What is Knowledge
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: The Necessity to Understand What Real Knowledge Is

A time comes in everyone's life when one would see and realise that the world is not made in the way it appeared earlier; it is something different. And we begin to learn this lesson sometimes very late in life, not when we are young. Often, the world appears to be a field of adventure by young people. They are very heroic, bold; they climb mountaintops, plunge into ocean waves, and go skiing on icebergs. This is a world of such satisfactions to youth, who see this kind of meaning in the world due to what they are, and not because of what the world is.

But this would not be realised so easily. We will not know that our idea of the world is mostly due to what we are, and not due to what the world itself is. Practically everyone will miss this point in the process of living in this world. The world is so clever, we should say, that it will not permit us to go into these secrets. It has to be taken only at its face value. And this is, perhaps, what anyone would also expect. This is what we mostly do; we take the world at its face value. If it rains, we say it rains; if it is hot, we say it is hot; if it is cold, we say it is cold. This is just a statement which is superficially in agreement with a phenomenon that is taking place, a phenomenon which agrees with the receptivity of our sense organs like the eyes, ears, and so on.

Our senses are our friends. Not merely friends, they are inseparable from us. They are the only instruments we have with which we can know anything. If we see something, we think it is the way we see it. “It should be like this, because I am seeing it.” If we hear something, again we say, “It should be like this, because I have heard it” – and so on. So, a thing should be exactly as it is seen with the eyes, heard with the ears or sensed in any other manner. This is called a philosophy of sensationalism. The sensation itself is the meaning of life. Whatever the senses tell us, that is the truth, finally. If the skin feels cold, the world is cold; if it feels hot, the world is hot. Immediately we have a readymade opinion from our bags. “It is sweet,” “It is bitter,” the tongue says. At once it reacts and holds an opinion about that which is placed on it – and so on, with every one of our senses. Thus, it appears that we have nothing with us worth the while except our sense organs, if it is true that we are to know, judge, understand, appreciate, and evaluate things only through the sense organs – the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch. There is nothing else.

But, there must come a time in our life, in everyone's life, when we will be opened up to a new fact altogether – that the world is not made in such a way as it is reported to the sensations. It is not true that the thing is exactly as it is seen with the eyes, etc. This awakening to the fact that the senses are not the true reporters of the facts of life is a real achievement indeed. But very few people are awakened to this fact. We live like animals, if we believe that sensations are the only available sources of knowledge. There is practically no difference between a human being and an animal, if sensation is the instrument of knowing and the supreme judge of anything in the world. Do you believe that generally our judgements are of this type only? Have we any other means of knowing things than our sense organs? We have nothing except these.

Again, as I mentioned, we will find that when we are very young children, boyish and juvenile in our enthusiasm, this enthusiasm is precisely due to the strength of the senses. In youth, the senses are very strong and, therefore, they boil and dash upon us like strong waves in the ocean, and like cyclones they hurl us down if we do not listen to them. That is why young boys and girls are sometimes cyclonic in their emotions, and even in their judgements of things. But this cyclone will cease eventually. The wind will not blow like this always. The waves of emotion will subside when the senses become weak. The turmoil of emotions and the over-enthusiasm of youth, which does not listen to any advice, is the result of the power of the sense organs, which take complete possession of our young age; and, therefore, often it appears that no good advice will enter the brain of a young person. Good advice is wasted energy, though there may be means of communicating instruction, knowledge, or true education even at this age, if a proper methodology is adopted. This was one of the points that was realised by ancient masters in India particularly, who were not like professors in our colleges but like parents who felt the necessity to take care of untutored emotions and unlettered understandings.

In India, we had the ancient system of teaching called gurukula, which means the system of living under the umbrella and protection of a competent, knowledgeable person. It is necessary to live with that person, and not merely listen to what that person says, or read books. There was no such necessity in those days, because the life and the vibrating force of the teacher was more a teaching than the books or even the words that he spoke. That the influence of a living person is more potent and capable of communicating knowledge than any other means was something realised very early in India, which point is missed these days due to the mechanised form of education. Education has become like a robot – a huge machine, a push button system that produces only mechanical goods, and not living individuals or intelligent human beings.

We are misguided by various factors in life. It is not that we really want to be misguided, but we sometimes feel we are placed under such circumstances, right from our childhood, that we are automatically misdirected into ruts which go out of the point altogether.

