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The Unknown Matrix : A Critique of the Advaita Theory of the Unknown

Dr. Haramohan Mishra

While it is obvious that an object is revealed by knowledge as known, it seems absurd to think that it is also revealed as unknown by knowledge. In other words, the problem consists of this; whether an unknown object is related to knowledge in some way or other, as a known object is related to it. Epistemological necessity compels us to accept a relation between knowledge and unknown, as otherwise there can be no assertion of difference between non-existent and unknown. Being unknown is as much knowledge-specific as being known since such a judgment ‘The pot is unknown’ is only meaningful in the context of a knowledge-situation. May be, the unknown demands a different kind of knowledge with a different sort of relation in an unconventional knowledge-situation. However, both knowledge, in the sense of revealing the object, and ignorance, in the sense of its absence, are meaningful within a higher knowledge-context – svrupa jnana or saksi jnana as it is explained by the later Advaitins. We will discuss in this article how Advaita Vedanta attempts to solve this problem, which explains itself as well as the world of experience, though it cannot be fully demonstrated in the logical plane, in as much as the root of the problem lies beyond the peripheries of both discursive logic and philosophical speculations.

For the establishment of the unknown object, the Advaitins say, there is necessity of some knowledge, otherwise, there being no proof for its existence, it would not be different from the unreal like the hare’s horn. So, its existence as the cause of sense-contact that makes its cognition possible would be without foundation1. It may be argued that there is no necessity of direct revelation of the unknown, as it can be established by inference. But it is not tenable as no logical link can be established between the unknown and the known. Inference, which is made possible through concomitance of two objects or their absence (anvaya-vyatireka), cannot take place in the case where an absolutely unknown entity is either of the two. If vyapti is admitted to be established between the unknown and the known in order to make inference possible, then, the unknown, in so far as it is grasped by knowledge at the time of ascertainment of vyapti, ceases to be unknown.2

Some of the opponents of Advaita may even think that there is no necessity of inference at all , as the object, before being known, can remain as absolutely unknown. So, there is no reference to the object either as known or as unknown. But this is not tenable, as the hypothesis that the object as unknown, being the basis of sense-contact, is the cause of the knowledge that manifests it as known, would be without foundation. Thus, there is the necessity of some kind of illumination or knowledge for the manifestation of the unknown object.3 So, such a statement ‘The pot is unknown’ (ajnato ghatah) becomes possible. The opponents may say that such a view contradicts the established truth that a relation between knowledge and object makes the latter known only. But, this is not tenable, as the kind of knowledge that seems to manifest the object as known is not the same which is responsible for the unknownness of the object. In fact, the Advaitins have differentiated vrtti jnana that is responsible for the intellectual cognition of the object as known from svarupa jnana (knowledge itself), which is eternal, immutable and responsible for manifesting objects as unknown. In fact, according to the Advaitins, svarupa jnana which is not different from saksi jnana is indifferent to both prama and aprama – valid knowledge and error.
It is desirable that we keep in mind the general epistemological view of the Advaitins as regard to how an object becomes known. According to Advaita, all objects are superimposed on the Brahman-Intelligence (Brahma-caitanya), which is also known as substratum-Intelligence (adhisthana caitanya) or object-Intelligence (visaya caitanya), in so far as it forms the ground of all the objects of the world. Though it is eternal Illumination itself, all the things are not illuminated always by it, because the concealment of ajnana (ignorance) is there. It cannot be said that Brahman being knowledge itself cannot be the basis of ajnana, as vritti jnana only is the destroyer of ajnana ,but not saksi jnana, which is said to be its revealer, otherwise this ajnana cannot be established. The Brahman-Intelligence illuminates the objects after the overpowering of ajnana. This overpowering (abhivava) is made through modification of the intellect, known as antahkarana vritti, combined with reflection of Intelligence (cidabhasa). It is said that the intellect assumes the form of the object, known as vritti, when it comes in contact with the object through the senses.4 Thus, intellect assuming the form of the object after reaching it serves as a link between the subject-Intelligence (pramatr caitanya) and the object-Intelligence (visaya caitanya).5 According to one view, the substratum Intelligence manifests the object after the shifting of ajnana, where as some Advaitins think that it is the reflection of Intelligence that manifests the object. Madhusudana Sarasvati upholds the former view, where as Vidyaranya maintains the latter. That which manifests the object is known as phala caitanya (fruit Intelligence).6
The substratum-Intelligence that forms the ground of the world manifests, the objects as unknown before their intellectual cognition. After the rising of vrtti, which destroys ajnana with the help of reflection of Intelligence, the same substratum-Intelligence illuminates the objects as known also. It is said that before the rising of vrtti, the pot is revealed as unknown by the Brahman, where as after its rising, it is revealed as known.7 Vidyaranya, following the writer of Vivarana, says that every thing becomes the object of witness-Intelligence (saksi-caitanya) either as known or as unknown.8 In some Advaitic texts, Brahma caitanya is described as the illuminator of the unknown, whereas in other places the witness is said to be the illuminator. There being no difference between Brahman and the witness, there is no opposition between these two view.9

Madhusudan Sarasvati has made a clear analysis of this. He says that the objects like pot, being insentient cannot be themselves unknown or known. So, when we say that the unknown is superimposed on the Brahman-Intelligence, it only means that the Brahman-Intelligence, which is unknown or concealed by avidya, manifests pot etc, superimposed on it. Thus, when the substratum-Intelligence is revealed, the objects like pot etc are said to be revealed and when it is concealed by avidya, the objects are also said to be concealed or unknown. It is proved, Madhusudan argues, that the objects like pot etc are superimposed on the unknown Illumination (ajnata sphurana), as that unknown Illumination, being revealed, reveals pots etc, otherwise they being insentient cannot be either known or unknown10. Thus it is clear that the object itself is neither known nor unknown; its known-ness and unknown-ness are due to the revelation and non-revelation of the Brahman-Intelligence respectively. Though the same substratum-Intelligence reveals the object as both known and unknown, the difference is due to the intervention and non-intervention of vrtti. Vrtti, prompted by reflection of Intelligence, overpowers avidya; so the object manifests as known. When there is no formation of vrtti, avidya remains as it was before, so, the object manifests only as unknown.

