On Knowledge and the Principle of Authority

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Knowledge

Knowledge (vidya) is one of the constituent elements of the person, understood as a spiritual entity, more obvious to those who are aware of it.

In the morning we wake up, open our eyes and immediately start looking around. We go to the bathroom and look at the mirror. Our mind, in a fraction of a second, makes the point, sums up what happened in the past and what it has to do. The senses reactivate. The sense of hearing, besides, never goes out, not even during sleep. If we hear a noise we wake up.

In other words, we have the natural tendency of wanting to know.

 

In sanskrit our personality is called cit-maya (or cin-maya), namely “naturally made of knowledge”.

We are souls made of spiritual elements and certainly not of matter.

Although the wrapping of material elements causes a limitation on the exercise of the cognitive function, this spiritual characteristic is manifested even at all times of our lives. So we look, taste, hear, touch and smell. Through the five senses we accumulate a great deal of knowledge of the outside world and of our interaction with it.

The five senses are the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin.

The five active senses are the voice, the legs, the hands, the anus and the genitals.

The five objects of the senses are the smell, the taste, the shape, the touch and the sound.

It is thanks to these fifteen elements that we organize our body of knowledge.

But we need more.

To know what color our shirt is our eyes are enough. To know the smell a flower, our nose is enough. But there are things for the perception of which we need to have higher senses.

For example, if we want to know what the formula is for a better life, we need intelligence, experience, and other higher elements of knowledge. If I go to another nation, it’s good to let me know what the laws governing it are because I could commit a crime without even knowing it. So if I want a happy life, it’s good to know which are the laws governing the world I live in.

I have to know if there is a God (because if He exists He created this world and has organized it), who I really am (because if I am eternal I do not have to waste my life for illusory and temporary things), what products of this world can I use and what not, and so on. Failure to answer to these questions leads us to commit crimes against God and against nature and to suffer the consequences (karma). And all this without even knowing that we are committing crimes.

In the end, knowledge (cit) is a fundamental function for both everyday life (what we call material life) and for the most profound questions (what we call “spiritual life”).

 

How to do spiritual life?

Some ways are better than others to have exact knowledge. In the preceding paragraphs we have divided knowledge in two fields: that of material science and that of spiritual science. In various circumstances these two intersect and the difference fades until it disappears.

Let’s define both them.

 

One of the many plausible definitions is that material sciences are the ones dealing with the world we live in, while the spiritual ones of the people who live there.

The human being has worked hard for centuries and millennia to perfect his sciences but many of these are still imperfect. Nobody really knows how our universe is made, its chemical composition, its physical dynamics. New things are coming out substituting those that until the previous day were given for sure. This way of doing is not only pseudo-science but even intellectually dishonest. Peddling theories for proved things is called dishonesty.

As far as knowledge of the living being is concerned, these are even more wrapped in darkness. Nobody has ever understood where life came from and what there is after death. There are theories after theories, but no certainties.

 

Man is imperfect

The limitation of reaching veritable and conclusive truths is caused by human imperfection.

On October 6, 1969, our Acarya (we use this Sanskrit word in the sense of “best source of explanation of knowledge”) Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada gave a speech to the Conway Hall in London, England. This speech then became the introduction of one of his books, Sri Isopanisad.

Let’s hear what Srila Prabhupada says about human imperfection:

 

“In the conditioned state, our knowledge is subjected to many deficiencies. The difference between a conditioned soul and a liberated soul is that the conditioned soul has four kinds of defects. The first defect is that he must commit mistakes. For example, in our country, Mahatma Gandhi was considered to be a very great personality, but he committed many mistakes. Even at the last stage of his life, his assistant warned, “Mahatma Gandhi, don’t go to the New Delhi meeting. I have some friends, and I have heard there is danger.” But he did not hear. He persisted in going and was killed. Even great personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, President Kennedy – there are so many of them – make mistakes. To err is human. This is one defect of the conditioned soul.

