Psychology of Cognition- Indian point of view


Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A (Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

Almost everyone, at some time or other, has experienced a desire to know more about himself. “Who am I?” “Why do I exist?” and “‘what is my relationship to this objective world that I face every day? Yes, “Know thyself” is still the key to wisdom, as it ,was in the days of Socrates; and this self knowledge as developed in Hindu psychology is the way to freedom, truth, and harmonious living.

It is only within the last eighty years that the people of the West have come to realize the importance of psychology and see that it is not merely a philosophical or speculative study but also an indispensable factor in adjustment in everyday life. Hindus, on the contrary, have been aware of this for centuries. For hundreds of years they have been using psychology not only as a method for the enfoldment of religious truth, the basis of their deep philosophy, but also as an aid in the field of medicine and the key to health, poise, and harmonious living.

Generally speaking, it is the more utilitarian aspects of psychology that have had a popular appeal in the West, especially in America-for various reasons. In the field of medicine, for instance, more and more attention is being given to the study of the effect of the mind upon the nervous system, especially in cases of so-called “functional” ailments. Physicians now say that the harmful effects of unbalanced mental or emotional states upon physical well-being cannot be overestimated, and they are emphasizing the need of mental and emotional control as essential to good health. Medicines, drugs, and even surgery have been known to fail in cases where the patient did not have control of his mind or lacked emotional stability.

Again, a knowledge of psychology is proving to be very useful in the business world.. Those with commercial interests, especially in the field of advertising, have made a careful study of the power of suggestion in order to increase their sales. Enormous sums of money are being spent to influence buyers, not only in display but also in the use of radio, and every conceivable device is employed to interest the public in the products that are being advertised. In many businesses, courses in psychology are given to the sales clerks so that they may be more successful in dealing with customers. For instance, they are taught to give more attention to a man who is shopping, as he is likely to buy what he wants in the first store to which he goes, while a woman prefers to “shop around” and compare values. Thus it is evident that influencing the minds of others has come to be of great importance even in the business world. Then there are people who want charm, beauty, or a magnetic personality. Some desire to be successful practically, to gain control over others, or to develop strong willpower.

All these and similar wants have created a large market for books on psychology of a pleasant popular variety, some of which are of little value. They reflect the need of more and more help for the people in mastering their problems, how- ever, and they also show that the public is beginning to appreciate the understanding of the mind as a guide to practical living.

Finally, there are those who want to understand psychology for its own sake. Almost everyone, at some time or other, has experienced a desire to know more about him. “Who am I?” “Why do I exist?” and “‘what is my relationship to this objective world that I face every day? These are only a few of the questions that cannot fail to present themselves to an inquiring and intelligent mind. Yes, “Know thyself” is still the key to wisdom, as it ,was in the days of Socrates; and this self knowledge as developed in Hindu psychology is the way to freedom, truth, and harmonious living.

The study of psychology is essentially a study of the mind, its functioning, its reactions to the objective world, and the methods by, which it obtains knowledge. For convenience we can define the mind as “that, which classifies, judges, and coordinates the impressions and sensations gathered from the outside world that which knows and knows that it knows.

This of course, brings us face to face with several problems. For instance, ,who is the knower and ,what is the nature of knowledge? How’ do I know that I know, and how, can I be sure that my knowledge is correct? Does the mind have a “separate existence apart from physical brain matter, or is it only a bundle of sensations-the product of the sense organs and the “nervous system? We shall deal ‘with each of these questions in the course of this study, beginning with cognition or know ledge.

I t has been shown by the great physicist and botanist, Sir J. C. Bose of Calcutta, India, that even plants and the simplest organisms “,have certain sensations and reactions that, of course, become more pronounced in the higher forms of life. The lower animals are provided with sense organs through which they gather a specialized and peculiar knowledge of external things. Dogs, for instance, depend a great deal upon their keen sense of smell; even a serpent knows something of the world about him through his reaction to sound, although he does not have the usual outer organs for hearing. In studying reptiles, the ,western psychologists have found that while “some (lizards) apparently have auditory sensitivity; others (snakes) apparently do not.” Animals have an instinctive knowledge that is very accurate, though limited in scope as compared ‘with cognition and awareness in man.

