Shrila Madhvacharya's concept of the sakshi

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    Ankur Sethi

    Hello! I hope this is relevant. I haven’t been keeping up with Ashish Dalela’s books so I apologize if this is covered somewhere in a book or article.
    I have read a few articles regarding Shrila Madhvacharya’s concept of the sakshi or sakshin.
    I found it relevant when coming against the common trope that “experience is subjective”. I do not know if that was a similar argument to which Shrila Madhvacharya was dealing with when debating with Advaitavadis.
    When people say “experience is subjective” as a way of dismissing an experience of higher truth I found the sakshi concept relevant to explain that experience can be an evidence of truth.
    The relevant concept is that we have an intrinsic ability to discern truth. Reasoning ability is not the sakshi, but we must perceive truth. If someone denies that we can discern truth I ask why we should continue our conversation. So that is the only way I can respond to people who say “experience is subjective”.
    I read this summary statement from an article by Jeffrey Armstrong in Hinduism Today. The article is not available on his website anymore.
    >Madhva inquires: “What or who, in fact, is the ultimate perceiver or validator of any information?” He answers that it is the soul’s intrinsic intuitive faculty, known in scripture as sakshin, the witness. The cognitive senses are of two kinds: the intuitive faculty, sakshin, or the cognitive agent, which is identical with the self; and the ordinary cognitive senses and the mind, which are made of matter. The perception by the sakshin is that which, in our experience, is not open to contradiction and which is decisive in character. Knowledge that is acquired through sensory channels and the mind, and is thus subject to discrepancies, is to be regarded as a modification of the mind-stuff. The latter is liable to correction and contradiction, while the perceptions of sakshin are not. What is thus established by the flawless verdict of sakshin must beregarded as true and valid for all time. The saint argues that if there is no higher sense by which to verify the refutation of sakshin, then there is also no one to verify the conclusion that it stands contradicted. In other words, we must have an inherent faculty that can validate the truth; otherwise it can neither be validated nor rejected. The acceptance of an eternal sensibility, the individual soul—which is in its essential nature pure, conscious and infallible—is the ground on which Madhva discusses the nature of reality. He posits that the atma, or soul, is the final arbiter of the truth of anything.
    And this is an article which is a great deal more technical which I have not gone through:
    Is this a concept that Ashish Dalela has written about or is this relevant to a consideration of objective knowledge? I was hoping to learn further.
    Thank you,
    Amala Gaura das

    Ashish Dalela

    Madhavacharya’s concept of Sakshin is similar to Idealism in the West. Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that the observer has a set of synthetic a priori categories like space, time, causality, etc. which are used to interpret the world. Carl Jung said that the archetypes of “Great Man”, “Great Mother”, “Hero”, etc. exist innately in us, and constitute the ideals. Greeks had the notion of a Platonic world comprising ideals. I’m sure there is merit in the argument, but it has been challenged many times. Kant’s universals turned out to be false because he assumed Euclidean geometry was the universal way of thinking about space. The ideals of Jung have proven to be not so universal, as the definition of “Hero” changes with time (e.g. James Bond — a womanizer, alcoholic, gambler, and killer — is a “hero”). Greek universals have been hard to define, and an “ideal man” was reduced to a tall, muscular, white man, as opposed to a moral and ethical man.

    I have shown in many places earlier, that truth can never be objectively proven, so it is indeed subjective. Rationalistic truth, for example, is proven relative to the axioms, but the axioms are never proven. Empirical truth is also subject to interpretation, and the interpretations are based on axioms, which cannot be proven. Therefore, all observation and reason are subjective.

    But, and this is very important, the choice of axioms is relative to a problem. We choose a set of axioms that are suitable to a question. Those axioms that lead to a solution are not true; they are good axioms. What is good? It is that which leads to happiness. Therefore, truth is not judged by observation. It is rather judged by the criterion that discovery of truth leads to happiness.

