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Being Perceived: Perception in Advaita Vedanta

by Dr. Haramohan Mishra
Friday 4th October 2013

Every knowledge-situation demands a subject and an object, the knower and the knowable, but the actual process of knowing, or how it results in knowledge, is what poses the crux of the problem. What is then “being perceived” and what exactly is the relation between the subject and the object” How we know is really more important than what we know. The mystery of the universe lies in the way we understand it. It is tantamount to our self-understanding, since understanding objects necessarily involves the understanding of the subject.
The perception of an object is always as much relative to the subject as to the object. All levels of existence and knowledge with the myriad complexities of the universe can only be understood by understanding the perceiver, which is the key to understanding the act of “being perceived”. This paper discusses the Advaitic view of “being perceived” and suggests that this view can serve, in the long run, to comprehend the mystery of perception and the relation between the perceiver and the perceived, in its true perspective.

We may take a case of visual perception and try to comprehend its process. The various levels of activities involved in this process, though seem to be simple are really not very easy to understand. By way of analyzing the process, we find subtler and subtler levels of activities involving finer and finer principles which lie behind the normal ranges of human mind. The physical and physiological levels of understanding of the process, somehow or other can be well understood. Scientific research has widened the horizons of understanding of man, but the other level, the metaphysical or the philosophical level of understanding of the subject and the object, their ultimate status and the exact relation between them, are not so easy to comprehend.

According to the modern scientific view of perception, the stimuli coming from objects are received by sense-organs (for example, the eye, in the case of visual perception), which pass them towards their respective brain-centers through neurons after which the cognition arises in the mind. In fact, the scientific theory does not differentiate between the brain and the mind. Even though some scientists accept mind as different from the brain, it is no more than an emergent property of the brain. The group of psychologists who uphold the Cartesian dichotomy of the mind and matter also believe that external stimuli from objects known as sensations come from outside which are arranged or conceptualized to form knowledge in the mind. This is the famous Kantian dictum, “percepts without concepts are blind, and concepts without percepts are empty”. The passivists advocate the passive reception of the sensations by the mind, whereas the activists grant some sort of activity to the mind. Thus is the process: light coming from the object is reflected on the retina, which stimulates nervous activity, consequently the sensation reaches the brain-centre where visual perception takes place. Some western psychologists show how from the distribution of light and shade of the picture in the retina we make an idea of the three-dimensional things of the external world. The gestalt psychologists are not satisfied with the atomists and therefore advocate that it is not the fragments of sensations but the whole, the unbroken image of the object that is received by the brain.

The basic difficulty in the western view is that it cannot do justice to the direct apprehension of external objects. The image of an object and its direct revelation existing outside cannot be the same. If we get only the image of the objects but not the objects themselves in knowledge, we cannot say that we get the exact but not the distorted picture of the reality existing outside. This leads to an ultimate skeptic or an agnostic view of the world. The purpose of knowledge is forfeited since it lands us in an absurd conclusion that knowledge cannot show us reality. On the other hand, without grasping the object as existing outside, no amount of explanation can project our internal percepts into external space and make us experience them in their real order, magnitude and dimension. It cannot draw any qualitative difference between the perception of the actual object and its imaginary perception in-so-far as its result is concerned. The scientific theory can at-least explain perception so far as the physical and physiological aspects are concerned. It cannot explain how from a pure physiological activity, a total new quality of psychological result is created. How do the physiological sensations come to assume the form of knowledge, is quite a different problem which science cannot explain. The fact is that the real root of the problem lies beyond the ranges of the physical or the physiological realms. To try to explain one with the help of the other is nothing other than a contextual error.

There are various theories of different schools of Indian philosophy where attempts have been made in different ways to explain perceptual knowledge. We find such speculations also in other philosophical systems all over the world. But the fact is that mere speculative thought coupled with even reasoning cannot account for the truth in perceptual knowledge. Metaphysical speculations are unrestricted, which can neither explain the things consistently nor can satisfy a candid search for the truth. The grimness of the problem demands a certain, consistent and satisfactory explanation which seems lying beyond the periphery of both speculative metaphysics and discursive reasoning.

