Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Why should we believe in Scriptures?
Dr. Kuntimaddi Sadananda

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Dr. Kuntimaddi Sadananda


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(from a discussion on the Advaitin Egroup, April 2003)

Why should we believe in scriptures? - Dr. Kuntimaddi Sadananda

To appreciate the role of scriptures, one needs to have a clear understanding of pramANa, or means of knowledge.

pramA means ‘true knowledge’ and pramANa is the means of acquiring this knowledge. Once we establish that ignorance is the root cause of human problems, then it follows that ignorance can only be removed by knowledge. Questions that immediately follow are: ‘what is knowledge?’ and ‘how do we gain that knowledge?’.

Knowledge is defined as 'yathArtham pramANam' – that means of knowledge which conforms to the truth. Here, the word pramANam is used not only for the means but also for the goal. As corollary to this definition, knowledge is qualified as that which is abAdhitam - that which is not negated or contradicted. If I know an object as something and then that knowledge is contradicted later, this implies that what I knew before is not the truth about that object.

Now we bring in another word - bhrama (not to be confused with brahma!), meaning that which appears to be true but which, upon further inquiry, is contradicted – as with knowing first that an object is a snake but later coming to know that it is only a rope. Here, the snake knowledge is bhrama and the rope knowledge is prama. For every bhrama there has to be prama behind, yet to be discovered.

Means of Knowledge

There are at least three accepted means of knowledge for any object. (According to Advaita there are actually six means of knowledge – see the essay on adhyAsa.) The three are: pratyakSha (perception), anumAna (inference) and shabda (verbal authority). Here, shabda is taken to mean shAstra or science - scriptures come under this category or shAstra – i.e. shruti based: that what you hear from a teacher through the use of appropriate words to convey that knowledge.

Perceptual knowledge is gained through the senses - eyes to see form and color, ears to hear, etc. Each one is specific to its own field. Eyes cannot hear and ears cannot see etc. This brings another property of pramANa. Each means of perception is very specific in its field and one cannot apply another means to gain that knowledge. One perhaps can establish the form by the sense of touch - but one has to be careful about the conclusion otherwise it may be like six blind men describing an elephant.

anumAna or inference comes next. That which cannot be established directly by pratyakSha can be established by anumAna. The classical example is: there is fire on that distant hill since I see smoke on the hill. One is not able to see the fire directly. If he can, then anumAna or logic is not necessary or it is redundant. For inference to be valid, one needs to have a prior knowledge of the concomitant relation between smoke and fire, namely that wherever there is smoke there must be fire. This relation has been previously established by pratyakSha pramANa - perceptual knowledge.

Now let us take an example of heaven or hell. One cannot establish the existence of heaven or hell by perception or by inference. The only pramANa is the word of the scriptures. I don't need the scriptures to tell me that there is heaven and hell or a life after death or a life before death if I can see directly that this is so by pratyakSha or if I can logically infer this by anumAna. This also means that I can neither validate the scriptures not invalidate them using pratyakSha or anumAna, since the subject of the inquiry does not fall in the realm of these pramANa-s.

But why should I accept the scriptures? I need not but that also means that I have no means to invalidate them either. This is where faith comes into picture. Here we use the word Astika for someone who has faith in the word of the scriptures and nAstika for one who has no faith in them. (Astika also means one who believes that He (God) exists (asti). na asti means ‘does not exist’, hence nAstika).

Faith vs. Belief

I will provide one operative definition here: Faith is that which is not illogical but is not yet established as factual and hence is subject to verification later. It is like the working hypothesis that a seeker or a scientist makes before he confirms by experimentation whether it is true or not. All research proposals are based on this working hypotheses or faith in the proposition and the means of investigation.

Let us take an example - Atman (self - or soul in some scriptures). Is there an Atma or soul? Now neither pratyakSha nor anumAna can prove the existence of a soul. Hence shabda or scriptures alone becomes a valid means of knowledge for that. One has faith (not belief) in the existence of a soul, since one cannot logically dismiss its existence but at the same time cannot logically establish it either. Free-will also comes under this category. Interestingly the same applies to consciousness - neither pratyakSha nor anumAna logically establishes the existence of consciousness but at the same time they cannot logically disprove its existence either.

During the war on Iraq, we heard accounts of what was happening from the news reporters. We had faith in their reports. We had faith that they were reporting what they saw and faith that they had no reason to lie and were reporting facts as they saw and experienced them. But our faith goes down the drain if another reporter, in whom we also have faith, contradicts this previous reporter. On the other hand, we accept it as knowledge if the second and third reporters confirm the statements of the first one.

In this example, we do not have direct perceptual knowledge of the facts, nor can we logically deduce the facts. The only source of knowledge is shabda - the words of the authority.

Now let us take the reports of the Iraqi Information Minister. Firstly, he was contradicting the statements of the other reporters. Secondly, we knew that he had a vested interest in communicating false information and thirdly his statements were not confirmed by reporters in whom we did have faith.

In this simple example, it would have been possible (in theory) to establish the truth of the reports through direct perception. In the case of matters such as the nature of the Self, the knowledge is not available to pratyakSha or anumAna and we have to rely on shabda.

vedAnta as pramANa

Of all the scriptures vedAnta (upaniShad-s) occupy a unique role. This is not just because Hindus believe that it they were not written by man (apaurusheya) but because of the message it conveys. Besides providing the knowledge of the truth that cannot be known by other pramANa-s, it does not contradict other scriptures of the world. Furthermore, it is not illogical though, at the same time, what it tells is beyond logic and of course beyond perception too.

