What is Knowledge
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 1: The Knowledge Situation

The different classes which you will be attending in the Academy are supposed to represent the different needs of your psychological personality, which mostly receive scant attention from us on account of an overemphasis laid on certain needs only, due to the pressure of circumstances. For instance, when we are intensely hungry physically, we are likely to be clamouring for food and thinking only that aspect of our needs in a pre-eminent manner, notwithstanding the fact that it is not our only need.

And, many a time, we are prone to commit a dual mistake in this attitude of our life. Firstly, there is a proclivity in our mind due to which we are likely to channelise our attention wholly and exclusively in the direction of a particular necessity or pressure felt, as if that is the only thing that we need and there is nothing else that we want. Now, this overemphasis on only a particular need of our life, to the exclusion of other needs, may have a dual background. There may be a partial consciousness in our mind of the presence of other needs also, even at the time of this excessive pressure felt in a given direction, but there can also be occasions when we may not be even aware that there are necessities in life other than the one under whose pressure we are operating now. Intense passions, whether they are sensory or psychological, are examples of the condition when we totally forget the other aspects of our needs, and lay total emphasis on only one need. This is a specialty of an over-mastering desire of any kind.

Most of us who are well-educated persons may not be regarded as these specimens of individuals who can be so easily overcome by a single pressure, to the total ignorance of the presence of all other values of life. Education precisely means only this much: the capacity of the mind to recognise all the values of life connected with one’s existence, and not to overemphasise any particular value, which many a time gets identified with a desire. A person who cannot think in this all-comprehensive manner even in respect of his own existence cannot be considered to be an educated person, much less a cultured person. That would be the specimen of an animal walking with two legs.

And, if education is to be understood as merely the obtaining of a paper certificate with somebody’s stamp, then whatever be our outlook of life and the depth of our understanding, we will find that we are not safe in this world – because the troubles of life are not to be faced with certificates. The world is made up of such stuff that we cannot easily understand what it is made of. No piece of paper with us, whatever stamp may be on it, will be of any use to us when the world stares at us with tooth and claw.

All this difficulty, even after being well-educated in the ordinary accepted sense of the term, arises because of what I mentioned in the beginning: an overemphasis on certain values of life. We have today a peculiar trend of thinking called job-oriented education. People are after that, and they are after nothing else. There is no denying that jobs are very important. One has to find an occupation in life. We have to do some work and earn our bread – accepted. This is a very important need. But is it the only need of our life? And can we brook total ignorance of the voices of the other values of life merely because a particular voice is loudly crying before us, drowning out the others? Do we mean to say that a well-placed person economically, and in a job so-called, is a safe person in the world? Is his need in life answered properly by the occupation of a position we call a job? If education means only the manufacturing of an instrument by which we can securely ground ourselves economically and physically in life, that would be the death of education.

It is not that we are going to be secure in this world and be scot free merely because we have bread and jam to eat up to the brim. There are troubles which can threaten us and shake the very ground under our feet, in spite of all the commodities that we may be hoarding in our house which make us physically secure. The tragedy of modern life may be said to consist mainly in an overemphasis laid on certain pressures exerted by the sense organs and even by the mind and the ego of the personality. We are often politically oriented, socially oriented, economically oriented, family oriented, sex oriented and pleasure oriented. All these are not unknown to us in our daily life.

But oftentimes, all these aspects do not come in a heap or a crowd. They come one at a time, two at a time, three at a time – not all at a time. We have not been able to face all of them at the same time; one or two come and speak to us in their own language. Often, the language which they use is so vehement that we are likely to accede to their request even to the detriment of the needs of other values of life. We can commit burglary, assault people – if only our stomach is to be filled with food. This tragedy of outlook can arise due to a hundred percent emphasis laid on one need only: the maintenance of the body, maybe the maintenance of a family.

But one does not know that life is not constituted merely of these necessities. We are neither political units entirely, nor persons involved in society wholly, nor physical bodies one hundred percent, nor anything exclusively, for the matter of that, though it is true that we are all these things also, at the same time. We are sons and daughters of some people; we may be bosses or subordinates, we may be rich or poor, we may be happy or unhappy under given conditions – but we are none of these entirely. We may be something in ourselves other than being a daughter or son of somebody, other than being associated with circumstances which we call political, social or economic. If these associations are cut off, we may be still somebody. Do we mean to say that we will be nobody if we have nothing with us? If we are nobody in the political field, nobody in society, we have no family, perhaps we have not even food to eat – have we reduced ourselves to a nothing, or are we something even then? We will feel that we are not a zero, that we are not going to be a nothing or a nobody even if everything is going to be taken away from us vitally, externally.

