Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

An Introduction to Vedanta
Part IX
Dr. K. Sadananda

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Part IX – Experience versus Knowledge (How do I know that I exist?)

Another problem is the confusion of self-knowledge with experience. People say I have studied Vedanta and now I want to experience it. Is it an experience or is it knowledge? Let us understand this difference. It is not ‘knowledge of’ something nor is it an ‘experience of’ something. The experiences that we know are time bound. There is an experiencer, something experienced and the act of experiencing – this is called a triad or tripuTi in Sanskrit. All experiences have a beginning and therefore have an end. Anything that has beginning has to have an end and that is the law. Now let us a ask question - Is there any time that I do not experience Brahman? If Brahman is infinite and eternal, I have to ‘experience’ Brahman all the time and everywhere. The problem that I have is that, although I experience Brahman all the time, I fail to recognize it. In fact, Vedanta says every thing that I experience is nothing but Brahman only, but I take it as ‘this’ or ‘that’.

Not knowing what Brahman is, I take whatever I experience as other than Brahman and therefore I set out to experience Brahman. Do I have knowledge of Brahman? If I understand Brahman intellectually by studying Vedanta, I have only conceptualized Brahman. Whatever is conceptualized is not Brahman – that is exactly the teaching of Vedanta. Forget about Brahman. Do I know myself? Not many will ask that question, since everybody takes for granted he know about himself – that is evident when he tries to introduce himself to others. But if one examines carefully, he is not introducing himself but what he thinks about himself. Vedanta says you are not what you think you are - you are sat chit Ananda or existence-consciousness-bliss. How can I know I am sat chit Ananda? Vedanta says it is not something to be known but something to understand. Let us give a simple example:

Suppose I am sitting in a pitch dark room and I cannot see anything. I am unaware of the existence of any object, since it is pitch dark. If some one calls me from outside and asks me if I am there in that dark room – what should be my answer? I cannot say ‘I do not see anything here; it is pitch dark. Therefore I do not know if I am here or not’. Should I say ‘I believe I am here’? Or should I say, ‘I can hear you, therefore I must be hear somewhere’? How do I know, or what is the means of knowledge (pramANa) for me to know, that I am there and I am conscious? Do I have to see myself (perception) to know myself? Do I have to experience myself to know myself? Is it a belief that I am there because the scriptures say that I am there?

No means of knowledge is required to know that I am there or that I am a conscious entity. I am a self-evident and self-conscious entity, which Vedanta calls aprameya. (prameya is a thing to be known, or an object for a ‘pramANa’; aprameya means I am not an object for any pramANa.) In fact all pramANa-s, including Veda pramANa are validated by me since I am there and I am a conscious entity able to validate them. A Self-existent and self-conscious entity need not be known or experienced. Or should I say ‘I cannot be known or experienced either, since whatever can be known or experienced is an object or inert entity’?

Vedanta says it is different from ‘knowledge of’ or ‘experience of’. The problem is that I, the self-existent self-conscious entity that I am, take myself as something other than myself. There is an error involved in the operations or transactions. The error is called ‘adhyAsa’ or superimposed error – wherein a self-existent self-conscious entity, I, take myself as an inert or unconscious entity, this (‘this’ being the body-mind-intellect complex). The solution therefore is to know myself as myself by rejecting all notions about myself such as ‘I am this or that’. It is therefore not a ‘knowledge of’ in the sense of an objective knowledge but knowledge of ‘I am that I am’ and not ‘I am this or that’. It is a peculiar knowledge in which the knower-known-knowing triad is not there but all converge to one, which we can refer to as pure knowledge without any attributes. So it is neither knowledge nor experience that we are familiar with – it is self-knowledge or recognition of who we are by discarding who we are not.

In the pitch dark room example there is another interesting point to note about my true nature. If I say it is pitch dark and therefore I cannot see anything there, this means that there is no illumination of the objects to reveal the objects that are there. Hence, the existence of any object cannot be ascertained unless it is illumined. The objects may be there or may not be there – there is an inherent uncertainty about their existence or non-existence until they are illuminated and seen.

Up to now, it is commonsense. Now let us ask another interesting question. How do I know it is dark? Of course, I can see that it is dark and, in fact, it is so dark that I cannot see anything else. But what illumines the darkness in order for me to see that it is dark, when I cannot see anything else? Suppose I shine a light to see the darkness, would I see darkness then? The external light that is needed to illumine all objects cannot illumine darkness. An external light is opposite to external darkness. But there is another light that illumines darkness too, in the light of which I know it is dark. That other light, which illumines darkness, is not opposite to darkness. The light that illumines the darkness is my own light of consciousness, which is not opposite to the darkness outside like the outside light. In fact, I am the light of all lights that illumines not only the darkness but even the lights outside too. I can see any thing or any object including the sun, the moon and all the lights, etc, as well as the darkness too in the light of illuminating consciousness that I am.

I am the consciousness because of which I am conscious of all the objects – even all the thoughts, including my notions that ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’ etc. Everything else shines (gets illuminated) after me. What light illumines me so that I can see myself? The fact of the matter is that I do not need a light to see the light. That is what is called self-luminous. I am the light of consciousness that illumines everything else and I do not need another light to illumine me. That is the reason why I know I am there and I know I am conscious even in the pitch dark room, when there is no external light to illumine me. Hence Vedanta says ‘I am a self-luminous entity’ (svayam jyoti) and I am light of all lights (yotir jyoti). These are the words that take us beyond their meaning for a contemplative student to see myself as myself.

Proceed to the next essay.


Other Essays in this Section:
01. The common questions. 27. The Mind of God.
02. Search for happiness. 28. The Paradox of Space and Time.
03. Questions about Religions and God. 29. Living in the Present.
04. Belief that we are Mortal, Unhappy and Ignorant. 30. Relationless Relation.
05. You are not what you take yourself to be. 31. Concept of Ishvara or God-Hood.
06. Problem Definition. 32. Self-realization or God-realization.
07. Vedanta as pramANa. 33. Self realization - attitude of mind.
08. shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana. 34. Consciousness and reflected consciousness.
09. Experience versus Knowledge. 35. Conscious and Unconscious Entities.
10. Who am I or what am I not? 36. Real Self and false self.
11. Ego or ahaMkAra. 37. Transmigration of Soul.
12. All about the universe. 38. Witnessing consciousness and reflected consciousness.
13. Creation according to Vedanta. 39. Analysis of Mind: Intro part 1
14. Description of brahman. 40. Analysis of Mind: Intro part 2
15. Progressive teaching method: svarUpa lakShaNa. 41. Mind and Matter: Part 1
16. Carpets and Schrödinger's Cat. 42. Mind and Matter: Part 2
17. Attribute and Substantive. 43. Classification of the Mind: Part 1
18. Does the world exist independent of an observer? 44. Classification of the Mind: Part 2
19. Brahman and the world. 45. Classification of the Mind: Part 3
20. The Cognitive Process. 46. Classification of the Mind: Part 4
21. Perception of the world. 47. Fundamental Human Problem: Part 1
22. What does negation involve? 48. Fundamental Human Problem: Part 2
23. Errors in Perception. 49. Fundamental Human Problem: Part 3
24. adhyAsa or error superimposition. 50. vAsanA-s part 1
25. What is Real? 51. vAsanA-s part 2
26. Transformation-less transformation. 52. Viewpoints of reality.

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Page last updated: 08-Jul-2012