The Limits of Mental Knowledge and the Process of Knowing

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

~ Kurt Vonnegut God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

edited by O Society July 18, 2019



Part 1:  Can the Ultimate Reality Be Known?

The second part of the Kena Upanishad contains 5 verses that explore the possibilities of “knowing”, the process of knowing, and the limitations of the process of knowing.  It enunciates the limits of linear thinking of the mind, and sets the understanding of what must be done to acquire true knowledge and overcome the limits of the mental framework and capacities. Each one takes up a separate aspect of the process and limits of knowing.  At the same time, it explores the relation of the Absolute Brahman to the world of creation, making the point that the Absolute Brahman cannot be known through action of the mind.

Second part, verse 1:  “If thou thinkest that thou knowest It well, little indeed dost thou know the form of the Brahman.  That of It which is thou, that of It which is in the gods, this thou has to think out.  I think It known.”

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The Master-Consciousness of the Brahman is that for which we have to abandon this lesser status of the mere creature subject to the movement of Nature in the cosmos; but after all this Master-Consciousness, however high and great a thing it may be, has a relation to the universe  and the cosmic movement; it cannot be the utter Absolute, Brahman superior to all relativities.

This Conscious-Being who originates, supports and governs our mind, life, senses is the Lord; but where there is no  universe of relativities, there can be no Lord, for there is no movement to transcend and govern.  Is not then this Lord, as one might say in a later language, not so much the creator of Maya as himself a creation of Maya?  Do not both Lord and cosmos disappear when we go beyond all cosmos?  And is it not beyond all cosmos that the only true reality exists?

Is it not this only true reality and not the Mind of our mind, the Sense of our sense, the Life of our life, the Word behind our speech, which we have to know and possess?  As we must go behind all effects to the Cause, must we not equally go beyond the Cause to that in which neither cause nor effects exist?  Is not even the immortality spoken of in the Veda and Upanishads a petty thing to be overpassed and abandoned?:  and should we not reach towards the utter Ineffable where mortality and immortality cease to have any meaning?”

~ Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pp. 103-104, 165-170



Part 2: The Unknowable

“Not this, not that” proclaim the Rishis of old when they tried to describe the Absolute Brahman, beyond the reach of the mind and the senses.  The intention here is not to frame the Absolute as something “negative” but to ensure that we do not believe we know it in any true sense by the powers of the mind, which are limited to the frame of the manifested universe.  The vastness of the manifestation and the unity of the creation make it even impossible to know all of the universe through our limited mental powers.  How much more impossible, then, it will seem, if we try to encompass also the silent Absolute beyond all manifestation with a power that is limited, fragmented and distorted in its view and standpoint?

The Second Part, verse 2 adds to the review of the process of knowing:  “I think not that I know It well and yet I know that It is not unknown to me.  He of us who knows It, knows That; he knows that It is not unknown to him.”

Sri Aurobindo comments:  “[The Upanishad’s] answer to the problem is that That is precisely the Unknowable of which no relations can be affirmed and about which therefore our intellect must for ever be silent.  The injunction to know the utterly Unknowable would be without any sense or practical meaning.  Not that That is a Nihil, a pure Negative, but it cannot either be described by any of the positives of which our mind, speech or perception is capable, nor even can it be indicated by any of them.  It is only a little that we know; it is only in the terms of the little we can put the mental forms of our knowledge.

Even when we go beyond to the real form of the Brahman which is not this universe, we can only indicate, we cannot really describe.  If then we think we have known it perfectly, we betray our ignorance; we show that we know very little indeed, not even the little that we can put into the forms of our knowledge.  For the universe seen as our mind sees it is the little, the divided, the parcelling out of existence and consciousness in which we know and express things by fragments, and we can never really cage in our intellectual and verbal fictions that infinite totality.

Yet is is through the principles manifested in the universe that we have to arrive at That, through the life, through the mind and through that highest mental knowledge which grasps at the fundamental Ideas that are like doors concealing behind them the Brahman and yet seeming to reveal Him.”

~ Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pp. 103-104, 165-170


Those who know don’t talk. 
Those who talk don’t know.

Block the passage.
Bolt the gate.
Blunt the sharp.
Untie the knot.
Blend with the light
Become one with the dust – This is called original unity.

It can’t be embraced 
It can’t be escaped,
It can’t be helped 
It can’t be harmed,
It can’t be exalted
It can’t be despised, 
Therefore it is revered under Heaven.

(translation Addiss & Lombardo)

Heshang Gong’s commentary:

“Those who know don’t speak”
Those who know, value practice and not words.

“Those who speak don’t know”
A team of four horses could not catch up to the tongue. Many words equals many worries.

(translation Dan Reid)

zhengqi 正氣 “aligning the vital energy”


Part 3: Knowing the Unknowable

We reach a point where we can recognize that mental knowing is limited and cannot possibly extend itself to the entire universal creation, much less the Absolute Brahman beyond the created universe.  Does this mean we reach a dead end and cannot ever achieve this knowledge?  Is there a type of knowing, other than the mental formations, that can reach this point?  The Kena Upanishad, part 2, verse 3 states:

“He by whom It is not thought out, has the thought of It; he by whom It is thought out, knows It not.  It is unknown to the discernment of those who discern of It, by those who seek not to discern of It, It is discerned.”

Sri Aurobindo comments:  “Much less, then, if we can only thus know the Master-Consciousness which is the form of the Brahman, can we pretend to know its utter ineffable reality which is beyond all knowledge.  But if this were all, there would be no hope for the soul and a resigned Agnosticism would be the last word of wisdom.  The truth is that though thus beyond our mentality and our highest ideative knowledge, the Supreme does give Himself both to this knowledge and to our mentality in the way proper to each and by following that way we can arrive at Him, but only on condition that we do not take our mentalising by the mind and our knowing by the higher thought for the full knowledge and rest in that with a satisfied possession.”

“The way is to use our mind rightly for such knowledge as is open to its highest, purified capacity.  We have to know the form of the Brahman, the Master-Consciousness of the Lord through and yet beyond the universe in which we live.  But first we must put aside what is mere form and phenomenon in the universe; for that has nothing to do with the form of the Brahman, the body of the Self, since it is not His form, but only His most external mask.

Our first step therefore must be to get behind the forms of Matter, the forms of Life, the forms of Mind and go back to that which is essential, most real, nearest to actual entity.  And when we have gone on thus eliminating, thus analysing all forms into the fundamental entities of the cosmos, we shall find that these fundamental entities are really only two, ourselves and the gods.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pp. 103-104, 165-170


18 Perfect Happiness

When Chuang Tzu went to Ch’u, he saw an old skull, all dry and parched. He poked it with his carriage whip and then asked, “Sir, were you greedy for life and forgetful of reason, and so came to this? Was your state overthrown and did you bow beneath the ax, and so came to this? Did you do some evil deed and were you ashamed to bring disgrace upon your parents and family, and so came to this? Was it through the pangs of cold and hunger that you came to this? Or did your springs and autumns pile up until they brought you to this?”

When he had finished speaking, he dragged the skull over and, using it for a pillow, lay down to sleep.

In the middle of the night, the skull came to him in a dream and said, “You chatter like a rhetorician and all your words betray the entanglements of a living man. The dead know nothing of these! Would you like to hear a lecture on the dead?”

“Indeed,” said Chuang Tzu.

The skull said, “Among the dead there are no rulers above, no subjects below, and no chores of the four seasons. With nothing to do, our springs and autumns are as endless as heaven and earth. A king facing south on his throne could have no more happiness than this!”

Chuang Tzu couldn’t believe this and said, “If I got the Arbiter of Fate to give you a body again, make you some bones and flesh, return you to your parents and family and your old home and friends, you would want that, wouldn’t you?”

The skull frowned severely, wrinkling up its brow. “Why would I throw away more happiness than that of a king on a throne and take on the troubles of a human being again?” it said.

(translation Burton Watson)


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