I know one thing; that I know nothing.
– derived from Plato’s account of Socrates
How can someone with a working mind and memory possibly say that they know nothing? Well let’s start by understading the difference between ‘information’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowing’ through a simple example.
Information, knowledge and knowing
You look at the object in front of you and gather through your visual apparatus that it is of a particular form – colour, size, weight, texture. This is information. You search your memory for a match to these sensory inputs and conclude that the object is a red rose. This is knowledge. With this first knowledge, comes the tendency to project, imagine or recall the past which may lead to further building up of knowledge, to actions and also to emotions, pleasant or unpleasant. But neither the information nor the knowledge enable you to “know” the rose itself – you only know ‘about’ it.
What is “knowing”? It is an intuitive understanding that is not based on the use of past information.
How do we know something if we have not learnt about it? Do you not sometimes just “know” that someone is not telling the truth? Do you not “know” when you’re in love?
At some time, one will have to forget everything that has been learnt.
– Sri Ramana Maharishi
When knowledge becomes overrated
Knowledge is the area where most human disagreement happens because it is the area where interpretation, memory and imagination are invited to have their full play. At an innocuous level, there is the difference in language – the same object may be called a ‘rose’ by some, ‘gulab’ by others and various other names by other people. Digging further into memory, some people will declare they love the rose, while others, that they abhor it. Human imagination may then enter the field and some people decide to use the rose in a perfume, some as a gift, some throw it away, etc.
The domain of knowledge is useful in enabling us to survive well in the world, to invent things for our comfort, to improve on past shortcomings. But unless the knowledge is the ‘right knowledge’ coming from universal consciousness, it is the domain where we divide ourselves into groups – siding with those who agree with or support us. One man’s truth is another man’s post-truth.
We tend to value words that are supported by a million sources of information over those that reflect inner, common (in terms of universality, not value) wisdom. We operate from the domain of the senses where what the senses gather and what the intellect interprets is more valuable than ‘knowing’.
‘Post-truth’, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, was declared 2016’s international word of the year by Oxford Dictionary. Putting aside the fact that going beyond the truth, as the term implies, is oxymoronic in itself (how can one move on from the Truth?), the word essentially epitomises the divisive nature of mental and psychological constructs. It is an arrogance to call your own analytical framework the truth and another way of perceiving and making decisions, post-truth.
In our day and age, we are inundated with information with 24/7 media and the internet and those of us of the more intellectual variety are obsessed with knowledge. We believe that the more and more detailed facts we gather, we are adding value to ourselves as individuals. There is little or no emphasis on knowing because knowledge gives us the idea that we know. The more we take pride in our knowledge, the less likely we are to admit that we don’t know. Our minds become more closed.
The Yoga of Wisdom
How does a Jnani* view life? Well he or she understands at the first instance of knowledge i.e. the conclusion that the object is a rose, that other thoughts are going to spring up based on memory and projection that are relative and subject to interpretation i.e. are false and limit the possibilities of the red rose. A Jnani does not limit life’s possibilities. Going further back, even the red rose is a certain limitation of the pure energy of the universe – energy has taken a certain form. An experiential understanding of that full limitless potential beyond, must be the true “knowing”.
When a spiritual master speaks, though he is using words, his words come not from knowledge, but from knowing. They don’t spring from study, they spring from emptiness. And their aim is likewise, not to encourage the listener’s mind to become more active, but to bring the mind to space and silence.
While knowledge is useful, it is not the end in itself. But because knowledge has the stamp of approval of the intellect, it is often harder to attack than ignorance.
Knowledge has the potential to limit more of life’s possibilities than does ignorance. It is in this context that the Upanishads say that worshipping ignorance leads to darkness but worshipping knowledge leads to greater darkness.
अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽविद्यामुपासते ।
ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उ विद्यायां रताः ॥
andhaṃ tamaḥ praviśanti ye’vidyāmupāsate |
tato bhūya iva te tamo ya u vidyāyāṃ ratāḥ ||
They who worship ignorance enter into darkness
They who worship knowledge enter into greater darkness
– Isa Upanishad (verse 9)
Knowing requires that we go beyond knowledge or even bypass it completely. But going beyond knowledge is often harder than bypassing it completely because going beyond knowledge requires us to drop something we picked up and became identified with.
Only two kinds of people attain self-knowledge: those who are not encumbered at all with learning…and those who, after studying all the scriptures and sciences, have come to realise that they know nothing.
– Ramakrishna Parmahansa
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