Meditation, self-discipline, enlightened action and worship are preparatory aids to the attainment of knowledge.14 min read

TO those who know little or nothing about Yoga, the idea of Yoga as a means to knowledge may appear a little provocative, for the spirit of the age has little sympathy with mysticism or with any means of knowing other than sense experience and reasoning. Yet it is as a means to knowledge that Yoga is practised, and all the other aspects of Yoga —meditation, self-discipline, enlightened action and worship— serve merely as preparatory aids to the attainment of knowledge.

What is it then that Yoga offers knowledge of? And what is its attitude to the traditional everyday sources of knowledge —sense perception, inference and so forth? Some people, because of its supposed preoccupation with introspection and the states of the mind, imagine that Yoga holds that “everything is in the mind”, or that it believes that “the world is only a dream”.

But Shri Shankara and the other philosophers of the Advaita Vedanta tradition are in no sense idealists as, for instance, Berkeley was. On the contrary, they distinguish very clearly between idea and reality; empirically at least, the external world and its objects have an existence quite independent of the individual observer.

Imaginative ideas may be dependent on the will of the individual (purushatantra is the Sanskrit term), but knowledge is vastutantra, dependent on the nature of the object known. In his book ‘Meditation itsT heory and Prictice’ Dr. Shastri emphasises that meditation and knowledge are two very different things, and it is only insofar as it leads eventually to the creation of new insights that meditation can be said to give new knowledge.

This does not, of course, mean that knowledge cannot be false or misleading. It can, if there is a defect in the instruments of perception, as for instance in jaundice, when everything is seen as being yellow, or in double vision, when two moons may be seen in the sky instead of one. But this is nonetheless knowledge of an object or objects existing independently of the perceiver.

Shri Shankara would probably have been quite content, as far as this point goes, to accept Lord Russell’s idea of ‘true’ empirical knowledge as representing a correspondence between an idea (or belief) and an empirical fact, but, however useful empirically such knowledge may be, he would deny that it gave an adequate picture of reality. False knowledge represents an idea or belief which does not correspond with the facts. But, although false, the latter may have a powerful influence on thought and action. Though the truth of our knowledge depends on what the facts are, our life and action is determined not only by what the facts are, but just as much (if not more) by what we believe them to be.

Our state of mind, our action and our vision, depend on our beliefs and on the quality of our knowledge, whether this be true or false, misleading or correct; but the truth of our knowledge depends on its correspondence with reality. In fact, the starting-point of the philosophy and psychology of Yoga is the recognition of the fallibility of the raw and undisciplined mind as an instrument of cognition; and the avowed object of the inner and outer training which the yogi undertakes is to eliminate these defects from the mind and to turn it into a more sensitive and refined instrument so that it may lead him to a knowledge of reality.

What then does the philosophy of Yoga believe to be the nature of reality, and what is held to be the nature of the world of empirical fact? In Wittgenstein’s aphorism “the world is everything which is the case”. But what exactly is the case? What we think to be the case and what is the case may be widely divergent. In a certain sense, however, even the false beliefs exist as such, as is shown by their power to produce very real and tangible effects in action.

In this connection the yogis recognise three orders of reality or existence: the illusory (pratibhasika), the empirical (vyava- harika) and the transcendent (paramarthika).

The illusory level of existence is not hard to characterise. It is quite clear, for instance, that optical illusions and dreams exist in some sense, at least as appearances. The mirage really does appear to us, even though we may interpret it incorrectly. Similarly, when a rope seen in the corner of a dark room is mistakenly thought to be a snake, the snake has at least enough existence to fill the observer with fear and horror and to make him want to get away as quickly as possible. This is an example of the illusory category of existence, which includes the objects of dream and imagination.

The second category of existence, quite distinct from the illusory, is the empirical. This includes all the objects of the world as we know it through reliable sense perception. Now these objects are clearly more real than the illusory dream objects or the illusory objects of the mirage, but they are not of the highest order of reality.

Unlike the dream objects the empirical objects exist ‘outside’ the mind, but they are nonetheless phenomenal rather than absolutely real. This conception is in many ways very similar to that of F. H. Bradley. To the Vedantic philosophers both matter and mind have an equal reality status, and the mental images insofar as they are illusory or imaginary can in fact be rather less real than empirical objects.

