Thursday, January 8, 2009

Vaisnava Epistemology- The pramanas

Paramatma in the heart of all is the original source of all knowledge, therefore the ultimate object of knowledge

Pratyaksa, anumana and sabda are the pramanas

Everything that one acquires in life comes by a specific means, and this is also true regarding knowledge. The pramanas are not only means for acquiring knowledge, but also for verifying its validity or invalidity. In simple words, Kesava Misra gives the following definitions in his Tarka-bhasa, 1.2-3:

prama-karanam pramanam, atra pramanam laksyam, pramakaranam laksanam

“Pramana is the proper means for acquiring correct cognition, prama. Here the means is the object to be defined and its being the instrument of cognition is its attribute.”

Then, what is prama, valid knowledge or correct cognition?

yatharthanubhavah prama

“Prama is the percerption or apprehension of an object as it really is.”

Summarizing it- an object of knowledge, prameya, can be proved by a valid means of evidence, pramana, thus resulting in valid knowledge, prama. Different schools of philosophy accept or reject different pramanas to support their views. Here is a brief overview:

Pratyaksa- Direct sense perception. The contact of the five senses- eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin- with their respective objects- form, sound, smell, taste and touch- produce a kind of knowledge that is taken as real by the sentient being. However, its reliability is subjective, doubtful, and in many circumstances proved to be wrong. Under certain conditions, sense perception can be hampered and mislead one into an erroneous apprehension. For example, the form of objects in a dim place can create a misperception of their identity. One cannot see an object that is too far, such as a bird flying very high, nor too near, such as the eye-lids, nor too small, such as the atom. Nor can one see the stars and planets during the day due to the rays of the sun. Nor can one see how in milk there is the potential for turning into curd. Under the influence of some disease or due to mental agitation, one may have a distorted perception, just like a jaundice patient sees white object as yellowish and tastes sugar as bitter. Still, atheistic philosophers like Carvaka accept only pratyaksa as a source of knowledge. The very proposal of a system that rejects other pramanas is ludicrous, for even daily life would be impractical if we were to completely reject inference and verbal testimony. Therefore Carvaka is mocked by the following verse:

carvaka tava carvangim jarato viksa garbhinim
pratyaksamatravisvaso ghanasvasam kim ujjhasi

“Hey Carvaka, just see your beautiful wife who was impregnated by a paramour! Since you only believe in direct perception, why are you sighing heavily?”

Moreover, spiritual knowledge is totally beyond the range of the material senses, as stated in the Padma Purana:

atah sri-krsna-namadi na bhaved grahyam indriyaih

“Therefore material senses cannot appreciate Krsna’s holy name, form, qualities and pastimes.”

Anumana- Inference. The knowledge of an object, the major term, by means of the analysis of another object, the middle term, is called inference. For instance, by the perception of smoke, the middle term, one may conclude the presence of fire, the major term. But inference is also not thoroughly unfailing, for in the given example we see that when fire is put out by water, smoke keeps on coming out for some time. Inference is an essential element in logic, but as far as Brahman is concerned, it is stated in the Katha Upanisad (1.2.9):

naisa tarkena matir apaneya

"Simply by logic one will never be able to understand spiritual knowledge."

In the Vedanta-sutra (2.1.11) it is said:


"Transcendental topics cannot be understood by argument or logic."

In the Mahabharata (Bhisma-parva 5.22) it is said:

acintyah khalu ye bhava na tams tarkena yojayet
prakrtibhyah param yac ca tad acintyasya laksanam

"Anything transcendental to material nature is called inconceivable, whereas arguments are all mundane. Since mundane arguments cannot touch transcendental subject matters, one should not try to understand transcendental subject matters through mundane arguments."

Since the other pramanas, with the exception of sabda, are directly or indirectly dependent on pratyaksa or anumana, and since these are themselves inefficient, their capacity to lead to valid knowledge is also compromised. The validity of the knowledge gathered by either pratyaksa or anumana can be verified by taking to another pramana to corroborate it. Baladeva Vidyabhusana illustrates this point by presenting a quite unusual situation: suppose is a particular climatic condition, such as in the middle of fog or smoke, one has the impression of seeing a head flying. For a moment he might doubt what his eyes are seeing, but if at that time a voice from the sky states: “Such-and-such, this is really a head flying”, then even the most unexpected sense perception has to be trusted…

Arsa- The words spoken by the sages. However, it is well known that the sages disagree among themselves, as the Mahabharata (Vana-parva 313.117) says, nasav rsir yasya matam na bhinnam: “One is not considered a philosopher if his opinion does not differ from the opinions of other philosophers.”

Upamana- Comparison. An unknown object can be identified based on the description of a similar object that is known. Just like one who has never seen a buffalo may be able to identify it after hearing the description of a cow. Here it is required that one must have seen a buffalo through direct sense perception and the other must infer the identity of a buffalo upon seeing one. Therefore, some don’t consider upamana to be a different pramana.

Arthapatti- When the cause of an irrevocable fact is not visible, but can be guessed with basis on evident symptoms, such a deduction is called arthapatti. For example, a fat person who was never seen eating during the day must presumably eat at night, even though unseen by others, for it is a fact that without eating nobody can remain fat. Thus, this is also considered another form of inference.

