Buddhi is the basis of all knowing, willing and feeling5 min read

In Western philosophical writings the functions of the conscious mind are commonly divided into Knowing, Willing and Feeling.

The Vedanta usually adopts a different classification, and there is a risk of confusion unless this is clearly recognised. Suppose that someone asks you to describe London and you do so by splitting it up into postal districts and describing each one in turn, perhaps skimping a little on S.E.5 and letting yourself go on W.ll. Then your questioner says: “The other day, a friend of mine described London by telling me first about the parks and open spaces, then about the famous buildings, and finally about the network of streets and ordinary houses. Now tell me, how do the famous buildings link up with W.ll ?”

Although both are valid descriptions of the same city, you might have great difficulty in accurately defining a term used in one system in relation to the other system. The Vedanta tends not to analyse the mind (antahkarana) into the three states of Knowing, Willing and Feeling—this might be called a vertical classification—but rather into different levels of mental awareness—a horizontal classification.

This analysis is explicit in the five sheaths (koshas), and the account in the Taittiriya Upanishad shows that each inner sheath is subtler and implies a higher level of awareness than the sheath immediately ‘outside’ it. Descriptions are also given in the Upanishads, such as the following text from the Katha Upanishad 6 .7: “Higher than the senses is the manas (lower mind), higher than the manas is the buddhi (higher mind).”

So, in comparing the Vedantic psychology with the usual Western classification, two statements may be made:

(1) buddhi is the basis of all knowing, willing and feeling;
(2) all three functions are discernible at all levels of mental activity.

These statements will now be examined in more detail with particular reference to will and the function of willing.

Like everything else in the realm of relativity {Maya), buddhi is made up of the three constituents (gunas) known as sattva, rajas and tamas. According to Professor Bhattacharya, sattva, which has the quality of revealing (prakhya), manifests in buddhi as self-conscious knowing; rajas, which has the quality of activity (pravritti), manifests as self-conscious willing; and tamas, which has the quality of persistence (sthiti), manifests as self-conscious feeling. In buddhi the sattva element tends to be dominant, with rajas and tamas more or less recessive, though all three gunas are reduced to sanskara (the latent condition) in the nirudha (fully restrained) state referred to by Patanjali.

Thus, while buddhi also manifests willing and feeling, its main characteristic is to manifest knowledge. Since Self (Atman) is in all, everything in the universe gives Self-knowledge in some measure. Buddhi manifests the changeless Self by being the same even in a flow of vrittis (mental fluctuations). This sameness is inferred and is not evident to introspection. Buddhi without vritti is also a ‘flow’ with the form of self-identity, which is implicit in dreamless sleep and explicit in the lower (savikalpa) samadhi.

As a manifestation of rajas, will functions at every level of mental activity. For convenience, the two main levels of manas (lower mind) and buddhi (higher mind) may be taken. On the manas level will is involved in attention to, and preferential regard for, one section of sense data, i.e. the sight one actually sees, the sound one actually hears etc.

This function is called sankalpa. As Woodroffe points out, stress is sometimes laid in Vedanta on the vikalpa (doubt) aspect of manas, e.g. Swami Vidyaranya in Panchadasi says that manas is characterized by a state of indecision and buddhi by a state of decision, and here he is following Shri Shankara’s commentary on Vedanta Sutras 2.3.32: “ . . . the modifications of the antahkarana which is called manas when it is in the state of doubt etc. and buddhi when it is in the state of determination and the like.”

Nevertheless, the function of sankalpa is always ascribed to manas by the authorities, as in Vedantasara 66.

Attention to one object rather than to another, the ‘selection’ of that object so to say, together with the synthesis of the different impressions of colour, taste, sound etc. which make up the object, is sankalpa and involves definite acts of decision or will, albeit at a low level, the level of manas. On the plane of emotions and ideas (chitta) will is distinguished as iccha, a definite desire focused usually on a particular end (cf. shubeccha = shuba -\-iccha, meaning ‘goodwill’).

There is a Shruti text: “He willed: May I be many! May I grow forth!” It is significant that sankalpa is sometimes used as a synonym for iccha. Will is a vritti which reveals desire. In one sense will might be called a focused desire, or desire in action. On the plane of buddhi (higher mind) will is recognisable as nischaya or adhyavasaya, the function of determination or of decision after deliberation, e.g. the choice of a particular course of action from a number of possible alternatives.

A lively simile is used in the Katha Upanishad 3.3: “Know the Self as the Lord of the chariot, the body as the chariot, the buddhi as the driver and the manas as the reins. The senses, they say, are the horses; the objects which they perceive are the road.”

Shri Shankara comments: “Know the buddhi to be the driver, equipped with the capacity for determination, because the body is mainly guided by the buddhi, as the chariot is mainly guided by the driver . . . Know the manas with its characteristics of sankalpa and vikalpa to be the reins, for the senses such as the ear perform their functions when grasped by the mind as horses by the reins.”

In this simile, it is fairly easy to picture will as the function of control.

If one looks no higher than the reins, then one can say that the reins control the horses—this is will at the level of manas.

But it is the driver who holds the reins and has overriding control—this is will at the level of buddhi.