Tradition of debate (kathā) and its art & science (vāda-vidhi) in Indian philosophy
Tradition of debate (kathā) and its art & science (vāda-vidhi) in Indian philosophy

The study of vāda-vidhi will be most useful in trans-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research work because today research in any one discipline is hardly sufficient. Be it the field of medicine, philosophy or any discipline of interest, we are rightly encouraged to look at it from multiple angles as one discipline has effects on others.

India has a unique tradition of what is known as kathā in general or vāda in particular that denotes the art and science of debate. When one studies the history of Indian philosophies over the last 3 millenniums it will not escape one’s attention that innumerable polemical works have been authored over the ages with regard to all branches of knowledge, particularly the various branches of Indian philosophy. One can see that the maximum depths of polemics were reached during several different ages during the first millennium and which continued until the late mid-portion of the second millennium CE. For example, we see that the polemics of the highest order were achieved during era of the exulted Buddhist scholars of Dharmakīrti, Dharmapāla, Diṅnāga and so on with their counterparts of the orthodox systems of philosophy of their ages like Sage Udyotakara and others. Similarly, we also notice that maximum heights were touched during the times of revolutionary intellectual stalwarts of the eighth-ninth centuries of the common era like Kumārila Bhaṭṭa, Maṇḍana Miśra, Vācaspati Miśra, and others. Later, during the 13-15th centurion era there was a great renaissance of the rhetorical type of debate among scholars belonging to the same school of thought of Navya Nyāya scholars like Gadādhara Bhaṭṭācārya, Jagadīśa Tarkālaṅkāra, Pakṣadhara Miśra, Ruci Datta, Raghunātha Śiromaṇi, etc., which started with the highly celebrated Gaṅgeśa Upādhyāya who is acclaimed to have started the Navya Nyāya tradition. It is quite well accepted that by this time, the Buddhist challenges to the traditional orthodox systems of philosophy had fairly elided and therefore the debates generally used to occur among the philosophers belonging to the orthodox systems only. The Navya Nyāya inclined debates that became a fashion or trend where emphasis was laid on the propounding of the exact definitions along with the distinctive type of Navya Nyāya-specific jargon continued unabated from the time of Gaṅgeśa Upādhyāya and peaked during the time of Gadādhara Bhaṭṭācārya and Jagadīśa Tarkālaṅkāra, with Jagadīśa being the senior contemporary of Gadādhara Bhaṭṭācārya, the uncrowned king of the era for his wonderful polemical artistry that is still being studied today with great appreciation, admiration and acclaim. The trend started by these Navya Nyāya logicians was so influential that philosophers belonging to other systems of philosophy like Pūrva Mīmāṁsā (scholars like Khaṇḍadeva), Vedānta (scholars like Madhusūdana Sarasvatī) and Vyākaraṇa (Nāgeśa Bhaṭṭa) too started to employ the same type of terminology in their works also and authored several works like Bhāṭṭa Rahasya, Bhāṭṭa Kaustubha, Advaita Siddhi and its commentary Brahmānandīya, Laghumañjūṣā, Paramalaghumañjūṣā, and so on. So much so that even the premier authors belonging to Alaṅkāra Śāstra (generally translated as the ‘science of figure of speech’ or the ‘science of aesthetics’) was also bitten by this bug that one of the greatest Ālaṅkārikas like Jagannātha Paṇḍitarāja also wrote his Rasa-Gaṅgādhara predominantly using the Navya Nyāya terminology.

The origins of the tradition of Vāda or Kathā can be traced to the Nyāya Sūtras of Sage Gautama, where all the issues concerning this topic have been dealt with in great detail. The principal aims and objectives of engaging in debate, the different types of debate, the rules and regulations governing them, the methodology in which the topics are to be presented, defensive and offensive aspects, ways and means of achieving victory in debates conducted with such an objective are some of the principal topics that are explained in a highly versatile and descriptive manner in the Nyāya Sūtras. The issues mentioned in the Nyāya Sūtras were further explained and commented upon in the Nyāya Bhāṣya by the Sage Vātsyāyana in a wonderful manner that catches the imagination of the versatile scholars as well as a well-informed layman. The Nyāya Bhāṣya was further elaborated in a near-exhaustive manner by the Sage Udyotakara who authored the Nyāya Vārtika, wherein he refutes several of his preceding and contemporary Buddhist theories. Later the work of Sage Udyotakara was commented upon by the one of the greatest philosophers of all time Vācaspati Miśra who authored the Nyāya Vārtika Tātparya Ṭīkā, which was further commented upon by one of the premier-most Nyaya exponents, the highly venerated Udayanācārya, who authored the Nyāya Vārtika Tātparya Ṭīkā Pariśuddhi. These five works, together known as the Nyāya Pañca Granthī, belonging to the Nyāya school of philosophy together are a highly acclaimed model that sets forth an encyclopedia body of knowledge that serves as the base for the entire science of art and science of polemics, called of vāda-vidhi in traditional Indian intellectual landscape.

