The Epistemology of Yoga
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: Self-knowledge is World-knowledge

We were discussing the nature of knowledge. The manner in which we come to know that the world is there outside us is a very important matter, indeed, in the conduct of our life. Our reationship with things and our conduct in life depend upon the way in which we understand things. The process of the knowledge of things entirely determines the way in which we behave or deal with things—hence, the importance of the study of the very process of knowing. Its importance cannot be overestimated, because it is very clear that our dealings with things depend upon the way in which we know things—hence, the great significance accorded to the manner of knowing. Academicians, in their own jargon, tell us that this theme is called epistemology. Definitions and names apart, it is important to know the extent to which we can have an understanding of the world.

Previously I touched upon the difficulty in correctly knowing anything in this world. It appears that we cannot know anything at all in the way in which it actually is in itself, because of the fact that there are certain curtains hanging in front of us. There are certain spectacles we are putting on, through which we behold the world outside us. The very word ‘outside’ is anathema to the true nature of things. Why do we say that we see the world outside? Who told us that it is outside? The obviousness of the fact that the world is outside us shows the obviousness of the difficulty in knowing things as they are. We have been so involved in the error of human knowledge that we have ourselves become a heap of error. Thus, the empirical percipient, the individual knower of things, is nothing but a heap of misconceptions. To say that the world is relative is to say very little about it. It is much worse than a mere relativity of things.

I mentioned in the previous session that space and time condition us in an overwhelming manner. These are the principal spectacles that we put on: space and time. Everything is seen as located in space and in time because of these spectacles. These spectacles cannot be removed and set aside. They form part and parcel of ourselves, and are more intimate than our own skin. Even our skin can be peeled off, but we cannot peel off space and time from our existence. Hence, it is impossible to know anything except as being situated in space and conditioned by time—more so because of the fact that the knower of things in space and time is also in space and time. It is not that somebody outside space and time is looking at things through space and time. The man has become the spectacles themselves. He is not putting on the spectacles; he is himself the spectacles. What a pity! One can imagine where man stands.

Here is the basic problem of knowledge. All knowledge is mediate, and not immediate—mediate in the sense that it is a closeness of relationship between two terms of relation, the knower and the known. As the knower is different from the known, the question arises as to the way in which the knower can connect himself with the known. All knowledge is the relationship between the knower and the known; but, what is the meaning of relationship? Merely because we utter the word ‘relationship’, it does not make matters clear. That which connects the knower with the known may be said to be the relation between the knower and the known. But, what is it that connects the knower with the known?

The connecting link between the knower and the known is, evidently, not identical with either the knower or the known. It has to be something different. If the relation between the knower and the known is a part of the knower himself, then there could be no relation between the knower and the known. On the other hand, if the relation is a part and parcel of the known, then, also, there could be no relation between the knower and the known. Either way we are caught. But, if we say that the relation between the knower and the known is neither connected with the knower nor with the known, then, also, there cannot be an understanding of things.

I hope you understand the difficulty involved here. Neither can it be related to the knower, nor can it be related to the known, nor can it stand independently of both. Then, what is this relation between the knower and the known? Thus, there is an inscrutability about our knowledge of things. We do not know what we are seeing, and how we are seeing things at all. There is a muddle in the understanding of the individual in respect to anything whatsoever. Therefore, there is no such thing as right knowledge in the proper sense of the term. All knowledge is erroneous. We are in a phenomenal world. This is a world of phenomena.

Apart from the fact that the process of knowledge is conditioned by space and time and there is a terrible difficulty in knowing the relationship between the knower and the known, there is a kink in the mind of the knower himself, a contortion which delimits the very reasoning of the knower into certain patterns of understanding—moulds we call logic.

What is logic? It is a system of moulds into which the thinking process is cast; and we take for granted that this mould is the final thing. But, who told us that this is the final thing, that there cannot be any other way of knowing? This is a hypothesis on which we found every type of consciousness of existent things. The psychological conditions which are the limitations on the knowing process, plus space and time, make everything in this world almost impossible. We are in a state of despair in knowing anything. The knowledge process seems to conclude that we are in a relative and phenomenal world of unintelligible relations.