The factors which cause or bring about this circumstance are many. As a good educationist or a psychologist would know, the way in which parents live in the house is very important, because we are always seeing them and living with them; and we will certainly imbibe what our parents are, more than what they want us to do. There is also the social atmosphere around – the community. The setup of people in our area is also a great influence upon us. From babyhood onwards, we are under the influence of this atmosphere of the community, or even the township in which we are living; and because a baby's mind is flexible, malleable, soft – not yet hardened into an ego – immediately an impress is formed on it.

There are many other ideologies which impress upon the mind of a small child, and we must remember that although we are now sufficiently grown up, the impressions created on our mind during childhood are still there. They have not gone, and they cannot easily go. These impressions are also caused by the ideologies which the society in which we live holds as pre-eminent. There are cults, creeds, beliefs, religious traditions, rituals, ideas of 'God', ideas of 'no God', and many other things such as even a sociological or political interpretation of life – all which cannot be kept completely outside the area of receptivity of small children. Thus from childhood we are brainwashed in some way by these facts, and this cannot be overlooked in an educational process.

Some of you told me, "I cannot understand anything." It is not your fault that you do not understand anything. Nobody can say that you are bad people; there is no such thing as that. It is a peculiar arrangement of your thoughts, feelings and outlook of life, what you have seen and studied earlier, and also the opinion in general that you are holding in your minds, all which have weighed heavily on your heads in such a manner that you are inseparable from this opinion and outlook that you are holding. "This is what I have seen, this is what I have learned, this is what I have been told, and therefore it should be only like this. It cannot be in any other way." A kind of egoism – not necessarily adopted deliberately, but automatically arising due to the impression of these old vibrations thrust upon you by factors mentioned – create a circumstance of non-receptivity to any kind of change in outlook. People always resent change in anything. They want to stick to something which is already there. No change is permitted; it is a fearful thing. You do not want to change anything, either outwardly or inwardly, because you get habituated to a particular way of thinking and living; and if this habit of living in a particular way has continued for twenty years, thirty years, forty years, you cannot change your outlook so easily – as you would not like to peel your own skin, and put on a new skin on your body.

As I mentioned in the very beginning, the world is a very hard nut to crack. It is not an easy thing, and it will not bend before our opinions, our ideologies. It has seen many like us, and it is going to see many like us. It is no use fighting with the world, and then imagining that we have understood it thoroughly. Neither can we understand it thoroughly, nor can we fight with it. Perhaps we cannot encounter it in any way, because we cannot understand it. Now, we are actually coming to the point of why we are sitting here at all. Have we no other work? We can go shopping and eat some sweets. What is the point in sitting unnecessarily, wasting time?

The point is very important. There is something serious about every one of us; and that we do not know that there is something serious, is a tragedy indeed. Even a sheep which is going to a butcher's shop will sense what its fate is going to be. Due to some vibration which it is able to receive from various corners of that locality, it feels something is wrong, and it bleats and resents and refuses to move. Even sheep have some sensations of the future. It is only man who is bereft of this sense of the future. He vehemently, inveterately and adamantly sticks to the present condition of what is reported to his senses and particularly to his emotions. There is a necessity to connect the past and the future to what we are at the present. This is almost the beginning of an educational career. If there is nothing to learn, and we know everything already, and our opinion is set, and our outlook of life is permanently settled in our brain, why do we want to go to any school or college? Why should we listen to anybody? Why should we hear; why should we read? Everything is clear to us. "I know all things." What is the problem with us? Why do we run here and there?

There is something lurking within us, and telling us: "You are in danger." That danger is not visible. It is not on the surface of our consciousness. It has not come to the level of conscious thinking and, therefore, we are not frightened in our daily existence. If it has the capacity or the intention to come to the surface of our consciousness – if all that is in store for us is to come to the surface of our consciousness just now – we will perish just this moment by the fear of it. Our heart will stop, and we will tremble and cease to be.

But we are living still; we are not dying at one stroke. A very interesting statement of Buddha, among many other things that he said, is: "A person who really sees through the inner structure of this world will not be able to live here for three minutes." And, in the same way, if we can see through the inner core of things, people, or anything in the world, we will not like to speak one word afterwards. Our mouth will be shut forever, if we have seen to the root of things – whether of people, or of any other thing in the world. The Buddha's statement followed: "The world, to that person who sees the root of things, would appear like a burning pit of live coal." Live coal means hot embers, fire blazing, and we cannot keep our foot on it even for a second. Patanjali also says in his Yoga Sutra: "For an understanding mind, the whole world is misery incarnate."

