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The Epistemology of Yoga
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 4: Knowledge of the World

In the context of gaining an insight into the process of knowledge, the perception of things, the knowledge of the world, we had to undertake an inquiry into the circumstance in which the individual is placed in this world—our placement in this universe. It was in this connection that it became necessary for us to have some sort of an outline knowledge of cosmology, the doctrine of creation. Brahman, the Supreme, becomes Ishvara, Hiranyagarbha and Virat, a theme we touched upon last time. What is called Virat in Sanskrit is, practically, the consciousness that animates the physical cosmos. Just as there is an intelligence within us, there is an intelligence in the universe.

Our intelligence is not only in one part of our body; it is pervading the whole of our personality and our being. We are conscious of what we are, in every cell. That is why we assert that the body is 'me'. Just as our consciousness pervades the whole of our individuality, there is another consciousness which pervades the whole cosmos. This eminent consciousness, hiddenly present in the whole universe, is Virat. It is difficult to describe what Virat is—just as we cannot say what we are. We are not any of the limbs of the body, because we are all things that the body is. Likewise, the Virat is not any particular thing in the universe, but all things in the universe.

Yet, we know that we are not merely the body. When we say “I have come”, we do not mean that our body has come. There is something which is significant behind our statement that we are or that we are doing something, etc. We always have a subconscious feeling that we own the body, or we have entered into the body, or we are utilising the body as an instrument, etc., though this fact is not consciously operating in the mind. We always say “my body”. We never say “I am the body”.

A similar situation operates, or prevails, in the universe. The consciousness that pervades the cosmos is inseparable from the cosmos in the same way as our consciousness cannot be isolated from our body and our personality. In a famous Sanskrit text on philosophy called the Panchadasi, there is a verse which tells us that God's creation commences with the will to manifest, the ideation to become manifold, and is complete with the manifestation of Virat through the processes already mentioned, the intermediary stage of which is called Hiranyagarbha.

But, God's creation does not bind us. God never does anything unjust. God is not interested in hurling us into sorrow. Then from where has sorrow come? Why are we so much grieved? This is a mystery. It is a mystery because we do not know how we have fallen from the Virat. In theology this is the famous doctrine of the fall of man, the angel becoming mortal and becoming self-conscious as the body.

It is not possible for us to know how we have fallen, because the moment we are aware of how this has happened we shall revert to the original condition. Some inscrutable weapon of nature wields a force upon us in such a way that we are not enabled to turn back and see what is behind us. We can see only what is ahead of us, in front of us. We are tightly chained, as it were, as the analogy of the cave given by Plato in his Republic makes out. The prisoners are chained so tightly in the cave, which is dark, that they cannot turn back and see what is light. They can only see the shadows in front of them. Natural forces prevent us from looking back and seeing the source from where we have come. Our necks are stiff and our eyes are turned outwardly to what is ahead, and not to what is behind. The very need for seeing or perceiving arises because of this fall, this pit of consciousness, this isolation of us from the whole.

When the act of separation takes place, a blow is dealt on the individual with such force that it becomes unconscious. If someone is hit on the head with vehemence, that person will fall down in an unconscious state. The isolation of the individual from God, the Universal Being, is such a stroke dealt on the individual that it falls unconscious—dead, as it were. We have those reminiscences every day, by going into deep sleep. We are reminded again and again, daily, that this stroke has been dealt upon us. We are wretched beings; this is being told to us every day, as a prisoner may be repeatedly told every day that he is a prisoner so that he becomes worse and worse by listening to this declaration of his circumstances. The condition of sleep into which we fall every day tells us what we really are. We are bundles of ignorance, and it prevents us from knowing anything beyond it. It is a dark screen, a heavy cloud hanging over us.

What we call the intellect, the reason, the mind, the senses, and anything that is our endowment as individuals is what is reflected through this screen of ignorance, and not the original consciousness. We are not seeing or knowing things through even a speck of Virat-consciousness. There is a qualitative distinction between the consciousness present in us and the consciousness that is in the cosmos because the consciousness of Virat is original, and ours is a reflection. The reflection loses the originality of the cause from where it has come, just as the reflected sun has not the heat or the burning capacity of the sun, although the reflection looks like the original. When consciousness, pure and pristine—Virat in its essentiality—passes through the prism of this ignorance, it is deflected into individualities and becomes topsy-turvy in a specific sense, so that we see, like in a mirror, the left as right and the right as left. The cause looks like the effect, and the effect looks like the cause.

The universe, from where we have come, looks like an object of sense. Nothing can be worse for man. The so-called individuality of ours, the jivatva, is a chip of the whole block of the universe. We have fallen from the Whole. The Virat-consciousness, which is latent in this universe—our mother and father which Virat is—we are gazing at that Virat with our eyes, as this physical universe.

