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PRABUDDHA BHARATAReflections on Knowledge | Swami Nityasthananda  





              Reflections on Knowledge



               Swami Nityasthananda


     From the standpoint of philosophy, there are two important human tendencies: analytical and synthetic. The analytical mind tries to know more and more about less and less. It takes up a particular thing, studies its constituent elements, its qualities, actions and so on, analysing its every aspect to the minutest degree. This analytical approach has given rise to many philosophical schools like the Nyaya-Vaisheshika in India, to analytical schools like positivism in the West and to natural sciences. The synthetic mind is interested in a holistic approach to reality; it wants unity in diversity; it tries to resolve every particular to one unitary background; and its whole ambition is to know that by knowing which everything else is known. The best fruit of this approach is Vedanta and other monistic schools of philosophy. Is there a converging point of these approaches of knowing?




     Knowledge is Classification




     We see a particular object, and if it is absolutely strange to us, we just say, It is some object. Though we do not know what that object is, we know it is an object. That means we put it into the category of general idea of objects. Now when we move closer to it, we come to know that it is a tree and categorize it further as tree in general. Still closer observation reveals that it is a mango tree, and now it belongs to the category of general idea of mango tree. Further study reveals that it belongs to a particular variety of mango. What was earlier a general object now gets narrowed down to a particular object and this particularization can go on endlessly as the analysis penetrates into deeper layers of the object concerned. This reminds us of Swami Vivekanandas statement that All our knowledge really consists of classification. (1)




     Unity in Diversity




     But where does this analysis ultimately lead? When we take up a particular object and go on analysing it, ultimately it melts into unity, shedding all its particularities. The analysis of, say, a chair takes us to its material cause wood, leaving behind its form, name and so on, which give it its individuality. And a further analysis of the wood reduces it to its constituent elements, which again are reduced to molecules and later to atoms and still later to energy particles such as electrons and protons, which are nothing but different modes of one universal energy field or superstring. Swamijis concept of knowledge substantiates this: Knowledge is to find unity in the midst of diversity - to establish unity among things which appear to us to be different from one another. (5.519)




     Three Stages of Knowledge




     According to Swamiji there are three main stages of knowledge. In the first stage everything appears different from one another, having no connection whatsoever, existing independently. But close observation reveals that nothing is disparate in this universe; all are related to one another; and there is mutual dependence everywhere. And this seeing everything as related is the second stage of knowledge. In the final stage everything is seen as one, without any differentiation. So knowledge is a mental journey from absolute diversity to absolute unity, where both analytical and synthetic approaches converge. It is a journey from matter to spirit, from the secular to the spiritual. As Swamiji says:


     Take anything before you, the most material thing - take one of the most material sciences as chemistry or physics, astronomy or biology - study it, push the study forward and forward, and the gross forms will begin to melt and become finer and finer until they come to a point where you are bound to make a tremendous leap from these material things into the immaterial. The gross melts into the fine, physics into metaphysics, in every department of knowledge. (3.2-3)




     The Source of Knowledge: Outside or Inside?




     Now we have been discussing the objective aspect of knowledge covering a wide spectrum - from the gross to the fine, matter to Spirit. But where does this knowledge come from? Is it hidden in the object known? Does the object - fine or gross - reveal itself? Or does knowledge come from within? Is it not absurd to think that knowledge comes from within, though the object is outside? We are now dealing with the causal aspect of knowledge. Swamiji contends, There is no knowledge in nature; all knowledge comes from the human soul. Man manifests knowledge, discovers it within himself, which is pre-existing through eternity. (1.422)


     We normally think that we acquire knowledge from outside, from teachers, books and other mediums. But on a closer scrutiny of the process of knowledge, this common notion is proved to be naive. Knowledge is manufactured, as it were, within the mind with the help of data received from the senses. Outside, there are only objects and events, which stimulate the generation of knowledge within, which is neither in the object nor in the event. Our ordinary knowledge is a combination of outside stimuli and inside memory. No knowledge is possible without the association of something which is already within. In the words of Swamiji:


