Six Approaches to the Concept of Omniscience

A Perspective in Jaina Philosophy and Religion

Six Approaches to the Concept of Omniscience

Prof. Ramjee Singh

The acceptance or non-acceptance of the idea of Omniscience in a particular system of Indian Philosophy can provide us with a new principle of division of the Indian systems. There are those like the Buddhists, the Jainas, the Nyaya-Vaisesikas, the Samkhya-Yogins and the Vedantins who accept the idea of Omniscience either as a religious dogma or as an epistemological-metaphysical principle. However, the idea is very important and fundamental both to the sastras and common usages. Its germinal concept can be traced back even to the Vedas.

However, the Carvakas, the Indian Agnostics, the Mimamsakas reject the very idea of omniscience. The Carvakas, for example will naturally reject such an assumption is direct sense-perception. Hence, they cannot accept anything which is transempirical or transcendental like soul, God, Paraloka, Karmaphala (the consequences of good-evil actions). If the existence of Atman or the eternal metaphysical subject is denied, the very idea of omniscience is put to a naught. Soul is supposed to be the substratum of knowledge and when this ground is lost, the entire edifice falls down. Attributes cannot exist without the substance.

The Indian Agnostics Sceptics accept a self-imposed limitation to their knowledge, while the Nihilists by their attitude leave no room for any discussion upon this subject. Knowledge by its very nature is limited. However, refined and developed it might be, it cannot grasp all the complexion and substitution of the whole world in the past, present and future. The reality, to use Kant’s words, is unknown and unknowable.

However, the worst critics of the doctrine of Omniscience, are the Indian Retreatists or Mimamsakas. Strangely enough, though they accept the unchallengeable authority of the Vedas and Pre-birth etc., they openly and most avoided by deny the existence of the omniscience God. The reason is obvious and somewhat extra-ontological but thoroughly practical. The Mimamsakas are essentially ritualists. To them rituals and their proper performances can guarantee us the highest good of life. So they in their enthusiasm to accord the means, all knowledge or the perfect knowledge. This may apparently look to be a very simple idea but really it involves many problems. Let us discuss a few of them.

All-knowledge is rather a very vague term. We have to see whether this knowledge is to be taken denotatively or connotatively, i.e., whether an omniscient being knows all the objects with all their attributes numerically or through their important characteristics. Then if Omniscience means knowledge of Past, Present and Future, we have to know whether the Omniscience knows past and future as the present or past as past and future as future. In brief, whether Omniscient knowledge is simultaneous or successive, is an important question. Now, let us also discuss, who is an Omniscient ? Whether he is human or divine or both ? We know that there are references both about human and divine Omniscience in our religious and philosophical literature. But then, we have to find out the particular system that has laid the foundation of this idea and it would be more interesting to know the socio-cultural causes for the emergence of this idea which is so much talked about in our books. Whether this idea is the product of pure philosophical speculation or a mere religious dogma or both ? It is generally argued that the idea, at first, evolved as a religious dogma but later on logical arguments were also advanced to defend its validity. This view finds its support in the fact that the validity or invalidity of the Vedas formed the main plank of all discussion for and against the idea of Omniscience. Connected with this, we have to discuss the relation between the idea and God and Omniscience. Apparently, we do not see any relation save and except the fact that Omniscience is regarded as a divine attribute of God, But in Indian Philosophy, both the theistic and the atheistic schools have supported the idea of Omniscience. For example, the theistic systems like the Nyaya-Vaisesika and Yoga along with the atheistic schools like Samkhya, Jainism and Buddhism and purely metaphysical disciplines like the Upanisads and the Vedanta accept Omniscience. Of course, there are certain differences too. For example, the Nyaya-Vaisesikas accept the idea of both divine and human Omniscience. However, Omniscience is a capacity of knowledge only among the Yogis and not ordinary average people. Nyaya-Vaisesika do not regard Omniscience as a pre-conditions of Moksa because the state of Moksa is the state of utter unconsciousness. Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta also don’t insist upon attainment of Omniscience as a pre-condition of Moksa as otherwise held by the Jainas.

