Part VII – Vedanta as pramANa
For any knowledge to takes place we need a means to know, just as to get an academic degree we need to register and complete its requirements at an accredited University. The means of knowledge is called ‘pramANa’. For example, I can gain the knowledge that there is book on the table by seeing it directly. This is called perceptual knowledge. I need eyes to see the objects. Hence the eyes become a pramANa or means of knowledge for seeing objects. Similarly the ears become a pramANa for recognizing the sounds. Sometimes I need to touch a flower to know if it is Japanese or real! Only through the tongue can I taste. Thus each of the five senses are not only means of knowledge but are very specific in the sense that I cannot use ears to see or eyes to hear.
All perceptual knowledge is direct as long as the senses and the mind behind the senses are in operation. In fact I cannot help but see an object when the eyes are open and the mind is functioning. When I cannot see, I can infer existence by means of logic or anumAna pramANa. The classical example is the knowledge that there is a fire on a distant hill. I cannot see the fire, I can only see the mountain and the smoke on the mountain but I can infer that the mountain is under fire. The logic is based on a rule established previously that wherever there is smoke there must be a fire. This rule is based on previous perceptual knowledge or data. Thus logical deduction is indirectly based on the rules established by perceptual knowledge in the past.
The third means of knowledge is shabda pramANa – words of trustworthy people. I can learn what is happening in Iraq by listening to CNN. If a reporter is describing what is happening in Iraq, the knowledge is not based on perception or inference but on our trust in the statements of the reporter. Why should we trust the reporter’s words? It is simple faith that the reporter is paid to tell the facts that are happening there. As long as we have full faith in the reporter’s words, we can gain knowledge based on his reporting, supported by the evidence that he presents.
For the spiritual knowledge that we are seeking, perceptual and inferential knowledge are both useless. At the best they are secondary or supportive but do not give direct knowledge because the subject ‘I’ cannot be objectified. If it can be objectified then it is no longer a subject. Hence the only means of knowledge to know about the self is shabda pramANa (words of dependable reporters), which in this case is Veda pramANa or shAstra pramANa. The Vedas are considered as the recordings of the great RRiShi-s who gained knowledge through their own experiences, revealed to them in the seat of meditation. They are dRRiShTa-s or seers of the truth who recorded what they discovered for the benefit of their disciples. Just as a scientist sees the truth or a law of Nature by constant reflection on the cause-effect relations relevant to the data that he has collected, RRiShi-s are the subjective scientists who, by their direct experience and analysis, realized the truth as revealed to them in the seat of meditation.
Thus, the Vedas are revelations not inventions, just as Laws of Nature are revelations to the meditative scientists. Scientists only discover the laws; they do not invent them. The truth is self-existing and eternal and therefore the Vedas are also considered as revelations about the absolute, revealed to those minds that are ‘in-tune’. Since truth is beyond perception, no amount of objective investigation would reveal the truth. Objective investigations rest squarely on perceptual knowledge. Even deductive and inductive inferences ultimately rely on perceptual knowledge for support or validation. Hence objective scientific investigations can never reveal the truth or, to put it technically, they can never be a pramANa for the ‘subject I’ or consciousness that I am.
The Vedanta or Upanishads should be studied under a teacher. What about the other scriptures? Are they not valid? The answer is yes, they are all valid means of knowledge as long as they agree with Vedanta. In fact, we accept all the scriptures that are in tune with Vedanta and reject those which disagree with Vedanta. This means that Vedanta becomes the ultimate pramANa for knowledge of the ultimate. What about the other teachers or prophets? The answer is simple. We accept their words and teachings as long as they agree with Vedanta. In fact a proper teacher or guru is one who directs his disciples to Vedanta as the authority and not to themselves. Hence, Shankara defines faith as the belief that the words of the Vedanta as interpreted by the teacher are true and absolute. In that sense we accept all teachers so long as what they teach is in tune with Vedanta. Therefore what is pramANa has to be clear – it is the means of knowledge and Vedanta provides that means of knowledge about the Absolute.
We have already described how the words of Vedanta describe that which is indescribable by providing the appropriate pointers, for contemplative minds. It uses sometimes contradictory words to take the mind beyond the contradictions – for example it says ‘it is smaller the smallest, at the same time bigger than the biggest’. This is to take the mind beyond the comprehensions or concepts with which the mind might otherwise want to settle down. It is the eye of the eye, ear of the ear, or mind of the mind. The meanings of some of these profound teachings become valid means of knowledge only for a prepared student, who can think sufficiently deeply to go beyond the concepts or conceptualizations.
Proceed to the next essay.