[Advaita-l] Valid knowledge in Indian thought

V Subrahmanian v.subrahmanian at gmail.com
Sun Jul 30 14:23:27 EDT 2017

An Interesting write-up

*Valid knowledge in Indian thought*

The correct or the valid knowledge in Indian thought is called prama which
stands for awareness of a thing as it really is and that which is free from
misapprehension . The Indian thought is therefore concerned with what
generates correct knowledge as also with what generates incorrect
knowledge. The incorrect or invalid knowledge is called aprama or bhrama.

The sources of correct knowledge are known as pramana . It is a method , a
device to verify the truth of a piece of knowledge that is acquired. It is
largely a method of deduction but at times has room for intuition. Each
school of thought adopted its method of cognition, pramana. The differences
among the schools were more in their emphasis and on their perception of
truth ratherthan in the methods they employed. For instance , Samkhya
defined truth as the mode of agreeing entirely with the object .The Nyaya
school thought that truth must be effective and should lead us to the
desired object. Utility , according to them , was the criterion of truth.
Vedanta , on the other hand , defined truth as that which was free from

Valid knowledge , in general , emphasizes objectivity. Consistency in time
and space is a necessary feature of Valid knowledge. What contributes to
such knowledge ispramana . The purpose of pramana is to define its object
clearly , specifically and to illuminate the object. It does not however
generate a new fact but it brings forth experiencing a fact as it actually
is. The pramanas , however , have their own limited fields of operation ;
their validity is restricted to what they can possibly reveal. That perhaps
explains the multiplicity of methods employed to verify ones experiences.

Charvakas accepted only one source of valid knowledge , viz. sense
perception or direct observation (pratyaksha). Charvakas were strictly
empirical and dismissed subjective experiences beyond sensations as being
irrelevant. The Vaisheshikasconsidered deductive analysis or reasoning (
anumana , inference) as an additional method. They explained the nature and
characteristics of the physical world by employing the first method
pratyaksha but introduced the element of soul by inference. The Buddhists
too relied heavily on inference . The Samkhya thinkers said that in
addition to sense-perception and inference , the verbal testimony
Sabda(which included scriptural testimony) could also be a means of valid
knowledge . TheSamkhya being essentially atheistic confined Sabda to mean
unerring authority (aapta –vacana) in matters pertaining to daily life.

The Nyaya school was essentially logistic in its orientation. It tried to
examine the sources and contents of valid knowledge. It built a logical
link between the subject , the knower(pramata) ; the means or method of
obtaining knowledge (pramana) ; and the object , the knowable (prameya) .
In addition , it put forth analogy (Upama) as the fourth method . Analogy ,
it said , comprehensively included in itself the other three methods.
Analogy was , however , not an altogether new method .

 TheSamkhya classified analogy under verbal testimony which in turn was
included under inference. Nyaya however assigned an independent status to
the method of analogy.

The Mimamsa school added two more methods Viz. presumption (arthapatti) and
non-apprehension (abhava). Presumption , the Mimamsakas said , comes in
handy when direct-sense perception, inference, verbal testimony or
comparison do not directly help . The other line abhava or non-apprehension
is a method to ascertain the non-existence of a thing. It too was treated
as an independent and a positive process of knowing a thing.

Vedanta accepted all the six methods as means’s for acquiring valid


It does not mean that one school or the other employed a particular method
to the exclusion of all the other methods . Each of the methods had its own
sphere of functioning; each supplemented the other ; and together
contributed to the empirical knowledge of an object. Very often , a school
of thought employed all the methods but laid emphasis on a particular
method depending on the orientation of that school. For instance , the
first four schools (Charvaka, Nyaya, Vaisheshika and Samkhya) relied
heavily on argumentation and were therefore described as “ reason-dominant
(yukthi-pradhana) “.

Of the six methods, the ones that were directly employed were the
sense-perception (observation) , inference (deductive reasoning) and
scriptural authority ; while presumption and non-apprehension were clubbed
under inference. And here again, inference by definition was guided by
sense-perception. Thus , observation and scriptural authority stood out as
the only two independent methods.

It was however around Sabda the scriptural authority that differences
sprang up among the various schools .Mimamsakas put undue stress on
scriptural authority , by which they meant the authority of the Vedas which
they declared were eternal and therefore infallible. They subordinated
every other method of cognition to authority of the Vedas ( particularly to
the authority of the Brahmana portions) .Samkhya and Nyaya schools , in
contrast , refused to accept the Vedas as the sole source of scriptural
authority . They said the words of any trustworthy person (aptha) could be
considered a source of valid knowledge and the Vedas could be one such. The
Vaisheshika and the Nyaya school to a certain extent , refused to accept
the divine origin of the Vedas but admitted the Vedas as one among the
valid scriptural authority. The Buddhists went a step further; they
rejected the divine origin of the Vedas and refused to accept the Vedas as
a source of valid knowledge.

The Vedanta took a rather an intermediate position. It accepted the
authority of the Vedas but tilted towards its informative passages viz. the
Upanishads , almost to the exclusion of its ritualistic portions. Further ,
it said , sense -perception acts as a guide for the world while scriptures
help to appreciate the significance of the reality . Vedanta therefore
recommended a combination of scriptures (sruthi) and reason (yukthi or
tarka). The debate on the undisputed authority of the Vedas and its
authorship was , in a way , sidetracked.


The genius of Sri Sankara was that he rose above the apparent
contradictions and charted a new path of reason and intuition.

He did not regard the scriptures either as eternal or immutable. He
accepted the scriptures but conceded it a limited authority . “ In
inquiries concerning religious conduct it may be that the scripture is the
sole authority . But it cannot be so in our investigation into reality .
Here , scriptures as well as other sources of knowledge such as phenomenal
experience become valid , according to necessity. For , after all , the
purpose of such investigation is to end in transcendental experience and to
inform us about reality” (VSB 1,1 ,2) .

He said when the meaning of the scripture was not clear or when there were
apparent contradictions , one must rely on reason . He also cautioned that
reason can often be barren (sushka tarka) when it was devoid of intuition .
He spoke of the value of reason blessed by intuition that becomes a part of
ones experience.

According to Sri Sankara , no method is valid if it is contradicted by
other methods. Each method is valid inasmuch as it makes known what is not
made known by other methods. For instance , Intuition becomes suspect when
it is contradicted by reason ; similarly reason is futile if not supported
by intuition. The two have to compliment each other. He declared,
“Intuition is not opposed to intellect. Reality is experience. Realizing
the Supreme Being is within ones experience”.

Sri Sankara placed personal experience , common as well as extraordinary ,
above all the other methods of cognition . He gave credence to an
individual’s subjective experience. He said that if the scriptures say
things that contradict our perceptional experience , then they loose their
credibility. “ Even a hundred scriptural passages will not become
authoritative when they , for instance , announce that fire is cool or
dark”(VSB 43,14).

Sourced from a WhatsApp group.

More information about the Advaita-l mailing list