    So, the response to the trope: “it’s all subjective” is “yes, it is; but what’s wrong with subjectivity if it is always happy?” Even if we say that spiritual experience is an illusion, it is still permanent and happy. Its happiness is superior to the happiness of Brahman. This is a radical u-turn in philosophy that must be made to answer such tropes about there being no objective reality. And the u-turn simply says: We accept illusions as long as they make us permanently happy.

    Therefore, the term ‘exists’ or ‘reality’ is always used interchangeably with ‘eternity’. Truth and reality are not defined by our observation, but the eternal observation. Anything that can be seen eternally is true. If the dream or illusion can be eternal, then it is not false. It is also true.

    So, if someone says “it’s all your perception” the answer is: “of course, but it is eternally the higher pleasure”. I have a post somewhere on this topic called “The Epistemology of Happiness” and the basic argument is that truth is not determined by the observer’s judgment, but the happiness it creates in the person. Srimad Bhagavatam also states that when irrevocable happiness is established in the heart, then all doubts about the truth are destroyed. In short, truth is not confirmed simply by observation, reason, etc. It is confirmed by great happiness.

    Ankur Sethi

    Thank you for your response. I see Wikipedia suggesting all “Vedanta schools of thought” and Upanishads have Idealist notions. Interesting the way western philosophical categories have been extended.
    Can you please clarify your sentence: “I have shown in many places earlier, that truth can never be objectively proven, so it is indeed subjective.”
    I wasn’t necessarily interested in objectively proving the truth. I understood the concept of the sakshi as follows which I am not sure is correct: “If objective knowledge exists, then a soul can determine it.” I do not see this as “proving” an objective truth.
    The summary article suggests that Madhvacharya uses the concept of the sakshi to determine an individual’s rejection of shastric interpretations or inferential conclusions that do not make sense. This relates to Shankaracharya’s rejection of perception and inference in determining truth. (And using inference to do so).
    Madhvacharya says the jiva’s arbitrate truth. Do you see Idealism as covering this position?
    As I understand this, absolute or even objective truth can be known and then it can be described. And certain types of testimony are apauresheya, which means they describe the Absolute Truth. They do not attempt to prove it, they describe it.
    The vedic epistemology says that accepting truth from a higher authority gives perfect knowledge. Such shabda does not need to be proven to an individual in order to be valid. So Madhvacharya suggests the soul can determine truth.

    Ankur Sethi

    I was able to find an online text version of the article which I was quoting.

    Ankur Sethi

    Thank you, I appreciate what you are saying. I think I understand your point about objective knowledge.
    But does that perspective not lead to saying the world is illusory? Are you saying: you cannot know the world in truth because there are only indications, or pointers, as you said, to reality.  I think this was the point Madhvacharya was arguing against.
    You brought up examples of relatives truths that are impossible to know. I never claimed we can know all truth. The claim is that someone can experience truth. I also never claimed that such an experience can be proven to someone. But denying a person can experience truth because they cannot prove or demonstrate it does not seem correct. In fact a summary statement from Madhvacharya is that “inference can be used to correct our perceptions but never to totally negate them.”
    Madhvacharya felt that Shankara was using inference to negate correct perceptual truths.
    Further if we can experience absolute truth, then do we not experience objective truth? Self realization means knowledge of absolute truth, either through experience or through testimony of higher authorities. We understand there are varieties in the absolute truth and we cannot know more than a tiny fraction of it. Yet we can still experience the absolute truth. So therefore the soul can know at least some objective truth.

    Ashish Dalela

    There is a difference between objectivity and objects.

    Objectivity means something exists apart from the observer. Object means that thing that exists apart from the observer has no ‘inside’, and hence everything about the object can be known to me. The rejection of objects is not the rejection of objectivity. And the acceptance of objectivity is not the reduction of the world to objects. Objectivity can also be other persons.

