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  • Smrithi Adinarayanan

Indigenous Epistemology

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature, scope, and theory of knowledge. It seeks to answer questions about the nature of knowledge, how knowledge is acquired, what can be considered as knowledge, and what distinguishes justified belief from mere opinion. Epistemology explores the following fundamental questions:

  • What is knowledge?

  • What are the sources of knowledge?

  • What are the beliefs and justifications?

  • Can we truly know anything with absolute certainty and how we can respond to skeptical challenges?

  • Are the knowledge sources reliable?

In this blog, we bring the epistemologies of Indian and Maori traditions.

Epistemology in the Indian Tradition

Epistemology in Indian philosophy explores various ways of acquiring knowledge, the sources of knowledge, and the criteria for determining what can be considered true and valid knowledge. There are several key schools of thought within Indian philosophy that have developed distinct epistemological theories, including:

Nyaya School: The Nyaya school, founded by sage Gautama (also known as Akṣapāda), is known for its systematic exploration of epistemology. Nyaya philosophers developed a comprehensive theory of knowledge based on perception (pratyakṣa), inference (anumāna), analogy (upamāna), testimony (śabda), and presumption (arthāpatti). They also discussed various means of error and fallacies that could affect knowledge.

Vaisheshika School: The Vaisheshika school, founded by sage Kanada, also contributed to epistemology by discussing perception, inference, and testimony as sources of knowledge. Vaisheshika philosophers were concerned with classifying different categories of substances and atoms, which played a role in their epistemological discussions.

Mimamsa School: The Mimamsa school, particularly the Purva Mimamsa branch, focused on epistemology as it relates to ritual and Vedic knowledge. They emphasized the primacy of Vedic testimony as the source of valid knowledge and developed intricate theories of language and meaning.

Buddhist Epistemology: Within Buddhist philosophy, especially in the Pramana tradition, scholars like Dignaga and Dharmakirti developed sophisticated epistemological theories. They emphasized perception and inference as valid sources of knowledge and introduced concepts like "apoha" (exclusion) and "svatantra pramana" (autonomous valid cognition) to explain how knowledge is acquired.

Jain Epistemology: Jain philosophers, notably in the Nyaya-Vaisheshika tradition, discussed epistemology in the context of their unique metaphysical views. They explored the nature of perception, inference, and testimony and developed theories of "kevala jnana" (omniscience) and "mati jnana" (sensory knowledge).

Advaita Vedanta: In the Advaita Vedanta tradition founded by Adi Shankaracharya, epistemology is examined in the context of non-dualism. Shankara emphasized the ultimate reality of Brahman and discussed the illusory nature of the empirical world. His epistemological framework incorporates the concepts of perception, scriptural testimony, inference, analogy, postulation and non-existence

Navya-Nyaya School: The Navya-Nyaya school, which emerged later in the history of Indian philosophy, made significant contributions to epistemology. Philosophers like Gangesha Upadhyaya introduced precise logical and linguistic tools for analyzing knowledge, including discussions on valid perception (prama), doubt (samsaya), and error (bhrama).

To summarise, the sources of knowledge (Pramana) include:

Pratyaksha (Perception): Pratyaksha is direct perception through the senses. It refers to the knowledge gained through sensory experiences, such as seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. When you see a tree, hear a bird's song, or feel the warmth of the sun, you are using pratyaksha as a pramana to gain knowledge about your immediate environment.

Anumana (Inference): Anumana is the process of drawing conclusions or gaining knowledge about something not directly perceived based on what is known. It involves reasoning and making deductions. For example, if you see smoke in the distance, you may infer that there is a fire, even if you cannot directly see the fire. Anumana is based on the principle of cause and effect.

Upamana (Analogy): Upamana is a form of knowledge gained through analogy or comparison. It involves understanding something unfamiliar by comparing it to something familiar. For instance, if someone wants to learn about a new type of fruit, it may be explained by comparing it to a more common fruit they are already familiar with.

Agama (Testimony): Agama, also known as sabda (verbal testimony), refers to knowledge gained through the testimony or word of others. It is based on trusting the information provided by reliable sources. Scriptures, experts, teachers, and trustworthy individuals can serve as sources of agama.