Why is it so? Why do we not feel like that? Why should Patanjali say that, but we do not say that? The reason is that our unconscious and subconscious levels are buried, for reasons we cannot easily explain now; and a little peak of the huge mountainous weight of our personality, in the form of a conscious mind, is what we call our present life. Whatever we are thinking, feeling, seeing and reacting to now is this little peak. This fact is well known to psychologists and psychoanalysts. Our whole personality is a tremendous iceberg which is buried in the ocean of the unconscious, and little of it is on the surface, and so we say we are 'this', we are 'that'. But the total weight of our personality, which is the cause of what we are going to be, will not manifest itself under unfavourable circumstances. Like a seed that is sown on the ground which will sprout only under given conditions and not always, our total personality will not come to the surface of our experience, except under given conditions. All the necessary accompaniments for the coming up of this inner buried treasure should be there. Otherwise, it will lie like a coiled-up serpent. Only if we interfere with it, will it come up.

Now, incidentally, by way of digression, I may tell you that in our yoga practice or in our meditation, we are actually interfering with this coiled-up serpent inside. This is our kundalini, which is very much spoken of by people. Immediately the snake will open its hood when we touch it. We will not know what we are unless we probe into these depths of our own being. Sometimes our depths come out when we are opposed, insulted, or kicked out. When we are praised, garlanded and respectably treated, we cannot know what we are. We must be kicked out of the world, spat at, and live like an unknown, unwanted nobody; then the unconscious will come up. The kundalini will come up at that time as a rapacious serpent with raised hood. It is now coiled up in an unconscious condition because it is not necessary for it to come to the surface just now. As the reserve force of an army need not be unleashed always and remains quiet except under necessary circumstances, we do not show our strength every day, unless we feel the need for it. We live like a simple, humble person, a very good person. But if we are opposed from every side, we will show our strength physically, mentally, and socially. Likewise is this buried serpent of our real personality, which will not come to the surface. But it will go on giving little pinpricks now and then, and keep us restless – like snakes which are not visible and yet are living inside one's house sometimes show their heads a little bit, and keep us very miserable.

These potencies of what we call the unconscious and the subconscious are the conditioning factors of our present conscious thinking, feeling, reacting, etc. This is the reason why every one of us has one particular view of things. You think in one way and I think in another way about one and the same thing. There are as many philosophies as there are people, and as many viewpoints and standpoints of looking at things as there are individuals, because the way in which the conditioned personality manifests itself in conscious experience depends upon the varieties of circumstances in which the psychophysical personality is placed. This is why every one of us is different – one cannot be like the other – and each one has a peculiar idea of something or the other.

All this amounts to saying that none of us can be really happy because there is something hidden inside us which refuses to come to the surface – like a disease that is buried deep. Sometimes it comes like a boil, sometimes it comes like a sneeze, another time like an ache in the stomach, sometimes like a headache, but we will not know what the real fact is – why we are having all these types of manifested illness. The root is never known easily, and we see only the symptoms outside. Similarly, we have many a symptom of dissatisfaction in this world. We can never be happy with anything. We always have some complaint against everything in the world, because these inward dissatisfactions in the form of our buried personality come out little by little, not at one stroke, to the surface of consciousness as and when circumstances become favourable. If the whole of it comes up, we will cease to be in one second. It will not come. It is like a shopkeeper, who will not show all his goods at once. He has a godown [warehouse] where he keeps all his treasures, and little by little he brings out what is essential to the open market for us to see. He has a retail store, but he has also a wholesale godown which is not visible to the customers, from where he brings out items to display when circumstances demand. In the same way, we have a godown in ourselves where everything is kept inside; but unfortunately, we do not know what is in the godown. It is a very intricate wound-up abyss of the unconscious.

Now, to imagine that the world is made in some way, and we understand it in some way and, therefore, it should be only that way and nothing else is permitted, is to succumb to the pressure of this deeper unconscious level of ours – which presents only one particular picture at a moment, and other pictures are withdrawn. It will not show us the entire picture of the world at any time and, therefore, we find that it is not easy for us to learn the highest truths of life or the deeper secrets of nature unless we place ourselves under the complete control, care and protection of someone who, like a good doctor or a physician, knows the student or the disciple not merely as he or she appears outside, but as the student is inside.