Another defect: to be illusioned. Illusion means to accept something which is not: māyā. Māyā means “what is not”. Everyone is accepting the body as the self. If I ask you what you are, you will say, “I am Mr. John; I am a rich man; I am this; I am that.” All these are bodily identifications. But you are not this body. This is illusion.

The third defect is the cheating propensity.

Everyone has the propensity to cheat others. Although a person is fool number one, he poses himself as very intelligent. Although it is already pointed out that he is in illusion and makes mistakes, he will theorize: “I think this is this, this is this.” But he does not even know his own position. He writes books of philosophy, although he is defective. That is his disease. That is cheating.

Lastly, our senses are imperfect. We are very proud of our eyes. Often, someone will challenge, “Can you show me God?” But do you have the eyes to see God? You will never see if you don’t have the eyes. If immediately the room becomes dark, you cannot even see your hands. So what power do you have to see? We cannot, therefore, expect knowledge (veda) with these imperfect senses. With all these deficiencies, in conditioned life we cannot give perfect knowledge to anyone. Nor are we ourselves perfect. Therefore we accept the Vedas as they are.”

 

There are people who feel that the search for truth is more fun that getting to the goal. When they find it they say no, it can’t be, and so they continue wandering in the meanders of their own mind.

 

Personally, when I was very young, I chose another approach, not discarding the idea that it could exist sources of perfect knowledge. Besides, I was thinking, it would not cost me anything to try, apart from having to pay the price of a small wound to my big ego grumbling, “You can create your own knowledge, no one is smarter than you, nobody can teach you.”

So I chose to seek not the knowledge but a source of knowledge. Rethinking about it now I realize that is a common thing we all do in our life. If we want to learn math we go looking for books and professors.

After so much wandering I came to the Vedas and to the schools that come from them. I had the impression to be opening an antique chest and when I looked inside I saw an immense treasure of pearls and diamonds. I am rich, I thought.

 

But let’s see what Srila Prabhupada said about the Vedas in the same conference I mentioned earlier.

“… What are the Vedas? The Sanskrit verbal root of the word can be interpreted differently, but at the end the meaning is the same. Veda means Knowledge. “

 

Are the Vedas Texts Of India?

Let’s now look at the next question. Are the Vedas a tradition of knowledge of India? If it was, it would not belong to us born in the West and it would be useless to us.

Srila Prabhupada rejects the theory that the Vedas are Indian texts and says:

“You may call the Vedas Hindu, but ‘Hindu’ is a foreign name. We are not Hindus.”

Here Prabhupada says that the Vedas are a source of knowledge that belong to the whole of mankind and not just to India.

 

The Vedas are of divine origin

We can not discard the possibility that there is a God and that he has left us instructions on how to live in this world and how to return to the spiritual world. It would be a nonsense to assume it and we would condemn ourselves to close a window opened to a horizon of immense knowledge. It is a common sense idea to accept the possibility that the Vedas are truly of divine origin. And at the end of the day nobody forbids us to test the perfection of Vedic information.

 

Srila Prabhupada says:

“Vedic principles are accepted as axiomatic truth, for there cannot be any mistake. That is acceptance. For instance, in India cow dung is accepted as pure, and yet cow dung is the stool of an animal. In one place you’ll find the Vedic injunction that if you touch stool, you have to take a bath immediately. But in another place it is said that the stool of a cow is pure. If you smear cow dung in an impure place, that place becomes pure. With our ordinary sense we can argue, “This is contradictory.”

Actually, it is contradictory from the ordinary point of view, but it is not false. It is fact. In Calcutta, a very prominent scientist and doctor analyzed cow dung and found that it contains all antiseptic properties.”

 

We accept that Vedas are of divine origin, therefore perfect, and during our studies and practices we tested and are still testing them. This is what a scientist does. He doesn’t discard any possibilities and puts them to the test. The students of the Veda are scientists in the noblest sense of the word.

