Monday, 28 January 2013

Knowledge and Nescience

Sri Ramakrishna said: “When, hearing the name of Hari or Rama once, you shed tears and your hair stands on end, then you may know for certain that you do not have to perform such devotions as the sandhya any more. Then only will you have a right to renounce rituals; or rather, rituals will drop away of themselves. Then it will be enough if you repeat only the name of Rama or Hari, or even simply Om.”
(from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

All forms of worldly and Vedic behaviour that are connected with valid means of knowledge and objects of knowledge start by taking for granted the mutual superimposition of the Self and non-Self, known as nescience, and so do all the scriptures dealing with injunctions, prohibition or emancipation.
Opponent: How, again can the means of valid knowledge, such as direct perception as well as the scriptures have as their locus a cognizer who is subject to nescience?
The (Vedantin’s) answer is : Since a man without self-identification with the body, mind, senses, etc., cannot become a cognizer, and as such, the means of knowledge cannot function for him, since perception and other activites (of a man) are not possible without accepting the senses etc. (as his own); since the senses cannot function without (the body) a basis; since nobody engages in any activity with a body that has not the idea of the Self superimposed on it; since the unrelated Self cannot become a cognizer unless there are all these (mutual superimposition of the Self and the body and their attributes on each other); and since the means of knowledge cannot function unless there is a cognizership; therefore it follows that the means of knowledge, such as direct perception as well as the scriptures, must have a man as their locus who is subject to nescience.
(from the preamble to Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya by Shankaracarya

Professor Gary Gutting writing in the New York Times: The Way of the Agnostic
Critics of a religion — and of religion in general — usually focus on knowledge claims.  This is understandable since the claims are often quite extraordinary, of a sort for which we naturally require a great deal of evidence — which is seldom forthcoming. They are not entirely without evidential support.  But the evidence for religious claims — metaphysical arguments from plausible but disputable premises, intermittent and often vague experiences of the divine, historical arguments from limited data, even the moral and intellectual fruitfulness of a religious life — typically does not meet ordinary (common-sense or scientific) standards for postulating an explanatory cause. Believers often say that their religious life gives them a special access (the insight of “faith”) to religious knowledge.  But believers in very different religions can claim such access, and it’s hard to see what believers in one religion can, in general, say against the contradictory claims of believers in others.

There is a genuine confusion about the status of knowledge in religion. The focus on love and understanding as central elsewhere in Gutting’s essay is a recognition that knowledge in religion does not have the same crisp well defined edges that are the ideal of science even if not quite managed. History and doctrine are important but precise congruence is not. Even Christians who like to keep things tidy admit limits to what we can know about the divine. This is intimated in:
“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every man that hath this hope in him, purifleth himself even as He is pure.” (I John III: v. 2, 3).


If you relate this to the passage from the B.S.B. you can see that defective knowledge is admitted by Shankara. Knowledge and this includes the transmission of knowledge as per the Vedas is not capable of conveying ultimate truth. The valid means of knowledge i.e. the pramanas, are adequate to the business of everyday truth such as that of science but when we step out of the subject/object dyad then the pramanas are not adequate. As Sri Ramakrishna said, speaking as a devotee, all conventional injunctions and forms of worship fall away upon merger with the object of devotion.

The latter part of my extract from Professor Gutting’s piece is often regarded as the victory roll and folding body press of the agnostic wrestling with the believer; what about the conflict between all the various forms of religion, they can’t all be right. That objection only goes on all fours if the dualistic Subject/Object account of knowledge is regarded as ultimate. As I have indicated briefly the Advaitins deny this and the Sufi theory of the imaginal which Henry Corbin has written about shows the possibility of alternative realities generated by the Absolute according to the beliefs of the seeker.

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