treatise, and philosophically as dealing above all with the two fundamental problems of the immortality of the mind and of the mind-body relationship. Contrary to what one might expect, Dharmakīrti's purpose in these verses is not to prove that the Buddha seeks the benefit of all living beings, nor even that the Buddha was compassionate. That proof ... is accomplished by establishing direct and indirect relationships among certain properties of the Buddha. Dharmakīrti and his commentators suggest a relatively large number of schemes as to how one Buddha-property might be derived or deduced from another. I present six such schemes, and a seventh one in an addendum, without claiming to be exhaustive. Further, I try to show that behind these seemingly endless arrangements and rearrangements of Buddha-properties lies a genuine philosophical problem concerning the relationship between faith and reason in the Buddhist tradition. Since we have not attained enlightenment, we (presumably including Dharmakīrti) do not remember our past lives and do not understand how the law of karma operates in detail. Therefore, these intriguing parts of the Buddha's teaching, which are not accessible to us through perception or inference and which, according to Dharmakīrti, are not essential to the teaching, have to be accepted on faith. The truthfulness of these statements of the Buddha can only be inferred indirectly from the reliability of the person. Thus, by proving that the Buddha is a trustworthy authority in these matters, i.e., that he knows the truth and has no reason to lie to us, one can also establish the authority and trustworthiness of his teachings. But how do we know that the Buddha is a reliable person? Dharmakīrti's answer to this question hinges on his interpretation of the Buddha's properties mentioned by Dignaga and their relationship.[13]

Franco also states:

Dharmakīrti's purpose in vv. 34-131ab was not to prove that the Buddha was compassionate. Rather, he sets out to prove the preconditions that would make the Buddha's compassion possible. Broadly speaking there are two such preconditions: 1) the existence of an infinite number of past lives, and 2) the possibility of an infinite increase of mental properties like compassion.

Franco further states:

As is well-known, the Pramāṇasiddhi chapter of the Pramāṇavārttika is construed as a loose commentary on the five epithets of the Buddha mentioned by Dignaga in the maṅgalaśloka of his Pramāṇasamuccaya:[14]
  • pramanabhutatva (being a means of knowledge, or authority),
  • jagaddhitaiṣitā (seeking the benefit of all living creatures),
  • śāstṛtva (being a teacher),
  • sugatatva (being one who has "gone well") and
  • tāyitva (being a protector).

The Buddha's infinite compassion (karuṇā) is taken as a key factor in establishing the Buddha as a "means of knowledge." In verse 34a of the text, Dharmakīrti states:

Compassion is the proof [of the Buddha being a means of knowledge].[14]

Multiple scholars interpret this statement by asserting that in this context compassion should be understood "in a very broad manner as implying all the other properties."[14]

Dan Arnold states:

...the context for Dharmakīrti’s arguments for rebirth involves a case for characterizing the Buddha as pramāṇabhūta — a case for the view that the Buddha is somehow paradigmatically authoritative and that we are therefore entitled to the beliefs that go with commitment to the Buddhist path. The basis for Dharmakīrti’s case is the thought that the Buddha exemplified a fathomlessly profound degree of compassion; as Dharmakīrti says in verse 34 of the pramāṇasiddhi chapter (which verse begins his case for rebirth), “the proof (sādhanam) is compassion.”
In other words, the Buddha evinced such remarkable compassion that this can be taken as the basis for an inference to the Buddha’s uniquely comprehensive insight. That this thought should occasion the elaboration, in the remainder of the chapter, of a comprehensive defense of a Buddhist worldview nicely exemplifies, I think, what it is to do philosophy. What Dharmakīrti effectively does, in the remainder of the chapter, is systematically consider what else must be true for this thought to make sense — and to think philosophically about one’s commitments just is to reflect carefully on what else one is committed to in virtue of believing anything...
What else, then, must be the case for it to be true that the Buddha exemplified such an astonishing degree of compassion? For Dharmakīrti, the first point to be made here is that thought (buddhi) cannot depend upon the body. Thus, in the same verse in which he asserts that the Buddha’s compassion warrants an inference to the Buddha’s authority, Dharmakīrti avers that this compassion is based on disciplined “repetition” (abhyāsa) of spiritual practice — repetition, that is, over the course of innumerable lifetimes. This occasions the objection — generally attributed to a physicalist of the “Cārvāka” school, and anticipated in the same verse — that this supposition is unwarranted “because of thought’s dependence upon the body.” The objection is that the death of the body terminates (insofar as the body is a necessary and sufficient condition of) the mental events that alone can be thought to motivate the alleged “repetition.” Dharmakīrti completes this verse (and introduces the ensuing critique of physicalism) by saying that this objection to his demonstration of the Buddha’s authority can be put aside “based on a refutation of [thought’s] dependence [on the body].
While the ensuing refutation of physicalism is elaborated over the course of many tens of verses, most of what is significant about Dharmakīrti’s characteristic position is actually stated in the next verse-and-a-quarter. Here, Dharmakīrti says:
“It is not the case that inhalation, exhalation, sensation, and thought arise, independently of [causes] of the same kind, from the body alone, since there are absurd consequences given the assumption of such arising.”
A great deal of the argument that follows consists in elaborating the various unwanted consequences of taking sentient phenomena to arise only in dependence upon the body; most of what we need to know in this regard is expressed here in the reference to causes “of the same kind” (sajāti). His main point will be that sentient phenomena must have among their causes events that are themselves sentient; events, more generally, must have ontologically homogeneous causes. The straightforward claim is thus that the events constituting the physical body are ontologically distinct from those that cause mental events.[15]

Chapter 3

The third chapter discusses direct perception (pratyakṣa).

