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?
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 Vivekananda’s statement that ‘All
our knowledge really consists of classification.’ (1)
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. Swamiji’s 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)
Stages of Knowledge
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:
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)
Source of Knowledge: Outside or Inside?
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)
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:
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.
Intellect and Ill-formed Personality
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 don’t 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
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 Swamiji’s 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.
of Mental Modifications
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.
Illumines the Vrittis?
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.
Extreme Theories about Knowledge
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
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)
is a Limitation"
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)
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.’
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.
and Apara- Vidyas
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.
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).
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 don’t 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.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.329.
Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy (New York: Bantam Books, 1981),
Kena Upanishad, 2.4.
yasya tu cakshuradi-
bahih spandate; …
Dakshinamurti Stotra, 4.
Mundaka Upanishad, 1.1.1.
Quoted in Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters (New
York: Bantam Books, 1980), 8.
Manodrishyamidam dvaitam yatkincit-sacaracaram.
Mandukya Karika, 3.31.