But every cloud has a silver lining. The very consciousness of this difficulty is a hope beaming forth as a ray of possibility in the deepest recesses of our own phenomenal individuality. Here, we are undertaking a process of self-analysis, an analysis of the very fact of our knowing that we are in a phenomenal world. The phenomenal and un-understandable quality of the world as a whole, as well as the relativity of things in general, act as a pointer to a higher possibility which is the hope of man.

The phenomena indicate that they are a phenomena of something which itself is not a phenomenon. When we say the world is an appearance or a phenomenon, we mean that it is an appearance of something which itself cannot be an appearance. There cannot be simply an appearance without there being something of which it is an appearance. When we say that something is erroneous, we arrive at this conclusion by comparing it with a standard which is not erroneous. Nothing can be known to be wrong unless there is something which is right. If there is only wrong, we cannot even know that it is wrong. So, the restlessness that the individual feels, the finitude which annoys us every moment of time, the limitations of which we are conscious, and the philosophical conclusion that the world is relative and phenomenal is the first step of the ascent of consciousness towards its higher reaches. There has to be a noumenon in order that there may be a phenomenon. Technical thinkers tell us that there is such a thing called the thing as it is in itself which, of course, cannot be known, because of the difficulties mentioned. But, here, an intriguing position is maintained by the philosophical thought when it holds that the thing as it is in itself cannot be known, because the idea that the thing as it is in itself cannot be known is an acceptance of the fact that it is known in some way.

The thing-in-itself—that which is the noumenon, that which cannot be known—is known as that which cannot be known. This is how the mind, in an acrobatic feat of its own difficult processes in knowledge—even in condemning itself as a totally inadequate instrument of knowing anything—raises and lifts itself above this difficulty by the very profundity or the latency which is behind this difficulty. The noumenon speaks. When a statement is made that the noumenon cannot be known, it is not the phenomenon that makes this declaration. The statement that the noumenon cannot be known is not made by the phenomenon, because the phenomenon cannot make a statement of that kind.

Thus, there is a depth in human nature which is beyond the reach of the mind and the reason; and the empirical processes of knowing are inadequate for the purpose on hand. Man cannot know himself by the endowments of reason, intellect, understanding, or even all the psychological operations put together. The potentiality of the human being is deeper than the psychological operations of the human being. That means to say that in our daily life now, we are not drawing from the deeper potentialities of ourselves. We are floating on our own surface, ignoring, neglecting, being unconscious of our own basic rootedness in something of which our phenomenal instruments of knowledge have no awareness. Thus, while a perception or sensory contact with things, in collaboration with the mind, the intellect and the reason cannot give us right knowledge, there seems to be some other way of knowing things as they are—some other means altogether different from the reason, the intellect or the mind.

Though we operate in our daily life only through the intellect and the reason, it is obvious that we have something in us which is deeper than, profounder than, superior to, the intellect and the reason. We have lost ourselves in forgetting ourselves; and in losing ourselves, we have lost the world also, because in the ignorance of our essential nature we have, also, the ignorance of the true nature of anything else in the world. We do not know ourselves and, therefore, we do not know the world—and vice versa.

This is a magnificent analysis made in Eastern scriptures like the Mandukya Upanishad, to which I made a reference earlier, and in certain other Upanishads. Deeper than the waking condition in which man usually operates, deeper than dream, deeper than deep sleep, there is the true man. The true man is not the waking man, the dreaming man or the sleeping man. There is a superman appearing as a man in the conditions of waking, dream and sleep. These three conditions—waking, dream and sleep—are the relative operations of the finitude of the individual.

