Indian philosophy identifies five means through which we can gain knowledge of an object. These are known as ‘pramanas’, where ‘pra’ means ‘correctly’ and ‘mana’ means ‘measuring’. Hence a pramana is a specific means of knowledge which gives us a conclusive and definite perception of an object. For example, our eye is the pramana for a pot lying in front of us.
The five different pramanas are:
1). Direct physical sense perception (Pratyaksha)
2). Inference (Anumana)
3). Similarity (Upamana)
4). Presumption (Arthapatti)
5). Word of God (Sabda or Veda)
Pratyaksha Pramana: Sense Perception as a Means
Even though there are infinite objects in the world, they all fall into one of the following categories: sound, touch, form, taste and smell. These five sense objects are perceived through the five sense organs: ears, skin, eyes, tongue and nose. These sense organs come in contact with the respective sense object and the contact results in the definite knowledge of the object. The Nyaya Sutras put it thus: ‘The sense organ which gives us the knowledge of an object when it comes in contact with it is known as pratyaksha pramana’ (Nyaya Sutras of Gautama 1.1.4). For example, in seeing a pot, our eyes are the pratyaksha pramana.
Anumana Pramana: Inference as a Means
Other than direct sense perception, there are other means of knowledge also. Many a times, we draw upon partially perceived data and arrive at a conclusive knowledge of something which does not immediately fall under the scope of direct perception. For example, because we have seen fire and smoke many times together, when we see smoke on a far off mountain top, we infer that that place is on fire. In colloquial expression this is referred to as guessing. We often put this pramana to use in our mundane life.
There are three types of anumana pramanas (Nyaya Sutras 1.1.5):
1). When the cause (fire) is inferred from the observation of the effect (smoke).
2). When the effect (rain) is inferred from the presence of the cause (clouds)
3). Even when there is no cause-effect relationship, we can get knowledge of an object under enquiry. For example, in the Ramayana, when looking for Sita, Rama found a small bundle containing her gold jewels. Though this bundle had nothing to do with the track through which Sita was carried away, it made it possible to infer the route of kidnap.
Thus we see that the anumana pramana is preceded first by direct perception of an object (smoke, cloud, Sita’s jewels), which allows us to infer valid knowledge about another object.
However, what is gathered by anumana is to be finally verified through pratyaksha only. For example, smoke seen on a far off mountain top may only be fog, which can be verified only when we go there and see it with our own eyes. Hence, an inference stands to correction through direct perception. This shows that the latter holds sway over the former. However, the pratyaksha pramana does not have any such limitation. Hence in this context it is known as ‘nirankusa pramanam’ – a means of knowledge which is free from any conditioning of other means.
Upamana Pramana: Similarity as a Means of Knowledge
A city dweller wants to know about a wild animal named ‘gavaya’. The forest dweller tells him that gavaya is just like a cow. Here gavaya is the object whose knowledge is desired. The upamana is the cow, the familiar object whose knowledge is already established. Not all features of the two animals are identical since the gavaya does not have the folds of skin which hang from a cow’s throat; however, only similarities are to be taken into account for the purpose of identifying the object of enquiry through an already known object.
Arthapatti Pramana: Presumption as a Means of Knowledge
It is not possible to survive without taking any food. But there is a man named Devadatta whom nobody has seen taking food and yet he is strong and sturdy. How to reconcile these two facts? It is done through presumption. We presume that even though nobody has seen Devadatta take food, he must be eating without being noticed by anybody. Otherwise, it is not at all possible to remain healthy and active as he appears to all. Arthapatti is in fact a method of assumption of an unknown fact in order to account for a known fact that is otherwise inexplicable.
Word of God as a Means of Knowledge (The Vedas)
All words in vogue are meant for communication of merely mundane and material experiences. Whereas the Vedas, which constitute the Word of God, contain subject matter which does not fall under the category of mundane, material experience of mortal human beings. The Vedas are not the product of human intellect and hence are free from the three defects which invariable plague any human creation:
a). False Belief (भ्रम)
b). Carelessness (प्रमाद)
c). Deceit (विप्रलिप्सा)
For these reasons, the human intellect can cause false notions. The Vedas are called alauakika shabda, or divine word i.e. which does not have its origin in this finite world of time and space. The Vedas communicate that which is beyond nature and also dwell upon matters like dharma and adharma, which otherwise are not cognizable by any human means of knowledge except the Vedas. The Vedas alone determine the meaning of matters like dharma, heaven, rebirth etc.
What is special about the Vedas? Why do the Vedas have such extraordinary potential and efficacy? The answer is not to be sought outside the Vedas! Even as life-breath is within the living body, the answer is within the Vedas themselves. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad proclaims that the Vedas came into existence along with the world created by God as naturally as exhalation from a human being (2.4.10). The Vedas disappear into God during pralaya and reappear again during the manifestation of the world. Hence, the Vedas are called Apaureshya, i.e., that which is not of human origin. The Vedas are not like a book written by some author. The Vedas are not read, they are heard and perpetuated through oral tradition. This is why they are called sruti (the word that is heard). It is an independent pramana by itself; its validity need not be verified by inference.
Conclusion: The reason for this whole exercise, which forms an integral part of Vedanta, is to show that eventually, Vedas, being the word of God, are the highest pramana, superior even to pratyaksha. We are fortunate to be governed by the Vedas, and the ultimate sadhana is to view the world from the Vedic perspective, i.e.what is right or wrong is to be decided by the Vedas and not by our limited intelligence. Swarga and naraka exist only because the Vedas say so. What else proof have we got for their existence? They can neither be seen, nor inferred nor presumed. Not only this, Vedas are our only source of knowledge to decide the existence and also the nature of God.
This article by Nitin Kumar.
References & Further Reading:
- Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Vedanta Prabodha – The Most Exhaustive Book Ever Written on Shankaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta: Bangalore, 2014.