In these objects it is the form which is considered by the Vedantin to be the unreal element, and what gives reality to the object is the real substance (in Spinoza’s sense of ‘that which stands under’ the appearance). This reality, the only entity which can be called real without qualification, is the Absolute.

Just as in the illusory mirage or the rope mistaken for a snake, the illusion has something real upon which it is superimposed, so in the empirical existence also, objects as presented to us are appearances which rest on an underlying reality. Their phenomenal nature is shown in experience by the fact that they are transient, that they come into existence, abide for a time, and then disappear.

They are forms imposed on an underlying reality, just as from a piece of gold different objects may be made having this form or that, but the abiding reality in them is not their form but the substance, gold. Moreover as empirical objects, the yogis predict that if they are investigated by the scientist or the philosopher in an attempt to find out exactly what they are in themselves, divested of all adventitious attributes, they will elude our grasp and turn into something unknown and ultimately unknowable.

This aspect of objects is quite familiar to Western philosophers of course, though not all would interpret it in precisely this way. It is surely that character which made the empiricist Locke say that when divested of qualities, relations and attributes, the object became (as he put it) “a something I know not what ”.

Kant’s conception of the unknowable “thing in itself” is a development of the same theme. But nearest to the Yedantins, in the radicalness of his criticism of the inherent contradictoriness and logical impossibility of our everyday conception of objects as real things possessing attributes and relations, is Bradley.

Another reason why objects possess an intermediate reality status is that they are creations of the creative energy of Nature (Maya-shakti or prakriti). Both matter and mind are equally creations of this primordial energy. But as it is pointed out in the Yogic classics, we cannot say of energy that it exists or does not exist. It is a power which is seen only by its effects, and it cannot exist apart from some entity in which it must inhere.

This conception of power or energy as the basis of the world of Nature has an astoundingly modern ring about it, for, as we all know, science by its investigations has succeeded in banishing ‘matter’ as such from the world and has left us only with energy, with events. What is disturbing to the old naive realist view of things is that with the disappearance also of the luminiferous ether, we are left with nothing in which that electromagnetic energy can inhere.

As Russell says, the world may be conceived as a Heraclitean fire, but if it is, then that which burns has altogether disappeared from modern physics, and we are left only with a description of the burning. All this seems very Vedantic: and these are not the only similarities.

There are now quite well recognised restrictions upon the completeness of the knowledge which we can get of physical events, such as that expressed in Heisenberg’s famous ‘Principle of Indeterminacy’ (perhaps more properly described as a ‘Principle of Unobservability’), which suggest that the yogis may also have been making a valid point in predicting the ultimate unknowabilily of the products of Nature.

To accept this is not necessarily to adopt a defeatist attitude towards the possibility of future fundamental advances in scientific knowledge; it is only to recognise that, however great the scope that human ingenuity and genius has for devising new methods of investigation, the knowledge which it yields will still have certain limitations, implicit in all empirical knowledge, and that the ultimate secrets of the reality behind the appearances in the universe may have to be sought for in another way.

This is precisely the position of the Yogic philosophy, which does not deny the validity of empirical knowledge within its own sphere, but considers that this is the sphere of practical usefulness rather than that of absolute truth. Shri Shankara’s contention is that empirical means of knowledge will never give us an adequate picture of reality.

Hence, the second or empirical category of existence is different both from the illusory (which is less real) and the transcendent (which is more so). It is the sphere of practical “common sense” reality, good enough for the commerce of everyday life; in fact, the Sanskrit word for it, vyavaharika, comes from a word meaning commerce. Empirical objects may be appearances, but they ‘work in practice’.

You may remember the apocryphal story, current at the time of large scale black market deals in the war, of the Merchant who bought a lorryload of tinned food at a very good price. He got hold of a tin and opened it, only to find to his disgust that the contents were rotten. But when he protested to the seller, he was met with an expression of injured innocence and the remark: “My dear fellow, you didn’t open those tins, did you ? They weren’t for eating ; they’re only for buying and selling.”

