Thursday, January 8, 2009

Vaisnava Epistemology- The Pramanas

Paramatma in the heart of all is the original source of all knowledge and 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 pramāṇas are a means not only for acquiring knowledge but also for verifying its validity or invalidity. In simple words, Keśava Miśra gives the following definitions in his Tarka-bhāṣā (1.2-4):

pramā-karaṇaṁ pramāṇam, atra pramāṇaṁ lakṣyaṁ, pramā-karaṇaṁ lakṣaṇam


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


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


yāthārthānubhavaḥ pramā


“Pramā is the perception or apprehension of an object as it really is.”


To summarize it— an object of knowledge, prameya, can be proved by a valid means of evidence, pramāṇa, thus resulting in valid knowledge, pramā. Different schools of philosophy accept or reject different pramāṇas to support their views. Here is a brief overview:


Pratyakṣa— 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 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 eyelids, 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 as a jaundice patient sees white objects as yellowish and tastes sugar as bitter. Still, atheistic philosophers like Cārvāka accept only pratyakṣa as a source of knowledge. The very proposal of a system that rejects other pramāṇas is ludicrous, for even daily life would be impractical if we were to completely reject inference and verbal testimony. Therefore, Cārvāka is mocked by the following verse:


cārvāka tava cārvāṅgīṁ jārato vīkṣa garbhiṇīm

pratyakṣa-mātra-viśvāso ghana-śvāsaṁ kim ujjhasi


“Hey, Cārvāka, who believes only in direct perception! Why are you sighing heavily after seeing your beautiful wife pregnant by a paramour?”


Moreover, spiritual knowledge is totally beyond the range of the material senses, as stated in the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (Pūrva-vibhāga 2.234):


ataḥ śrī-kṛṣṇa-nāmādi na bhaved grāhyam indriyaiḥ


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


Anumāna— 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 a 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 Kaṭha Upaniṣad (1.2.9):


naiṣā tarkeṇa matir apaneyā


 “This knowledge cannot be attained by logic.”


In the Brahmā-sūtra (2.1.11):


tarkāpratiṣṭhānād api,


“Because logic is not conclusive.”


In the Mahā-bhārata (6.6.11), it is said:


acintyāḥ khalu ye bhāvā na tāṁs tarkeṇa yojayet


“Transcendental things are certainly inconceivable. One cannot approach them by logic.”


Since the other pramāṇas, with the exception of śabda, are directly or indirectly dependent on pratyakṣa or anumāna, and since these are themselves inefficient, their capacity to lead to valid knowledge is also compromised. The validity of the knowledge gathered by either pratyakṣa or anumāna can be verified by taking to another pramāṇa to corroborate it. Jīva Gosvāmī illustrates this point by presenting a quite unusual situation: suppose under 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: “Listen, this is really a head flying,” then even the most unexpected sense perception has to be trusted…


Ārṣa— Words spoken by the sages. However, it is well known that the sages disagree among themselves, as the Mahā-bhārata (Vana-parva 313.117) says: nāsāv ṛṣir yasya mataṁ na bhinnam: “One is not considered a philosopher if his opinion does not differ from the opinions of other philosophers.”


Upamāna— 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 do not consider upamāna to be a different pramāṇa.


Arthāpatti— When the cause of an irrevocable fact is not visible but can be guessed on the basis of evident symptoms, such a deduction is called arthāpatti. For example, a fat person who is 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 considered another form of inference.


Abhāva— 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 means of inclusion, we understand how something is contained within a group or amount, just as within a 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 pratyakṣa, for there must be an original person who witnessed the events happen. Then again, the authenticity of the information will depend on the integrity of such a person and those who transmitted it.


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


Śabda— Super-human (apauruṣeya) 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, as stated in the śruti:


nāvedavin manute taṁ bṛhantam (Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, 3.12.7)


“One who does not know the Vedas does not know the Supreme.”


aupaniṣadaṁ puruṣaṁ pṛcchāmi (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 3.9.26)


“I am asking you about the Supreme Person taught in the Upaniṣads.”


