Saturday, July 12, 2008

What is Knowledge?

The question "What is knowledge?", seems like one that a philosopher (or even one with an idle mind) would be asking, with no practical applications to "daily life". This is not so, certainly not for seekers of the underlying phenomenon beyond all subject object duality. The famous Advaitic verse from Vivekachudamani says "Brahma Satyam, Jagan Mithya, Jeevo Brahmaiva Naa Parah" (Brahman is the only Truth, the world has only a fleeting level of reality and the Jeeva is not different from the Brahman). Such a statement brings us to the following questions: How do we not perceive a unified reality all around, when it is so? How is it that we do not see the fleetingness of the reality of the world, when it is so? How is it that we fail to recognize the equality of the supreme spirit with the internal spirit?

Motive behind the questions: Shri Adi Shankara, asks the same question in many places in his commentary on Prasthana Traya. For example, in his introduction to Brahma Sutras, also called as Adhyasa Bhashya, He rhetorically wonders "How can anyone confuse the unreal with the real?". This is because the BMI is inherently jada (insentient), while Atman, the seer behind the BMI is inherently chetana (sentient). How can anyone confuse the unreal with the real? If one confuses different levels of reality, then they may be excused. What is the excuse for this confusion? Where did such a kind of confusion originate from? Shri Shankara blames this confusion to adhyasa (superimposition), which is our ignorance, and proceeds to dispel it as non-existent in many ways. (Shri Shankara uses similar concepts in many places on his Gita commentary: for example on his commentary for BG 2.16 or BG 13.2).

Knowledge and its means: The above concept of superimposition is close to Knowledge and the means of knowledge. Since it is due to our ignorance that we are confusing unreal from real, the latter which is ever existent and the former never ever(!), one of the first steps should be to define what Knowledge is, what are its valid means, and what are is the answer to the *meta*-questions like: "How do we know what we can know?", "How do we know that we know?". If such a definition is made precise, then we can separate knowledge from ignorance. Also close to the concept of knowledge is the means of acquiring it. It is like constructing a precise sieve, which will separate the knowledge rice from the ignorance husk. Then, using the sieve, one can separate the superimposition from the real stuff, continually asking the question "Is it this? Is it this?" and continuing uttering to oneself "Not this, Not this". These definitions and other concepts have been done in the classic book "Vedanta Paribhasha" (VP) by Dharamaraja Adhvarindra (DA), a 17th century Advaitic philosopher from India.

Is the systematic study of pramANa required? Yes and No.

State 2: Yes because, given the all pervasive nature of the (non-existent) avidya, we need a systematic study of the tools needed to understand its nature. In the end, we will realize that none of the tools have the power to know the nature of the Self, which is beyond the reach of any of these.

State 1: No because brahman is defined to be one that is unattainable by any of these. So, how will such a systematic study help us? For people who are at such an advanced stage that they see the true nature of the fleeting universe, it is not needed.

So, it is clear that one needs to get from state 2 (of yes: they are needed) to state 1 (of no: pramanas are not needed). (Is the movement from State 2 to State 1 a application of Vedantic method of adhyaropa-apavada? I do not know.)

In short, the study of pramANas is needed to know that the study of pramANas is not needed! (Thanks to Sada-ji who used this another context.)

Here are some references:
  • Respected Shri Sastriji (the chief moderator of advaitin yahoo group) has written explanatory notes, which is very useful for understanding the basic concepts.

    1. In introduction, he explains the valid means of knowledge, according to the six major philosophical systems of India. It should be noted that the means of knowledge defined by Advaita are the same as that for Bhatta Mimamsa (a major branch of Mimamsa: after Kumarila Bhatta, whom Adi Shankara met).

    2. Here he explains inference (anumana), one of the six means of knowledge.
    3. In this link on Shabda Pramana, he explains the concept of Verbal Testimony as a valid means of knowledge.

  • Respected Shri Sadaji has been writing up his notes on VP and posting it in the advaitin yahoo list. Here is their link. (This is is an ongoing series of posts, with the current number being 13.) Each of them are worth reading multiple times, as his posts are of explanatory nature.

  • Swami Satprakashananda, a monk of Ramakrishna Order (and a contemporary of Swami Prabhavananda: Swami Satprakashananda was sent to St. Louis, while Swami Prabhavananda was in LA), has written a book "Methods of Knowledge according to Advaita Vedanta". It has a very lucid exposition of the terms at hand. (I plan to have a later post on this book.) Here are a couple of links on the book:

    1. From RK Math, St. Louis,
    2. From Shri Dennis-ji's page
    3. The amazon page
    4. a picture of Swami Satprakashananda

    Happy search for Knowledge!
    May the Goddess of Knowledge shower Her divine grace upon us.
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