Who Knows?

F:  I was reading a book on Vedanta and there is a passage that has me a bit confused:

“The self is not only consciousness but is also existence. For anything to exist, it has to be known to exist by some person or the other at some time or the other. Thus, everything is existent because it is evident. Otherwise, it cannot be stated to exist. So, existence .presupposes knowability. Knowability presupposes awareness or consciousness since it is through consciousness that everything, whether it be an object in the external world, or our body or our internal mental state is known. Thus, while existence is knowability, knowability is consciousness. When we say, “Swamiji exists”, it also means that Swamiji-consciousness is. So, “is” in “Swamiji is”, denotes not only the existence with reference to Swamiji but also the consciousness with reference to Swamiji. Existence is called sat. Consciousness is called cit. What is cit has to be sat and what is sat has to be cit. So, sat will bring in cit and cit will bring in sat. Consciousness is existence and existence is consciousness.”

“Consciousness or the self is self-illuminating.  It is self-luminous in the sense that, while it reveals everything else, it itself is not revealed by anything. It is self-evident. As evidence and existence go together, what is self-evident is self-existing.”

 This concept comes up quite a bit in the literature as you know.  What is perfectly clear is that Atma/Brahman is of the nature of existence/Consciousness/limitlessness.  That is me.   So at the paramarthika level existence and consciousness are obviously the same.  The one non-dual self existent reality is Consciousness.   Fine. What I don’t get is why there are passages like this that push the point from the perspective of of the jiva having an experience.  

Further, the passage implies that a rock in the ground didn’t exist until someone saw it or at least some geologist hypothesized its existence.  Another teacher repeatedly makes this claim in his books: “to exist is to be evident”.  

V:  If I may indulge in a bit of criticism, I feel like the passage is somewhat confusing because the presentation of the point is just a liiiiiitle bit convoluted. That being said, I don’t like to assume that I know for certain what another teacher/writer is trying to say or why they are saying it. That’s my disclaimer before I make any more comments.   

But here goes…

Looking at the passage above from the perspective of how Vedanta is usually taught, I think the author is conditionally assuming a ‘lower’ level of teaching—the empirical /vyavaharika / jiva level—to try to explain how brahman is both existence and consciousness.  He’s trying to convey this idea to the reader at the level of everyday experience because that’s most likely the way it will make the most sense.  From the level of everyday experience, something is said to exist when it is known or when it is the knower itself.  And for something to be known or to be a knower, there has to be consciousness.  Using this commonly known fact from everyday life, the author is trying to establish the unity of an existent known object, the existent knower and consciousness. 

However, this is just an intermediate stepping stone because from the ‘highest’ / ‘absolute’/ paramarthika standpoint, brahman is neither a knower or a known object.  How so?  In a non-dual reality, there are no objects apart from brahman.  If there are no objects apart from brahman, there is nothing other than brahman to be known.  Even if there were, since brahman is action-less it can’t be involved in any act of knowing.  Additionally, brahman is neither evident nor self-evident because if there is nothing other than brahman, then to whom or to what would something be evident or self-evident?

As Yajnavalkya says in the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad (2:4:14):  “When there is duality, then one smells something, one sees something, one hears something, one speaks something, one thinks something, one knows something.  But when to the knower of brahman everything has become the self, then what should one smell and through what, what should one see and through what, what should one hear and through what, what should one know and through what?” (To be clear he is speaking from the standpoint of knowledge.  He isn’t saying that a knower of brahman has no experience of the world).

So to say that something exists because it is known doesn’t exactly work from the level of the ‘highest’ truth.  Actually, it doesn’t work from the level of everyday experience either but I’ll explain that below.  

Besides, we’re getting hung on the word ‘exist’ and taking it too literally.  Because to initially say that brahman exists is not to attribute some positive quality of existence to brahman (which is free of all qualities).  Instead it is to deny the opposite idea held by materialists, that there is no such thing as brahman (the self), that it is some kind of non-existent void.  But eventually, both the ideas of existence and non-existence are to be given up because they are just that:  concepts that really only apply to the presence or absence of objects.  In truth, brahman transcends both.  As Shankara says in his Bhagavad Gita commentary 13:12, “…brahman cannot be expressed by such words as being, non-being etc.”  Further, in his Brihadaranyaka commentary (2:3:6) he says (this is a paraphrase), “Hence, brahman cannot be described as, “It is such and such”…when we try to describe its true nature, free from all differences and limiting adjuncts, it is an utter impossibility.  The only way to describe it is as “Not this, not this,” by eliminating all possible specifications of it that have to be known.” 

