Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

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

Part II - Introduction Part 2

Before we proceed further let us review some basics. First, we should realize that 'knowledge' itself cannot be defined. Whenever we say we have knowledge, we only refer to 'knowledge of things and beings' or to be more accurately, objective knowledge; in simple terms knowledge of 'this'. The knowledge with which we are familiar is always ‘knowledge of’… all objective knowledge. And all objective knowledge is qualified knowledge – chemistry-knowledge, physics-knowledge, knowledge of 'this' or 'that', etc. We do not know if there is such a thing as pure 'unqualified knowledge'. If I knew, I could not even say that I had the knowledge of 'that', since the very 'that' would qualify the unqualifiable. Therefore I would have to remain silent or communicate in words that take one to that silence.

When we say that we have knowledge of something, what we mean is that we are aware of that something or we are conscious of it. Hence 'knowledge of' is the same thing as being 'conscious of'. Pure knowledge, then, is pure consciousness – and here we mean 'objectless awareness', since any objective knowledge is a qualified knowledge. In the pitch darkness example, we said that I am aware of not only the darkness, but myself too. I know myself as an existent and conscious entity. I never need to search for myself at anytime, since I have to be there even to search.

Since a subject is never an object, objectless awareness is the same thing as self-awareness. Hence, pure knowledge, self-awareness and self-consciousness all mean the same thing. Pure Knowledge cannot be defined since it is the same as the self-knowledge or consciousness that I am. Besides, all definitions belong to the realm of objects. Two things cannot be defined, since they are not objects. First there is Braham since, being infinite, it cannot be defined to differentiate it from the rest of the objects in the world. There cannot be anything other than Brahman if Brahman is still to be Brahman (infiniteness). The second thing that cannot be defined is the subject, myself. Since I am not an object, I cannot be defined. We just mentioned that pure knowledge also cannot be defined. In fact, we arrive at the fundamental equation of Vedanta that advaita emphasizes: Brahman and I am are identically the same, since the essential nature of both is the same. In addition, that Brahman that I am is also the same as unqualified pure knowledge. 'I am', therefore, is of the nature of pure knowledge and knowledge of an object therefore involves illumination of the object by the light of the consciousness that I am.

In the above dark room example, we cannot have knowledge of the objects in the room unless an external light illumines them. According to Vedanta, that is not sufficient. For me to gain knowledge of an object that is lighted in the room, several other things are also needed. First and foremost is that the sense organs should have adequate capacity to 'grasp' the objects. (Or appropriate tools , such as microscopes or telescopes, etc are required to augment the capacity of the sense organs to 'grasp' them.) This applies to objects that are ‘outside’ , i.e. outside the mind. We can know objects that are 'inside' the mind by a process of re-collection, since we have 'collected' that knowledge already and it is stored in the memory. Secondly, to know an object we need an appropriate means to know. The ‘means of knowledge’ or appropriate tool to know is called 'pramANa', where 'pramA' means ‘knowledge’ or more accurately ‘valid knowledge’. The tool to be used depends on the nature of the object that is to be known. To see forms and colors, eyes are needed; to hear sounds, ears, etc. Eyes cannot hear and ears cannot see; each sense organ has its field of knowledge specified. Thus each pramANa or means of knowledge is very specific in its field of operation.

Besides the sense organs, we also need the mind to collect the information from the senses. And the mind is useless without consciousness to enliven it, making the mind conscious of the world of objects. Thus consciousness operates similar to the light that illumines objects in order to reveal them. Thus it is called the ‘light of consciousness’.

Thus, we have the sequence:- the senses grasp the object which is lighted by the outside light; the mind collects the sensory input and integrates this into an image of the object in the mind; consciousness lights the image in order for me to see. The object of knowledge is called 'prameya' or known; the knowledge of the object is called 'pramiti', and the means that is operating for the knowledge to take place is 'pramANa'. Hence in any knowledge that is involved we have these three (tripuTI) operating. When the knowledge takes place, there is obviously a subject who owns that knowledge - he is called the knower or 'pramAtRRi'.

So far, the analysis seems to be simple for us to understand. However, we need to know how exactly this knowledge takes place, and in particular, the role of consciousness in acquiring the knowledge of an object. In this respect, we will follow the understanding of advaitic masters in terms of how the epistemological issues were treated in the doctrine. Following VP, we provide a formal definition of a 'pramANa'.

Definition of pramANa
pramA karaNam pramANam - that which is an instrument of knowledge (pramA). There are many instruments that are helpful to enable knowledge to occur. Hence 'pramANa' stands for that which is the essential cause or means for the knowledge to take place, all other causes being only secondary. If we exclude 'recollection from memory’ (which is part of stored knowledge from the past), the pramANa is defined as 'anadhigata, abAdhitam, arthavishayaka j~nAnatvam - pramANam' – the means of knowledge is that which is (a) not known before (since recollection is excluded here); (b) non-negatable, and (c) objectifiable (arthavishya implies also 'meaningful'; it may not mean 'useful', although Ramanuja in his definition of pramANa includes 'vyavahAra anuguNam' or 'transactability' as a qualifier for valid knowledge).

If recollection is included, then the pramANa is only a (a) 'non-negatable' and (b) objectifiable entity. According to the commentator (Swami Madhavananda), 'non-negatable' means that it is not negated directly by a contradictory experience. E.g. the rope knowledge is contradictory to the previous snake knowledge of the same object at same place where the rope is. The implication is that, if the pramAtRRi (knower) does not have an experience that is contradictory to the previous 'knowledge' gained (for example that the rope is actually a snake), even though that knowledge is erroneous from the point of an independent referee, it is still considered as 'valid' knowledge for that knower. (I.e. even though it is really a rope, the knower nevertheless knows it as a snake and that knowledge is valid.) It is important to recognize that unlike other philosophers who believe that validation is done by an independent 'sAkShi', the validation rests with the knower only. If he does not encounter any experience that is contradictory to the previous knowledge in his life time, then that knowledge stays with him as valid knowledge.

This non-negatability for valid knowledge brings us interesting definitions, a foundation of advaitic doctrine: absolute knowledge is defined as that which can never be negated or contradicted at any time; advaita defines this as ‘real’ (trikAlAbAdhitam satyam). Only this can be pure knowledge without any qualifications. All objects have qualifications and unqualified knowledge, as discussed above, is knowledge of myself or knowledge of Brahman. Hence the pure, unqualified, non-negatable, absolute knowledge can only be self-knowledge which should be the same as Brahman's knowledge, since Vedanta defines Brahman as pure consciousness - praj~nAnaM brahma.

Non-negatability in the absolute sense corresponds to pure knowledge. In the definition of pramANa, non-negatability remains valid in the relative sense, even though it is negated in the absolute sense. Hence, for example, the knowledge 'this is a jar' remains valid within the realm of transactional reality (vyAvahArika satyam). However, even in the absolute sense, what is negated is not the relative knowledge; absolute reality is assumed for the relative knowledge. Just as knowledge of the pot remains valid at the transactional level, even after knowing its substantive is nothing but clay only, all knowledge revealed by pramANa remains valid at the transactional level, even when one realizes that 'all this is Brahman' (sarvaM khalvidam brahma). Objective knowledge or arthaviShayika pramANa, by definition, operates only at the transactional level. Hence the definition of pramANa is not compromised. Next we will deal with the cognition of time.

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