There are four kinds of activities of the buddhi. The first is analysis which means separating the object of inquiry into its constituent elements. The second is classification which is grouping the various components and properties of the object of inquiry. The third is causality which is identifying the cause-effect relationship as well as the estimation of the amount of a certain substance needed to achieve a specific effect. The fourth kind of activity is deciding whether to perform an activity or not. After considering its current circumstances, the buddhi helps decide whether a specific action will have its intended consequences, how much of the result would be beneficial, as well whether such an action is suitable to perform. Such activities can together be termed value judgement. But all four of these activities are possible only after the buddhi has found the input material for its work. The buddhi can only analyse material made available to it through the sense organs and the manas. The objects of our world are perceivable by our sense organs. Our buddhi can reason and hypothesise only after grasping these sense-objects. But it cannot proceed with objects that are beyond the ken of the sense organs and the manas. The buddhi has no purview over objects that are beyond sensory perception. Many ādhyātmic (spiritual) elements are beyond the senses. Neither can our eyes, ears, and hands nor can the manas touch ādhyātmic principles. The manas might indicate that something is ādhyātmic. The buddhi can accept it as such but it cannot be claimed that the spiritual is under its sway.
The principles of ātmā, īśvara, and the jīva’s progress or regress cannot be perceived by the sense organs. However, the sense organs are able to experience the effects of such elements. With this experience as the basis, the buddhi can guess and grasp at the nature of the origin of these principles. Spiritual principles are thus accessible to the buddhi but not subordinate to it. Also, spiritual principles become accessible only after the buddhi accepts the āstika śāstras. It is not that the nāstikas lack the faculty of buddhi. But since they lack śraddhā in the śāstras, they cannot grasp ādhyātma. If they had been able to grasp it, they would not have been nāstika. The ādhyātmic principles can be realised only after acceptance of the śāstras. There is no external testimony for the existence of the ātmā other than the statements of the śāstra. Can something like the jīva be pointed at with our fingers and physically be transferred from one’s arms to another? How can the existence of svarga and naraka be shown in the external world? Where are the records to show transmigration? The purāṇas tell us that Prahlāda proved Bhagavān’s existence by making him appear in a pillar. Where are those who can make Bhagavān appear in front of us? All these ideas - jīva, daiva, ātmā, brahma, puṇya, pāpa, svarga, naraka - are part of the knowledge that has come to us from the Veda. These cannot be established by human buddhi. Thus, even for those who would like to inquire after the Supreme Principle as well as those desirous of leading a principled life, the Veda becomes the fundamental testimony. It is after considering all the defects of human buddhi such as doubt and error that Bhagavān Vyāsa declared
“As logic has no foundation”
-Brahma Sūtra 2.1.11
in his sūtras and has clarified that mere human reasoning is insufficient to reach the supreme tattva. Śrī Śaṅkara’s commentary on the above is as follows.
puruṣotprekṣā-mātra-nibandhanāstarkā apratiṣṭhitā bhavanti, utprekṣāyā niraṅkuśatvāt |... puruṣa-mati-vairūpyāt | ...kapila-kaṇabhuk-prabhṛtīnāṃ paraspara-vipratipatti-darśanāt | tarkāṇām-apratiṣṭhitatvaṃ tarkeṇaiva pratiṣṭhāpyate | sarva-tarkā-pratiṣṭhāyāṃ ca loka-vyavahāroccheda-prasaṅgaḥ |
"The chain of tarka (reasoning) comes from human conjectures and their extensions. As these conjectures are unchecked, tarka lacks a sound basis. Human buddhi assumes different forms which is why Maharṣi Kaṇāda could not accept Maharṣi Kapila’s arguments. Hence, tarka, which is an effect of human buddhi, is incapable of establishing the supreme principle by itself. This can be established by the conventions of tarka itself. If tarka is not established anywhere, even worldly activities become impossible."
Thus tarka, a product of the buddhi, is necessary in a few areas and inconclusive in others. In such a dilemma, the Veda is our only refuge.
Suprasensory knowledge can be attained only through the Veda.
pratyakṣeṇānumityā vā yastūpāyo na buddhyate ।
enaṃ vidanti vedena tasmādvedasya vedatā ॥
-Sāyaṇa in Taittirīya-saṃhitā-bhāṣya-bhūmikā
“The suprasensory knowledge that cannot be obtained by an analysis of the perceived world or be inferred from sense perceived objects - the path to the supreme that cannot be gained by tarka alone - can be ascertained by the Veda. Thence is the Veda-hood of the Veda.”