Then there is yet another very important problem : the relation between the two very important and related concepts of Sarvajnata (Omniscience) and Dharmajnata is a product of the idea of Dharmajnata or vice versa. Buddhism is the veritable champion of Dharmajnata because Buddha’s Omniscience is the sense of Dharmajna or Margajna (Path-leader). It senses that both these principles of Omniscience and revelation have got independent origins, although later on they have fused together. As pointed out earlier that the Buddhists, at first, subordinates the idea of Sarvajnata to the idea of Dharmajnata but later on, perhaps on account of the Jaina influences, we find separate and independent treatment of Omniscience even at the hands of the Buddhists. Lord Buddha becomes an Omniscience deity. However, this is interesting to know that the sectarian bias of each of the schools like the Jainas, Buddhists, Samkhyas lead than to think only their own perceptor as Omniscient and non-else. This has naturally led the Mimamsakas to put them is a very awkward position. How is it that if all of them are Omniscientists, they differ so vitally.

Before, I take up a fuller discussion of the problem, I like to discuss broadly the six main approaches to the concept of Omniscience in Indian Philosophy.

The Approach of Worship

The Vedic Approach to the concept of omniscience is the Approach of Worship. There is a tendency to extol each of the many gods as the Supreme God, who is naturally the Creator of the universe and possessing the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience etc. However in the whole of the Vedas, the particular term Sarvajnata or Sarvanjanta never occurs, yet there are many words denoting the meaning of the said word, as can be inferred from the following expressions : Visva Vedas, Visva Vid, Visvani Vidvan, Sarvavit, Jatvedas, etc. However, throughout all these discussions, `Omniscience is a purely divine attribute. No where is found a single passage where it is human. However, there are prayer-passages to the gods to grant infinite knowledge and strength. In the Vedic speculation, which is mostly primitive and crude, we find that each god at first is a symbol of Nature or a picture of the gross physical world as indicated by names. Hence, we find the concept of physical omniscience and physical omniscience as can be inferred from the following expressions : Sahasraksa, Visvatascaksuh, Visva-Drastah, Visva-carsane etc. Infact, this physical omnipresence forms the basis of their physical than psychological or mental, so much so that the power of vision is glorified more often than the power of mind. Such omniscience of Lord Varuna is evident. The words Pasyati, Prati-pasyati, Maha-pasyati and Sarvam-pasyati, are very suggestive in this respect (The omniscience of Agni, Indra, Varuna, Vaka, Purusa, Soma, etc. Is referred here and there.).

Approach of Atmajnata

In the Upanisads, the concept of Sarvajnatva has been equated with the concept of Atmajnatva or Brahmajnatva. When `All this is Atman’, we can conclude that `Atman being known everything is known’. It is a common assertion of the Upanisads that `By knowing the Atman, one knows everything’. However, Atman and Brahman are used synonymously, as expressed in the following. This `Self is the Brahman’, `I am Brahman’. Like the expression `All this is Atman’ we have the expression `All this is Brahman’. The famous Upanisadic dictums That thou art and `I am Brahman affirm this identification. This makes clear that the concept of Brahman is the primal and privotal concept of the Upanisads together with the concept of Atman. So like the conversation in the Brhadaranyaka, we also meet a similar conversation in the Mundak about Brahman when Saunaka inquires from Angira `knowing what one knows everything’ it is replied that `It is Brahman’.

While the term `Sarvajnata’ does not occur even a single time in the whole of the Vedas, it occurs for 31 times in the whole of 120 Upanisads but where as in the principal Upanisads the term denotes `knowledge about the self’, in the minor Upanisads, we find references about the omniscience of God and other deities. We pass from the Vedic conception of Physical omniscience to the metaphysical omniscience of the Upanisads. Soul-knowledge is all-knowledge, hence the Upanisadic message : `Know thyself’. But this `soul-knowledge’ which is equivalent to `all-knowledge’ does not mean each and every details of the contingent world. It would simply mean the complete negation of nescience, the cosmicillusion, by fully grasping the underlying reality. Strangely enough, this Atmanic Approach to knowledge is common both to the Upanisads and some of the Jaina thinkers like Kunda-kunda and Yogindu. Kunda-kunda identifies Sarvajnata with Atmajnata meaning thereby that any ethics of self-realization must aim at knowing the Self which is the highest principle of their metaphysics and morality. But at some places there is greater emphasis over Brahman or even the Creator God and His omniscience than this subject-objectless Atman. Like the Vedic tradition, sometimes the Upanisadic seers also indulge in prayerful exhaultations to the deities. Omniscience of Visnu, Brahma and even Mahesh finds explicit references. Lastly, the concept of omniscience is also associated with the mystical syllable `Aum’ which is the acne of spiritualistic cosmogony of the Upanisads. `Aum’ is the world-all and hence to know `Aum’ is to know everything.

