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Year : 2015  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 5-8

The concept of Jnana, Vijnana and Prajnana according to Vedanta philosophy*

Karnataka Sanskrit University; Division of Yoga - Spirituality, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana [S-VYASA], Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Date of Web Publication17-Jul-2015

Correspondence Address:
M K Sridhar
Dean, Division of Yoga - Spirituality, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana [S-VYASA], Bengaluru, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2347-5633.161024

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The words such as jnana, vijnana and prajnana have wide and multifarious meanings in the Hindu thoughts and especially in the Vedanta philosophy. They just does not mean any kind of knowledge but a systematic methodology and encompass a plethora of disciplines, be it in the realms of art, science or philosophy. The aim and purpose of such knowledge are to help the individual in attaining happiness and welfare in this world leading to salvation. The goals of every Hindu, nay, any seeker revolves around the proper understanding and perceiving the above concepts and implementing them personally for a meaningful and purposeful living in this world and the world hereafter. This paper examines the etymology of the words jnana, vijnana and prajnana, their connotations and denotations from the domains of grammar and Vedanta philosophy. Jnana stands for knowledge, vijnana for the systematic study of a branch of learning, science, intellectual awareness and consciousness. Prajnana stands for profound knowledge, wisdom, ultimate reality or Brahman. These words are inter-related and connote a higher meaning in the realm of spiritualism. This paper also attempts to compare these concepts from the standpoint of modern scientific methodology and consciousness debates.

Keywords: Consciousness, ignorance, intelligence, knowledge, ultimate reality or Brahman

How to cite this article:
Sridhar M K. The concept of Jnana, Vijnana and Prajnana according to Vedanta philosophy*. Int J Yoga - Philosop Psychol Parapsychol 2015;3:5-8

How to cite this URL:
Sridhar M K. The concept of Jnana, Vijnana and Prajnana according to Vedanta philosophy*. Int J Yoga - Philosop Psychol Parapsychol [serial online] 2015 [cited 2024 Mar 3];3:5-8. Available from: https://www.ijoyppp.org/text.asp?2015/3/1/5/161024

  Introduction-Etymology Top

Grammatically the word jnana is derived from the root of the Sanskrit verb "jna0" which means to know, to investigate and to recognize. When a suffix "ana" is added, the word convey the meanings of knowing, knowledge, sacred knowledge, consciousness, knowledge leading to liberation, etc.

When a preposition "vi0" is added to the word jnana then it denotes the meanings such as knowledge, worldly knowledge, wisdom, intelligence, discernment, understanding etc., The sciences are called by the word vijnana in India as they demand a methodological study of the subjects.

When a preposition "pra" is added to the word "jnana" then it means intelligence, consciousness, a mark or a sign. When a prefix 'a' is added to the word "jnana," then it denotes ignorance or spiritually ignorant. If a word "su0" is added to "jnana," then it conveys the meaning of right knowledge. If a letter "aa" is added to the word jnana, then it becomes "aajnanam," which means knowledge in completeness. If a prefix "sam0" is added to the word "jnana," then it means knowledge and understanding. The Upanishads deal with all these words and the end goal of every spiritual seeker is to realize himself and realize the ultimate reality or Brahman.

The awareness or jnana includes the process of understanding the external world and the internal world or the reality. According to the upanishadic thinkers and Shankaracharya, jnana in the final analysis is the knowledge of Brahman. Shankara says that one can get liberation from knowledge only (Jnanadevatu kaivalyam).

The positive sciences of the Hindus are referred to by the word vijnana. Vijnana is also called a shastra in Sanskrit. Any branch of knowledge which teaches knowledge and awareness is called a treatise (shastra) in Sanskrit. A shastra covers the broad areas of right and wrong, sacred and profane, comprehensible and incomprehensible things, the nature of the animate and animate objects. According to Hindu tradition, shastra includes the four Vedas, lore (purana), the six systems of Indian philosophy, grammar, texts dealing with dharma, ethics, science and fine arts. It is defined as under:

  • Pravruttirva nivruttirva nityena krutakena va I
  • Pumsaam yenopadishyeta tat shastramabhideeyate II
"That book is called shastra which teaches the paths of pravritti (engagement in worldly affairs), or nivrutti (renunciation) to the people."