This is the conclusion. In suprasensory matters, the Veda is the sole authority. In other words, the Veda’s primary authority is in matters pertaining to adhyātma. However, in those areas that are not ādhyātmic and pertain only to this world (secular investigations), the faculty of discernment from human buddhi plays the chief role.
Does it mean that buddhi cannot help those who rely on the Vedas and śāstras? No. Buddhi is required in all areas. But the buddhi has to restrict itself within the boundary of the Veda. Can a calf not ramble about in a meadow? It can and it should. But it cannot cross the fence. If it crosses the fence, it can fall prey to tigers and leopards. Cattle are free within the limits of the meadow. The buddhi is free within the enclosure of the Veda. Freedom here is relative to what is to be achieved. If human buddhi cannot act unfettered, the meaning of the Veda will not become apparent.
ārṣaṃ dharmopadeśaṃ ca vedaśāstrāvirodhinā ।
yastarkeṇānusandhatte sa dharmaṃ veda netaraḥ ॥
“Only he who reflects upon the sage advice of dharma with tarka that is unopposed to the Veda will understand dharma; none other.”
-Manu Smṛti 12.106
In the commentary to the above words of Manu, Kullūkabhaṭṭa references the following opinion of Kumārila Bhaṭṭa from his vārttika.
dharme pramīyamāṇe hi vedena karaṇātmanā ।
itikartavyatābhāgaṃ mīmāṃsā pūrayiṣyati ॥
“Only the Veda is the means to understand dharma. The practical aspects of this understanding are ascertained by the buddhi in the form of mīmāṃsā.”
The conclusion is this: In ādhyātmic matters wherein concepts such as jīva, īśvara, puṇya, pāpa, svarga, naraka, transmigration and mokṣa assume importance, śraddhā in Veda assumes primacy. Human buddhi acts as its helper. In areas where the jīva’s welfare is not directly addressed and the worldly arithmetic of profits and losses holds sway, the buddhi’s independent skill assumes priority. In a few areas of our life, therefore, śraddhā in the śāstras is the main actor with the buddhi in a supporting role. In other areas, the faculty of discernment from the buddhi has to be strong and capable to help lead a life that is aligned to the Vedas and śāstras. Thus both śraddhā and buddhi; and hence the vaidika and worldly ways, can be mutually reconciled.
Let us now go back to Arjuna. From the perspective of śraddhā in the vedas and śāstras, Arjuna had to follow his Kṣatriya-dharma. The instruction of the Veda-śāstra is as follows - “the ātmā cannot be destroyed; it is eternal; its complete realisation is the greatest attainment of life; for such an attainment, the jīva has to be rid of its impurities and imperfections; for such a complete purification of the jīva, performing dharma is imperative; by performance of dharma is implied one’s own dharma”. This is not merely an intellectual theory but one of śraddhā in the śāstras. Arjuna getting battle ready is manifesting śraddhā in the śāstras.
With his battle-readiness come issues such as the design of army formations, the selection of a commander-in-chief, specific choices of weapons, and decisions of what missile to employ in response to a specific enemy missile. They can be solved only through the ability of one’s own buddhi.
In short: śāstra is needed for the knowledge of the Supreme Principle whereas buddhi is for its application in the world.
This is evident even in the activities of common people like us. To celebrate a wedding, for instance, the matching of the bride and groom is a matter for the śāstra and so is the selection of the auspicious muhūrta. Charming the families of the bride or the groom; choosing the right menu for the feasts; the list of invitees; the venue of the wedding - should it be the neighbourhood temple or one’s own house? Should money be borrowed or should just the wedding groceries be bought on credit? Should the interest rate be 10 percent or 12? - are all problems that are in the domain of worldly buddhi. It is sufficient if there are no lies or cheating in it. Thus both the śāstra and our buddhi have a place in our lives. Both of these, perhaps, have to coexist everywhere. Śāstra and the discernment from buddhi do not have to contradict each other. In fact, both are complementary to each other. We had to say so much about this matter now because our society is vacillating without any certainty. What is right - the śāstra or the mundane way of the world? Should we trust it, or analyse it independently? Veda or science? The contentment of the past? Or the glitz and glamour of today? This is the dilemma that haunts us. If we have to resolve this, we need to clarify to ourselves what the respective domains of vedaśāstras and human buddhi are.
To be continued...
The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.