Knowledge? — Letters


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After reading the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, I am faced with the following difficulty and shall feel very thankful if you could clarify.

The Seventh Chapter of Bhagavad-gita is entitled “Jnana-Vijnana Yoga,” and the words jnana and vijnana occur about half a dozen times in the Bhagavad-gita. Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada has given two interpretations: (l) Jnana refers to knowledge of self as distinguished from nonself or, in other words, knowledge that the spirit soul is not the body. Vijnana refers to specific knowledge of the spirit soul’s constitutional position and his relationship to the Supreme Soul. (2) Phenomenal and numinous knowledge, which mean, respectively, “as apprehended by the mind as distinct from reality” and “which is beyond the senses and assumed by the mind, but transcendental in reality.”

These two interpretations are not quite the same. Kindly let me know how you differentiate between jnana and vijnana.

Dr. M. P. Varshney
Gaithersburg, Maryland

RAVINDRA-SVARUPA DASA REPLIES: I should first point out, for the sake of thoroughness in our discussion, that there is yet a third sense of jnana-vijnana given in Bhagavad-gita As It Is. In Chapter Six, verse eight, for instance, the advanced yogi (yukta) is said to possess jnana-vijnana. Prabhupada translates jnana as “acquired knowledge,” which means, he explains in the purport, “book knowledge” or “mere academic knowledge.” Vijnana, or “realization,” is acquired by the practical execution of Krsna consciousness under the direction of a qualified spiritual master. Vijnana, then, is practical realization through active devotional service.

Jnana is theory; vijnana is application, or practice. Vijnana, therefore, is science. (Indeed, modern Sanskritists use the word vijnana to translate the English science.) In Teachings of Lord Caitanya (p. 245) Srila Prabhupada makes the following assertion: “Knowledge [i.e., jnana} is information gathered from the scriptures, and science [i.e., vijnana} is practical realization of that knowledge.” When Prabhupada says Krsna consciousness is “science,” he means it is vijnana.

To summarize, we are considering three sets of renderings: jnana as (1) knowledge that “I am not this body”; (2) phenomenal knowledge; and (3) book knowledge, or theory; and vijnana as (1) knowledge that “I am a servant of Krsna”; (2) numinous knowledge; and (3) realized knowledge, or practice.

Now, how are these three sets of meanings related? Let us consider jnana first. Jnana, according to Vaisnava understanding, refers to knowledge gained through mental speculation. Its basis is sense perception; thus in Bhagavad-gita 6.46 Prabhupada translates jnani as “empiricist.” Thus jnana denotes “phenomenal knowledge.” When, however, such speculative knowledge rises to the attempt to understand the ultimate source of everything, it discovers at its ultimate limit the void or impersonal absolute (nirvisesa-sunyavada). The jnanis, at the most mature level of their speculation, may understand as part of their impersonal realization “I am not this body.”

Such jnana is “book knowledge” or “theory” because it entails the renunciation of all work, the suppression of the senses, and the rejection of the world as false; it is intellectualist in the extreme.

Vijnana, by contrast, is “realized knowledge” because it does not come about by mental speculation and the cessation of actions but rather by engagement in active devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead—who lies beyond the impersonal aspect of the absolute encountered by the jnanis and who is indeed the source of the impersonal Brahman (brahmano hi pratisthaham). Thus the jnanis are wanting in actual transcendental experience, in realized knowledge of the Supreme Person, which does not come by one’s efforts, however heroic, at mental speculation, but comes by humble service to please the Lord, who kindly reveals Himself. Prabhupada writes:

Transcendental knowledge of the absolute Supreme Being can be known if it is made known by the Lord Himself. By the mental speculation of the greatest mundane thinkers, the Absolute Truth cannot be understood. The mental speculators can reach up to the standard of impersonal Brahman realization, but factually complete knowledge of transcendence is beyond the knowledge of impersonal Brahman. Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.9.31

The jnanis who suppress their senses cannot have the practical experience (vijnana) of Krsna’s transcendental form, name, qualities, and so on, because, as Rupa Gosvami states, such divine transcendental variegatedness is not apprehensible by materially contaminated senses; it can be apprehended only when the senses (beginning with the tongue) are purified by active engagement in devotional service.

Thus, vijnana as practical or realized knowledge and vijnana as knowing “I am the servant of Krsna” are related. The Sanskrit prefix vi- functions as an intensifier, and so vijnana denotes a more complete state of knowledge of the Absolute. Jnana tells us only of the qualitative oneness between ourselves and the Absolute, whereas vijnana gives us further transcendental knowledge of quantitative difference: that Krsna is para-brahman, infinitely great, and I am subordinate brahman, an infinitesimally small part, whose duty is to serve the whole.

In Srila Prabhupada’s translation of Bhagavad-gita 7.2, we see the English pair phenomenal and numinous used for the Sanskrit jnana-vijnana. Now, you understand phenomenal to mean “as apprehended by the mind as distinct from reality” and numinous to mean “that which is beyond the senses and assumed by the mind, but transcendental in reality.” These two definitions, however, pertain to the very specific way the philosopher Immanuel Kant used the terms phenomenal and noumenal in his metaphysics. According to Kant—and this is a very crude simplification—the phenomenal world as we can know it is already structured or ordered for us by our own mind or consciousness. Thus, there is a reality inaccessible in principle to us, absolutely beyond our apprehension, utterly unknowable. This is the “Ding an sich,” the “thing-in-itself,” which he also calls the noumenal reality as opposed to the phenomenal reality we perceive.

Now, Krsna was not preaching Kantian philosophy, and while Prabhupada’s “phenomenal” and “numinous” obviously allude to Kant’s distinction, that distinction cannot be applied too literally—as indeed the substitution of “numinous” for the Kantian “noumenal” reminds us. Let us simply say that phenomenal means the world as perceivable by mundane sense experience and mental speculation (up to some realization of the impersonal Absolute), and that noumenal or numinous refers to all that transcends such phenomenal knowledge.

The word numinous means “supernatural, mysterious; filled with a sense of the presence of divinity.” Thus it also means “beyond phenomena,” but it conveys in addition a more personal sense than Kant’s “noumenal.” It refers, indeed, to the divine realm of Goloka, where the Supreme Person, Syamasundara, whose spiritual form possesses innumerable inconceivable transcendental qualities, eternally revels in pastimes of love with His friends and lovers. That realm is directly perceived by pure devotees whose eyes have been spiritually opened by being anointed with the unguent of love of God. That is vijnana, or numinous knowledge.

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