by Radha Burnier

The Theosophist 1985

EPISTEMOLOGY is one of the major branches of philosophical study. It deals with what knowledge is and the means to it. Most people do not understand its importance because they take a naïve view of the whole question. True knowledge — which is wisdom — is, in fact, not easy to come by.

There is knowledge which is true, knowledge which is distorted, and there is absence of knowledge, a form of delusion. For knowledge to be true, it must correspond to what actually is—to the tattva or ‘is-ness’ of things. If there is no such correspondence there is either distortion or delusion. There are many well-known illustrations of this and, as they are satisfactory enough, we might think of one or two of them.

If a person looks at a shadow and thinks that it is a man, it is not delusion because there is some basis for what he sees. Or he sees what he thinks is a snake, but it is really a rope. It is not as if there were no object that corresponds to his apparent knowledge; there is, in fact, some basis for what arises in his mind. But the picture in his mind does not correspond to reality and so it might be called distorted knowledge.

There is also the delusion of a fevered brain which imagines all kinds of things. Images pass through it and incidents take place in it that have no basis in fact at all. Or there may be a totally irrational idea out of the range of probability or even possibility. A well-known example is given in the Vedânta of the person who sees a hare with horns—something that has no existence save in his distorted brain. Anything can occur in such a brain; everything is in a jumble and impossible things can happen. We know them to be delusions, but the neurotic or mentally disturbed person takes them all for reality.

Now anyone who is a seeker for truth must try to understand this whole subject thoroughly. There are many pitfalls on the way and the path itself is razor-edged. It is all too easy to imagine that we have understanding or knowledge while all the time it may have no more reality than a barren woman’s son or a rope that appears to be a snake. We must be ever watchful. To question our certainties is part of wisdom.

Philosophers and religious thinkers of both East and West have discussed in great detail the means to true knowledge. The East has always understood the importance of relating true knowledge to the religious and philosophical life. In the East, epistemology was not considered a subject in itself, stimulating the intellect, but it was known to be of practical importance for the seeker after truth. In enumerating the right means of knowledge, some say there is only one way; others accept five, and so on. But basically, three means of acquiring right knowledge, namely reason, perception, and the words of the wise, are accepted. However, taken in isolation, any one of them can become a pitfall.

Anyone whose mind is even a little developed must be, to some extent, a rational being. We all accept reasonableness as a norm for thinking, for acting, for relationship and understanding. Most of us would say that reasonableness is important in life. There is something in our mind which rebels against the irrational, the unreasonable and the illogical.

Plato and his followers put forward the idea that the ‘soul’ (although this is not, I believe, a satisfactory translation) responds spontaneously to that which it knew at the source from which it emanated. All the attributes of the Divine (that constitute the authentic existence, as the Platonists called it) are those to which the soul is naturally drawn, and when there is a response of the mind or the heart to that which is reasonable and logical it is because the soul recognizes in it the order that properly belongs to the realm of truth.

What do we mean by being reasonable or rational? Surely that we accept consciously or unconsciously that life is orderly and that out of arbitrariness would arise, not a cosmos, but chaos. Even at the physical level, cause and effect are connected so intimately with each other that the one can be deduced from the other. Seeing the relationship between the two is part of the rational process.

There are also ‘invariable concomitants’ as they are called. There is the invariable concomitant of smoke and fire; that is, where there is smoke there is fire — not necessarily, however, where there is fire there is smoke. The inverse does not always follow nor must these analogies be carried too far. In the rational process, then, there is a perception of relationships and of invariable sequences. To say that two and two make four (because you have proved it to be so) is an awareness of an invariable fact.

It is also well known that parts put together do not necessarily make a whole and that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. If you put eyes and nose and hands and feet together, you make a doll but not a human being. So there may be a plus factor which negates the proposition, however logical it may be, that two and two make four. In saying that the sum of the parts does not always make the whole, we are stating a certain aspect of truth which is so universal that it may be taken to be axiomatic. Thus seeing what is the actual relationship, temporal relationship, the relationship of the part to the whole — and coming to an intellectual understanding of them is rationality, reasonableness. To abdicate from reason is to turn away from the truth and the order on which the cosmos itself is based. But the difficulty is that we are unable to see in this vast cosmos, all that exists and the many ways in which its different parts are related to each other; there are strict limits to reason.

