by Swami Krishnananda
Perception is a process of the consciousness of an object. It is one of the means of valid knowledge in the world and consists in an inseparable relation of the perceptive consciousness with its content. The objects that are seen in the world are considered by the common man to be existing outside his body and the senses, and he feels that the objects are reflected, as it were, in his mind in perception. The object itself does not enter the eye, for example, in the act of seeing, but there is a transmission of vibration from the object, with which his consciousness comes in contact, which becomes a content of his consciousness, and on account of which he is said to know the existence of the external object. This perception is caused by the operations of a mind whose existence as a mediator between the Atman within and the object outside is evident from the fact of the synthesis of sensations and of the possibility of the absence of perception at certain times. “Sense-knowledge is the product of the connection between the mind and the sensory organs. That is why there is no simultaneity of the knowledge of the impressions received through the various sensory organs. People say: ‘My mind was elsewhere, I did not see that.’ The impossibility of this simultaneity of knowledge through various sensory organs is an indication of the existence of the mind.” “Between the Atman and the organs of sense a connecting link is necessary. If we do not admit the internal organ, there would result either perpetual perception or perpetual non-perception, the former when there is a conjunction of the Atman, the senses and the object, the three constituting the causes of perception, and the latter when, even on the conjunction of these three causes, the effect did not follow. But neither is the truth. We have, therefore, to acknowledge the existence of an internal organ on whose attention and non-attention perception and non-perception take place” (Mind and Its Mysteries: p. 188). “The mind is with parts and can move in space. It is a changing and differentiating thing. It is capable of moving from place to place and assuming the forms of the objects of perception. This going out to an object and taking its shape is actual. There is nothing static in Nature. Every modification of the root Natural Principle is active and moving. The mind, in particular, is always undergoing conscious and unconscious modifications. The mind is a radiant, transparent and light substance and can travel like a ray of light outside through a sense-organ. The mind is thus an active force, a form of the general active Power or Sakti. As the brain, the organ of the mind, is enclosed in an organic envelope, solid and in appearance closed, the imagination has a tendency to picture it as being isolated from the exterior world, though in truth it is in constant contact with it through a subtle and constant exchange of secret activities. The mind is not something static, passive and merely receptive. It takes an active part in perception both by reason of its activity and the nature of that activity as caused by its latent tendencies (Samskaras). The following well-known illustration from the Vedanta-paribhasha gives an account of the nature of perception: ‘As water from a tank may flow through a channel into a plot of land and assume its shape (square, triangular or any other form), so the radiant mind (Taijasa-Antahkarana) goes out through the eye or any other sense-organ to the place where an object is, and gets transformed into the shape of that object. This modification of the mind-stuff is called a Vritti’” (Practice of Yoga: Vol. I, pp. 107-108).
In his Sure Ways of Success in Life (pp. 94-99) Swami Sivananda gives an analysis of the apparatus of perception in the following manner:
The senses are the gatekeepers of the wonderful factory of the mind. They bring into the mental factory matter for manufacture. Light vibrations, sound vibrations, and the like, are brought inside through these avenues. The sensations are first converted into percepts by the mind, which then presents these percepts to the intellect. The intellect converts these percepts into concepts or ideas. Just as raw sugarcane juice is treated with so many chemicals and passes through various settling tanks, and is packed as pure crystals; just as ordinary clay mixed and treated with plaster of Paris, etc. passes through settling tanks and is made into jugs, jars, plates, cups, etc.; just as crude sand is turned into beautiful glassware of various sorts in a glass factory; so mere light vibrations, sound vibrations, etc. are turned into powerful ideas or concepts of various descriptions in the factory of the mind.
The external senses are only instruments in the process of perception. The real auditory, tactile, visual, gustatory and olfactory centres are in the brain and in the astral body. These centres are the real senses which make perception possible. The intellect (Buddhi) receives material from the mind and presents them to the Purusha or the Atman which is behind the screen. The intellect is like the prime minister; it is closer to the Purusha than the mind is. As soon as facts are placed by the intellect before the Purusha, there flashes out egoism (Ahamkara). The intellect receives back the message from the Purusha, decides and determines, and transmits it to the mind for the execution of orders. The external organs of action carry out the orders of the master.