But, people find very little time to think along these lines because the greatest poverty is not the poverty of physical possessions, but what we may call the poverty of thinking. We are poor in thinking itself, not merely in our economic or physical needs. The poverty of thinking is the real poverty of man, which is the poverty even to understand what is good for one’s own self. Do we mean to say that all of us are quite clear as to what is necessary for us in our life? From time to time, from moment to moment, we shift our centres of understanding as to our needs – again, according to the pressure of circumstances. We seem to be puppets of certain pressures, and this would not be a credit to us if we are to consider ourselves to be free individuals.

How can we regard ourselves as free in any way if we are to work under a pressure – whether it is egoistic, sensory, psychological, political, social, or economic? If something is pulling us, pressing us and striking us to the ground, and we are yielding to the pressure and acting according to its dictates, do we call it freedom? Have we ever considered the possibility that we act under pressures of various types, and this goes by the name of freedom? Really, if we go deep into the matter, even the little act of taking our daily meal by choice cannot be considered as an act of freedom. We are not eating a particular diet because we have chosen independently by act of free will. We are pressurised by the peculiar operation of the alimentary canal, the physiological organs, the condition of our liver and so on, which compel us to eat only this food and not that, so even here we have no freedom. This is only to give one obvious physical example; and there are many other examples to show that we are puppets, really speaking, though we may wrongly appear to ourselves to be free individuals.

It is difficult to understand what we are really seeking. The understanding in this regard is difficult to acquire because clear, impartial, all-comprehensive understanding cannot operate except as an expression of real freedom of what we really are. The expression of what we really are – not what we appear to be – is what we call freedom. But most of us are appearances rather than realities. We work in a particular manner because we are something politically, something socially, something in relation to something, something physically, and something under a given psychological condition. We are always something under some condition, and because we are tentatively something in that condition, we have to behave in a particular manner. That manner in which we behave under a given condition due to a tentative pressure, whether it is external or internal, cannot be regarded as an act of real freedom, because freedom is what we exercise from the bottom of the truth of our being. Unless we know what we really are, we cannot know what freedom is. Merely shouting slogans of freedom cannot make us free, because these slogans are again an outcome of the herd instinct. If many people say something, we also believe it is so. We are always under the pressure of something or the other, from morning to evening, and we never have the leisure to think independent of these conditions which are hanging on us.

We are grief-stricken. Sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly, we have a sorrow in our minds. We are not really happy people, and we try to appear as if we are happy by drinking, by eating, by a diversion, by going to a picture house, by dancing in a club or by running from place to place in high-speed vehicles. For the time being, we have forgotten that the devil is behind us. If we run fast, the devil is unable to catch us. But it shall catch us, one day or the other.

And what is this devil? It is that which we are unable to understand, that which escapes our attention, that mystery of life which we are unable to probe into. That is the devil that is trying to catch us. And we are trying to run away from it by various gadgets, physical as well as psychological, that we manufacture. We have a blanket to cover ourselves with when it is very cold, we have an electric fan when it is very hot, we have some food to eat when we are hungry, and we have various other entertainments when we are bored with our existence. This is a type of escapist life that we are living – a running away from a problem, and not a solution of a problem.

These difficulties are natural to humanity as a whole. It is not my problem or your problem or anybody’s problem; it is perhaps inseparable from the species of humanity. Particularly in our studies, we have to confine ourselves to the factors which go with human nature. We are human beings, and there is no great point in our going into the details of what we would be if we were not human beings. We have to take reality as it is itself. As human beings, we have certain limitations and we have certain privileges. We have a privilege and a facility – an advantage especially endowed upon us as human beings – when compared with the other species like the animals, the plants, or inanimate matter. But we have certain weaknesses also, and we know very well what the human weaknesses are. We cannot face the forces of nature. We cannot face even an animal; it has strength greater than ours. But we have certain other facilities by which we can get over these problems created by the weaknesses of human nature.