There ,was a school of thinkers in India called Charvakas who, like the behaviourists and other psychologists of similar type in the West, declared that thought processes, cognition,  are merely the products of nerve reaction, that the so-called “mind” is only a bundle of successive sensations dependent upon the nervous system and physical brain matter. Consciousness has no independent existence. According to Watson:

It [consciousness] is a plain assumption just as unprovable, just as unapproachable, as the old concept of the Soul. And to the behaviourist the new terms are essentially identical, so far as concerns their metaphysical implications. .. . They do not tell us what consciousness is, but merely begin to put things into it by” assumption; and then when they come to analyze consciousness, naturally they find in it just what they put into it. So Watson and others assume that the existence of the entity depends on the possibility of objective observation. The behaviourists seem to forget that they cannot observe objectively their own thinking processes, yet they believe that they can evaluate the psychological concepts of Wundt, James, and others. They also assume that they have something with which “to observe behaviour.” As Watson says:

Why don’t we make what we can observe the real field of psychology? Let us limit ourselves to things that can be observed, and formulate laws concerning only those things. Now what can we observe? Well, we can observe behaviour and what the organism does and says.4 The interest of the behaviourists is to observe behaviour “in terms of stimulus and response.” If we examine these statements closely, we will see that these psychologists are confusing consciousness with sensations, and the senses (the instruments for obtaining knowledge) with thought and emotion. A simple illustration will explain this. Electricity acts through wires and a bulb to produce light, but the electricity is neither the wires nor the bulb; the light is the result of its action. Electricity cannot be seen or described except in terms of its effect. We can only proveits existence through the use of an external medium.

Similarly, the mind acts in ordinary persons through the brain and nervous system, and it can only be understood and interpreted by the ‘way it uses the powers at its disposal. Again, if the mind were only the product of nerve stimuli it could be observed objectively. But the observation of the mind and thought current of an individual is not objectively possible and cannot be done successfully without subjective insight. How do you know what your friends are thinking? How can anyone know exactly what is, going on in the mind of another? A man may appear to be listening to a sermon, but in reality his mind is busily occupied elsewhere-at home, at the bank, or thinking of some private worry. Yet, to an objective observer, he seems to be giving attention to the speaker. He alone knows what is really going on in his mind.

Another fact that the physiological, behaviourist, and mechanical psychologists seem to have overlooked is the absolute necessity for permanence and integration in the mind of the observer, so that he may be able to classify and co-ordinate the impressions and experiences gained through his objective study. If his mind is only a bundle of successive sensations, how can he possibly hold the memory of more than one sensation at a time? Again, how can one sensation, which he himself is at the moment, be the observer of another sensation which is the object of his study? In other words, if I am nothing but a collection of sensations, how can that he become the observer of “you” who are nothing but another conglomeration of sensations? How can I correlate this information if “I” can be conscious of only one thing, followed immediately by something else? Obviously, there must be some permanent factor that holds together these impressions and differentiates between them. This brings us to the conclusion that It must be the mind that perceives, experiences, and consequently becomes a knower of the objective world.

We should also remember that the successive sensations cannot give us a total picture of a thing unless there is a back- ground as the receptacle of these sensations. For instance, the moving pictures cannot become perceptible unless there is a permanent background on which the constant moving” pictures are impressed. Besides, the behaviourists, “with their conception of sensation as the mind itself, cannot explain the fact of memory. They do not tell us how and where the different sensations are preserved in the form of memory. We are forced to accept that there is a permanent receptacle of the residuals of experiences which is the mind. And we do not only have the cognition of the objective and perceived world; we also have the cognition of the internal awareness. Pleasurable and painful mental conditions are also cognized by us. These pleasurable and painful past and present mental states and also the apprehensions and anxieties of the future are cognized by human beings.

Such experiences could not be interpreted as mere successive sensations or nerve reactions. There must be something which is in the background of this cognition of the mental states themselves. We all are aware of inner emotions. The emotions may be either a reaction to external perception or they may be inner urges. We perceive our own feelings of love, affection, hatred, envy, fear, anxiety, and worry. If there is no separate existence of mind apart from mere succession of sensations, then the perception of our inner emotions would not be possible. We cannot perceive previously experienced facts and their inner emotional reactions if we do not have something to preserve them in the form of memories. In fact, memory itself becomes impossible if there is no receptacle of successive sensations. In order to understand these facts we can refer to’ the  previous example of moving pictures. It is the experience of every thinking man that he is aware of his own emotions. It will not be out of place to note also that we all have a kind of consciousness of our persistent awareness of ourselves. As  philosopher Descartes says: “I think, so I exist.” One cannot explain the different states and processes of mind without the acceptance of a permanent mind.