But, there is no such thing as knowing the Virat as an object of sense. Such a thing is impossible because the universe is not an object of anybody. Since everybody is a part of the universe, no one can see it as an object; yet, we manage to look upon it as if it were an object. Here is the secret behind the failure of all scientific observations and even logical philosophies. Science and philosophy in the academic sense cannot take us to reality, because scientific methods based on observation and experiment take for granted that the world is outside consciousness, which it is not. The observing scientist is a part of that which he is observing and, therefore, no observation can become complete or correct. Every discovery is superseded by a further discovery, so that we never come to an end of scientific knowledge. We can never catch the truth, for the reason mentioned.

Logical academic philosophy, also, is not in a better position. Insofar as logic is based to a large extent on sense perception, certain things are taken as hypotheses. Even logic accepts the distinction between the subject and the object, the seer and the seen, the knower and the known, ourselves and the world, though this distinction does not obtain, finally, in the nature of reality. So, logic is inapplicable to reality, and science is inadequate to the purpose. Therefore, our perception of the world is an erroneous recognition of what is ahead of us, in front of us.

All perception is descriptive, and not an insight into the real nature of things. When we look at an object, we are not looking at it as it is in itself. This is a phenomenal world. The object that is seen by our eyes, or contacted by the senses, is known as it appears to the senses—even as a person putting on spectacles with specialised lenses will see the objects only as conditioned by the makeup of the lens, and not as it is in itself. The nature of the glass will decide upon the nature of the object seen through the glass.

The whole of our individuality is like a glass which we have put on, which our true consciousness is wearing, through which it beholds the universe. We have decided that we are just bodies and individuals; and through this lens of individuality consciousness which penetrates and beholds the reality outside, we behold the world as constituted of individualities like ourselves. All perception, in the epistemological sense, is far, far removed from a true insight into things. Thus, a distinction has to be drawn between sense perception and insight, or intuition. 'Intuition' actually means an entry into the object— through the whole of our being, to the whole of the object. The entirety of us contacts the entirety of the object—not through sensation, but through a commingling of being. Being enters being.

What we call yoga, the union par excellence, is the union of our being with the being of the object, whatever be that object. It can be a table or a desk, a pencil or a fountain pen, or a wristwatch, or a human being, or any blessed thing in the world. We can enter into it, and be that. It is then that we gain mastery over it. We have full control over it because we have a knowledge of it—knowledge which is not sensory, phenomenal, externalised or mediate, but is inside it, immediate, non-contactual, and is a commingling of the self with the Self. In the language of yoga this is samadhi, sakshatkara, or actual Realisation of the true nature of the object—insight, and complete mastery.

Knowledge and power go together where knowledge is identical with the being of what is known. Otherwise, we have no control over anything in the world. We cannot have any say in any matter in this world, because everything in the world is independent of us. We have already declared the independence of everything in the world by saying that it is outside us. Therefore, we have no connection with it, and all our relationships with things and persons in the world is an artificial makeup. It is artificial because we have decided that it is really outside and it is not part of us. Anything that is not a part of me is not my friend and, therefore, I have no say in the matter of that friend who is only apparently so.

But the world resents this attitude, as a part of our body may resent our thinking that it is not us, as may happen in paralysis, schizophrenia and such illnesses where the body parts split themselves off psychologically and the one appears as many—falsely, not in fact or in reality. Hence, all of our knowledge is phenomenal knowledge, untrue knowledge, finally—not an entry into reality, not reliable in the end. We know nothing; we are ignoramuses, finally. Even our philosophical learning and scientific knowledge is, therefore, not of any utility when the time for it comes. So, in this study of epistemology, or the theory of perception, what we finally understand by analysis is that any mediate knowledge of the objects we gain through the operation of the senses is conditioned by space-time and the limitations of the mind itself.

Our social life is a child born of this erroneous knowledge. Our family relations, our community life, and every blessed thing that we can call social is brittle, finally—like glass. It can break at any moment of time, and that is why we have no real contact and relationship or friendship with anybody for all time to come. Nobody is our friend for all time. Such a thing is not possible, because the world is made in such a way—at least, we have accepted that the world has been made in such a way. As our knowledge, which is perceptional, is far removed from the reality of things, all our social relationships based on this knowledge also lose their sense, finally. Nobody belongs to us, and we belong to nobody in this world.

Nothing is our belonging. We have no property whatsoever. Nobody can own a thing which is outside oneself and with which one has no contact and relationship, as it has been accepted by this epistemological knowledge which holds that things are totally outside. There is a contradiction in our way of living in the world. Life is a contradiction because, on the one hand, we want a sort of intimate relationship with things and, on the other hand, we have openly declared that things have no connection with us. Otherwise, there would be no need for the senses to struggle so hard to come in contact with objects. We are friends and enemies of people at the same time. We are double dealers, artificial in our living, and sorrow is the consequence. We know why we are unhappy in the world by a sort of analysis of our own selves and our relationships with things and the world as a whole.