    The idea of objects is that there is no ‘internal’ reality; everything is ‘external’ and hence everything is knowable. The idea of objectivity is that there is a world separate from me. When objectivity is equated to objects, then the world is fully knowable as things. But when objectivity is equated to a person existing outside of me, then the world is not fully knowable.

    If you have doubts about this, then consider these ideas: Krishna never fully knows Himself, and nobody knows Krishna completely. In spiritual life, we are simply trying to get to know Krishna better and better, and that takes eternity because we never fully know the truth completely.

    The ignorance about the full truth is not identical to the illusion of that truth. Let’s say the truth is a set of X claims. Illusion means that my claim of truth is outside these X claims, which are not true. Ignorance means that I know a subset of X claims and not all the claims. In short, I know the truth partially, which is different from believing in something that is not true.

    These distinctions are very important. Objectivity is not objects. Ignorance is not an illusion. Everything is objective, but it is not an object. We have different levels of ignorance about the world, but that is not an illusion. If we came to know everything completely right now, then life would be futile here on. There would be nothing left to be known, nothing more to be said, so our seeing and talking must come to an end. That end would also be the end of life itself.

    So, knowing has many levels. The initial level of knowing is removing the illusion, and that removal leads to liberation into Brahman. The moment you are rid of false ideas, you are immediately liberated. That liberation is freedom from illusion. It is not freedom from ignorance. Therefore, further knowing means becoming aware of a subset of the X claims, and that is an infinite process. In short, the illusion comes to an end, but ignorance has no end.

    Ultimately, at some point, the observer becomes satisfied: I know enough, and I don’t want to know more. That is when the soul settles into an abode of the Lord. He is content, satisfied. Those who are not satisfied, keep going higher. And there are some souls who are never satisfied. Their hunger is infinite, so, they are trying to know more, and consequently, their knowledge gets deeper. That dissatisfaction is indicative of the fact that this process is infinite.

    Now, we come to the main issue about how to remove illusion. What is an illusion? It is ultimately an idea about oneself. Who am I? Since the illusion is a false idea about the self, it can never be removed if you don’t want to remove it. No amount of observation, reason, philosophical analysis, can make anyone change an idea about themselves. And unless that idea of the self is changed, all other ideas also remain illusory. The illusion of self is not external.

    If you think that life is confined to the present existence, then, you will construct a picture of the world consistent with that idea about the self. If you know you are a liar, then you will think everyone is a liar. So, based on the idea of the self, a picture of the world is constructed. And that idea of the self is our free will. Therefore, the illusion can be eternal, if we want it to be eternal.

    The escape out of illusion is suffering. Why am I suffering so much? I must have done something bad in the past. Then, I must be eternal. If I am eternal, then what is my eternal nature? And that eternal nature must also make me eternally happy. We are back to the point of happiness.

    So, removing the illusion requires the idea of happiness. You can never truly know who you are unless you become eternally happy. And that happiness is also your choice: there are many grades of happiness, and to find greater happiness, we accept dissatisfaction and become unhappy. So, there are some devotees of the Lord who are always happy, because they have become content: I know this much, and this is enough. Other devotees are not contented in this way: I don’t know enough, and I need to know more about it. This is also free will.

    So, two main points: (1) happiness is required to remove illusion, and (2) the quest for greater happiness is required to reduce the ignorance, but the process is eternal. This is the philosophical basis of bhakti. We cannot erect a philosophy of bhakti on pure external observation of reality. We must know ourselves, and that knowledge of the self is free will — we can choose to believe who we are. Free will means there is no foolproof method to knowing anything. It is ultimately a choice. That choice is not constrained by logic, observation, reason. It is constrained by happiness. So, we change our idea of happiness, then we change the idea of the self, then we change our idea of the world, and then the illusion is removed and ignorance is reduced.

