Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

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

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Part XXXII - Re-examination of the Perceptual Process (based upon some questions raised on the previous material) – Part 1

Questions and comments on the previous material have highlighted some confusion and misunderstanding regarding what is said by VP and what precisely is the correct epistemological position of advaita. Accordingly, I am going to respond to these in some detail.

Coming from a scientific background, I strongly subscribe to the understanding that philosophy cannot contradict objective science but can go beyond it in those cases where objective science fails to provide a clear understanding of the mechanics of the process. This is particularly relevant in the case of consciousness, because of which one is conscious of objects. Consciousness and the mechanics of the cognitive process cannot be separated. Yet, we do now have a clearer understanding of the mechanics of such things as wave propagation and image formation, as well as communication of sense input via sense organs to the brain. Jumping from the physical process of perception to mental cognition involves (using computer terminology) jumping from hardware to software, where we know that we need a programming language to interpret neural input into a cognitive process. This is currently a ‘black box’. Therefore, in order to understand the perceptual process, we must take whatever physics or biophysics provides us and, without violating these physical principles, jump to philosophical principles. shAstra becomes pramANa only for the later part – as Shankara clearly states, shAstra is valid only where pratyakSha and anumAna fail to reveal the facts.

With this as the basis, we proceed to address some of the comments and objections that were raised. The aim is to clarify the mechanism of the perceptual process based on the current state of science on the one hand and the philosophical position on the other, without compromising the fundamental advaitic truth of brahma satyam, jagat mithyA, jIvobrahmaiva nAparaH – Brahman alone is the real or the truth, the world is mithyA or apparent, and the jIva is none other than Brahman itself.

1. Comments on substance, object and attributes

Objection: In the example of a ring, which is an object that is made of gold, the ring has its own attributes. I.e. the ‘object-ring’ is different from the substance gold of which the ring is made. Thus we have three ‘things’ – a) object-ring; b) attributes of ring (ID, OD, width, ellipticity, etc); c) material substance out of which it is made – gold. When Vedanta paribhAshA says that ‘the object is perceived’, it is the ring that is perceived, along with its attributes and not the attributes alone, since according to advaita the object and attributes have tAdAtmya sambandha [relationship of ‘sameness, identity of nature]. VP does not say that attributes alone are gathered by the senses. It says that the object is perceived.

Response: The response comes from two sides – from objective scientific analysis and from a philosophical assessment, since perception involves consciousness, which is itself beyond objectification. Firstly, as DA (dharmarAja adhvarIndra) emphasizes in his introduction to VP, the purpose of the inquiry into the epistemological issues is to gain knowledge of Brahman, knowing which there is no return to the transitory world. Hence, understanding of the process by which knowledge takes place in the mind is essential if we are to separate what is transitory from what is permanent. I.e. nitya-anitya vastu viveka is essential for Vedantins. Hence, the text does not lose sight of pAramArthika while discussing knowledge and the means of knowledge. VP follows closely the vivaraNa school of advaita Vedanta.

Now, let us ask first the question: What is an object? There are two aspects involved in defining an object. From the epistemological point of view, an object can only be defined in terms of attributes. In chemistry, we learn to identify a chemical substance by stating its physical and chemical properties, which are all attributes. The more precise these definitions are, the more easily the object can be discriminated from the rest of the objects in the world. Only through distinct properties can we identify a chemical compound. Hence, objective science relies heavily on the precise definition of any objectifiable entity through its attributes. That is the only way to communicate knowledge for transactional purposes or vyavahAra. This is the first fundamental aspect of an object that cannot be violated.

For example, if I want to meet Mr. GAgAbUbu in the station, whom I have never met previously, I need to have his precise definition or a description in terms of attributes, which must differentiate him from the rest of the masses in the station. The object, Mr. GAgAbUbu, is the one who is the locus of all the attributes collectively. Any one of the attributes alone may not be precise enough to locate him but all attributes collectively will define him unambiguously. Is Mr. GAgAbUbu, then, just a bunch of attributes? No. Attributes cannot exist without a locus and the locus of the attributes is what we call an object. Do the senses perceive the locus or the attributes? Senses can only perceive such things as form, color and other attributes that can be measurable by the senses. These include rUpa, shabda, sparsha, rasa and gandha [form, sound, touch, taste and smell], all collectively referred to as rUpa, since visual perception is the one which is most direct and immediate, since light travels fast. Hence, from the point of view of our discussion, when we say rUpa or form and color, in principle this stands for all the five sense inputs, if the object has attributes available to all the senses.

