Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Critical analysis of vedAnta paribhAShA Part X
Dr. K. Sadananda

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Part X - The Criteria for Cognition

What are the criteria for perceptual knowledge? I.e. how or when can perceptual knowledge be said to be complete? Here we first provide the conventional understanding and then adapt it according to our new understanding of how sense perceptions occur. I must state that in adapting the current understanding of the process, the fundamental advaitic understanding is not compromised.

VP says that one can think of limiting consciousness as three fold. We understand first that consciousness is unlimited, indivisible and eternal. Just as space which is infinite is notionally divided by limiting equipments and then expressed as ‘jar space’, ‘room space’ etc, so consciousness expressed by the limiting adjuncts is called limiting consciousness. With that understanding we can now look at the process of perception.

From the standpoint of perception, there are three things that have to come together in order for knowledge to take place. One is an object; the other is the subject and third is the means of knowledge, bridging the first two. We can say that no knowledge can takes place until all the three come together. In this, the object is not a subject (in fact cannot become a subject) and the subject is not an object (cannot become one either) and the ‘means’ is the connecting link between these two dissimilar things. Since Vedanta says that the all pervading consciousness, Brahman, is the material cause for everything, the distinctions of subject, object and the means are only superficial and are only valid within vyavahAra or transactional reality. Since knowledge is related to consciousness, the perceptual knowledge of an object by a subject through a means involves some kind of transgressing the transactional to transcendental reality, since I, a conscious entity, become conscious of an object in my mind via reflected consciousness. Hence the statement: 'what I perceive is nothing but consciousness itself which is nothing but Brahman'. How this happens can be described as follows:

Since Brahman is the material cause for everything, we can say that Brahman, in the form of a limiting adjunct called ‘object’, comes into contact with a limiting consciousness called ‘subject’ through a limiting consciousness called ‘means of knowledge’, in order for perceptual knowledge to take place. It is exemplified by the Gita shloka “ brahmArpaNaM brahma havir…” (IV.24). “Brahman is the offering, Brahman is the oblation poured out by Brahman into the fire of Brahman. Brahman is to be attained by him who sees Brahman in action.”
[Editor notes: Ramanuja(!) comments on this verse: “The entire act consists of Brahman because it is of Brahman’s nature: the sacrifice is Brahman, the utensils are Brahman, the fire in which the sacrifice is offered is Brahman, the sacrificer himself is Brahman. He who contemplates this insight, contemplates the act-as-Brahman. Such a one is capable of knowing the proper form of the Atman – which is Brahman – through his acts, because his acts are of Brahman’s nature. In other words, the acts performed by an aspirant have the form of knowledge because they imply the realization that the consist of Brahman and are therefore a means of contemplating the Atman.”]

Let us take the example of the perception of a jar. We can say that consciousness in the form of jar (‘jar’ is a name and a form for the substantive Brahman), comes into contact with the consciousness in the form of mind, through consciousness in the form of means of knowledge. All three become 'as though' united into one when the conscious entity ‘I’ becomes conscious of the object, jar.

How does this process occur? To explain this process, VP provides a simple analogy that is familiar to even a layman: water from a tank that is being channeled to various farm-fields takes the shape of the fields – rectangular in rectangular fields and circular in circular fields, etc. Similarly, the mind supported by consciousness goes out through the sense organs and makes a contact with the object and envelops it, e.g. if the object is a jar, the mind ‘takes the shape of’ the jar. At this juncture, the modified mind and the object are occupying the same place at the same time. That very modification is called a vRRitti. The mind’s running to the object and taking the shape of the object in order for it to perceive that object is conventional understanding, as when we say that the mind, via the sense organs, 'grasps' the object. We note that in the 'Methods of Knowledge -According to Advaita Vedanta', Swami Satprakashananda says that only in visual and auditory perceptions, does the mind go out through the corresponding senses while in tactile, gustatory and olfactory experiences the sense organs, in association with the mind, ‘make contact with’ the object while remaining in their own location. In principle, it appears that it is not necessary for the mind to ‘go out’ and ‘engulf’ the object – the information can come to the senses and, via the senses, to the mind in order for the object to be cognized as is. The important point is in the perceptual knowledge: the vRRitti that is formed is representative of the object perceived. This correspondence is imperative for perceptual knowledge to be immediate and direct, which is not the case for interferential knowledge.

We now know that light reflected from an object reaches the lense of the eye, providing an image of the object on the retina. Since we are blessed with two eyes, separated by seven degrees, the two images are stereographically rotated to give a depth of vision. (This is exploited in making 3-D movies using polarized lights, which are then viewed by wearing polarized glasses. If you remove the glasses you only see the plane projection.) The three dimensional view of the world is transmitted to the brain. Up to this point, all is clear. The signal is then transformed as a vRRitti in the mind – this ‘conversion software’ is intrinsic to the mind. That this happens is obvious but how it happens is not understood. Defects can occur due to distortion of the eye, which to a large extent can be corrected by spectacles. Defects can also occur during the transmission of the image from the retina to the brain or in subsequent transmission of this image to the mind in terms of neural reorganization. (The ‘compiler and programming code’ with which the mind operates is not yet understood.)


Here the mind integrates the input from all the senses as they arrive, forming the image or vRRitti. The only difference from conventional understanding is that, instead of the mind rushing through the sense organs, the information is brought to the subtle equipment, mind. Either way, the end product is the formation of the vRRitti, which is representative of the sense data that has been collected. I.e. the image formed is representative of the sense data that are perceived. If the sense data are erroneous or distorted, the image that is formed is not a true representation of the object seen. This leads to errors in perception. The ultimate mechanism involves the formation of a vRRitti representative of the object perceived or, more correctly, representative of the sense data received.

