First thoughts on omniscience in Indian thought

“Omniscience” (sārvajñya) assumes many different meanings in the various Indian philosophies. The understanding possibly most common in European and Anglo-American thought, which sees omniscience as including the knowledge of any possible thing in the past, present and future, is neither the only, nor the most common interpretation of omniscience.

Range of application of the “omni” in omniscience
Jaina authors tend to construe omniscience in the above way, namely as the knowledge of all possible states of affairs, attribute it to the Jinas and stress the innate potentiality of omniscience as being open to everybody (apart from God, given that they don’t believe in an absolute ultimate God).

Different Buddhist authors held widely different opinions about this topic. The Theravāda commentator Buddhaghosa (who lived in Śrī Laṅka in the 5th c. and wrote or systematised commentaries on the Buddhist Pāli canon) describes the Buddha’s omniscience not as the simultaneous knowledge of all things at the same time, but as his possibility to know without any obstacle whatever he fixed his attention on. In other words, the Buddha would know everything about person X as soon as he tried, but he would not know at the same time anything about all possible people and states of affairs. Buddhaghosa could in this way avoid paradoxes such as way would an omniscient Buddha try to beg for food at houses where no one is home (as it happens in some Suttas of the Canon).

Later Buddhist authors such as Dharmakīrti would suggest that the Buddha does not know any possible thing, including irrelevant things. He rather knows whatever is relevant. In this sense, the “omni” in omniscience (in Sanskrit: the sarva in sarvajña) is understood in a selective way, just like the “omni” in omnivore, which does not mean that one eats books or musical tunes.

Similarly, Advaita Vedānta authors stressed the identity of omniscience with complete knowledge of what is relevant, namely the only reality which is not illusory, the brahman. In this sense, omniscience has a very limited range of application, and yet covers whatever is not illusory.

Can human beings achieve omniscience?
Most schools accepting omniscience deem that human beings could achieve it, although only with much effort. In this sense, omniscience is usually considered the result of yogipratyakṣa `intellectual intuition’, the immediate grasp of whatever content. It needs to be direct, since inference and the other instruments of knowledge are known to ultimately depend on perceptual data and perception cannot grasp neither past nor future things (nor any other thing which is remote in space or remote because of other hindering conditions, for instance other people’s minds), so that omniscience needs to be based on a direct and independent access to such things.

It is not by chance that yogipratyakṣa literally means `the perception of the yogin’, since it was often first mentioned in connection with the special powers which yogin alone are said to be able to grasp. However, yogins are, unlike ṛṣis, not beyond human reach. They are considered to be a possible development among special but not anormal human beings.

Basing on the same elements, the authors of the Mīmāṃsā school altogether deny the possibility of omniscience. They explain that omniscience contradicts our experience, where knowledge always increases but never stops to be expandable. Moreover, no one could judge the omniscience of someone else. Thus, Mīmāṃsā authors say, the accounts about the Buddha’s omniscience cannot be trustworthy, since no one but an omniscient can vouch for someone else’s omniscience.

These were my first thoughts on the topic of omniscience. I will certainly add more about God’s omniscience in the next weeks. What strikes you about omniscience in India?

(cross-posted on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

2 thoughts on “First thoughts on omniscience in Indian thought

  1. It strikes me that a key distinction here may come out of different understandings of what it is to “know” (or jñā or sci-). Is the knower of given knowledge, by virtue of knowing it, immediately able to apply it in any context without effort? Such that if one acts contrarily (like the Buddha going for bhikṣā where nobody’s home) it means one didn’t really know it? Or, does knowing something merely mean that it is accessible when effort is applied to access it? One might make the analogy: does the information have to be present in RAM, or does it merely need to be on your hard drive? The Jain version you describe seems like the former, and the Buddhist version is like the latter.

    It’s a closely related question to statements about the ethical implications of knowledge. There are a number of Buddhist claims to the effect that one who knows śūnyatā does not get emotionally attached to things. So what do we make of someone who has studied śūnyatā at length yet still gets emotionally attached? There would seem to be some level at which that doesn’t count as real knowledge.

    • Yes, exactly. The RAM vs. hard drive analogy fits (although I would rather think of actuality and potentiality, since the hard drive case seems to suggest that the Buddha did at a certain point have this knowledge and only needs to recall it) and the ethical relevance of knowledge is THE point in the case of most schools of Buddhism.

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