Having established the necessity for the existence of the mind  which is independent of mere sensations, we shall consider the ways in which it functions with regard to perception of the objective world. How does the knower gain knowledge? who is the knower? What is the relationship of the mind to external things?

According to western psychologists, the sense organs receive stimuli that are passed on by the nervous system to the brain sense. Even the psychologists who accept the theory of independent existence of the mind regard it as passive, while the objective world is conceived as dynamic, impressing itself upon the mind through the nervous system. However, they do not tell us how continuous and successive sensations, received from the same object, are unified in the mind that is passive. The Charles River flows in a continuous stream; yet this successive flow of water, which is the Charles River, gives the appearance of unity and oneness because of its bed. Similarly, regardless of how quick the successive sensations is Antahkarana , or internal instrument, according to Brahmasutra, Vedanta Aphorism may be, it would not be possible to get a complete picture of a thing without a permanent entity of mind.

Gestalt psychologists in their interpretation of the total mind are nearing an understanding of it. They conceive that the entire object is impressed on the whole mind. Some of the “action” psychologists, and a few others, try to eliminate this problem of unification of sensations in a passive mind by conceding that the mind becomes’ active when stimulated by impressions, but the majority seems to think that the mind is perfectly passive. Difficulties arise here because successive and individual sensations could not possibly become integrated in a passive mind, either by themselves or by the mind as a passive receptacle. James, Munsterberg, and others of actionist psychology, do not eliminate the difficulty in their psychomotor ideas, as they say that stimuli are transposed into responses. Mind seems to be entirely dependent on the stimuli even though they measure the mind by its ability in action. Gestalt and action psychologists’ also seem to fail to endow mind with independence of sense stimuli, and so they limit the scope of the mind. Even those psychologists who concede that the mind may become active when external sensations are received fail to explain how these fragmentary impressions can become unified. Some psychologist say that the mind cannot really know an object but can know’ only the sensations of that object.. In that case, we could not know anything of the objective world except the sensations thereof.

This would also mean that our knowledge would be inaccurate, as we have to depend upon sensations which constantly vary according to the nature and conditions of the perceiving person, who is also an aggregate of successive and changeable sensations. We often observe that a particular sensation of an object is interpreted by different observers in different ways according to the predisposition of the observing minds. Besides, the perceiving mind also will change, as it is supposed to be in a flux.

According to Indian psychologists, it is the mind that reaches out to the objective world through the sense organs and nervous system, drawing its sensations and impressions through them and unifying the experiences gathered into coherent information or knowledge. The word “mind” corresponds to the Vedantic word Antahkarana (inner instrument) which has four functions:

(1) manas, the oscillating or indecisive faculty of mind;

(2) buddhi, the decisive state

(3) ahamkara, the state which ascertains that “I know”;

(4) chitta, the store- house of mental states which makes remembrance and reference possible.. We can call this the “mind-stuff.

According to the Hindu system of thought (Vedanta), antahkarana stands between the Self and the object and receives the object of perception, assuming its form as a whole. Gestalt psychology of the West has a similar conception, although there is some difference. Antahkarana is the inner instrument through which the subject knows the object by identification. It is not the Self. Self is consciousness and not the product of the relationship between subject and object. It is the underlying, self-illumining principle. Self, or Atma, is called Sakshi, the unchangeable Reality. It remains only as the witness. Mind, or antahkarana, gets its power by association with the Self, or Atma, which is the same as Brahman, or the Absolute. It has become seemingly individualized by virtually limiting itself by ignorance.  We do not propose to discuss further the metaphysical side of the problem. It has been mentioned to complete the Hindu idea of perception and its different aspects.

The Sankhya system of thought in India offers a great deal of material on the different functioning of the “mind-stuff.

There is a difference between the Greek conception of the soul and its functions and the Hindu conception of Atma and its functions. Greek psychologists, including Aristotle, conceive activity in the soul itself, although there are differences among various Greek thinkers as to the nature of the activity. But Atma of the Hindus is the unchangeable. Reality, the Great witness, Consciousness Itself, Sakshi Chaitanya.