Our scriptures say that we are caught up in samsara. We hear it said many a time by admonishers that this is a world which is samsara, entanglement. Samsara means entanglement, involvement, unnecessary botheration. We have been involved in samsara, entangled in bondage, because of the fact that we cannot get out of this cycle of waking, dream and sleep. Either we are awake, or we are dreaming, or we are sleeping. What other condition have we? Is it a great freedom to be subject to these states, like puppets? But the revolution of these three states and the restlessness of these conditions prove that we are restless for another thing, on which we wish to rest ourselves finally.

There is a self in man that is deeper than the reason and the intellect and the psychological functions. The mind that thinks, the ego that arrogates, the intellect that understands, and the reason that argues, are not sufficient. What can they argue? What can the mind think, except that which is thus involved in the limitations mentioned?

The process of yoga is the process of diving deep into one’s own self, which is also a simultaneous diving into the depths of anything else in the world. There is a parallel movement of consciousness in this delving deep into the waters of the cosmos. The subject that is the human individual is co-extensive with the object that is the universe; therefore, the depth of one thing is, also, the depth of the other thing. To know oneself is to know the world, and to know the world is to know oneself. Therefore, the great dictum “Know thyself” does not mean know oneself as a person. To know oneself as one really is, is to know anything in the world as it really is. Self-knowledge is world-knowledge, and world-knowledge is, also, self-knowledge. This is the great standpoint of yoga in its psychology, in its philosophy, and in its spiritual techniques.

The world is not before us, outside us, confronting us. It is a large body, of which we are a part. This is the reason why we are entangled in it in such a way that we cannot understand the way of involvement, the way in which we know things. As I pointed out just now, the difficulty in understanding our relationship with things arises because of our intriguing relationship with the world, which is not a relationship in the logical sense of the term. We are part and parcel of this body called the cosmos. That is the reason why we are, on the one hand, incapable of wresting ourselves from it and, on the other hand, unable to know anything about it.

This intriguing character of our knowledge of things arises because of our intriguing connection with the world. Here, we come to the cosmology of the world as a whole, which explains the process of creation. Philosophers, mystics and thinkers along these lines have attempted to understand the process of the evolution of things—how things came about—so that we may know where we stand at the present moment.

The scripture says that God created the world—the earth and the heaven. He created everything: plants, beasts, human beings, angels, and what not. This is the biblical fiat of the creational process. Every system of thought has endeavoured to understand how things evolved. Unless we know the linkage or the relationship between cause and effect in this process, it will be difficult for us to know exactly where our location is in this cosmic mechanism.

How far have we travelled in the process of evolution? How much of the track have we covered, and how much remains? We will be able to know only if we know the entire root, and not by seeing, only through blinkers, the little point on which we are standing at a particular moment of time. There is a very complete description of the creative process in the Upanishads—for instance, in the Aitareya Upanishad—and in the Puranas we have this elaborate description in a different way altogether.

In a small book which I happened to write some years back called A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India, I tried to delinate in some detail the process of creation as it is described in the Upanishads and the Puranas. Those of you who have access to that book may read the chapter on the Upanishads, where the creative process is described in some measure. There has been a gradual descent from the larger Universal to lesser and lesser delimited forms of universals, so that the limited form of the Universal may be called a sort of individuality.

A universal is that which is self-complete, which regards itself as complete in itself. A self-sufficient form of existence is a kind of universality, by which word we have to understand a state of being, outside which nothing is. The Universal is that, external to which, nothing can be. There has been a gradual coming down of this consciousness of the Universal through the process of evolution, or creation. And, it is not a sudden action—at least, it does not appear to have been a sudden action, to the extent that we can know things.

According to the theological systems of Vedanta and Yoga philosophy, the Cosmic Being—God, the Absolute Supreme Being, the Almighty—willed, as it were, the manifestation of this cosmos. According to Genesis in the Bible, God created the heaven and the earth by a mere fiat of will; and also according to the Eastern system of thinking, it is, in essence, a fiat. There is a larger background to it, about which we need not go into detail now. This will of Ishvara to become the manifold universe is described in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and some of the Puranas. Ishvara is a Sanskrit term for God. God willed the creation.

