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In the Light of Wisdom
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: Subject Knowing Object

We saw that the subject and object seem to be creating an unbridged gulf. There is an unintelligible relationship between man and nature. This has been an age-old problem of every person, without distinction, and it is doubtful if this problem has ever been solved. The relation between man and his environment, the individual and society, ourselves and another – all these are different ways of expressing the same old difficulty and question. It is difficult to reconcile myself with what is outside me. It is my problem, and this problem has many sides and many aspects, one inside the other. That which is outside me – a person near me, a neighbour beside me, a society around me, a country near my country or the universe facing me – it makes no difference, because all mean one and the same thing as far as my problem is concerned.

This was an eternal question that was posed before man's mind: what can we do with this that stares us in the face? Astronomers, physicists, chemists, biologists, psychologists and all sorts of people have tried their best to answer this question. However, no one has yet answered it satisfactorily, because the approach of methodological sciences is something like the attempt of blind men to describe an elephant. The blind men touched different parts of the elephant, but could not touch the whole of the elephant at any time. Neither the astronomer, nor the physicist, nor the biologist was in a position to touch the whole of nature at one stroke. They began to touch the legs, ears and tusk, and began to say, "It is long, short, like a wall, and so on." These are the answers that we get from our wise men of the world.

That is good enough as a workable hypothesis but is not satisfying to the soul of man, because the soul can only be satisfied by the whole of nature. The corpse of nature cannot satisfy the soul of man. We do not want to be presented with the corpse of anything. We want living things – vital, meaningful and significant objects. A scrap of paper has no meaning to us, but when it bears the stamp of the government it becomes a currency note and it receives a meaning. We want meaningful, not meaningless paper. We want method, symmetry, completeness, meaning and a vital relationship with things – then it is that we seem to respond to things through our souls. It is difficult for man to approach nature as it is in itself, because we cannot approach anything unless we understand it properly. We make a mess of things when we do not understand the things which we are going to handle. It may be even a cup of tea – we may spill the tea and get a stain on our clothes, if we don't handle it properly. We may burn our fingers on the stove or we may forget the sugar, and so many confusions may take place if we have no proper understanding and no concentration of mind. We may not be able to take even a cup of tea and sip it properly without dropping a little. So many things are small matters which indicate a lack of concentration and an unprepared mind. This kind of approach to nature will not bring satisfying results.

How to Approach Nature

We should not approach nature like a businessman approaching his account books. Nature has to be approached as nature would expect us to approach it. If a person is to approach us, how would we expect him to approach? If some person comes to us seeking work, how do we expect him to come? He should come in a sympathetic manner, in an understanding manner, in an amiable manner, and in a manner which is agreeable to our essential nature. This is how we would expect a person to approach us, and not in a way that is contrary to our nature. If he does not approach us like this we are repelled by him, and we cannot bear his presence. If this is the human attitude, then this is nothing but nature's attitude as well. It is nature that speaks through us. When we expect others to correspond to our nature, it is the natural disposition of creation which speaks through our personalities. When we expect another person or another thing to approach us in consonance with what we really are, and we are made in this way, nature cannot be expected to be made in another way. But what have our scientists done? They have tried to conquer nature. How would we like a person if he were to come to us to conquer us, to overcome us, or to subjugate us? Would we like it? No, we would not like it. If I come to you to conquer you, will you appreciate me? Nature will not tolerate a person who tries to conquer her.

We try to utilise, conquer, overcome and subjugate nature. This is a very untactful method which we have adopted. Nature puts us off the moment we approach it in a conquering spirit or in a suspicious attitude. Nobody wishes to be approached with suspicion. Our approach should be sympathetic, if it is going to be successful. I will now try to go step by step to show how nature has been approached by our scientists up until this time. For the astronomer, nature appeared to be constituted of diversified objects, and he took things as they appeared. Each star and each planet was cast off from the earth, and there were no connections between one and the other, and they were surprised at how the stars were hanging above our heads. "How is it that the sun does not drop down on the earth?" is the wonder expressed by children even today. "How is it that the stars do not fall down? The sun and the moon are hanging in space. By what power?" is a question of children. And the grown-up children were not better in the wonder that they entertained in regard to nature. The rising and setting of the sun and the changing of seasons were all wonders and marvels. The original approach of astronomy was one of an attitude of the diversity of things. The adhibhuta or the external world was approached as it appears to the physical senses. This approach brought a knowledge which saw the universe as merely a wonder, a knowledge that was unsatisfying. As a consequence, the world remained a wonder. How all this universe came about could not be known. How things are and why they should be as they are remained an unanswerable marvel.

Man advanced in his knowledge of nature step by step until he reached the present circumstances of this twentieth century. The adhibhuta is a term to designate nature in its totality. Adhibhuta or nature was an astronomical diversity constituted of planets, stars, and so on, including the Earth, and there was apparently no relation between them. We seemed to be suspended in space in a very mysterious manner unknown to the human mind. Advancing knowledge revealed by various methods that the stars and the planets are not hanging or suspended as they appeared to be, but seem to be relatively attracting each other by a force called gravitation. That this relativity of gravitational pull keeps them in the position in which they are was a later discovery of many scientists of both the East and the West. Gravitational pull explained everything. The foremost among those scientists of the West was Newton, and in India we had the astronomers Bhaskara and Varahamihira.

Just for your information, it is said that in southern India near Vijayanagar, a great ancient capital of a Hindu kingdom of the past, that there was an image of Lord Krishna suspended in space, just hanging in space. How could this be? Many engineers came and stood looking at the image as it hung in space without being pulled down by the earth – with no wires or connecting links from any side. British archaeologists who were interested in the phenomenon later on discovered that there were four pillars on the ground which were made up of magnets. The four magnetic pillars were pulling this iron image on the top with an equally distributed power in different directions, in such a way that the image could not drop. They wanted to improve this and removed one pillar, but afterwards it did not succeed because an electromagnet was put in the pillar. They could not get the image suspended again, and the effect has been lost forever. Those ancient people were apparently wiser and surer than the present-day scientists!

The pull of a magnet is a similar, familiar phenomenon comparable to the universal magnetic pull of the stellar and planetary regions. The wonder remains as to how this could be conceived by any possible mind, if at all there is a mind of that kind who could set these bodies in such a harmonious relationship with one another. How many stars and how many planets are in the heavens? We cannot count them, and how is it that they are all so systematically and mathematically arranged with relative pull upon one another? If there is anyone who could have done this, there could then be no greater wonder than the mind of that person. Well, to come to the point, it was discovered that the heavenly bodies are not scattered, as children might imagine. There is an unknown power connecting these bodies, and this power is the explanation for the change of seasons, the movements of the stars and so forth in the astronomical universe. But our explanation is not complete here. The wonder yet remains as to what is this gravitational pull, and what have we to do with it? How are we to explain the universe for our purposes, and how are we going to understand nature? Unless there is a thorough understanding, there will be no satisfaction.

Knowledge is bliss. The greater the knowledge, the greater also is the happiness. If there is inadequate understanding, then there will be a dissatisfaction lurking within. "Something is not all right. I don't understand this." This is the sorrow of the scientist and the philosopher. As knowledge advanced, it was discovered that the gravitational pull was not the full explanation. The necessity arose to find out what these bodies were made of that were attracting one another. What is the sun? What is the moon? What are the stars? Of what are they constituted? The substance of the cosmos became the subject of study. While the superficial vision sees many colours, many sounds and many things in the universe, the analytic minds of the scientists discovered that the many things are made up only of a few things. The multitude in the variety of creation is explicable in terms of a few fundamental elements of which everything is made.

In India it was felt that everything was made up of five things: the earth element, the water element, the fire element, the air element and the ether (space) element. The ether element was an enigma for scientists. Everything is made up of these five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether. All the wonder of creation is included in the wonder of these five elements. The vast astronomical universe is made up of these five elements alone. But what these five elements are – that is another question.

The Constituent Elements of Nature

One needs to go deeper and deeper. What is earth made of? 'Earth' is only a name that we give to something which appears hard to the touch, but the mere name does not satisfy us. We may use the word 'earth', but what is earth? What is water? What is fire? What are these five elements? Why not go deeper and discover what these five elements are made of? In Sanskrit these elements are called the mahabhutas. Maha means 'great', and bhutas means 'existing elements'. What are these made of? They became the object of further scientific analysis. We know, as educated people, what these discoveries have been. Physicists of later times analysed the elements of earth, water, fire and air, although they could not analyse ether because they did not know what ether was. It appeared to be a vacuum, and how could one analyse a vacuum? Hence, the vacuum was left out of the analysis. The analysis was only of the four elements of earth, water, fire and air. They went on dissecting these into bits and parts and minor particles visible only to a powerful microscope. It was proclaimed as a great discovery that these physical attributes were made up of elements. They said that there are about ninety-two or so elements. This was a great advancement by the scientists, and they were all very happy. "Now we have discovered nature!" We know that a chemical substance differs from another in constitution and function. Ninety-two elements constitute the whole of nature and these big bodies called earth, water, fire and air are nothing but complexes of minute particles, molecules or chemical substances – each different from the other in its constitution.

Then the desire arose to dissect even the molecules. They were cut into pieces by electronic processes, which was the work of more recent times. Electronic investigation revealed that minor particles or atoms constituted the molecules. A few people were not fully satisfied, and they thought there was something enigmatic about all this, and they were suspicious of these discoveries. Others however think that we have understood nature perfectly. Today we are told with tremendous confidence that we are in a world of electrical forces called electrons, protons, neutrons and so on. Everything is reducible to these fundamentals. What they are in essence – whether waves or particles – is not known for sure. Some say they are waves, some say they are constituted of jumping particles. Some gentleman said they are 'wave-icles'. Waves and particles combined are wave-icles – very humorous and interesting! "This is a world made of wave-icles," concluded Sir Arthur Eddington. Very humourous he was, and he became a great philosopher later on. If we don't know whether it is a wave or a particle, we can call it a wave-icle. He did this, and he proclaimed it as a great discovery. Though we generate electricity, we really do not know what it is. Let us not enter into this controversy. Nobody knows, and there ends the matter.

This is all interesting and very useful for us so far as it goes, but our question is a different thing altogether. “What is this essence or substance out of which nature is made, and how am I going to be related to it?” is my question. If I am told that nature is made up of electricity, it is all right. It is as good as saying it is made up of many bodies, or five elements or whatever it may be. It matters little to me what name we give to that which we call nature. But tell me what nature means to me, and what I mean to nature. What is the relationship between nature and me? Are we friends or enemies? Is there any relationship between us at all? This is the question scientists have not answered and which they are not going to answer. “We are not interested in the subject. That chapter is closed,” a scientist might respond.

But in India this question was taken up by another system of thinking called the Samkhya, a school of philosophy which literally means ‘a system of knowledge'. Enumeration of the categories of reality means Samkhya. This Samkhyan analysis discovered that this gulf cannot be bridged ultimately. Nature is nature, man is man, and they will be always like this. Man looks at nature and nature may react to man, but there cannot be an ultimate resolution of this gulf between man and nature. Instead of saying man and nature, the Samkhya says purusha and prakriti. These are the Sanskrit words for ‘man in essence' ( purusha) and ‘nature in essence' ( prakriti). In this philosophy, there are only two things in the whole creation—purusha and prakriti. What man is and what prakriti is was the contribution of the Samkhya philosophy to us. It is on Samkhya that yoga is based, at least in one form. It is very important to remember that Samkhya and a particular system of yoga—Patanjali's yoga—go together. I do not mean that the subject of yoga is exhausted by Patanjali, as it is just one system of yoga. Inasmuch as Patanjali's system of yoga is based on Samkhya, it will be proper to know what Samkhya is because without an understanding of it, we cannot understand Patanjali.

How Science is Limited

The Samkhya's question and problem were the same which I tried to state before you in the very beginning. But the Samkhya thinkers realised that the methods of observation and experiment alone will not suffice. Our modern scientists are committed to the processes of observation and experiment with laboratories, microscopes and telescopes. That is all our scientists can do—they can see and observe. But may I put forward a question: who is it that sees? The eyes? Why should we have so much confidence in these eyes? What makes us think that these eyes tell us the truth? Whatever be the discoveries or the proclamations of our wise physicists, I nevertheless pose the question: who is this physicist who is so confidently proclaiming truths? Who is this gentleman? In what way does he differ from the illiterate farmer in the fields? The unsophisticated person also sees just as the physicist sees; what is the difference ultimately between these two kinds of seeing? The scientist sees through the microscope, whereas the unsophisticated person sees without it. Well, what is the difference between using one lens or using two lenses? You may use a hundred lenses, but after all you are using a certain apparatus, the constitution of which becomes the very subject of your study. When you study nature, you should study your lens also. You use something which is itself unstudied and make use of it in studying nature. You are begging the question, sir! In studying nature you are using nature itself as an instrument. How can you understand nature? What are those microscopes and telescopes? Are they not themselves a part of nature? After all, what are your eyes themselves? They are also a part of nature. You use nature as an instrument in understanding nature! How interesting, and how humorous it looks!

But this is what our scientist does. The object and the subject are the same for him. This is “begging the question”, as it is called. He assumes something that he is going to prove. He assumes that he has understood nature well, and then wants to understand nature. But his lenses are not going to help him, because lenses are a part of nature. His eyes are also not going to help, because the eyes are also a part of nature. Nothing that he can take from nature can be of any help to him in fully knowing nature. What else does he have that does not belong to nature? Is there anything that he can use as an instrument in studying nature that is not itself coming from nature? If he thinks it over, he will find that there is nothing else with him. He is just borrowed stuff.

When we use the term ‘nature' we have used a term signifying everything that is existent—man's body included. Our bodies are included in nature, and we use them in observation and experiments. How do we observe an experiment? Science fails because of this difficulty. Science is a failure in the discovery of reality, because it begs the question. It borrows nature's property for understanding nature. Samkhya was awake to this difficulty of employing the method of mere observation and experiment. Science became philosophy. By ‘philosophy' we mean the employment of the pure mind and reason in the analysis of truth, over and above the instruments which science uses from nature. Philosophy is a work of the mind, while science is a work of physical instruments. The pure mind alone can help us.

Samkhya is one of the oldest philosophies – perhaps the oldest in the world. The other schools of thought came afterwards. Samkhya says that no instrument can help us in understanding nature. We have to stand on our own legs—the mental legs, not the physical legs. Analysis was carried to its logical limits, and it was found that it was necessary to discover the presence of something which does not belong to nature in order that nature could be studied. If we have nothing of that kind, then we are a failure in life. We will have to say, “Hopeless; I accept defeat!” and there is no more trying to understand nature. Either we proclaim this and keep quiet, or we dive deep into our own minds and find out if we have anything which cannot be said to belong to nature. We must have something independent of nature. If there is anything of that kind, we may succeed in understanding nature. The Samkhya's analysis was thus, “I am the person wanting to know nature. I have to know myself first. It is not nature that tries to study nature. I, as a person, am confronted with this difficulty. My body has not been able to help me in the study of nature, because it is made up of the five elements which belong to nature and which constitute nature. Have I anything other than the body?”

Subject Comprehending Object

The independent analysis of the adhibhuta revealed that study of nature is not going to succeed unless the adhyatma also goes with it hand-in-hand. The subject cannot simply be abrogated from the process of analysis. It is not the object that studies the object. It is the subject that wants to study the object. This is very simple to understand. Who is it that wants to study nature? Not nature. Nature never said, “I'll study myself.” It is we as a subject—as a thinking being endowed with the curiosity for knowledge—that wishes to study nature. The purely objective method has failed, whether it is that which is employed by the Western physicists or the thinkers like the Nyaya-Vaiseshika, etc., who were certain kinds of thinkers in India that thought of nature as constituted of diverse bodies. The idea that nature is made up of diverse bodies was a stage of investigation, as I mentioned already. There are other schools of thought in India like the Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Mimamsa, etc. We need not bother ourselves about these names, as they are not necessary in our study. I am just mentioning that there are also other people in India who are like the Western astronomers and physicists who imagine nature to be made up of diversified bodies.

Samkhya however made an advance over these thinkers. The many things are made up of five essential things, but what these five things are cannot be understood unless I first understand myself. I am not going to understand anything else, unless I first know what the basis of my own being is. Here science borders on philosophy. When the objective analysis fails and the need is felt for a substitute for objective analysis, we turn from astronomy and physics to philosophy. Philosophical analysis reveals great facts. Man can study man, but nobody else can study man. Also, one man cannot study another man. That is a very interesting thing, because the other man becomes an object for the observing man. The difficulty was that an object cannot be independently studied. As you are an object for me, I cannot study you as an object. No object can be studied independently without reference to the subject, because the object is analysable only by this subject. Therefore, one man does not become the object of study of another man, as it is impossible. The Samkhya went deep into subjective analysis, through which it tried to understand the constitution of matter and the forces that are seen to constitute it. “What am I made of?” is a crucial question. “How am I to know myself? Whatever the method, instruments are not going to help me. I'll have to use analytical and synthetic processes of enquiry and judgment.”

The subject does not fully comprehend the object because there has not been an understandable relationship established between the subject and the object. We are still halfway. We have not yet arrived at that stage where we can confidently say, “This is my relationship with the object.” There is still a mysterious, unknown relationship between us. The subject concludes, “Unless I equip myself with the proper apparatus to understand the object in front of me, I am not going to touch this object. I should confine myself to the study of myself, and then let us see if something can be known of the object, because the object is also something like me. If I am of such a nature, other persons also are likely to be of similar nature. So by knowing myself, I may be able to know others as well.” When a person boils rice, and he wants to see if it is well-cooked, he can take one grain and see if it is soft. If that one grain is soft, then one could conclude that the whole thing is cooked. He does not squeeze every grain in the pot.

This is the method adopted in philosophical analysis. If I can be sure of what I am made of, I can perhaps be sure of what others are made of. We seem to be in a common world of similar difficulties and relationships—whatever the relationships may be. “How am I going to study myself?” becomes the question. The method is one of analysis and synthesis. There are certain technical Sanskrit words to signify these methods of analysis and synthesis, but there is no need to use them. Let us not worry too much about terms and phraseology. It is enough if we know the subject; otherwise we will be busy only with the words, and time will be wasted in this. The point is that an analytical process has to precede a process of synthesis. To separate a subject or a question into fundamental units, and then try to relate them in a methodical manner is called analysis and synthesis. Suppose we have a huge mass of coins of various denominations. We separate by analysis the different denominations into various groups, arrange them and then count them in different groups. This is one crude example of analysis, but the example will serve us as we continue our inquiry into this complex topic later on.