The Nyāya Philosophy of Presence and Absence

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The Nyāya system of philosophy describes a category called abhāva or ‘absence’ and then explains how bhāva or ‘presence’ manifests from the absence. This is a very long discussion in Nyāya Sutra (which I’m translating presently) and has many nuances. It is hard to capture all these details here, but I thought that instead of waiting for the book to be published, I can share an excerpt from that book. This doctrine of presence and absence is central to understanding how the Vedic system describes manifestation from the unmanifest. Basically, there exists a premise, which then gives rise to a question. Then the question gives rise to an answer, which then leads to another question, and so on. This excerpt discusses the relation between this process and the process of the transmigration of the soul, the production of new bodies, and God’s creation of the world. All these varied ideas are based on the same essential insight, but it is very counterintuitive to modern thinking. How all these “religious” ideas become “scientific” ideas under the new way of thinking is quite useful and illustrative.

Sutra 4.1.14

अभावाद्भावोत्पत्तिर्नानुपमृद्य प्रादुर्भावात्

abhāvādbhāvotpattirnānupamṛdya prādurbhāvāt

abhāvāt—from the absence; bhava—the presence; utpattih—production; na—not; anupamṛdya—not to be destroyed; prādurbhāvāt—from the birth.


From the absence is the production of the presence. It is not true that (the old thing) is not to be destroyed from the birth (of the new thing).


The doctrine of ‘absence’ which we have discussed earlier, is revived again here, and as we have noted this ‘absence’ constitutes doubts, problems, questions, and incompleteness. The simple contention is that the problem arises first, and the solution is produced from the problem. The problem is like the seed, and the solution is manifest from within the problem. As is sometimes said, “necessity is the mother of invention”, the necessity is the problem, question, doubt, and incompleteness. When we think of the material world as a substance, then every new substance must be the transformation of the old substance. The ‘absence’ of a substance cannot produce a new substance. That would constitute a classic “something from nothing” scenario. Therefore, these claims about absence-producing presence cannot be understood unless we change our thinking from substances to meanings. A question is a meaning and an answer is meaning. A question can give rise to an answer because the answer lies within the question, but the answer is hidden within the question.

This is a matter of practical realization that as our consciousness advances, we can see the answers to everything within the question itself. We just have to analyze, understand, and grasp the true nature of the question, and the answer becomes automatically visible in the question. This method of generating answers is often employed by people coaches. A trainee goes to a coach and asks him a question seeking guidance—e.g., about their career or life. But the coach doesn’t provide an answer. He rather asks another question about the question which the trainee has asked, to clarify the trainee’s question. This questioning by the coach forces the trainee to think about his or her question more deeply. As a result, some insight about the question is obtained, and the trainee gives an answer to the coach. Now, the coach asks another question about the previous answer, in light of the original question, in an attempt to further clarify the question. By this process of repeated questioning, rather than giving answers, ultimately, the trainee sees the answer on their own. This answer is not something that was given by the coach. The coach is not there to provide answers but to facilitate the thinking about the question because the belief is that the answer lies within the question. Hence, if the question is sufficiently clarified, then the answer would be automatically visible within that question itself.

This method is commonly applied to problems where the answers are quite personal. The belief is that if we provide an external answer, then the rebellious mind would reject the answer as something being imposed by others. Therefore, it is better that someone comes up with their own answers, facilitated by the questions of the coaches. This method is also used by Zen masters who instead of answering any question, only tell their disciple to think about paradoxes and puzzles, which then clarifies the nature of the question, and the answer is then seen within the question itself. The same method of generating answers becomes prominent when a person is situated in sattva-guna. Whenever a doubt arises, the person in tamo-guna asks someone else for a readymade answer, and the person in rajo-guna looks for an answer separate from the question—typically by analyzing various typical answers. The person in sattva-guna instead looks deeper into the question, and there he finds the answer.

So, the philosophy of ‘absence’ should not be viewed as gobbledygook. It rests on deep realizations about the nature of matter, predicated on the idea that matter is meaning, so it can generate new meaning. That generated thing lies within the generator in an unmanifest form. But if we look closer, we will find it. So, the process of generation is also the same—we have to look closer.

The problems of spiritual life are also like that. Instead of looking outward and seeking readymade answers, or trying out various things experimentally, we have to look deeper within. We are the problem, and we can be the solution. In fact, the solution lies within—if only we look deeper within. When we look outwardly, we get some readymade answers, but there is no conviction. Indeed, the arrogant mind asks people questions, only to counter-question and reject the answers. Thus, most people who call themselves “seekers” simply keep roaming from one place to another, trying to “learn” something new. But whatever is taught to them is taken superficially, and counter questioned. In this way, the search becomes infinite. A slightly more advanced person tests out various possible alternatives on their own and rules out many of them. He is more proactive, and by his proactiveness, he convinces himself about what the answer is not. Then, the person who is most serious goes deep into the question itself.