Amarakosha, a Sanskrit lexicography by Amarsimha describes the word vijnana as that branch of knowledge, which gives awareness regarding the world. The other branches of knowledge are called shilpa (fine arts, architecture, etc.). In the present cliché, all scientific and technological knowledge can be termed as vijnana.[1]

Krishna declares in the Bhagavadgita that people should get most profound knowledge from experts in the field. [2] He says that extreme desire (aasha), greed (lobha) and lustful attitude (kama) of a person destroy both knowledge and intellect. They eclipse the mind and intellect. Hence one should control the sense organs and passion.

  • Tasmatvam indriyanyadau niyamya bharatarshabha I
  • Papmanam prajahi hyenam jnanavijnana nashanam[3] II
"Therefore Oh! Bull of the Bharata race! controlling the senses at the outset, kill it, the sinful, the destroyer of knowledge and realization."

According to Krishna, knowledge should be associated with realization leading to the spiritual progress of a person (Jnana vijnana triptatma kutastho vijitendriyayaha - BG VI-8).

According to Sanskrit texts, a person who is specialized in one or several branches of knowledge is called a shastrajna or a vijnani. In the modern parlance, both the shastrajna and a vijnani are engaged in the pursuit of truth, either external or internal. Generally, a scientist is engaged in discovering the truths in the external world of reality or objective reality. In this process, the scientist had forgotten to examine the subjective reality.

The brain which had evolved over a period of 150 million years in the path of evolution and responsible for knowing the external world of reality had forgotten or incapable of "knowing itself" according to neuroscientists. However, owing to the tremendous advancements in the field of neurosciences, now the brain is in a position to understand itself. [4] The researches in the quantum physics and new physics are in the process of reducing the thin line of difference between wave or particle, mind, and matter. David Joseph Bohm and other scientists have combined the words wave and particle and have christened it as wavicle.

The traditional Hindu philosophers have declared long ago that the consciousness is not visible as it is a subjective reality. One has to resort to meditation and introspection (antardarshana) for realizing that subjective reality.[5]

  The concept of sheaths Top

This aspect is described in the Taittiriyopanishad in an enchanting way thus. The sages explain that the body is made up of five sheaths or layers. They are: Sheath of food (annamaya) psychic energy (pranamaya), mind (manomaya), intelligence vijnanamaya) and bliss (anandamaya). A spiritual seeker should progress from one sheath to the other slowly and steadily. They can be compared to various planes of existence or consciousness.

Primarily a person has to satisfy his basic necessities of life and at this level comes the annamaya or materialism. The zeal and zest toward life, feverish activity for attaining the desired goals are covered under pranamaya or vitalism. The mind plays an active role in all the mundane world of activities and here comes the level of manomaya or mentalism. Having satisfied basic and emotional necessities, man craves for intellectual awareness. He satisfies his curiosity by participating in intellectual and philosophical deliberations and reaches the level of vijnanamaya or intellectualism. Only a few people rise further and realize the ultimate reality by consistent practice (abhyasa) and renunciation (vairagya). They reach transcendentalism or anandamaya[6] and attain the state of bliss (ananda).

The experience of the five sheaths is like that of entering a big palace or the search of a topic in the internet. When you stand before a palace, you will be wonderstruck by its outward appearance. As you open the doors, you step in to a path way or a corridor leading to many suits. Each suit will have its own glamour and allures you and gives a new aesthetic experience. In the same way, when you start searching for an item in the internet, you will be led to various sites and if you are not cautious, you will lose track and be lost in the world of information and frustration.

Likewise people may be allured into the pleasures of the mundane world and end up satisfying sensate desires. Some may lead a life of feverish activity and rarely find time to turn inward. Some may lead an emotional life all through. Some may be happy in sharpening their intellectual skills and participate in intellectual and philosophical debates. Only a few people turn inward and by constant contemplation, realize themselves or the supreme Godhead.

