Magazine Links
What Is Hinduism?
Join the Conversation
Magazine Web Edition > January/February/March 2013 > From the Agamas: How Do We Know What We Know?


How Do We Know What We Know?


True knowledge comes only from the power of pure consciousness


The following is a lucid translation of passages from the Paushkara Agama, chapter 9, verses 3 to 18, entitled “On the Means of Valid and True Knowledge.” Responding to a question from the sages, Lord Siva addresses the philosophical issue of the means of bona fide knowledge, a topic of discussion in all schools of Hindu thought.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

SAGES: O LORD, WE NOW DESIRE TO LISTEN TO YOUR INSTRUCtions and expositions on the means of valid knowledge, without which our knowledge of things would be uncertain. Therefore, O Lord Ishana, kindly be favorably disposed to speak on pramanas, the means of acquiring valid knowledge.

Lord Siva: Twice-born sages, there are four common means of valid knowledge: perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumana), verbal testimony (shabda) and presumption (arthapatti). But the power of consciousness itself (chit-shakti), free from doubt and other defects, is said to be the impeccable means of valid knowledge.

The cognition that is unable to distinguish between two similar things, for lack of sufficient differentiating information, is known as doubt (for example, a thin curved object could be perceived as a snake or a rope, with closer inspection required to decide). Error is the “otherwise-than-what-it-is cognition” (anyatha jnana), based on the perception of a nature or quality that does not actually belong to the form cognized. In this Agama, memory (smriti) is said to be the cognition of objects that have been experienced previously (and which may cloud one’s present judgment because of differing circumstances).

Chit-shakti, free from these three defects, is the infallible means of pramana (valid knowledge). Chit-shakti is nothing but the power of consciousness directed to objects. The knower, i.e. the Atman or Self, is of the nature of pure consciousness, not of the nature of being directed toward objects. The power of consciousness acquires valid knowledge when it is directed toward other objects, e.g., a pot.

To be infallible, this definition of valid knowledge, should be free from three defects: 1) under-pervasion (nuna vyapti, meaning a definition which is only partially accurate) does not occur because the definition, beyond doubt, pervades the means of knowledge, such as perception and others; 2) over-pervasion (ati vyapti, meaning a definition which is insufficiently specific) does not apply to different entities, like the objects of knowledge; 3) otherwise under-pervasion (anyatha avyapti, meaning a definition which is obviously impossible) also does not occur. The definition of the means of valid knowledge has, therefore, been well established.

Some say the means of valid knowledge is the instrument of knowledge (such as the senses or the intellect). Why cannot such a view be accepted? The instrument of knowledge cannot be the means of valid knowledge, because the state of being a means or a medium of valid knowledge would apply even to the intellect (buddhi), a lamp, sense of sight and others. This is not acceptable, because that which is a means of valid knowledge cannot also be a knowable thing. It has already been proven that something that is knowable cannot be the means of acquiring valid knowledge. That which is a knowable cannot be a means of knowing, because a means is that by which a knowable is known.


Introspection required: The meditator faces within himself the complex challenge of determining what constitutes real knowledge
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

There is a common usage in the world, “I see through my eyes.” This is due to the help rendered by the eyes (to chit-shakti). But the knowledge gained is only acquired through the power of consciousness using the eyes. The eyes themselves do not convey the knowledge to the Self.

The sense of sight is not the means of the hearing of sound. The sense of hearing is not the means of the cognition of color or form. Consciousness is always the cognizer everywhere. Therefore, that alone is considered to be the means of knowledge. By the manifestation of chit-shakti, there is the cognition of all this. By the non-manifestation of chit-shakti, nothing is known.

But why cannot intellect (buddhi tattva), which is the ultimate cause of all cognition, be accepted as a means of knowledge? Buddhi cannot be so. Buddhi cannot be a means of knowledge, because, being not different from the products of prakriti (tattva), it is insentient, like the sense of sight and others. Moreover, buddhi is characterized by various states, such as happiness and sorrow. Therefore, the state of invariably being a means of knowledge is not accorded to buddhi.


DR. S. P. SABHARATHNAM SIVACHARYAR, of the Adi Saiva priest lineage, is an expert in ancient Tamil and Sanskrit, specializing in the Vedas, Agamas and Shilpa Shastras.


The comments are owned by the author. We aren't responsible for their content.

Search Our Site