Once we grasp this idea in its various forms, then we can understand how the presence comes from the absence. It is not the creation of something from nothing, and the origin of everything is not nothingness. It is rather a question. As we have discussed, this question itself arises from some premise. It is a fact that a person who knows nothing cannot even ask good questions. Rather, the questions arise when something is known. Thus, there are regular teachers to impart the students’ knowledge, so that they can ask intelligent questions. Then there are teachers who must push the students to find the answer within the question. And there can be teachers who can ask counter questions to challenge the supposed answers. Thus, all methodologies of knowing are available to us.

Buddhists and other voidists generally misrepresent the understanding of ‘absence’ as ‘nothingness’, because they too are thinking in terms of substances rather than meanings. If we accept the semantic way of thinking, then we can say that the material world springs from a question, a problem, an incompleteness, a doubt. It is an ‘absence’ which was in turn produced by a ‘presence’ and it is then capable of producing another presence. In this way, we must understand that there is absence inside presence, and presence inside absence.

As we have discussed before, God exists as the original premise, answer, solution, and completeness. But this existence is not valuable unless there is a question, problem, doubt, or incompleteness. Therefore, from the answer arises a question. When that question is turned back toward the premise, as we have discussed earlier, then it makes the original premise valuable, because now there is both demand (a question) and supply (an answer). If, however, the question is not turned back to the premise, then it leads to another question, another answer, and so on. Thus, when the soul turns towards God, he not only finds the answer but generates value. But if he turns away from God, then he neither finds answers nor does he generate any value. Rather, there is only a succession of questions and answers. In this way, everything manifests from God in the process of creating value but if the question and answer turn away from God, then that value is destroyed and an endless cycle of questions and answers are generated, which constitute material life. We cannot talk about value unless we talk about meaning. So, once we understand how everything is meaningful, then we can understand how some meaning is also valuable, and then we can grasp how that meaning was produced in the attempt to create value. This is the essence of saying that the presence emerges from the absence.

Once we understand how the question arises from an answer, and the answer arises from the question, then we can grasp the second part of this sutra, which says that the previous thing may be destroyed upon the manifestation of the new thing. In this case, when an answer arises from a question, the question can be destroyed. So, ultimately, what we see is a collection of answers, and we don’t see the absence or the question, doubt, problem, or incompleteness. This is what leads to the ‘substance’ dogma which says that the world exists as things. But why did the world emerge? And the response is that it emerged from a question. But when the answer has appeared, then the previous question is destroyed. As time passes, therefore, all we get is a system of theories and doctrines, and we don’t know the reason that they were originally created.

Therefore, a good way to learn a subject is to go into the history of the subject, understand both the problems and how they were addressed by the solution. If we don’t understand the questions, then we get the meaning but we don’t understand why it is valuable. Value exists in the relation between a problem and a solution, a question and an answer. But since the solution destroys the problem, therefore, we just get the meaning and not the value. As a result, the connection between the present reality and the past reality is seemingly gone. But it is not truly gone; the question is not truly destroyed if we see the entire sequence of questions and answers. The value in the answer depends on the question, and knowing the question clarifies the answer and vice versa.

This method of reasoning or logic constitutes the basic difference between Western and Vedic logical thinking. In Western logic, a premise leads to a conclusion, but in Nyāya philosophy, a premise creates a question, which then creates an answer, which then creates another question, and so on. Vedānta Sutra, for example, is called nyāya-prasthāna, because in every answer is hidden another question, and in every question is hidden an answer. How the unmanifest is revealed from within the manifest rests on this understanding of question and answer, meaning and value, hiding and revelation. This fundamental process of manifestation is here used to explain the succession of bodies. The implication is that every type of material body creates a problem. To solve that problem, another body is produced, and so on. So, the body change happens because none of the bodies are perfectly answering the problems of life. That problem appears in the subtle form as an ‘absence’ and then it manifests a gendered body and a gross body as the answer to that problem. So, this understanding of logic and reasoning is essential to understand all the doctrines in Vedic texts.

From this, we can also understand how the ‘subtle’ reality is like a question, and the ‘gross’ reality is like an answer to that question. To see the subtle reality, we have to ask deeper questions: Why do I exist? Why do I have this body? Why was I born in these situations? The reasoning and justification for the existence of the gross body are that there was an unanswered question that then led to this body. Therefore, when all the questions are answered satisfactorily then both the subtle and gross body will be destroyed. Since spiritual life is the only method that answers all the questions, it is the only way to stop the cycle of birth and death. Rebirth is thus ensured so long as the questions remain.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Nyāya Philosophy of Presence and Absence," in Shabda Journal, March 9, 2021,