A correct understanding of ourself is essential before we try to understand what is outside us. With the so-called scientific outlook prevalent these days, we are likely to again lay overemphasis on external nature rather than the experimenter or the observer, the scientist himself. Is the scientist less important than that which he is observing? And do we not believe that his capacity to observe contributes as much to the conclusions he arrives at as the nature of the object that he is observing? But this is easily missed. We again lay too much emphasis on the reality of externals as if they are all the reality, not knowing that the character of reality that the world presents before us is certainly conditioned by the way in which we are able to receive this knowledge.

The role which the subject of knowledge plays in the act of knowing anything is not in any way unimportant. The knowledge of the world – or the knowledge of anything, for the matter of that – is not entirely dependent on the object of knowledge. The object of knowledge is important, no doubt, but it is not the only important thing, because we are also a participant in this process of knowing the world. All problems are a problem of knowledge, finally. The difference in ideologies and difficulties arisen on account of difference of opinion among people – philosophically, or socially, or otherwise – arise on account of a problem in the knowledge process itself.

People do not know things in a uniform manner. I see the world, you see the world, a cat sees the world, a dog sees the world, a politician sees the world, a religious man sees the world, a child sees the world, a genius sees the world. Do we mean to say that everybody sees the world in the same way though the world, perhaps, stands as it is, as it was, as it will be, to everyone? The world does not become different to a cat than it is to us, but it means something to us while it may mean something else to another subjective location of knowledge.

Philosophical study – or, for the matter of that, any kind of study – is based on the knowledge situation. This is a very important thing to remember. We should not be under the impression that knowledge is secondary and possession of things is very important. We go with the wind of this misconception that the possession of the material values of life is the only important thing, and knowledge is only an appendage, an accessory, a tool or an instrument assisting us in the possession of material values. This is not so; it is a total misconception. Even our idea of the peculiar or particular necessities of our life is conditioned by the way in which we know things. Why is it that you want this, and I want another thing? How is it that the needs of people differ, and even the needs of the same person differ from time to time? That is because of an adjustment that is automatically made inside the structure of the individual, the percipient, the knower – what may philosophically be called the knowledge situation.

Now, in the particular series of classes that I am expected to take for your edification, this theme comes into high relief. What is knowledge? While other instructors, teachers in the academy, will touch upon other aspects of life which may be equally important and interesting to you, I shall confine myself to a particular type of analysis and study which you will find useful in your daily life – and useful in every way, as far as I can gather, God-willing.

What I tried to mention in these few words is that we have perhaps now come to a stage of our life where we have to think very seriously about things. We cannot merely take life as a kind of game where it is immaterial whether we lose or gain. It is not just a cricket, football or tennis game that we are playing when we are living in this world. There is a greater seriousness about it, and this seriousness has not always been felt by people. Children that we are in the knowledge of the things of the world, we play like children only, and we are satisfied mostly with toys, which the world is ready to give us. The child may like different kinds of toys on different days; it doesn't want the same thing every day. And the world has plenty of toys. It has been feeding people with these things, and the reaction of the human psyche to these provisions of the world is human history. We are now in one period of human history. The history of mankind, particularly, may be said to be the series of reactions humanity has set up in relation to the processes of nature with which mankind is intimately connected.

Natural history and human history go together. The evolutionary process of nature, and of our own personal life, is not like two different parallel rails in a railway line, not touching each other. We may wrongly imagine, oftentimes, that we live one kind of life and the world is getting on in another way altogether. For instance, these days we have a total bifurcation of physics and psychology. Psychology is the study of the inner nature of man, and physics is the study of the outer nature – as if one has no connection with the other. One can be a very good psychologist knowing nothing of physics, and one can be a very good physicist knowing nothing of one's own self. The compartmentalisation of subjects in our curricula of studies, as if everything is watertight, is, again, very unfortunate. We have no connection of one with the other.

Knowledge is a universal process. It is not merely physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics or psychology. These are various outlooks or angles of vision of a single reality before us. From one angle of vision, our knowledge of the world looks like psychology; from another angle, the same world presents itself before us as an object of physical studies, and so on.

Therefore, we can look at the world from a thousand different directions; and the world is infinite in the facets of its presentation. As a beautifully cut crystal or a diamond may have various facets reflecting it in various ways, the world can present, and does present, itself in various ways. But we are unable to adjust our minds to the totality of the universe. We can, as finite individual percipients, behold only one facet of this world at a time, and the other facets are completely cut off from the ken of our perception.

