On the creation of knowledge………….(Part 2)

profnalinjb6Professor Nalin de Silva of Sri Lanka is a quintessential polymath whose foray into subjects range from his profession in mathematics to philosophy, culture, arts, politics, history and sociology. He is widely known in Sri Lanka as a leading advocate of Sinhala nationalism and the Jathika Chinthanaya school. A PhD holder from the University of Sussex and probably the only Sri Lankan member of the International Astronomical Union, de Silva has shown an open disdain to publishing in recognized academic journals, although he has probably contributed the most number of articles to local newspapers and magazines than any other writer. It is also a fact that while the learned professor has his followers and detractors, there is no doubt that in terms of social impact and opinion-making in Sri Lanka, he occupies a unique position.

Professor de Silva’s foray into the subject of epistemology is based on Sinhala-Buddhism or as he calls it the Sinhala Bauddha (Buddhist) Chinthanaya. Chinthanaya, a word for which there is no English equivalent is a unique concept created by Professor de Silva to explain the context within which people create knowledge. It is larger than the concepts of culture and paradigm. A chinthanaya may have different cultures within it as well as different paradigms. These chinthanayas are influenced by religion and the culture/s they create. For example, there is the Greek-Judaic-Christian chinthanya that formed in Europe with the protestant reformation in the 15th century. This Greek-Judaic-Christian chinthanaya, formed in opposition to the Catholic chinthanaya that existed before, gave rise to western science, colonialism and the current western hegemony of world affairs. Western colonialism consisting of 3 components -political, economic and cultural, it is reasoned that while the political and economic phase of western colonialism has receded somewhat during the last half a century, the cultural component continues to dominate. This aspect is most acute in knowledge creation where knowledge created in the Greek-Judaic-Christian chinthanaya is validated into the mainstream and other knowledge (created in other chinthanayas) is relegated into the background with terms such as ‘traditional’ and ‘alternate’ knowledge. For example, western medicine based on ‘scientific’ knowledge is given pride of place as opposed to ayurvedic or chinese medicine. Concepts and models created in the west such as free markets, private property, development, liberalism, marxism etc. are imposed on other countries while other ways of thinking and life-styles are termed as being ‘backward.’ Therefore, Professor de Silva sees the creation of knowledge based on alternative chinthayas as the main task of the current phase of anti-colonial struggle.

The theory of constructive relativism is a theory of knowledge created by Professor de Silva based on the Sinhala-Buddhist chinthanaya evolved over the last 2500 years by the Sinhala people creating a civilization unique to Sri Lanka. The main component of this civilization being Theravada Buddhism, it is no surprise that the basis of constructive relativism is the theory of dependent origination (Paticcha Samuppada) of the Lord Buddha. Let us briefly look at the Buddhist concept of man and the theory of dependent origination as enunciated in Theravada Buddhism.

The structural component of man constituting his psycho-physical personality is divided into the following:

  • aggregate of matter (rūpa)
  • aggregate of feeling (vedanā)
  • aggregate of perception (saññā)
  • aggregate of determination (sankhāra)
  • aggregate of consciousness (viññāna)

These five components taken together are called the panca upādānakkhanda or the five ‘holding aggregates.’

Aggregate of matter (Rūpa)

According to the Buddha, man is not a simple conglomeration of material elements but a conglomeration of material elements that have the power of grasping. This conglomeration can be read in two senses:

  • a composition of the 4 physical elements- apō(fluidity), thejo(heat), vayo(motion) and patavi(solidity);
  • a composition of the body and sense organs which give rise to the holding aggregate of matter (upādana-rūpa)

 Aggregate of feelings or sensations (Vedanā)

Vedanā is of two types, physical and mental. Both physical and mental feelings are pleasant(sukha), unpleasant(dukkha) or neutral (adukkhamasukha).  These feelings or sensations are experienced through the contact of the 6 sense organs with the outside world. e.g. contact of the eye with visible forms, contact of the ear with sounds, nose with odour, tongue with taste, body with tangible objects and mind with thoughts/ideas.

When a pleasant feeling arises, man tends to cling or grasp (upādāna) on to it resulting in a sensuous greed (rāgānusāya). When unpleasant feelings occur there is a revulsion (patigānusāya). It is to be noted here that these ethical and psychological roots within man serve to determine his behaviour.

Aggregate of perception (Saññā)

Perception arises as a result of the 6 senses- eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. So man’s perceptions are of six kinds in relation to his six internal faculties and six external stimuli (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and ideas). While different scholars have debated whether ‘Perception’ is the correct translation of the Pali word ‘Sanna’, that debate is not ventured into here. However, it is important to note that, according to Mallikarachchi (2003), ‘Sanna’ refers to an awareness of an external stimulus, the very act of ‘percept’ itself.

