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
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.
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
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
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
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