And the Vedānta-sūtra (1.1.3; 2.1.27) prescribes:




 “Because the Supreme Lord should be understood through the sacred scriptures.”


śrutes tu śabda-mūlatvāt


“Because the scriptures are the only basis of knowledge about the Supreme Lord.”


The smṛti corroborates:


yatra cādyaḥ pumān āste bhagavān śabda-gocaraḥ

sattvaṁ viṣṭabhya virajaṁ svānāṁ no mṛḍayan vṛṣaḥ

(Bhāgavatam, 3.15.15)


“In the Vaikuṇṭha 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.”


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) pramāda, mistakes arising from carelessness or inattention; (3) karaṇāpaṭava, limitations of the senses, which result in erroneous perceptions; and (4) vipralipsā, the desire to deceive. The Vedas are said to be eternal, emanated from the Supreme Being, and thus not subjected to human frailties. As stated in the scriptures:


vācā virūpa nityayā (Ṛg Veda, 8.75.6)


“O Lord Who has multiple forms, please inspire us to glorify You with the eternal words of the Vedas.”


anādi-nidhanā nityā vāg utsṛṣṭā svayambhuvā

ādau veda-mayī divyā yataḥ sarvāḥ pravṛttayaḥ

(Mahā-bhārata, 12.224.55)


“In the beginning of creation, the Supreme Lord emitted the eternal, beginningless, endless, and transcendental words in the form of the Vedas, from which all other scriptures have come.”


pitṛ-deva-manuṣyāṇāṁ vedaś cakṣus taveśvara

śreyas tv anupalabdhe ‘rthe sādhya-sādhanayor api

(Bhāgavatam, 11.20.4)


“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.”


Therefore, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism accepts only three kinds of evidence, as corroborated by the smṛti:


pratyakṣaṁ cānumānaṁ ca śāstraṁ ca vividhāgamam

trayaṁ suviditaṁ kāryaṁ dharma-śuddhim abhīpsatā

(Manu-saṁhitā, 12.105)


“One who desires to attain a clear understanding of dharma should be well conversant with these three— direct perception, inference, and the various sacred scriptures.”


śrutiḥ pratyakṣam aitihyam anumānaṁ catuṣṭayam (Bhāgavatam, 11.19.17)


“The Vedas, direct perception, tradition, and inference— these are the four kinds of evidence.”


Here pratyakṣa and anumāna are subordinated to śabda and never independent of it, due to the above-mentioned reasons.

Now, it may be argued that śabda refers exclusively to the śruti— the four Saṁhitās, the Upaniṣads, the Brāhmaṇas, and the Āraṇyakas. In reply to this charge, in his Tattva Sandarbha, Jīva Gosvāmī extensively elaborated on the authenticity of the smṛti, particularly of Śrīmad-Bhāgavata Mahā-purāṇa. He says that the non-difference of the Vedas and the Itihāsa-Purāṇa, on the grounds of the Itihāsa-Purāṇa being as apauruṣeya as the Ṛg Veda and other Vedas, is implied in this passage of the Mādhyandina-śruti:


evaṁ vā are ‘sya mahato bhūtasya niḥśvasitam etad yad ṛg-vedo yajur-vedaḥ sāma-vedo ‘tharvāṅgirasa itihāsaḥ purāṇam (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Up., 2.4.10)


 “Thus indeed the breath of this Supreme Being constitutes the Ṛg Veda, Yajur Veda, Sāma Veda, Atharvāṅgirasa Veda, Itihāsa, and Purāṇa”


In this way, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism accepts pratyakṣa, anumāna and śabda as means for obtaining valid knowledge but particularly emphasizes that śabda is the only consistent means for spiritual enlightenment. Here, however, there are several conditions under which śabda can progressively fructify, such as detachment and experienced knowledge, which in their turn are all interdependent, being the natural result of the practical application of the instructions received from the scriptures.

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