The Epistemology of Yoga
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: The Epistemological Predicament

In all studies concerning human knowledge it has been considered necessary to investigate into the very process of knowing so that we may be sure as to what extent we are correct in the knowledge that we seem to be possessing about things. Since we are the knowers of things it becomes, at the same time, essential to know something about our own selves. Though it is not easy to know oneself wholly, thoroughly—in a totally exhaustive manner—without reference to other things with which we are also connected, we have to start from somewhere; and it is not possible to start from everywhere at the same time.

The difficulty in all worthwhile philosophical studies is that we cannot start from any particular point of view, ignoring other possible points of view, because every situation that involves knowledge implies a relationship to various other factors without the knowledge of which, in an appreciable manner, we cannot know either ourselves or anything else. Yet since a beginning has to be made, the proper starting point would be a study of the mechanism of human nature which conditions the processes of knowing—after which, it will be essential to know what it is that we are knowing.

In the process of knowledge, there are three things involved: the knower, the process of knowledge, and the object that is known. The whole of experience is a threefold constitution of the structure of the knower, the process of knowing, and the nature of the object that is known. Hence, it was with some relevance that we commenced with a little bit of analysis of our psychological makeup in order that we may know how we begin to know things at all.

The way in which things are known—the process of knowing—is a complicated subject. It does not appear to be as simple as it seems to be on the surface, at a first view of things. Even the simple act of standing on two legs is not a simple act of a fiat of our will, as people with knowledge of the physical structure of the body will tell us. There is a cumulative action of the whole organism of the body cooperating in a most beautiful and harmonious manner—many muscular centres coming together to make us stand up on our two legs. We take such a simple, ordinary thing as standing on two legs for granted and cannot imagine that the whole body is aware when we project our will to get up and stand.

The process of knowing is more complicated than even the act of standing on two legs. And, even today, we cannot say that people have come to a definite conclusion as to what is really happening when we know things. After we gain some sort of an understanding, at least an outline of the way in which we are made as subjects of knowledge, we may have a comparative knowledge of the manner in which we come to know things. Then, we may have to go further on to know what it is that we are seeing with our eyes—the world of perception. This will take us further on, into the nature of the Ultimate Reality, to which everything seems to be directed in one way or other.

It is not a pointless life that we are living in the world. There seems to be some significance in all things. There is a purposefulness manifested even in the growth of a plant, the birth of a child, and even the movement of an electron. It does not seem that things are purposelessly acting, moving or behaving in the way that they do. The discovery of a purpose in the operation of things, a purpose in nature as a whole, will land us in the necessity to know what the final purpose of the universe is. This is an inquiry into the nature of the Supreme Reality.

Philosophers, whether of the East or the West, have mostly been concerned with only three things: God, world, and soul—the individual, the universe, and the Supreme Absolute. Here is the sum and substance of all metaphysical thinking, and every other detail is a ramification and an extended form of discussion arising from the positing of these three realities, which insist on being recognised.

There is no doubt that we are existing here. We are alive. I am. This consciousness of ‘I am’ is an indubitable experience. We need not have to consult books to know that we exist. We do not have to raise questions before other people: “Do I exist really, my dear friend?” Never is such a question put, just as we do not have a doubt as to whether it is daytime or night time, as it is so obvious for any sensible person. While everything in the world can be a matter of doubt, there is one thing which we cannot doubt: that we exist. Thank God there is at least something which we cannot doubt, and which we need not doubt.

Why should we not doubt? There have been sceptics in the world. There are consistent sceptical thinkers and agnostics who either conclude that it is not possible to know what ultimately is, or they hold the doctrine that everything is dubious. The fallacy in the argument of downright scepticism is, again, very clear on the surface. Nobody can be a consistent sceptic. There is always a flaw in sceptical arguments because there is a justification on the part of the sceptic as to the indubitability of his arguments and the doubtless character of the doctrine of scepticism itself. This is a very strange way of arguing. That everything is doubtful is a statement which itself cannot be regarded as doubtful, so there is a doubtless base on which is founded all doubtful arguments and the whole structure of the philosophy of scepticism.