The second aspect that we need to understand clearly is there is no particular attribute that an object has that can uniquely characterize it. This was stated earlier, that no object has svarUpa lakShaNa that can define the object singly and uniquely. (In mathematics, we refer to the svarUpa lakShaNa as ‘necessary and sufficient qualification’). The fundamental reason for this is that all objects in the universe are made up parts or an assemblage of parts. This, in fact, forms the basis for an error, as we will discuss later. Since no single attribute can uniquely define an object, perception of an incomplete set of attributes can result in errors in recognition of the object due to inherent ambiguity. Only Brahman has svarUpa lakShaNa, since being infinite he is part-less. Satyam, j~nAnam, anantam Brahma, as Shankara clearly describes, are svarUpa lakShaNa-s of Brahman. Note that these are not really three definitions but one, expressed from three different perspectives.

The implication of this is that objects are distinguishable not by one attribute but by the sum total of all essential attributes (svAbhAvika lakShaNa-s) put together. This implies that collective attributes together make an object distinguishable from others in the universe, provided they are asAdhAraNa [discrete], i.e. the combination of all attributes together make the object uniquely and precisely distinguishable.

In summary:

1) senses can only measure attributes and not the substantive. (The substantive, say gold material, is too gross for the senses to carry).
2) there is no single attribute that can uniquely define an object
3) all essential (asAdhAraNa) attributes are needed in order for object knowledge to be complete
4) errors in perception can occur since objective knowledge is only attributive knowledge and not substantive knowledge.

If one argued that VP says (although VP does not say this) that senses can also bring in the object, then the question would arise as to which sense input brings in the object, since there is no one unique attribute or single sense input that defines the object precisely. Also, if senses brought in the object, then any sense input should give us precise knowledge of the object and there would be no possibility for any errors in perception. We will examine this aspect further. What VP says is that the object is perceived ‘by the mind riding on the senses’. That does not mean that senses bring in the object or that the mind grasps the object independent of the sense input. The rest is interpretation, and should be based on the laws of physics where they apply.

What else is there, in addition to the attributes, that defines the object? Attributes should have a locus and what is that locus? Is the locus an attribute? No, it is not. Is form a locus? No, it is an attribute along with such things as color, received by the sense of sight. The only other thing that an object has besides its attributes is its substance that provides the locus for the attributes. Matter, locussed as an object, has attributes. Gold, locussed as an object, might be a ring with its attributes. Without matter, there cannot be attributes. If I say that water is colorless, odorless and tasteless, there has to be some matter contents which are nothing but an assemblage of water molecules that form the locus for the colorless, odorless and tasteless attributes. This is in addition to those other physical and chemical properties such as specific gravity, viscosity and the ability to decompose into hydrogen and oxygen etc, which may not be directly perceived by senses.

VidyAraNya refers to the knowledge of any object as adhAra and adheya j~nAnam – substantive and superimposed attributive knowledge. Hence, when I say ‘there is a ring object’, there is no ring object per se; it is only gold in the form of a ring, where the form constitutes an attribute. ‘Ring’ is a name, nAma or ‘pAda’, or a word with no ‘padArtha’ or substantive associated with it. That is why it is called mithyA. There is no ‘ringly’ material to substantiate it and differentiate it from ‘bangly’ material. Is ring an object separate from bangle? Yes, they are separate because the attributes of the ring are not the same as those of a bangle. But there is no substance ring or substance bangle to distinguish them at the substantive level. Both are made of up of the same substance – gold. Ring with its attributes cannot be thought of without having adhAra or support, just as we said that attributes cannot be thought of without a locus. ‘Ring’ is only a name for a form and so is ‘bangle’ or ‘bracelet’; nAma for a rUpa. Hence the statement ‘vAchArambhanam vikAro nAmadheyam’(Chandogya Upanishad (6.1.4 - 6) - 'depending on mere words or some merely verbal difference').

Hence, gold forms the AdhAra or substantive support for the existence of the ring’s attributes as well as the bangle’s attributes. Gold with the attributes of a ring is a ring, and gold with the attributes of a bangle is a bangle. There is no other ring or bangle otherwise – they are only names for forms. Form is an attribute perceived by the senses. It is gold alone in the ring form or ring attributes, since form as we said before is representative of all associated attributes. Thus, gold is the locus or substantive for the ring and gold is the locus or the substantive for the bangle too; and there are no ring or bangle separate from gold.

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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