In our tradition we give a lot of importance to knowledge (jnanam), be it material knowledge or spiritual knowledge. Knowledge is revered as Goddess Sarasvati Herself. This importance is given because our entire lifestyle and the course of all our actions are governed by knowledge. We can study or analyse any of our activities and we will find that it involves three stages.
1. Jnanam (I know something)
2. Iccha (I desire something)
3. Kriya (I work for something)
The three are intimately connected. We can ever work for something for which we have no desire. And we can never desire for something we do not know. Thus every action is backed by desire and every desire is in turn backed by knowledge. Jnanam, iccha and kriya are the warp and weft of human life. That is why we worship these three factors as the three powers (saktis): janana-sakthi, iccha-sakti and kriya-sakti.
Since knowledge (jnanam) plays a very important role in every one of our activities - secular, religious or spiritual - it is given great importance and occupies a high status. A question arises: How can we gain the relevant knowledge? This issue arises because jnanam does not happen by itself? We are all born ignorant. Knowledge is acquired over a course of time.
We acquire knowledge through sources of knowledge called pramanam. Thus every knowledge pre-supposes a pramanam. Since knowledge commands a high status, it follows that pramanam must also have the same status since knowledge comes from pramanam, the source.
In our tradition, pramanam is given a great importance. When we include the role of pramanam, the three-stage process mentioned above becomes four steps: pramanam, jnanam, iccha, kriya. Thus pramanam produces knowledge which gives rise to iccha, iccha leads to kriya. And it is kriya or karma alone that determines our future; immediate future, distant future and even future birth and births. Although our tradition gives great importance to sources (pramanam): we have not understood its importance. In ancient times, books were written analysing pramanam - the nature of source of knowledge (pramanam), the field in which it functions, the validity of the knowledge gained through that pramanam, etc.,
Traditionally, pramanams are broadly classified into two types:
1. Primary source of knowledge.
2. Secondary source of knowledge.
All sense organs come under the category of primary source of knowledge and are generally known as pratyaksam (which literally means direct perception). Sense organs are considered primary sources of knowledge because each sense organ has its own field of functioning which is exclusive - knowledge gained by using one sense organ cannot be acquired by other means including the use of other sense organs. The eyes function in the field of sight. We know the colours of objects through the eyes and this knowledge cannot be obtained by using the ears or nose. We can identify sounds only through the ears, smell only through the nose, etc. Every primary source of knowledge has a unique fields in which it function. It gives a knowledge which is independent and which cannot be verified by other sources of knowledge. The colour revealed by the eye cannot be confirmed or contradicted by the ear. Thus knowledge gained though a primary source is unique, independent and unverifiable. Therefore, it is final knowledge. And it is considered prabala meaning strong. We accept such knowledge as a fact not requiring confirmation or corroboration.
A secondary source of knowledge depends on a primary source of knowledge. The knowledge is not gained directly. Anumanam or inference is a secondary source of knowledge. The example that is usually given to understand anumanam is fire and smoke. We infer fire through smoke. We see smoke and conclude or infer that there is fire. Even though we have not seen the fire, it is considered knowledge.
Since inference is not an independent source of knowledge, it can be verified. We can go to the source of the smoke and see for ourselves. And we may very well find that there is no fire at all. Thus inference is subject to confirmation or refutation by a primary source of knowledge. Secondary sources of knowledge are dependent, verifiable and yield knowledge that is not final - they are called durbala or weak.
Before using a pramanam to acquire knowledge, we must analyse the sources (pramanam) - is it a primary source or secondary source of knowledge? Is it prabala or durbala? That will decide our approach to knowledge, desire, action. Our tradition gives great importance to the analysis of the status of a source of knowledge. This is unique to our tradition and we do not find this approach any where else in the world.
Is a book a primary or secondary source of knowledge? Consider a book on Kailas-Manasarovar. We gain knowledge reading the book - description of various places, climate, hardships involved in visiting these places and so on. The knowledge gained is oly secondary since it is subject to verification. We can visit Kailas-Manasarovar and learn for ourselves. A book is a non-final source of knowledge; it is durbala or weak. For the author of the book, however, it is primary knowledge.
Before we begin our study of Veda or scripture, we must have a clear understanding of whether Veda is a primary source of knowledge or a secondary source of knowledge. Here we find differences between various schools of thought - called darsanamam - all of whom have analysed Veda.
Indian philosophy and teaching is classified into twelve categories:
Sankya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Purva-mimamsa, Uttara-mimamsa (or Vedana), four types of Buddhism, Jainism and Carvaka. The later six (Budhism, Jainism and Carvaka) have rejected Veda outright and claim Veda is not a source (pramanam) at all; Veda is not a source of knowledge. We call these schools nastika darsanams. The former six (Sankya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Purva-mimamsa and Uttara-mimamsa) accept Veda as a source of knowledge and are called asthika-darsanamams. Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya and Vaisesika accept Veda as primary source of knowledge having secondary status while Purva-mimamsa and Uttara-mimasa consider Veda as primary source of knowledge and accord Veda primary status. If Veda is primary source of knowledge, it is comparable to a book on Kailas-Manasarovar giving durbala-jananam or weak knowledge. If Veda is primary source of knowledge, it is comparable to pratyaksam (direct perception), the sense organs, giving prabala-jananam or primary knowledge. In such a case we look upon Veda as the sixth sense organ.
Veda can be broadly divided into two sections: karma-kanda and jnana-kanda. Karma-kanda contains elaborate details on rituals (meant for our well-being) while jnana-kanda discusses the nature of Jivatma, nature of Paramatma and the relationship between the two (for our spiritual evolution). Our very study of Veda depends on our approach. Do we consider Veda as a primary or secondary source? Many people consider Veda as a primary source of knowledge. To them the knowledge gained by studying Veda is non-final and subject to verification. So the teaching of Veda has to be proved or corroborated by some other pramanam (source of knowledge). Such people scientifically analyse the various aspects of a ritual to determine its validity. Thus karma-kanda requires scientific validation. In the spiritual field (jana-kanda) these people look for mystical validation. They wait for a mystical experience.
What should be our approach to Veda? all our acaryas (Gurus or Masters) says we will be committing a fundamental blunder if we consider Veda as a primary source of knowledge. The very nature of Veda is primary source of knowledge. Our acharyas emphasize: accept Veda as primary source of knowledge or be a nastika and reject Veda as a source itself; do not consider Veda as a primary source of knowledge. Once we look upon Veda as primary source of knowledge, we perform rituals without bothering about scientific validation. It is quite possible that science is in a position to validate a ritual or aspects of a ritual like fasting is good for health, homam will cleanse and purify the atmosphere, and so on. But that is only incidental to us, not the main purpose of doing the ritual. We perform rituals because Veda says we will get positive benefits called punyam. We also accept the teaching of jnana-kanda without waiting for mystical experiences - a flash that will come one day or the other.
While karma-kanda gives material benefits, jnana-kanda gives knowledge leading to liberation. It is quite possible that we accept Veda as a primary source of knowledge; we understand the teaching yet we do not feel like a liberated person at all. The fault lies not in the Veda, but in us. Vedas prescribes certain qualifications for its study called Sadhana-catustaya-sampatti, the four fold factors. Perhaps we lack that. We need to focus on acquiring those qualifications while continuing our study of Veda at the same time.
Sources: From the Talk delivered by Swamy Paramarthananda on Guru Purnima day on 21.07.2005.