Thus every vRRitti has a corresponding object that it represents in perception. On the other hand, in the case of inference where the object is not perceived but inferred, the vRRitti does not directly represent the sense data and thus the object that is perceived. With inference, the sense data corresponds only to the 'hetu' or cause part. For example, in the case 'I see the smoke on a distant hill', the smoke and the distant hill are both perceived and the corresponding vRRitti-s have objects associated with them. But when we deduce using vyApti (a concomitant relation between the cause and effect) that the hill is on fire, the fire is not perceived but inferred and thus the vRRitti associated with it has no direct object to relate to, since there is no corresponding sense data on fire. Hence the knowledge that is arrived at – that the hill is on fire – is not direct and immediate knowledge but indirect and mediate, since the mind has to take the sense data and analyze it using relations and arrive at some conclusion, a process which is called ‘deductive knowledge’. Hence the knowledge in this case is mediate and indirect. This will be analyzed more clearly when we discuss anumAna pramANa. Here, the point that VP makes is that the perception passed via sense data provides a direct correspondence between the mental vRRitti and the object of perception. In the conventional explanation, where the mind is rushing through the sense organs and enveloping the object at the same place and time, there is a one to one correspondence between the vRRitti and the object perceived. The VP explanantion insures that the limiting consciousness of the object present corresponds to the limiting consciousness of the vRRitti formed in the mind.

We can now state that one of the essential criteria for perceptual knowledge is the correspondence between the object perceived and the associated vRRitti that is formed via sense input. In the internal perception of feelings this happens automatically, since the mental moods which are formed correspond to those particular emotions - happiness, unhappiness, fear, etc. Hence, their perception is also direct and immediate. This correspondence between the object and the vRRitti formed in the mind (this ‘one to one’ correspondence) is viewed by VP as the unity in the limiting consciousness of the object and that of the vRRitti. To appreciate this concept correctly, let us looks at the space analogy, which is analogous to consciousness, since both are indivisible, all pervading and infinite. Let us consider a jar sitting on the ground in a monastery. There is no difference between the space inside the jar and the space inside the monastery. Space is limitless, although the limiting adjuncts that define the limiting spaces 'as though' are different. But intrinsically they are the same – one indivisible space. Even the dividers, jar or walls of the monastery are in space only.


The same analogy applies to perception, although it is not obvious. That consciousness is all pervading is not obvious to us. This knowledge comes from the scriptures, although one can deduce logically that consciousness cannot have boundaries, space-wise or time-wise. It is inside and outside and thus everywhere. In each object, the consciousness is expressed as limiting consciousness. Hence the object is defined as Brahman + form with a name, since Brahman is the material cause for the universe. The transformation of Brahman into forms, say the scriptures, is like gold transforming into ornaments – a transformationless transformation called vivarta vikAra, or an ‘apparent modification’. Just as gold remains as gold, even while forming varieties of ornaments with different names and forms, without itself undergoing any vikAra or real modification, so Brahman, whose nature is pure consciousness, remains as such but appears to be limiting objects, with name and form or attributes. Therefore, all objects are limiting consciousnesses, limited by the upAdhi-s, which are bounded. Although upAdhi-s are bounded, Brahman is not, since the space between the upAdhi-s is also Brahman. Hence Brahman as limitlessness is not compromised.

Proceed to the next essay.

Other Essays in this Section (Perception):
01. Introduction Part 1. 28. Perception at the Individual Level.
02. Introduction Part 2. 29. Perception at the Cosmic Level.
03. Analysis of Time and Space. 30. Summary so far.
04. Knowledge is Continuous. 31. vAchArambhanaNaM.
05. Whatever you perceive is Brahman! 32. Re-examination of the Perceptual Process Pt.1.
06. Attributes and Substantive. 33. Re-examination of the Perceptual Process Pt.2.
07. Mechanics of Perception. 34. Re-examination of the Perceptual Process Pt.3.
08. Some Objections. 35. Re-examination of the Perceptual Process Pt.4.
09. Internal Perceptions. 36. Re-examination of the Perceptual Process Pt.5.
10. The Criteria for Cognition. 37. Nature of ‘ego’ and Self-realization.
11. Unity of limiting consciousness for perception. 38. Erroneous Perceptions Pt. 1.
12. Internal Perceptions (cont.) 39. Erroneous Perceptions Pt. 2.
13. Some Clarifications Regarding Internal Perception. 40. Analysis of Error - Part 1: khyAti vAda-s.
14. Some Clarifications Regarding Character. 41. Analysis of error - Part 2: vedAnta paribhAshA analysis.
15. Question related to jAti [species]. 42. Analysis of error - Part 3: naiyAyika objection.
16. Relation between an attribute and its substantive. 43. Creation as Transformation.
17. brahman is the changeless substantive. 44. Questions on ‘Creation as Transformation’.
18. Perceptuality of Objects: Definition vindicated (part 1). 45. Ontological Status of 'This'.
19. Perceptuality of Objects: Definition vindicated (part 2). 46. Two Layers of Ignorance.
20. Questions related to Perceptuality (part 1). 47. Conclusion of silver-nacre analysis.
21. Questions related to Perceptuality (part 2). 48. Perception in Dream.
22. Mind as Subject. 49. Negating false perception.
23. Self-realization. 50. Counterpositive.
24. Application to Illusions. 51. Summary of Mechanism of Perceptual Knowledge.
25. Determinate and indeterminate perceptions (part 1). 52. vyAvahArika vs. prAtibhAsika Pt. 1.
26. Determinate and indeterminate perceptions (part 2). 53. vyAvahArika vs. prAtibhAsika Pt. 2.
27. The position of vishiShTAdvaita.  
The next section in this series continues with the pramANa of anumAna (inference).

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Page last updated: 08-Jul-2012