The Approach of Dharmajnata

The heterodox systems like Buddhism and Jainism have a religion without God but they would not like to miss the advantage that one gets in accepting God. God is omnipotent, omniscient etc. Hence what is said by God, acquires additional prestige and power. Hence as a substiitute of God, they have prophets who are also omniscients in. This is the simple law of spiritual sociology that necessity is the mother of invention. Instead of God or godeses, they strictly adhere to their respective religious dogmas. The basis of religion is ultimately faith. ‘The heart has reason of which reason has no knowledge’, says Pascal. Tennyson in his `Memorium’ has said `Believing where we cannot prove’. The need for believing is inherent in human nature. So we have nothing to say against the religious dogmas. “Religion ma sometime justifiably be taken in the Lucretian sense of superstition”, says Galloway. But what of that ? `Religion is the poetry which we believe’ – as Santyana says in his Reason and Religion. Thus omniscience is demonstrated as a religious necessity, i.e., we pass from metaphysical determination to an ethical and volitional determination of knowledge. This spirit of the evangelic religions may also be traced back to the Mahabharat, where knowledge of Dharma is held as the supreme knowledge. Even in the Jaina Agamas, the concept of Sarvajnata has been equated with the conception of Dharmajna together with Sarvajna. Santaraksita also supports it.

Approach of Reason

Dogmas if lift to the private field should not be questioned, but if made public, they are bound to face postmortem examinations and hence the formal reasoning is bound to step in. So, we find quite a best of logicians who try to prove Omniscience with the rarest dialectical skill and logical acumen. Among the Buddhists, the names of Santaraksita (749-770) and Prajnakargupta (about 10th century) are important. Among the Jainas, there is long and continued tradition of logicians who have tried to prove Omniscience with the help of arguments. The names of Umaswati (2nd Century), Siddhasena (5th Century), Samantabhadra (6th Century), Pujyapada (6th Century), Akalanka (7th century), Abhayedeva Suri (7th Century), Haribhadra (8th Century), Vidyananda (9th Century), Manikyanandi (9th Century), Anantakirti (11th Century), Prabhacandra (11th Century), Hemcandra (11th Century), Vadideva Singh Suri (12th Century), Mallisena (14th Century), Dharmabhusana (14th Century), Yasovijaya (18th Century) etc. are important in this connection.

Mixed Approach of Reason and Faith

Man has both head and heart, hence needs not only to be silent but also to be convinced, i.e. we want a synthesis of faith and reason, which is in conformity with the best traditions of Indian Philosophy. Bare reason is empty and blind faith is dangerous. So what is needed is an integral approach where we should learn to respect the intuitional experiences of the trusted and tried persons and also maintain the intellectual and logical standards. I think, this is the typical Jaina approach to the concept of omniscience. With the Jainas, the logical theory. The Agamas and the logical treatises equally try to establish the theory of omniscience. Lord Mahavira’s omniscience is a religious necessity and possibility of human omniscience is a rare intellectual achievement of the Jaina Logicians in the face of terrific opposition from the side of the Mimamsakas.

The Yogic Approach

In the literature of Nyaya-Vaisesika and also Samkhya-Yoga and some of the Tantras, we find that there are yogic-disciplines, which if perfected can enable us to have extra-ordinary powers, such as extra-ordinary perception, extrasensory perception, pre-cognition etc. The Nyaya-Vaisesika recognizes Alaukika Pratyaksa of which the Yogic intuition is one of the three varieties. Yogic perception differs from divine omniscience in that if the art of Yoga is perfected, we can achieve the redirection of our consciousness, which is brought about by practice and conquest of desire. The normal limits of human vision are not the limits of the universe. Asamprajnata Samadhi of Yoga indicates the possibility of human omniscience. Recent researches in the field of para-psychology simply go to strengthen this position.


Of all the six approaches to the concept of omniscience in Indian Philosophy, the Jaina approach is most serious and sincere. This problem is a problem of life and death to them. They accept it as a religious dogma, as an outcome of reasoning and Logic and also as a fruit of yogic exercises.