Yoga Sutras 1.7

I.K. Taimni's Yoga Sutras 1.7

Essentially, Sutra 1.7 is about knowledge which corresponds to “the facts”: “Right Knowledge” or Pramana.  This is opposed to Sutra 1.8 which discusses “knowledge” that contradicts “the facts”: “Wrong Knowledge” or Viparyaya.  Read another way, Patanjali is giving an example of “right knowledge”.  Namely, the division of knowledge into accurate and inaccurate is itself an example of accurate knowledge (YMMV?).

But this sutra is not so much about the dichotomy between right knowledge and wrong knowledge as it is a classification of the sorts of Right Knowledge that there are.  The sutra cites three hierarchically related forms of “right knowledge”.  Direct Perception, Inference and Testimony.

I have put off commenting on this Sutra for a long time because I wanted to include Western epistemological distinctions.  Finally, however, I’m not going to do that (at least now).  Rather, I’d like to simply explore Taimni’s commentary (which I find flawed) and offer some general reflections on the boundaries between the three types of right knowledge enumerated and the nature of the cognizer’s relation to the “object” (about which hiser knowledge is right or wrong [accurate or inaccurate]).

First off, Taimni’s commentary.

Pramana which may be translated approximately as right knowledge or knowledge related to facts, comprises all those experiences in which the mind is in direct or indirect contact with the object of the senses at the time and the mental perception corresponds with the objects. Although three sources of right knowledge are mentioned in the Sutra and only in one (Pratyaksa) there is direct contact with the object, this does not mean that there is no contact with the object in the other two. The contact in these two cases is indirect, through some other object or person.

I like that, mostly, but then he fails (Imho):

A simple illustration will make this point clear. Suppose you see your car coming to your door. You recognize it at once. This knowledge is, of course, Pratyaksa. Now, if you are sitting in your room and hear the familiar sound of your car in front of your house you recognize it at once as your car. Here your knowledge is based on contact with the object but the contact is indirect and involves the element of inference. Now suppose again you neither see nor hear the car but your servant comes and says that your car is at the door. Here again the contact with the object is indirect but your knowledge is based on testimony.

The issue I have with the above is how sight is given primacy over hearing.  Now, of course, this is a fact of the human organism (excepting exceptions such as the blind), but it is accidental, not fundamental.  Calling hearing less direct the sight really seems to miss the point, to me.  We have waves of light or we have waves of sound (simplistically speaking) one “enters” the ears the other the eyes.  According to my German Sheperd, sound is richer than sight and smell is richer than sound.  The light is no more direct than the sound and is just as subject to delusion.  I’m going to leave that at that, and just come up with a better “simple illustration”.

Consider driving the above car.  While driving there are all sorts of directly perceived events and objects that inform your moment to moment adjustments aimed at keeping your car moving from A to B.  Let’s say I am driving down the interstate.  I see the brake lights of the car ahead of me flash on and I see my own car quickly approaching the rear end of that car.  I directly perceive this state of affairs and hopefully I react in time to avoid running into it.  Then, I wonder why that vehicle did that.  I drive a Chevette and the car ahead of me is a Humvee, so I can’t actually see anything in front of it.  However, I remember seeing a car coming from the other direction flash its brights.  Knowing as I do the “rules of the road”, I infer that the car in front of me was slowing down to avoid passing an idling cop car going faster than the posted speed limit (since we were both crusing at 10 miles over the speed limit [now you know this is a thought experiment because a Chevette is never going to cruise 10 miles over the limit on an interstate… {and a Humvee is never only going to cruise 10 miles over… haha}]).  I make this inference based on a testimony (of the driver of the car going the other direction).  All this falls under the category of Pramana only if in fact the car in front of me did slam on its brakes to slow down to the speed limit because of a belief concerning the presence of a cop up ahead.  My direct perception is essentially unassailable in this case, but my inference is assailable and so is the testimony, because maybe that other car merely saw a fragment of some white board under a bridge and perceived incorrectly (viparyaya) that it was a cop.  Or, again, maybe there was a cop but the car going the other direction flashed its brights because the driver was struggling with their cat and knocked the brights knob accidentally while trying to prevent the cat from getting on the dashboard.  Everything on our side of the road seemed Pramana, but in fact, there was a disconnect between our conceptions and reality.

This brings up an interesting consideration.  At what point does direct perception become inference?  Truth is, according to neuroscience, all perception is inference.  The brain is doing an amazing amount of processing of subtle cues to come up with “what we perceive”.  Our perception of depth has so much to do with inferring spatial relationships from gradations of shadow and relative sizes and color relationships.  This is why Necker Cubes and Ames Rooms give the experiences they do.  They deliberately play with the very sensations that the brain uses to infer what we ultimately experience as our “direct perception” of an environment/object.

The difference between my simple illustration and Taimni’s is that mine bases inference on “preexisting knowledge” and is conceptually arrived at.  In Taimni’s example, the inference is still just raw sensation turned into perception “automagically” by the brain.

I spoke of “direct perception” really being “inference”.  Could “direct perception” also really be “testimony”?  Well… could we not consider the things offered up, parsed and seasoned, by the brain to be the “testimony” of our senses?  I think so.  Our senses are, on the one hand, objective measuring devices subject to the laws of physics and typically outside our “influence”.  We just trust what they tell us… (or we develop a healthy skepticism that feeds back into a process that digs into the sensation-building-blocks of perception… [and frankly, this injection of intelligence into the senses is a key component of mature perception that transforms sensation from being passive to active…]).  I understand that I am playing loose with brain/experience dichotomies, but I can’t delve into that here, else this post’ll lose focus, and anyway, I’m sure you know what I mean…

And in that sense, then, these three categories are just helpful categorizations, rather than true distinctions.  And Taimni kind of acknowledges this (he doesn’t really explicitly address how they are ranges along a single continuum but perhaps he considers this obvious since they are types of a single concept):

Knowledge of the Pramana type may be based partly on one and partly on another of these three sources but if it corresponds with facts, it belongs to this type.

The condition that defines whether a “piece of knowledge” belongs to this or that of the three categories of Pramana really has to do with the nature of the relationship between the cognizer and the object being cognized.  In what way is the cognizer connected to the object?  Is it through his own senses?  Through conceptual inferences based on past experience combined with the senses?  Or is it based on the testimony of another person who has had some kind of contact with the object?

And just to flex these new conceptual muscles, I’ll take the opportunity to point out that the reception of a testimony requires the standard inferences involved with direct perception, of, for instance, the sound of the voice of the testifier (perhaps we misinferred a key word and so the testimony as understood is not as was intended…).  So it just keeps going ’round and ’round like a vortex of mind.  Maturation involves “getting good at it”.  Aging involves “losing it anyway”.

Glossary

  • Pramana – Accurate, externally sparked modifications of the mind
  • Viparyaya – Inaccurate, externally sparked modifications of the mind

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