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What is Knowledge
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: A Philosophic Outlook of Life

There is a way of thinking called philosophical thinking, which is a little different from the ordinary way of thinking. What is the difference between philosophical thinking and the thinking we call 'normal' and 'usual' in our day-to-day life – the thinking of the office-goer, the thinking of the businessman, the thinking of the family man, the thinking of the busy man, and so on? How does our normal thinking differ from this peculiar way of thinking we call philosophical? What is the difference? If there is a difference, and evidently there is some, which is to be preferred? The ordinary, prosaic, man-of-the-street way of thinking, or the philosophic way of thinking – which is better? This can be known, if we know what the difference is between these two ways of thinking.

Previously, I mentioned that our thinking is almost entirely conditioned by sense perception. We think as we see, as we hear, and as we sense in any form whatsoever. Our mind is a kind of confirming authority over whatever information is given through the senses. The only thing that the mind seems to be doing is that it synthesises the various information received from the channels of the sense organs – eyes, ears, etc. The eyes see, but they cannot hear; the ears hear, but they cannot see. Each sense can do only one thing; it cannot do another thing.

A mind is necessary for some important reason, because without it there can be no coordination between seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, etc. Something is seeing, something is hearing; what is the connection? We feel that one and the same person can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste: "I am seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching." The eyes cannot say, "We are hearing." The ears cannot say, "We are seeing." How is it possible to bring together, into a blend of synthesis, these various sensations of seeing, hearing, etc.? That peculiar central operation inside, which not only receives all these reports of the senses at the same time, but harmonises them into a single cognition – that internal operation is the mind. It does not seem to be doing anything more than this. It does not seem that we are thinking in a more qualitative way than we are seeing, hearing, etc. The quality of thinking does not seem to be superior to the way of seeing or hearing. Our thinking is also mostly sensory.

But the system called philosophic thinking does not end here. A philosopher in the true sense of the term cannot be satisfied with any information that is given in this way. He will not wholly believe what he sees, nor will he entirely believe the reports of the other senses, nor will he be satisfied with this act of synthesis which the mind is doing in regard to the reports of the senses in an ordinary, usual, commonsense way. The philosophic mind is more than the ordinary empirical synthesising mind. This is why it is sometimes said that there is a lower mind and a higher mind. The lower mind does this work of gathering information and simply synthesising it into a central act of what is called perception and cognition. But there is another feature which the mind is capable of, but which is not usually exercised by the busy people in the world.

The activities of the senses are so rapid, so insistent, so vehement, so pressing and demanding, that the mind is continuously engaged in attending to these calls of the senses – like a telephone operator is kept continuously busy with unending calls from all sides. He cannot even think, so busy is he. The senses act in such rapidity and with such force that this peculiar feature of the mind which is engaged in synthesising these sense reports keeps it always busy, and there is no time to think anything else. This is the fate of the busy man of the world. There is no time to think, except in terms of what reactions are received by the senses in regard to the operations outside in the world of nature and society. The whole of our life is a kind of reaction to events taking place in nature and in human society. We seem to be doing very little independently; we are only reacting to what is happening outside insistently, perpetually. This is the ordinary man's life. It is a very unhappy state of affairs, indeed, that we have to be always cautious that we do not fall down, and we cannot keep quiet because of the noises made by the senses and the necessity felt at the same time to listen to these noises and react in a proper manner.

This is precisely the reason why we are restless. If someone goes on pricking us with a needle or pulling our ears constantly, day in and day out, we will be conscious only of these pricks and the pulls, and we will have no time to think anything else except that we are being pricked and pulled, dragged, etc. Not that we are incapable of thinking in any other manner, but we will not be permitted to think because of the continuous pressure exerted upon the mind by events and circumstances of the outer world, of nature, and of society.

But this is a kind of illness, in a very important sense, that we have no freedom except to react to circumstances, and to be employed, as it were, in the act of attending to demands from outside. This state of affairs cannot be considered as real freedom. If we are forced to do something, do we call it a free act?

We may be running for two reasons. We may be a participant in a race, and we are running continuously for a long distance because we have taken part in the race and we want to win a prize. We may regard it as an act of freedom: "I am running because I want to run. I have enrolled myself as a candidate in this race. So, in this running, I am exercising my own free choice." But suppose we are running because a hundred monkeys are pursuing us, a tiger is chasing us, an elephant is attacking us, and because we are chased from all sides by these wild animals we run for our life; do we call it a free act, though we are running in the same way as we ran in a race? Therefore, the action may be the same outwardly – in both cases it is running – but they are two different things altogether. In one case, we exercise a freedom. In another case, we are forced to run due to reasons beyond our control.