Often we think that we ourselves are the master. A patient cannot treat himself. Otherwise, why should we have hospitals, doctors? Let each one treat himself. This is not possible, because we cannot know the causative factors of the phenomena appearing outside – either as illness, or as unhappiness. Neither can one know why one is really ill, nor can one know why one is unhappy. It is not easy to know the reason.

Thus, coming to the main point of what we are intending to study, the essence of the whole enterprise of education is to realise the necessity to know things as they are, and not as they appear. But we, for reasons already stated, mix up appearance with reality, and vice versa. We insist, through the pressure of our sense organs and our emotions, that things, the world, should be exactly as they appear to us. This is why we have various ideologies and outlooks of life, which not only differ from one another, but even clash with one another; wars can take place because of difference in ideologies.

But why should it be like that? It need not be like that. The world is not a war field in the sense that it is cut into two opposite parties. It is not properly understood. Therefore, great patience is necessary; and a hurried, emotional person, expecting the harvest to grow immediately when the seed is sown, will not be a good student. First of all, the world is very large, very wide. Secondly, it is very deep. Both these factors are important. How will we in a few days, a few months or even a few years of our little life in this world, with this inadequate instrument of our poor understanding, know the width of the world, the vastness of the cosmos, and the depth of things? So, the primary quality of a real student is a humility that is born of the understanding of the magnitude of the truths of things. The world is so deep, vast and magnificent that we are humbled by the very sight of it. Even when we see an elephant, we look very small. We cannot go near it. We feel miserable by the very sight of it. We feel very small before the huge dashing waves of the Atlantic or the Pacific. We are frightened by a huge conflagration or even a cyclonic blow. There are things in the world, even before our eyes, which sometimes make us feel that our strengths are nothing before these natural forces. We seem to be very important, but that importance can be wiped out in one second if the nature unleashes her forces – even by the wind that blows, let alone other things. A strong wind is sufficient to make us realise where we are.

Thus, a humility born not of hypocrisy, but of a real acceptance of the fact of the mystery and the magnitude of things, is the first quality of a student; and a disciple, a sisya, a chela, a student, is therefore one who has completely handed himself or herself to the rescue of this reservoir of knowledge we call the teacher or the master. But – I repeat what I told you a few minutes before – the egoism, born of an attitude compelled by the power of the sense organs which have a voice of their own, will prevent us from having this attitude of humility. The egoism will persist. We will have a self-importance of our own, and an ideology of our own, which we would not like to be refuted by anybody. "What I think is right, and it must be right." With this attitude, no knowledge can be gained, because our basket is already full and nobody can fill it with anything else. Nobody can fill us unless we have already emptied ourselves; a full basket cannot be filled with anything else.

Most of the students these days go to educational institutions with a 'don't care' attitude, and an attitude of having known things already, sometimes more than even the teacher knows; therefore, it becomes a mockery, an utter failure, and a waste of energy, landing everyone in a catastrophe. This is the picture the world is presenting before us every day. It is a failure, a catastrophe, and a hopelessness. Finally we will go with the feeling that the whole of life is a waste, a hopeless pursuit, and nothing is worthwhile here. This happens because the world is opposing us, due to the fact that we are opposing it.

Why should we have this character of opposition evinced from the world if we are to live in the world? Either we need not live in the world, or we have to live in the world. If we want to stay in a distant space unconnected with the world, that is a different matter. We cannot have our own counter-bolt of opinion about the world as long as we are in it. It is like opposing the members of the family, ourselves belonging to this membership. We forget the fact that we belong to the world, we are in the world, we are breathing the air of this world, we are drinking the water of life, and we are here. A total egoistic attitude of self-sufficiency is the defeat of all education.