It is somewhat the same with the Vedantins’ view of empirical objects. They hold that they serve very well in practice, but do not stand up to close scrutiny. And the yogi might very well cite as a modern instance the enormous usefulness to us of the electron, which we employ and bend to our purposes in a hundred thousand different ways, although we are quite unable to say whether it is a wave or a particle or neither or both.

This brings us to the third category of existence recognised by the yogis, transcendent existence (paramarthika satta), and it should be made clear at the outset here that while there are lines of reasoning and traditional arguments as to why one should accept the existence of a higher order of reality than the empirical, the yogis themselves do not hold that its existence can be established by reason (any more than its non-existence can be so established), and their grounds for postulating it or rather describing it are, strictly speaking, not intellectual at all, but experimental.

In fact, among the accepted means of knowing (pramanas as they are called), Vedanta ranks all rational processes of inference and deduction as subservient to direct perception. It is on the basis that they claim to have experimentally verified its existence that the transcendent reality is maintained to exist. It was because of this that a great modern yogi, Swami Rama Tirtha, was able to call Yoga “experimental religion”.

The third order of existence, the transcendent, is held to be the only one which possesses absolute reality, and it is the reality underlying the universe. As such it is beyond all finite qualities and relationships. It is that supreme Being in which the universe and everything in it lives, moves and has its being. It is not something which exists; it is existence absolute. It is that underlying reality whose existence confers a phenomenal existence on all other objects in the empirical sphere.

To the God-realised yogi it is not something dim, vague and nebulous; it is the most real, the most immediate, factor in all experience. Swami Rama Tirtha says: “God must be at least as real to you as objects”, and the implication of the remark is that He is really very much more so.

The transcendent both is and is not something outside ordinary experience; it is outside our experience because we are deluded, overwhelmed by a wrong view of things, hypnotised by the wrong ideas created by our own raw and unspiritualised minds; yet the empirical experience is only made possible by the transcendental reality in which it takes place phenomenally.

Just as the illusory objects (the mirage water, the tree-stump seen as a man, the rope mistaken for a snake) only exist at all by virtue of the underlying reality (the more real empirical desert sand, tree-stump or rope) so the world of relativity, of time, space and causation, exists by virtue of its real substratum, the Absolute.

As the real element in each and every object, the transcendental reality is also present in each and every individual, and reveals itself there as the innermost Self. As one of the Upani- shads says: “The Self is the clue to all this universe, for by it one comes to know the all.” But of course, as Hume pointed out, if one looks for this Self as an object of experience in the mind (and the yogis are quite clear about the fact that the mind is an object of experience and not by any means the subject), then the self is nowhere to be found.

Perhaps it is as well to make absolutely clear here that Shri Shankara accepts all our ordinarily accepted means of knowing as being perfectly competent in their own sphere of empirical existence; indeed he regards them as the only competent means of gaining empirical knowledge.

The transcendental knowledge does not invalidate the empirical knowledge in its own sphere. Sense perception, the methods of inductive and deductive logic, and so forth are the ways of finding out about the nature of the empirical world, and no ‘higher means of knowledge’ can challenge them in this field. As he says:

“Not even a hundred revelations can make fire cold”! But all these means are indirect or mediate, relying on discursive reason or the senses as intermediaries.

Transcendental reality requires another means of knowing, and this is direct experience, anubhava, not sense perception, not even experience through an idea or mental picture. It is the self-luminosity of reality as consciousness, its immediate self-evidence as awareness, which enables it to be directly known.

Empirical knowledge dees not contradict it, it merely obscures it ; just as in the illusory perception ‘This is a snake’, the acceptance of the appearance as a snake obscures and falsifies the real nature of what ‘this’ is. There is something real there (the real ‘this’, namely the rope) but it is not correctly apprehended.

From this point of view the activities of the mind, though an essential basis for empirical experience, are an obstacle to the higher knowledge, which has to be overcome.

So the aim and method of the yogi is to discipline and still the activities of the mind voluntarily for a time at least, in order that the reality may reveal itself.

It is not something to be created but to be revealed as a fact.