Now, our life normally, empirically – in the ordinary sense – cannot be considered really as an act of freedom. We have to eat because we are hungry; we have to drink because we are thirsty; we have to sleep because we are tired; and we have to do many other things of this type, because we are pressurised by conditions of life which are manifold in their character. These are matters for deep consideration. How is it that life should be made in this way? Why should there be a need to eat? Because there is hunger. There the answer is clear, and there is no need to put further questions. Everyone knows why one eats. But it is not enough for a philosopher to know that hunger is the reason behind eating. That is only an immediate cause, a visible reason, that we are placing before our mind to explain our act of eating. But why should there be hunger? This question can be put only by a philosopher. An ordinary man will not put such questions. Nobody will ask why there should be hunger, why there should be thirst. They will look like foolish questions. But to a philosophic mind, they are not foolish questions. A philosophic mind will never be satisfied unless the ultimate reason for a thing is known. 'This' happens because 'that' is there, and 'that' is there because of a third thing, a third thing is there because of a fourth thing. Now, where does this end, finally? Where does it end?

The ultimate cause alone can explain the lesser causes and effects of every type. We will never be satisfied unless we know the ultimate meaning of things. "Why all this?" "What is all this?" These questions come to our mind. "What is the matter?" We go on asking, but no answer comes. "Why do we do anything at all?" "Why should anyone do anything?" "What is the matter with people?" "Why are they so busy?" "Why do they run?" People run physically, as well as mentally. "What has happened to people?" "Why do they not keep quiet?" They cannot keep quiet because the pressures inwardly felt in the psyche, as well as felt from outside – from society and nature – compel them to be very vigilant and active, perpetually. These questions arise. They are a set of one type of question.

Children put questions sometimes: "Where does the sun go in the night? Nobody knows what has happened to the sun. We see him coming from the east and jumping down into some pit in the evening, but in the morning again we see him from the same place. How does he jump from the west to the east?" Children think that sun must be jumping in the night when they are fast asleep. One boy gave this answer. I asked him, "How does the sun again come from the east?" "He must be coming suddenly in the night when we are asleep, and so in the morning he is again starting his drama." These are questions which occur to children's minds: "Why does the sun not fall on our heads? There is no support in the sky. The stars, the moon and the sun are all hanging in empty space, without any support. Why do they not fall on our heads?" We may put such questions, and easy answers do not come: "From where have I come?" "Where was I before I came to this world?" "My father has died, my mother has died. I see so many people dying. Where have they gone?" These questions arise in our minds, and we cannot find an easy answer.

These are the difficulties of a philosophic mind. It cannot be easily satisfied with mere perceptions of things. We see a man dying, and the matter is over. He has gone. But the philosophic mind cannot be satisfied merely with seeing somebody going. "Where does he go?" "What happens to that person that has gone?" "From where has that person come?" "What is the reason why we cannot even know our own future the next moment?" "What is this big world around us?" "From where has it come?" "Who made it?" "Or has nobody made it, and it is just there as it was?" These questions require an answer. "Does the world exist as it is?" "Is it its own creator?" "Or does it have no creator?" "Has somebody made it?" "If somebody has made it, where is that somebody?" These are also some questions that occur to minds, and we cannot easily get an answer to these questions.

When we feel that we cannot receive answers to any important question in life, we feel miserable indeed. It is worse than being in a concentration camp. "What is going to happen to me?" "Where am I?" "And why am I here?" Oh! We cannot rest, we cannot sleep, and it is impossible for us to have a moment's peace. Thus, a truly philosophic mind cannot rest in peace until it gets an ultimate irrefutable answer – not to one or two questions only, but to every question pertaining to every type of existence.

These are the philosophic minds, and you know the difference between a philosophic way of thinking and a commonsense way of thinking. Do you believe that it is necessary to know the reason behind things? Or will you be satisfied by merely reacting to phenomena or events that occur outside? Why is there a curiosity to know things? "What is there above? If I go up, what will I see? Suppose I soar high above, ten million kilometres above, what will I see? If I go further above, what will I see?" You will feel giddy in your head. No answer will come. "If I go down and down, what will I see?" We cannot say these are silly questions. These are things which will keep us agonised that there are things in life which we cannot understand.

Are there things which we cannot understand? If that is so, there must be a reason why we cannot understand. Again, the philosophic mind presses itself forward. "Why should I not know all things? Why am I kept in this ignorant condition that I cannot know anything, finally – though apparently, it appears all things are fine? I have a good house to live in, a soft bed to sleep on, and nice dishes to eat." These are satisfactory things, no doubt, but a philosophic mind cannot be satisfied with a soft bed, a bungalow or any kind of physical comfort, because it knows that these cannot stand for long. They may not even be there the next day.