An overview of the rich and vast tradition of kathā in Indian philosophy is given here. Kathā is typically translated as debate, although there are places where it is translated as dialogue or disputation. Kathā involves two debating parties – the vādī (the proponent, the discutient) and the prativādī (the opponent), and is moderated by the madhyastha (the impartial judge). The Nyāya school formally categorizes kathā into three types – vāda, jalpa, and vitaṇḍā – explained in Ref. 1 as

A dialogue or disputation (kathā) is the adoption of a side by a disputant and its opposite by his opponent. It is of three kinds, viz., discussion (vāda) which aims at ascertaining the truth, wrangling (jalpa) which aims at gaining victory, and cavil (vitaṇḍā) which aims finding mere faults. A discutient is one who engages himself in a disputation as a means of seeking the truth.


Maharṣi Gautama, the first and ancient codifier of the tenets of the Nyāya school, defines vāda as [Ref. 2]

प्रमाण-तर्क-साधन-उपालम्भः सिद्धान्त-अविरुद्धः पञ्च-अवयव-उपपन्नः पक्ष-प्रतिपक्ष-परिग्रहो वादः || 1.2.1 ||

meaning, vāda is the type of debate that has these five features:

  1. Is based on pramāṇas (sources of knowledge) and tarka (logic)
  2. Is not in contradiction with siddhānta (an accepted norm)
  3. Is in conformance with the five-membered syllogism
  4. Is open to either party prevailing
  5. Is not concerned with victory or defeat

Thus, vāda is interpreted in Ref. 1 to mean discussion, which is explained as below with an example:

Discussion is the adoption of one of two opposing sides. What is adopted is anlaysed in the form of five members, and defended by the aid of any of the means of right knowledge, while its opposite is assailed by confutation, without deviation from the established tenets.

An instance of discussion is given below: –

Discutient – There is soul.
Opponent – There is no soul.
Discutient – Soul is existent (proposition).
Because it is an abode of consciousness (reason).
Whatever is not existent is not a abode of consciousness, as a hare’s horn
(negative example).
Soul is not so, that is, soul is an abode of consciousness
(negative application).
Therefore soul is existent (conclusion).

Opponent – Soul is non-existent (proposition).
Because, etc.
Discutient – The scripture which is a verbal testimony declares the existence of soul.
Opponent – … … … …
Discutient – If there were no soul, it would not be possible to apprehend one and the same
object through sight and touch.
Opponent – … … … …
Discutient – The doctrine of soul harmonizes well with the various tenets which we hold, viz.,
that there are eternal things, that everybody enjoys pleasure or suffers pain
according to his own actions, etc. Therefore, there is soul.


Maharṣi Gautama defines jalpa as [Ref. 2]

यथोक्त-उपपन्नः छल-जाति-निग्रह-स्थान-साधन-उपालम्भो जल्पः || 1.2.2 ||

meaning, jalpa is the type of debate that has the same first-three features as vāda (listed below in italics), but has two other distinctive features (listed below in bold):

  1. Is based on pramāṇas (sources of knowledge) and tarka (logic)
  2. Is not in contradiction with siddhānta (an accepted norm)
  3. Is in conformance with the five-membered syllogism
  4. Is aimed at achieving victory over the opponent
  5. Relies on demonstrating the various aspects associated with defeat – chala, jāti and nigrasthāna – in the opponent’s case

Jalpa is translated as wrangling in Ref. 1 and explained as

Wrangling, which aims at gaining victory, is the defence or attack of a proposition in the manner aforesaid by quibbles, futilities, and other processes which deserve rebuke.