The mahAvAkya-s are the great statements of the vedAnta:

  1. praj~nAnam brahma - consciousness is infiniteness.
  2. Tat tvam asi - you are that consciousness which is infiniteness
  3. ayam Atma brahman - that ‘you’, to which we are referring is not body, mind and intellect but the essence of your self. The self is that infiniteness and of course is consciousness.
  4. aham brahma asmi - I am that Brahman. This is the conclusion to which the seeker comes through contemplation of the first three statements.

To throw more light on the subject, there are additional definitions of Brahman in the shruti:

Brahman is sat chit Ananda - existence, consciousness and bliss
Brahman is satyam j~nAnam anantam – truth, knowledge and infinite
Brahman is also equated to Isvara: -

yato vA imAni bhUtAni jAyante |
yena jAtAni jIvanti |
yatprayantyabhisaM vishanti |
- that from which the world rose, by whom it is sustained and into which it returns

Brahman also has the incidental qualification of ‘taTasta lakshaNa’ - cause of the universe.

The vedAnta consists of reports from reporters who are reporting (as though) from Brahman state. Faith comes into the picture because reporter after reporter who experienced that state confirmed the previous reports as true and added some more to them - these are the upaniShad-s. There are no beliefs or commandments, only facts as they saw them.

In the bRRihadAraNyaka U., a sage teaches his wife: "when the husband says that he loves his wife, he does not really love his wife but he loves himself - what he loves is the happiness that his wife brings and therefore he really loves the happiness which is himself". These statements are logical and at the same time tell us something more - since one can love that which brings happiness only if one loves oneself, that self should be of the nature of happiness alone. It is unconditional love since for any other love there is a ‘because’. But love for oneself is absolute, since it is limitless or infinite or Brahman!

Proof of vedAnta

One swami told an interesting story: a man suddenly became blind due to some strange disease. He went to one doctor after another and tried all sorts of medicines. He was even operated upon yet he remained as blind as before. Every means he tried became invalid failed. He was getting frustrated and became vexed with all the promises of the doctors. At last he was taken to one famous surgeon, who said that he could cure the disease. After much coaxing he agreed to the operation. After the operation, the doctor came to the patient saying: ‘Congratulations - the operation went successful and now I will open your bandage’. The surgeon removed all the coverings and asked the patient to open his eyes.

The patient said he would not open his eyes unless the doctor promised that the operation had really been successful and would guarantee that his eyesight has been restored, since in the past he had been so disappointed by the promises of so many doctors. The surgeon said that all indications were that the operation had been successful but that he could not know for certain until the patient opened his eyes and discovered that he could see.

Still, the patient refused to open his eyes unless the doctor assured him that this particular operation had also been fully successful. Now the doctor could not provide any further proof other than telling the stories of how successful other similar patients had been and assuring the patient that there was no reason to doubt that this operation had also been successful. But the real success of the operation could only be established by the patient opening the eyes and testing whether he can see or not.

Proof of vedAnta is exactly like that. It provides a means to know but the knowledge has to be gained by the seeker through his self-effort. Hence it tells us that one has to do manana (reflection) and nididhyAsana (meditation) after hearing (shravaNa) the facts from the teacher.

Great mahAtma-s, from time immemorial to the present day, only confirmed that what vedAnta says is indeed true. Hence it becomes a valid pramANa for this knowledge, which is beyond perception and logic.

Regarding the words of other masters

Take the example of the report of the Iraqi information minister. If his reports state the same thing as the other reporters in whom we have faith, then naturally we accept that his reports are true, since it is confirmation of the reports of the others whom we all relay. But if he contradicts the reports of those in whom we have greater trust, then naturally we do not accept them as true since we cannot independently establish their truth by other pramANa-s or means of knowledge. Hence it is accepted in our tradition that we accept all those teachers as valid teachers who endorse the statements of the scriptures, whether or not they are Hindus. We do not accept those that contradict the statements of the scriptures – these teachers cannot be validated.

Traditional teachers are called ‘sampradAya’ teachers (traditional doctrine transmitted from one teacher to another) - in the sense that their statements do not contradict the shAstra-s. It can be complimentary but not contradictory. Hence Shankara defines - faith or shraddha in the vivekachUDAmaNi:

shAstrasya guru vAkyasya satya buddhava dhArana - sa shraddhA - faith is accepting that the scriptures and the interpretations of these by the teachers are indeed true (subject, of course, to self-validation, as in a ‘working hypothesis’).

Scripture alone becomes a pramANa or means of knowledge - for me to know that I am not only sat (existence) and chit (consciousness) but also Ananda and ananta (happiness / infiniteness) i.e. Brahman.

This cannot be established by any other means. Hence faith in the scripture becomes the means for self-knowledge. Since this experience of the truth about oneself, the subject of the inquiry, is not objective, there can be no valid objective means of discovering it. We cannot rely upon the subjective experiences of any teacher

(however much he may be telling the truth) since we cannot independently evaluate by any other means if the statements of that teacher are statements of facts. I can have a belief in him but that is personal. On the other hand if that teacher confirms that his experience is in tune with vedAnta, then the faith in the teacher comes from the faith in the scriptures. Hence Shankara himself insists on shAstrasya guruvAkyasya - shAstra comes first for validation.

You should not have blind faith in any scriptures - vedAnta never insists on that - but do not reject the statements of vedAnta. Conclusion without experimentation is unscientific. First listen and understand what it says and then contemplate on it to see if it is true or not. The ball is in your court - to prove vedAnta is not correct.

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