Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

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

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Part VII - Mechanics of Perception

Process of Cognition

Let us look more closely the mechanics of perception as we now understand them. Although, according to tradition, the senses along with the mind go out and 'grasp' the attributes of the object, science now knows that it is the reflected light from the objects that contains the information about forms and colors, and that the sound and the smells etc reach the respective sense organs in the body. These data are evaluated by the senses (depending on their capability) and the corresponding information is fed in on a ‘first come, first served’ basis to the mind. Since light travels faster than sound, the colors and forms are recognized before the sounds, etc. In the case of the sense of touch, physical contact with the object is required.

The mind integrates all the information that comes in and forms an image on its 'mental screen' with all the attributes gathered up to that point. Thus we have an image with composite attributes which gets updated as more information is fed in by the senses. This corresponds to the vRRitti or thought of the object. The moment the thought forms, it gets illumined by the consciousness that is ever present. The ever-present consciousness is called sAkShi chaitanya or witnessing consciousness and what gets illumined in its brilliance is sAkShyam or witnessed. In this case, the sAkShyam is the vRRitti or the thought whose contents are the attributes of the object. The illuminated consciousness forms (as though) a reflection in, or by, the vRRitti or thought. Formation of a vRRitti in the mind may be likened to the mind ‘enveloping’ the object presented to it by senses. Hence, it is representative of the object outside. Its ‘truthfulness’ to the object actually depends on the truthfulness of the attributes that the senses have gathered.

As the vRRitti forms, it is immediately illuminated by the witnessing consciousness just as, when an actor enters onto the stage, the actor is seen by the ever present illumination of the stage lights. When the light is shed onto the object, the object is illumined and the reflected illumination from the object is seen by the eyes. In the same way, the vRRitti is illumined in the presence of the ever brilliant sAkShi or witnessing consciousness and the illuminated light is then reflected by the vRRitti and seen by the subject (we will address who that subject is slowly).

The consciousness that is reflected from the vRRitti is the knowledge itself since I become conscious of the vRRitti. That reflected, limiting consciousness (limited by the vRRitti, which in turn is limited by the attributes of the object outside) is the knowledge of the object perceived. Just as the reflected light (sun light or room light) from an object enables me to see the object, the reflected consciousness from the vRRitti makes me conscious of the vRRitti and this is the same as knowledge of the vRRitti. Just as the sun light is as though 'loaned' to the object in order that the object may become visible, the consciousness from the sAkShi or witnessing consciousness is as though 'loaned' to the vRRitti for it to become witnessed or known. This is the process of cognition. The information up to this point is simply that there is an object out there with the gathered attributes. We have knowledge of the existence of the object and also its attributes, since the object is defined only through its attributes. The events up to this point are immediate and direct – this process takes place faster than the speed of communication by the nervous system. Sometimes we see before we hear, as in the case of lightning and thunder. Once the object is cognized, it is stored in the memory immediately.

Process of Recognition

The process of recognition involves memory. This is not necessarily immediate. All though we now know that mind processes the information using a parallel processing mode, it is not necessarily immediate. As a person ages, cognition may occur immediately but recognition takes its own time, sometimes forever! When we are seeing an object for the first time (such as when a mother is teaching a child by pointing to various objects), the vRRitti-s related to the objects are cognized and stored in the memory along with a name tag - this is an ‘apple’, that is a ‘cow’, etc. When the child sees the same or similar objects, he re-cognizes them. The mother may reinforce that stored knowledge as the child recognizes the object. In the process of acquisition of knowledge, the child's mind also sorts out the generic characters of similar objects as well as special characteristics of particular objects. A cow is recognized as a cow and not as a horse based on the generic characteristics (called jAti in Sanskrit) while still differentiating its specific characteristics (vyakti), such as red cow or small cow as opposed to the previously seen white, black, brown, big cows, etc.

Error in cognition and Error in recognition

When the information that was fed in by the senses is not accurate, due to various other factors that are involved in the cognitive process (such as proper illumination), the cognized vRRitti may or may not represent the object in question. Based on incomplete or inaccurate sense data, cognition and recognition may be erroneous. In such a case, we say that there has been an error in cognition and that the knowledge gained is erroneous knowledge - bhrama instead of pramA. If the perceiver is aware of the possibility of error, then there will be doubt about the cognition and further experimentation may be required to establish the validity or invalidity of the previous knowledge of the object. Thus, if a perceiver sees a snake where there is a rope, if he has a doubt about his perception, he would express the doubtful knowledge as 'I do not know if it is a rope or a snake' or ‘it looks like a snake but I am not sure’ etc. If the perceiver has no doubt about the perception, even though the perception is erroneous from the standpoint of an independent referee, he would consider it as a valid knowledge and not erroneous knowledge. This would continue until such time as he encounters a contradictory experience related to the object, which would then bring about a doubt in his prior cognition. Many have no doubts about their knowledge, even though others see that there is a problem. Philosophies based on Vedanta are no exceptions to this.

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