Dan Arnold provides a general overview of this topic:

Dharmakīrti influentially argued—with his predecessor Dignāga, and as would commonly be held by Buddhists writing subsequently—that only perception (pratyakṣa) and inference (anumāna) have the status of pramāṇa; all other ways of arriving at knowledge are reducible to one of these criteria. These two kinds of cognition have as their respective objects the only two kinds of things (on one way of dividing up the world) that exist: unique particulars (svalakṣaṇas) and such abstractions or universals (sāmānyalakṣaṇa) as concepts and complex wholes. Since the kinds of things that figure in conceptual content are not particulars, to say that perception apprehends only unique particulars is thus to be committed (as in fact Dignāga and Dharmakīrti commonly were) to the view that perception is constitutively nonconceptual; as these thinkers put the point, perception is kalpanāpoḍha, “devoid of conception.[15]

In this chapter Dharmakīrti also discusses yogic direct perception (yogipratyakṣa). Tom Tillemans states:

In the third chapter of Pramāṇavārttika and in the perception chapters of the Nyāyabindu and Pramāṇaviniścaya, for example, Dharmakīrti seeks to explain and rationalize the perception of a yogin (yogipratyakṣa). He advocates a quite remarkable method of meditation—more literally “cultivation” (bhāvanā; abhyāsa)—in which philosophical analysis plays an indispensable role (see e.g., Taber 2009; see Tillemans 2016, chapter 10, on Dharmakīrti-style meditation, its epistemological challenges and the contrast with Chan Buddhist approaches).[11]

Chapter 4

The fourth and final chapter deals with inference for others (parārthānumāna).

Tom Tillemans states:

A brief introduction to the central idea of the Pramāṇavārttika IV, inference-for-others (parārthānumāna), is in order. It should be stressed, first of all, that being composed of statements, the parārthānumāna is not, properly speaking, an "inference" (anumāna) in the Buddhist sense of the term; the latter must in fact be a cognition (jñāna) and thus must be a mental state and not a collection of statements. Following Dignāga, the inference-for-others is called an inference simply because it leads to a real inference: we apply the term for the effect to the cause. It is "for the other" in that it is destined for the opponent so that he will come to actually infer the truth of the proposition in question.
Now, a parārthānumāna, as found in Dharmakirti's later works and in post-Dharmakirtian logic, is an argument form consisting of two statements which show the means of proof (sādhana) for a proposition in question (sādhya). The first statement shows that the reason (hetu) entails the property to be proved (sādhyadharma), while the second shows that the "property-bearer"/"subject" (dharmin, pakṣa) of the argument, is indeed qualified by this reason. Thus, the classic illustration of this form is "Whatever is produced is impermanent, like a vase. Now, sound is produced." Hearing and understanding this verbal form serves to lead the opponent (prativādin) to the understanding that the reason, "being produced," possesses the three characteristics (rūpa) necessary to establish the proposition in question, viz., that sound is impermanent. Once the opponent has the understanding that the reason possesses the three characteristics, the actual inferential cognition will arise in the next moment.[2]


The Pramāṇavārttika was influential among Buddhist scholars such as Jnanagarbha, Shantarakshita and Kamalashila for whom it became a key work on epistemology. It was also influential among non-Buddhist thinkers such as Akalanka and Adi Shankara.[16][17]

In Tibetan Buddhism, it was influential among thinkers like Sakya Pandita and Tsongkhapa, and it is the major work on epistemology studied in Buddhist monasteries. According to Georges Dreyfus:

Since the time of Sa-pan, this work has been considered one of the most important texts in the Tibetan scholastic tradition. It not only covers important areas such as logic, philosophy of language, and epistemology; it also provides the philosophical methodology for scholastic studies generally, as well as a large part of the philosophical vocabulary and the tools (arguments and consequences) used in debate.[18]


Indian commentaries

Ringu Tulku states:

A great number of small commentaries on valid cognition were also written in India by Chandragomin, Sangharakshita, Jetari, Ratnakarashantipa, Prajnakaragupta, Jnanamitra, and others. Many of these texts were translated into Tibetan.[19]

Tibetan commentaries



Alternate translations for the title

  • Commentary on the Instruments of Knowledge (John D. Dunne, Foundations of Dharmakirti's Philosophy)
  • Commentary on Epistemology (Tom Tillemans, Dharmakīrti (Spring 2021))
  • Commentary on Valid Cognition (Princeton Dictionary)


  1. Jackson 1993, p. 109.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Tillemans 2000, p. xiii.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Pramāṇavārttika.
  4. Tillemans 2000, p. xx.
  5. Tillemans 2000, p. xvii.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Jackson 1993, p. 111.
  7. Arnold 2014, Chapter 1, fn 5.
  8. For details, see Arnold (2014), Chapter 1, fn 5
  9. Dunne 2004, Chapter 1.1.
  10. Arnold 2014, Introduction.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Sep-man-red.png Tillemans, Tom ( 2021), Dharmakīrti, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  12. Jackson 1993, p. 11.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Franco 1997, p. 1.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Franco 1997, p. 15.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Arnold 2014, Chapter 1.
  16. Shah 1967, Introduction.
  17. Isayeva 1992, p. 178.
  18. Dreyfus 2003, p. 234.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Ringu Tulku 2006, Chapter 3.
  20. 32px-Wikipedia-logo-v2.svg.png Pramanavarttika, Wikipedia


External links