The Essentials of Right Knowledge, Vijnana

Vijnana, intelligence

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about the importance of Vijnana, right knowledge or higher knowledge, in spiritual life for self-transformation and liberation.


Knowledge plays an important role in spiritual transformation. Human knowledge is essentially a collection of perceived, learned and processed information, mixed with feelings, emotions and subjectivity. Human memory is accumulated knowledge only, distorted by time and mental modifications.

Knowledge by itself is not much useful, unless it is subjected to intelligent analysis and discernment. Without them, knowledge remain mere perceptual information or lower knowledge (avidya), but when it is subjected to them it becomes wisdom or higher knowledge (vidya). The knowledge which is subject to intelligent analysis and discernment is also known as Vijnana, or knowledge (jnana), which is treated with vichara (thinking). In Vedic religion, knowledge of the rituals and obligatory duties is lower knowledge, whereas knowledge of the Self and liberation is higher knowledge.

Both types of knowledge are important to human life. However, on the spiritual path higher knowledge is more important. It is by acquiring such knowledge (Vijnana) that human beings can overcome their ignorance and delusion about themselves and escape from the mortal world. In the spiritual context, right knowledge means the knowledge by which a person, especially a householder, can achieve the four aims of human life, without delaying his liberation. This knowledge helps humans in various ways to overcome their imperfections, ignorance and delusion and stabilize their minds. It can be broadly classified into the following categories. You may even consider them the seven limbs of Vijnana Yoga.

1. Knowledge of the Self

Self-knowledge is important. You need to know who you are. Are you a physical being, or is there something else to your identity which you cannot perceive with your senses but exists beyond them? Your thinking and actions and your life goals depend upon who you think you are. If you think you are a physical being, you will focus upon enjoying your life and do not concern yourself with what may or may not happen after death. You may also experience anxiety and confusion as you do not find any lasting purpose to life other than seeking personal enjoyment and securing your life from external threats. You may also experience emptiness and existential angst.

Therefore, it is important to have the right knowledge about you and your purpose in life. The scriptures affirm that you are an eternal, indestructible Self. You have many identities which arise from your association with the things of the world such as your family, caste, color, region, nationality, language, gender, group, education, profession, and so on. They are temporary and perishable identities, but your spiritual identity as the eternal and indestructible Self is everlasting. However, for various reasons people do not readily accept this identity, since the Self which is beyond the mind and the senses cannot be perceived. Having the right knowledge is helpful to cultivate faith in that identity and become stabilized in it. If you persist in your practice, you will eventually renounce all other identities and accept it as your true identity.

2. Knowledge of God

God is a multidimensional reality. You cannot easily comprehend him, since he remains hidden beyond your mind and senses. What you perceive is but his projection or creation. Even gods do not seem to know him clearly. For humans, the scriptures are the primary means to know God. The knowledge of God is important to establish a correct relationship with him and approach him with right attitude. God is infinite and all-pervading. He is both visible and invisible, with form and without form, one and many and known and unknown. He has numerous aspects. People also worship him in many ways. The paths to him are also numerous. People also seek refuge in him for different reasons.

Therefore, although he is everywhere and in everything you cannot easily grasp him. Because he is indeterminate, it difficult for humans to make right decisions about him, or their faith and methods of worship. With right knowledge, you can decide which path is suitable to worship him or which aspect of him you should worship. For example, in the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna declares that those who worship gods, demigods and others go to them, while those who worship him go to him only. He also declares that the supreme Brahman reciprocates the love of his devotees and those who take refuge in him are never abandoned. When you acquire right knowledge through the study of the scriptures and by learning from wise people, you will be free from doubts and confusion and you will have strong faith in God.

3. Knowledge of the mind and body

The mind and body constitute the physical self. It is also known as the field (kshetra), which is an aspect of Nature, in contrast to the Self, who is the owner of the field (kshetrajna). All living beings are made up of the finite realities (tattvas) of Nature. The Bhagavadgita compares the body to a clothing or a casing, which the soul wears in each birth and discards at the time of death to depart from the world. The Upanishads suggest that the body contains five bodies or sheaths namely the food body, the breath body, the mental body, the intelligence body and the bliss body. They perform different functions and play an important role in the life of a being. Knowledge of the five bodies is important in spiritual practice.

As the field of Nature, the body is subject to modifications such as aging, sickness and death. They are responsible for our suffering and afflictions. The body is also the seat of desires, attachments and afflictions. On the positive side, the body is a small universe in itself. It is the home to the Self and the divinities who reside in it as organs, breath, speech, mind and intelligence. Both the body and the mind are subject to several impurities and the influence of the Gunas (modes). Because of their actions, the soul becomes a prisoner within the body and goes through numerous births and deaths. It is necessary for our liberation to have the right knowledge of the mind and body and their role in our bondage and suffering.

4. Knowledge of the world and Samsara

The Vedas declare that our world is an aspect of Brahman, ruled by Death (Kala). The world is also not real because it is a projection of Brahman. Due to ignorance, beings perceive it as real and become involved with it through desire-ridden actions and attachments. In the process, they become bound to the cycle of births and deaths, which is commonly known as Samsara. Although we have some knowledge of the world and its ways, we do not clearly know why it exists or what purpose it serves in the universal order of things. The mind is also part of the world, because it is largely influenced by it. A person’s happiness and Wellbeing also depend upon how he perceives the world, and how strongly he becomes attached to it and influenced by it.