Hence, there is a curiosity born of a dissatisfaction as well as a perception of wonder. "How do things arrange themselves in this world in the manner they occur and present themselves?" This rouses in our minds a sense of wonder. The whole world seems to be a miracle. "How does it behave in the way it behaves, and why should it do so?" "Why should I not know things?" "Why should I be ignorant of knowing things?" "I will not deliberately keep myself ignorant." Nobody would like to be ignorant. Even an ignorant person does not wish to be called an ignorant person. One resents such statements. We do not want to be called 'idiot', 'stupid'; we cannot bear such statements. We feel we are not that. We do not like to rest contented that it is enough to be ignorant.

But why should we be ignorant? Have we made ourselves ignorant deliberately, or has someone else thrown us into this condition? These are again questions, and we have no answer to these questions also. Everywhere there is confusion of thought. An entry into this abyss of human difficulty is attempted by a philosophic mind. Ancient thinkers, both in the East and the West, were very actively engaged in this adventure of knowledge. They were not satisfied with anything else. How can we say that anything else is important in this world, if these things are not to be known? If certain important serious matters are hidden out of our vision, how can we say that life is a satisfying field of existence even for a few moments? We realise, now, why knowledge is so important.

Well, these are the foundations of this novel enterprise of the human mind we call philosophy. Philosophy does not mean reading some books or thinking something erratically while sitting on a chair. It is an attempt to have the true wisdom of life, and to know how to live in a world of this kind. Many a time, we get kicks and blows, and we get buffeted from all sides due to our not knowing how to conduct ourselves properly in the atmosphere in which we are placed. We go on experimenting with various ways of conduct, and in this experiment we learn lessons, no doubt, but often with the blows that we receive and the kicks we are given. Often, we learn lessons with pain, and not in a happy way.

The ancient thinkers busied themselves with this great adventure – the pursuit of knowledge. Not ordinary knowledge of the empirical sciences, not the knowledge which we equate with the subjects we study in the usually known educational institutions, but true knowledge which is inseparable from wise living itself. Therefore, knowledge is the art of wise living. Knowledge is life itself, and is as important as life itself.

The process of the investigation of factors and conditions which contribute to the rise of this knowledge is philosophy. In India we call it darsana, the vision of Reality, and the practical methods that we employ to establish ourselves in this vision of Reality is called yoga. And, in Indian technical terminology, the doctrinal side of this philosophic knowledge is sometimes called Sankhya, and it is also known as Vedanta in an important sense which has to be known properly.

Yoga is the technology, the practical application of this knowledge in our day-to-day existence. Therefore, yoga is living knowledge. To apply knowledge to our practical existence in this world is yoga. Yoga is translated as 'union'. You must have heard that yoga is union. With what is this union to be attempted? Union with what is yoga? It is union with the ultimate state of things, not with things as they appear. We have unions of every kind here. A businessman is in union with his money, a mother is in union with her child, and everyone is in union with what they love in any manner whatsoever, but this is not yoga. A mother is not really in union with her child; it is only an imaginary union. The rich man is not in union with his money; he is only imagining that it is a union – and so on with every type of imagined union with objects that we seem to possess but really cannot possess.

But yoga is not such a union in the form of a mere imagination in the mind. It is an exact, practical entry by way of communion – in such a way that this union of ourselves with that with which we have communed abolishes the distinction between us. Life does not anymore appear like a puppet show whose strings are operated by somebody else, someone who cannot be seen. We know the secret of the drama of existence, and we cannot any more be kept in a state of ignorance of values – because ignorance is, in a way, our incapacity to recognise any vital relationship that we have with the ultimate state of things.

"Why are you going on mentioning the word 'ultimate' state of things?" you may ask me. "What is the matter?" The reason is that whatever is happening in this world now is caused by something else, because an effect has a cause. Unless we know the cause, we cannot know why things are happening as they are. Otherwise, we go on complaining, and nobody is going to listen to our complaints. We go on crying – and many have cried – and there the matter ends. This is called crying in the wilderness. Who bothers about our cries? But, we need not cry if we know how things happen, and why things happen.

