About the Book:
The Prajna Sutra presents a bridge between the cosmologies of Vedic knowledge and modern science. The ideas are presented as 18 sutras on the nature of reality, language, art, mind, transformation, and freedom on which explanatory commentaries are provided. The sutras tie together common symbols of the Vedic tradition and their deeper intuitions using contemporary vocabulary. The synthesis presented in the sutras is wide-ranging and it not only deals with abstract ideas but alos with questions of meaning, aesthetics, love, war and suffering.
Although some consider only linguistic problems to be worthy of study, linguistic expressions ultimately are about thing sand they cannot properly address the mystery of consciousness. The sutras consider issues that go to the core philosophy, namely the nature of reality and the relationship of the experiencing subject to it. They speak of the complementary domains of rationality and paradox that underlie ordinary experience. They explain how the mystery of consciousness relates not only to the individual's cognitive capacity to know but also his ability to transform both himself and his environment.
About the Author:
Subhash Kak is a widely known scientist and historian of ideas. Currently Donald C. & Elaine T. Delaune Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Professor in the Asian Studies Program at Louisiana State University, he has authored fourteen books and more than 250 research papers in the fields of information theory, neural networks, Vedic studies, and history of science. His books include The Asvamedha: The Rite and its Logic, The Architecture of Knowledge, and the co-authored In Search of the Cradle of Civilization.
Opinion on the Book:
Subhash Kak has provided a brilliant original Sutra text in the intuitive model of India's traditional yogic scholarship. He makes this ancient spiritual art of learning relevant to the contemporary man, showing us how to look beyond the boundaries of materialistic world to an inner view of both humanity and the universe in which there is a real understanding of the purpose of our lives. - David Frawley, author of The Rgveda and the History of India and Wisdom of the Ancient Seers
The book strikes me as an excellent overview of Vedic conceptions, presenting them in a straightforward and transparent way that provides suggestive and clear insights for a modern reader. The science and the scholarship is well-founded and accurate, and the reasoning is simply presented without pretentious claims or obfuscating jargon. Given the depth and the delicacy of the subject, that's an uncommon and much-needed achievement. The use of Sanskrit terms is economical and illuminating, in a way that helps a modern reader to place them in the context of modern science and education. - Ananda Wood, author of From the Upanisads and Interpreting the Upanisads.
This book is about the cosmology that underlines consciousness, written in the style of sutras. It considers questions such as freedom in a world bound by laws, the connection between the particular experience and the universal, art and its role, suffering and beauty.
The sutras are presented in their Sanskrit original, together with translation and commentary. The significance of these sutras to questions of faith and meaning is also presented.
THESE sutras came to me while I was on a Continental Airlines flight from Washington to Houston on October 13, 2002. I wrote them down very quickly, perhaps in no more than a few minutes. They encapsulate my intuitions on the essence of Vedic wisdom, and they could be useful in preparing oneself for the more complex texts of the tradition.
The previous night I had given a lecture at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia where the discussion at the end took a philosophical turn. I was struck by how our argumentation got bogged down in the attempts to sort out the defining terms, which were understood variously by different people.
In the Western tradition, this difficulty is mitigated by the fact that the concerns are generally regarding the outer aspects of thins that are less contentious. Since Indian philosophy is concerned primarily with the experiencing self, its questions of definition are more troublesome. This is the reason why instruction in Indian philosophy is also given by employing synthesis that is based on stories. But it is a common error to take word (sabda) in its literal, surface sense as true cognition (pramana). Much of contemporary academic scholarship has failed to sort through the different layers of the Vedic narrative by conflating the symbolic with the factual.
The sutras tie together some common symbols used in the Indian tradition to their deeper intuition. For someone who hasn't the time or the inclination to read the diverse texts of the Vedic tradition, they could serve as an introduction.
Why is sabda as literal word problematic? According to the tradition (as in the Mundaka Upanisad), language can only communicate the lower form of knowledge, and true cognition is beyond words. Form the point of view of language theory, the meaning of words is not determined objectively, for it must be fixed by context and other implicit information. Without a proper definition of words, a statement may be interpreted in different ways. Modern studies confirm the limitations of language and such limitations extend to other formal systems.
Taking the literal sabda as pramana, we see commentators parse the great declarations (mahavakyas) into contradictory interpretations. The same surface sabda may be interpreted as implying over lordship (isvaravada) by one group and reductionism (nirisvaravada) by another! Such enormous difference in meaning can lead to equally different approaches to reality.
Rather than the question of ontology, most people are interested in understanding themselves. There are questions like: Do we have a true self? According to the tradition, this self is the perceiving "I" who is independent of location and personal history, and this self is a unity. But how does one separate this core of one's being from the usual self who is known to us from our experience in space and time?