So my opinion is that the author is simply presenting one of the initial levels of the teaching, one that uses our everyday experience and our current level of understanding to lead on to a higher truth.  Since the ideas of both existence and non-existence are to eventually be given up, if his presentation is confusing to you, then disregard it.  It is not meant to be taken as the literal truth.              

F:  My question is:  In the bowels of Vedantic/Indian philosophy is there really a strong logically supported argument for the claim “to exist is to be evident?”  If so, what is the basis of this claim and the response of Vedanta/Indian philosophy to the obvious question about whether things exists that haven’t been seen yet?  

V:  I’ve read that certain schools of Buddhism believe that the only thing that exists is what is known to you (Indian Philosophy: A Critical Survey by Chandradhar Sharma).  In philosophy this is called subjective idealism.  Orthodox Vedantins deny this theory although a handy quote is evading me at the moment.  But basically they maintain that the world of objects doesn’t make itself.  It is put together and controlled by Isvara; thus its existence is not dependent on whether an individual person knows it’s there or not.  It’s there because Isvara put it there. 

I’ll say two things about this issue, take them or leave them.  First, whether objects exist or don’t exist when I don’t know them has absolutely no bearing on whether or not I exist (I’m using the word ‘exist’ loosely) and MY ‘existence’ is the central issue of Vedanta, not the existence or non-existence of objects.  Second, the issue is entirely unsolvable.  To know if objects exist when I don’t know them, I’d have to step outside of consciousness to see if objects were still there, which is impossible. 

This means there is absolutely no empirical or logical means of knowledge to answer the question.  Vedantins don’t usually appeal to logic in this matter but simply refer to the claims of the scripture, which is supposed to be an infallible means of knowledge on matters that can’t be known by mankind.  So if you want to believe what the scripture says, that objects are there when you don’t know them, then that’s fine.  If not, then don’t.  That’s also fine.  But without accepting the scripture, the question is unanswerable and hence, pointless.  I’m not saying that to undermine the validity of your question.  The passage above certainly leads to it.  But I want you to know that it’s okay to not have an answer because the issue doesn’t have any bearing on the ‘ultimate’ truth, meaning the truth about your true nature.           

F:  My guess is that there really is this strong claim.  And the rationale is that every object has form.  Forms by definition are intelligent designs placed upon the fabric of reality (i.e., Brahman).   Isvara as the omniscient creator of the universe of forms and is the knower of all forms.  Therefore, the whole creation is known, even the rock in the ground that I don’t know about.  So to exist is to be known. What do you think?   On the right track here?

V:  (Note:  When I initially responded to this email I wrote a different answer.  Upon re-reading it, I decided to change it to the one that follows – V)  I admire your effort but unfortunately you are trying to logically justify an idea that doesn’t have a logical, provable basis (which is what you’re looking for).  The existence of Isvara–both what it is and does–falls purely into the realm of scriptural speculation, not empirical or logical evidence.  Isvara as the omniscient creator and ruler of the universe isn’t a matter of your personal experience, nor are the particulars of its existence (or non-existence) proven by implication or inference, not even the argument of design.  It is simply a matter of believing the scripture.  If you believe in the scripture then the reasoning you’ve given potentially makes some sense. If not, then who knows?  

But really, it doesn’t matter one way or the other because as I said the whole idea of “to exist is to be known” is an initial level of teaching not to be taken literally in the end.  Also, and more importantly, the existence or non-existence of objects (or Isvara) doesn’t change the fact that you are brahman.  Knowing that is the point of Vedanta, not speculation about Isvara or objects.   

What I’m saying is don’t get hung up on the details of the empirical world.  It isn’t real nor can we come to definite conclusions about its nature or how it works.  So instead I encourage you to focus on what is real: yourself. 

All my best, Vishnudeva

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