Types of Knowledge or Jnana in Hinduism


by Jayaram V

This essay deals with the broad divisions of knowledge in Hinduism and their importance in Hindu ritual and spiritual practices.

Types of knowledge

Knowledge (jnana) and ignorance (ajnana) constitute the dualities of mortal life. Ignorance is a type of knowledge only. You may consider it wrong knowledge, false knowledge or deluded knowledge. Those who possess it may not know that they are ignorant. For them, ignorance is knowledge, and they refuse to think otherwise. Hence, we have so many problems in the world.

Knowledge may be derived from direct experience, inference, sleep, testimony of others or God. In each category, there may be further grades or levels. Knowledge is always colored by what we know and do not know and what we like or dislike. Hence, the knowledge of one person about anything may not necessarily be the same as that of another. It is therefore important for people to practice humility and openness in the pursuit of any knowledge. When knowledge is subjected to inquiry and analysis (vichara), be it worldly knowledge or spiritual knowledge, it leads to vijnana (verified knowledge).

Worldly knowledge is usually considered a hindrance in the pursuit of liberation. However, worldly knowledge is also knowledge, and has its own value and place in life. It is extremely useful to survive in the world and secure worldly pleasures, fame and success. However, it is not so useful on the spiritual path to transcend negative qualities such as greed, selfishness, envy, pride and anger. At the same time, you cannot ignore its importance in spiritual practice also. By observing the ways  of the world and human behavior one can cultivate discernment and insight into the nature of things, and distaste towards worldly pleasures. With that knowledge and awareness, one can practice detachment, discernment and renunciation.

Divisions of Jnana

Jnana or the sacred knowledge of Hinduism can be broadly classified into religious (dharmika jnanam) and worldly or material knowledge (vastu, vishaya jnanam) knowledge. Religious knowledge (Dharmika Jnanam) promotes Dharma, which leads to order and regularity and peace and happiness. Vishya Jnana produces suffering, the poison of life (visham or halahal), caused by desires and attachments and the mental churning (manthana), which bind the beings to the mortal world.

However, both types of knowledge may often overlap each other since in Hinduism all knowledge is connected to the central purpose of keeping our obligations to God and achieving liberation. Hinduism being a way of life, which encompasses every aspect of our lives, it is indeed difficult to clearly demarcate the boundaries between the two. Therefore, the Isa Upanishad rightly warns people who pursue only world knowledge or only spiritual knowledge and urges them to pursue both with discretion.

For our understanding, in material knowledge we may include the knowledge which is associated with material things, vocational duties, caste rules, social norms, health and healing, family responsibilities, marriage laws and customs, and secular subjects such as the construction of temples, buildings and ritual places, carving of statutes and stone reliefs, composition of music and musical notes, art and dance, methods of chanting, preparation of ritual materials, training of priests, governance of a country, province or city, education and upbringing of children, etc. We may also include in it the knowledge of the lawbooks which deal with code of conduct and social and moral behavior.

Religious knowledge contains the knowledge of Dharma or the knowledge of your moral, religious and spiritual obligations. Some of them may also extend into our worldly lives. The practice of Dharma consists of both ritual and spiritual practices which lead to liberation. Hence, religious knowledge contains both and serves as the foundation to acquire transcendental knowledge through self-transformation. You may include in it both theoretical and practical knowledge which is contained in the religious texts of various sects, subsects, teacher traditions, schools and philosophies of Hinduism.

Sruti and Smriti

Traditionally, the religious knowledge of Hinduism is divided into two broad categories namely Sruti and Smriti. Sruti constitutes the knowledge which has been heard from heaven or from an extra-terrestrial source. It refers to the knowledge which is not man-made (apaurusheya), suggesting its divine or unearthly origin. In Hinduism, the Vedas are considered sruti because their source is believed to be God himself. You will also find many texts in Hinduism, which attribute their source to a divine being such as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Indra, Ganesha, Devi and so on. By definition, they too should be considered Sruti only. Some teacher traditions also claim divine origin of the knowledge taught by their gurus.

Sruti served an important role in ancient India. It was used by scholars, commentators, kings and proponents of religious laws to validate moral conduct and religious and spiritual knowledge. This is no more being done in today’s world on the same scale and with the same strictness, due to substantial growth in our knowledge of the world and various subjects, and diversity in our beliefs and practices.

Smriti is the learned or remembered knowledge. Traditionally, the entire body of Hindu religious literature, except the Vedas, constitutes Smriti. Sruti is eternal and indestructible knowledge. Smriti is transient and subject to changes according to time and place. Hence, it is useful but not very reliable to ascertain truth.

Today, there is an explosive growth in our knowledge of Smriti. Most likely, it will continue to be so in future. Since, the knowledge of smriti is mostly a product of its time and subject to decay and modification, with the passage of time, much of the knowledge of Smriti becomes outdated as the world progresses. Further, since it includes the works of many individuals and organizations, including those of secular people and scholars who do not practice Hinduism, we should use discretion in accepting them or following them.

Karmakanda and Jnanakanda

According to the Vedic tradition, the knowledge of Hinduism is also divided into two broad categories namely Karmakanda and Jnanakanda. This division corresponds with the two broad divisions of the Vedas, which go by the same name. The first two parts of the Vedas, the Samhitas and the Brahmanas constitute Karmakanda and the last two parts, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads are considered Jnanakanda.

Karmakanda deals with various types of sacrificial rituals (nitya karmas, yajnas, etc.), which form part of the obligatory duties of Hindu householders. It contains the knowledge of the construction and purification of ritual places, preparation of ritual materials, duties of the host, priest and others, the nature of offerings to be made, the method of conducting the ritual, the hymns to be chanted, the gods or the order of gods to be invoked, the gifts to be given, the methods of expiation for lapses, and so on. Initially, in Vedic religion karma meant ritual or sacred actions only. Subsequently, its meaning was broadened to include all desire-ridden actions. Karmakanda is considered inferior knowledge (avidya) since they are performed with desires. They may secure peace and happiness, here and hereafter, but do not free the people from the cycle of births and deaths.

Jnanakanda, constitutes the spiritual knowledge. As stated before, it is the knowledge which is contained in the Aranyakas and the Upanishads, and which is helpful to know the individual Self (Atman) and Supreme Self (Brahman) and achieve liberation. Hence, it considered is superior knowledge or true knowledge (vidya). The Upanishads contain profound wisdom and play an important role in Hindu spiritual practices and renunciant traditions. Symbolically, the knowledge of the Upanishads is derived from the ritual knowledge only. They principally deal with internal rituals for self-purification or transformation which lead to liberation. They constitute the various yogas such as Karma yoga, Jnanayoga, Buddhiyoga, Atma Samyama Yoga, etc., which lead to union with the Self.

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