A wrangler is one who, engaged in a disputation, aims only at victory, being indifferent whether the arguments which he employs support his own contention or that of his opponent, provided that he can make out a pretext for bragging that he as taken an active part in the disputation


In Maharṣi Gautama’s words [Ref. 2], vitaṇḍā is defined as

स्व-प्रति-पक्ष-स्थापना-हीनो वितण्डा || 1.2.3 ||

meaning, vitaṇḍā is the type of debate that aims to defeat both one’s own case and the opponent’s case. The features of vitaṇḍā are that it:

  1. Is based on pramāṇas (sources of knowledge) and tarka (logic)
  2. Need not be aligned with siddhānta (an accepted norm)
  3. Need not be in conformance with the five-membered syllogism
  4. Achieve defeat of the opponent at any cost

Note the distinction with vāda and jalpa in the last three features shown in bold.

Reference 1 translates vitaṇḍā as cavil and explains it as

Cavil is a kind of wrangling which consists in mere attacks on the opposite side.

A caviller does not endeavour to establish anything, but confines himself to mere carping at the arguments of his opponent.

Vitanda also has also have chala, jāti & nigrasthāna.

Different aspects associated with the Jalpa and Vitanda

As mentioned above, there are three Different aspects associated with the Jalpa and Vitanda as listed below along with the translations offered in Ref. 1:

  • Chala – quibble
  • jāti – futility
  • nigrahasthāna – other processes which deserve rebuke


Chala is the art of informally examining the opponent’s arguments by engaging in quibbles. Maharṣi Gautama defines chala and identifies three types of it as [Ref. 2]

वचन-विघातः अर्थ-विकल्प-उपपत्त्या छलम् || 1.2.10 ||
तत् त्रिविधं वाक्छलं सामान्यच्छलं उपचारच्छलं च इति || 1.2.11 ||

This is translated in Ref. 1 as

Quibble is the opposition offered to a proposition by the assumption of an alternative meaning.
It is of three kinds, viz., quibble in respect of a term, quibble in respect of a genus, and quibble in respect of a metaphor.


Jāti involves futility brought about by raising objections based on the similarities and dissimilarities of the analogies provided during the debate. Maharṣi Gautama’s definition of jāti is

साधर्म्य-वैधर्म्याभ्यां प्रत्यवस्थानं जातिः || 1.2.18 ||

the translation and explanation of which are offered in Ref. 1 as

Futility consists in offering objections founded on mere similarity or dissimilarity.

A disputant says: “the soul is inactive because it is all-pervading as ether.”
His opponent replies: “if the soul is inactive because it bears similarity to ether as being all-pervading, why is it not active because it bears similarity to a pot as being a seat of union?”
The reply is futile, because it overlooks the universal connection between the middle term and the major term which is existent in the arguments of the disputant, but wanting in the arguments of the opponent. Whatever is all-pervading is inactive, but whatever is a seat of union is not necessarily active.

Or again:

Disputant – Sound is non-eternal because unlike ether it is a product.
Opponent – If sound is non-eternal because as a product it is dissimilar to ether, why is it not eternal because as an object of auditory perception it is dissimilar to a pot?
The reply is futile because it overlooks the universal disconnection between the middle term and the absence of the major term. There is a universal disconnection between “a product” and “not non-eternal,” but there is no such disconnection between “an object of auditory perception” and “not eternal.”


Nigrahasthāna is an occasion for rebuke, based on which victory or defeat is decided. Maharṣi Gautama defines it as

विप्रतिपत्तिः अप्रतिपत्तिः च निग्रहस्थानम् || 1.2.19 ||

This again is translated and explained in Ref. 1 as

An occasion for rebuke arises when one misunderstands or does not understand at all.

If a person begins to argue in a way which betrays his utter ignorance, or willfully misunderstands and yet persists in showing that he understands well, it is of no avail to employ counter arguments. He is quite unfit to be argued with, and there is nothing left for his opponent but to turn him out or quit his company, rebuking him as a blockhead or a knave.

An instance of occasion of rebuke: –
Whatever is not quality is substance.
Because there is nothing except colour, etc. (quality).
A person who argues in the above way is to be rebuked as a fool, for his reason (which admits only quality) opposes his proposition (which admits both quality and substance).

