Jnana, Knowledge in Hinduism

Wisdom of the Upanishads

by Jayaram V

Those who have read the scriptures of Hinduism, such as the Bhagavadgita should be familiar with the word jnana. They must have heard or Those who have read the scriptures of Hinduism, such as the Bhagavadgita read in them words such as jnana yoga, jnana yogi, jnana marga, jnana murthi, jnana indriya, jnana dipika, jnana jyoti, jnana caksu, jnana kanda, jnana nishta, jnana tapasa, jnana sadhana and so on.

For most of us the meaning of jnana is crystal clear. Jnana means knowledge. A jnani is one who has jnana. It is that simple. In this article, we will examine how far this meaning is true and whether we have a correct understanding of the word jnana and the process of knowing, according to Hinduism in general and Vedanta in particular. Let us explore this subject with an open mind.

The Upanishads are considered books of knowledge. They open your mind to the higher knowledge of your hidden Self and an invisible God of universal proportions. However, they are also books of cryptic wisdom, which are difficult to understand because they contain an ancient terminology that is now extinct or got mixed up with a lot of other traditions to such an extent that it lost its distinctness. Besides, they also contain a lot of symbolism and ancient imagery which is interpreted differently by different people due to lack of proper means.

Learning in the Vedic society

To those who do not know, the Upanishads form the end part of the Vedas. Traditionally, in the education system of the Vedic society, students were taught this specialized knowledge at the end of a very prolonged study of the Vedas spanning over two or three decades. The implications of this system should be obvious to those who are familiar with the history of Hinduism. Since knowledge was passed orally from teacher to students, the system was meant to make students self-reliant and thoroughly grounded, with zero tolerance for errors in memory and recall. To acquire the knowledge of the Upanishads, one had to be grounded in the ritual knowledge from which it was originally derived. Each student had to become proficient in the knowledge of the books of hymns (Samhitas), the books of rituals (Brahmanas), the books of advanced rituals (Aranyakas), the books of aphorisms (the sutra literature) and the six limbs of the Vedas (Vedangas), which were the ancillary subjects associated with the Vedas. Each of these was a comprehensive scripture containing hundred or thousands of verses which had to remembered by heart. To top it all, to accomplish this goal of self-mastery, the students had to practice celibacy, live in harsh conditions and survive entirely on alms, by begging for food during specific times of the day from the nearby villages, even if they hailed from rich families and even if there was famine or pestilence.

Is free knowledge cheap knowledge?

Nowadays anyone can read the Upanishads, without such an austere and disciplined effort. You do not have to practice brahmacharya or austerities (tapah) or serve your teachers for twenty or thirty years under harshest conditions. In minutes, you can download any or all the Upanishads that are available on the internet (there are many) and browse through them in your leisure time while eating a snack or relaxing in a couch or texting your friends. You do not have to maintain mental purity. You do not have to even take a bath or offer a prayer. You do not have to read them seriously. You do not have to show any respect for the lineage of teachers who passed down that knowledge to us or to the person who posted that information on the internet and made it freely available to you. You do not have to even believe in the Upanishads you read. You do not have to even understand them really. You can take what you can and consider yourself as having some familiarity with the scriptures.

This is an unfortunate development, which dilutes the process and purpose of learning scriptures and making use of them for our inner spiritual growth. When one can access an Upanishad and some frivolous information in the same window, it is very likely that one usually goes by the path of least resistance and opts for the latter that does not require much thinking or effort to know, rather than a serious scripture like an Upanishad, which demands some serious effort on our part to understand it. And even if they are read, it is doubtful how many people give them adequate time and attention to understand them.

However, there is a positive side to these developments. Now, we have an opportunity and immense freedom to study whatever we want to learn. You have access to a lot of free information. You are not excluded from the learning process because you come from a different caste or you have not mastered certain scriptures. You do not have to travel through a dangerous forest and beg a teacher to teach you the knowledge under the vow that you will practice celibacy and austerities. You are free to pursue your soul's aspirations and your heart's deepest longing according to your convenience. Most importantly, you do not have to know everything and memorize everything. Even if you know a little knowledge, that is better than not knowing anything. You are better than those who ignore their spiritual wellbeing and spend their lives in pursuit of worldly knowledge.