Reasoning is mathematical; reason which is reduced to equations or figures becomes an abstraction which can never give us the feeling of what is. Things as they are, or life as it is, cannot be grasped in terms of a mental understanding of relationship and orderliness; life conveys something which is in the nature of beauty which has to be felt and experienced. It cannot be described in terms of mere logic, of cause and effect.

Although there is order in the universe, there is also the unpredictable which breaks out of the established order in order to create a new one. This can only be known through perception. Reason cannot completely override perception, nor can perception override reason. This is important to understand because, in our daily life, one or the other becomes so dominant that it vitiates understanding. We think that our perception is equal to knowledge, so we believe that what we see is what is true. But, as we said, a madman’s perceptions are knowledge for him. The instruments of perception are very limited and it is easy to imagine that the images in our mind reflect what actually exists. Since what we call sensory perception is really image-making in the mind and every sense reaction is converted in the consciousness into an image, what we actually know is the image. This experience may correspond to the fact, or it may be a reshuffling of what already exists in the mind, or it may be something totally non-existent like a horned hare.

How do we know that what we perceive either with the senses or in the mind is true? Is it true knowledge? Is it distortion or delusion? The materialist says that only what he himself perceives with the senses, exists; that is why he is a materialist. He uses his mind but he cannot perceive it, therefore, to him the mind is a kind of epiphenomenon of the brain or a corollary of the physical body. The body, of course, is real since he can see it. This is, in fact, a foolish position for we know how limited is our awareness of anything and how easily it can turn into delusion. A man may see all kinds of things—Rama, or Christ, or angels—or he may experience dreams. What he sees may be nothing else than an image projected by a strong desire. But if we dismiss all experience as delusion, we find ourselves in a totally negative position incapable of responding to anything outside the sphere of our present knowledge. So, as in the case of reason, we must realize at the same time both the use and the limitations of perception.

Then there are the words of the wise — âptâvachanam as it is called in Sanskrit. No sensible person will reject the words of others and try to find the truth entirely by himself. There may be some extraordinary individuals, of the stature of the Pratyeka Buddha, who by their own intelligence can find their way alone in the midst of darkness, but they are of necessity very few. We need the experience of others against which to test the validity of our own understanding, our perceptions and our experiences. But the words of others can also be deceptive. We may think someone is wise, while he is not. What many people regard as a guru or spiritual teacher most often corresponds to what they want. If they want sensational experiences, or security, if they want assurance of a happy afterlife they will readily find a guru to suit their desires. There is a great deal of illusion already in our experience and if we want to safeguard the mind against distortions we must listen carefully to the words of those who have gone further and are wise, but realize that here too there is a possible pitfall, for we may take a foolish man to be wise.

The fact is that none of the means to knowledge can safely be taken by itself. The listening to the words of the so-called wise, based, perhaps on a scripture such as the Koran, Bible or the Veda, can make a man into a blind believer, a fanatic who will not use his reason and who denies his own perceptions. He may meet somebody who is better than himself and who has many virtues, but because the former is a Jew and the other a Christian, or the one a Muslim and the other a Hindu, he is unable to recognize him to be a good man. A believer denies his own perceptions. Or a man may believe in his own imaginations and fancies and think that he has reached a high state of consciousness or that he is in contact with God. People can believe anything which is a denial of reason and contradictory to the experience of others.

There is danger in all these means of knowledge when any one of them is relied upon exclusively. A balanced approach to truth is therefore important. It is important also to realize that when there is a strong ego-sense, it overcomes reason, distorts perception and makes impossible a constructive response to the words of the wise. The self is often addicted to pleasure or craves power and through its desires it destroys the capacity to use the right means to knowledge.

Therefore, self-purification, self-scrutiny, and self-discipline must go hand in hand with the use of these means to knowledge. What is true knowledge; and what is not true knowledge? What is the right way to find true knowledge? These are extremely important questions for anyone who seeks to tread the Path and to realize the Truth.