We Believe What We Think Is True

May 19, 2018, 2:00 AM IST Speaking Tree in TOI Edit Page | Edit Page, India, Spirituality | TOI
By Janki Santoke

When thoughts are not examined and reflected upon, they can have disastrous results. They may be dramatic, as in the case of Othello, who murdered his noble wife Desdemona on suspicion of infidelity. Fanatical thoughts may wreak destruction in the name of faith. But often, thoughts are about our daily issues, problems and complications. Such thoughts are reflected in disharmonious relationships, and in failure to achieve one’s potential or the converse may be true.

Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. ‘Prama’ is what is known; ‘Pramana’ is how it is known. Vedanta lists four Pramanas or sources of knowledge:

Pratyaksha is perception by the senses through seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching. You know the tree is green because you can see it. You know the crow is cawing because you can hear it. You know the water is cold because you can touch it. Many people believe it is the only way of knowing something. They go by the mantra, ‘seeing is believing’. But this method is not foolproof. Every day we see, and our ancestors have seen for millennia, that the sun rises! We see the moon shine brightly in the sky. But as any informed person knows, this perception is not the truth. We see magicians perform miraculous deeds. But fortunately, we have other methods of knowledge through which we can verify the evidence of the senses, and know whether what the senses report is true.
Anumana is inference. With inference starts the use of thought to establish truth – what is. Inference is the use of thought to understand more than what is perceived. One sees a feather and infers a bird; one sees smoke and infers fire. And from here starts the danger of thought. If senses cannot always be trusted, can thought? Othello saw Desdemona’s handkerchief in Casio’s hand and inferred that they were having an affair. We are constantly making inferences. Like, why did I fail or why did I succeed at work; or why is this relationship not working.
Upama is comparison. We learn of x by comparing it to y. ‘Kashmir is the Switzerland of India’ speaks of the great beauty of Kashmir. ‘He runs like a horse’ tells us how fast he is. Again, comparisons are only as good as the thinking that goes into them. ‘He runs like a horse’ cannot be understood as he runs on all fours! Many religious mistakes can be traced back to this. A Sanskrit shubhasitam talks of all the scriptures being of as much use as a mirror to a blind man when one does not use his own prajna intellect!
Agami is authoritative sources. We would not know much if we had to depend on only our own thinking. We can also borrow other’s thinking. We look to authorities to tell us of their field. Those knowledgeable in medicine can tell us how to cure our body, experts in architecture can tell us about how to build. We need not reinvent the wheel in every field!
Sages tell us of experiences we have never had such as universal love and everlasting bliss. This of course does not mean we take the unexamined word of every person who comes along. The teaching must come from an authoritative source for us to have any faith in it.