Jnana, Right Knowledge in Hinduism

Jnana Right Knowledge

by Jayaram V

This essay is about the criteria to ascertain jnana, right knowledge or true knowledge, in Hinduism on the path of liberation by the seekers of truth.

We frequently use the words truth and knowledge in many religious and philosophical discussions. However, what do we mean by them? Do we have a universal definition of truth and knowledge? How to ascertain them? What a person considers knowledge may be ignorance from certain perspectives. For example, ancient people thought that the earth was flat, and it was surrounded by several concentric oceans. Until the dawn of modern science, it was true knowledge for even the most enlightened scholars.

The same may be true for many truths, which today we take for granted. It is possible that what we consider expert knowledge today may prove to be ignorance sometime in future. For example, we currently believe that the universe has been constantly expanding, but who knows? We may be wrong because our knowledge of the universe is incomplete. We do not yet know the edge of the universe or what exists beyond. Perhaps it may not only be expanding but also circling around a still bigger universe.

The word “right” has multiple meanings. In a practical sense, right knowledge is that which is useful or appropriate to reach a goal or purpose. For example, the knowledge of yoga is useful to achieve mental peace and self-absorption. In that sense, the knowledge of yoga is the right knowledge for a yogi who want to conquer his mind and body. However, it may not be the right knowledge for a person who wants to pursue a career in physics or mathematics.

Thus, the meaning of right knowledge varies according to the context, situation or purpose. What is right to you may not be so to another person because it depends upon many factors. It is also difficult to state explicitly what is right in a given situation because we may not have the complete knowledge of the situation. In a moral sense, right knowledge is that which is morally good, righteous or justifiable and factually correct or authentic.

In Hinduism from a spiritual perspective we consider that knowledge right which is true, accurate, authentic, factual in all conditions and circumstances. An opinion is not truth, because it varies from person to person or situation to situation. However, a fact, established by pure observation and free from distortion is true knowledge, which can serve as a standard to ascertain other truths. On the path of liberation right knowledge is that which helps the seekers to achieve self-realization.

Our tradition says that one must be satya-jnana-dharma nishta, meaning one must abide in truth, knowledge and Dharma. Truth must be the basis of knowledge, and truth and knowledge must be the basis of Dharma. Together the three protect and uphold you and the world. When you have the three, you are on the righteous path to salvation. There will be order and regularity in your life.

However, it is not easy in this world to abide in truth or practice Dharma, since the distractions and temptations are too many. Hence, our knowledge remains a mixture of light and darkness, and we may use it for both selfish and selfless purposes. Only a few individuals transcend all imperfections and acquire the highest wisdom.

Right knowledge is the knowledge of Truth. It is the foundation of righteous living, peace and happiness. In the spiritual realm, it arises from self-realization or oneness with the Supreme Self. In the mental realm, it arises from true discernment (buddhi), which is turn arises from purity or Sattva. The purpose of Yoga, austerity or spiritual practice (sanyasa) is essentially to cultivate purity only.

When you have mental purity, you will have right mind, right thinking, right perception, right discernment, right awareness, right attitude and right knowledge. When you have them, you will have wisdom, and you will not require any external aids to ascertain truth. You will instantly know it and distinguish it from untruth.

In Hinduism, the Sanskrit word, jnana, is used to denote right knowledge, true knowledge or higher knowledge. It is derived from the root word, "jna," meaning to know, learn or become acquainted with. The sense organs are main instruments to acquire the knowledge of the world. Hence, they are known as jnanendriyas, the knowledge derived from them as indriya jnana. The knowledge of the sense-objects is known as vishaya jnana or the worldly knowledge.

In a spiritual sense, jnana is the sacred knowledge of the higher truths, derived from spiritual states (atmanubhuti), philosophical enquiry (tarka vichara), meditation (dhyana) or study of the scriptures (svadhyaya). Jnana yoga and Buddhi Yoga are the principal means to acquire it. The knowledge of the Aranyakas and the Upanishads in the Vedas is considered Jnana kanda, while the knowledge of the rituals is called karma kanda. The third eye or the psychic eye is known as jnana chaksu. The following are a few examples of right knowledge in Hinduism

  1. Knowledge of the Self (atma jnana)
  2. Knowledge of the Supreme Self (daiva jnana or isvara jnana)
  3. Knowledge of Nature and her finite realities (tattva jnana)
  4. Knowledge of bondage, ignorance and delusion (samsara jnana)
  5. Knowledge of scriptures (pramana shastra jnana)
  6. Knowledge espoused by self-realized yogis. (rishi vacha)
  7. Knowledge of self-purification and liberation (moksha jnana)

The criteria to ascertain right knowledge

Hinduism has a long tradition of ascertaining truth for intellectual, philosophical and spiritual purposes. The scriptures exhort people to cultivate purity and discernment to distinguish truth from falsehood and not to fall into the trap of delusion or sinful actions. They recommend the following criteria to ascertain true knowledge or right knowledge and rely upon it for both material and spiritual purposes in life.

