A Simple View on Knowledge in Indian Tradition

Let me start this discussion on a view that every man wants to obtain knowledge. Yes, animals too have this quality but ability of man to acquire knowledge is far beyond all expectations.

What is the motive of man to acquire knowledge? What is the concept of knowledge for man? The motive and concept of knowledge can be different from man to man; so it can be hard to understand it on an personal level. So we will discuss it according to cultures.

We had discussed in an article “Philosophy, Darshana & Tattva” about the word ‘tattva’.

Tattva is made of two words, ‘tat’ and ‘tva’. Here ‘tat’ means ‘it’ or ‘that’ which refers to ‘reality’ (as discussed before) and ‘tva’ means ‘you’ or the ‘knower’ i.e. the epistemological subject. So we can understand through this word that in Indian context the ‘knower’ is identified with the ‘reality’. According to Indian thought, the person (epistemological subject or the knower) is not different from reality. In this sense, the knowledge in Indian context becomes inward.

Man is involved in the concept of knowledge or reality; and it gives a value to knowledge and all other aspects which are related to knowledge; because where man is involved, value involved already. So in Indian context, value is not just a part of philosophy but philosophy itself comes to be regarded as value.

For ancient Indians, knowledge was never intrinsic because for them, knowledge was a way of life. So they regarded knowledge as a power. But we must understand the clear meaning of the word ‘power’ in these lines. According to Post-Baconian Europe, man is the center of the universe and everything in this universe is meant to serve the motives of man. So in their words, power means to obtain a control over the nature. But it is completely different in Indian context. Ancient Indians believed that nature is the source of everything and man is nothing comparing to nature. They identified themselves with nature. The word ‘power’ is used in a sense of ‘medium’, ‘method’ or ‘instrument’ to subjugate oneself to nature in Indian context. When we will discuss on Vedic knowledge, importance of this thought will become clearer.

According to Indian philosophy, knowledge has two levels. One is ‘Para Vidya’ and other is ‘Apara Vidya’. ‘Para Vidya’ means higher knowledge and ‘Apara Vidya’ means lower knowledge. And as the name defines, ‘Para Vidya’ is more important than ‘Apara Vidya’. No, we cannot use the word ‘important’; actually ‘Para Vidya’ is spiritual knowledge and ‘Apara’ is worldly knowledge, and in Indian tradition, spiritual knowledge is called the true knowledge which is the most sacred one.

Worldly pleasure was never an ultimate goal for ancient Indians. They believed that there is something more important than this worldly pleasure; so they never tried to overpower or control the nature. Ancient Indians presented a very different thinking. They developed medicines, surgery, mathematics, astronomy etc. in order to perform their basic needs of life. They gave importance to this world, but it was not their goal. Their goal was something spiritual. Many thinkers argue that ancient Indians totally ignored the ‘present life’ or ‘this world’ but this is not true. It is true that, the ‘present life’ was less important than their ‘spiritual goal’ but it does not mean they totally ignored it. We should understand it like, they studied all aspects of this world and go beyond it and tried to obtain that too.

This world and that world are not two different things. We should see them in a line according to Indian thought. There is a word ‘vidya’ in Indian context which means ‘knowledge’ in simple words. According to Indian tradition, the one who does not have ‘vidya’ can never obtain anything in this life (world) and can never obtain so-called spiritual goals. It means ‘avidya’ (opposite of ‘vidya’ or ‘lack of knowledge’) is a barrier to obtain spiritual or worldly motives. We will discuss it later.

4 thoughts on “A Simple View on Knowledge in Indian Tradition

  1. “Obtain a control over the nature or subjugate oneself to nature”…
    When had the links with the nature broken , in the point to have to choose to submit her or submit oneself to her ?
    From what I understand two opposing currents were born from these two points of view.
    One became materialistic considering reality as tangible and exploitable while the other became spiritual considering reality as virtual and meaningful toward another reality. One wants to tame the reality whereas the other wants to release himself from it.
    Would there be a third way, that of wisdom and harmony which would consist in living what we have to live on this planet, appreciating its benefactions and discovering its laws. A mutual nourishment, energetic and sublimating which would allow us to discover that nature is not only constituted by plants and animals but also by energy and dimensions that we have not yet discovered ?
    Thank you so much Vikas for this wonderful article in which I discovered a lot of ideas and for which many ideas are born. 🙂

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