There have been thinkers in the East as well as in the West who were agnostics and sceptics. Ya eva hi nirakarta tad eva tasya svarupam. In this one sentence Acharya Sankara, in his commentary on the Brahma Sutras, refutes scepticism, root and branch. Whoever denies, does not deny himself. He denies everything except himself, because if the denier denies himself, the denial also is denied—and two negatives make a positive. Such a possibility is not acceptable. Nobody ever feels that he does not exist. Even the totally unconscious condition of sleep does not obliterate the consciousness of our having existed in sleep. We are able to remember that we did exist, even in swoon. By a process of memory and recollection, we can conclude that we did exist.

Now, the fact that we exist is a very important stronghold, a rock bottom on which we can build the edifice of our further analytical process. At least something is there to hold on to. If everything is going, if the ground itself is moving and is cracking, we cannot stand anywhere. But it does not appear that the ground is moving. All consciousness of movement is an acceptance of the existence of a reference which itself cannot be moving along with the act of moving.

The existence of what is called the knower is the beginning of all consistent thinking—rationally, scientifically or philosophically. There would be no science, no philosophy, nothing meaningful or significant in the world, if the very existence of the knower is doubtful. That would be like talking through the hat. Such a predicament is not acceptable and not tenable. Our conviction that we are seeing something real in front of us may be a doubtful affair, granted; but we cannot doubt that we are the source of this doubt in regard to the objects that we are doubting. The whole world may be an object of doubt, and we may not be sure whether we are seeing people seated in front of us. We may be in a state of delirium. We are sleepwalkers, perhaps. We may be not in our proper senses, and we may be in a state of seeing phantasms in front of us due to a peculiar split in the way of our thinking; all this may be granted, accepted, but we cannot go deeper than that. That a person is, is beyond logical ascertainment. It is not by logical argument that we know that we exist. There is no deduction or induction involved there. Something is and, therefore, something has to be. Thus, such a conclusion is arrived at.

Such kind of induction is not essential. Logical arguments are not essential to prove the existence of one’s own self, because all logic proceeds from the fact of our accepting that we are. Every form of knowledge, logical or scientific, is an outcome of our having convincingly accepted that we indubitably exist. This is a very famous point and well-known ground that we have to take into consideration in every further state. We do exist—and, therefore, we have to take it as a certainty. We have a knowledge that we exist.

Now comes another point which we should not forget. That we exist is a doubtless position that we are assuming; but, this doubtless assuming of the fact of our being is nothing but an awareness that we are existing. As an unconsciousness cannot be associated with the conviction that one exists, it is a consciousness that is inseparably associated with the fact of our being there as such and such—as something.

So, look at this beautiful thing that is before us. We cannot deny our being, and we cannot deny the consciousness of our being, because the denying of the consciousness associated with being would also be to deny being. There is no being without consciousness. That would be a meaningless assertion. Hence, our consciousness of our being is a very important point to remember. Well, let us stop here and go no further.

There is something which is undoubtedly presenting itself before us: I am. This I am-ness in us is a consciousness of our being. The famous technical Sanskrit terms describing this position, Being associated with Consciousness, are Sat associated with Chit. For Being, or Existence, the Sanskrit word is Sat, or Satta; and Consciousness is Chit, or Chaitanya, as it is sometimes called. Sat-Chit is Being-Consciousness. They go together, but not as two friends walking hand in hand. Being and Consciousness, in the case of one’s own knowing that one is, are not two different aspects of personality. Being and Consciousness are not two features; they do not represent two things. The word ‘they’, as a plural, is inapplicable in this compound being which is Awareness-Existence, Sat-Chit. Sat and Chit, or Being and Consciousness, are two words that we use to designate one single, indivisible compound. All words that we use here are inadequate to describe this position. It is neither a compound nor a coming together into a blend of two things. It is an indescribable Being-Consciousness, for which language is impotent, and therefore we use such terms as Being-Consciousness, Sat-Chit, etc. Language is intended to describe by means of characterising objects of perception, but this so-called Being-Consciousness is not an object of perception. It is a subject that is responsible for every kind of perception, so it cannot be logically defined.

Therefore, language is useless where it is a matter concerning Being-Consciousness—that which is self-identical with ourselves. We do not require language to know our own selves. We require language to communicate with another person as an object of our perception, but we need not communicate anything to our own selves. The means of communication is not only absent but is ruled out completely, as there is no such thing as self-communication. We need not speak to ourselves. We need not have to communicate ideas to ourselves. We need not have to find a means of perceiving ourselves. We need not argue that we exist. Hence, every endeavour, from every direction, becomes redundant in the case of that which is self-certain, which we, ourselves, are: I am.