     Knowledge is, therefore, pigeon-holing one experience with the already existing fund of experience, and this is one of the great proofs of the fact that you cannot have any knowledge until you have already a fund in existence. If you are without experience, as some European philosophers think, and that your mind is a tabula rasa to begin with, you cannot get any knowledge, because the very fact of knowledge is the recognition of the new by means of associations already existing in the mind. (2.447)




     Well-informed Intellect and Ill-formed Personality



     We are now living in the age of information, and all sensory inputs of various kinds derived from varieties of media are bits of information crowding our brain. We are suffering from what is called by Jeremy Rifkin information overload. Unless inputs are processed and organized properly by finding proper association of ideas within, they dont get converted into knowledge, and consequently, we remain ignorant despite all the wealth of information. It is worth quoting Jeremy Rifkin again: As more and more information is beamed at us, less and less of it can be absorbed, retained and exploited. The rest accumulates as dissipated energy or waste. The build-up of the dissipated energy is really just social pollution, and it takes its toll in the increase in mental disorder of all kinds, just as physical waste eats away at our physical well-being. (2)


     This processing and organization of information is possible through thinking and reasoning, which are unfortunately not encouraged in this age of artificial intelligence. We stop at the level of information, which is enough to carry on technology-based everyday transactions, but not enough to build our personality, which requires assimilation of ideas through the process of thinking, like the assimilation of food through the process of digestion. We thus have a well-informed intellect but ill-formed personality. So Swamijis concept that knowledge is within has profound significance in that it urges us to seek knowledge within, rather than outside, and it underlines the urgency of transforming information into knowledge and developing the habit of thinking.




     Knowledge of Mental Modifications




     All knowledge is made possible through modification of the mind, or chitta-vritti, and strictly speaking, our knowledge is nothing but the knowledge of chitta-vritti. So the Sankhya philosopher Panchashikhacharya encapsulated this idea in a pithy statement: Ekameva darshanam, khyatireva darshanam; The knowledge of chitta-vritti (khyati) is the only knowledge we have. To see an external object means to see its representation as a mental modification within. All stimuli related to a particular object go to the mind, and with their help the mind takes the form of that object. We see that mental form or vritti and say that we are seeing the object outside. This is applicable to all forms of knowledge.




     What Illumines the Vrittis?




     Now the question is, what illumines this vritti, just as an outside light illumines outside objects? It is the light of the Self or Consciousness, says Vedanta. When this light is reflected through chitta-vritti, we get knowledge. In other words, what we call knowledge is nothing but the light of the Self. When we see an object outside, what we actually see is the light reflected through that object. Same is the case with regard to knowledge of chitta-vritti. So it is the Self that is being revealed through all knowledge. This reminds us of the famous statement of the Kena Upanishad: Pratibodhaviditam matam amritatvam hi vindate; Brahman is known when one sees the Self in every state of mind (knowledge), for one attains immortality by such knowledge. (3) Sri Shankaracharya expresses the same idea through a simile in his Dakshinamurti Stotra: Knowledge shines forth through the senses even as the light of a lamp kept in a pot with many holes. (4) So it is said that knowledge is the very nature of the Self.




     Two Extreme Theories about Knowledge




     There are a good number of theories regarding what is knowledge, ranging from the one that denies knowledge altogether to the one that considers that knowledge is everything. At the one end there is nihilistic Buddhism, which questions the validity of knowledge as a whole. Since everything is momentary, by the time we know a thing it is already non-existent. So, in fact, knowledge cannot reveal anything either objectively or subjectively. When being itself is questioned, there can be no question of knowledge. Since everything is in a state of constant flux, one thing knowing another cannot be conceived.


