Khyati (Epistemology or sources of knowledge) has been a fierce
subject of debate in India for many centuries. How can one have valid
knowledge (Prama) and what are the proximate means (pramanas) to valid
knowledge? This issue is important in Indic dharma systems because of their
claim that dhyana (meditation) or japa (repeatation of mantra) can lead to
supreme knowledge. An objection raised to this claim is the possibility that
dhyana or japa might be deluding people. How can one know that the experiences
claimed by Yogis are not hallucinations? Vedantic Acharyas were sensitive to
Vedanta darshana developed the idea of pramana to answer the objections to
the Yogic experience. Historically, three basic pramanas have been accepted by
various Vedantic groups (some groups accept more pramanas). These are (1)
Pratakshya (direct perception), (2) Anumana (inference) and (3) Sabda Pramana
(Vedas). Pratakshya is sensory perception. Every minute of our waking life we
gather data through this means. Anumana allows us to deduce from indirect
evidence. Sabda Pramana is simply the Yogic experience obtained through
spiritual practice. Vedas are simply the most ancient spiritual experiential
data that is available to us. The Rishi, who wrote the Svetasvatara Upanishad,
directly affirms that:
I know this great Person (Brahman) who is resplendent like the sun and is
beyond darkness. By knowing Him alone one transcends death; there is no other
path to go by. (Svetasvatara. Upanishad 3.8)
This kind of bold affirmation of Truth is important for a beginner and is a source of
Even these pramanas were objected to by some people, specially, the Nastika
Lokayatas who followed the teachings of Rishi Charvaka. They rejected Sabda
Pramana as irrelevant since it is not based on sensory data. They also
rejected Anumana as insufficient and even dangerous. The point they made was
that many people have inferred, falsely, the presence of a ghost in a dark
night which turned out merely to be a tree. They rejected any data that is not
obtained through Pratkshya.
Reply to Lokayata objections
Astika groups say that such a position would say that senses and reason are
the only sources of knowledge. This raises a very important question. How can
one know if the reality that we see through our senses and by applying reason
is the ENTIRE reality? Can Lokayatas give a guarantee that such is the case?
Then there is the question of dropping Anumana from the list of pramanas.
Modern Science says that quarks can never be directly observed but can only be
inferred through experiments. If you drop anumana then even modern science
will come to a screeching halt.
Astika groups assert that Sabda Pramana is extremely important in spiritual
practice. Why have they taken such a stance? Sabda Pramana is absolutely
necessary for a beginner. How can one even start one’s enquiry into the
Ultimate Reality without some body of pre-existing knowledge? Jaimini points
out that the Veda (sabda Pramana) is the source of our knowledge just where
pratakshya and Anuman fail to be of assistance to us (Mimansa Sutra I.i.5).
Sayanacharya says in the introduction to his commentary on Rig Veda that the
chief function of Sabda Pramana is to communicate the knowledge of the two
higher ideals of dharma and moksha and the proper means to their realization.
Vedantic Acharyas were, however, sensitive to the charge that Yogic experience
is merely hallucinatory. It is entirely possible that a single rishi may be
misled and his experience may be just a hallucination. So Vedantic Acharyas
have made the Sruti a library and NOT a single book. Sruti records the
collective experience of many rishis. It is of course true that even many
rishis might have been misled but the chances are smaller. The second
precaution they took was to see if the best minds of Hindus would accept the
Vedas as sabda Pramana for a long period of time. The argument was that if the
best minds think that there is some truth in the Vedas then one’s confidence
in the Vedas increases. Thirdly, there is always the route of spiritual
practice and directly testing the Vedic claims. Finally, there have been men
like Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sankaracharya and many others who have claimed that
they have had the same experience as the Rishis.
More posts by this author:
- Why is Sanskrit considered a Divine language?
- Experiences on the way to moksha
- The Authority of Brahmasutra
- Is it possible for an ordinary person to become enlightened without raising Kundalini?
- Conceptual difference between the Vedantic and the Semetic God and the reason for the difference
I did my school, college and parts of my University education in Kolkata. I got my M.Sc degree from Kolkata University. I went to USA in 1979 and got my M.S and Ph.D in Physics from University of Pittsburgh in 1984. I did my Post Doctorate in University of Southern California, Los Angeles and then worked as a Research Scientist in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Space Sciences Center of University of Southern California. My scientific work includes heavy ion-atom scattering, multiphoton ionization and heliosphere data analysis of Pioneer 10/111 and Voyager 1/2 deep space spacecaft and analysis of solar extreme ultraviolet data obtained from SOHO spacecraft. I have been a National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) Principal Investigator from 2002 – 2007. I have been a member of a NASA awards committee to decide allocation of money to different scientists. I have also refereed scientific articles submitted to Journal of Geophysical Research and Astrophysical Journal.