Aggregate of determination (Sankhāra)

In translations of Buddhist texts, the word Sankhāra has been defined by a number of English terms- karmic formations, volition, disposition, determination. While leaving out the argument  as to which term is more applicable, it is important to note here that Sankhāra essentially refers to intentional or volitional activities of the mind that give rise to karma and thereby causes rebirth. Examples of such intentional/volitional activities that give rise to karma are determination, confidence, love, hate, greed etc. The Buddhist texts list 52 such volitional activities (Rahula, 1996). The most fundamental volitional activity is Sākkayaditthi or the idea of self. It arises due to another volitional act ignorance (avijjā) and can be destroyed by another volitional act wisdom (panna).

Consciousness (Viññāna)

Man’s consciousness cannot exist independently of the other four aggregates.

“ Consciousness may exist having matter as its means (rūpapāyam), matter as its object (rūparāmmanam), matter as its support (rūpapatittham), and seeking delight, it may grow, increase and develop, or consciousness may exist having sensations as its means….or perceptions as its means…or dispositions as its means, dispositions as its object; dispositions as its support, and seeking delight , it may grow, increase and develop.” (Desmond Mallikarachchi, Buddha and Marx on Man and Humanity, 2003)

A distinction to note here is that Consciousness does not include recognition but a general awareness of the external object/stimulus. For example if the object is blue in colour, there is recognition of the presence of an object due to consciousness but the act of recognition of the blue colour object takes place due to Saññā or Perception as mentioned above. But like Feelings, Perception and Determination, Consciousness is also of six kinds in relation to the six internal faculties and corresponding six external objects.

In the Buddhist world-view, the world is constituted of both natural objects and their forms (rūpa) as well as individuals and their mental processes (nāma). Man himself is a conglomeration of these two aggregates, i.e Nāma-Rūpa, Vedanā, Saññā, Sankhāra, Viññāna are the mental components of this complex. Together with rūpa are formed the five component elements of Man (pancakkhānda). The attainment of supreme liberation or enlightenment in Buddhism, identified as Nirvāna, is possible only by annihilation of these mental components, practicable only through a proper understanding (sammā ditthi) of the things and processes in the physical and mental world as a causally connected whole possessing 3 distinct characteristics:

  • Impermanence (aniccā)
  • Suffering (dukkha)
  • Soullessness (anattā)

 Impermanence (Aniccā)

A characteristic inherent in all things, both living and non-living is Impermanence. Change is an inherent feature of all things. According to the Samyutta Nikaya, whatever is born is impermanent, because they are characterized by birth (uppada), transformation (Thistassa annathatta) and destruction (vāyo). The pace or rate at which change occurs may change but from the minute particles to universes change is an inherent phenomenon. Thus all things are impermanent. This principle operates not only in the physical world but also in the mental. In the Samyutta Nikaya, it is expounded that the five aggregates themselves are impermanent. Accordingly, both the physical objects (rūpa) and the four aggregates of mind (nāma) are subject to change and are impermanent. In the Buddhist world-view, the whole world is views as a transient phenomenon and hence is dynamic. This is distinct from other absolutist concepts such as in the Upanishads. Thus the Buddha attempts to understand Man by placing him in an ever-changing context. Man who does not understand this change anticipates permanency and therefore is subject to pain and suffering.

Suffering (Dukkha)

Suffering is a natural corollary to the doctrine of Impermanence. It is the second fundamental characteristic of existence. Dukkha is also the first of the four Noble Truths.


Quite distinct from other pre-Buddhist and post-Buddhist worldviews, Soullessness is the third fundamental characteristic of the Buddhist world-view. This is a logical conclusion arising from the other two fundamental characteristics- Impermanence and Suffering. According to the Buddha, Man is subject to suffering due to his non-realization of the impermanence of all things. If all things are impermanent, it would be a contradiction to talk of a permanent soul.

This brings us to the Theory of Dependent Origination or Paticcha Samuppada. Theory of dependent origination is succinctly given as follows:

“Due to Ignorance (avijja) arises Volition (Sankhāra); through Volition arise Consciousness (Viññāna); through Consciousness arise matter (nāmarūpam); through matter is conditioned the six sense organs (salāyatana); through the six sense organs is conditioned contact (phasso); through contact arises sensations (vedanā); due to sensations arise desire (tanhā); through desire is conditioned clinging or grasping (upādāna); due to clinging/grasping is conditioned birth (jati); birth gives rise to suffering such as decay, death, lamentation etc.”paticca samuppada

Here, Lord Buddha enunciates that all Sankhara arises due to ignorance of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta. While it is conventionalized as impermanence, suffering and soullesness respectively, it must be remembered that these are conventional words of everyday usage that are being used to describe states for which there are no words. For if these were concepts intelligible to a human being following the lay life, it should be easy to realize Nirvana, the summum bonum of Buddhism.

If ignorance is our root, what justification can there be for knowledge based on this thinking?

(to be continued…….)


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