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[Knowledge & Experience: A critique of Dr.

Balagangadhara’s response
to Jeffrey Kripal]

Dear Dr. Balagangadhara

I am hesitant to bring up this old piece of writing. I read it only recently


and discovered subsequently that it is well known to people who are
otherwise familiar with your work. It deals with certain issues that I
have been trying to grapple with. I have not read Jeffrey Kripal’s book. I
am more interested in the personal journey you describe, and in
particular, I want to take up the argument that you construct in the
course of your response to his book, which is based on the contrast
that you set up between the way science ‘preserves’ the experience
while producing new knowledge and the way Jeffrey Kirpal’s
explanations ‘transform’ the experience divesting it of its original
significance.

You describe your bewilderment when you were told that the ‘linga’
actually means penis. You also describe your discomfort with your
friends holding your hands once you had been exposed to public
displays of homosexual love in Amsterdam. A barrier was created
between you and your earlier experiences of reverence and friendship
by the insertion of this new ‘knowledge’. You find this ‘knowledge’
spurious because it distorts and denies your genuine experience. The
explanation came actively between your experiences and you and
prevented you from describing or reflecting on your own experiences.

I think, first of all, that it is not just the nature of explanation, which
prevented you from accessing these experiences. If someone tells you
anything, you don’t believe it or you do not necessarily take it
seriously. It is the authority of these explanations that trouble you and
others. The explanation is authoritative because it is western (or
American), scientific, rational, modern. If it were not authoritative it
would have no power to ‘transform’ your experiences. A person who
does not accept this authority would ignore these explanations or
respond by knocking off a few teeth of the one who suggests such
explanations. This also explains the transformation of your experience
of friendly handholding in public. There were no explanations provided
by anyone in this case. What you perceived in Amsterdam transformed
your experience. The new knowledge in this case was your own
perception, and your experience of another culture. The effect on you,
however, was completely opposite of what happened to those western
travelers’ experience of another culture who interpreted Indian
religious practices in the light of their own theological prejudices and
preoccupations. How a knowledge claim affects us depends on the
relationship that we have with that knowledge claim. I would argue
that the way we relate to a knowledge claim is shaped by the
normative structure or framework of knowledge in which the claim is
embedded and to which we may or may not give our assent.

What kind of authority a culture or an explanation possesses and how


this authority has been produced? Colonialism may account for the
authority a whole culture might acquire for the colonized. But the
authority of certain explanations or a constellation of knowledge
issuing from that culture cannot be entirely ascribed to its dominant
status. Very often the colonized would hate the dominant culture, but
would be bewildered and mute, or positively applauding, before the
impartial authority of ‘science’, that emblem of western superiority. In
fact, some of the authority the western culture acquired was based
upon the superior authority of its knowledge. How exactly the superior
authority of its knowledge was constructed? What was the specific
nature of this authority? If colonialism denied the colonized access to
their own experiences, was it simply the result of domination or
consequence of a specific configuration of knowledge, experience, and
domination?

I would also like to suggest that all knowledge transforms experience,


provided we have made that knowledge our own. When the western
society moved from the geocentric medieval cosmology to the
heliocentric picture of the universe, the experience of the universe was
transformed, even if the sense perception of the sun going across the
horizon was ‘saved’. ‘Man’ was displaced from the center of the
universe. The authority of perceptual knowledge received a setback in
the process. Similarly, when we view a stick immersed in a partially
filled glass of water where it appears bent and know that it is not really
bent, our experience of seeing the stick has been transformed. One
knows, now. If it were not so, it would not be possible to ‘… arrive
where we started and know the place for the first time’.. Your journey
to the West, your building of conceptual tools, your creating a body of
knowledge, a ‘science’, your experiencing of your own culture (and
western culture) anew, how could this be possible if knowledge does
not transform experience? Incidentally, the course of this journey
resembles a host of other such journeys that have shaped the anti-
colonial movements and thought worldwide.