Therefore, proper knowledge of Samsara and the world in which we live is important to know the nature of our existence, how beings become bound to the world because of karma which arises due to desire-ridden actions and how one can escape from it. The scriptures suggest that people should not act according to the surface reality or the perceptual reality of the world, since it is an illusion and colored by their minds and the gunas. They must also think about the hidden reality, which is imperceptible to the senses, but real and everlasting. It is God himself. By cultivating discernment, they can cultivate right attitude towards the world and engage in worldly actions without suffering from the consequences so that they can escape from the Samsara.

5. Knowledge of liberation

Liberation (Moksha) is the highest aim (Purusharthas) of human life. All other aims should be made subservient to it. You may aim for wealth and happiness (artha and kama), but in pursuing such worldly goals you must make sure that you are hurting your chances of liberation or causing your own downfall. The Vedas and other scriptures suggest that to avoid the pitfalls of materialistic life, you must pursue Dharma as one of your aims, and make it the foundation of your life and actions. By bringing Dharma into your life, you can engage in worldly pursuits as a householder and ensure the order and regularity of the world.

The knowledge liberation is important because of two reasons. It helps you know the possibilities that are available to you in your afterlife. Secondly, it helps you choose the right path to achieve it. It is important to have the right knowledge of liberation because liberation can mean different things to different people. For some people, death is liberation and for some, having lot of wealth and power. Some people confuse it with political or personal freedom. Physical liberation is an insignificant aspect of spiritual liberation. You are a prisoner of your own body. You are also a prisoner of this world. Escape from both is physically impossible until death. True liberation is liberation from births and deaths, which is achieved by becoming free from desires, attachments, ignorance and delusion. It is achieved by pursuing the right path, with the help of right knowledge, right actions, discernment, and the guidance of an enlightened person (jnani) or God himself.

6. Knowledge of righteous actions

Actions define our lives. All beings, whether they are intelligent or otherwise, perform actions. They engage in actions because of desires and attachments, which are in turn caused by the activity of the senses among the sense objects and their attraction and aversion to them. Our happiness here and hereafter depends upon the type of actions we perform. The Bhagavadgita declares that no one can remain inactive even for a moment, which is true. All actions, even those of others, which we perform or allow others to perform with our passivity or complicity, have consequences which may affect our lives. Desire-ridden actions lead to karma and bondage to the cycle of births and deaths. You can neither avoid nor renounce actions which are part of your mortal duty and personal obligation. By doing so, you will incur even more sin.

Therefore, the Bhagavadgita suggests that people should use discernment in performing their actions. They should know the difference between action in inaction and inaction in action and perform their obligatory duties with detachment. Escaping from actions is not a solution to the problem of karma, because it will still produce karma. One should learn how to remain inactive even when engaged in actions. For that, one should not only engage in righteous actions but also perform them without desires and expectations, offering their fruit to God, who is the source of all actions and the real doer. This is the right knowledge to engage in worldly actions and obligatory duties, which are part of your dharma or mortal duty, without suffering from their consequences.

7. Knowledge of self-transformation

Self-transformation is an important part of liberation. Its purpose is to subject the mind and body to purification through austere effort until they become pure and radiate the light and wisdom the Self without distortions. The idea is to remove all traces of distinction, duality and separation between the physical and the spiritual selves, so that they act as an integrated whole. Beings are born with certain impurities. The body along with the mind is considered an impurity because it is the field of Nature and subject to gunas and their influence. They are responsible for the modifications. The purpose of spiritual practice is to suppress the modifications and their causes through self-transformation.

You cannot transform your mind and body, without right knowledge, which you acquire only when you have pure intelligence. You must know the basic impurities of the mind and body, how they affect your thinking and actions and prevent you from being yourself. You must know how to get rid of them, using various techniques. There are many yogas and paths to practise self-purification. Some of them are difficult, while some are easier. You must know which yoga is better suited to your purpose. For example, the classical Yoga of Patanjali suggests eight approaches to cleanse them, whereas the Bhagavadgita suggests the various yogas to achieve the same result. Hatha Yoga and Tantra use different methods, some of which are extreme. With discernment, you can choose the right methods which suit your temperament and personality to progress on the path of liberation, or find a spiritual teacher who can help you with that information and guide you properly.

Conclusion

Knowledge by itself is not sufficient. You need stable intelligence (stitha prajna), which is sharp and without impurities, to discern truth and choose right knowledge, which can help you in your daily life as well as spiritual life. The mortal life is not perfect. By design, we are born with many imperfections and impurities such as egoism, delusion, desires and attachments. They are meant to bind us to this world and prevent our escape, but with right knowledge they can be overcome.

The redeeming feature of the human life is that it is a great blessing, which is attained after innumerable births. Only humans are fully qualified to attain liberation through self-effort. Even gods do not have that opportunity. However, to achieve that austere end, one requires wisdom or higher knowledge of the Self. Therefore, we must strive to acquire right acknowledge (Vijnana) by cultivating discernment (buddhi) to fulfill the highest purpose of human life.

The ego is a major obstacle on the path of liberation. Since it is one of the finite realities (tattvas) of Nature and bound to its aims, it prevents people from knowing the truths of their existence and achieving liberation. When it is subject to ignorance and delusion, it acts as the enemy of the Self, but when it is purified with right knowledge and discernment it becomes an instrument of God and facilitates liberation.

Suggestions for Further Reading

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