The aspects mentioned above give us a glimpse of the aspects involved in the process of kathā in the Indian tradition. This has been further greatly elaborated in the Nyāya Sūtras and succeeding works listed above. It makes for an enchanting study of the nuances of the issues mentioned therein which are deep, vast and varied. It is also worth noting that this tradition was adhered to by all the philosophers belonging to all the systems – orthodox and heterodox – including the Buddhists and Jains. Several anecdotal instances where the intellectual exercises that used to catch the imagination of the discerning students and budding scholars used to be mentioned by the teachers of the Śāstras when they used to teach them in the traditional manner, which would also inspire and enable the students to make similar attempts after they reached a particular stage of knowledgeability and enrich their intellectual capabilities. This would in due course enhance their knowledge and enable them to become scholars of a very high order. That is why it has been famously mentioned: वादे वादे जायते तत्त्वबोधः, meaning that new understanding is born in every vāda.

Contemporary relevance of the vāda-vidhi of yore

One may wonder if the rules, methodology and other aspects of the traditional vāda-vidhi is of any relevance in today’s world that has advanced in various dimensions. Even when one thinks about this in a dispassionate manner, one cannot but appreciate that the methodology employed in those days have very much influenced today’s nature of debates in various fields. Though the level of today’s debates in places such as courts of law, visual and print media as well as other forums have greatly deteriorated in their stature and standards, wherever such debates occur between or in the presence of true intellectuals, we see that they are well influenced by the principles mentioned in the Nyāya Sūtras. To be very specific, we can see that Indian jurisprudence was vastly influenced by the polemical rules of the Nyāya Sūtras and its subsequent treatises.

The benefits of following these rules may be visualized by a deep consideration of how an honest debate of a complex topic must be conducted. Any concept can be explained with clarity only when two intelligent minds well versed in that specific as well as related fields can discuss in a cordial atmosphere and arrive at a conclusion. Only when the various dimensions of the complex topic cognized only by multiple experts with varied backgrounds put their heads together with an open mind, and yet follow a single proven-to-be-efficient approach to present, prove or disprove their arguments, will we arrive at a meaningful conclusion. This approach, proven to be perfect and adapted over millenia is the vāda-vidhi in general and, specifically, the vāda-kathā. As far as jalpa and vitaṇḍā are concerned, they were tools of protection of one’s argument to be used under adverse circumstances against dishonest adversaries or inappropriate attacks, as per the saying ‘bīja prarohaṇārthaṁ kaṇṭhaka-śākhā-āvaraṇavat (fencing a newly sown seed with thorny bushes and branches around).’ This are necessary tools to fend off dominant aprāmāṇikas, who argue without data, or worse, against it. This is much relevant today as there are several forces that are coming together to question in an inappropriate or dishonest manner the honest and time-tested ideas.

The study of the vāda-vidhi and inculcating the theories mentioned therein will be of great help to sharpen the intellect of a person, which will help in his/her studying, understanding and debating any topic under the sun. Just as physical fitness is important to play sports, intellectual fitness is important for any person who wants to carry an idea through to acceptance. The study of vāda-vidhi will be most useful for this.

The study of vāda-vidhi will also be most useful in trans-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research work because today research in any one discipline is hardly sufficient. Be it the field of medicine, philosophy or any discipline of interest, we are rightly encouraged to look at it from multiple angles as one discipline has effects on others. For example, integrative medicine involves the application of knowledge of various systems of medicines like āyurveda, allopathy, homeopathy, etc., where researchers are encouraged to look for integrated therapy taking the best of all the various systems of medicine. Similarly, in the field of modern scientific aspects like artificial intelligence that includes theories of perception, machine learning, discourse analysis, etc., researchers are more and more open and encouraged to take into account the theories of different systems of thought like Greek, Indian, and so one, which makes it trans- and multi-disciplinary. Today, even though the different systems of eastern and western thoughts seem to be at loggerheads, there are several earnest attempts being made towards synthesis (samanvaya). That is possible only when the pros and cons of each system is studied with an open mind that is well trained or sharpened by logic and would pass the experiential knowledge of elderly expert-scholars. The vāda-vidhi will be most useful here. Francis Bacon says: reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man. Conference is nothing but vāda-vidhi. This also has social implications by creating harmony and open mindedness among scholars and persons from various backgrounds, between elderly and young scholars and to all.

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