How Do You Know What is True or False?


by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about Pramanas or the means used in the schools of Hinduism to validate knowledge or truth or know what is true or false

What is right, and what is wrong? How do we know that certain knowledge is correct, and certain other knowledge is false? We live in a world of numerous choices, alternatives, opposites and a range of possibilities and opportunities. Living in this world, how can we make right choices and avoid making mistakes, which can prove to be harmful or self-destructive? In matters of spirituality also, we have numerous paths and  alternatives. How can we choose the right one, which agrees with our essential nature?

Our minds and senses are subject to many limitations. We cannot see far into the future, not can we be certain that that the path which we choose will lead to the desired destination. Every day, we are faced with these dilemmas and uncertainties. How do we resolve these problems? How can we distinguish truth from falsehood and right from wrong? Most importantly, how do we know what is real and unreal or what is good for us and our future?

In ancient India, philosophers deliberated upon these issues. They wanted to know the reliable means by which they could arrive at truth or validate their findings. First, they speculated upon the various ways or possibilities by which one could arrive at truth or distinguish reality from unreality or right knowledge from wrong knowledge. Next, they weighed upon each to know which of them were better or more reliable. They called them Pramanas or the means to ascertain the validity of knowledge or truths.

A pramana is a method, principle or standard by which one can know truth or ascertain the validity of knowledge, belief or conclusion. The knowledge or the belief may be physical or metaphysical, and perceptual or transcendental. It may be derived from one’s own experience, from the scriptures or from others.  In Sanskrit, pramana means a measure, standard, principle, proof, evidence, or an authority or judge who decides what is righteous, true, acceptable or valid.

There are primarily two instruments of knowledge, the mind and the senses. The senses perceive the objective reality, and the mind makes sense of that reality according to its reasoning, intelligence and memory. Thus, there are two essential processes to the knowing, perception and cognition. The Self does not participate in them, but the ego does. Inference, analogy, reasoning, imagination and assumption are part of cognition only. Indian philosophers considered these aspects while formulating their approaches to validation and identifying the right means or Pramanas. The following are the important Pramanas found in the Indian philosophical schools. However, they are not universally accepted by all. The schools vary in determining which of them are reliable or acceptable.

Pratyaksha or Perception

This refers to ascertaining the truths or the validity of knowledge based upon direct and immediate perception. For the perception to be reliable and realistic, the senses must contact the sense objects. In other words, extrasensory perception, illusory perception and imaginary perception or visualization are not to be considered valid means of perception. Tradition considers two types of perception which can be relied upon, the indeterminate (nirvikalpa) and determinate (savikalpa). The former arises upon the first contact of the senses with the objects. At this stage neither the mind nor memory aid the perception, whereby one perceives the object as this or that, without any distinguishing features. The latter arises when memory and cognition come into play, and one becomes aware of both the object and its essential features. Direct perception is the most reliable of all the means to validate truths or knowledge. However, it has its own limitations. For example, there is the limitations of time and place. It is practically impossible to be present at every place and every moment or directly perceive everything in the universe to validate truths. Secondly, our perceptions are not pure. They are influenced by the play of the gunas, egoism, delusion and other impurities of the mind.

Anumana or Inference

This involves validation of truths based upon indirect knowledge, when there is a permanent or universal relationship between two things or factors, and both of them exist or subsist in a third. Thus, in this method knowledge is validated by means of inference or circumstantial evidence, drawn from the observation or involvement of three factors namely the major factor (gamya), the minor factor (gamaka) and the middle or the containing factor. One of the classical examples of inference is the conclusion that there may be fire when one sees smoke rising from a distant hill. Here fire is the major factor, smoke is the minor factor, and the hill is the intermediary factor. The fire and smoke have a universal and permanent connection, while they may exist on a hill or in any other place where both can be found. Anumana is helpful where direct perception is not possible. One can also see that inference invariably involves the perception of the three factors, followed by the activation of memory, which brings forth their interrelationship. Inference is not a totally reliable means to ascertain truths since things can have multiple permanent relationships with multiple other things. Hence, our inferences can be wrong. However, if we analyze our knowledge, we can see that much of it arises from inference only.

Upamana or Analogy

In this method, validation of truths is done by analogy or comparison, or by associating an unknown object with a known one because of the similarities between the two. It is remembering a known thing, when one sees an unknown thing because both are similar in some respects, and the mind perceives the commonality between them. For example, a person who sees an ox for the first time in his life may remember a cow if he has seen it before. This analogy between the cow and the ox is a classic example of Upamana. Thus, in Upamana we ascertain truths by remembering identical features. An unknown object or truth is recognized and validated by the apprehension of similarities between the two. This method is useful only when a known object and an unknown object are involved, and both have common and comparable features. Another important aspect of Upamana is that the comparison does not arise from perception, but from remembrance, because at the time of seeing the unknown object, the known object is not perceived but remembered. Hence, the knowledge that arises from this method is different from the one which arises from perception.

