Re-Examine Your Life

Vedanta expert JANKI SANTOKE discusses Indic epistemology and its practical uses with SONAL SRIVASTAVA

You have been giving talks on ‘How do we know what we know.’ Could you elaborate on this?
■ We have a way of thinking, and based on that way of thinking, we live our life. Often, we try to bring in changes by changing something, but we don’t realise that our life is the way it is because of the way we think and until we change our thinking, our experience will continue to remain the same. For instance, if I am living in Delhi and I am not happy and start living in New York, I may continue to be unhappy there also. The tendency in me, for instance, of not being grateful for what I have will continue, therefore, my experience will also continue to be the same.

Is it because of impressions hard-wired in the brain?
■ Eastern philosophy says that we have a gross body and a subtle body, and some western thinkers say that there is only the gross body. It’s a matter of philosophical and scientific debate. The fact is, I am living my life right now, am facing problems and am making changes in my life without recognising the cause of my problem.

If you solve the problem without going to the cause, then, you are going to repeat the problem. We must figure out a way to understand that we are not victims; my thoughts are creating my world. My life is not bad, because ‘my mother-in-law did something’ or ‘my grandmother said something.’ I am deciding my life; I can sit and grieve over what someone said, or have a goal and work towards it.

We have a choice when someone behaves badly with us. I have been teaching Vedanta for 30 years and sometimes I am surprised by what people who claim to have studied from me, say or do. Scriptural studies are so enlightening and uplifting. Swami Vivekananda is so inspiring; he talks about achievement, uthistha param tapa, ‘get up and fight’. There are people who have a spiritual practice and who say, ‘Oh! I am so nice, but people are being mean to me.’ I wonder what it even means? Why are scriptures that are so beneficial, not providing those benefits to people? The scriptures ask, ‘What use are all the scriptures to man without prajna, intellect?’ If something is not right then we have to re-examine that and one way to do that is through Indic epistemology, which is the study that helps one find out, ‘how do we know what we know.’ We know what we know through the system of pramanas — that is, means of knowledge; proof.

How can pramanas help us in a practical manner?
■ There are four pramanas or means of knowledge. Vedanta says there are six, but four are considered the main ones. How do you know that I am talking to you right now? You know it through pratyaksha pramana, sense perception. Without sense perception, how will I know anything? What we see and what we hear, to us, is incontrovertible evidence. Why are you so certain that your perceptions are correct? There is a way of gauging whether I am seeing things correctly and I must put in the effort to examine them. I am not suggesting that you believe or don’t believe — I am just saying, examine. Everything that everybody tells us cannot be true; everything that everybody tells us cannot be false — it needs to be examined. First,we learn how to examine our perceptions.

The second pramana is anumana, inference. Even if our perception is right, did we reach the right inference? Somebody said to you that ‘you are daft’ and you examined it, now you make all sorts of inferences from that statement. For instance, you may think, ‘I am poor, so he said this.’ Examine your inferences. See if your logic is correct. Do you have data to support your inference?

The third pramana is upmana; it is the most beautiful one, yet it is most likely to be misunderstood. It is like Aesop’s fable of the hare and tortoise in a race and, in the end, you learn that slow and steady wins the race. Upmana is like art, but most people confuse it for agami pramana, authority. In agami pramana, you don’t have to examine what is being said, but whether the one who is saying it is an authority or not.

People often continue to suffer from the same problems. People are struggling to apply teachings to their day to-day life. We say, first understand and then apply. For instance, the teaching of universal love — we have to love everybody. You are so inspired that you go out and hug the first person you see, and that person will be utterly confused. So don’t apply, first get up in the morning and think. Think what is going on; life should be a constant re-examination. Just like we spring-clean our houses, we must spring-clean our minds, our way of thinking.

Our first duty is to be happy, so you have to know what is it that you are doing incorrectly. There could be wrong ideas in my head, and I haven’t even identified them. Every philosopher uses a classification to bring his point of view to the table.