Now, these are the little things that we would like to consider if life is serious for us. But we feel that life is not a serious thing, that it is only a joke, a play, a game, and it can be lived in any way one likes. "Today I live it in this way, tomorrow I can live in another way. Who is to question me? I am my own master." If we are our own master, and nobody can question us, and we know all things, then the world will teach us a lesson that this is not expected of us in the atmosphere of our real relationship with the world, and the world gives a kick. This kick everyone receives – sometimes late in life, sometimes every day in life. We receive various types of kicks, due to which we are placed in a condition of utter sorrow. We are grief-stricken because we are defeated in life. We have understood nothing, and we have gained nothing. Yet, we have to live. We cannot end our life; that permission is not granted to us. So, life becomes a vale of tears. It becomes a bundle of sorrows and griefs. At least if we realise that the situation has arisen on account of our not knowing things properly, and there is no point in our asserting ourselves anymore, then we have become real disciples and real students.

Life is not very long. We do not hope to live in this world for ten thousand years. Nobody knows how many days, how many minutes they will live – nothing is known – so how is it possible for us to imagine that we have to live here for some millions of years? And if an understanding of the circumstances of our life in this world is not important to us, what else is going to be important to us? Here, we come to our original discussion that knowledge is supreme. There is nothing of any value in life finally except knowledge, because everything is limited to, restricted by, or conditioned by the way we understand things. The reaction of the world in respect of ourselves is a response to the way in which we envisage it, understand it, and react to it. Knowledge is supreme.

Last time I mentioned that in an ancient Indian system of thinking which spent all its time in the pursuit of knowledge, the Sanskrit word 'sankhya' is used. Sankhya means knowledge, but not knowledge that is merely a means to some material end – not a job-oriented knowledge. Knowledge is more important than jobs because everything, including jobs, is conditioned by the kind or depth of knowledge that has gone into our being.

Here, we are also to consider a little as to what knowledge means. What do we mean by knowledge? We say it is very important. We all have some knowledge. Now, is it all right, or is there something more? Every one of us has some knowledge. We know that it is daytime, that it is not night; this is also a knowledge. We know that after some time we will have lunch; this is also a knowledge. Who can say it is not? And we have one hundred types of knowledge. But do we mean that sankhya, true knowledge, is this kind of knowledge? No. This is information about the phenomena around us. But sankhya, or true knowledge, is not information about phenomena around. It is something which is inseparable from our own existence. Knowledge is not away from our being. Most of the knowledge we have today is a kind of shirt that we put on. The shirt is different from us; we can throw that shirt away, if we like. But this sankhya knowledge is exactly what we 'are', and not what we 'know' in an empirical sense. It is not a professorial, academic knowledge. It is wisdom, enlightenment, insight, entry into the very substance of things as they really are, and not information that we have gathered from newspapers. That is not knowledge.

Here is the difficulty before every one of you, and that is why you say, "I understand nothing." How can you understand anything? This is something quite different from what you have thought in your minds. And if you are to be prepared to receive into your brains the meaning behind this type of enquiry, you have to be reborn once again, and forget that you are fathers or sons, mothers or daughters. You are born just now – reborn, just now – and you are ready to receive a new knowledge altogether. "Unless you are reborn, there is no freedom." This is a great saying of Jesus Christ, which has many meanings. He said it in a very lofty sense, but it also means a very important requisite on our part in our daily life. A reception of Truth into our personality is impossible, unless we are prepared to be reborn into its conditions. Truth will not enter us unless we are prepared to accommodate the conditions of the structure of Truth itself into our being.

This is something very difficult, but unavoidable. You cannot miss it, because all meaning – any meaning that can be anywhere in anything in life – is the meaning of this knowledge, which nobody can gainsay. Nobody can say "I do not want it" and nobody can say "I do not understand." You have to understand, if you have to live. Otherwise, you will find yourself in a condition where you will be forced by the powers of nature to learn by the instruments of pain, which it can inflict upon you.

Education need not necessarily be painful. We learn things by pain also, but why should we learn only by pain? Is there no other way of knowing? Can you not know things by being good and humble and receptive? Do you want to be beaten up and kicked aside, and then learn lessons? If you are not going to be humble and intelligently receptive to the necessity for a true educational career, you will be forced into this condition by the powers of nature, one day or the other.

Therefore, it is necessary and wise on your part to be prepared for a new type of knowledge and education, which itself is a great gain for you – and you would not want anything else in this world afterwards. That possession, that Knowledge itself, will be the greatest possession. Here, you have to understand what this Knowledge is, in order that Knowledge itself is everything in the world. Such is the importance of these studies. So, I request you to ponder over these issues, and be humble, good children.