Yet, there is indeed an ideal of knowledge, which seeks to separate


knowledge from experience. Since the time of Galileo and Descartes,
science has been possessed by an ideal of certitude that propels it
towards making knowledge independent of experience. Science
believes that all knowledge is embodied in ‘propositions’ and the very
point of scientific knowledge is to move from perception towards more
and more universal propositions expressed in a language free of
experiential traces (ideally in mathematical language). We start from a
precisely demarcated fragment of experiences and perceptions and
move towards those propositions which simply stand for truth. These
propositions are either true or false, without reference to any knower
and her experiences.

While knowledge is sought to be cleansed of all experiential traces,


experience is divested of its cognitive powers. Large parts of our
experience is deemed to be subjective, merely a product, a necessary
product, of objective forces in operation. A paradigmatic case is that of
colour. Colour becomes a subjective sensation produced in our head,
when light interacts with our sensory apparatus. When we see colour
nothing of the world is disclosed to us. Science does not seek to
interpret our experiences or refine and deepen our perceptions.
Science seeks to replace our descriptions with its own. It ‘overwrites’
them. There is no way back from knowledge to experience in this
scheme, at least in principle.

What I have outlined just now is part of a normative framework of


knowledge, a scheme which acts as a guide in matters concerning
knowledge. It is a philosophy of ‘right knowledge’, a pramanashastra.
When we speak of science there is always an ambiguity. There are
various sciences with diverse methodologies and complex histories. I
am interpreting ‘science’, as distinct from the sciences, as a normative
framework, which distinguishes science from other modes of
knowledge, articulates an ideal of knowledge and establishes the
authority of scientific knowledge in society. If you ask any scientist
what science is and press for answers, he or she will come up with
what we are calling ‘science’.. Of course, science is not recognized as
such as a normative framework of knowledge. In fact, the western
intellectual tradition will not recognize a normative framework of
knowledge and therefore finds pramanashastras of Indian Philosophy
difficult to interpret. It looks for philosophy of knowledge,
epistemology, and fails to see the philosophy of ‘right knowledge’
which the pramana theories are. It is instructive to note that while
there is no consensus on epistemology of science, there is a fairly
dominant self-understanding of science articulated as a normative
framework. The authority of science and its framework seems to be in
a crisis now and we are perhaps living a transition to a different
normative framework of knowledge.

Through the articulation of this normative framework, one of the things


that science does is to establish a relationship between knowledge and
experience as I stated earlier. Such an ideal of knowledge as science,
promotes a culture of knowledge where a proposition picked up from a
scientific source can undermine a lifetime’s experience or even entire
traditions of knowledge in a single blow. The speaker of that
proposition is not required to embody any knowledge in person, the
authority is concentrated in the proposition itself. We often used to
encounter, in reality and in various media, modern ‘evangelicals’ going
to a village and dismiss entire traditions of knowledge by a single
statement. The times may have changed now.

I can imagine some knowledge represented in the proposition ‘linga


means penis’ being part of a body of knowledge, which may not divest
my experience of ‘linga’ of its sacred and joyful significance. It might
even enrich our experience and may even transform the meaning of
‘penis’. But for this to happen one may have to attain a particular level
of perception, perhaps with the mediation of a teacher. I am of course
speculating. I am indicating a conception of knowledge similar to the
one you speak of when citing a story from the Upanishad. I want to
distinguish this kind of knowledge from the one which asserts that
‘linga is actually (nothing but) male penis’.. The latter is equivalent to
saying that the colours we see are nothing but sensations produced in
our head when light of a certain wavelength strike our retina. The
world is actually colourless. The former kind of knowledge has the
potential to enrich our experience and deepen our perceptions
whereas the latter robs our experience of all cognitive significance.

I am distinguishing two cultures of knowledge, or two philosophies, or


two normative frameworks of knowledge. (They are ‘two’ only for this
argument. Actually the first ‘one’ is many but share in their contrast to
the second one.) In the first, we move within a world characterized by
an abundance of knowledge and sources of knowledge. In the latter,
the world is opaque, even positively deceptive, and we seek guarantee
for all our knowledge in God or Method. In the former, reality is deeply
textured, whereas in the latter, reality is a unique text (‘book of
nature’) which can be read by those who know the language.

