Vedānta: Theory of knowing

Epistemology – theory of knowing.

RamiSivanAuthor: Rami Sivan, Priest, Dharma teacher, counselor, Gov. Advisor (1998-present)

Before studying philosophy we need to know what we actually know and how we know it.
There are 3 ways of acquiring knowledge which is:—

1. Direct perception and experience through the five senses. (pratyakṣa)
2. Rational thought, reasoning, (anumāna)
3. Trustworthy testimony from a 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 metaphysical 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 of perception and reason.
  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.


Hindu philosophy has an interesting concept of “knowledge” – it is either valid or invalid.

“Valid knowledge” is called pramā and is defined as:–

yathāvasthita vyavahārāṇuguṇa jñānam pramā

Valid (Right) knowledge is that which reveals a thing as it actually is and is applicable to daily life.

Knowledge is said to be true when there is –

  1. Coherence
  2. Correspondence
  3. Consequence or Utility

Coherence — The statement must be logical and consistent.

Correspondence — The knowledge must correspond to the actual nature of the object as it is. (tadvati-tat-prakāraka)

Consequence — Utility — our practical activities in relation to the statement are successful. (pravṛtti-samārthya). In other words we can do something with it — it has a practical application and utility. THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!

Valid knowledge (pramā) corresponds to the thing as it really is, and leads to successful utilisation thereof.

False knowledge does not correspond to reality and any activity directed thereby results in failure and disappointment.

N.B. ‘Right’ or ‘valid’ knowledge in the Indian context is somewhat individualized — for example; knowledge of quantum particles is useful for a scientist engaged in that type of research but not useful for the common person, as nothing can be done with this knowledge — it may certainly be true but it is not valid in terms of practical outcomes of daily life.

It may be possible to count the number of grains of sand on a beach and this may have some scientific application, but the knowledge, albeit true is unusable for all practical purposes and therefore said to be “invalid” or more properly “irrelevant”.