Hindu psychologists conceive the internal implement for perception as the indriya (sense), which is independent of the outer sense organs and nervous system, although it operates through them. The indriya is not the mind, though the mind ,uses it as an implement.  A definite difference between the two is shown in the following:

Know that the Soul, who sits within, is the master of the chariot, and the body the chariot. Consider the intellect (buddhi] as the charioteer, and the mind [manas] the reins. The senses [indriyas] are the horses and their roads are the sense objects.  The indriya is not passive; it is dynamic. It functions actively to reach out to the objective world and stimulate the nervous system and sense organs.  The conception of indriya is utterly foreign to Western psychologists, and there will be considerable doubt among them concerning its existence.

However, as “we study perception we shall see that the Hindus have good reason to conceive the mind as actively seeking sensation, and that the existence of indriya is logical. Almost all the psychologists of the East and West accept perception as the most direct method of obtaining knowledge. I see you; therefore, I believe that you exist. If I also touch you I am convinced that you are there. But suppose you are passing me on the street and I do not see you. I may be looking in your direction; my eyes are still functioning and your image is reflected upon the retina; yet I do not know that you are there. Why? If my mind,were passive, I could not avoid seeing you. The stimulation to my mind from the optic nerve would have informed me, but obviously some part of the mind was  not reacting to the stimuli. The mind was not reaching out to the external world and stimulating the indriya to observe; consequently, I could pass you ,without knowing that you ,were there. This also explains ‘so-called “absent-mindedness,” ,where the internal instruments of perception, the indriya and the mind, were not concerning themselves ,with the objective ,world and I became forgetful of external matters. The indriya ,was preoccupied or busily engaged with something else.

Although serpents have no external organs of hearing, they have some internal means to cognize the sound. The Indian conception of indriya explains this peculiar perceptive quality of serpents. Plants also seem to have no external organs; yet, as Sir J. C. Bose demonstrated, they have certain types of sensation. This proves that they have some internal instrument of sensation.

Extrasensory perceptions cannot be explained if we do not accept this inner sense of the mind.

It is enough to say here that the so-called extrasensory perceptions take place without the least contact between the sense organs and the object perceived. Here the indnya is gathering experiences by projecting itself independently of the nervous system and the sense organs. The knowledge thus obtained, without direct contact with the object, can be tested to determine its validity as true knowledge. Visions (not hallucinations) and similar experiences are well-known examples of perception of this type. In dreams, or in certain extraordinary states, some persons have had perceptions that were proved to be prophetic.

All this indicates the indriya’s independence of the sense organs and nervous system. There is another aspect of perception that needs to ‘be considered. This is the power of the mind to interpret the sensations of external objects or sense stimuli. According to western psychology, when an object is perceived, its image is reflected by light waves upon the retina of the eye in an inverted form, and from this image the mind draws its conclusions about the object. It not only determines size\ color, proportion, and the various properties of the object, but also sees it in its relation to other things of like or opposite nature. The eye alone could not do all this. It is the mind that correlates and unifies this information. The question will arise: How do we know that the knowledge received corresponds to the reality of the object? On a dark night a trunk of a tree may appear to be a robber, a friend, or a ghost, depending upon the mental state of the person who sees it. It is the internal instrument of perception that differentiates between these impressions, classifying them as true or falser and choosing the one that seems to be most accurate. By comparison with former experiences the mind recognizes” that the dark object in question is neither a man nor a ghost but it only the trunk of a tree. Similarly, the mind discriminates between the evidence produced by the senses to obtain knowledge of the external world the universe, and of other minds.

Although direct perception is generally conceded as the most convincing proof of knowledge, there are other methods also that may be accepted as valid, especially in cases where direct and immediate perception would be impossible. For instance, we accept knowledge upon authority. How do we know that there is war in the world? We cannot perceive it directly. We are obliged to rely upon the testimony of others, upon newspapers, and the information gathered by people who are witnessing it in order to know that a conflict is raging. It would be folly to say that there can-not be a war because we cannot experience it directly. When the sources of information can be checked as reliable and trustworthy, whether it is a question of an event of history or the conclusions reached may be accepted as true even though they have been proved or experienced by others.

Another method of obtaining knowledge is by inference. It has been observed that when a fire burns it produces  smoke. Consequently, if we see smoke we infer that there must be a fire somewhere that is causing it. If volumes of smoke are pouring out of a building, we do not wait to see flames before notifying the fire department. We know by inference that a fire is there and that it will destroy the building if it is not put out.

