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?

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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11 thoughts on “First thoughts on omniscience in Indian thought

  1. Hi Elisa,
    good analysis. The ‘need to know’ is an important non-disqualification of omniscience as you point out. Omniscience can also be a scientia about the omnia. ‘What is it, that when it is known, all things are known’ is asked in some upanishad. There is the difference between saying ‘I know what you are thinking’ and ‘I know what thinking is’.


  2. Just heard Arindam Chakrabarti say an hour ago that if the omniscience of Īśvara be admitted along the Yoga lines, it would lead to an unavoidable contradiction since Īśvara, in that case, must have first-hand knowledge (i.e. experience) of the pain and sufferings (kleśa) of the jīvas, and if so he could not be Īśvara in the Yoga sense, untouched by pain, etc. (kleśakarmavipākāśairaparāmrşțah puruşaviśeşa īśvarah).

    • Thank you, Sudipta, very interesting point. I guess many authors would say that duḥkha is just absence of right understanding, and not a positive thing, so that Īśvara does not need to know it, just like He does not need to know all our errors. What did Arindam say?

      • Dear Elisa,

        Though Arindam Chakrabarti did not say anything regarding the positive / negative nature of duhkha, yet since he spoke of the fallacy of God’s knowledge of duhkha by actually suffering it, it is presumable that he must be thinking of duhkha as a positive entity and not a mere absence of right understanding.

  3. However, it may be observed –

    Inspite of Īśvara’s experience of duhkha it is not the same as the one suffered by the jīvas. So the Nyāya and Yoga concepts of omniscience will not hold, since despite Īśvara’s having a first-hand knowledge of dukha consequent upon His experience of it, it is not the same as the duhkha, experienced by the jīva. In this sense, Īśvara cannot be omniscient. Moreover, this would discount the theory of karma, because sukha and duhkha are the consequences of the good and bad deeds respectively done by the jīvas with the help of their bodies. Now, in the absence of a body, how can Īśvara perform any action, which would lead to the experience of sukha or duhkha? In that case, He has to have a śarīra. Moreover, there will be no greater duhkhī than Īśvara, and how can He, who is himself duhkhī, deliver others from dukha? Also, how then are we to account for the blissful nature of Īśvara, spoken of in the Upanişads? It may hold true for avatāras or sages, who out of compassion for mankind, become sympathetic with their sorrows and sufferings, but since they lack the knowledge of creating, sustaining and destroying the universe in accordance with the Brahmasutra concept of ‘jagadvyāpāravarjyam’, they are not omniscient. They are not Īśvara in the latter’s non-avatāric aspect.

  4. ‘sārvajñya assumes many different meanings in the various Indian philosophies.’ Not so. Kevalya yes. That concept has to be essentially contested for sound ontological reasons with a direct bearing on orthopraxy.
    But nineteenth and early twentieth century publicists knew that ‘omnescience’ had no such entailment. Don’t forget the Islamic Khizr is omniscient. All this entails is ‘Backward induction’ as articulated by Indian game theorists like Kaushik Basu. There is no scandal here.

    Buddhism died in India because it was silly. Why mention some text of Dharmakirti? He outlived it and the laughter it occasioned. But, a poetic conceit was established which had currency even in Hindu Riti poetry or stand up comedy down to our own age- witness Kumar Vishvas.

    Knowledge is always knowledge of what people do in the toilet. It is something repugnant in itself. God, as the Doctor of bodies, the cleanser of corpses, is very welcome to keep this knowledge to himself.

    Mimamsa is a living tradition. It has always contradicted itself. It certainly does not deny the possibility of a jivan mukta endowed with kevalya gyan. Rather, it points to the stupidity of the Buddha and other such charlatans. If they really were so smart they could have put forward a Mimamsa of their own rather than relegate the task to converted Brahmins who lived long after.

    There is a separate question as to whether Indians had a Laplacian theory such that future was computable. Looking at Indian Mathematics- even applied to Astrology- the answer has to be no. Why? Indians did Voting theory using discrete methods at an early date. Even after the collapse of ‘Janapadas’, Monastic and Guild type institutions were governed in this manner. Just as Nobel Laureate Aumann has shown Game Theory in the Talmud, so too in India did a similar rationality- from which of course you are personally and professionally exempt- prevail. Why? According to recent evidence, most Indians- actually all Indians except me- are ‘human beings’. I am descended from Anctartic penguins. Furthermore, ‘human beings’ evolved by ‘natural selection’ which is Game theoretic.

    The odd thing is nobody doesn’t know this. Penguins like me may object but because of institutionalised discrimination against flightless birds our voices tend to be drowned out by stupid people who aren’t even getting paid in fish.

    • (For this time, I am assuming this comment is a bona fide one). Mīmāṃsā authors do not accept the idea of a jīvanmukta, as this runs against our common experience of people being limited and never omniscient. If you have evidence of the opposite, I would be very glad to read the text(s) you have found it in.