For the study of Nyaaya, understanding a few basic concepts is essential. In this article, we will discuss one of them. The first is the concept of Lakshanam,(लक्षणम्) i.e. the concept of Definition. The word Lakshanam in Sanskrit stands for a definition. Every concept in Nyaaya has been defined in the best possible way. Since the number of concepts to be defined is very large, it would be prudent to reach a consensus on what the essential elements of a definition are. In simpler words, we need to define a definition. Before proceeding to this task, we shall ask ourselves, “What exactly is the purpose of a definition?” The answer in form of a Sanskrit verse is – “Vyavruttir vyawahaarashcha lakshanasya prayojanam” (व्यावृत्तिर्व्यवहारश्च लक्शणस्य प्रयोजनम्). It means that there are two purposes –

i. Vyavruttih (व्यावृत्तिः)-Being able to distinguish the object to be defined from others, and

ii. Vyawahaarah (व्यवहारः)– Being able to use and understand what the word representing the object to be defined stands for. This concept can only be understood with an example, which will be discussed soon.

In Nyaaya Shaastra, a distinguishing quality of the object to be defined is taken as the definition. There are three requirements that this quality (which is taken as the definition) must fulfill. The first requirement is that it should not be over-reaching. For example, let us say I have to define a cow (traditional example). All cows have horns. But we cannot say that having horns is the distinguishing feature of a cow because this quality exists in buffaloes and other animals also. The quality taken as the definition should not exist in any entity other than the one which has to be defined, i.e. it should not be over-reaching. If it is over- reaching, it is said to be suffering from a flaw called ‘Ativyaaptih’(अतिव्याप्तिः).

The second requirement is that it should not be under-reaching. If I say that being black and white in colour is the defining feature of a cow, I will be wrong because there are cows of other colours also. This particular quality does not exist in all the cows, i.e. it does not exist in all the entities which have to be defined. If the quality taken as the definition is under- reaching it is said to be suffering from a flaw called ‘Avyaaptih(अव्याप्तिः)’. If these two requirements are fulfilled the third will automatically be fulfilled. Yet it is mentioned in this article simply because Nyaaya Shaastra also does mention it. The third requirement is that the quality taken as the definition should not make the definition self- inconsistent. For example, if I say a lion’s mane is a cow’s definition, my words are self- inconsistent. In this case the defining quality is said to be suffering from a flaw called ‘Asambhavah’(असम्भवः). There are certain technical reasons for the introduction of this concept, which will become clear only at an advance stage of Nyaaya Shaastra.

To sum up, the definition of a definition as per Nyaaya Shaastra is – A quality of the object or entity to be defined which exists in all samples of the entity and does not exist in any other entity is its definition. Coming back to the example, traditionally it is said that having a meaty dewlap is a cow’s definition. Dewlap is the fold of loose skin hanging below a cow’s neck. The Sanskrit word for this is ‘Saasna’(सास्ना). सास्नादिमत्त्वं गोः लक्षणम् – This means having a saasna is a cow’s lakshanam or definition. This quality exists in all cows but does not exist in any other animal. Some other reptiles also have dewlaps but they are quite distinct from the ones had by cows or bulls. For the purposes of this definition the word cow includes bulls also.

Now coming back to the purposes of a definition, we must ask ourselves “If I do not know what exactly a cow is, would I be able to distinguish it from a buffalo?” You can distinguish a thing from something else only if you know it’s defining quality. For a moment let us assume that the definition is not accurate. If we say that a cow is an animal which has horns, I may be able to distinguish it from a tiger but may not be able to distinguish it from a buffalo. This ability to distinguish becomes very significant when dealing with abstract ideas. Suppose a person does not know the meaning of a certain technical term. For example let us take the term “multimeter”(an electronic measuring instrument which measures voltage, etc.). If I ask him to bring a multimeter, he will not be able to understand. He will not be able to sustain any conversation involving the word multimeter unless he knows what it means. But if I explain what a multimeter is to him he will be able to understand, even if he has never seen it. This is the second purpose of a definition (Vyawahaarah)- Being able to understand usages which involve a certain object you may have never seen.

All this may seem very axiomatic. And it also is. But not everything which is obvious is generally noticed. Nor is it insignificant in any way. The knowledge of all these principles becomes very significant when explaining an idea which is very abstract. Let us take an example from political science. The idea of sovereignty, which forms an important part of political science is quite abstract. What is sovereignty? Sovereignty is intangible. It manifests in different forms such as employment of coercive force by the state to secure obedience to its laws, etc. A successful discussion on sovereignty cannot be had if a common definition is not agreed upon. It is in situations like this that these principles become highly significant. Nyaaya Shaastra deals with many concepts of this caliber. Therefore, it is necessary to fix a standard for dealing with such ideas. 

In the next article, we will deal with Kaarya-Kaarana-Bhaavah (कार्य-कारण-भावः), i.e. the Concept of Cause and Effect.