Out of which material did God create the world? As God is the Supreme Universal, and since we have understood the Universal to be That outside which nothing can be, there was nothing outside God. Therefore, we cannot imagine a material out of which God could have fashioned this universe. It is often said by certain theologians that God created the world out of nothing. This is perhaps the biblical notion. Though there is some point in this view, it is difficult to understand because we cannot conceive of nothingness—because if God created the world out of nothing, the world would be nothing, a conclusion which would be frightening to everyone. It may be that from one angle of vision the world is nothing, but the human mind cannot accept it without a frightening shock. We cannot accept—at least, we are not in a position to accept—that the world was created out of nothing, because that would mean that we, also, are nothing. It is a strange conclusion, which will inject intolerable bitterness and great insurmountable sorrow into our minds.

Hence, the other view, which does not in any way contradict this view, holds that God willed the world, the universe, this cosmos, this creation, by a multiplication of His Own Supreme Being. The one became two, says modern science. According to the astronomical discoveries of recent days, the whole universe seems to have been one single atom. And in the Indian epic descriptions, they are said to be all included in a single point called the Brahmanda, or the cosmic egg, as it is literally translated. It is not an egg, but it is called an egg because it was a whole, and it is a convenient way of thinking of the whole as an egg—Brahmanda, the Cosmic Centre.

Astronomers tell us that there was only one atom in the whole cosmos. It was a cosmic atom which split into two with a bang caused by something which the scientists cannot understand, and no one is supposed to understand. The scriptures say it was the will of God that burst this atom. But, this atom cannot be regarded as a materially existent substance outside God’s being—though certain philosophers, like the Samkhya in India, thought that there would be no other alternative for explaining the objectivity of the cosmos than positing a material thing called prakriti, or the original matter. But this is going to land us in great problems, as we have already seen how hard it is to know the difference in the relationship between consciousness and matter, the knower and the known. We cannot know the relation between matter, out of which the world is made, and the knower of this matter. The doctrine of the Upanishads is a different thing altogether. It does not entangle itself in these theories. It has a simple doctrine of God becoming the many. This is highly solacing, at least for the little mind of man, because, after all, we seem to be in the kingdom of God. Though it is a kingdom, it is a kingdom of God, which is ruled by God—the kingdom of heaven.

The delimitation of the universality of God, as described in the cosmological doctrine of the Upanishads, is a graduated coming down into lower and lower forms of universals, until the lowest form of Universality has reached us, the little individuals. We are seated here. That is why we feel, in each one of us, a sense of completeness. We do not feel that any one of us is a fraction or a cut-off piece from the whole. Everyone is highly egoistic and proud, and feels “I am everything”. This is the tyrant speaking, the despot who feels that he is complete in himself, because it is the association with Universality that speaks in this manner.

Though there has been a coming down to the lowest form of universals, the characteristic of the Universal does not totally die. That’s why even the smallest animal, even the ant, feels that it is complete in itself. It is difficult to believe that even an ant feels that it is only a fraction of things; it is a whole thing by itself, and its own body is very beloved to it. Everyone loves oneself as the whole. We do not love ourselves as little chips cut off from something else. That is why we are so proud, so egoistic, so self-assertive and so arrogant in our behaviour, oftentimes. This little arrogance of the proud man is the Universal getting into the hands of the devil, which is finitude. When the devil begins to handle the Universal, it becomes the pride of man. This gradual descent of the Universal as described in the scriptures is a very interesting process to read.

Now, I shall confine myself only to the specific way in which the Vedanta philosophy, not contradicting the Samkhya doctrine, specifies this process. According to the Samkhya, the original thing was the Cosmic Intelligence, called mahat, which became self-conscious as ahamkara. These are Sanskrit terms about which we need not bother much.

According to the language of the Vedanta philosophy, the Supreme God, known as Ishvara, became Hiranyagarbha, and Hiranyagarbha became Virat. The Universal concretises itself little by little, without losing its ultimate universality of being. The stages of Ishvara, Hiranyagarbha and Virat mentioned in the Vedanta doctrine are the stages of the Supreme Universal getting into stages of greater and greater perceptibility without losing the universality of Self-consciousness, a condition the human mind cannot grasp. Universal Self-consciousness is Ishvara-consciousness, Hiranyagarbha-consciousness, and Virat-consciousness.