When we begin to come to such a conclusion, we do not seem to be exhausting all our problems of life. This is only the opening of a gate to a vista of the further difficulties that we are going to face in the matter of experience, which does not seem to get exhausted merely with self-experience in the way it presents itself to us as individuals. The ‘I am-ness’ or the Self-Consciousness, the Being-Awareness of ourselves which we have concluded is an indubitable something, unfortunately happens to be a Self-Consciousness identified with a localised body. It is some XYZ sitting but ABC speaking about this position of the indubitable condition of ‘I am’.

So, a problem suddenly springs up from this acceptance of there being such a thing as Self-Consciousness, or Being-Awareness, identified with individual being. The idea of individuality implies space and time, so our knowledge that we are —as individuals, or persons, or human beings—is limited by space and by the time process. We are therefore limited, self-conscious beings. We are finite individuals; and the consciousness of a finite being suddenly and simultaneously implies the consciousness of there being other finite centres of a similar character. The world that we see in front of us is a conglomeration of other finite centres like our own selves. The inviolable position of there being a world outside us arises on account of our knowing or being aware of ourselves as finite centres. There is an inscrutable intervention in our knowing that we are, by another inscrutable factor called space and time. Nobody can say what is space and what is time. It is, again, something that is taken for granted. We cannot explain what space is, nor can we say what time is. They are names that we give to conditions that limit our existence and consciousness. This so-called Sat-Chitthat we are, this Being-Consciousness that we seem to be, this ‘I am-ness’ is conditioned by inscrutable factors known as space and time. They say these are the spectacles that we wear to know our experience. A pair of spectacles called space and time are worn by every Being-Consciousness that is individual. With these spectacles, we have a consciousness of objective experience. Space and time are the conditions of objectivity, externalisation—the projection of Being-Consciousness into what we call objects.

What we call the objective world is a vast presentation before our so-called Being-Consciousness by an action of space and time. If space were not to intervene in our consciousness that we are, the world would have been a different thing, perhaps. We cannot say what it would have been, minus space and time. We cannot imagine a condition minus space and time, because even the very thought that there could be a condition minus space and time is involved in space and time. So, man is utterly helpless in the matter of knowing things. Inasmuch as space and time are involved even in the attempt at knowing things about space and time, our ideologies are limited ones; and even our notion of a spaceless and timeless existence seems to be limited by space and time.

Thus, human knowledge is finite. No man can have infinite knowledge. We can never hope to be omniscient as long as our expectations, even the loftiest ones, are perforce limited to the operation of space and time. Space and time come together as a single brood to throw our consciousness out. And, in a way, we may define space as the condition of externality. It is hard for us to know what externality means, but we can surmise with a little bit of exercise of common sense that externality is the way in which our consciousness operates in terms of what it is not—to which I made reference previously. We are involved in a consciousness of what we are not; and the only function of space-time is to compel us to be involved in that which we are not.

Thus, the world is space-time, and the whole world is only that. There is nothing else in the world except space-time. It is very interesting indeed to know all these things. If space and time were not to be there, our finite consciousness of being would not be able to know that there are other finite beings in the world. There would be no world if space and time were not. Hence, what we call world-experience is space-time experience. Therefore great scientific thinkers of modern times have come to a final conclusion that there is nothing in the world except space and time, and the hard things—the substances and the people that we see in front of us—are not outside space and time. They are also the very same Being-Consciousness in themselves. As we have concluded that we are Sat-Chit, every person in the world can also come to a similar conclusion in regard to himself or herself. But that they do not appear to be of the same stuff as we are made of, that they are objects of our perception with whom or with which we have to deal in an externalised manner, is a condition brought about by the intervention of space-time. These are hard things for the brain to comprehend. Our minds are not made in such a way as to be able to go deep into these difficulties.

There is a famous thesis written by a most up-to-date scientific philosopher, Samuel Alexander, who gave the famous Gifford lectures called Space, Time and Deity. It is one of the most outstanding productions of modern times, in which and by which argument we are brought face to face with this final position that the world seems to be constituted only of space-time. Space-time is the matrix of all things and, therefore, space-time does not mean emptiness.

