By Swami Harshananda
Nyāyas literally means ‘maxims’.
Experience is a great teacher in life. If it results in an instinctive reaction or behavior in animals, in the human beings it can inspire a whole philosophy of life. Such philosophies of life are often expressed by him in short pithy sayings that go by such terms as an adage, a maxim, a proverb, an epigram or a saying. Nyāyas are such maxims which are widely used in Sanskrit literature, both secular and religio-philosophical.
Classification of Nyāyas
Various scholars have battled for years to collect such nyāyas and expound them with quotations from famous works. A few such nyāyas are arranged in the English alphabetical order, as specimens of such maxim-literature:
It literally means ‘the maxim of the blind men and the elephant’. Six blind men went to ‘see’ an elephant. They touched its different limbs and came to different conclusions about its shape such as a pillar, a winnowing basket, a rope and so on. This nyāya is used to illustrate the divergent views of philosophers regarding God, due to a partial understanding.
It literally means ‘the maxim of the seed and the shoot’. A bīja gives rise to an aṅkura which in time, grows into a plant or a tree and produces bījas. This series of seeds and shoots goes on endlessly. Similarly if in any solution offered, the result begs the question itself, then by this nyāya it is no solution or proof and hence has to be ignored.
It literally means ‘the maxim of men with umbrellas’. When a group of men is going and only a few of them are holding umbrellas, from a distance it appears as though all of them are carrying umbrellas. This maxim is applied to such situations where the particular is applied to the general though it is not true.
It literally means ‘the maxim of the lamp on the threshold’. A lamp kept on the threshold of a house gives light not only inside but also outside. Similarly a particular word is used in certain sentences in such a way that its meaning can be connected both to the preceding and to the succeeding words.
It literally means ‘the maxim of smearing the tongue with treacle’. It means smearing the tongue with a sweet substance like jaggery before administering a bitter medicine. The idea is similar to that of the ‘sugar-coated pill’. It is applied to such cases where an apparently unpleasant lesson has to be taught, but is done cleverly through pleasant stories or some such method.
It literally means 'the maxim of the lake and the crocodile’. The lake gives the crocodile shelter and protects it. The presence of the crocodile protects the lake also since other animals or human beings will be afraid to use its water. This maxim reflects the idea of mutual dependence resulting in mutual protection.
It literally means ‘the maxim of the speed of the arrow’. When an arrow is discharged from the bow, its speed gradually gets reduced and hence it comes to a stop after some time. Similarly the experiences brought about by prārabdha karma, whether good or bad, will not last eternally, but gradually come to a stop. Hence, one should not brood over them.
It literally means ‘the maxim of the powder of the kataka-nut added to water’. In the olden days, people used to smear the powder of the kataka-nuts inside water jars, to precipitate the particles of mud. The powder also, along with the particles of mud, would settle down at the bottom, leaving the water above, crystal clear. This simile is generally used in the works on Advaita Vedānta to indicate that jñāna, after removing ajñāna, will itself disappear, leaving the ātman to shine in all its glory. Accepting the disappearance of jñāna also, along with ajñāna, was a logical necessity for Advaita Vedānta, since the simultaneous existence of jñāna and the ātman would cut at the very root of its basic premise.
It literally means ‘the maxim of a clod of earth and stone’. This nyāya has been used in two senses. Compared to a cotton ball, a clod of earth may be hard. But, it is quite soft when compared to a piece of stone. Similarly, in this world, all qualities are relative in character. According to the second interpretation, if a clod of earth ‘attacks’ a piece of stone, thinking that it is hard enough to break the stone, it itself gets destroyed in the process. The lesson is that one should never try to attack anyone who is much stronger than oneself.
It literally means ‘the maxim of, or the simile drawn from, ñsh’. In a pond or a tank, the big and powerful fish eat up the smaller, weaker, ones. This simile, drawn from this fact, indicates the oppression of the weak by the strong, thereby lamenting the fact that might is right.
It literally means ‘the maxim of the river and the ocean’. When a river flows into an ocean, it loses its separate identity. Similarly when the jīva realizes Brahman or God, becomes one with Him after the death of the body that is the standpoint of Advaita Vedānta.
It literally means ‘the maxim of the lame and the blind’. Once, a lame man and a blind man lost their way in a forest. When they accidentally met, they struck a deal. The blind man would carry the lame man and the latter, who could see well, would guide the blind one on the right road. Ultimately, both of them succeeded in coming out and reached their homes safely. This story indicates the possibility of a successful venture if people cooperate with one another properly. This analogy is used by the Sāṅkhyan metaphysics to explain how the insentient pradhāna and the sentient puruṣa cooperate to evolve this world.
It literally means ‘the maxim of the rope appearing as a serpent’. In semi-darkness, a piece of rope lying on the road may appear as a snake, producing fear in the mind of the person who sees it. This illusion disappears when it is actually seen in bright light. This illustration is widely used by the writers of Advaita Vedānta to explain how Brahman, the one without a second, appears as this world of multiple objects with different names and shapes. Avidyā or ajñāna is responsible for this illusion.
It literally means ‘the maxim of the driving in of a post’. In order to drive a post into the ground firmly, it is repeatedly hammered and shaken. Similarly, to drive home a point, arguments of various types and standpoints have to be brought forward.
It literally means ‘the maxim of the caterpillar’. A caterpillar, perching at the edge of a grass blade, will first catch by its mouth, the edge of another grass-leaf next to it, before leaving the first. Similarly, the jīva leaving the body at the time of death, catches hold of another body created by his prārabdha-karma, before leaving the previous one. In the world, one is advised, to secure the next foothold before abandoning the one already in hand by this nyāya.
It literally means ‘the maxim of rain on desert land’. No amount of rain on a desert land can make it fertile enough to grow crops. Similarly, any effort at achieving something in life, will become fruitless, if the rules of the game are not strictly and sincerely followed.
It literally means ‘the maxim of the bird’. Though an ant and also a monkey are capable of climbing up a tree to taste its juicy fruits, it is the bird that can do it more easily and much faster. Similarly, more capable and efficient persons can achieve the fruits of their labor in any enterprise very speedily.
Yah kārayati sa karotyeva iti Nyāya
It literally means ‘the maxim that he who causes a thing to be one is also verily the doer’. According to this maxim, if A gets something done through B, whether it is good or bad, he is also responsible for the results whether it is merit or demerit of that act. Hence, the scriptures advise all not only not to commit evil deeds but also to desist from getting them done through others, nor even approve of it if done by others. The number of such nyāyas is very large and have proved to be extremely popular. They have been aptly used not only in secular literature but also in religious and philosophical works.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore