Experience and Knowledge (Q. 321)

Q: ‘Experiential’, seemingly, is becoming a stumbling block in current discussions within spirituality and non-duality. There are the ‘experiential’, usually ‘anti-intellectual’ types (who deprecate ‘merely intellectual’, or ‘conceptual’ approaches), and those who defend the proper use of mind and the intellect, without denying the validity of experience.

 Would it be possible, though, to dispense with either of the two concepts: ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’?; they appear to overlap, practically being synonyms and, indeed, one can say “I know pain in the belly”, or, “I know such and such emotion”, “I know (I am acquainted with) life”, etc., without resorting to the word ‘experience’ – the word ‘acquaint’, conveniently, is derived from the Latin via old French: cognoscere, gnoscere. The other alternative would be to dispense with the word ‘knowledge’ and use instead ‘real’/’unreal’, ‘reality’, which is, precisely, sat/asat in sanskrit – and expressions using these terms are quite frequent, as everybody… realizes (‘is cognizant with’, then, would have to be ruled out). Just today I wrote in a comment that true understanding is an experience, but now I have my doubts. Ultimately, certainly, the only Experiencer/Knower is brahman/atman (though he remains ever unmoved).

A (Peter): As I read it, this question relates to the value of two words – ‘experience’ and ‘knowledge’ – in the context of arriving at the vision of non-duality. Here we have an example of the limits of translation. The translated words carry with them the meaning commonly implied by the culture from which they come. So, in English, these two words are understood in the way that most English speakers would use them. And, even though the Sanskrit equivalents anubhāva and jñānam might carry similar meanings in some contexts, as technical terms used in the particular context of revealing the advaita vision, they are handled differently. They take on special meanings. Below are some thoughts around these words.

Re: Experience.

  1. Phrases like ‘experience the Self’ (or even ‘self-realisation’) are never part of a traditional advaitin’s vocabulary; so it’s probably only in the non-traditional ‘spiritual’ scene that these words crop up. That said, it’s also a fact that a number people in the ‘non-duality’ scene speak of multiple paths: action, meditation, devotion, guru’s grace, etc leading to ‘self-realisation’. These people are looking for experiences, and believe that the ‘way of knowledge’ is only for dry intellectual types.
  2. Here is how traditional teachers see the relationship between consciousness (Self) and experience:
    Consciousness + vṛtti (thought modification) = experience.

    Thus to the traditional teacher ‘experience’ is a thought in mind (as the questioner indicated through equating phrases like ‘I know pain in my belly’ with ‘I have an experience of pain in my belly’). Mind, in the form of thought modification, needs to be active for there to be an experience. Mind (thought modification) is one thing, and that which it experiences is another – distinct from mind. So for there to be an experience of Self, mind would need to be other than the all-pervasive Self. But this is against reason.
  3. It’s understandable then that some people who want to experience ‘pure consciousness’/Self think: 
    Experience (minus) vṛtti (thought modification) = Consciousness
    Thus we see how meditation and yoga (with its goal of Samadhi) is influenced by the concept of the experience of Self through the elimination of thoughts. Rendering themselves non-aware (as in deep sleep or swoon) will not deliver self-knowledge. (You don’t have to flatten the ocean to get to water: you just need to understand/know that the wave is water to get beyond the name and form ‘wave’.)

Re: Knowledge

  1. So much for ‘experience’ but what about ‘knowledge’? Our normal understanding of knowledge is as attached to something. ‘Tree knowledge’, ‘book knowledge’, ‘word knowledge’. Advaita points out that this ‘knowledge’ is Brahman and ‘tree’, ‘book’, ‘word’ are names superimposed on it. ‘Knowledge’ in this context is a synonym for ‘consciousness’ or ‘existence’.  There cannot be tree knowledge without tree consciousness. There cannot be tree consciousness without tree existence. Jñānam (knowledge) = cit (consciousness) = sat  (existence).
  2. So whilst experience would always be of an ‘other’, knowledge is Brahman: jñānam Brahma. To distinguish this use of the word ‘knowledge’ from the common worldly use of the word, the Upaniṣad adds the word ‘anantam’ (limitlessness) to the indicators of Brahman. Thus, if knowledge has a beginning, then this is not what is meant. If knowledge is in any way incomplete, this is not what is meant. If the knowledge is limited to an object, then this is not what’s meant. If the knowledge is limited by time or place, this is not what is meant. In trying to understand the Sanskrit word jñānam (knowledge) it is not useful to superimpose the meaning of broadly equivalent words from French or Latin: when traditional teachers use the word ‘knowledge’ they use it in a very particular sense and this is how the traditional teaching of Vedānta comes to retain its potency in their hands.
  3. Arriving at ‘pure’ knowledge means being Brahman. Aham brahmāsi (I am Brahman) is the last vṛtti.
  4. The final area of potential vagueness that needs clearing relates to the questioner’s closing statement: ‘Ultimately, certainly, the only Experiencer/Knower is brahman/atman (though he remains ever unmoved)’. This is true only from the point of view of the known universe: for something to be known there needs to be a knower. The converse – Brahman/atman is the only experiencer/knower – however, is not true. Just as in the mere presence of light things get illumined, but light has no will or desire or volition to illumine, so too Brahman is not a knower: in the mere presence of brahman / atman / consciousness, knowledge takes place (see equation at 3 above).