Sometimes, the image of the child, or even an infant, is used for the seeker in relation to Nature. Should the seeker have the attitude of the baby monkey who holds on to its mother, or that of the kitten, held by the cat by her teeth? The baby monkey as well as the kitten may be presumed to be in terror of falling, but there is more of an active role by the mother cat. These images are merely a means to intimate a structure to the projection of consciousness in our individual, conditioned selves.
From a practical point of view, one may avoid the problem of defining this structure by simply surrendering oneself to the inner self. But how do we recognize the innate spirit that we must surrender to? The problem is not any specific assertion (vakya), but rather the method of taking the literal word as the validation of a premise. The differences become ultimately an expression of different aesthetic attitudes. Underlying the process of knowing lies art.
Appreciation of art depends on the social experience of the individual and inherited tendencies. For example, my upbringing reinforced an ascetic aestheticism, a result of my parents' attitudes and circumstances, as also of the months we spent in literal isolation in our rooms in the long Kashmiri winter.
There exists an emotional angle to this question also. We are born with a feeling of mastery, but as we grow up we discover that things we desire are so desired by others as well. The experienced life is a contest of wills. Our failure in matching our expectations creates frustration, pain and disillusionment. We then use judgement and interpretation, provided by society or created by us, to explain why our desires cannot be met. The interpretation could have a basis in morality or magic, and we learn to see our childhood and the unfolding life through its lens.
Art represents new interpretive lenses that we have forgotten existed. It can be viewed as an escape from the habits of our own mind. But the art that we appreciate most readily is not radically different from our own modes of seeing. To appreciate art that is removed from our own necessitates a kind of awakening. An aesthetic attitude is a combination, in varying measures, of the different essences (rasas) of it. It is one of the great insights of the Indian tradition that these essences are supposed to be discrete, and perhaps this idea emerged from the Vaisesika atomic doctrine as well as the idea of Nyaya that mind operates sequentially. The basic rasas are counted to be srngara (eros), hasya (humour), karuna (pathos), raudra (anger), vira (heroic), bhayanaka (fearful), bibhatsa (odious), adbhutta (wondrous), and santa (peaceful).
The feelings of fear and compassion are paramount as we reflect on how our ambition is thwarted by the fact that the whole world is against us. One often calls upon one's faith in a higher power or magic for rescue from this situation, passing from materialism to a belief in spirit. The recognition of the odds against oneself is a crisis that almost feels like annihilation, but it could also be a new beginning.
The seeker must be absorbed in the vira rasa of the warrior. In the battlefield, theories of swordsmanship are pointless talk, any moment could be the last, and, therefore, he must be constantly awake to danger and opportunity from all sides. There is no time to dwell on any emotion but that of the immediate battle. This leads to a very austere perspective.
The Vedic tradition insists that pratyaksa, direct perception, is the only way to validation. But it is the pratyaksa of the inner experience (Advaitic or non-dual) and not that of its description in terms of the evolution of material processes. One can talk around it, but one cannot speak of this direct experience. This gap between true "understanding" and its description requires that one use various methods of logical inference (anumana) and a proper enumeration of categories (padartha) to obtain insight.
By moving away form material causes to fields, modern science has recognized new categories that make the process of inference of true cause somewhat easier than before. It is now possible, for example, to study brain processes that provide insight into the operation of personal consciousness. One may harness outer science to infer aspects of inner science even though the sciences of object and subject remain fundamentally apart.
The conundrums that remain are caused by the problem of change. The Vedic narrative does not describe "things," but rather transformations. However, our common sense cognitions are sequential, inscribing relations between objects. It is difficult to represent constancy in change, as in the history of flowers that blossom and fade away.
Some philosophers consider only linguistic problems to be worthy of study. But linguistic expressions ultimately are about things and objects and they cannot properly address the issues of the experiencing subject. Although everything can be reduced to known or knowable objects, the self cannot be so reduced.
Our normal experience is shaped by our habits of cognition (samskaras) that guide us between the polarities of world-cycle (samsara) and extinction (nirvana). The personal journey continues until one has reached a state where one transcends the fear of life and death, where samsara and nirvana become irrelevant. This state requires the burning away of one's own samskaras, to rise above the normal ways of seeing. The Vedic prayer for "immortality" is a prayer for this freedom, that liberates from the ordinary conditioned behaviour, which is a state seemingly beyond the noose of time.
But the Vedic way is more than a psychology to help us confront our fundamental aloneness by stressing our connections with all that surrounds us. If science is the collection of invariances that lie behind the ceaseless change of the phenomenal world, the Vedic system represents a science since it presents the cosmology that lies at the basis of the subjective self-finding objective truths.
It took me some time to decide whether these sutras should be called the Vijnana or the Prajna-Sutras. I originally picked Vijnana but realizing that this word is now generally taken in the sense of formal knowledge, I believe Prajna-Sutras is the better name. The subtitle, Aphorisms of Intuition, was suggested by my brother Avinash.
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