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Methods of Knowledge: According to Advaita Vedanta

Methods of Knowledge: According to Advaita Vedanta
Item Code: IDG638
Author: Swami Satprakashananda
Publisher: Advaita Ashram
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9788175050655
Pages: 366
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.6" X 5.6"
weight of the book: 430 gms

About the Book:

The simple question, 'How we know?" is one of the toughest problems that have confronted the human mind. Methods of Knowledge presents to modern thinkers the Vedantic approach to this universal problem. It dwells on different types of knowledge from sensory experience, which man shares with the lowest living beings, up to the transcendental perception of ultimate Reality claimed by great mystics and seers of the world. The commonest of all cognitions has proved to be no less enigmatic than the rarest of them all. Modern epistemologists-the idealists, the realists and the mediators-have grappled with the former without reaching a satisfactory solution, while they have hardly recognized the letter. The present treatise includes a comprehensive and consistent treatment of both these types of experience.

Besides the interpretation of different forms on non-existence, to which Western epistemology has paid scanty attention. True to the Advaita position the book tackles the problems of knowledge with reference to its source, the self within, with is undeniable, although unnoticed. Though ancient, the process is ever new, being applicable in all cases of cognition. The author has tried to present the Advaita views in relations to those of other Indian and Western systems of thought. The book is suited to thinkers in general within and without the academic circle.

Swami Satprakashananda, the author of the book, is the founder-head of the Vedanta Society of St. Louis, Mo., U.S.A., and a senior member of the Ramakrishna Order. He has worked in United States as a spiritual teacher for over three decades.


About the Author:

Swami Satprakashananda was born in April 1988 at Dhaka. He has the good fortune of meting Swami Vivekananda in person in 1901, when the letter visited Dhaka on his pilgrimage to a great extent in building up the Ramakrishna math and the Ramakrishana Mission Center at Dhaka in their initial stages.

He came into close contact with Swami Brahamananda, first President of the Ramakrishna Order, in 1908, and was initiated by him. A graduate of the University of Calcutta, he renounced the world and joined the Order at the Dhaka Centre in 1924. He was formally ordained as a Sannyasin in 1927 by Swami Shivananda, second President of the Order at Varanasi. Later, he was closely associated with the publication of Prabuddha Bharata for three years, after which he was asked to take charge of the Ramakrishana Mission Centre at New Delhi.

Swami Satprakashananda established a permanent Vedanta Society at St. Louis (205 Sough Skinker Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri-63105, U.S.A.) in 1938 and became the Minister-in-charge of the Society, in which position he remained until the last. He passed away in 1979.

A well-versed scholar in Sanskrit scriptures, and through student of philosophy, he is the author of several books, such as How Is A Man Reborn? Hinduism & Christianity, Sri Ramakrishna's Life and Massage in Present Age etc. His books are noted for their depth of understanding and lucidity of presenting a difficult subject.

Genial by temperament and gentle by nature, the Swami spontaneously won the hearts of those who came in contact with him and sought his guidance in matters spiritual. He had a benevolent heart. He has left behind a number of disciples, both men and women, in the U.S.A. Who cherish his memory with great respect and reverence.



It has been less than a decade since I heard the chairman of one of the leading departments of philosophy in America claim that rigorous philosophy has been an exclusively Western phenomenon. That his statement passed unchallenged shows how far thought has moved in a brief ten years. A man who made such a claim today might not be hooted off the platform, but it would be widely felt that his education needed to be up-dated.

Early in our century Oswald Spengler called for a Copernican revolution in history which would relieve Westerners of their habit of equating what happened in Europe during the last 2500 years with history as a whole and place it in the perspective of world history. A comparable Copernican revolution in philosophy is, fortunately, under way. Bertrand Russell has not stood out during his lifetime as an admirer of Asian thought, but long after his contributions to mathematical logic have been forgotten his History of Western Philosophy may be remembered, not for its contents but for its title which, in the Western world, was the first to have the grace to recognize that Western philosophy is not synonymous with philosophy generally. The Honolulu conferences and companion journal, Philosophy East and West, have kept alive the distinction implied by Russell's title, and have made it more explicit.

By now it is pretty well recognized that Asia generally, and India in particular, has a philosophical heritage as rich, subtle, and variegated in its own ways as is that of the West. The next step will be to see that its merits do not belong wholly to the past; that they are not simply those of an historical monument. Even among Indians there is a disposition today to view the glories of Indian philosophy as gracing a bygone epoch; the future is entrusted, if not to science exclusively, at least to Western modes of thought. If Indians themselves succumb to this view, it is not surprising that few Westerners are aware of how relevant is much in classical Indian thought to the philosophical problems that occupy us today, to say nothing of the problems that don't occupy us but should. This is regrettable. Classical Indian thought presents a rich field for investigation not merely to the historian, not merely to the Orientalist, but to the constructive philosopher grappling with issues of current import.

This brings us to the book in hand-an exposition of Indian epistemology conceived in a resolutely scholarly spirit by one of the most qualified and enlightened spirits of that great land. That it contains a warehouse of information on the classical schools of Indian philosophy will be evident to the reader at once. But I have also been struck by how contemporary and 'Western'-the precise word would be one with which Indological studies in the West began, namely 'Indo-European'-are many of the themes it treats. Conspicuous instances are the relative merits of correspondence, coherence, and verification theories of truth, and the significance of language, or the 'word', in human thought. The author addresses himself to the modern scene without forcing comparisons with its transient currents. The themes to which he speaks are perennial.

It is now twenty-five years that Swami Satprakashananda has been among us, wearing his ochre robe each Sunday morning as, in the heart of America, he voices and exemplifies the primal richness. of India's mind and spirit. It is an honour to preface these few lines to his meticulous account of the fundamental principles of Indian epistemology, authored (as it is) by the one who has taught me virtually everything I know about the thought of that extraordinary sub-continent. The reader will quickly sense that he is a thorough and painstaking scholar. It has been one of the great good fortunes of my life to have known him also as a spiritual leader of men; a man filled with insight and charity and totally dedicated to the service of the Lord.


Advaita epistemology is not easy to expound. How the one non-dual consciousness that is the self appears split into cognizer, cognition and object cognized, it is not possible to explain. To say that this apparent splitting is the work of maya is to say that it is inexplicable. The purpose for which a study of the problem of knowledge is undertaken is not to solve the problem but to go beyond it. The empirical situation in knowledge which demands the distinction of three factors, cognizer, cognition, and object cognized, does not admit of a satisfactory explanation. While the systems of philosophy that are opposed to Advaita imagine that they have offered an explanation, Advaita shows that the problem is inexplicable on the level of relative experience. When this level is transcended in the plenary non-dual experience, there is no longer any problem to be solved. Any epistemological analysis can be useful only in so far as it makes us become awake to this truth. An exposition of the various means of valid knowledge (pramanas) has for its aim, in the context of Advaita, the demonstration of their insufficiency and relative nature, paving the way for their transcendence in the unconditioned self which is pure knowledge. This difficult task, Swami Satprakashananda performs in a dexterous manner in this lucidly written work, Methods of Knowledge.

The classical manual of Advaita epistemology is the well-known text, Vedanta-paribhasa of Dharmaraja Adhvarin. In empirical matters, Advaita is said to follow the Bhatta School of Mimamsa. In the latter school, six means of valid knowledge are recognized: perception (pratyaksa), inference (anumana), verbal testimony (sabda), comparison (upamana), postulation (arthapatti), and non- apprehension (anupalabdhi). Dharmaraja deals with these six means of valid knowledge, but from the standpoint of Advaita, Swami Satprakashananda follows closely, in this work, Dharmaraja's exposition.

Perception is of special importance because the knowledge obtained thereby is immediate, unlike the knowledge that results from inference, etc., which is mediate. The knowledge of the self that is said to liberate the soul from bondage is direct knowledge which is like unto perceptual knowledge. Only, even perceptual knowledge is not so immediate as self-knowledge. In sense-perception there is the intervention of a sense-organ between subject and object. Even in the case of internal perception there is the operation, according to one tradition (the Bhamati) in Advaita, of mind which is a sense- organ. The final release also is wrought by the mind which has taken on the mode of the impartite self (akhandakara-vrtti) as a result of continued meditation. But this mode subsides after having accomplished its end; and then the non-dual self alone remains.