1. It shall be based upon direct experience (pratyaksha)

Right knowledge must directly arise from your perception or experience in wakeful state so that you know with certainty that it is true. However it should not arise from your experience of dreams, illusions and hallucinations. They do not constitute right knowledge because they may arise from your imagination, beliefs or self-induced delusions. You must be in right mind, wakeful and attentive to perceive true knowledge or knowledge which is rooted in factual experience. The practice of mindfulness is therefore highly recommended to cultivate mental clarity and true discernment.

2. It shall be verifiable (anubhava)

What you have personally or subjectively seen or experienced must be objectively verifiable by others also. In other words, your experience must be within the realm of possibility and repeatable in identical situations. It must be corroborated by others also. If your experience is unique, it is difficult to establish any truth. Many transcendental truths are difficult to establish for this reason. Since they depend upon your path, practice, purity, commitment, faith and devotion, they may be uniquely yours. It is why faith in the revelatory scriptures (sruti) has a great significance in theistic and spiritual practices. On the path of liberation, faith is the support, and truth is the goal.

3. It has to be incorruptible (akshara)

People may hide the truth. They may camouflage it with a thick veil of misleading information or use deception to distract and divert other people. They may also add their own imagination to embellish it or distort it. However, by itself true knowledge must be incorruptible and indestructible. Just as clouds may temporarily hide the Sun but cannot destroy it, truth must always remain the same despite any obfuscating impurity that may temporarily cloak it from our view. In Hinduism, we regard the entire creation and all objective things, including this world, as unreal or illusory because they are all destructible, corruptible, mutable and transient. Hence, the knowledge of the world is useful to deal with the world, but not to establish the transcendental truths of the Self.

4. It must be from an authoritative source or sources (sruti)

It is impossible to acquire all knowledge from direct experience only. Besides, certain truths are beyond our reach because of our natural limitations or the influence of karma. Hinduism says that in the absence of direct knowledge, one should depend upon expert opinion or authoritative sources to acquire or ascertain true knowledge or the standard (pramana). For example, if you have a transcendental experience, there must be some reference or parallel to it somewhere in the sacred literature. In Hinduism, such authoritative sources are the sacred texts and the teachings of enlightened masters. The Vedas are considered the highest of all authoritative texts, because they are believed to be eternal and taught by Brahma, the creator god. They are useful to validate the truths of our existence. When there is no clarity or when there is confusion, one should consult as many authoritative sources as possible to arrive at truth.

5. It must be free from cognitive errors (doshas)

Neither direct experience nor the knowledge from authoritative sources is useful if the mind is clogged with impurities of rajas and tamas. From your own experience you know that when you are mentally or emotionally disturbed, your perception and thinking are compromised. The human mind is subject to many impurities of Nature such as egoism, desires, attachments, delusion and ignorance. We are also prone to many cognitive distortions and mental modifications, caused by our beliefs, expectations, preconceived notions, prejudice, fear, envy, anger, greed, etc. Therefore, it is difficult for people to see things as they are and arrive at right conclusions. For clarity in thinking and perception, they have to practice yoga and work for self-purification.

6. It must lead to the desired goal

Right knowledge must lead people in the right direction and help them reach their desired ends, without corrupting their minds or causing their spiritual downfall. It must help householders to achieve the four aims of human life (Purusharthas) namely Dharma, Artha (wealth), Kama (sexual pleasure) and Moksha (liberation), performing their obligatory duties and without accumulating sinful karma. In case of renunciants, it must help them to achieve their goal of liberation by following the right path, without becoming distracted or vulnerable to evil. Right knowledge should also make their task easier and help them achieve their spiritual goals quickly and efficiently.

The foundation of true knowledge

True knowledge becomes self-evident to you in proportion to your purity. By purity we mean having freedom from all those influences which limit you, bind you or restrict you to certain thoughts, desires and actions. Liberation from ignorance and delusion is part of your effort to achieve liberation from mortality. The following are essential to acquire true knowledge through self-transformation. On the spiritual path, you must focus upon cultivating them.

  1. Predominance of sattva: This is the foundation. When there is predominance of Sattva, your consciousness truly reflects the objective world and things as they are.
  2. Detachment: It leads to pure objectivity, sameness, insight and discernment. It also burns away the habitual thought patterns, latent impressions and preconceived notions which are present in your consciousness.
  3. Pure and stable intelligence: It is essential to stabilize the mind in truth and abide in Dharma, avoiding the traps and pitfall of worldly life. Without it you can neither practice samyama (self-restraint) nor achieve samadhi (self-absorption).
  4. Equanimity: It is in the silence of the mind true knowledge manifests. A silent mind is a free mind. True silence does not include physical or mental silence only. It also includes the silence of desires, attachments, cravings, and likes and dislikes.
  5. Self-study: It involves studying the authoritative texts. The seeker of truth must be conversant with authoritative texts, since they are useful to validate the knowledge which he gains from his personal experience on the path.
  6. Truthfulness: To acquire true knowledge, there must be commitment to truth. The law books state that one must abide in truth and speak truth, except in situations where the truth may hurt or harm others.

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