Therefore, science itself seems to embody a relationship between


knowledge and experience, which prevents it from serving as a
counterpoint to the kind of experience-denying explanations that you
are arguing against. Freud may be conjectured to have gone a step
beyond science. It was not only our experience of the world, but our
everyday experience of ourselves that was rendered cognitively
impotent. Having grown in the West though, this configuration of
knowledge and experience would have been operative at first in the
western societies. Here I would like to state that science as a
philosophy of right knowledge has had a social existence and a social
force. It mediates between any kind of knowledge and the society. It
includes certain kinds of knowledge within science, excludes others,
shapes and organizes scientific research, gives an identity and
authority to the scientific profession and so on. The power of this
framework is evidenced by the fact that what even great scientists
may say about science is excluded from consideration while accepting
and celebrating their contributions otherwise. Starting from natural
philosophy, eventually this framework came to encompass the entire
field of knowledge and research, though not without opposition.
Perhaps it is for this reason that you could evoke instances from optics
and astronomy for your argument with their normative force intact.

I would go even so far as to suggest that the position of authority in


the field of knowledge that was reluctantly relinquished by the Church
came to be occupied by science. The authority of science is different
though from the authority of a doctrine, dogma or philosophy. Science
does not ask us to commit ourselves to a given body of knowledge. It
seeks authority over all future knowledge as well. If the answer to a
question is not known to science, we are told that it will be discovered
sometime in future. Meanwhile we must manage with what science has
to offer. Science is supposed to possess the key to knowledge.

How does it combine with other developments in western culture in


shaping west’s interpretation of other cultures? How does the authority
of science combine with the authority of the modern and the western
in a colonial context? I do not know. All I am saying is that ‘science’ is
part of the problem and not a part of the solution. Secondly, the
problem with science-as-norm is precisely this: Experience is divested
of its cognitive significance and knowledge is denuded of all
experiential content. Thirdly, this is done in the course of instituting of
a particular normative framework of knowledge, which constructs the
authority of certain knowledge systems as scientific, and excludes
others as unscientific. What is unscientific is not explained as a result
of error or ignorance. What is not scientific is not knowledge at all, but
something else, which is mistaken for knowledge. It is to be explained
as a necessary product of ‘forces’, cultural or natural, an extension of
our being. Is it here that science joins colonialism? While the whole of
humanity may have a common essence, the being of the western
culture could be seen to be transformed by the possession of science.
The West possesses Knowledge, while other cultures only have Being.

In order to understand my argument it is important to realize that I am


not contesting the validity or otherwise of results of particular
sciences. Though, I am defending the right to contest any result of
science on the basis of my experience or my knowledge that may be
derived from a different tradition. I am suggesting that various
sciences representing diverse research traditions and insights are
constituted as a single formation of knowledge by means of a
framework, in which a certain pramanashastra plays a central role, a
prmanashastra that offers a particular, limited role to experience and
perception, but offers automatic authority to the sciences in return. I
feel that sciences need to delink themselves from this bargain and
construct their own authority anew and establish a fresh relationship
with society and other knowledge.

What has been implicit in this argument is that the question of ‘denial’
of experience of the colonized is integrally linked to the question of
knowledge and its authority. It cannot be subsumed under the question
of cultural difference though that may be important in its own right.
We do not merely seek understanding and affirmation of our
experience (we seek that too), but want to secure the possibility of our
current and future knowledge and build a different relationship with
current and past knowledge traditions, our own and other’s.

Yours in dialogue,

Avinash Jha
CSDS Library, Delhi.
Email: kalisaroj@yahoo.com

The original piece of Dr. Balagangadhara titled “India and Her


Traditions: A Reply to Jeffrey Kripal” can be found at:
http://www.sulekha.com/blogs/blogdisplay.aspx?cid=4501