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Inference as a Means of Knowledge
Dane: James talks a lot about inference and superimposition. Can you explain how they relate to each other and to self-inquiry?
Sundari: Superimposition is the unconscious reversal (viparaya) that Maya imposes on the mind, which results in the erroneous cognition of reality as a duality. It manifests as a belief that the Self is an object of experience and that the body-mind is the subject. Vedanta destroys that notion and reverses the reversal.
Superimposition is automatic and unconscious. It is part of the universal human condition. It is that very uncomfortable, pervasive feeling of global inexplicable guilt or free-floating anxiety, which the Christians call original sin. It is the fear of not knowing, of separation, of stumbling in the dark. Superimposition happens before we appear, so it is not our fault. Unfortunately, it becomes our problem until it is removed with discrimination born of Self-knowledge.
Only firm Self-knowledge can reverse the reversal, making the reality of duality disappear like mist burning off the land when the sun shines through the clouds. When that happens, we no longer need to infer the truth of our existence, because we know we are existence itself, so never again identify with the body-mind. Unfortunately, superimposition is so convincing it makes it very difficult to accept inference as a valid means of knowledge for the Self.
The main aim of the teachings of Vedanta is to help us to disidentify with the body-mind, which is the cause of suffering, and to take our identity as the Self as our primary identity. But even highly qualified inquirers can get stuck without realizing that the reason they are not experiencing the fruit of Self-inquiry – freedom from suffering – is because they do not have enough faith in the scripture, and thus have not accepted inference as a valid means of knowledge.
They do not realize that they are still waiting for an experience of the Self to prove that the scriptures are correct. This will never happen, because there is no special experience that can prove this, because the Self is not an object of perception. You never gain anything with the removal of ignorance. You always were the Self. But the problem is that there is no direct way for a jiva to confirm the statements of Vedanta, because the Self is the subject, not the object. It is the knower of jiva’s experience, including the (apparent) non-experience of the Self.
Though we experience consciousness all the time without realizing it, to be free of suffering we must understand and live fully what it means to be the consciousness. For this, we must accept inference because it is the only valid means of knowledge for things we can’t experience. Inference is reasoning based on direct perception when direct perception is incapable of delivering knowledge.
Knowledge of objects is only knowledge if the perception is true to the object. An example of direct perception delivering knowledge is when we experience fire. Assuming the mind and sense organs are working correctly if a fire is in front of our eyes, we will see a fire. You don’t need inference, because direct perception is working. But what if there is no fire, only smoke?
If there is an inviolable link between something you can’t perceive and something you can, then inference comes into play. You can infer fire from smoke because smoke only happens when there is fire. We can experience them together directly; we do not need a scripture to tell us that where there is smoke there is fire. But Self-knowledge is not like knowledge of objects, because the Self is the knower of our only means to know anything, perception and inference. So, what does that mean?
Using the simple logic of inference, we can legitimately infer that there must be an intelligent conscious cause behind the world because we are conscious and we exist. We experience that we are conscious. Reasoning is not necessary, because it is self-evident. Taking it further, it is logical that you are the knower of the body-mind with the simple recognition that your body, thoughts and feelings are known to you. But does knowing that we are not the body automatically imply that we are consciousness/existence and instantly end suffering?
It may, if you are highly qualified and have assimilated the teachings. But normally, no, it does not, because there is no inviolable experiential link between being conscious and being consciousness. If a human being could infer that he or she was consciousness because he or she is conscious, there would be no need for another means of knowledge, or apata vakya, the testimony of a competent witness, i.e. the scripture (Vedanta) and a guru.
But almost nobody draws that conclusion on their own. We hear it from the teaching unfolded by a qualified teacher. Though the knowledge of experienced objects implies the existence of consciousness, objects don’t tell you that you are consciousness. In the same way that you exist is self-evident but does not imply that you are existence itself, there is no connection between the Self, satya, and objects, mithya. They are not in opposition to each other, but they never meet, because satya and mithya are not in the same order of existence. Satya is that which is real because it is always present and unchanging. Mithya is that which is only apparently real because it is not always present and always changing. Therefore an independent teaching capable of delivering Self-knowledge, a guru and all the qualifications, especially faith in the teachings, is required to remove ignorance – superimposition – the hypnosis of duality.
Failure to accept inference as a valid means of Self-knowledge indicates that the most important qualification for liberation, shraddha, or faith in the scripture, which uses inference to “prove” its statements, is lacking. Where there is smoke there is fire. Where there is a jiva there is you, awareness. We must claim our identity as awareness based on the teachings and trust inference, not chase experience. If we claim our identity based on experience, then we will “lose” it when the experience ends because the knowledge will depend on an unreal object. And all experiences end.
Or we will feel like imposters when old jiva programs arise and the mind conditions to them because the experience of our existence/consciousness is never disturbed and conditions to nothing. It is unborn, ever-present bliss. Self-knowledge, unlike object-knowledge, is always valid because it is always present and unchanging. You are never not present, no matter what is going on in the mind.
~ Love, Sundari