Notes on Shankara’s examination of the nature of ‘Error’ in the introduction to the brahmasUtra.
Before inference can occur, there needs to be some valid data which is itself gathered directly or indirectly through direct perception. Otherwise, the inference could only be a speculation or imagination. For example one could not infer the age of the Moon just by looking at it and estimating it. Data must be collected first e.g. rocks could be brought back and carbon dated.
Four aspects are involved in the process of inference. These are the subject or ‘locus’ of the discussion, the objective or ‘conclusion’ (that which is to be inferred or concluded), a ‘basis’ for the argument and finally an ‘analogy’. An example given in the scriptures is the inference that there is a fire on a mountain because one is able to see smoke there, just as might happen in a kitchen. Here, the mountain is the ‘locus’; to infer that there is a fire on the mountain is the ‘conclusion’; the ‘basis’ is that smoke can be seen and the ‘analogy’ is that when one sees smoke in the kitchen, it is invariably associated with fire (this is in the days before electricity!).
The ‘locus’ has to be something that is partly visible and partly unknown; otherwise, it cannot be a matter of dispute. Whether or not there is a fire on the mountain is not visible or known – hence the dispute. Since we cannot see whether or not there is a fire, we must use inference. The ‘conclusion’ – that there is a fire on the mountain – is not observable or directly provable. The ‘basis’ is that smoke can be seen and it is on the mountain. This ‘basis’ is observable. Thus, in the example, the ‘locus’ and the ‘basis’ are both visible while that which is to be inferred, the ‘conclusion’ is invisible.
In order for the ‘analogy’ to be valid, both ‘conclusion’ and ‘basis’ have always to be experienced simultaneously with the same locus in those examples that have been directly perceived, i.e. on which the inference is based. In this case, the listener is aware that fire invariably exists with the smoke when it is encountered in the kitchen. (It has to be this way around and not that smoke invariably occurs when there is fire.)
In order to use inference them, one has to have a basic knowledge of the relationship between the conclusion and the basis, which has been gathered through perception. Here, the knowledge is that wherever there is smoke, there is fire. Once this concommitant relationship has been established through repeated observation, only then can it be used to infer that same relationship in a situation where the conditions cannot be directly perceived. Also, direct perception forms the basis for the implied relationship from which the inference is drawn.
An inference can only be made about a specific object if the perceptible data has been gathered from that object. For example one cannot make conclusions about Mars if the data has been collected from the Moon. All observable data derive from the perceptible universe. The Atman is not perceivable. From this, it follows that, by using scientific observation one cannot arrive at any conclusions about the Atman. Hence, the whole of scientific reasoning is called ‘commonplace inference’ and can only deal with objects that can be perceived. ‘Commonplace inference’ has no access to knowledge of the Atman . To attempt to do so is like trying to hear through the eyes and constitutes an invalid means of knowledge.
Instead of using data collected through the senses, inference may also make use of data collected from the shAstra-s . Here, inferences may be made about the nature of the Atman , since this is the subject of the shAstra-s. The implication of this is that the shAstra-s must be accepted as a valid source of observation. Once this has been done, the validity of the data need not be questioned, although different theories may be put forth to explain the same data. The theories may be incorrect but not the observations. All of the Astika philosophies have accepted the shAstra-s as a valid source; they have just reached differing conclusions. Without valid data, there is no basis for inference, only speculation or belief. Since inference based on the shAstra-s assumes that the shAstra-s are a valid means of knowledge, this method is only applicable to Astika philosophies. The nAstika-s do not accept the shAstra-s. Therefore the brahmasUtra is of no value to them.
Inference or logic, which is based upon perception, could be called scientific reasoning. This is still used in the brahmasUtra though, as noted above, it cannot make any statements about the Atman. Equally, it cannot be used to disprove vedAntic teaching. This is a mistake that many nAstika philosophers make. The brahmasUtra uses the same technique to disprove their claims. (The nAstika-s would not accept inference based upon the shAstra-s in any case.) It is also used to show that vedAnta is not illogical. In fact, it is beyond the realm of logic.
adhyAsa means error or mistake. This is the basis of advaita vedAnta and of Shankara’s interpretation of the brahmasUtra. The doctrine of advaita vedAnta rests upon the four aphorisms in the veda-s: consciousness is brahman; that thou art; I am brahman; this self is brahman. Shankara’s aim is to show that the brahmasUtra is compatible with advaita vedAnta. His claim is that adhyAsa causes the cycle of birth and death with its concommitant suffering. Once the error is removed, that is the end of the cycle.
Errors can arise for various reasons. When I act without knowledge, I commit an error. Even if I know that I am ignorant I am still making a mistake. For example, lack of knowledge of Sanskrit can cause errors in these notes. Even if I know the word I may still make typographical mistakes. Here the error is due to lack of awareness, which is also effectively ignorance, since I am not conscious that what is being typed is not what was intended. Errors may also arise if the instruments of knowledge are defective, for example if I am colour-blind or if there is insufficient illumination. In all of these cases, I am ignorant of the truth and, more importantly, I take the false as real and possibly the real as false.
The price of these mistakes is suffering. Ignorance is the source of error and error causes suffering. The solution is therefore knowledge – knowledge of brahman (brahmavidyA) brings realisation and release from suffering. All techniques, yoga, paths etc are only methods for preparing the mind to receive that knowledge.