The five sheaths can be compared with the five gross elements (pancha mahabhutas) namely, earth (pritvi), water (apaha), air (vayu), fire (tejas), and space or ether (akasha). These five gross elements have five subtle parts which exist in sub-atomic states (rasa tanmatras) namely, smell (gandha), taste (rasa), form (rupa), touch (sparsha) and sound (shabda). The corresponding sense organs are nose, tongue, skin eyes, and ears. But Brahman is above the sensorial and supra-sensorial experiences. The Taittiriyopanishad says that the speech returns along with the mind unable to reach him, whose nature is unalloyed bliss. [7]

The word vijnana means consciousness according to Vedanta. It also means supra-consciousness. Brahman is that vijnana. In a broad way, the three concepts of Vedanta namely, Atman (individual soul), Brahman (universal soul) and vijnana (consciousness) are one and the same. For example, the Mundaka and Chandogya Upanishads declare: "All this is Brahman," "There is no diversity here. He who perceives diversity here goes from death to death."
"Thus, to say all this is Brahman or amounts to saying that all this is vijnana. In other words, all this is vivarta (illusory manifestation) or parinama (transformation) of Brahman or Vijnana." [8]

  Brahman consciousness Top

Brahman is also called prajnana. He is a mark or sign for consciousness. Any person endowed with this consciousness is called prajnana ghana. The Upanishads say that one should not only know and understand Brahman but also experience Brahman.

Then he verily becomes Brahman himself (Brahmavid brahmaiva bhavati). Ramakrishna Paramahamsa gives a fine illustration in this regard:
"When, having attained the nondual Brahman in samadhi, one comes back to the plane of the ego, one realizes that it is Brahman who has become the universe of plurality." To get to the flesh of the fruit you discard its skin and seeds. But when you want to know the total weight of the fruit, you must weigh them all together. The skin, the seeds, the flesh-all belong to one and the same fruit. Similarly, having realized the unchangeable reality-the one absolute, existence-one finds that he who is the absolute, formless, impersonal, infinite God is again one with the relative universe. He who is absolute in one aspect is relative in another aspect, and both aspects belong to one and the same substance.[9] Every subject whether in the domains of science or arts, deals with knowledge (jnana), knower (jnatru) and known (jneya). It is called the three-fold aspect of knowledge. A spiritual seeker (jnatru) should get knowledge (jnana) of the Brahman and it should be known (jneya). Even in experimental sciences, there is a process of experiment, observation, inference and conclusion.

  Body, Mind and Consciousness Top

From the modern standpoint, annamaya kosha is our body or the matter, whereas our thoughts, emotions and feelings are manomaya sheath and consciousness is vijnanamaya. Although according to Vedanta, consciousness has an independent existence, modern sciences are yet to agree with this formidable issue or the problem.

Of late, the new physicists such as Fritjof Capra, Bell, Frank Allen Wolf, Rupert Sheldrake, Paul Davis and mathematician Roger Penrose are raising questions about the over-emphasis on matter and speculating about the possible existence of consciousness.

The striking differences between matter and mind upheld by the votaries of science, all along the history and triumphant march of science slowly dissipated and crumbled with the exploration of quantum physics. Now the smallest sub-nuclear particle known as Resonance is described, more as a happening and an event rather than a particle. According to Fritjof Capra questions regarding the ultimate building blocks of matter remains unanswered. [10]

Today the matter is on the crossroads in the new light of quantum physics and new physics. These elementary particles can be interpreted as waves or particles. The scientists have grappled with this formidable problem of deciding whether light was just a stream of discrete minutest particles called photons or nothing but a continuous wave function. It was a gnawing problem as the experimental evidence indicated that in some situations light behaved as if it was made up of particles, while some cases it behaved as if it was a wave function. As both aspects of this scientific dichotomy had validity, scientists decided to define the phenomenon of light as a "wavicle" which meant that light was comprised of two contrary aspects, namely waves and particles. [11] According to Bell, the real particles exist, but they follow strange orders. Physicist Fred Alan Wolf calls such activities of particles as psychic phenomenai. The new physicists such as Michael Talbot, Rupert Sheldrake, Fritjof Capra and others are advocating "inter-actionism," which emphasize that "mind or ego, soul, psyche, spirit or conscious self somehow interacts with the body or matter through brain." [12] Hence, there is a paradigm shift from the Newtonian division of matter and mind to the inseparable interconnectedness between matter and consciousness perhaps leading to a singularity instead of duality or plurality in the world of modern science. Swami Vivekananda had remarked in the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893 as under: "Thus it is through multiplicity and duality that the ultimate unity is reached. Religion can go no further. This is the goal of all science." [13]