Advaita Vedanta gives a different epistemological explanation of perception which is based on the Advaitic world-view. The first systematic exposition of the process of perceptual knowledge in Advaita literature can be found in the Vivarana of Prakasatma yati, which afterwards is adopted by Vidyaranya, Madhusudana, Citsukha and other great Advaitins till it finds a thorough exposition in the latest work, the Vedantaparibhasa of Dharmarajadhvarindra. Even though, like other metaphysical theories, the Vedantic theory of perception is endowed with speculations, reasoning and explanations, its real plausibility lies in its intuitive grasp of a higher ontological stand from where the epistemological problems of perceptibility can be explained satisfactorily. It is to be borne in mind that the Vedantic theory of perception is not simply another philosophical speculation; it does not intend to explain the physical, physiological or even the psychological mechanism of knowledge. Its real purport lies in-so-far as it makes us aware of the higher ontological reality that gives value and meaning to all our epistemic transactions.

According to Advaita Vedanta, all things of the world are superimposed on the substratum-consciousness (adhisthana-caitanya) which is also known as visaya-caitanya. The subject-consciousness (pramatr-caitanya) can only perceive an object when it becomes one with the substratum-consciousness or visaya-caitanya that forms the ground of the object. Though the pramatr-caitanya is in essence, one with visaya-caitanya, it does not recognize its omnipresence due to ignorance. This unity of the object-consciousness (the supreme consciousness which forms the substratum of all the objects of the world) and the subject-consciousness is achieved by vrtti or through the modification of the mind (antahkarana). The mind expands with the help of the sense-organs and assumes the form of objects, thus revealing them, as water takes shape of the container where it is kept or light takes the shape of the object that it illuminates. The vrrti or the modification of mind together with the reflection of consciousness destroys the concealment of ignorance thus revealing the object in consciousness.

The expansion of the mind and the mind taking the form of objects being perceived imply the unity of the objects and the perceiver. In the act of “being perceived”, the objects do not have any independent existence apart from the subject (Pramatr-satta-tirikta-sattakatva-bhavah). The discovery of this unity of the objects being perceived with the perceiver is what forms the real background of perception. Since this revelation of unity is only temporal, conditional and provisional, the final destruction of avidya is not achieved and duality still continues. It is negated only when one achieves true self-knowledge. Thus, every act of perception reminds us of our true nature, the all-pervasive supreme consciousness which reveals both the object and the subject. This is the “light of supreme consciousness that shines in and above the world, and above the heavens, the same light which also shines in one’s heart” says the Chandogya Upanisad. 1

It is to be noted that this contention of the Advaitins is not the same as idealism. The objects are not merely the conglomeration of ideas. They have their independent existence apart from that of the subject. But from a higher ontological standpoint, the objective world is nothing but a projection on the unlimited supreme consciousness which is one with the perceiver.

The physical, physiological and psychological explanations have nothing in contradiction with the Vedantic view. All of them, to a certain extent can be justified in their own levels. But the Advaita theory of perception explains perception from the highest point, which can very well be reconciled with the other levels of explanation. The Advaitins are not interested in explaining how light falls on the eye or what neurological changes occur in the brain. They are concerned with the other dimension of the process which transcends the scope of physiological study. They try to understand the underlying mystery of the subject-object unity and make us aware of the fact that knowledge is neither an adventitious quality of the subject nor is a product in the object affected by the process of knowing. It is the eternal light that simply illuminates, and neither affects anything nor gets affected by them. “Being perceived” is nothing other than being illumined by this eternal light, of course, through the conditioning of the subjectivity, which, like objectivity, is also imposed on the boundless supreme consciousness.

“The sun of knowledge neither rises nor sets, for he who knows this, it becomes the day of light forever”, says the Chandogya Upanisad.2


1.Chandogya Upanisad 3.13.7-8

2.Chandogya Upanisad 3.11.3

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