The other Advaita tradition (the Vivarana) holds that the mind is not a sense-organ, but an auxiliary to all types of knowledge. The final release, according to this view, is gained through the major texts of the Upanisads which teach non-difference of the so-called individual soul from the supreme self. It is not as if verbal testimony (sabda) cannot yield immediate knowledge. From verbal testimony one may gain mediate knowledge or immediate knowledge, depending on the nature of the object. If the object is remote, then one can have only mediate knowledge. If the object is immediate, then it is possible to obtain from verbal testimony an immediate knowledge thereof. Since there is nothing more intimate or immediate than the self, self-knowledge gained through the major texts like That thou art' can be immediate.

Other means of valid knowledge, such as inference, are useful in so far they can render intelligible the mediate knowledge of the self. The intuitive experience which is called self-realization is not infra- rational but supra-rational. Sankara has pointed out in several places that reasoning is a necessary aid for understanding scripture. An unreasoned belief is no good at all. Hence", in the process of inquiry consisting of sravana (study), manana (reflection), and nididhyasana (meditation) rational reflection occupies a strategic place. Advaita does not advocate blind acceptance of authority; even scripture becomes authoritative only because its truth gets corroborated in one's own experience.

Swami Satprakashananda has expounded the epistemological position of Advaita in a clear and comprehensive manner. I have no doubt that this book will be well received by those who are interested in Advaita metaphysics and require a reliable modem introduction to the subject.


In this book I have dwelt on the Vedantic answer to the moot epistemological question 'How do we know?' In answering this question Advaita (Nondualistic) Vedanta has maintained six distinct methods of knowledge, called pramanas, that is, the means of valid cognition (prama)—perceptual, non-perceptual, and transcendental -and has tackled various epistemological problems, such as-what is the nature of knowledge? what is its origin? how does it arise? what are its instruments? how is the sense-object related to the cognizer? what is the test of the validity of cognition? what causes illusion? how is non-existence known? what is the way to the knowledge of the ultimate Reality? To orient the general readers to the Advaita position I shall briefly state the cardinal epistemological truths that serve as the key to the solution of the problems of knowledge in this system. Being the essentials of cognition they have perennial value and can throw light on any investigation in the field.

Broadly speaking, Advaita philosophy views knowledge in its empirical and in its metaphysical aspect. Fundamentally, knowledge is Pure Consciousness beyond the relativity of the knower and the known. Consciousness is prior to every form of existence. But for this nothing can be affirmed or denied. It illuminates all objects. It has no illuminator. It is self-luminous and self-existent. It shines even when there is no object to illuminate. Non-relational, nondual Pure Consciousness is the ultimate Reality. Being is identical with Pure Consciousness. Relational knowledge is an expression of non- relational Pure Consciousness through a mental mode of the cognizer, the knowing self. It has varied forms according to the nature of the object. It may be either psychological or psychophysical. Internal cognition is psychological. Sense-perception is psychophysical. The same Pure Consciousness is individualized as the knowing self or the ego, being manifest through a particular mode of the mind characterized by 'I-ness'. So we see that in Advaita Vedanta epistemology is inseparable from metaphysics. The problems of knowledge are dwelt upon and solved with reference to its essential nature.

The essence of knowledge is self-shining consciousness. Self-revealing it reveals all objects. The luminosity of consciousness is contrary to that of physical light, which is unaware of itself and all else. Despite its radiance physical light is marked by nescience, so to speak. A non-luminous object cannot be seen without light. But light requires no other physical light to be seen. So physical light is apparently self-manifest. But actually it is not. That which is neither self-aware nor aware of anything else cannot make itself or any other thing known. Its manifestation depends on self-luminous consciousness, which alone makes it known. Physical processes can produce physical light, but not the light of consciousness, which is of opposite nature. This is a truth which some psychologists and philosophers are apt to overlook. Not even mental processes can bring forth consciousness, which inheres neither in the body nor in the mind, but in the luminous self, the cognizer of both. The point is, consciousness belongs to the cognizer as its essence and not to the cognized. Mental states are not conscious in themselves. They are illuminated by the radiance of the knowing self, which is ever the subject and never an object.

