Knowledge and the Sacred [03]

~Seyyed Hossein Nasr

The depleting of knowledge of its sacred character and the creation of a “profane” science which is then used to study even the most sacred doctrines and forms at the heart of religion have led to a forgetting of the primacy of the sapiential dimension within various traditions and the neglect of the traditional doctrine of man which has envisaged him as a being possessing the possibility of knowing things in principle and the principles of all things leading finally to the knowledge of Ultimate Reality. In fact, the sapiential perspective has been so forgotten and the claims of rationalism, which reduces man's intellectual faculty to only the extroverted and analytical function of the mind that then turns against the very foundations of religion, so emphasized, that many a religiously sensitive person in the West has been led to take refuge in faith alone, leaving belief or doctrinal creed to the mercy of ever-changing paradigms or theories caught in the process of relativization and constant transformation. Without in any way denying the central role of faith and the crucial significance of revelation to actualize the possibilities inherent within the microcosmic intellect, a point to which, in fact, we shall turn later in this work, it must be remembered that in the sapiential perspective faith itself is inseparable from knowledge so that not only does the Anselmian dictum credo ut intelligam hold true from a certain perspective but that one can also assert intelligo ut credam which does not mean to reason first but to “intellect” or use the intellectual faculty of which the rational is only a reflection and extension.

Moreover, the basic teachings of the religions which are both the background and the goal of faith contain in one way or another the sapiential perspective which views knowledge as ultimately related to the Divine Intellect and the Origin of all that is sacred. Even a rapid glance at the different living traditions of mankind proves the validity of this assertion. In Hinduism, that oldest of religions and the only echo of the “primordial religion” to survive to this day, the sacred texts which serve as the origin of the whole tradition, namely the Vedas, are related to knowledge. Etymologically veda and vedānta derive from the root vid which means “seeing” and “knowing” and which is related to the Latin videre “to see” and the Greek oida “to know.” The Upanishads which are hymns of the primordial soul of man yearning for the Absolute mean literally “near-sitting,” which the master of Hindu gnosis Śankara explains as that science or knowledge of Brahma which “sets to rest” or destroys what appears as the world along with the ignorance which is its root. The cause of all separation, division, otherness, and ultimately suffering is ignorance (avidyā) and the cure knowledge. The heart of the tradition is supreme knowledge (jñāna), while the various “schools” usually called philosophy, the darśanas, are literally so many perspectives or points of view. The Hindu tradition, without of course neglecting love and action, places the sacred character of knowledge at the heart of its perspective and sees in the innate power of man to discern between Ātman and māyā the key to deliverance. Hinduism addresses itself to that element in man which is already divine and which man can come to realize only by knowing himSelf. The Sacred lies at the heart of man and is attainable most directly through knowledge which pierces the veils of māyā to reach the Supernal Sun which alone is. In this tradition where the knowledge of God should properly be called autology rather than theology,15 the function of knowledge as the royal path toward the Sacred and the ultimately sacred character of all authentic knowledge is demonstrated with blinding clarity over and over again in its sacred scripture and is even reflected in the meaning of the names of the sacred texts which serve as the foundations for the whole tradition.

Although Buddhism belongs to a very different perspective than Hinduism and, in fact, began as a rebellion against many Brahmanical doctrines and practices, it joins Hinduism in emphasizing the primacy of knowledge. The supreme experience of the Buddha was illumination which implies knowledge. The beginning of Buddhism is Boddhisattvayāna which means “birth of awareness that all things are void.” At the heart of Buddhism, therefore, lies knowledge that was to lead later to the elaborate metaphysics of the Void which is the foundation of the whole of Buddhism and which was championed by Nāgārjuna. Also all the virtues of the Bodhisattva, the pāramitās, culminate in wisdom or prajñā. They all contribute to the dawning of this knowledge which liberates and which lies as a possibility within the being of all humans. The Buddha image itself reflects inward knowledge and that contemplation of the Void which is the gate through which inner peace flows and inundates even external manifestation while, from another point of view, this contemplation serves as the support and “seat” for supreme knowledge. One can hardly conceive of Buddhism without becoming immediately aware of the central role of knowledge, although of course the way of love and mercy could not be absent from such a major religion as can be seen in Amidhism and the figure of the Avalokiteśvara or Kwan Yin itself. As far as the Chinese tradition is concerned, here again in both Confucianism and Taoism the role of knowledge as the central means for the attainment of perfection reigns supreme. This is to be seen especially in Taoism where the perfect man is seen as one who knows the Tao and lives according to this knowledge which means also that he lives according to his own “nature.”

As Chuang-Tzŭ says,
The man of virtue… can see where all is dark. He can hear where all is still. In the darkness he alone can see light. In the stillness he alone can detect harmony.

It is the principial or sacred knowledge which allows the sage to “see God everywhere,” to observe harmony where others see discord, and to see light where others are blinded by darkness. The man of knowledge goes beyond himself to reach Heaven and through this process the Tao of his own self which is none other than the sacred ground of his own being, the original “darkness” which is not dark because of the lack of light but because of the excess of luminosity, like the sacred dark grotto of medieval tales from which flows the spring of life.

The divine man rides upon the glory of the sky where his form can no longer be discerned. This is called absorption into light. He fulfils his destiny. He acts in accordance with his nature. He is at one with God and man. For him all affairs cease to exist, and all things revert to their original state. This is called envelopment in darkness.