    Ankur Sethi

    Thank you for your response and explaining these concepts.
    I think the discussion has gone a little far from the initial claim I am making or asking if Madhvacharya is making. And it is likely because I am using my terms too loosely.
    Can we determine truth?
    I believe this is counter to a paradigm in which we cannot know truth and need shared agreement over sense perception to function.
    Vedic philosophy does not have  “subjective” knowledge or “objective” knowledge. It only teaches ways to gain knowledge of the truth which culminates in realization of the truth. I was using the word “objective” as an opposite of “subjective” but I see you are correcting that.
    We accept that realization of the Absolute Truth is possible. This is the qualification of a realized soul. Qualifying that realization is interesting as you have explained regarding ignorance and illusion is interesting because we do not claim omniscience as a result of realization of the Absolute Truth.
    Does modern philosophy agree that we can perceive truth at all, what to speak of absolute truth?
    I think I can still say that if someone says we cannot determine truth, then why are they attempting a philosophical discussion?

    Ankur Sethi

    In other words I think the atheistic challenge is: “You cannot perceive God because God is absolute truth and we cannot know truth. We only can share mutually agreed upon facts about the world. ”
    It is a foolish absolute negative claim about the absolute truth. It is slightly different from the absolute claim that God does not exist.

    Ashish Dalela

    Of course, we can know the truth, if want to know it. Hidden in all modern doctrines of truth is the idea that truth forces itself upon us. You cannot but accept the truth, because data and reason are overwhelming judges of truth. The answer is: no they are not, at many levels.

    First, I might reject the empirical observation that I don’t have personally as being untrue. For example, a rich person might say: Where is poverty? I don’t see it. Second, even if we accept that data, we might interpret it in a different way. For example, we can say: yes, there are poor and destitute people, but that is because they are lazy and criminals. Third, I can reject every good advice given about life. For example, we can say that morality isn’t a natural principle, and it’s all about the convenience of the rich because the jungle is ruled by the powerful.

    Thus, all systems of knowing fail. The pratyaksa method fails because we might not have all observations. The anumana method fails because we can interpret the observation in a different way. And the sabda method fails because we ignore or reject all kinds of good counsel.

    In short, the truth will not force itself upon you. We have to seek the truth. Why would we seek the truth? It’s because we are suffering. But if someone says: I am alright with suffering, and the world is indeed a life of struggle and suffering, and there is no better world other than this one, then the answer is: “if you say so”. Go on suffering eternally. Truth is a person, and that person doesn’t force Himself on anybody. In the West, truth is an idea, and you cannot avoid the truth. But in Vedic philosophy, truth is a person, and you can avoid that person if you want.

    Once we get past this problem, then we can ask: I want to know the truth, so tell me how can I? And then we define truth: Truth is that which is consistent and complete. Complete means it is true everywhere, and consistent means that being true everywhere doesn’t create contradictions. What is this truth? The truth is God, who has desires, is the original idea of knowledge, and He expands into subsidiary truths, which are connected to the original truth by a relation.

    And we can show that this conception of truth is consistent, complete, knowable by reason and observation, is kind and loving, even though He is also autocratically capable of controlling everything, He allows everyone to have free will. In today’s doctrines of philosophy, assuming all these things creates contradictions, but in Vedic philosophy, they don’t. So, autocracy and free will is not contradictory. Consistency is not contradictory to completeness. Truth known by reason and experience is not contradictory to the truth known by scriptures. But all this is available to us only if want it. It cannot be forced, but if you don’t accept it, then go on suffering.

    I think you are equating the fact that all prevalent responses to atheism are bad, to there being no good response. The reality is this. Every person arguing against atheism says exactly what a Christian or a Muslim will say to the atheist. You can examine all their arguments. There is an Ontological Argument, the Design Argument, and some more such types of arguments. Which argument is not also made by a Christian or Muslim? So, knowing Vedic philosophy is not changing how they argue. And they don’t know science to refute atheism’s basis.