This particular phenomenon we call life in this world, as it is seen now, is an operation by some cause which is not visible to the eyes. That cause may have another cause, and that cause may have another cause. There is a chain of railway carriages, and we know how many carriages are chained together and moving on a railway track. The rear carriage is pulled by the one that is in front, and that is pulled by that which is in front of it, and so on. We know very well that although it appears that the carriage in front is pulling that one behind it, they are all pulled by an engine which itself is not pulled by anything else. Hence, everything is moved by something else, but there must be something which itself is not moved, but moves all things. Only then will we know why the railway train is moving. 'This' is pulled by 'that', 'that' is pulled by 'this' – and finally, who pulls all things? Then only can we know the mystery of movement. Otherwise, we know only relative movements – one pushing the other – without knowing why this pushing should be there at all.

Thus, the reason behind all occurrences, events in life, seems to be an important matter for study and understanding; and this reason is not merely the logical reason. "Why does it rain?" We know some sort of a reason is there behind it. Geography and some sort of astronomy will tell us why it should rain at all. But this is only a temporary answer to the phenomenon of raining. There are many other causes beyond this explanation offered by astronomy and geography. Finally, we must know that there is a reason behind not merely 'this' event or 'that' event, but that all events are caused by a central reason. 'This' is caused by 'that', 'that' is caused by another thing. That may be so, as one thing pushes another thing, and that thing pushes a third thing, and so on. But the final answer to all these relative motions, occurrences, activities and phenomena in life can be explained only by a final reference. If this is known, we know how things are, and why things are, and we will not put any more questions. We become spectators of the events of the universe; and we do not merely remain as spectators of something happening outside us – we realise that we ourselves are participators in this great activity of the universe.

This is very important for us to know. The events of the world are not taking place only outside us, as if we are unconnected. I mentioned previously that we are also in this world. So, when we speak of events in life, phenomena of nature, activities of the world, we do not mean something happening unconnected with us. All happenings have connections with us also, because we are also part of the world, whatever be our idea of the world. We may call it the social world, the political world or natural world of physics and astronomy, but we are a part of the environment we call 'this world'. Hence, events cannot take place except in connection and interconnection of parts belonging to a whole; and if we are really wise and intelligent enough to understand the circumstances of life, we will realise that no particular person or thing is the cause of anything. There is an interconnection of causative factors. This is so because the world is one single entity; it is not made up of unconnected parts. It is a living body, something like our own body. Any event in any part of our body is an event occurring in the whole body.

Certain systems of medical science tell us that every disease is the disease of the whole body. Even if we sneeze, it is not only the nose that is sneezing; the whole body is sneezing, and any ache in any part of the body is an ache of the whole body. All illness is a total illness. There is no such thing as an ache only in the head. It is a total ache of the entire psychophysical organism. In a similar manner, philosophers have recognised and realised that any event in the world is not an isolated thing happening somewhere, unrelated to others; it is a total event. The pain that we feel in the sole of our foot when a thorn pricks it is the pain felt by the whole body, and it is not only the foot that feels it. Every event is so connected with all other factors because of the fact that the world, even physically speaking, is a single entity. Because of this, and because of the fact that we are also involved in it as parts of nature – parts of the world – every question is a total question, and every situation is a universal situation. We seem to be participating in a universal life, and not merely in a family life, a communal life – or much less, an individual life. There is no such thing as 'your own' life, and 'my own' life, and 'his own' life or 'her own' life. Such a thing is not possible, in the same way as our bodily organisms are not independent activities taking place of their own accord.

Here is the distinction between a philosophic outlook of life and the outlook of the man of straw, the man in the street. We have been men of straw, and we are perhaps that even now. But we can never be satisfied with this kind of drab living. We want to know what is the matter with all things. This is why we are searching for something. We go here, there – to Nepal, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, and all places – because we do not know where what is. "Let us search for something," but we have found it nowhere. It cannot be found anywhere, because it is everywhere. It is like searching for the sky. "Let me search for the sky." Why do we search for the sky? We are in the sky. And we know we are in space, so we need not search for space.

The problems which require an answer are widespread questions and widespread problems. They are not in Japan; they are not in India; they are not in America. The problem is the intricate, inexplicable relationship of the individual with the Total Whole. Therefore, we can get truth everywhere, and we can have a problem of the same kind everywhere. The same problem is everywhere, and the same answer can be envisaged and elicited from any part of the world. We can touch a person by touching any part of the body of that person – any part is that person only. Similarly, since the whole world is one single organic entity, we can be anywhere; it is as if we are everywhere.

This is a new vision which would be worthwhile for us to entertain, because we would realise that even the possibility of entertaining such a wholesome, holistic vision of things brings us a new kind of satisfaction – a satisfaction that arises from the very fact of it being possible for us to have a total vision of things. It is not a satisfaction that comes merely by eating, drinking and sleeping. It comes merely by 'knowing' that this is so. Knowledge itself is satisfaction.