Dr. Paul Davis, Professor of Mathematics in the University of Adelaide, Australia, while writing a series of articles in the daily Statesman on the topic of Nature and Mystery of consciousness concludes that "consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe, connected in a deep and still mysterious way to the laws of Nature." [14]

Dr. Roger Penrose, Rouse Ball Professor, an English mathematical physicist, and philosopher of science at University of Oxford and a friend of Stephen. W. Hawking while discussing the phenomenon of consciousness, in the context of researches in Artificial intelligence, "Turing" computer machines, computability and nature of physical reality says thus:
"Consciousness seems to me to be such an important phenomenon that I simply cannot believe that it is something just accidentally conjured up by a complicated computation. It is the phenomenon whereby the universe, governed by laws that do not allow consciousness, is no universe at all. I would even say that all the mathematical descriptions of the universe that have been given so far must fail this criterion. It is only the phenomenon of consciousness that can conjure up a putative theoretical universe into actual existence." [15]

In the end he raises the following questions:

What happens to each of our streams of consciousness after we die? Where was it before each was born? Might we become or have been someone else? Why do we perceive at all? Why are we here, Why is there a universe at all in which we can actually be? These are puzzles that tend to come with the awakenings of awareness in any one of us and no doubt with the awakening of genuine self-awareness within whichever creature or other entity, it first came and suggests that for an answer to such questions, a theory of consciousness would be needed. However, how would one have begun to explain "the substance of such problems to an entity that was not itself conscious!?" [16]

The Vivekachudamani of Shankaracharya (vs. 125-133) summarizes the concept of consciousness such as three states of consciousness namely waking (jagrat), dream (svapnam) and deep sleep stage (sushupti), combination of subjectivity and objectivity termed as "omnijective" by Michale Talbot, consciousness beyond space-time continuum and many more.

A recipient of several international awards, Roger Sperry opines that "this shift from a causal determinacy that is purely physical to one that includes conscious, subjective forces that supercede the physical, makes all the differences when it comes to using the "truths" of sciences as criteria of ethical values." [17]

  Conclusion Top

We find that jnana, vijnana and prajnana play a great role for the seekers in understanding the physical world, the ultimate reality who is beyond name and form, who is beyond space-time continuum and who is an omnijective reality. A seeker should get rid of his nescience (avidya) and ignorance (ajnanam) for experiencing the bliss of Brahman which is only experiential phenomena and not theoretical phenomena.

  References Top

Amara Kosha, Mokshe dheehi anyatra vijnanam shilpashastrayoho I I.5. 167  Back to cited text no. 1
Bhagavadgita, Iti guhyatamam shastram idamuktam mayanagha I XV-20.  Back to cited text no. 2
Bhagavadgita, III.41.  Back to cited text no. 3
Pl refer EEC report (1983) of Dr. Roger Sperry.  Back to cited text no. 4
Atma vaare shrotavyo mantavyo nidhidhyasitavyaha I.  Back to cited text no. 5
Taittiriyopanishad, I. 4.  Back to cited text no. 6
Yato vacho nivartante aprapya manasa saha I Anando brahmano vidwan na bibheti kutaschana II Tai Up. II.1.  Back to cited text no. 7
Prabhavananda, Swami, The Spiritual Heritage of India, p.569.  Back to cited text no. 8
Prabhavananda, Swami, Ibid, p. 345-346.  Back to cited text no. 9
Capra, Fritjof, Tao of Physics, Shambala. 1987. p. 284.  Back to cited text no. 10
Zukav, Gary, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, New York, Bantam Books, 1980. First published by Moscow, 1979.  Back to cited text no. 11
Jitatmananda, Swami, Science, Ethics and Holistic Values, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1999. p.8-9.  Back to cited text no. 12
Chicago Address, Sri Ramakrishna Mutt, Bangalore, 1975.  Back to cited text no. 13
Roger Penrose, Emperor's New Mind, p. 579-80.  Back to cited text no. 14
Ibid, p.581.  Back to cited text no. 15
Jitatmananada, Swami, Ibid. p.151-2.  Back to cited text no. 16
Jitatmananada, Swami, Ibid. p.151-2.  Back to cited text no. 17

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