Sometimes, I just know. I know not to take that route, that job, that apartment. I know when my sister is going through tough times and I need to pick up the phone.
Through what we’ve come to know as gut instinct — sometimes fluttery, sometimes dull and heavy — I just know.
And yet, there are other times when I find myself searching desperately for answers. Not all of the universe’s limitless questions and scenarios can be grasped by the five senses. Recognizing the mind’s many means of knowing can help us to understand how best to react and interact with the world around us.
I'll be sharing with you here how the mind functions, through the lens of Hindu philosophy. We'll look at the six means of knowledge, known as pramanas, and how they can help you understand your Self in any given situation.
In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines five fluctuations of the mind, known as vrittis. If we imagine the mind to be a pool of still, tranquil water, vrittis are whirlpools causing ripples and waves. These fluctuations come in the form of thoughts, interrupting and interfering with our stream of consciousness.
According to Patanjali, the aim of yoga is to harness the vrittis as a means of stilling the mind, thereby providing freedom from thoughts and suffering. The first and arguably most complex vritti is pramana, meaning "source of true knowledge." The others are viparyaya (misconception), vikalpa (imagination), nidra (sleep) and smriti (memory).
Pramana and Prior Knowledge
Anything and everything your mind dreams up is founded in prior knowledge. From the moment you were born to the moment you read the last sentence, you are continually and constantly acquiring all kinds of knowledge.
But how do we know what is really true? How can we be sure to trust our own minds?
The epistemological branch of Hindu philosophy tries to answer such questions with a theory on the nature of knowledge and its origins, known as pramana.
Sanskrit for “proof,” pramana explores the various means by which we obtain accurate and reliable knowledge about the worlds around us, both internal and external.
There are six pramanas, each of which can be thought of as faculties of the mind. When we become conscious of an object or situation, our mind selects a faculty with which to analyze and interpret the information. Knowledge of various kinds requires distinct faculties as a means of understanding, of knowing what is true.
The Six Pramana
The following six pramana are said to be the only reliable and accurate means of knowledge available to us.
1. Pratyaksha (Perception)
Split into two types, internal and external, pratyaksha refers to acquiring knowledge based on direct experience.
It is important that knowledge acquired through pratyaksha is from your own perception, not having accepted someone else’s.
External pratyaksha involves using the five senses, whereas internal pratyaksha relies on intuition and cognition of remembered feelings such as pain, love, danger or anger.
2. Anumana (Inference)
Anumana involves applying reason and prior knowledge to one or more observations in order to reach a new conclusion. A common example of anumana is inferring fire after observing smoke.
3. Upamana (Comparison and Analogy)
Upamana is a process by which conclusions are drawn from either observing similarities or understanding analogies of a similar word, object or situation.
Similes and metaphors can help us to acquire knowledge through upamana.
4. Arthapatti (Postulation)
Arthapatti is presumption or supposition of a fact derived from circumstance or an already established fact. In this sense, arthapatti can be considered the junction between common sense and conjecture.
5. Anupalabdhi (Non-apprehension)
Anupalabdhi is using existing knowledge of a negative as cognitive proof to derive further knowledge. By non-perception, it is possible to prove the non-existence of something.
6. Sabda (Verbal Testimony)
Sabda is the relying on the spoken and written word of past or present experts. This is considered an important and authentic means of knowledge since we each have only limited time and energy available to learn truths directly.
Using Pramanas to Understand the Self
Whilst each pramana operates as a clear and distinct means of knowing, they also each have a rather limited scope. As such, it is important not only to observe how they interact with one another, but to try and become conscious of which pramana to resort to and when.
Understanding how we may interpret knowledge based on the theory of pramana helps us to understand how we react and respond in various situations, in turn enabling us to harness Patanjali’s first vritti for a calmer mind.
By analyzing our thoughts through the lens of pramanas, we are able to ascertain whether knowledge is reliable and true, preventing ourselves from being carried away by baseless agonies.
Although it may take a lot of practice and self-study, sharpening self-awareness in this way undoubtedly averts suffering.
Trusting the Truth Within
Awareness of the six pramanas is a vital step toward stilling the whirlpools of the mind. By understanding which sources of knowledge are reliable and true, we gain a clearer acuity of our sense of Self and our place in the world around us.
Often, the fluctuations of the mind disturb us most when we are unable to establish truth, when we are desperately searching for answers. Next time you feel your gut instinct kick in, stop and question it.
Is it inference? Postulation? Perception?
With enough practice, you might find that you already have all the answers you need in any given situation.