Arthapatti (Presumption): Arthapatti is a unique pramana that involves making an assumption or presumption to reconcile conflicting pieces of information. It is used when the available evidence creates a contradiction that can only be resolved by postulating an unperceived fact. For example, if someone regularly sees a neighbor eating at a restaurant but never sees groceries delivered to their home, they may presume that the neighbor eats out regularly.

Anupalabdhi (Non-perception): Anupalabdhi is knowledge gained through the non-perception or absence of something. It involves recognizing the absence or non-existence of an object or quality. For example, when you search for your keys and realize they are not in your pocket, you gain knowledge of their absence through anupalabdhi.

Epistemology in the Maori Tradition

Maori epistemology is deeply rooted in the cultural and spiritual traditions of the Maori people of New Zealand (Aotearoa). It encompasses a holistic worldview and a unique way of knowing the world. Three fundamental concepts in Maori epistemology are Maatarunga, Waananga, and Koorero:

Maatarunga: Maatarunga refers to the traditional Maori knowledge system. It encompasses the collective wisdom, customs, practices, and oral traditions that have been passed down through generations. Maatarunga encompasses various domains of knowledge, including knowledge of the land (whenua), the environment, history, cosmology, and the interconnectedness of all things. This knowledge is often held and transmitted by kaumātua (elders) and is considered sacred and essential to the Maori way of life.

Waananga: Waananga refers to the traditional Maori institutions of higher learning and centers of knowledge. These institutions served as places where knowledge was imparted, explored, and preserved. Waananga, which encompassed the wisdom needed to harness the energy of one's ancestors, covered cosmological and ancestral narratives. These were conveyed using a language of genealogy and description, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all things originating from a shared source. It also involved ceremonial customs and the use of powerful incantations called karakia. This form of knowledge was highly valued within families and considered a cherished heritage (taonga). It was typically passed down to select, intelligent young boys chosen either by their close relatives or within their tribal community. The teaching was divided into two main sections: the kauae runga (upperjaw) or knowledge of ancestor gods, and the kauae raro (lower jaw) or knowledge of human history from the earliest migration to "Tawhiti' down to the migrations to Aotearoa.

Koorero: Koorero, which can be translated as 'discourse' or 'conversation,' serves as the primary medium through which knowledge (maatauranga) is predominantly conveyed. It stands in contrast to 'kupu,' which represents shorter forms of communication such as a word, statement, or assertion. For example, the knowledge of tribal histories can be referred to as 'ngaa koorero tuku iho' (talk passed down) or simply 'koorero.' Consequently, a knowledgeable individual is described as a 'puu koorero' (a source of discourse), a 'whare koorero' (a place of conversation), a 'maunga koorero' (a mountain that speaks), or a 'manu koorero' (a bird known for its oratory skills).

The central arena for extensive debates in Maori tribal life, both historically and in contemporary times, is the 'marae' or ceremonial courtyard. It is where kin groups come together in formal rituals, and women engage in ceremonial calls known as 'karanga,' while male orators exchange speeches."

There are epistemological commonalities among cultures. While a large part of the Vedic system has been preserved and continues even today through Pathshalas and Gurukulams, there is much that can be done at the global level to bring out these interesting epistemologies.

Indigenous and Contemporary Epistemology: What is different?

Indigenous epistemology often emphasizes holistic and interconnected knowledge that integrates spirituality, culture, and the environment. Contemporary epistemology tends to compartmentalize knowledge into distinct disciplines and domains, focusing on rationality, empiricism, and logical analysis. It is often text-based and relies on written records and formal education.

Indigenous epistemology blends religion, spirituality and daily life whereas contemporary epistemology tends to separate religious or spiritual beliefs from the pursuit of objective knowledge. Central to contemporary epistemology is the question of how beliefs can be justified as knowledge. This includes exploring concepts of evidence, reasoning, and the criteria for belief acceptance. Only recently has contemporary epistemology expanded to include social epistemology, which examines the role of social factors, testimony, and collective knowledge in the acquisition of knowledge.


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