A (Sitara): Both verbs – ‘to know’ as well as ‘to experience’ are transitive verbs, i.e. they require an object, something to be known or to be experienced. So correct use of them according to English grammar (in German too) implies duality.

 This means if they are used in the context of Advaita, one has to point out that their usage is different here. The jnani knows, that’s why he is called a jnani, but this knowing has no object, he is the knower, the known and the knowing. When we talk about enlightenment, self-realization, awakening, jnana, jivanmukti etc. there is no place for an object. The very realization of who you are in truth means “falling back” into your very subjectivity – and this too is just to be understood as a poetic figure of speech. Nobody is falling anywhere, of course. Brahman/Atman is ever unmoved, as you say.

 Experience and knowledge happen in the mind. Even the recognition of your true nature happens in the mind (in the buddhi[1]). It is a thought. This thought is special though, it even has a name, it is called akhanda-akara-vritti. Why is it special? Because it is the last thought in duality. The thought itself is in the form of non-duality/indivisibility, and because this thought is in absolute accordance with reality, the whole mind henceforth takes on the form of reality, i.e. of non-duality. From now on vyavaharika reality is experienced but paramarthika reality is known, just like mirage water may be seen even though its actual truth is known to be heat waves.

 Advaita Vedanta uses both terms, knowing and experiencing. In the normal usage of language ‘knowing’ is associated with buddhi and ‘experiencing’ is associated with ahamkara. As buddhi is, as I said before, our ally on the path to truth[2] the word knowledge is more widely used than the word experience. To distinguish it from the knowledge of an object one calls it “pure knowledge”.

A (Dhanya): You are pointing out the difficulty of using words when discussing the teachings of nonduality.  Yet words are all we have.

 The word ‘experience’ is indeed a particularly difficult and potentially very misleading word.

 As samaris our entire lives are dedicated to experience seeking.  It is our orientation.  We all want to be happy, and the only way we think it is possible to experience happiness is to have events in duality line up in a certain way.  In that instant, because our minds are desire free, we experience happiness. 

 This is actually a circuitous route to happiness.  True happiness is gained, not as a temporary experience, but rather in the recognition that one’s true nature is happiness itself. 

 However because some experiences do seem to produce happiness we therefore assume that happiness is something which is gained as a result of an experience and rather than recognizing that happiness already exists as oneself.

 When we hear there is such a thing as moksha and further that moksha is something desirable, we assume that it must be a really big experience of happiness, an experience of happiness far superior and more intense than any experience of happiness we’ve previously had. 

 Given our conditioning and orientation this is a natural assumption to make.  However, if one makes this assumption, one misses the point of the teachings entirely. If not checked this assumption will lead to a type of experience seeking that becomes a major stumbling block as one seeks after more and better bliss, blisser, and blissest experiences.

 My Vedanta teacher is very careful when using the word ‘experience’ in teaching, and she will often say,  “Liberation is not the gain of a new experience.  It is the recognition of the truth of the experience one is already having.” 

As far as I know one doesn’t really understand the truth of such words until one recognizes what they are pointing out, though they do serve to curb and hopefully circumvent the student’s seeking after bliss experiences.

 The teachings of Vedanta refer to the recognition of the truth of one’s being as ‘the attainment of the attained.’  So it isn’t the gain of a new experience, but rather it is the recognition of what is already true, but was heretofore overlooked.

 The word ‘knowledge’ may be as equally misleading as the word ‘experience,’ because we take the word ‘knowledge,’ in the usual sense of the word, to mean knowledge of an object in the changing world of experience.   Because the truth is not known as an object, it is sometimes said in the teachings, “The truth cannot be known.”   That is really an incomplete statement, a kind of shorthand.  To flesh out that statement would need to say, “The truth cannot be known in the same way that a changing object in duality is known.” For instance it cannot be cognized by the sense organs, nor is it indirect knowledge—such as someone telling you about it—nor is it inferred or deduced. 

 A further objection to the word knowledge is that it is often confused with the word ‘intellectual,’ which you pointed out.  And when people use the word intellectual as an objection what they actually mean is conceptual. The recognition of the truth is not conceptual.  It isn’t a concept or an idea. Therefore that objection is valid.

So what is a good word to use?  Is it knowledge versus experience?  Actually I would say initially and without proper explanation it is neither. 

As I pointed out, one needs to be careful when using the word knowledge because the valid objections raised to that word will be that what we are talking about is not knowledge of an object, nor it is intellectual, as in conceptual knowledge.

At the same time liberation is not the gain of a new experience, so in that sense it is not experiential.

I feel the best word to use is some form of the word I’ve already used above, which is recognition. 

