Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Different Types of Knowledge

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Most knowledge is what might be called “worldly” knowledge – information or facts about a particular subject and we accumulate this type of knowledge throughout our lives. It is highly regarded in western society and increasingly throughout the rest of the world. We go to university to soak up this knowledge and sit examinations or write papers at the end of several years to demonstrate our proficiency. And then, more often than not, we spend the rest of our lives forgetting it.

This type of knowledge in itself does not bring about any result. Having gained my Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry, I would have actually had to get a job in that field in order to apply the knowledge and so gain some result, whether developing some new drug, teaching the knowledge to other students or simply earning money in Industry. The relationship ( sambandha) between the subject matter ( viShaya) and the motive or purpose ( prayojana) is said to be a goal motivated one ( chodya).

The knowledge that brings about Self-knowledge is quite different. The knowledge itself brings about the result without the need for any action. The relationship between the subject matter and the purpose is called pratipAdya–pratipAdaka sambandha. Swami Sri Atmananda Saraswati explains:

The PPS is however completely different. Here no action whatsoever is required for attaining our cherished goal. The mere knowledge helps us attain the goal. Such a sambandha is only seen in cases where the thing to be attained is already with us, but just out of ignorance appears unattained. I have my specs on my forehead but just out of forgetfulness I search all over, then someone comes and tells me that the specs are right on my forehead. This statement brings a knowledge which helps me “attain” the specs, without any action on my part. In the case of knowledge of Self or truth, PPS alone can be applicable, for the simple reason that the “object” to be attained is already attained. pratipAdya means “that which is to be revealed,” while pratipAdaka means “that which reveals.” The moment we catch the real implication of the words of shastra, that very moment the Truth is as though attained. (Ref. 92)

In this sense, the gaining of knowledge or the removal of ignorance is not something that is achieved through action. When it occurs, there is no choice involved. It is like perception in this respect. If someone asks us to close our eyes and holds an object in front of us, when we open our eyes again the object is seen, regardless of any desire on our part to see it or not. Knowledge is objective ( vastu-tantra) as opposed to action, which is subjective, a matter of our will ( puruSha-tantra). [ tantra, here, just means the main or essential point; vastu is a thing or object; puruSha means person or spirit.]

The classic story of the tenth man is an example of this:

There is a party of ten men traveling together to a distant village in a remote and rugged area. They encounter a swollen river, which they are obliged to cross. They join hands and begin the perilous crossing but inevitably they lose their footing in the strong current and have to swim. Much later and wetter, they reassemble on the opposite bank. As each counts the number of men who have arrived, they can only find nine and conclude that one of their number has drowned.

As they are bemoaning their loss, a monk passes by and asks them what the matter is. They explain and, quickly assessing the situation, he recognizes their mistake. He asks them to line up and, taking a stick, he hits the first man once, the second twice and so on down the line, counting out the number aloud each time. Reaching the end, he hits the last man ten times and calls out ‘ten’. What had happened, of course, is that each man had counted the others but forgotten to count himself, and so had only reached nine. (Ref. 84)

In the story, the acting out of this ritual is sufficient to bring about the understanding that no one has died. And the idea is that, in the one hearing the story, the hearing itself is sufficient to bring about the understanding that the listener has forgotten his true nature and that he is really the Self.

Shankara uses the story in the upadesha sAhasrI and explains that the knowledge transmitted by the shruti is direct when it relates to our own Self:

201. (Objection) The Bliss of liberation is not obtained by ascertaining the meaning of the sentence unlike the satisfaction which is felt by eating. Just as boiled milk-rice cannot be prepared with cow dung, so the direct knowledge of Brahman cannot be produced simply by ascertaining the meaning of the sentence.

202. (Reply) Indirect knowledge, it is true, is the result produced by the sentences regarding the non-Self, but it is not so in the case of those regarding the Innermost Self. It is, on the other hand, direct and certain knowledge like that in the case of the tenth boy. (Ref. 104)

It is also important to understand that in order to gain Self-knowledge, we do not have to read the scriptures, study with a guru and then go and do something. If, after the preparation and study, we have still not “got it,” then we have to go back and listen, reflect and meditate some more.