    They are stuck in their old scientific and religious thinking with names adjusted to suit their new way of life. And as long as we do that, there is no solution to this problem, because if the other religions had rationally and empirically resolved their contradictions, then why would people reject those religions? Why would they have to be forced upon people by incentives?

    Vedic philosophy is not the other religions with additional bells and whistles of karma, deities, astrology, and yoga. It is ground up different, and unless we spend time to know what it is, what’s the use of arguing with atheists, just by using the same beaten to death claims?

    Examples: there is no religion with a whole-part doctrine; nobody says that God is an idea, that this idea is beautiful; nobody says that God is both male and female, and their loving union creates the world (although it is not mundane sex); that the soul is tripartite (people might say that there are three souls); that given the nature of three aspects, and the whole-part doctrine, we reject conventional logic — i.e. separation and identity; that we reject mass and temperature as real properties of the world and replace them with taste and touch; that the world is not governed by mathematical laws, but by persons whose dutifulness is presented as regularity of nature; that the principles of parsimony and simplicity, which are taken for granted in science, originate in reasonableness of the rulers; but these principles apply differently in different cases, so the principles are universal, but the mathematical laws of nature are not universally true; that you can feed twins the same food, give them the same education and lifestyle, and they will still turn out different because genes don’t determine life; that space and time are not unform or linear; that space is organized hierarchically and time is cyclical; that species are defined by the mind, not the body; that evolution is a fact, but the theory of evolution is wrong; that inheritance of genetic traits is false and a human mother can give birth to an animal, and thus all the species are created by some human parents. Do we really hear all these radically different things?

    We do not hear Vedic philosophy during an argument against atheism. We hear Christianity regurgitated. And as long as we keep doing that, there is no refutation of atheism.

    Ashish Dalela

    Atheists like Richard Dawkins accept that the argument from design is the best argument for God. What is this argument? It says that all of nature’s constants like the Gravitational constant, Planck’s constant, Boltzmann’s constant, Speed of light, etc. are so finely tuned for life, that the tuning presents an act of God. These constants are based on physical properties such as mass, temperature, charge, etc. which we reject as being materially real because the reality is taste, touch, sound, sight, and smell. We also reject the idea that the world is governed by mathematical laws because it is governed by demigods. So, the “best” argument for the existence of God — formulated in a “scientific” Christian sense — is false according to Vedic philosophy.

    If you use such arguments, you might win sometimes, but it is not knowledge. It is yet another form of ignorance, which is stilted upon the problems of modern science (e.g. the fact that atomic theory requires 25 such finely-tuned constants). While real scientists are wondering how to reduce all the constants to fewer constants (ultimately just one), the atheists are glorifying the 25 constants, and the anti-atheists are saying these constants were designed by God. In short, neither atheists nor anti-atheists actually advance anything. They are simply reinterpreting the same data in two different ways, to no eventual outcome.

    At this juncture, we should distinguish anti-atheism from theism. And that begins with the question: What is God? What is His nature? How does He create the world? And from that theism comes a new science, which is not based on physical properties and mathematical laws, but based on universal principles which are adapted by choices — i.e. some principle is given higher priority over other principles — in different contexts, and that leads to natural phenomena. The principles are universal, but their application is contextual. And that contextuality or diversity is created from universality through will or choice.

    So, by knowing the principles, we know the universal truth, but that universal truth does not entail the uniformity of nature or scientific determinism. Diversity is created by mixing ideas using choice, such that some idea is dominant and the other idea is subordinate. This type of understanding of diversity — which arises by the mixing of universal ideas through choice, creating a dominant-subordinate hierarchy — is given in Vedic philosophy. But because we don’t understand it (only the mundane rituals) therefore, we never apply it in an argument. As a result, our rituals are different from the rituals of others, but our philosophy is the same as theirs. And that makes it very easy for the atheist to refute because he is not even trying harder.

