Part XXIII – Errors in Perception
Because we perceive only the attributes and not the substantives along with the attributes, there is a possibility of making an error of judgment in the mind. If the substantive is also gathered by the senses, as other philosophers assume, then there is no likelihood of making any errors by the mind. Let us illustrate this by taking the famous example of a snake perception, where there is a rope. Suppose that the light was not bright. As I was walking in the bushes, suddenly I felt something soft and long on the pathway. I jumped with fear that it may be a snake, since I heard that there are lots of snakes around. I ran as fast as I could to save myself from the snake. It took some time for the adrenaline effects associated with fear of the snake to subside before I could breathe normally. The fellow who passed that path informed me that it was a rope rather than a snake. If it is a rope, ‘why did I see a snake?’- I questioned. We both went back and after shedding light on the object I learned that it was indeed a rope and not a snake.
Let us analyze this clearly. I perceived an object on the pathway through my senses. Because of the dim light, the senses could perceive only certain attributes of the objects that are common to both snake and rope. Based on the attributes that are gathered by the senses and by the cognitive process discussed earlier, my mind made a judgment call that it was a snake. Because I thought it was a snake, the rest of the biological reactions followed – fear, running away from the sources of fear and heavy breathing, etc. all followed. If the substantive also had been perceived along with the attributes of the object, then there would have been no reason to mistake the rope as a snake. Because the attributes that the senses were able to gather were not discriminative enough to distinguish rope from a snake, the error was committed in making the judgment call by the mind.
At this stage, there were no other means available for me to know that I was making an error of judgment. When I encountered another experience which contradicted the first, I had to make an inquiry to resolve the contradictory experiences about the object. In our case, the statement of another passer-by, who declared that it was a rope rather than a snake, provided the contradiction. The enquiry started because of the conflict of two contradictory experiences – one is the intense fearful experience of a snake and the other is the word of a dependable guy (Apta vAkya). Enquiry is done using a pramANa (using a torch light here) that reveals the true nature of the object, namely that is a rope.
When I see the rope in the light of the illuminating torch, I discover that it is indeed a rope and that the snake that I saw was my mistaken notion. When I saw the snake first, it was a real snake (as far I was concerned – I usually do not run from false snakes). It would have remained as a snake until I had a contradictory pramANa about the object that I perceived. Because of my faith in that pramANa, I proceeded to inquire further to find out whether it was a snake or a rope. Only after inquiry, do I see clearly that it is a rope and not a snake. Unceremoniously I dropped my previous notions about the object as snake.
Where did the snake go? – It went back into the same place that it came from – into my mind! Was the snake in the mind? No, it was out there where there rope is. How can a snake 'out there’ disappear into the mind? - Sir you are confusing everybody. When I say there is an object, I have knowledge of the existence of the object – ‘there is an object’ or ‘there is…’ providing the knowledge of the existence of an object out there. And based on the attributes that I could gather by the sense of sight (it is five feet long and 1 inch diameter, etc) and sense of touch (soft unlike a stick), my mind made a judgment call that ‘there is a snake’. ‘There is a snake’ is a thought in my mind. The rest of the body reactions followed to protect myself. (This also proves the Upanishadic statement that fear arises from duality).
When I made a further enquiry I found that it was a rope and not a snake – hence ‘there is a snake’ knowledge is replaced by ‘there is a rope’. In both cases the ‘there is…’ part remained unchanged. That is, the existence part remained. What changed was only the details - a snake to a rope. It is not that the snake became a rope. It was a rope all the time, even when I thought it was a snake. But based on my perception, I wrongly concluded that it was a snake. It was my conclusion that was wrong.
By the process of discriminative inquiry, I am able to learn that the snake was not real since it was a rope. The fear of the snake is also gone through the discovery of the truth. Since I alone saw the snake while others saw it as a rope, the snake knowledge was in my mind only. That knowledge in my mind is replaced by the rope knowledge in my mind. The innocent rope remained innocent in all these perturbations in my mind. Was the snake real? – It was real to the extent that I could see it or experience it. If there had been no other contradictory pramANa to the effect that it was a rope rather than a snake, my snake knowledge would have remained as the real knowledge in my mind.
This establishes one fact: experience alone is not the basis of the reality of the object. Therefore, because we experience the plurality of the world does not mean that we can conclude that the world is real. Since the snake experience is only in my mind, the knowledge of the snake or reality of the snake is called ‘prAtibhAsika satyam’, since the error occurred only in my mind. In contrast, there is vyAvahArika satyam or transactional reality as mentioned before and related to the relative knowledge of the world of objects. We took the example of a ‘carpet’ to illustrate the relative knowledge. Let us take another example of error at the level of vyAvahArika – The famous examples are mirage water or even sunrise and sunset. Everybody on this earth experiences sunrise and sunset yet we know from science that sun neither rises not sets. Here the true knowledge of the reality of the sunrise and sunset does not dismiss the sunrise and sunset. While knowing fully that the sun neither rises nor sets, I can still enjoy the beautiful sunrise and sunset.
This error is in contrast to the snake knowledge which disappeared when I saw the rope. The transactional truth at this collective level is called ‘vyAvahArika satyam’ in contrast to the truth at individual level - ‘prAtibhAsika satyam’. The absolute truth of course is ‘Brahman alone is real’ and that is called pAramArthika satyam. Thus we have an absolute truth which is Brahman and we have relative errors: the one at the collective level (macro level) is called vyAvahArika satyam and the other at individual level called prAtibhAsika satyam. The error of the snake is at the individual level and we can call the snake a ‘subjective objectification’ or ‘I see it, therefore it is’ – I see a snake there and therefore it is a snake. The error at the collective level we can call ‘collective objectification’ or ‘it is, therefore I see it’. Even if I know that there is no real water in the mirage water, I still seem to see it, since the effects that caused the mirage did not disappear with the knowledge. The same analysis applies to the sunrise and sunset since the source of the error is not eliminated with the knowledge that the sun neither rises nor sets.
Proceed to the next essay.