Friday, November 21, 2014

Knowledge of Self vs. knowledge on Self

Knowledge of Self vs. knowledge on Self

Recently at one of the Advaita online discussion fora, one of the participants made the following observation:

"By philosophy I mean a formal academic body of knowledge – complete with its theories, literature, methodologies, technical terminology etc.  Any debate on Advaita Vedanta would then necessarily have to be restricted to this domain .. because in a debate every one must talk about the same subject matter.

If it is said that the stand taken by mere “theoretician” Advaitins is not probable, it implies perhaps that a personal ‘direct’ experience is more powerful and meaningful than mere theories. That may be so. But then, that cannot be the subject of a debate because only ideas and concepts can be debated. Ideas and concepts formulated into a coherent theory and through that theory subjected to critical inquiry can only survive the test of time. This is the case with Advaita Vedanta also."


The view expressed by the discussant reflects the way we are educated about gaining knowledge on a subject like Physics, Engineering, Medicine or skills like carpentry or car driving etc. etc.

The well defined layout spelt out by him about what should constitute the platform and ground rules suit excellently in the acquisition of and discussions on “knowledge” that pertains to mundane worldly subjects.

But Advaita is a philosophy that tells us about "the ineffable, unthinkable and inexpressible Self".
['Self' being the word used as a pointer to that which is indicated by mantra 7 of mANDUkya.]

If one is desirous to obtain “knowledge of Self” in an academic sense in a pedantic atmosphere using pedagogic tools, there’s no need to look any further than the approach suggested by the discussant.

If, however, one is desirous to obtain “Self-Knowledge,” the design prescribed by him is eminently unsuited and is also improper.

Why?  Because there is a difference between 'knowledge' (lower case 'k') and "Knowledge (upper case "K")." The difference is explicit in the Upanishads – “Knowledge” is that “knowing which all is known.”

We should remember that ‘knowledge’ is accumulative, makes one an ‘expert’ and it is always based on memory and hence belongs to the past and therefore, considered ‘dead.’ OTOH, “Knowledge” is ever fresh, alive and cannot be stored in memory.

Acquisition of ‘knowledge of Self’ may make one an ‘Expert on Truth'; but it does not make him/her a “Knower of Truth.”  (For an explanation of these terms, please read: here )

Honouring the desire of a sincere seeker who goes in search of “Self-Knowledge,” the objectives and direction of goal of any discussion groups on Advaita have to be as broad and as “inclusive” as possible.


What does constitute a discussion on “Knowledge” and how does it differ from a discussion on ‘knowledge’?

“Discussion” amongst seekers on “Knowledge” is more in the spirit of ‘nididhyAsana’ (contemplative meditation after learning the Non-dual message and reflecting on what is learnt) in order “to grok” the subject but not to prove or disprove anything. The human mind, however intellectual and intelligent it may be, cannot prove anything which is beyond itself.

Hence discussions by committed seekers are only done with the purpose of surmounting one’s own impediments (pratibhandaka-s — shAstra vAsana (what is taught) is one of the most difficult pratibhandaka-s to get rid of. I have a post  on this topic here) in the process of ingesting the ultimate Truth. This is in stark contrast to a discussion on ‘knowledge’ because this sort of discussion is aimed at proving one’s statement and disproving another’s and such an exercise often unfortunately morphs into an ‘egofest.’

A genuine question may arise then that if word meanings are not standardized, any debate may be totally incomprehensible to the participants at large. The answer to this lies in the fact that one should carefully assess the meaning of a ‘word’ as used by a teacher instead of trying to declare his expression to be wrong. Further, knowledgeable Vedanta Pundits say that our scriptures hardly tied themselves into knots giving significance to sabdArtha (the word meaning); they went for bhAvardha (the salience of the content) in a spirit of true learning. Hence it will help matters if a discussant defines upfront his/her usage of terms to avoid confusion. After all, the meaning of any word depends on what meaning 'you' give to it.

The seeker's interest is in converting the knowledge on Self gained by him to Self-Knowledge.

Admittedly, knowledge of "Self" has to be obtained first before the 'tipping point' occurs when finally even the Knowledge along with itself burns away all knowledge acquired, like fire (true Knowledge) also ends after burning away a faggot of wood (the bundle of accumulated knowledge).