In all relational knowledge four distinct factors are involved—the knower, the object known the process of knowledge and the result- ant knowledge. Among them the knower is primary. Process is the method that relates the knowing self with the object and brings about the knowledge. The knower and the object known are the two poles of knowledge, so to speak. As noted by George Hicks, 'Knowledge exhibits the two characteristic features reference to a self that knows and reference to a reality other than self; and the former is no less a problem than the latter. The epistemological enquiry in the West, however, has been directed mainly towards the object.

Being of the nature of consciousness the self is ever manifest. Nobody doubts his own existence, because it is self-evident. The luminous self requires no proof. An individual's self-awareness is immediate and direct. No thinking process is involved in it. It is the irreducible epistemological fact. This is 'the given' in the true sense. Here is the foundation of human knowledge. From here all cognitive process starts. It is the radiance of consciousness proceeding from the luminous self that manifests all objects physical and psychical. As observed by Swami Vivekananda, 'It is through the self that you know anything .... In and through the self all knowledge comes.

But the basis of each individual self is the omnipresent Supreme Self. One undivided, limitless Consciousness, all-pervading Brahman, being manifest through the psychophysical adjuncts of living creatures is apparently divided into numerous selves. So says Swami Vivekananda: 'Whatever we know we have to know in and through Him. He is the essence of our own self. He is the essence of this ego, this "I", and we cannot know anything except in and through that "I". Therefore you have to know everything in and through Brahman.

It is said in the Mahabharata that King Yudhisthira was once asked a number of significant questions. The first one was 'What manifests the sun?' 'Brahman', answered the king. The point is that the sun, the illuminator of the entire solar universe, though apparently self-manifest, is actually not. In itself the sun is unaware and unknown. It is Brahman that makes it known or manifests Indeed, it is the radiance of Pure Consciousness called in Vedanta 'Brahman' that manifests all things at all times. As declared by the Katha Upanisad, 'He shining all these shine. Through His radiance all these become manifest in various ways. This is the most profound of all epistemological truths, as far as I can see. It is Brahman that appears as the individual self in association with the finite mind. From the self the mind receives the radiance of consciousness and illuminates all things including light.

It is with the mind that a person knows all that he knows-from the lowest to the highest. In the attainment of any knowledge perceptual, non-perceptual, or transcendental-mind is the principal instrument. In every act of cognition there is a mental mode corresponding to the object. The more the mode corresponds with the object, the more correct and distinct is the knowledge. In indirect knowledge the mind has no contact with the object as in direct knowledge. In external as well as in internal perception the mental mode coincides with the object. In the Advaita view physical objects exist independently of the cognizer's mind. In this sense it is akin to the common sense realism. But it is vitally different from both Realism and Idealism.

Knowledge is revelatory. Its function is to manifest the object by removing from it the veil of unknown-ness, without affecting it in any way. It opens to view more or less what is hidden. It presents, but does not represent. Cogitation is not cognition. If knowledge is held to be constructive or interpretative by nature, then nothing can be known as it is; the fact underlying knowledge is bound to remain ever hidden. It is a wrong premise to start with. A wrong proposition is liable to create false problems and develop unfounded theories.

Each of the six methods of knowledge, e.g., perception, inference, comparison, postulation, non-apprehension, and verbal testimony, has its limitations. Each has its own way and sphere of operation. They do not contradict one another. Perception is the means of immediate cognition. It can be external and also internal-the experience of the physical objects and the experience of the mental states. Inference, comparison, and postulation, which are based on sense-perception, are the means of non-perceptual or indirect cognition. The non-existence of an object or an attribute is cognized neither by sense-perception nor by inference, but is known directly by its non-apprehension or non-perception. Sense-perception and the three means of knowledge dependent on it can impart only the knowledge of the sensible facts, but not of the suprasensuous; whereas verbal testimony can convey the knowledge of both-the sensible and the suprasensible. Its own domain is the suprasensible. The direct perception or the immediate apprehension of the ultimate Reality is not considered a means of knowledge but its supreme end. The Vedic dictum declaring the identity of the individual self with the Supreme Self serves as a means to this achievement. In this transcendental experience, where Truth and Truth alone shines, is the culmination of all knowledge, is the final solution of all problems, is the cessation of all doubts, delusions, and darkness forever, and is the attainment of supreme blessedness.