We think that space is emptiness, a void, a nil—a zero. It is not a zero. It can contain everything. A zero cannot be the medium of the communication of things. When I speak, you hear what I speak. An emptiness or a void cannot be the means of the communication of sound. We have television and radio, which means the possibility of conveying vibrations through a medium which is sometimes called ether; we may call it space or by any other name. If it was a total absense of all things—a total minus—there would be no television, no radio. No wireless communication would be possible.

There is a substantiality and a tangibility and a reality of some sort even in space, which appears to be a nothing before us. That which is between you and me is not emptiness. It is a very living and substantial something which is the basis of what we call the world structure. It is through space and time that we are beholding objects of the world and, therefore, we are seeing the objects of the world as totally outside us. The purpose of space and time is to compel consciousness to project everything externally and to make it impossible for us to know things as they really are, but only as they appear through the spectacles of space and time. Therefore reality as such cannot be known, says the agnostic—from a different angle of vision, of course.

Now we continue the thread of this very same argument up to the point of the great question before us. How do we know that things are outside us? This subject of the process of knowing things which we are not, the ‘not me’, the ‘not I’, the ‘other than what I am’—how is it possible for me to know that such a thing exists, when I am not that? How can the ‘I’ know the ‘not I’? The ‘I’ and the ‘not I’ are contradictions; they are opposites. How can a position know an opposition? This is the subject of a great philosophical theme called epistemology, which is a technical term which simply means the knowledge of the very process of coming to know that things are.

The analytical studies in this direction will bring us no worthwhile fruit. All epistemology has been a failure, finally, because if it is true that we are not in a position to know anything except in terms of space and time, we have to conclude that our knowledge, whatever be the form of that knowledge, is an imperfect knowledge of things. My knowledge of the fact that people are seated in front of me is conditioned by the operation of space and time and, therefore, it is called empirical knowledge. It is sensory, conditioned, limited to space and time and, therefore, it is not true knowledge. It is a characterisation rather than an insight. When I see you, I am not seeing what you are, but what you appear to be in terms of space-time conditions. The characterisation of an object is the limitations put upon it by the definitions of the object. I know that you are seated in front of me by a defining characteristic which is foisted upon you by the operation of space and time. There are features which characterise the existence of persons or things. We do not actually see persons and things, but only characterisations.

Definitions, or the qualities that go to define something, and the thing that we are—the thing-in-itself, as people say—is unknown, and is incapable of being known, because we know only the conditions in which the thing-in-itself is placed. What we know are only conditions, characterisations, definitions, qualities, attributes, and not that particular inscrutable thing at the back of what is seen through the eyes, sensed through the senses or even known mentally or rationally. So if philosophy is to be regarded as an insight into the true nature of Ultimate Reality, such a philosophy does not exist in this world.

This is the despair to which thinkers like Immanuel Kant —the Copernican philosopher, as people call him—came to land themselves. There is no such thing as the philosophy of Reality, as nobody can know it. Nobody can know it, because every knowledge is conditioned by space and time, so what we are seeing is only space and time—or space-time, as it is called. We are really helpless; we have nobody to help us. Nobody can help us because that somebody who we would like to help us is, again, only a formation that we conceive through space and time. Thus, even the concept of God appears to be spatio-temporally conditioned.

We cannot know God as He is, through our minds. Rationally, by arguments, by logic, God cannot be known. Why God?—we cannot know even a sand particle on the Ganga bank, as it is in itself. We can know it only as it appears under the conditions imposed upon it by space-time. And do not think space and time are simple things; they are terrible limitations, and they condition the very way in which we think. So, how do we know things? How do I know that you are, and how do you know that I am, and how does anyone know that anything is? This is the problem of knowledge—the epistemological predicament.

Here, we should say that the insight of the Eastern sages has gone deeper than the psychological analysis of Western thinkers like Locke, Berkeley, Hume, etc. Because they were admittedly empirical philosophers, it was not possible for them to go deeper than the structure of the mind and the psychical reason. Reason is the highest endowment of man, and one cannot imagine that there can be anything superior to reason in the human individual. There were also certain geniuses in the West who may be said to have stumbled into a strange way of knowing that is non-empirical and accepted the possibility of such a thing as a non-empirical mode of knowing things. Plato, for instance, was one such stalwart in the field of philosophy, and there were some others also. Though they were also compelled to accept the usual difficulty of the human being in knowing anything as it is, there was something of a genius character in them which accepted that there is another faculty in the human being which is superior to reason, by which reality, as such, can be contacted—by a means which, in India, is called yoga.