Abhava- Non-existence. By the non-perception of an object, one gets knowledge about its absence in a particular place and time. Some consider this just a negative aspect of direct sense perception, for it is totally dependent on it.

Sambhava- Inclusion. By this mean we understand how something is contained within a group or amount, just as within hundred people, there must be ten people. This is also a simple way of inference.

Aitihya- Historical evidence. A fact that is known by the public and is passed from generation to generation, although its original source is unknown, is called aitihya. Some consider this another form of pratyaksa, for there must be an original person who witnessed the events happening. Then again, the authenticity of the information will depend on the integrity of such a person and those who transmitted it.

Cesta- Gestures. One can transmit or acquire knowledge by gestures such as the movements of the fingers or the head.

Sabda- Super-human (apauruseya) verbal testimony. Even ordinary verbal testimony is accepted in common affairs as evidence for facts that are beyond one’s experience. For instance, the acknowledgement of one’s father based on the statement of the mother. The Vedas are the real means for understanding Brahman :

navedavin manute tam brhantam

"One ignorant of Vedic knowledge cannot actually understand the Supreme." (Taittiriya Brahmana, 3.12.9)

aupanisadam purusam prcchami

"Please tell me about the Supreme Personality of Godhead who is revealed in the Upanisads." (Brhad-aranyaka 3.9.26)

And the Vedanta-sutra prescribes :

“Because He may only be known by the revelation of the Vedic scriptures.”

srutes tu sabda-mulatvat

"The statements of Sruti-sastra are the root of real knowledge."(2.1.27)

yatra cadyah puman aste bhagavan sabda-gocarah
sattvam vistabhya virajam svanam no mrdayan vrsah

“In the Vaikuntha planets is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is the original person and who can be understood through the Vedic literature. He is full of the uncontaminated mode of goodness, with no place for passion or ignorance. He contributes religious progress for the devotees.”
>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 3.15.15

Being of super-human origin, the Vedas are free from the four human defects: (1) bhrama (error), or the tendency to take the real for the unreal or the unreal for the real, such as a rope for a snake, etc.; (2) pramada, mistakes arising from carelessness or inattention; (3) karanapatava, limitations on the senses which result in erroneous perceptions; and (4) vipralipsa, the desire to deceive. The Vedas are said to be eternal, emanated from the Supreme Being, and thus not subjected to human frailties. As it is stated:

vaca virupa nityaya

“O Virupa, glorify the Lord with the eternal Vedas.” Rg-veda, 8.75.6

anadi-nidhana nitya vag utsrsta svayambhuva
adau vedamayi divya yatah sarvah pravrttayah

"In the beginning of creation the Supreme Personality of Godhead spoke and from His words the eternal, beginningless, endless, transcendental Vedas were manifested. From the Vedas all other scriptures have come." (Mbh 12.231.56-57)

pitr-deva-manusyanam vedas caksus tavesvara
sreyas tv anupalabdhe 'rthe sadhya-sadhanayor api

“My dear Lord, in order to understand those things beyond direct experience—such as spiritual liberation or attainment of heaven and other material enjoyments beyond our present capacity—and in general to understand the means and end of all things, the forefathers, demigods and human beings must consult the Vedic literatures, which are Your own laws, for these constitute the highest evidence and revelation.”
>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 11.20.4

Therefore, gaudiya vaisnavism accepts only three kinds of evidence, as corroborated by the smrti:

pratyaksam anumanam ca sastram ca vividhagamam
trayam suviditam karyam dharma-suddhim abhipsata

“The three kinds of evidence- perception, inference, and sastra- which comprise the tradition of many schools, must be fully understood by him who desires perfect correctness in dharma.” (Manu 12.105)

srutih pratyaksam aitihyam anumanam catustayam
pramanesv anavasthanad vikalpat sa virajyate

“From the four types of evidence—Vedic knowledge, direct experience, traditional wisdom and logical induction—one can understand the temporary, insubstantial situation of the material world, by which one becomes detached from the duality of this world.”

>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 11.19.17

But here pratyaksa and anumana are subordinated to sabda and never independent of it due to the above-mentioned reasons.

Now, it may be argued that sabda refers exclusively to the sruti- the four Samhitas, the Upanisads, the Brahmanas and Aranyakas. In reply to this charge, Jiva Gosvami extensively elaborated on the authenticity of the smrti, particularly of Srimad Bhagavata Purana, in his ‘Tattva Sandarbha’. He says that the non-difference of the Vedas and the Itihasa-Purana—on the grounds of the Itihasa-Purana being as apauruseya as the Rg Veda and other Vedas—is implied in the passage of the Madhyandina-sruti:

evam va are ’sya mahato bhutasya nihsvasitam etad yad rg-vedo yajur-vedah sama-vedo ’tharvangirasa itihasah puranam

“Thus indeed the breath of this Supreme Being constitutes the Rg Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, Atharvangirasa Veda, Itihasa, and Purana” [Brhad-aranyaka Up. 2.4.10].

In this way, gaudiya vaisnavism accepts pratyaksa, anumana and sabda as means for obtaining valid knowledge, but particularly emphasises that sabda is the only consistent means for spiritual enlightenment. Here, however, there are several conditions under which sabda can progressively fructify, such as detachment and experienced knowledge, which by their turn are all interdependent, being the natural result of the practical application of the instructions received from the scriptures.

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