 

The Vedas

At this point, it is fair to ask which books can be accepted as Vedas.

A first division is that there are these two types of texts, called:

– Sruti

– Smriti

The Srutis are the four original Vedas and the Smriti all the literature that comes from them.

Various scholars have divided them into various categories. I’ll propose you two of those.

The first is divided into fifteen sections, which are:

1) Veda

2) Upaveda

3) Vedanga

4) Brahmana

5) Aranyaka

6) Sutra

7) Smriti

8) Upanga

9) Darsana

10) Upanisad

11) Puranas

12) Itihasa

13) Niti

14) The Vaisnava Sampradayas

15) The Parampara Gaudiya

 

We find a second classification in Chhandogya Upanisad[1] where Narada Muni asks Sanat Kumara to teach him. Sanat Kumara responds asking Narada to tell him what he knows and whatever he misses he’ll tell him.

Sri Narada Muni said:

“Venerable Sir, I know (adhyemi)

the Rig-Veda,

the Yajur-Veda,

the Sama-Vedas,

the Atharva-Veda which is the fourth,

the epics (the Puranas) and the ancient stories (Itihasa) that are the fifth,

the Veda of the Vedas, that is the grammar,

Pitra Vidya (or Sraddha), the rules of the sacrifices to satisfy the ancestors,

Rashi Vidya, the science of numbers, that is, mathematics,

Bhuta Vidya, the science of evil portents,

Mahakala, the science of time,

Vakyo-Vakya, logic and philosophy,

Kshatra Vidya, the science of war,

Nakshatra Vidya, astronomy and astrology,

Sarpa Vidya, the science of snakes

Ekayatana, ethics and politics,

Nirukta, etymology,

Siksakalpa, ceremonial and prosody,

Fine arts, dancing, vocal and instrumental music.”

Sanat Kumara then taught him Atma-vidya, the science of self.

Narada Muni does not mention other sciences, but we find them in other texts:

Daiva Vidya, nature and environment

Nidhi Vidya, the economy

Deva Jana Vidya, sociology

Mantra Vidya, knowledge of books and

Atma Vidya, spiritual knowledge.

 

We’ll take the first classification and give some explanation. For obvious reasons, at this time we will not go into any of these in more detail.

 

The Four Vedas

The four Vedas are:

Rig Veda, which was revealed to Agni

Yajur Veda, which was revealed to Vayu

Sama Veda, which was revealed to Aditya

Atharva Veda, which was revealed to Angira.

They are also called Sruti and Samhitas and deal with a large number of sciences.

 

The Rig Veda contains a vast knowledge of physical, metaphysical and spiritual nature. It is the greatest amongst the Vedas in terms of content. It contains

 

10 mandala,

1028 Suktas and10581 Rik Mantra.

The Rig Veda has been translated by various schools in various languages.

 

The Yajur Veda deals with a number of topics and in particular the conduct in order to reach Moksha, the ultimate goal of life.

It contains:

40 Adhyaya, and

1975 Yaju Mantra.

 

The Sama Veda deals mainly with that knowledge and activity with which the soul of the human being is lifted from the cycle of life and death. It is dedicated to the worship of the Supreme Lord, the manifestation of his powers and the way of disciplines for spiritual advancement.

Amongst the Vedas, Sama is the shortest in terms of numbers of the Mantras.

It contains two chapters, Purvacika and Uttaracika, and 1874 Mantra in total.

 

The Atharva Veda deals with the knowledge of a number of sciences.

It has 20 Kandas,

111 Anuvaka,

731 Sukta, and

5977 Mantra.

 

Upavedas

The following sciences are considered Upaveda:

1) Ayurveda, the science of medicine

2) Dhanurveda, the military science

3) Gandharva Veda, the science of music

4) Shilpa Veda, architecture and 64 other arts[2]

5) Artha Veda, sociology, economics and politics

 

Vedanga

The Vedanga are concerned with the correct interpretation of the Vedas. Mundaka Upanisad states that there are six Vedanga:

1) Siksha, education,

2) Kalpa, the creation,

3) Vyakarana, grammar,

4) Nirukta, etymology,

5) Chhanda, metric and

6) Jyotisha, mathematics and astronomy.

