Parinama and Vivarta: Is there any real distinction?

The main purpose of this brief essay is to examine the longstanding controversy about (and thereby the debates between) parinama-vada and vivarta-vada, and show that vivarta-vada, correctly understood, does not oppose parinama-vada, and subsumes it under itself. I am not concerned here with tracing the history of the conflict between parinama and vivarta; rather, my chief concern here is a thorough analysis of the conflict and clearly point out the misunderstandings which generated the conflict in the first place.

Let us begin with a clear understanding of parinama-vada and vivarta-vada; here are the definitions: “parinama-vada” is the theory (view) that when anything, say A, undergoes changes and transformations resulting in B, C, D, etc., these changes and transformations are real; “vivarta-vada” is the theory (view) that the changes and transformations referred to above are not real but merely appearances. Samkara’s Advaita-Vedanta upholds the vivarta-vada and other schools of Vedanta and Samkhya uphold the parinama-vada. I am not concerned with Buddhism, Jainism, etc at this point.

Vivarta-vada does not deny changes and transformations but maintains that the changes and transformations are not real; according to Samkara, “real change” is the change by which, something, say X, loses its essential nature and becomes Y, something absolutely different from X; for example, a piece of wood becoming a lump of gold. Thus when Brahman becomes the world, Brahman undergoes no real changes and does not lose its essential nature (and being) as Atman, pure consciousness. Yes, Brahman appears as the world, without undergoing any real change, for there is, in principle, nothing other than Brahman for Brahman to become.

Both Samkara and Samkhya subscribe to satkarya-vada, according to which the effect is identical to (and pre-exists in) the cause; that is, there will be nothing in the effect that is not already in the cause. The question now arises: Does all this mean that the cause does or does not undergo any real change in producing the effect? Samkhya, through its teaching of parinama-vada, maintains that the cause does undergo real changes in producing the effects. Samkara points out that such a teaching contradicts satkarya-vada, which the Samkhya upholds, and therefore parinama-vada is false. Let me illustrate the point of Samkara’s critique of Samkhya. When the potter makes, say cups and saucers, from clay, the clay does not undergo any real changes and become something other than clay; the changes the clay undergoes are only in forms and names; note further that the cups and saucers have no existence apart from the clay, whereas the clay exists even when there are no cups and saucers (before the potter made them as well as after he destroys them). Simply put, the clay does not undergo any real changes in becoming cups and saucers but only apparent changes. Hence Samkara rejects parinama-vada and upholds vivarta-vada (changes in appearance only).  Similar arguments can also be presented with equal validity and soundness against other schools of Vedanta, such as Ramanuja’s and Madhva’s, which uphold parinama-vada.

To conclude, parinama-vada cannot subsume under itself vivarta-vada, whereas the latter can easily subsume the former, insofar as it does not deny changes and acknowledges changes in appearances only, thereby remaining faithful to satkarya-vada, unlike Samkhya and other parinama-vadins. Brahman, in becoming the world, does not undergo any real changes, since there cannot, in principle, be anything other than Brahman for Brahman to become. Is there, then, a real distinction between parinama-vada and vivarta-vada? The answer is clearly in the affirmative; while parinama-vada and vivarta-vada both acknowledge changes in the cause in producing the effects, the changes are not real but only in appearances (forms and names) for the vivarta-vada, whereas they are real for parinama-vada, thereby contradicting satkarya-vada, to which both Samkhya and Samkara subscribe . (Note: Samkhya subscribes to satkarya-vada in regard to the evolution of Prakrti, whereas Samkara subscribes to satkarya-vada in regard to Brahman becoming the world. For Samkhya, there are two ultimates, namely, Prakrti and Purusha, whereas for Samkara there is just the non-dual Brahman, for the doctrine of two ultimates is self-contradictory.)


Ramakrishna Puligandla
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
The University of Toledo
Toledo, Ohio, USA
June 6, 2010



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