Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

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

Part V - Whatever you perceive is Brahman!

Advaita accepts six means of knowledge or pramANa-s. They are 1) direct perception (pratyakSha), 2) Inference (anumAna), 3) comparison (upamAna), 4) verbal testimony (this generally refers to the word of someone who is trustworthy – shabda - but DA uses Agama meaning specifically the scriptures, since our interest is in spiritual knowledge), 5) presumption (arthApatti) 6) non-apprehension (anupalabdhi).

Concerning direct perceptual knowledge, DA says: 'pratyakSha pramAyAH karaNam pratyakSha pramANam' - the instrument for knowing objects directly is direct perception. Next, DA makes a revealing statement that baffles the intellect: 'pratyakSha pramA ca atra caitanyam eva' meaning that, in direct perceptual knowledge, what is really revealed as knowledge is pure consciousness itself. (He uses the word 'eva', meaning consciousness alone. We may need to meditate on the statement to understand the significance, but what the statement says is that direct and immediate perceptual knowledge is Brahman – there is no need to meditate, since meditation is mediate and not immediate. This is a daring statement since Brahman cannot be perceived, yet he says that what is perceived is Brahman.

He provides a reference to Br. Up. III-4-1, which states that Brahman is directly and immediately revealed. Let us look at this carefully. The Upanishad mantras contain the conversation between UShasta and Yaj~navalkya. Their conversation ends as follows:

UShasta: You are providing me with indirect descriptions of Brahman, as in ‘cow is such and such’, or ‘horse is such and such’, etc. Explain to me the Brahman that is immediate and direct, not through indirect descriptions. Explain Brahman to me, the self that is within all.

Ya~jnavalkya: You cannot witness that which is the witnessing self; you cannot hear that which is the hearer of hearing; you cannot think that which is the thinker in thinking; you cannot know that which is the knower of knowledge. That is yourself that is within all and everything else except this is perishable.

With that answer, UShasta had no further questions.

The Upanishad says that ‘that which is directly and immediately known without any medium’ is Brahman. That is your Self, which is the pure consciousness because of which we are conscious of everything else. We cannot be conscious of consciousness since that will lead to infinite regress (because we would need to bring in a series of consciousness(es) to be conscious of each preceding one). Other than the consciousness which is the knower of all knowledge, the Upanishad says that everything else is ultimately perishable, meaning negatable. ‘Real’ is that which is not negatable and the Upanishad declares that 1) consciousness is never negatable; 2) you are that consciousness; 3) you are that Brahman and 4) That alone is real. This is the pure advaitic truth. How is this related to perceptual knowledge?

Knowledge can be thought of as two types - (a) direct and immediate – called in Sanskrit 'aparokSha j~nAnam' (Shankara wrote a book "aparokShAnubhUti") and (b) mediate knowledge (parokSha j~nAnam) which is not immediate. pratyakSha pramANa comes under direct and immediate knowledge because, as soon as I open my eyes, I cannot help but see the object that is right in front of me. The knowledge of the object is not ‘puruSha tantra’ – i.e. whether I see or not does not depend on my will. It is ‘vastu tantra’ – i.e. it depends upon the nature of the object. (It is assumed that my sense of sight is functioning properly and that all other secondary causes such as light etc are operating properly.)

Hence, all perceptual knowledge is direct and immediate (immediate in the sense that I do not have to do any analysis, thinking, meditation etc in order for me to grasp the knowledge of the object right in front of me). In contrast, the knowledge gained by other pramANa-s such as anumAna etc is not direct. Such knowledge is called ‘mediate knowledge’, since one has to sort out the knowledge through vyApti or cause-effect reasoning. Shabda pramANa is based on words. Words normally give only indirect knowledge, similar to learning what Indra loka or Niagara Falls looks like by reading books. However, when it comes to Vedanta, the words CAN give immediate and direct knowledge if what is pointed out is right here, directly and immediately. A graphic example is the story of the missing 10th man. You are that –tat tvam asi. Yaj~navalkya in his answer says that the direct and immediate knowledge is yourself since that is the most direct and immediate.