Teachers of the Vedanta tell us that Ishvara is something like cosmic sleep—not comparable to the ignorant sleep of the individual, but the omniscient sleep of all-knowingness. It is sleep in the sense that there is no objectivity or externality of consciousness. The state of Ishvara is comparable to sleep not because there is unknowingness like the sleep of the individual, but because there is all-knowingness which excludes externality of perception. The state of Ishvara is like sleep in the sense that there is no externality or objectivity of perception; but, it totally differs from individual sleep in the sense that there is omniscience, all-knowingness, and not the idiotic ignorance of man.

Ishvara becomes Hiranyagarbha.Teachers of the Vedanta tell us that the coming down of Ishvara to the Hiranyagarbha state and then to the state of Virat is something like the process of painting on a canvas. The canvas is stiffened with starch for the purpose of drawing outlines on it by the artist. The canvas is the background on which the outlines are drawn. Hiranyagarbha is the outline of the cosmos, Virat is the fully-coloured picture of the cosmos, and the background of this screen is the Supreme Absolute, Brahman, appearing as Ishvara, Hiranyagarbha and Virat.

These are transcendental states—not finite or empirical states. No man can reach these states. No one can see Virat or Hiranyagarbha or Ishvara—or Brahman, much less. When in the Bhagavadgita we are told that no human being can have the vision of this Cosmic Universality by any effort whatsoever, what is meant is that humanity involved in personality, individuality and body-consciousness cannot, through the instrumentality of its reason and understanding, etc., hope to have this cosmic vision of Virat, Hiranyagarbha and Ishvara. Man cannot see God, for the reason that there is no means of knowing God, since all means are involved in God’s being. Such is the wondrous description of the original condition of the creative process from Brahman to Ishvara, Ishvara to Hiranyagarbha, and Hiranyagarbha to Virat. This is a divine kingdom—the Garden of Eden or the Brahmaloka spoken of in the scriptures of India. These are all tantalising epic narrations for us. We do not know what could be the delight of living in the Garden of Eden, the happiness of living in Brahmaloka, or having the vision of the Virat. No one knows what it is. It cannot be known, and it is not supposed to be known.

There is a further descent into the grosser form of space and time. Science can reach only up to this level, up to space-time, and not beyond. There is no Virat, Hiranyagarbha, Ishvara and Brahman for scientists. Actually, there is no God either, because the question of God, or the Supreme Being, does not arise as long as we are confined to seeing things through space and time, as space and time. All science— physics and chemistry—is spatio-temporal and limited only to that point, and not before or after. The highest reaches of science, therefore, end in space-time. Here we go hand in hand with our scientist brothers, who tell us that the whole world is nothing but space-time.

What is space-time? It is a total forgetfulness of the Universal Consciousness, an entering into an emptiness, as it were, which is really not an emptiness. We look at space as if it is a nothing, while it is everything, because it is based on a reality of which it is the appearance. Space-time, or space and time, as we would like to call them, become the forces of which everything is made.

Today, science tells us that everything is force, not a thing or a substance. There is only energy in the cosmos. There is electrical energy, electromagnetic force, pervading the whole physical universe; and even space-time is nothing but electromagnetic force, envisaged by the human senses as a fivefold object of hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling.

The world is known by us in these five ways: hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling. Minus hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling, there is no world; so, the world is a world of sensations. We do not know whether the world is there or not, independent of these sensations. If we are deprived of these sensations, we cannot know whether anything is at all. These sensations, or the originals, objectively, of these sensations, are called tanmatras in Sanskrit—shabda, sparsa, rupa, rasa and gandha—which become hard, concretised, objectivised, as the physical world of earth, water, fire, air and ether. And, we are in a physical world.