 

Brahmana

The Brahmana are books that describe the meanings of Vedic mantras and their use.

 

Aranyakas

The Aranyaka texts contain quotations extracted from the Brahmana.

 

Sutra

These are texts that go into depth of some of the topics dealt with in the Vedas. At the present nine are well known.

  1. Grihya Sutra
  2. Dharma Sutra
  3. Srota Sutra
  4. Asvalayana Sutra
  5. Gobhila Sutra
  6. Paraskara Sutra
  7. Koshitaki Sutra
  8. Katyayana Sutra
  9. Bodhayana Sutra

 

Smriti

The word smriti is interpreted in various ways. Literally it means “what is remembered by the tradition”. We know important Smritis like Manu Smriti and Yajnavalkya Smriti. However, Smriti are all those writings that have the Vedas (Sruti) as the cultural basis. Compiling a list of all Smriti would be a titanic enterprise.

 

Darsana Sastra

There are six Darsana Sastra, also called Upanga or Sat-darsana

  1. Karma Mimamsa of Jaimini (also known as Purva Mimamsa),
  2. Vaisesika of Kanada,
  3. Nyaya of Gautama,
  4. Yoga of Patanjali,
  5. Sankhya of Kapila, and
  6. Vedanta, by Vyasadeva (also known as Uttara Mimamsa).

 

Upanishads

The Upanishads deal with detailed explanations of the spiritual energy, including the Supreme entity (Paramatma) and the non-supreme entities, that is, individual souls (atma). Sometimes Upanisad, or at least some of them, are considered Sruti because they are sections of the original Vedas.

Determining how many of the thousands of Upanisad known are authentic is difficult. Here we will mention eleven sections of those Veda and specify to which Veda they belong.

 

  1. Isa, found in the Yajur Veda
  2. Kena, in the Sama Veda
  3. Katha, in the Atharva Veda
  4. Prashna, in the Atharva Veda
  5. Mundaka, in the Atharva Veda
  6. Mandukya, in the Atharva Veda
  7. Aitareya, in the Rig Veda
  8. Taittareya, in the Yajur Veda
  9. Chhandogya, in the Sama Veda
  10. Brihadaranyaka, in Yajur Veda
  11. Svetasvatara, in the Atharva Veda

 

In some other publications we’ll give a larger list of Upanisads.

 

Purana

The Puranas are books of ancient history, where there is also an infinity of information about culture and civilization. They are generally divided into three types:

 

Sattvika Puranas (dealing with Visnu)

Rajasika Purana (dealing with Brahma)

Tamasika Purana (dealing with Siva)

 

The main Purana are 18:

1) Brahma Purana, made up of 13,000 verses

2) Padma Purana, made up of 55,000 verses

3) Vishnu Purana, made up of 23,000 verses

4) Vayu Purana, composed of 24,000 verses

5) Bhagavata Purana, made up of 18,000 verses

6) Naradiya Purana, made up of 25,000 verses

7) Markandeya Purana, made up of 9,000 verses

8) Agni Purana, made up of 16,000 verses

9) Bhavishya Purana, made up of 14,500 verses

10) Brahmavaivarta Purana, made up of 18,000 verses

11) Linga Purana, made up of 11,000 verses

12) Varaha Purana, made up of 24,000 verses

13) Skanda Purana, made up of 81,100 verses

14) Vamana Purana, made up of 10,000 verses

15) Kurma Purana, made up of 18,000 verses

16) Matsya Purana, made up of 14,000 verses

17) Garuda Purana, made up of 18,000 verses

18) Brahmanda Purana, made up of 12,200 verses

A total of 403,800 verses.

 

 

Then there are others called Upa Purana that we will mention in the future.