Here is the drama of life. But the drama is a tragedy, unfortunately. It has ended in our anguish and poignant feeling; and, something is dead wrong in all things. Even in our pursuit the of pleasures in life, we are passing through endless pains. Life has been ever an intriguing, miserable, yet desirable thing. Everyone knows what an amount of misery the world can inflict upon us, and yet how pleasurable it appears. The misery and the pleasure of life that face us day in and day out, with which we collide every moment of time, this double attitude of the world in respect to us and this dual experience that we have in respect to the world, are explainable only by the fact that we are in Virat even just now because a real separation from it is unthinkable, unimaginable—impossible, totally. And yet, on the other hand, we have somehow got into the mischief of imagining that the Virat is our object of sense. This dual attitude of ours is responsible for the dual reaction that is set up by the world in respect to us, in the form of simultaneous pleasure and pain. We like the world, and dislike the world, also. There is nothing in the world which we like or dislike wholly. The reason is this, which I have just mentioned.

The analysis that we have conducted through the study of this process of perception, epistemologically, lands us in a necessity to understand what this world is made of. Whether the world is outside us or not outside us, what is it made of, finally? What is its substance? The cosmology through which we have traversed in a bare outline has revealed that the whole physical universe is constituted of the five elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether or, in Sanskrit, prithvi, apas, tejas, vayu and akasha. What do we find in this world, except these five elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether? Nothing else— nothing more, nothing less. All that we see, all that we hear, all that we smell, taste and touch is nothing but these five elements in one form or the other, in different permutations and combinations. What is this world made of? These five elements; that is all.

And what are we made of, as a part of this world? Our body is nothing but an admixture of these five elements. This bone, this flesh, this skin, this marrow, these muscles, this body that we are, is composed of the five elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether. The physical, the chemical, the biological substance of our individuality is nothing but these five elements only, in a mixture of varying percentage, as in a chemical mixture.

Some people are tall, some are short, some are stout, some are thin, some are black, some are white, some are brown, some are of this colour, some are of that colour. All this is due to the quantity of the elements that have gone into the body and the percentage of each element that is present in the different bodies. However, there is nothing in us except these five elements, whatever be the percentage of their presence.

What are we made of, physically? The five elements. What is the physical world made of? The five elements. What is there between us and the world outside? Nothing except the five elements. Is there nothing between us and the world? Correct. How is it, then, that we think that the world is outside us when there is nothing to distinguish us from the world? Can anybody explain this mystery, when the space that is apparently between us and another object is also part of the constitution of the very object, and also our own bodies? Our notion that things are outside us remains a mystery to us. We, ourselves, cannot know how this has happened. It is a psychological mystery, more than a physical one. Physically, astronomically, even chemically or biologically, there seems to be no reason for us to believe that things are outside us. Even an analysis through physics will tell us this notion is unfounded. Yet it is strong, like flint, and it cannot be broken through. Hence, this distinction that we draw between ourselves and the things outside should be attributed to a psychological mix-up and not to a physically existent something.

We are non-aligned, psychologically. Something is wrong with our minds. That is why I told you the other day that, in a sense, we are abnormal persons, though we do not appear to be lunatics meant for a mental home. We can know that there is something seriously wrong with us by an in-depth analysis of what we are. If something was not basically wrong with us, we would not be in such a miserable plight, right from birth to death. In our life, it seems that we have not had a moment of real peace which is unadulterated and unmixed with pain. We have never seen unmixed joy. It has always been mixed up with some percentage of sorrow at the back or in the front.

Why should it be so? It is because this joy, this sorrow of ours, is an experience we are passing through as a necessary consequence of this mistake in our psyche. Yoga is the panacea for this illness of the individual, the ego, the personality, the 'I' or the 'me', whatever it be, whatever we may be, and so on. Yoga philosophy and psychology analyse threadbare the structure of the universe and the makeup of the individual.

This world is made up of five elements. That seems to be clear to us. And our bodies are also made up of the same five elements. Yet, this psyche is playing a very important role in creating a distinction between ourselves and other things, managing to convert the whole world into an object of sensation. Hence, yoga is supposed to be the restraint of the senses from operating in this manner—amounting to a total self-restraint.

Yoga is control of the self—chitta vritti nirodha—the check that we put on the various modifications of the mind which compel us to see things as if they are outside. The world is made up of the same thing that we are made of, outwardly as well as inwardly. Externally, the world is the five elements and, externally, we are also the five elements. But, we are something more than the five elements. We have inner mechanisms which cannot be identified with, or mixed with, the five elements. The sensations that we have been mentioning are not to be identified with the material stuff called the body. Matter cannot know anything. It is dead, as it were. The knowledge of the existence of the material world cannot be attributed to the existence of the world itself. Without consciousness, matter does not know matter.

