Six Pramanas

Swami Atmananda

……… Any knowledge of even the existence of an object takes place in our minds. The mind becomes conscious of the various ‘objects’ by the various ‘faculties’ available to it. The very fact the mind has various faculties at its disposal shows that knowledge of different objects call for taking resort of different means. It is extremely important that we take resort to the right means, otherwise even the existence of that object will not be evident to us. These ‘means of knowledge’ are called Pramanas. Before we jump into the bandwagon of people who want to know ‘all the different facets’ of this beautiful blessing called life, it is extremely important that we first know which all faculties or rather means of knowledge are at our disposal.

……… The teachers of Advaita Vedanta philosophy have gone into this aspect of the process of knowledge in great detail, and have enumerated ‘six’ pramanas. Which pramana has to be resorted to & also when, is decided by the situation and the nature of object concerned. These six means of knowledge are Pratyaksha (Perception), Anumana (Inference), Upamana (Comparison), Arthapatti (Postulation), Anupalabdhi (Non-apprehension), and Sabda (Verbal Testimony). These are the six valid means of knowledge available to us, and we consciously or unconsciously use them too in our day to day life to ‘know’ various things which come our way. It is extremely important for us to understand each of these pramanas properly, so that we dont start using the wrong means to know a particular kind of object. This is specially so when we are inquisitive to know the Self, the Atman, which is the ultimate, transcendental, infinite, non-dual truth referred to as the Brahman in the Upanishads. Proper understanding of Pramanas not only facilitates channelising of our energy properly but also culminates in the attainment & fulfillment of the objective.

1. Pratyaksha : Pratyaksha or Perception implies direct, immediate cognition. There are two kinds of direct perception, external and internal. The ‘external’ perception implies cognition of sense objects, namely - sound, touch, form, taste and smell by our five sense organs (ears, skin, eyes, tongue and nose). When the sense organs contact their respective objects then the Pratyaksha knowledge takes place. The ‘internal’ perception means the direct & immediate cognition of pain, pleasure, love, hate, anger, knowledge or ignorance of various objects etc. in & by our minds. The Acharyas elaborately reveal that in any direct perception, the awareness existing at the level of mind of the person desirous to know an object, as though flows out through his respective sense organ and envelops the available & illumined object. This awareness is thereafter presented to the knower in the mind as a thought of the object, who then ‘knows’ the object. The entire process is extremely fast and implies the involvement of both the mind and the sense organs in all direct perception. Sitting in one place the knower knows even far off objects directly, provided they come in the range of our sense organs. The immediacy of direct cognition is the intrinsic characteristic of perceptual knowledge, and does not merely depend on the organs of perception.

……… In all direct perception the knowledge is extremely clear but its scope is very limited. What we can directly see not only constitutes an extremely small iota of the wide spectrum of things existing in this universe, but many a times that which is directly cognized is far from truth. We have an extremely beautiful creation right in front of our eyes, but we dont see a creator directly, but as there cant be an effect without a cause so we have to take resort of some other valid means of knowledge to know that inevitable creator. So also regarding the internal perceptions, the thoughts are gushing through our minds, but we dont directly see their cause, which has to be inevitably there. Moreover, we directly see a rising sun but astonishingly our deeper probes reveal that the sun never rises. Thus come the great necessity of other means of valid knowledge.

2. Anumana : Literally translated the word anumana means ‘knowing after’. It means the method by which knowledge is derived from another knowledge. It is an indirect, mediate knowledge. We have knowledge of an invariable relationship between two things and on that basis while seeing one we deduce the presence the other. Thus anumana refers to the logical process of gaining knowledge. The knowledge thus gained is called inferential knowledge or the logical deduction. The nearest word to anumana is inference. We say it is nearest word simply because of a slight difference between the exact process of logical deduction in Eastern thought as compared to the Western system of logical deduction.

……… Perception forms the basis of anumana, but at the core of all inferential knowledge lies the knowledge of vyapti or the ‘invariable concomitance’, the invariable relationship between the two objects. We know on the basis of our perceptual knowledge that wherever there is smoke there is fire (the opposite however may not be true). Having known the invariable connection between the two we can logically deduce the presence of fire whenever we see smoke. This is anumana.

……… In all inferential knowledge there are definite steps to be followed. The following steps are accepted for logical deduction of knowledge by the teachers of Advaita Vedanta :

a. Perceptual evidence - We see smoke on the hill

b. Invariable concomitance - Wherever there is smoke there is fire, as seen in kitchen.

c. Conclusion  - Therefore the hill has fire

3. Upamana : The Mimamsakas & Advaitins define Upamana as the process by which the knowledge of A’s similarity to B is gained from the perception of B’s similarity to A, which has been seen elsewhere. This methodology is seen as distinct from mere inference, and is thus accepted as a valid mediate method of knowledge. For example, a person who has seen his cow at home goes to a forest and sees a gavaya (a wild cow but without dewlap). The person sees the similarity ‘This gavaya is like my cow’, and on this basis also concludes the opposite to be equally true, that ‘My cow is like this gavaya’. Thus by upamana he gains the knowledge of his cow’s similarity to the gavaya from the perception of the gavaya’s similarity to his cow.

