Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Direct versus Indirect Knowledge
Satyan Chidambaran

flower picture

I have been to Niagara Falls. I am trying to explain to you what Niagara Falls is like. It was a really long drive to the Falls and we had great difficulty finding parking so that I wondered if all the trouble was worthwhile. As we walked towards the Falls, somewhat tired from the trip, from a distance it seemed like a large waterfall. Then we waited to board the ‘Maid of the Mist’, the boat that takes you close to the Falls. However, we had to wait for an hour and a half in the heat before we boarded the boat. I was growing a bit thirsty and also tired after having stood in the heat for so long.

Within a few minutes, the boat started rolling and soon the waters began to get rough and there seemed to be a thundering roar in the background. My ears were trying to get tuned to the thunder of the waters that increased in intensity every passing minute and drowned the hum of the engine. The air had also gotten misty. Suddenly then, to our delight, we saw a huge waterfall. It was a waterfall like nothing I had seen before!! It was really large. I told someone, look, ‘How wonderful Niagara is’.

At that time, one of the seasoned visitors who stood beside me, with a rather grim countenance remarked to me, ‘That is just the American Falls; wait till you get to the Horseshoe falls’. Now I was even more excited. What is he talking about? If the American Falls itself was so great, what would the Horseshoe Falls be like? Then the boat suddenly began to rock. The original thunder died away and the earth began to shake with a rolling thunder that was of an entirely different magnitude. One knew that one was approaching something very BIG. The mist in the air wet my face completely. Through my wet eyelids, I saw a great milky wall. The milky wall of foaming waters grew larger and larger as the boat approached it. So did the thunder and the boat shivered in fear as it approached the great Falls. Soon the boat was in the middle of the Horseshoe shaped Wall of Milk. I held on to the railings lest the mighty waves toppled the boat. I started chanting praises to the Lord of the Waters for the blessed sight. This was Niagara in all its glory. This was creation itself in all its might. I was in awe. The fear of the waves did not seem to matter any more. The tiredness of the trip did not matter any more. My thirst did not matter any more. This was Niagara and the power of the waters ripped through ones ego making every cell of the body tremble. This was Niagara!!

Now the above description gives a person who has not visited Niagara Falls an Indirect knowledge of what the Falls is about. It may bring a desire to see the falls and experience them. As I unfolded a description of the falls, the mind that was listening to me would be filled with various images of what the falls are like. However, we all know that no amount of words, no matter how picturesque, can capture the beauty and majesty of Niagara. I can never communicate to you what Niagara is really like, no matter how much I write about it. Because all you have is indirect knowledge of it. When you make a trip to Niagara yourself, you can relate exactly to what I have said and then you have direct knowledge. The above gap between Indirect Knowledge and Direct Knowledge exists simply because ‘You are not Niagara’!!

Now let’s see the situation with respect to the Self. Are the scriptures providing Direct Knowledge or Indirect Knowledge? The key difference to note from the Niagara example is that ‘You ARE the Self’. The ‘Self is immediately available’, unlike Niagara. It is not remote like ‘Niagara’, which has to be visited at a different point in space and time. It is here and now. However, the issue is that we entertain misconceptions about ourselves. These misconceptions about the Self, in a prepared listener, can be knocked off here and now by the words of the scriptures unfolded by a teacher who is familiar with the paramparA for wielding the words. The sampradAya GURU knows how to strip words taken from common parlance to indicate something that is not so common. A mind prepared by a shrotriya can grasp the understanding that is conveyed by the Guru. This is shravaNa. It is much like the tenth man whose ignorance was knocked off by the words ‘You are the tenth man’ from an Apta puruSha [realized man]. He gained a certain increment in knowledge, just by words that were able to knock off his ignorance.

One has to be clear that gaining any increment in knowledge (transactional or spiritual) requires a pramANa, a means of knowledge. There is no escape from this law. The pramANa has to have an alignment with the Object of which Knowledge has to be gained. This alignment is a part of the natural ORDER in the creation. If the alignment is there, Knowledge takes place without any exercise of choice or will. On the other hand, using a pramANa that is not compatible with the object of which knowledge has to be gained, no matter how much will is exercised, it doesn’t help. To gain knowledge of the form of an apple, we use our eyes (perception) and not our nose. To gain knowledge of the existence of fire when we see smoke, we use inference and not perception because we cannot see (perceive) the fire itself. Hence, the right pramANa has to be chosen for the specific purpose.

In the case of the Knowledge of the Self, the Object of Knowledge is the Subject itself! Perception and inference are not valid pramANa-s because the Self is not available to any of them. Experience also is not a pramANa. Every Experience has to be interpreted by the right pramANa to get to the Truth about it. Only habda pramANa can provide the increment in knowledge about ONESELF that is essential to dispose off saMsAra caused by misconceptions about oneself. And no other pramANa (much less any other practice) except the shabda pramANa can do this. And the resultant knowledge is not Indirect. It is very much Direct!!

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012