In Yaj~navalkya's answer, when he says that you cannot witness that which is the witness of everything or hear that which is the hearer of hearing, he is implying that no pratyakSha pramANa can reveal Brahman. In fact, none of the pramANa-s can give knowledge of Brahman or knowledge about myself. Hence brahman is called aprameyam, unknowable. Similar statements are made in the kenopaniShad. Yet Yaj~navalkya says that brahman is yourself as ‘the self in all’ and knowledge of that is direct and immediate. The statement that brahman is 'yourself that is the self in all' is shAstra pramANa – we cannot know this without the help of shAstra. Also the statement of both Yaj~navalkya and UShasta is knowledge of that which is direct and immediate, similar to perceptual knowledge. To understand this, let us go back to our dark room.

In the example of the pitch dark room, not only can I perceive the darkness in the room, I can also perceive myself as an existent and conscious entity. I do not need any ‘means’ in order to know that I am there and that I am conscious. In fact, I have to be there even to validate any pramANa. Hence, Yaj~navalkya says that ‘what one knows directly and immediately (without any pramANa) at any time is oneself’. By equating that self that I am (which is, as we discussed before, the pure knowledge that I am, which I am constantly aware of as myself as a self-conscious entity) to Brahman, the scripture says that brahman is also known immediately and directly as pure knowledge that is present all the time.

brahman, being infinite, cannot be known by any pramANa. It can be known by itself, as it has to be a self-revealing or self-conscious entity. Hence, Yaj~avalkya's declaration that it is your own self which has to be direct and immediate. Hence the knowledge of myself is same as the knowledge of brahman, which is direct and immediate. That it is immediate and direct implies that I do not have to think or meditate for hours in order to realize that I am an existent and conscious entity. I am there before I can even think (or sometimes without even thinking). According to Vedanta, brahman is also defined as ‘pure consciousness’ – praj~nAnaM brahma – and hence is known directly and immediately. Yaj~navalkya's statement is still a pramANa since he is equating the two as a mahAvAkya. 'I am' is equated with brahman, since both are directly and immediately known. To realize the scriptural identity, (the declaration that ‘I am = brahman’) requires Vedantic inquiry into what is eternal and what is ephemeral: nitya anitya vastu vichAra. This requires bhAga tyAga lakShaNa, as discussed in advaita Vedanta texts.

However, DP is making another equation with his statement, by giving the Br. Up reference that does not fully justify his statement. He is equating the perceptual knowledge gained by pratyakSha pramANa (which is direct and immediate) with the pure knowledge that ‘I am’ (which is also direct and immediate). Thus, the total equation combining the Br. Up. statement is:

Perceptual knowledge (of objects) = pure Knowledge that ‘I am’ (consciousness that ‘I am’) = brahman, which is pure consciousness.

The Br. Up quote only provides the justification for the second equation but not for the first. The justification for the first part of the equation is the common factor of the direct and immediate perceptibility of both the objects through perception and of the conscious self that I am. The pure consciousness that I am – the self in all and hence brahman – is known directly and immediately. Similarly, perceptual knowledge is direct and immediate.

Prof. T.P. Mahadevan, a great advaitic scholar, makes the following statement in his introduction to Methods of Knowledge:

"The knowledge of the self that is said to liberate the soul from bondage is direct knowledge which is like unto perceptual knowledge. Only, even perceptual knowledge is not so immediate as self-knowledge. In sense-perception there is the intervention of a sense-organ between subject and object".

In stating that the knowledge that occurs in perception is direct and immediate and that the ‘brahman knowledge’ based on the Br. Up statement is also direct and immediate, and by equating both on the basis of direct and immediate perceptibility of the two, DP makes the statement that perceptual knowledge is nothing but pure consciousness. How that equation is possible has to be resolved by proper inquiry. But if it is true, there is no need to seek brahman, since whatever we see, hear, touch, taste, etc is 'pure consciousness' only. The implication of the statement is very profound. We may have to meditate and unravel the statement in order to recognize that there is no reason to meditate or unravel to see brahman, since brahman is directly and immediately visible!

Personally, when I read that statement I was baffled and lost in the beauty of that statement, since it actually glorifies the scriptural statements - sarvaM khalvidam brahma and neha naAnAsti kinchana – ‘all this (‘this’ corresponds to objects) is nothing but Brahman’ and ‘there is nothing else other than brahman’, as well as the Gita's statement - brahmArpaNam brahma haviH – everything is brahman. Further justification of the DP statement will occur in the subsequent chapters. But for me that was a million dollar statement - what you perceive is nothing but brahman - the more I see the truth of this statement the more I see the beauty or vibhUti of Brahman spread all over in whatever I perceive!

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