An objection may be raised by the opponents: How can there be ajnana in the Illumination, which is knowledge itself? How can the Illumination, which is concealed by avidya, manifest the object even as unknown? The obvious answer to the first question, given by the Vivarana school, is that pure knowledge or svarupa jnana is not opposed to avidya. That, which is opposed to avidya, is vrtti jnana prompted by the reflection of Intelligence. The simple answer to the second question is that avidya, which itself is false, cannot fully blur the Illumination, which is ontologically superior to it, otherwise avidya itself cannot be established. It is to be borne in mind that witness-knowledge, which is knowledge itself, is adduced as a proof for the existence of avidya, as it cannot be established by the pramanas, being opposed to them. The substratum-Illumination, which is indifferent to all, being the witness or the saksin, only manifests the object with no consideration of its knownness or unknownness, which is caused by antahkarana vrtti and avidya respectively. Vidyaranya says that ajnana, causing unknownness in the object, makes it manifest by the witness, as pramana, producing knownness in the object, makes it manifest by the witness11.

Further objections may be raised against this Advaitic account of the unknown. It may be said that the problem is based on a faulty linguistic use of the word unknown. Faulty linguistic uses tend our thinking to entify false categories. The Advaitins ingeniously manipulate the word in such a way that it seems as if unknownness necessarily implies some sort of knowledge. But ‘unknown’ is to be understood in such a way that it becomes free from any reference to knowledge. But this allegation of the non-Advaitins becomes indefensible when we try to analyze the possibilities of unknownness. What is meant by the possibility of unknown without reference to any sort of knowledge? How can such a possibility be ascertained without knowledge? The opponents can assume it half-heartedly without assigning any proof. They may say ‘some how’ or they may completely do away with unknown existence, which is equally absurd. Absence of any tenable explanation of the unknown necessarily leads to an uncompromising solipsism or to an all-devouring skepticism. Linguistic uses alone cannot entail ontological conclusions. It must be supported by logical necessity and metaphysical compulsions.
It is to be noted that manifestation of the unknown objects by an all-pervasive eternal knowledge is the outcome of a logical necessity. It is at once the repudiation of the inference of unknown by some of the realists and complete liquidation of it by the idealists. The Naiyayikas do not see the logical difference between inference of the unknown and manifestation of the unknown, for which they put them into one category. On the other hand, the Vijnavadins try to completely do away with the unknown existence of the objects. The problem has a much deeper metaphysical, psychological and esoteric dimension. Consciousness-studies in recent times have shown that underlying the conscious mind many levels of consciousness such as the subconscious, the unconscious and the super-conscious are there. Knowledge is not exhaustive with only the discursive and the empirical. Unconscious is as much an object of knowledge as the conscious. The Advaitins have accepted the eternal and all pervasive Brahman-Intelligence as the revealer of all unknown objects on the basis of a metaphysical compulsion. But the truth of Advaita can only be ascertained through direct realization. It is to be borne in mind that Brahman-Intelligence is not accepted on a speculative basis to account for the manifestation of the unknown objects. On the other hand, it is self-valid and self-luminous, which explains the perplexing problem of the unknown, otherwise inexplicable. Cit (consciousness) which is beyond words and mind, says Sarvajnatman, really makes all verbal and epistemic transactions possible12. The entire knowledge-paradigm covering the diversities of knowledge, ignorance, the conscious and unconscious is sustained and made functional by a higher level of consciousness which at the same time transcends and subsumes all its ranges.

Advaita epistemology, in general, seeks to prove that the problem of knowledge cannot be explained fully from the empirical stand point only as the root of it transcends the empirical level. Brahman-consciousness needs no empirical proof for its validity, as it is the ground of all epistemic transactions. It makes all knowledge possible and transcends the limitations of empirical existence. Thus, the Advaita approach to the problem of knowing the unknown gives a new perspective to epistemology by directing our search from the surface to the bottom, from the world of appearance to the underlying reality that sustains and gives meaning to the world of appearance.

1 Advaita Siddhi, pp.468-469, Parimal publication, 1982
2 Gudhartha Dipika on Bhagavadgita, pp. 82-83, Chowkhamba, 1983
3 “Knowledge, Reality and the Unknown” in Contemporary Indian
Philosophy, D.M.Datta, pp.296-297
Also “The Advaita Concept of Subjectivity” in Philosophy East and
West, KalidasBhattacharya, Ed. H.D.Lewis
4 Advaita Siddhi, Pratikarma-vyavastha, Ch. 1
5 Vedantasara with Gudharthabodhini, Haramohan Mishra, Vidyapuri,
6 Pancadasi, 8.5 ,
7 The Pancadasi of Bharatitirta Vidyaranya, T.M.P.Mahadevan,
Madras Universiy
8 Vivarana Prameya Samgraha, Achyuta Granthamala, p.57
9 Siddhantabindu, Bhandarkar,p.137
10 Gudhartha Dipika, pp.82-83
11 Vivarana prameya samgraha, pp.57-58
12 Samksepa Sariraka, Chowkhamba, 1.331