The Antahkarana (inner psychical instrument) is a broad term which includes the intellect, the ego, the memory, the subconscious and the conscious mind. The one Antahkarana assumes all these names due to its different functions, just as a person is called a judge when he dispenses justice in a law court, a president when he presides over a society or an association, a chairman when he superintends over a meeting, and a storekeeper when he is in charge of goods. If one can clairvoyantly visualise the inner working of this mental factory one will be dumbfounded. Just as in the telephone exchange of a big city various messages come from diverse houses and firms to the central station, and the central operator plugs, connects and disconnects the various switches, so does the mind plug, connect and disconnect sensory messages. When one wants to see an object the mind puts a plug into the other four centres, viz. hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling. When one wants to hear something the mind plugs similarly the remaining four centres. The mind works with a speed which is unimaginable.
In ordinary persons the mental images are distracted and undefined. Every thought has an image, a form or a shape. A table is a mental image plus an external something. Whatever one sees outside has its counterpart in one’s mind. The pupil of the eye is a small round construction. The retina is limited in its structure. How is it that the image of a huge mountain seen through such a small aperture is cast in the mind? How does this colossal form enter the tiny hole in the eye? The fact is that the image of the mountain already exists in the mind. Here Swami Sivananda brings out the significant truth that the limited sense-organs are able to cast the image of an extensive scene on the limited mind working in a body on account of the essentially omnipresent and all-comprehensive character of the consciousness that is reflected through the mind. All perception suggests the marvellous working of this immanent consciousness through the instrumentality of the mind, and later through the senses. The real seer and the senser of things is this consciousness which is at the background of the perceiving subject as its existence and essence. The ultimate knower of the world is an absolute being whose presence is established by the nature of knowledge itself. “In order to know the world fully, the knower must be independent of the laws governing the world; else, knowledge complete would be impossible. One whose knowledge is controlled by external phenomena can never have real knowledge of them. The impulse for absolute knowledge guarantees the possibility of such a knowledge. This shows that the knower is superior to the known to such an extent that the known loses its value as being, in the light of the absoluteness of the knower” (Gita Meditations: p. ix).
According to the Sankhya system the stimulus for perception is provided by the existence of a real object outside. In right perception a real object which is outside is presented to the perceptive consciousness. The object of right perception is not an illusion, but real, and has practical value. The senses give a direct apprehension of truly existent objects of which one becomes aware in right perception. The senses afford only an indeterminate perception of the object, a mere immediacy of objectivity, in the form of ‘This is an object.’ This can be said to be bare abstract perception. Concrete and determinate perception of the nature of ‘I know the object’ takes place further inside in the Antahkarana. The mind contemplates on the material supplied by the senses and gives it order and definiteness by the act of synthesis and deliberation on its part. Here arises the definite perception of the object as being of this or not this kind. Even here the process of perception does not come to an end. The Ahamkara or the individual ego arrogates to itself this resultant function of the mind and transforms the impersonal perception of the mind into a personal knowledge. This empirical principle of individuality with its natural character of the unity of apperception makes the perception refer to a particular individual. The Buddhi or the intellect decides on the nature of the perception of the ego and determines the course of action to be taken in regard to it. The understanding of the Buddhi is followed by a will or a determination to act. The seeds of one’s reaction to the perceived object are sown in the consciousness of the Buddhi. Finally the Sankhya holds that this perception and volition are experienced by the Purusha which is in relation to the Buddhi. It is the Purusha that gives to the Buddhi the intelligence to understand and decide. The ultimate possibility and validity of perception is thus based on the consciousness of the Purusha.