Stig Lundgren says:

It is a common misconception that the upaniShad-s can give only intellectual conviction but no actual experience of the Self. Hence, people often believe that after studying the upaniShad-s, then we have to put its teachings into practice in order to gain enlightenment. But if your true Self is clouded by ignorance, then what really is the solution to our problem? The answer is: Knowledge. Ignorance can only be wiped away by knowledge. Knowledge - not mind-control, yogic Asana-s, detachment from possessions etc. etc. - is the antithesis and eradication of avidyA. And this knowledge is experienced at the very moment your avidyA is dispelled. And since the avidyA is yours, and the upaniShad-s are talking about your true Self, then what the upaniShad-s say can actually make you experience your true Self. The upaniShad-s are dealing with what you actually are. Hence, shruti can give rise to direct knowledge of your Self. (Ref. 105)

There is no relevant, subsequent action apart from the reading, listening etc. (These aspects will be covered in detail in the next chapter.) The reason is that the knowledge is already there. The teaching is merely uncovering it. Self-knowledge is simply not about the accumulation of facts or the acquiring of more beliefs. Aja Thomas puts it more poetically and without the Sanskrit (though he is, himself a teacher of Sanskrit!):

If you wish to fully appreciate the beauty of a rose, don’t try to add to the rose. Remove that which obscures the pure vision of the rose and keeps you from experiencing it in its perfect roseness. Similarly, if you want to purely experience your own spiritual nature, you must subtract, not add. How can you add to what is already perfect? It is simply a matter of recognition, of stopping the search for something to add to make you more, better, greater…

…By adding more beliefs in the name of religiosity or spirituality, we are only furthering ourselves from the pure, simple, symmetry of our inherent Being. (Ref 93)

Some clarification is needed here before moving on. The key knowledge that we are talking about is that revealed by the scriptures, namely that “I am Brahman.” This is something that I cannot automatically know and cannot easily discover. The basic fact that “I am,” i.e. that I exist and am conscious, is on the other hand something that is self-evident. I do not need any external source of knowledge to reveal this. Dr. K. Sadananda explains:

Suppose you are in a pitch dark room and cannot see anything. I call you: “Chandran, are you there?” What is your response? It cannot be: “I cannot see anything so I do not know if I am here or not”! You can only say, “I do not see anything and I do not know if there is anybody else in the room or not.”

Basically your existence is not proved or disproved by your perceptions. Perception is not the valid means of self knowledge. You also cannot use arguments such as “since I am able to hear you I must be here somewhere.” That is, your existence is not proved by inference either. In fact one does not use any means of knowledge ( pramANa) to prove ones existence - all means of knowledge are valid only because you as a conscious entity are there to validate or invalidate them…

What everyone is looking for is neither self-knowledge nor Brahman. What everyone is looking for is only happiness… shAstra as pramANa tells me that I am that Ananda. (Ref. 94)

That I exist, then, is self-evident. That I am already perfect and complete, that there is only That (perfection, wholeness etc.) and that I am That – all of these are not self-evident. This “Self-knowledge” is what I seek and on the gaining of which I realize the truth and “become enlightened.”

This is why experience alone is not enough to remove the ignorance, a fact that many modern teachers seem to ignore when they claim that we are already That, there is nothing to do and so on. If it were, we could presumably all simply take a dose of LSD and go and experience the truth directly, as used to be claimed could be done in the nineteen-sixties. But the point is that we are trapped in a mesh of misunderstanding and false belief and no amount of experience can change that.

One possibly misleading factor is in the translation of the Sanskrit word anubhava. The PPS knowledge described above was said to be immediate – we do not have to do anything. As soon as the information is transferred, the knowledge is there, as in the example of the spectacles on our forehead. Monier-Williams gives one of the meanings of the word anubhava as “experience” and it is often translated in this way, implying that something happens. Swami Dayananda points out in Ref. 112, that a much clearer definition is “immediate knowledge.”

The example of the sun appearing to go round the earth was given earlier. This continues to be our experience but this does not affect our knowledge that the opposite is the case.

Order from or


Extracts from the Book
Summary and Endorsements
List of Contents
List of Quoted Writers and Scriptures
1. Potential Problems with Sources and Teachers
2. saMskAra
3. Different Types of Knowledge
4. Becoming the Disciple of a Guru
5. Ishvara
6. The Self as Knower or Known
Page last updated: 07-Jul-2012