The subject-matter of the book has been treated in two main parts. The first part dwells on the five of the six pramanas and is divided into seven chapters including one on 'Illusion; its Nature and Cause.' The second part deals with verbal testimony alone and contains five chapters. The theme of each chapter has been discussed under descriptive sub-headings. The second chapter of the second part of the book appeared under the caption 'The Vedic Testimony and its Speciality' in March and April issues of Prabuddha Bharata (1962) published by Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, Almora, India.

As a background of Advaita philosophy I have provided in the Appendices a survey of the six Vedic systems of philosophy and their representative works (with available English translations), an outline of the sacred texts of the Vedas, and a short statement on the distinction of the Yogic dualism from the Vedantic nondualism, and on the Yogic method of meditation leading to self-realization.

I acknowledge my obligation to Swami Madhavananda, whose: English translation of Dharmaraja Adhvarindra's Vedanta-paribhasa and of Sankaracarya's commentary on the Brhaddranyaka Upanisad. I have followed in certain cases while rendering into English the Sanskrit passages quoted from the said books.

It is my pleasant duty to acknowledge my indebtedness to all who have helped me in the production of this treatise. My special thanks are due to Dr T. M. P. Mahadevan, Professor of Philosophy, University of Madras, India, and Dr Huston Smith, Professor of Philosophy, M. L T., for writing the Introduction and the Foreword. I am very grateful to Professor Huston Smith for reading the whole manuscript and for making amendments and comments and giving suggestions for improvement. I am also thankful to my brother-disciple Swami Prabhavananda, who read parts of the manuscript while in St Louis on a visit, for his words of encouragement and the interest taken by him in the publication of the book.

I deeply appreciate the devoted service rendered by Mrs Virginia H. Ward in the preparation of the entire typescript, which required more than one revision. My thanks are also due to my other Vedanta students who have facilitated the work in different ways. Among them I should mention specifically Mrs Robert J. Gaddy for her assistance in preparing the Index.

I express my appreciation and gratitude to all authors and publishers from whose books I have quoted passages. Their names are recorded in the Bibliography. Reference to every passage is given in the footnote. Detailed reference is to be found in the footnote on the first passage quoted from each book. The publishers' kind permission for reprinting the material from their books has been secured in necessary cases.















Perception, Three Means of Non-Perceptual Knowledge,
and the Way of Apprehending Non-Existence


I. Perception: its Scope and Means 35
II. The Metaphysical Background of the Sensible Universe 61
III. Perceptual Knowledge; its Distinctive Character and Process 85
IV. The Validity of Knowledge 110
V. Illusion; its Nature and Cause 124
VI. Three Means of Non-Perceptual Knowledge: Inference, Comparison, and Postulation 141
VII. Non-Apprehension: the Way of Apprehending Non-Existence


Verbal Testimony
(A Means of Valid Knowledge, Sensuous and Suprasensuous)


VIII. verbal Testimony, a Unique Method of Valid Knowledge 173
IX. Verbal Testimony as the Means of Suprasensuous
Knowledge; the Specialty of the Vedic Testimony
X. Sense-Perception, Reason, and the Vedic Testimony 219
XI. 'Thou art That' the Truth of truths 246
XII. 'The Knower of Brahman Attains the Highest'


Appendix A A Short Account of the Vedic Texts 305
Appendix B The Six Vedic Schools of Philosophy and their Notable Sanskrit Works (with available English Translations)


Appendix C The Yogic Dualism and the Vedantic Non-Dualism


Appendix D The Yogic method of Meditation leading to Self-realization


Bibliography I (English Works quoted from in this book)


Bibliography II (Sanskrit Works quoted form in this book)






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