Divine revelation?

Can human beings receive knowledge from non-human sources?

One of the issues that occupied the attention of thinkers in India was the question of whether it is possible to find sources of knowledge that are not limited in the ways that all human knowledge is limited. It was universally accepted that anything that is produced by a human author is bound to be fallible, because human beings have limited knowledge and understanding, and human beings see everything from their own particular perspective. Things viewed from one perspective look different when viewed from other perspectives. Even the wisest human being has limited knowledge and understanding and is therefore liable to be unaware of facts that may turn out to be of key importance in a situation. While it was universally accepted that all human understanding is fallible and limited, some Indian schools of thought argued that not all sources of knowledge are necessarily fallible. There were essentially two strategies for arguing for infallible sources of knowledge put forward by non-Buddhists. As for the Buddhists, they tended to reject all claims for a non-human source of infallible knowledge, while still claiming that the teachings of the Buddha have a special status among all teachings composed by human beings. In this module we shall review these issues as discussed by two Buddhists who denied that any teachings come from infallible sources and yet claimed that the teachings of the Buddha are not subject to the same limitations as most teachings of human authorship.

Non-Buddhist positions

It is easier to understand Buddhist positions on philosophical issues by seeing them in the context of what their rivals were saying. In India there were several schools of philosophy against which the Buddhists argued. On the issue of whether knowledge could come to human beings from non-human sources, non-Buddhist schools provided two main options, both of which the Buddhists rejected.

The eternal scripture option

The strategy favored by the Mīmāṃsā school was to point out that anything that is composed by an author is liable to be erroneous or limited in perspective. The only way to insure that mistakes or perspectival limitations are absent in a body of literature is to have a body of literature that was never composed by any author. And the only way to be sure that a body of literature was not composed by a fallible author is to find a body of literature that was not composed at all by anyone. This, claimed the followers of the Mīmāṃsā school, is exactly what the Vedas are. They are an authorless repository of infallible wisdom that lay out the standards of acceptable and unacceptable human conduct, called dharma and adharma respectively .

The infallible author option

The strategy favored by followers of the Nyāya school was to posit a body of literature composed by an omniscient author incapable of making mistakes and not prone to viewing things from a limited perspective. So for the followers of the Nyāya school, the Vedas are not eternal works that were never composed by anyone, but rather are works composed by an omniscient and infallible deity who has no ulterior motives and nothing to gain by telling lies. Over the centuries followers of this school argued that the Vedas were revelations to humanity from an omniscient god, which of course required arguing that there is a god who is not only omniscient but benevolent and concerned with the well-being of human beings.

Buddhists as a whole were critical of the views outlined above.

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