Inside the body we have the vital breath—the energy, also called the prana—operating in many ways as the pressure exerted on inhalation, exhalation, deglutition, digestion, movement, circulation of blood, and so on. There is an unceasing activity going on inside us in the form of the movement of the prana. The moment we are alive in any sense of the term, the prana operates. Even before we come out of the mother's womb, the prana acts. We are living beings even inside the womb; we do not become alive only after coming out. So, we can imagine from when the prana is with us; and it is with us until it departs by severing its connections with the physical body. The prana is the dynamo, the powerhouse, as it were, which pumps energy to the senses and makes them active. The power of the senses is really the power of the prana. If the dynamo stops working, the senses will wither completely and become inactive.

The senses are connected with both the prana and the mind. The senses are certain intermediary operations between the vital sheath and the mental sheath. Inside the physical body there is the prana, and there is a set of senses—the senses of knowledge and the senses of action. There are ten senses, which are urged by the mind with an intention to fulfil a certain purpose. The impulsion from the mind is the directive force behind the activity of the senses. Therefore, the senses are affiliated to the prana as well as to the mind. The prana supplies the energy necessary for the movement of the senses, and the mind tells the senses where to go and what to do—just as a soldier receives energy by the food that he eats and the exercise that he undergoes, but his movements are directed by the order of a general who is his commander. The senses are like soldiers who receive sustenance from the prana, but get directed by the mind in the way they have to act.

Thus, inside the body we have the vital sheath, the senses and the mind. The mind is a general term that we use to indicate the process of thinking, determinately as well as indeterminately, particularly as well as generally. Thinking, as well as doubting, are the functions of the mind—manas, as it is known in Sanskrit. Thinking is an activity of the mind, by which it becomes aware of the presence of something. When we think, we are thinking something. That something is the object of the mind, of which it is aware—aware either specifically or generally, determinately or indeterminately. For instance, sometimes we are aware of something outside us but we do not know what it is, though we know that something is there in front of us. When we definitely know what it is that is in front of us, it is definite knowledge, determinate awareness. In twilight or when there is a mist in the atmosphere, we may not be able to discern what is in front of us. We do not know whether it is a human being or an electrical pole; yet, we know that something is there: “I can see that there is something which is visible to my eyes.” This consciousness of the presence of something in an indefinite way, in an indeterminate manner, is generalised thinking. And when it is clear, it is determinate thinking: “It is a man, not a pole.”

The intellect is superior to the mind and is more interior than the mental sheath. It is a purified form of knowing, whereas the mind is characterised by the impurity of a little bit of rajas and tamas, distraction and torpidity. The intellect decides as to what action is to be taken or what relationship is to be established with that which has now been seen as a determinate something. When we have a definite knowledge of the object that is in front of us, the intellect comes to a conclusion and decides: “This has to be done now in respect of this thing that I see in front of me.”

An attitude is developed by the charging of the feelings and the emotions, together with the decision taken logically by the intellect. When we look at an object and come to a conclusion about it logically, intellectually, rationally, we begin to have a simultaneous emotional reaction in respect of it—unless it is something in which we are totally not interested, like a brick that is on the road. Our emotions may not function when we see a brick, because we are not interested in its presence or absence. But, if it is a nugget of gold and not merely a brick that we see there, we know how the emotions react together with the perception of that object—and so on, with respect to various things in the world with which we have relationships.

So, what is a human being made of? Not merely the physical body; there are other things inside: the prana, the senses, the mind, the intellect. But, remember what these things all make. Finally, they are the stuff and the nonsense of this ignorance. We have the causal body inside us, called the anandamaya kosha, through which the Universal consciousness passes reflected and deflected, contorted, making things appear the other way around, like the cart before the horse. The object is seen as the subject, and the subject as the object.

We think that we are the subjects and the universe is the object, whereas the truth is the other way around. Hence, a real fall has taken place. It is not merely a fall as a fall from a tree, where we maintain the integrity of our body. We do not start seeing things topsy-turvy because we have fallen from a tree. Here the fall is much worse than falling from the top of a mountain or from a tree. It is much worse because this fall includes not merely a descent into a lower degree of manifestation of reality, but a complete overturning of the mind itself. There is a sirsasana of our consciousness. It is seeing things upside-down, yet we think that this is a great knowledge that we have acquired.

We are proud of our knowledge. We are highly cultured, educated, degree holders—whereas all our knowledge is nothing but this sirsasana knowledge of the world. This would explain how we look so foolish when we are put to the test by the vicissitudes through which the world passes in the course of history.