……… Upamana is a distinct means of knowledge, and cannot be clubbed under anumana, because we cannot have a universal proposition that a thing is similar to whatever is similar to it. Such a knowledge cannot be gained without the observation of the two similar things together. The Advaitins use this method of knowledge by comparison & similarity to logically communicate the nature of Brahman and various other things. Brahman is said to be resplendent as the sun. By perceiving the luminosity of the sun, the seeker can appreciate the terms like the self-luminosity of Brahman.

4. Arthapatti : This means postulation, supposition or presumption of a fact. It is a distinct valid method of mediate knowledge. It is in fact a method of assumption of an unknown fact in order to account for a known fact that is otherwise inexplicable. The classic example of this method of knowledge is a fat person A says that he never eats in the day, then we can easily postulate that he eats in the night, for the simple reason that without this assumption his fatness & also his getting fatter cannot be explained. Arthapatti can either be from what is seen or from what is heard. The use of this method in Vedanta is in assuming rightly the implications of Upanishadic statements. Like in the statement ‘The knower of Self transcends grief’. Here we see that merely knowledge destroys grief, then it can be assumed without any doubt, that all grief has to be false then alone it can be destroyed merely by knowledge. So this is assumption.

5. Anupalabdhi : The Advaitins and the Mimasaka school of Kumarila Bhatt believe Anupalabdhi to be a separate independent pramana. It literally means non-apprehension. Non-existence of a thing is apprehended by its non-perception. By not seeing a jar in a place one knows that it is not there. We use this method of knowledge also very often, and this is evident from statements like : ‘There is no teacher in the class-room’, There is no sound here’, ‘This flower has no fragrance’ etc. It may seem paradoxical that non-apprehension of a thing is a means to the apprehension of its non-existence (abhava). But in fact both non-perception as well as perception serve as a means to get various knowledge, for the simple reason that the knower is conscious of both. They lead to positive & negative experiences. Knowledge of non-existence of a thing can be on the basis of direct or indirect knowledge. It could either be on the basis of our immediate non-perception of a thing or even on the basis of inference or verbal testimony. In the former the knowledge is immediate while in the latter case, which is applicable in suprasensual objects, the knowledge of abhava of a thing is mediate.

6. Sabda : Sabda pramana is verbal testimony. It is also called ‘apta-vakyas’ (statement of a trust-worthy person’, and agama (authentic word). A verbal statement, uttered or written, is man’s most potent instrument for transmitting knowledge. We learn mostly by means of words. An oral or written message is a universal mode of communication. We constantly get various information, direction & knowledge through words. Right from school days to this moment we use words as a valid & effective means of bringing about awareness of things, ideas or emotions. Books, magazines, newspaper, letters, conversations, chats, radio, TV, movies, songs etc. etc. All use or depend on words. We cannot do without verbal testimony.

……… A verbal statement conveying valid knowledge must have an authentic source which must be free from defects. Only a competent person possessed of knowledge can impart accurate knowledge. Such a knowledge needs no verification, unless of course there is doubt about its reliability. If all that we know from verbal testimony were to await confirmation, then the bulk of human knowledge would have to be regarded as baseless. Among the Western philosophers only a few recognize verbal testimony as a valid & independent means of knowledge, but a majority of Indian philosophers do. Those who do not accept it as an independent method of knowledge do realise its great role but simply club it along with other means like inference etc. The process of verbal knowledge cannot be clubbed with inference because it does not involve any knowledge of invariable concomitance as is the case in inference. So it is a category by itself. It is interesting and also worthwhile to go into the exact process of derivation of meaning from a sentence. At times there is substantive-adjective relationship between the subject & predicate of the sentence and at times there may not be such a relationship, but a non-relational entity could form their locus. Such understanding becomes important when it comes to derivation of meaning form sentences like ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ (That thou art). Lot of work has been done in regards to derivation of meaning of a sentence, specially by the Mimamsakas. Only that combination of words is called a sentence when four factors are taken care of. They are expectancy (akanksa), consistency (yogyata), contiguity (asatti), and knowledge of the purport (tatparya-jnanam). Understanding of all this facilitates us to understand why verbal testimony is an independent means of knowledge very different from inference etc.

……… Having known these ‘pramanas’, when a qualified ‘pramata’ (knower) takes resort of these and turns his focus to ‘prameya’ (object of knowledge) then ‘prama’ or valid knowledge is instantaneously brought about. The knowledge brought about by any valid means of knowledge is alone valid knowledge, it does not & can not depend on verification by other means, because the other means have no reach to that. The right knowledge does have some definite indications and thus validity of a means is confirmed by the perception of those indications in the pramata. So instead of wasting ones time trying to see a form by our nose we should rather open our eyes and fulfill our aspiration. This alone is the objective of understanding the various means & methods of knowledge at our disposal.


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