    Ankur Sethi

    Thank you this was very illuminating.  I think you have presented this very clearly and these concepts of the difference between Vedic theism and modern theism is very well stated. And the differences between anti-atheism and theism. And also the idea of seeking Truth as a person is very well put.
    Regarding Truth as a person. You wrote “Truth is a person, and that person doesn’t force Himself on anybody. In the West, truth is an idea, and you cannot avoid truth. But in Vedic philosophy, truth is a person, and you can avoid that person if you want.”
    As you stated there is a fundamental difference on the nature of Truth. Is Truth a person or an  idea that the material world is discoverable by our logic and reasoning? If you say the Truth is a person then we must distinguish from a singular deity who is controlling access to the Truth. When someone is making a logical argument are they invoking this deity to perceive the Truth?
    Is it more correct to say the Absolute Truth is a person, or would you say Truth is a person?

    Ashish Dalela

    All truths are persons. These persons have three aspects. First, there is a universal set of assumptions or axioms which are called chitta, that are used to “measure” the world, and this measurement is called perception. If you acquire the idea of a computer, then you can see computers, otherwise, you cannot perceive computers. Like that, we have all these ideas about color, taste, smell, form, etc., and using these ideas we are able to see. These ideas are like the measuring instruments in relation to which we measure everything. If someone acquires an idea that nobody else has, then he or she can also create those things and help others see.

    Second, there is an individual, which combines with the universals, and this universal has the capacity to choose. The choices are made based upon what we can perceive, and the choices are made only when we think we are going to create pleasure (or avoid pain). So, pleasure is the innate logic of choosing, and all choosing is for pleasure, and all pleasure leads to choosing. The capacity to perceive conditions our choices, but that capacity to choose is the individual.

    Third, to enjoy with this world, the individual chooser must connect to other things which it considers different from itself (enjoyment with oneself is less enjoyable than with others). By connecting to others, the enjoyer becomes a master or servant, lover and loved, etc.

    Thus, the cognitive capacity is universal and is called chit, the individuality is unique to each instance of the universal and is called ananda, and the relation to the perceived is called sat. Everything in this world is a combination of these three things, ideas, or principles.

    Wherever there is an individual atom of taste, smell, touch, sound, sight, or a thought, a judgment, an intention, or a moral value, there are two things — a universal idea, and an individual instance. The universal is the “truth” but what about individuality? That individual is the Paramatma in each atom of perception, conception, judgment, intention, and valuation.

    Due to the presence of Paramatma in each atom, each atom is a person. So, even if you study the atoms, you are only studying persons, and if we understand persons, then we can understand atoms. For example, an atom doesn’t interact with every other atom in the universe all the time. That’s just like persons; we are “friends” with some people. Then some atom is “defined” or “entangled” with other atoms; that is also like persons: our identities are defined by other persons. The only difference is that ordinary persons can only desire one thing at one time, but the Paramatma can desire infinitely, and each separate desire is reflected in one atom. Hence, we can say that there is only one Paramatma or person, but according to our measurement, He is many — as many instances of Paramatma as there are atoms in the universe.

    So, all truth is a person. There are some properties in everything, which we call their “body” or “matter”. There is some relationship between these bodies, which we call “force”. And there are many individual copies of these bodies and forces which behave as unique individuals.

    Quite simply, real science is studying the world as persons. And false science is depersonalizing this personal world. Real religion is if matter is also treated as a person — a Mother who is trying to make us serve a Father. And false religion is if matter is treated as “inert” or “inactive”.

    So, what we have today is a false religion and false science. Both claim that matter is devoid of purpose, cognition, and whatever is happening is not due to choice in matter. And after saying that matter is working without will or choice — i.e. matter is not a person — then they argue about how soul and God are eternal persons. Thus, we see how some false religion is fighting against some false science. Even if some unity between them is imagined, it is unity between false religion and false science. We should steer clear of false fights and false unities. And that is possible if we can understand what real science and religion are.

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