Implications of free knowledge

Such freedom comes to us with a price. When knowledge is freely available, we do not take it seriously. We do not show it the same respect. As a result, we do not learn our scriptures seriously. Our knowledge and understanding of them become shallow as we do not feel the urgency of learning them. There are many people today, who think that they can turn to spirituality in the last part of their lives and work for their liberation. How ridiculous! If you are one of them, think about it seriously.

If you believe that school education should begin in early childhood so that one is ready to face life as an adult and take up a career or a profession, how does it make sense to pursue spiritual education in the old age, when a person has done living the most important part of his life? Where is the opportunity for him or her to make use of spiritual knowledge and apply it to real life situations? Do you think a person can get away indulging in sinful actions and accumulating bad karma during the major part of his life and then reverse all that in just a few years in the last phase of his life? Does that even sound logical or possible?

Dharma is the foundation you have to build it in your character and consciousness in the early part of your life. This is where the study of the scriptures becomes important. At some stage in the adult life, artha and kama become important. But eventually you have to focus upon Moksha (liberation), which is the ultimate goal and to which all the other three goals are supposed to lead you. What this means is that even if you want to turn to spirituality later in your life, you must develop the spiritual bent of mind from an early age and prepare yourself for it by studying the scriptures and understanding their true significance.

Difficulties in translating Sanskrit words

Our understanding of the Upanishads is also complicated by the translations. Since all words cannot be equally and effectively translated into English and other languages, translators have great difficulty in conveying the true purport of the scriptures. One method I regularly use to translate Sanskrit words that are difficult to translate into English is to use the original Sanskrit word in the translation and then explain it. While this is the best I can do under the circumstances, I sometimes wonder whether the explanation I provide is adequate enough to convey the original concept truthfully.

Overtime, scholars have translated certain Sanskrit words in certain ways that we no more wonder whether such meanings are true to the original. There are many simple words, whose meaning now we take for granted because we saw different scholars using them repeatedly to translate certain words. For example, nowadays most of us do not think much about words like dharma, yoga, citta, buddhi, deva, annam, Prakriti, prana, bhakta and atman. However, although they seem simple, these words have different meanings in different contexts and they are really difficult to understand even after years of study. Each of these words requires effort on our part to understand them, because they are not just words but concepts having deep philosophical significance.

What is Jnana?

For this discussion, I would like to pick just one word, jnana, and explore its meaning. In simple terms jnana means knowledge. Does that adequately conveys its true meaning? Let us examine. If jnana means knowledge and a jnani is one who possess such knowledge, can we say that your computer in which you store the knowledge of the Vedas and Upanishads is a jnani? Can we further say that since it has knowledge of the Vedas it is qualified for liberation or to act as your esteemed guru? While this may sound ridiculous, the analogy brings home the truth that jnana is something more than having accumulated knowledge in your brain.

Our seers understood this problem clearly. They realized that knowledge was more than a function of memory. Hence they focused on the parts that were primarily responsible for our knowledge and awareness, namely the senses, the mind and the intelligence. They observed that senses gathered the knowledge of the material world by going forth and moving among the sense objects. That knowledge was stored in a receptacle called manas or the lower mind, which was used for decision making and problem solving by a higher faculty called intelligence or buddhi or the higher mind. They grouped the organs that participated in this process collectively under the term the internal organ (antahkarana). They also felt that their activity resulted in the formation of a field of awareness in the whole body, which they called citta or mind-stuff which gave the humans the ability to make sense of things and experience them in a state of duality as feelings, perceptions, emotions, pleasure and pain etc., which they identified as vrittis or modifications.

Thus, according to the Vedic seers, jnana was not a mere function of memory or the sum total of the bits and pieces of information one stored in the mind, but a more comprehensive system of gathering knowledge, organizing it and making use of it intelligently through discrimination and discernment under the force of desires or intention. The highest purpose of that process was to transcend the very process of knowing and seeing oneself without the interference of knowing. Thus, knowledge in which there was no knowing and duality and no involvement of the senses, the mind and ordinary intelligence, they considered the highest knowledge. That knowledge they declared in the Upanishads as the true knowledge (jnana), not the knowledge one accumulated merely through the activity of the senses and stored in the mind as memories, for which they gave the specific term vijnana, which means experiential or learned knowledge.