Yoga means union. Union of the reality in us with the reality in the cosmos is called yoga. The deepest in us confronts the deepest in the cosmos by a commingling of characters and a blending of features, and a unity of existence. This is the aim of yoga, finally. The knowledge process reaches its summit in the attainment of samadhi, the supreme state of consciousness where being enters being. The root of being in us enters the root of being in the whole universe. This is the final meaning of that great, oft-quoted statement tat tvam asi, thou art that. The truest essence, the quintessential root of what we are—the ‘thou’, not as it appears on the surface but the ‘thou’ in its being, free from the limitations of space and time—gets united with the non-spatial, non-temporal being in the cosmos.

We have often heard it said that God is beyond space and time and so there is no possibility of knowing God, because we are in space and time. That which is in space and time cannot know that which is not in space and time, so no man can see God. But, there is something in man which is superhuman. Man, though he is empirically drowned in sensory perceptions, has something at the base, which is called these days, in a philosophical style, the transcendental unity of apperception— not an empirical unity of sensory perception, but a transcendental unity of apperception, not perception. The Self-cognition which is attained by a transcendental means of knowledge is called apperception. It is Self-knowledge, not knowledge of objects.

You may say even now, “I have self-knowledge. I am Rama, Krishna, Govinda. I am Mr. or Mrs. How do you say that I have no self-knowledge?” This so-called self-knowledge of yours as a man or a woman, or a son or a daughter, or an officer, or a rich man or a poor man—this empirical knowledge of yourself is not transcendental knowledge. When you say “I am sitting here in this hall, listening to what you are saying”, you are empirically thinking, and not transcendentally knowing anything. Hence, what I am speaking to you is empirically conveyed to your empirical capacity to hear, which is not adequate. Therefore, merely listening to what I say is not sufficient. It has to go deep and sink further down into a stratum of your being, which is a tendency to non-empirical existence. Therefore, Indian sages have insisted upon contemplating deeply on what has been heard from an instructor or a Guru or a teacher. So do not think that everything is over by listening to what somebody says. This is called sravana, merely listening; and listening is an empirical act.

This empirical knowledge which you receive through the Guru or the teacher contains a transcendental essence which has to be separated from the conditions through which it has been conveyed to you. I am speaking to you in a language, a sound process, a means in space and in time, and you are hearing, understanding and appreciating what I speak through your psychological apparatus which, again, is conditioned by space and time. Yet, there is a substance that is conveyed through the empirical process. This substance has to sink into you by a deeper reflective analysis called manana. Sravana is hearing, listening to what is told to you, and manana is reflection. And there is a further, deeper process called nididhyasana, where it is understood that what is obviously empirical, which cannot be anything but empirical, carries with it, at the base, a transcendental meaning.

We belong to four levels of being: the conscious, subconscious, unconscious and transcendent essence—a point that is made out in the Mandukya Upanishad. In the language of the Upanishad, these conditions are the fourfold layers of being: jagrat, svapna, sushupti and turiya—waking, dreaming, sleeping and super-consciousness. So there is a super-conscious, transcendent, non-empirical root to your being which has to absorb what has been conveyed empirically by instruction from a Guru or a teacher. Hence, yoga is a graduated process. Even when you are listening to what I am saying, you are in a state of yoga because you are uniting the knowledge that is conveyed to you with your mental structure. But, it is an outward process. It has to become more vital and real by standing in its purity, divested of empirical associations. It is not someone speaking to someone. Though it appears that the teacher as a person speaks to a disciple or a student as a person empirically conceived and known, there is something deeper between these two terms of relationship called ‘Guru’ and ‘disciple’. This is the only way I can put it.

The Guru and the disciple are not two persons. It is not one man speaking to another man. There is some deeper transcendental significance between the relationship of Guru and disciple. That is why it is said that the relationship between Guru and disciple is not a human relationship. It is not a friendly attitude of one with another. It is not a gesture of social service. It is a spiritual occupation, a transcendental operation taking place between the teacher and disciple, though the knowledge is conveyed outwardly through empirical means of instruction. It becomes a transcendental essence when, with the help of the force that has been injected by the will of the Guru, the disciple sinks this knowledge deep into himself or herself. Afterwards, the disciple ceases to be a himself or herself. It is an impersonal something; and in the process of the deepest contemplation, called nididhyasana, knowledge shines in its utter purity, which is the final aim of yoga.