Inference and authority are not the same, although some people try to classify them together. Authority can stand alone, independent of inference. Just as the sources of authoritative knowledge must be scrutinized for reliability, so also does the proof of inferential knowledge depend upon the validity of its conclusions and the major and minor terms. Great care should be taken in establishing these; otherwise, the inferential knowledge will be misleading or actually false. For that matter, direct perceptions have to be scrutinized also, as the subjective element in every factor in perception contributes a great deal. In fact, perceptions vary according to the interpretations that are given in the light of the notions of the mind. Western philosophers, as well as Indian philosophers, mostly agree in recognizing the contributions of the mind. Professor , in The A. S. Eddington, Philosophy of Physical Science, logically and factually tries to prove that even scientific knowledge, which is supposed to be authentic, seems to be relative, because he, too, believes that there is a subjective element even in scientific perceptions. We can again cite the celebrated illustration of Vedantic epistemology. On a dark night,when a man looks at a trunk of a tree, he often conceives it as a thief, or a friend, or a policeman, according to the preconceived notions that he has. Scrutiny is therefore needed in all these forms of cognition and knowledge.

Induction and deduction are the methods of inference, and they are used by modern scientists. In the deductive method ‘” a general statement is taken and from that is deduced a particular truth. The inductive method is just the opposite; scientific facts are used to aim at a general conclusion. Almost all scientists directly or indirectly use inferential methods as a means of cognition.

Indian Vedantic epistemology and psychology also accept comparison, postulation, and no perception as the means of new knowledge. We are not discussing these points, as they are not vitally related to the science of psychology. They are studied in epistemology. If The question to which we referred in the earlier pages regarding the validity of knowledge needs a little mention here. As this is also vitally connected with epistemology, we should not elaborately discuss the true criterion of knowledge or cognition. No philosopher or psychologist can help questioning the validity of knowledge. Consequently, a few propositions of the Indian schools of thought should be briefly stated. Some thinkers, such as the pragmatists of America, regard knowledge as a fact of true cognition when it has practical value; the standards of real knowledge depend on its practical application in life. We can accept a hypothesis and work out certain schemes which may have practical value. Yet the hypothesis may not be true, as it will be contradicted by the later discovery and perception. For instance, the astronomical theory of solar rotation was later contradicted by the discovery of earthly rotation; yet, for many practical purposes, the astronomical calculation of the previous generations were useful.

There are some among Indians, as well as among western realistic thinkers, who hold that cognition is true ,when it corresponds to real fact. This needs clarification regarding the very conception of real. When we are living on a certain plane of existence things may seem to be real, yet when we are transported to other planes of existence those very things may be unreal. When a person with jaundice looks at certain objects they appear to be yellow. So long as the jaundiced condition remains, the perceptions will be colored by it. Racial discrimination and differentiation are often based on opinions and prejudices of those who are on the same plane of existence or who have similar ideas and interests. Although the opinions and prejudices may not actually be based on facts, they are regarded as “real” and consequently the same patterns of understanding and behavior are followed by other persons. When a man dreams, the dream experiences are also real so long as the dream state remains.

There is also another viewpoint among both Indian and Western thinkers that knowledge or cognition must be coherent to the other experiences. It must be in harmony with other states of life and experiences. This view can also be questioned according to the arguments against the previous viewpoint, namely, the correspondence theory of knowledge. The Vedantic test of knowledge is that it must never be contradicted at any time, and knowledge or true cognition must consist in its no contradiction and newness.

Hallucinations, dreams, and the ordinary perceptions of the awakened state have certain cognitive value, yet hallucinations and dreams vanish when our awakened cognitive state becomes operative. Similarly, when a man rises to the super conscious state (samadhi), or the fourth state of consciousness the awakened experiences, that is to say, our ordinary sense perceptions and other such experiences, are contradicted. This does not mean that Indian philosophy regards the awakened cognition as hallucinations. It only means that the awakened cognition are of relative types,  as Professor Eddington describes in The Philosophy of Physical Science. The only ultimate, uncontradicted, and unitary knowledge is the knowledge one has at the time of spiritual realization (samadhi). This whole evaluation of the different types of cognition comes within the scope of epistemology proper. I requires, no doubt, considerable discussion.

In psychology proper one should under- stand the criterion of true cognition. The mental functioning in the form of cognition have considerable influence over the body. The mental states and processes, whether or not they are in the form of cognition, emotion, or volition, have tremendous influence on the mind itself and also on the body.

Reference-Hindu psychology by Swami Akhilananda



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