But ignorance of the law is no excuse. We cannot say: " I am very sorry. I did not know the world as these things also. I am a psychologist." "I am a physicist. I do not know who Ashoka is," one gentleman told me. What kind of physicist are you? Does it mean that you are totally ignorant of human history? Look at the way we are taught these days. We do not know who Napoleon is, who Ashoka is. Just because we are physicists, we know only atoms and forces. Well, this is very unfortunate, again.

The world does not want us to take it piecemeal. Would you like me to look at you piecemeal? Would you be happy? You would like me to understand you as you are. Then you would be my friend, and I would be your friend. If one day I look at your feet, and the next day I look at your nose, and the third day I try to see something else in you, and I react to you in different ways at different times because I have never seen you properly or wholly at any time, you would be horrified by this kind of attitude.

The world is really dissatisfied with us. Nature may be said to be angry with us, as we may be angry with anyone who will not try to understand us and reacts piecemeal in respect of us – day by day changing his attitude towards us, like a chameleon. If we would not brook piecemeal attention from people, why should the world tolerate this kind of attitude from us? The world resents this kind of compartmentalised, piecemeal, distorted attitude of ours in respect of it, and so many a time it gives us a kick; and it is annoyed, which is often manifest in the process of nature. Our sufferings – external, as well as internal – may be said to be natural to the consequences of our not understanding the world. What do we lack, finally? Not money, not social position. We lack knowledge.

Now, again I am coming to the point. Do not be under the impression that knowledge is a tool, an instrument to give us physical amenities in life – to give us alot of wealth and make us politically or socially important persons. Knowledge is not an instrument; it is the end in itself, because all our adventures in life depend upon the way in which we understand things. And perhaps, when we know a person wholly and become friends of that person one hundred percent, we require nothing from that person. If you are my real friend in the true sense of the term – in the sense that you have understood me wholly, and I know you wholly – we have ceased to be two persons because of the intimacy of our friendship. You will not expect anything from me; I will not expect anything from you. Merely the knowledge of the fact that we are one will be a satisfaction. Friendship is a satisfaction by itself, and not because two friends act as media or instruments of each other so that one may use the other as an instrument. A friend is not an instrument of another friend; otherwise, it cannot be called friendship. They are equals in every sense of the term. So equally are they tuned in their being that they, for all practical purposes, have ceased to be two individuals. They are one mind and one soul in two bodies, and they do not expect anything from each other.

To expect one thing or another thing from somebody else is to keep that person at arm's length, and we are not really united in our being with that object. The word 'object' that we usually use is indicative of that something with which we have not communed ourselves. It is not a friend. An object cannot be a friend, and a friend is not our object. The world is an object of the physicist, of the scientist, of the psychologist, of the chemist, of even the physician; it has never become our friend. Why should the world treat us as our friend? If we are not going to accept the world as our own, why do we expect the world to treat us as its own?

In a way, in a very important sense, the world is our own face reflected in the mirror of space and time. We are seeing our own self when we look at the world through this mirror we call the space-time continuum. When we smile at the world, the world smiles at us. If we grin, it will also grin. What we do to it, it does back to us. It is so because of the fact that, basically, the world does not seem to be so segregated from our personal lives as we imagine in our ignorance.

The world is not outside us. Now, here is the beginning of our studies in these sessions. Is the world really outside us? In India, we have systems of thinking along these lines, one of them being called the Sankhya philosophy, which spent years and years – ages, perhaps – in trying to understand what this world is made of. What is the stuff of nature, and how am I related to it? The Yoga System, which is the practical application of the knowledge of the reality of life, is based on a doctrine which is the knowledge itself, properly speaking. 'Sankhya' is a word that is used in one system of Indian thinking which is engaged in the analysis of the objective world in its relation to the subject of knowledge.

All these things that I have mentioned to you just now are a sort of introduction to this great theme before us. What is your relation to the world? How are you connected with it? How is the world connected with you? In what way are people around you connected with you? In what way are you related to anybody in this world? Is this not an important subject to study? And what else can be more important than this, because here is the crucial point on which depends everything else in life. If this point is missed, if you blunder and flounder in properly conducting your studies and analyses here, you will blunder and flounder everywhere in life. The whole structure of life will crumble if this foundation is not properly laid. Thus, the Sankhya philosophy tried to lay a foundation for the entire adventure of life by an analysis it called 'the knowledge process'. This is a subject we shall take up in some more detail subsequently.