As an analogy (and no analogy is exact or perfect) one might say that the truth is recognized in a way similar to the recognition which takes place when looking at a figure ground reversal picture.  At first one doesn’t see the reversal, and then all of a sudden one does.  It isn’t as if what one recognized wasn’t there all along.  It was there.  One just didn’t recognize it until one does, and then one doesn’t loose sight of that recognition.

The teachings when effective are in large part dedicated to negating the false notions and concepts we have about ourselves.  Along with negating those false concepts and notions, we also have to negate the false notions that the words ‘experience’ and ‘knowledge’ conjure up.  Both words are useful in teaching when properly handled, and proper handling of words is the key.

All words initially point to something in duality.  It is the job of the teacher to continually negate the wrong understanding a word might produce in the student’s mind, while at the same time using the word properly as a pointer. 

A teacher of Vedanta, because he or she is trained, will know how to do this.  A person who does not have that training or skill may not know how to do this, and thus confusion will ensue, as you pointed out in your question.

Using the words sat or asat will just provide for more confusion in my opinion.  And furthermore as far as I know neither of those words indicates the recognition of what is already so.  Sat and asat are what are termed ‘reality words.’  They describe reality, but they do not describe the recognition of reality.

A (Ramesam): What exactly is the question?

Is it about the terminology –words like experience, knowledge, sat/asat, reality, experiencer etc.?

Or is the question about the Advaitic understanding itself – at a conceptual or intellectual or other level?

Because I am not clear about the question, I too ramble below and see if something clicks!?

There is one “Reality” (with upper case R by convention to indicate that It is universal and not personal), there is real/unreal indeterminacy, and there is impossibility (tuccha in Sanskrit). Are you confused about these terms?

Broadly two paths are indicated by Sages to arrive at an understanding of the a-dvaita (no-twoness) – the Knowledge Path and the Yoga Path. (Please see: Comparison Of The “Stages” In Yoga-Based And Knowledge-Based Spritual Paths).

The final final understanding is indisputably through Knowledge only. Because you are already that which you seek to understand. So there is no specific action that can produce an outcome of a changed personality after the dawn of understanding the Oneness. What is needed is simply ‘to remember’ the forgotten fact. When you refer to the experiential vs. intellectual types, do you mean to refer to these two broad Paths? Here ‘experiential’ does not indicate that an individual ‘experiencer’ will be experiencing or knowing the Non-dual Oneness. The very subject, the experiencer too dissolves and only ‘experiencing’ remains out of the triad (triputi) of observer-observing-observed. So it is in a way a language of gerunds.

You are like a TV antenna. You can receive all sorts of programmes –sad ones, celebratory ones, in any language – French/German/English etc. Does it matter to the antenna? Does the antenna experience the programme? Or better consider the computer screen on which you are reading this message. Maybe there was a movie you watched in another window. Has the computer screen changed in any way by these different images? Can you say that the screen experienced the programmes? You can at the most say that the screen itself took the form of a picture or a text respectively when you watched the movie or read the text now.

3 thoughts on “Experience and Knowledge (Q. 321)

  1. Excellent commentaries – all four of them – which throw light on several aspects of Advaita. Thank you all. Ramesan is right: “What exactly is the question?” My intention in formulating it was multiple, and perhaps a little convoluted (right use of words, problems of translation… and of understanding; ultimately the metaphysics of Advaita), but it also was posed half in jest, knowing full well that one cannot eliminate either of those two wods (‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’) from the non-dual vocabulary, nor will anyone allow it. My main intention was to defend myself from all those who disparage the terms ‘intellectual’ (or… “it’s only conceptual”, mistaking these two terms, as Dhanya remarks), people that you find very much represented in the FB (face book). Peter comes closest (“people in non-duality scene looking for experiences… knowledge is for dry intellectual types”). Also interesting comment by Sitara (“knowledge is associated with buddhi and experience with ahamkara”). And Dhanya noting the difficulties and potential risks with the use of these two terms, and then coming to the same point mentioned initially (“experience seeking: a stumbling block” – her own words). I also agree with her: “sat and asat not the right words to use” in this context. Well, this is enough from this end – far from being a knower of Advaita.

    • Thanks amartingarcia.

      Let me ask you. Or rather ask yourself: “Are you alive?”

      Now when you get the answer, is it knowledge? Is it an experience? Is it intellectual? Is it experiential? Is it a concept?
      The answer is just realized – what is “Real” is ‘real’ – ized.


  2. Thank you Ramesan

    Yes, I get your point. ‘True’ and ‘real’ have the same meaning, and they are both concepts (“what’s in a name?”). Often it is a question of semantics, usually superfluous or too meticulous (pedantic). But not always, and so one tries to choose the right word at the right time (in the right context) – we all do that. Exact synonyms are not that many (an example: knowledge and cognition). With respect to my initial concern (‘knowing’ v. ‘experiencing’), I like the expression: ‘knowledge experience’, which an author I like (Ramakrishna Puligandla – ‘That Thou Art’), uses frequently when referring himself to ultimate reality. Incidentally, he says that that ‘experience/knowledge’ is a truly mystical one… that the Upanishads are essentially that.You may agree with this.

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