Vedānta: Epistemology & the Didactic Process

Rami Sivan, Priest, Dharma teacher, counselor, Gov. Advisor (1998-present)
April 25th, 2020


There are 3 ways of acquiring knowledge which are:—

1. Direct perception and experience through the five senses. (pratyakṣa)

2. Rational thought, reasoning, (anumāna)

3. Trustworthy testimony from an trustworthy witness. (āpta-vākya or śabda)

Think of crime investigators — when they arrive on the scene they take note of all the evidence at the scene, they photograph, measure and document everything.

They then return to the precinct and draw up a time-line, paste up pictures, and try to figure out a logical narrative of events and possible causes and culprits.

They then call in trustworthy witnesses and take their testimonies – comparing the various versions to the evidence and the logical time-line. The depositions of the witnesses do not stand alone but need to conform to the tangible evidence.

Now, in relation to our examination of the presented esoteric Truths of Vedānta, the above order has to be inverted.

  1. The metaphysical propositions of Vedānta are trans-personal and are based entirely upon Scripture (śruti = “that which is heard” i.e. the Upaṇiṣads) and hence are considered ‘trustworthy’ testimony. We study the texts in order to gain knowledge about metaphysical Truths that is unobtainable by the usual means – evidential or rational.
  2. Rational thought can help us in our study by ensuring that we remain within the bounds of reason and indeed all the propositions of Vedānta are vigorously defended by the use of logic and debate.
  3. By the assimilation and the application of the teachings, direct personal realization can be achieved. Once we have studied the teachings and subjected them to the test of logic we then need to apply them in practice. Direct experience is the ultimate test of the teachings of Vedānta.

It is very important to note that if a statement in Śāstra contradicts evidence and logic then it must be rejected.


Thus the didactic or the learning process consists of 3 phases:–

1. Śravana — attentive listening to the teachings (śabda).

Usually there is very little “objective” listening to anything! Our listening is conditioned by 3 factors which should be taken into account by the teacher when instructing the students — all doctrines, rules and regulations are conditioned by:—

· svabhāva — One’s personality and disposition.

· bhūmika — The level of intellectual, academic and spiritual attainment.

· adhikāra — The capacity of each individual for comprehension and insight and the ability to actually put the teachings into practice

These are the “filters of comprehension” through which all teaching passes and the conditioning factors which determine how we ourselves will engage with the teaching.

2. Manana — reflection upon what has been heard.

Reflection using reason and logic must be applied to all the teachings. Nothing should be accepted unexamined.

There are four criteria which are applied to test the validity of the teaching which can be applied to all schools of thought:—

· Satyam — is the teaching logical, rational, reasonable and does it stand up to challenge and debate. Can it be effectively defended from opposing views?

· Śivam — is the teaching universally beneficial? Does it benefit me personally — will I be improved through this teaching? Does it benefit the majority? Does it benefit all beings, sentient and insentient?

· Sundaram — is the teaching aesthetical, does it contribute to culture and to the Arts? Does it create more beauty in the world? Does it enhance people’s lives?

· Śānti — Does the teaching contribute to universal peace and tranquility? Is harmony produced between people and with nature and the other sentient beings?

3. Nididhyāsana — contemplation upon the teachings and their assimilation.

This stage of the process has two aspects: —

· śraddhā[1] — development of conviction that the practice and application of the teaching will lead to the results in mind. This conviction should be grounded on logic and supported by reason. If one is not yet convinced one returns to the afore mentioned processes and to the teacher for further interrogation and clarification.

· Prayojana — the application of the teaching through meditation and practice. The only way to realise the goal is abhyāsa or regular and consistent application and practice.

[1] śaṅkarācārya defines śraddhā as:— śāstrasya guru-vākyasya satya-buddhyavadhāraṇam | sā śraddhā kathitā sadbhir-yayā vastūpalabhyate || Śraddhā is a sound intellectual understanding of the words of the gurus and scriptures whereby tangible goals can be achieved.