"Right" Knowledge

May 18, 2020 • Posted By Veronica

The world of yogic philosophy is vast and often contains many contradictory pitfalls, due to several factors, including but not limited to poor translations of ancient texts, cultural interpretations of those translations, and access to understanding how the language of Sanskrit works.

A few years back I decided that I wanted to study the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. While I completed my 200-hour yoga teacher training in 2012, the Yoga Sutras were not a required part of that training. I took a multi-directional approach to self-study. I purchased a couple of different translations of the Yoga Sutras with commentary, listened to an audio book of David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali a Biography, and started taking Vedic chanting lessons focused on the verses of the sutras with a local friend who’s a yoga therapist trained in the Krishnamacharya and Desikachar lineage. I chose such a multi-faceted approach to studying, because I lacked any indication of what an ideal direction of study would be.

Though I have led many trainings over the years, and offered lectures on the topic of Yoga Sutras, I’ve done my best to preface every lecture offered with the disclaimer that I am not an expert. I have not studied any dead languages in a formal setting, I don’t have any degrees in comparative religion, all I have is my own experiences and several books—some of which are written by people with degrees from fancy universities, some written by people without any degrees at all. That being stated, I feel that we are living in a time that highlights the need to discuss a concept from the sutras: pramāṇa.

In my limited understanding of Sanskrit, pramāṇa means “right knowledge.” Pramāṇa is listed as one of the five functions of the mind in verse six of the Yoga Sutras, next to misconception, verbal delusion, sleep, and memory. According to Swami Satchidananda’s translation and commentary on this verse and the one that follows it, there are three ways to determine if the knowledge you have is valid. Direct perception, inference, and scriptural testimony. Obviously, when you perceive something with your own senses you’re more inclined to take your experience as truth. I like Swami Satchidananda’s example of inference, when we see smoke, we infer there must be a fire, because without fire there’d be no smoke. In situations with an absence of direct perception or any information that can be inferred, we are left with the third source of right knowledge—scriptural testimony. Based on Satchidananda’s commentary, I think we can safely substitute the term “expert testimony” for scriptural testimony.

Now, while I know that I’m fascinated by translations of ancient scripts, I understand that most people aren’t. The reason I bring all of this up (other than because I’m a nerd) is because during this pandemic it is becoming increasingly difficult to discern reliable sources of pramāṇa, begging the question:

How do you know that you know what you think you know?

Certainly, the pursuit of knowledge and truth has been alive and well in many cultures and sub-cultures for a long time. However, I’m not sure there’s ever been a time where misinformation and distrust of information sources has ever been so overwhelming.

My son is finishing 3rd grade, from home like the rest of his class. He’s been privileged to receive a school computer to work from, and I know many children are left without that resource. While the parents of those children are doing their best to create lesson plans and continue to give their child access to the same “right” knowledge, my son also has the wide internet available to him full of “lifehacks” that aren’t helpful, “pranks” that are more dangerous than funny, and a whole host of other unknowns.

Even earlier this year as I was researching and writing an academic paper on music in modern yoga culture, there was the question of acceptable references for citation. It is not common for many people to be experts in music and yoga, and those with that knowledge aren’t likely to have Western academic credentials to support their standing as an expert due to a lack of acceptance of indigenous knowledge.

Just last week as I was scrolling through social media I encountered posts from two different people sharing news articles about the COVID-19 death toll in Sweden. The articles were published two weeks apart by different media outlets and were in complete contradiction to each other. One of the people sharing the article was using it to defend their argument to re-open businesses in the US. The other person sharing the other article was using it to defend their argument that lockdown should continue.

We’ve reached a point in time where we can start with our own conclusion and just look for whatever evidence supports that conclusion while ignoring any other data that exists. It’s overwhelming to consider that we live in a time with more information and resources available to more people than ever before, and yet we lack the sense to tread lightly and be curious and thorough in the search for answering our questions without jumping to conclusions and being alarmist.

The truth is, I’m not a doctor or expert of infectious disease. I’m also not an expert on economics or politics. I have inferred that the problems the world faces today are too big for any one person to have all the “right” knowledge necessary to solve all problems at once. I know that as an introvert I prefer to stay home anyway, and that if I do go outside—regardless of any belief that a face mask may or may not prevent the spread of a disease, I know that I don’t have a thousand dollars to the pay the fine if I don’t wear one. Beyond that, I agree with what Darren Main states in his book Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic, “Any discussion on Truth needs to be preceded by a discussion on perception, for it is our perceptions that tell us what we believe to be true.”