It must be said that different sages give different classifications of the Puranas.

Matsya Purana states that the total number of verses in the Vedas and in the Itihasas is 525,000.

 

Itihasa

Among the various historical books written in Sanskrit, there are two particularly important:

The Ramayana, which is the story of Sri Ramacandra, written by Valmiki Muni, and

The Maha-bharata written by Sri Vyasadeva.

 

Niti

The books called Niti deal with principles of social ethics. The most famous are:

the Canakya Niti,

the Bhartrihari Niti,

the Sikra Niti e

the Vidura Niti.

 

The Sampradaya Vaisnava texts

The word sampradaya means tradition or school.

In Padma Purana it is said that there are four authentic sampradaya and they are:

 

the Brahma-sampradaya,

the Rudra-sampradaya,

the Sri-sampradaya,

the Kumara-sampradaya.

 

In Srimad-Bhagavatam[3] it is said that if one wants to advance in the spiritual life he must receive mantras from a representative of one of these four schools. Otherwise he can never advance in spiritual life.

 

The Gaudiya Parampara

The numerous branches of the main trunk of the sampradaya are called parampara. Since we belong to the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya Sampradaya we will dedicate much space to topics concerning their history and philosophy.

 

The spiritual Masters and disciplic succession

The first being created in this universe was Brahma. He received the knowledge directly from Visnu and then taught Narada, who revealed it to Vyasa and so on, from teacher to disciple, down to our days.

Knowledge is thus transmitted by spiritual masters to disciples of upright characters, leaving its wisdom intact as it was at the origin. If it were not, if there was no such system and if the masters and the pupils were not authentic, in a short time the spiritual knowledge would be lost.

Thanks to the parampara system today we have the Vedas and we can study them as they were originally.

The Sastras (scriptures) are inflexible in declaring that the presence of the Spiritual Master is absolutely necessary for the comprehension and the realization of knowledge.

In Bhagavad-gita[4] Krishna Himself declares:

tad viddhi pranipatena

pariprasnena sevaya

upadeksyanti te jnanam

jnaninas tattva-darsinah

“Simply try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Ask questions with a submissive mentality and serve him. The self-realized soul can give you the knowledge because it has seen the truth.”

 

Different levels of authority

So far we have established that Vidya (or Jnana, knowledge) is derived from two sources:

– from the Vedic scriptures

– from the spiritual masters

 

We will go back to these issues many more times in the future, and we will deepen them, but now I’d like to introduce the concept of different levels of reliability.

And that is: Does it matter or not who it is that translates a Vedic text, who writes an explanation, who teaches him by voice? How much does it matter? Can he decrease the value of the scripture or could he even add value to it?

Does it matter or not who is the spiritual master or are all the same? Is anyone who has, in one way or another, come to cover such a delicate assignment equal to all the others or are there different levels?

 

It is obvious that the level of reliability increases in proportion to the qualifications of the person. Reading Sanskrit (or Bengali, or other languages with which scriptures are considered Smriti have been written) is not easy. Moreover the topics discussed in these books are often complicated and only people with high expertise can deliver the authentic text. Besides, could anyone who has never played chess translate or explain a chess book?

A given writing can be authentic, however, if translated or explained by unauthorized people[5], the risk is that what is obtained is not only a partial value but there is even the risk that we get the wrong thing.

 

The most qualified people are the spiritual masters of the various sampradayas (guru) and the saints and scholars who are part of these schools (sadhu).

When the scriptures (sastra) are translated and explained by one of these personalities, the reliability level is the highest.

This level drops considerably when the translators or commentators have not practiced the Vedic disciplines, have not been initiated in an authentic spiritual school, when they do that for a material return, and when they come to philosophical conclusions contrary to Vedic conclusions.

 

[1] 7.1-3

[2] Some say that there are more than 64.

[3] 6.8.42

[4] 4.34

[5] Without the necessary qualifications.

 

 

This is a section of the book “Brilliant as the Sun”.

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