     At the other end, the Advaitins hold that knowledge itself is truth. To establish the momentary nature of knowledge, there must be awareness of a permanent reality. If everything is a constant flow of events, who is it that sees and understands this? Someone who is floating along with the current of the river cannot comprehend the nature of the current. Only when he comes out of the current and stands on the shore does he get a full picture of the flow. Likewise, there must be someone who observes the constant flow of events as a witness. He is the all-knowing Self, to whom belongs all knowledge and who is the source of all knowledge. (5)



     "Knowledge is a Limitation"




     According to some, what we call knowledge is nothing but ignorance; that is, knowing what is not there, for real knowledge of the object is impossible. Knowing something means superimposing our mental image over it. So knowing means ignoring what is really there, which cannot be known. If we had some other sense organ or if we could grasp some radiation other than light with limited range, then the world would have appeared to us entirely different from what it is now, and consequently, our lifestyles also would have been completely different. So what we know is far from what is, which implies that all of our empirical life is going on in ignorance. Looking at it from another angle, knowing an object means limiting it to our understanding. We are bound to see things through our senses and the mind with all its preconceived notions, and consequently, our knowledge of things comes filtered through these instruments of knowledge. So Swamiji says, Knowledge is a limitation, knowledge is objectifying. (6)


     Scientific theories are also distorted at least to some extent by the mental colour of the scientists concerned. Albert Einstein says, Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. He (conditioned mind) will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison. (7)


     According to the Greek philosopher Plato, we cannot recognize any object unless we have the idea of that object already in the mind. To recognize that it is, say, a book, there must be a universal idea of the book already in the mind. When we see a strange object that we cannot identify, we just say, this is something and the recognition that it is something is due to the universal idea of that something, which already exists in the mind. If somebody comes and explains what it is, further knowledge of that object is made possible because of the associated ideas already in the mind, without which we would never be able to understand what somebody says.




     Para- and Apara- Vidyas




     This means that we cannot see something outside if it does not already exist in the mind. If the universal idea of man is not there already in the mind, we cannot recognize man outside. If the universal idea of an object is not there in the mind, we cannot see any object outside. The whole world phenomena is nothing but mental images.8 There is some reality that we do not know and over which the phenomenal world is superimposed; on the basis of that our normal empirical life is going on.


     Perhaps we are left with two options: (1) Knowledge is nothing but superimposition and (2) Knowledge is the light of the Self. We may say that superimposed mental images are seen as objective knowledge, being illumined by light of the Self. This can be explained by an apt example given by Swami Nirvedanandaji in his Hinduism at a Glance. Mind with all its images can be compared to a film that is being projected through the projector called brain, and the whole phenomenal world is the projection of this film. As the electric light passing through the film appears as different scenes on the screen, so is the light of the Self passing through the mind appears as mental images. When the film called mind disappears what remains is only the Self with its pristine purity, unaffected by any adjectives. This is real knowledge (para-vidya) and the rest are its reflections (apara-vidya).








     Let us conclude this discussion on knowledge with a note on ignorance! According to Vedanta, ignorance is not absence of knowledge, but wrong knowledge. When we take one thing for another, when we see something that is not there at that point (atasmin tad-buddhih), that is called avidya, or ignorance. We cannot imagine a mental state absolutely devoid of knowledge. When anyone says, I dont know, and if he is sincere about it, that is also a form of knowledge (it is not ignorance). We cannot have a mental idea, or chitta-vritti, of a totally unknown object, about which concepts of neither knowledge nor ignorance can be had, for to say that I am ignorant of something, I must be having some idea of it already. So both knowledge and ignorance are chitta-vrittis illumined by the Self. It amounts to saying that ignorance also is a form of knowledge. So advancement of knowledge is not travelling from absence of knowledge to full knowledge, but from lesser or inadequate knowledge to a more adequate one. Perhaps Swamiji meant the same thing when he said that we are not travelling from error to truth, but from a lower truth to a higher one.








     1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.329.

     2. Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy (New York: Bantam Books, 1981), 170.

     3. Kena Upanishad, 2.4.

     4. Nanachidra-ghatodara-sthita-
     jnanam yasya tu cakshuradi-
     karana-dvara bahih spandate;

                    - Dakshinamurti Stotra, 4.

     5. Brahma-vidyam sarva-vidya-pratishtham.

                    - Mundaka Upanishad, 1.1.1.

     6. CW, 2.82.

     7. Quoted in Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), 8.

     8. Manodrishyamidam dvaitam yatkincit-sacaracaram.

                    - Mandukya Karika, 3.31.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015








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