Shabda or Verbal Testimony

In this approach, truth is validated by expert knowledge, or by the testimony or the authority of an expert who is well-versed in it. The source of validation can be a person, a group of persons or text or scripture, which is accepted by a large number of people as trustworthy and reliable. The validity of the knowledge depends upon the trustworthiness, excellence and competence of the source. If two or more experts disagree on the subject, one may consult other expert sources and go by the majority opinion, or use one’s own intelligence or discretion (buddhi) to establish the truth. Mere perception (reading or hearing) of the words from the source is not sufficient. The meaning of the words which are used in the validation or proof is also equally important, if not more. Verbal testimony is especially useful with regard to metaphysical or transcendental truths, which cannot be easily established with the help of the mind and the senses. In Hinduism, the Vedas are considered eternal and divine in origin. Hence, their knowledge and statements are considered reliable measures of truth (pramana) and accepted as verbal testimony to validate metaphysical truths and spiritual knowledge.

Arthapatti or Implication

In this method, knowledge is validated by implication or assumption. An object is perceived and comprehended by the assumption of another thing. For example, when we see that a person who is alive is not at home, we clear the doubt in our minds by assuming that he might have gone somewhere. Thus, Arthapatti helps us resolve two inconsistent and not universally related facts, (a person who is alive and not at home) with an assumption (that me might have gone out). Arthapatti is dissimilar to inference. In inference, there is always a universal correlation and consistency between the perceived things or facts (fire and smoke in our previous example), which is absent in this case. Hence, in inference there is no doubt about the correlation between the related objects or things, whereas in Arthapatti doubt persists until the assumption is made because the correlation is inconsistent. Arthapatti is not as reliable as perception and inference to ascertain right knowledge or validate truths, since our minds are not perfect, and our assumptions about unrelated or inconsistent facts can be faulty, generalized, simplistic or subjective.

Anupalabhdi or Non-cognition

The Purva Mimansa School of Hinduism believes that non-cognition or non-apprehension (Anupalabhdi) can also be a valid source of knowledge. Dissimilarity of things and situations can often be realized by their non-apprehension. For example, if someone says, “There used to be a house in this empty space,” we realize or cognize the absence of house. Until then, our minds do not know that it is nonexistent. Thus, nonexistence of things can become known only when their existence is negated, or when they are unavailable. The knowledge of non-apprehension does not arise from perception, because perception is possible only with things that exist. In non-apprehension, we become aware of the absence, nonexistence or unavailability (Anupalabhdi) of things, when they are not present or when their existence is negated. Knowledge of the absence (abhava) of a thing is also a kind of knowledge only. Such knowledge does not arise from the mere emptiness of the space or the ground but from the absence of the thing only. Thus, nonexistence by itself is not the source of the knowledge, but the nonexistence of a thing is when the mind becomes aware of it.

Comparative analysis

The philosophical systems of India do not universally accept all the above mentioned six Pramanas. They have their own reservations about some. Hence, they chose them according to their beliefs and reasoning. The following table shows which of the Pramanas are accepted as reliable by each school.

Purva MimansaYYYYYY

Y= Yes; N= No

Notes: 1. The Vaisheshikas originally accepted only two Pramanas. Later, due to their association with the Nyaya School, they accepted Analogy and Sabda also as variations of Inference only.  2. Some Advaita Schools follow the tradition of Purva Mimansa and accept all the Pramanas


We have seen in how many ways the ancient philosophers of India tried to ascertain or validate truths. They tried to make sense of a rather chaotic world of dualities and contradictions. What can we learn from this? We may not be philosophers or scholars who are exclusively devoted to explore and ascertain the existential or metaphysical truths. However, we still need to live our lives peacefully and we still need to make important decisions to navigate through life and resolve the problems we face. We may not successfully be able to solve every problem or deal with every situation, but we need a method or approach to deal with problems that life throws at us.

Perhaps, we can learn a few important lessons from the examples that we learned from the Pramanas. When we face problems or want to know what is right or appropriate in a given situation, we may devise a system or approach according to our discretion to deal with them. The following is one such model. It is not universal, since one can follow one’s own method to look beyond the limitations of the mind and see things with greater clarity, wisdom and understanding.

  1. Rely upon your own perceptions and direct experience, rather than what you are conditioned to believe or think. It is what maturity is all about. To improve your perceptions, you may practice virtues such as equanimity, detachment and mindfulness.
  2. Since you cannot always depend upon your own perceptions, you may rely upon expert knowledge from authoritative sources to validate your knowledge or even your perceptions.
  3. Where information is insufficient, you may also rely upon assumptions, inferences and analogy. You may follow the examples of others or draw inspiration from their lives. However, you must know that these approaches are not reliable and have their own limitations. If things go wrong, accept them as learning opportunities.
  4. Whatever method you may choose, you cannot ignore the importance of discernment and objectivity. They improve when you practice detachment and keep your desires and egoism under control. Your perceptions, cognition, intelligence and other faculties of the mind improve if you are in the present and mindfully pay attention.

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