Types of knowledge

Thus, basically they identified two types of knowledge.

1. Vijnana, meaning knowledge acquired through the senses, the mind and its faculties in a state of duality in which the knower, the known and the process of knowing are involved. In this the seer is asleep, but the mind or the internal organ is awake.

2. Jnana, meaning knowledge acquired in a deep state of self-absorption, when the senses, the mind and all other faculties are asleep, without the duality of the knower, the known and the process of knowing. In this the seer is awake, but the mind or the internal organ is asleep.

The texts distinguish these two types of knowledge clearly. Jnana is spiritual knowledge or the knowledge of Self or Brahman whereas Vijnana is the worldly knowledge gained from observation and experience. Vijnana is also translated in some contexts as the discerning power or the ability to distinguish the dualities or pairs of opposites. The teachings of the Buddha are often referred to as Vijnanavada or empirical knowledge, since the Buddha did not believe in the existence of Self. Philosophically speaking, Jnana is also interpreted negatively as the absence of ignorance or delusion.

Different meanings of Jnana

In esoteric traditions of Hinduism, the word jnana has many meanings, some of which are listed below.

1. Knowing, perceiving, understanding or making sense

2. Knowledge, learning

3. Consciousness, or awareness

4. Sacred knowledge derived from the Vedas or Self-knowledge

5. Intelligence or wisdom

Lower knowledge and higher knowledge

The Upanishads also classify jnana into lower (apara) and higher (para). The lower knowledge is the knowledge of material objects, sacrificial rituals and obligatory duties and the higher knowledge is the knowledge of Self and Brahman. Upanishads such as Isavyasa and Mundaka Upanishads, suggest that both types of knowledge are essential for one's liberation. However they also state clearly that those who pursue the lower knowledge would enjoy heavenly pleasures and keep reincarnating upon earth until their karmas are exhausted, while those who pursue Brahman through spiritual knowledge (para) will attain the immortal world and would never be born again. In short, lower knowledge leads to the world of ancestors located in the moon to which one travels by the path of ancestors (pitryana) where as higher knowledge leads to the world of immortals located in the Sun to which one travels by the path of gods (devayana).

Knowing without knowing

In conclusion, we can say that there are many layers to the meaning of jnana.

In simple terms jnana means knowledge.

In a higher sense jnana means intelligence.

In a general sense it means consciousness.

In a transcendental sense it means having instant awareness without the aid of any physical or mental faculties.

In an absolute sense, it means to be in a dynamic state of all inclusive awareness which arises from the absence of duality and notion of ego or the feeling of separation. In other words, in that knowing, you do not grasp the object with your senses or process it in your mind with your individuality. In that you lose all notions of your name and form and become the object itself, by entering into the essence of the object, which is the same as your own essence, and become one with it. This is what we call yoga, the union. The Upanishads describe this state as "Seeing yourself in all and all in your Self." This is the state of Brahman. This is the goal of the seers. This is supposed to be the ultimate goals of existence, to see oneself in oneself, to see oneself in all, to become the Self of the Self, to be "I am Iam." This is true knowledge in which both knowing and knower are lost in the ocean of pure consciousness.

Eternal knowledge and Intellectual Knowledge

Based upon such an understanding only, our seers divided the scriptures into sruti and smriti. Sruti means that which is heard. It means they are not man made (apaurseya). Included in this category are the Vedas, which are considered eternal, which exist whether you know them or not, and which the seers, the mind born children of Brahma, received from him in deep states of concentration, meditation and self-absorption. Smriti means that which is remembered or derived from memory. Included in this category are the law books and rest of the scriptures created by human beings out of their knowledge and intellect. Thus in summary, based upon our discussion and understanding so far, we can draw the following conclusions about knowledge.

1. When knowledge is a function of memory it is lower knowledge.

2. When knowledge results in misunderstanding, confusion and delusion, it is ignorance.

2. When knowledge becomes a function of intelligence, it leads to peace and liberation.

3. When knowledge arises without the process of knowing and without the intervention of the senses, the mind and intelligence, it becomes divine, eternal and transcendental. It is called true knowledge because it does not perish or undergo modifications with time or other phenomena. In that you do not attain knowledge. You become the knowledge and the source of knowledge.

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