There is a striking similarity between the Sankhya theory of perception and the epistemological analysis made by Kant. According to Kant the manifold of sensations is transformed into perceptions and conceptions by the mind by means of the perceptual categories and the conceptual categories with their judgments. The perception is referred to the unity of the ego and converted into personal knowledge. The intellect classes the perception under its categories together with those of space and time. The transcendental unity of the ego to which all experience is referred is responsible for the synthesis of knowledge which is made available to the perceiver. In Kant, however, the order is brought about in the sensations directly by the mind or the understanding, while in the Sankhya the manifold of sensations undergoes the process of synthesis gradually through the mind, the ego and the intellect. To Kant space and time are perceptual categories, but to the Sankhya they are conceptual categories. Both Kant and the Sankhya hold that knowledge is caused by the joint action of the senses and the internal organ presided over by the intellect. Paraphrasing the analysis of the Sankhya, Swami Sivananda observes: “The fleshy eyes are only the external instruments of perception. They are not the organ of vision. The organ of vision is a centre situated in the brain. So is the case with all the senses. The mind is connected with the senses, the senses with the corresponding centres in the brain and these centres with the physical organs in the direction of the external object. The mind presents the sensation to the ego and the intellect (Buddhi); the intellect takes it to the Self (Purusha) which is pure Spirit and is immaterial. Now real perception takes place. The Purusha gives orders back to the motor centres or organs of action for execution through the intellect, ego and the mind” (Mind and Its Mysteries: p. 248).
According to the Sankhya theory of knowledge, the validity or the invalidity of knowledge is self-evident and does not stand in need of any external conditions. These characters are inherent in the nature of knowledge itself. The Buddhists hold that knowledge is invalid intrinsically, but enjoys the nature of validity due to conjunction with external conditions. The Nyaya affirms that the validity and the invalidity of knowledge are both determined by external conditions and have nothing of the intrinsic in them. The Mimamsa recognises, however, with the Vedanta system, that knowledge is intrinsically valid, that it cannot be validated by any other factor external to it, and that the invalidity of certain forms of knowledge is due to conditions external to knowledge. Knowledge knows its own validity, and this is made possible by the essential nature of its cause which is not tainted by imperfection of any kind, while the determining factor in the ascertainment of invalid knowledge is the knowledge of a contradicting element or defect in the cause of the rise of knowledge. In perception there is first the illumination of the mind by the Consciousness, then the activation of the senses by the mind, and thirdly the contact of the senses with the external object. In order that perception may be right and not erroneous, there should be no defect either in the operation of the mind, the activity of the senses or the manner of the location of the object. The presence of the current of an unceasing consciousness linking up these different elements contributing to perception makes perception possible.
The Vedanta theory of perception is explained by the existence of a universal consciousness in which appears the empirical distinction of subject and object, mediated by a process of knowledge. According to the Vedanta the only reality is the Atman or Brahman, which is supreme consciousness, and hence neither the subject nor the object nor their relation can exist outside it. They are all apparent modes superimposed on its transcendent being. This universal consciousness is modalised in empirical perception in three ways: Vishayachaitanya or the consciousness appearing under the mode of the external object, which may be termed object-consciousness; Pramanachaitanya or the consciousness appearing with the modes of the mental psychosis acting as the cognitive consciousness; and Pramatrichaitanya or the consciousness appearing through the mode of the Antahkarana, and existing as the cognising consciousness. All these three modes are really the one universal consciousness of the Atman appearing to be conditioned by the object, the psychosis and the internal organ itself. When the one consciousness passes through these three relative modes valid for empirical existence, it goes by the names and the forms put on by these modes. The indeterminable Absolute gets determined, as it were, by the three terms of the process, all which rise simultaneously in the act of perception. According to Vasubandhu, the Buddhist teacher, consciousness which is the ultimate reality undergoes a threefold transformation: an inner indeterminate change (Vipaka), the inner psychological change causing the operations of the mind (Manana), and the objective change of consciousness of sense-objects (Vishaya-Vijnapti). The first potential change corresponds to the original creative will giving rise to the latter two forms of modification into subject and object. It is this threefold transformation of cause that is responsible for the distinction that is ordinarily made between subject and object. The principle of consciousness which seems to put on these changes is the Alayavijnana, the repository-consciousness, the ground of the appearances of all knowers and known objects, which, in its pure unmodified state, is identified with Sarvajnata or omniscience and Vijnaptimatrata or mere awareness. The Alayavijnana is the Dharmakaya of the Buddha, the primeval condition in which Dharmas or appearances transcend their limitations.