Skip to main content



JÑĀNA . The Sanskrit root jñā is cognate with the Old English knawan. Hence on etymological consideration one normally translates jñāna as "knowledge." Although this translation seems harmless in many contexts, in a philosophical text that deals with epistemology, or pramāa-śāstra, it will often be wrong and misleading. In fact, in nontechnical Sanskrit jñāna often means knowledge. But when it is contrasted with pramā ("knowledge, knowledge-episode"), it means simply a cognition or awareness, and it is meant in an episodic sense. A cognition is an episode that happens in a subject, and when such a cognitive episode becomes true it becomes knowledge, as in pramā. Thus, one must say, only some cognitions are knowledge; others may be cases of doubt, misperception, error, false judgment, opinion, and so forth.

In epistemology, the problem is formulated as follows: What is it that makes a jñāna or a cognitive event a piece of knowledge, pramā? The general answer is that if the causal factors are faultless and no opposing or counteracting factor (pratibandhaka ) intervenes, the result would be a true cognitive event, a piece of knowledge. The Nyāya school uses jñāna in the more comprehensive sense. For according to Nyāya, to be conscious means to be conscious of something, there being no such thing as "pure consciousness," and this again means to cognize or to be aware of something, that is, to have a jñāna of something. The conscious subject, or self, is analyzed as the subjunct that has cognition or jñāna, the obvious conclusion being that a jñāna or a particular cognitive event is a quality (gua ) or a qualifier (dharma ) of the self. The Buddhists, however, analyze the person or the self into five aggregates, of which the awareness series, or the awareness aggregate, is the main constituent. The self is therefore only an awareness series in this view where in each moment an awareness arises, conditioned by the preceding one, along with a number of attending factors. Feelings such as pleasure, pain, and anger are part of the awareness event, according to the Buddhists. But Nyāya wishes to introduce a distinction between the pleasure-event or pain-event and one's cognitive awareness (jñāna ) of such events.

The Sākhya view of jñāna is different. In this view the intellect (buddhi ) and ego-sense or I-consciousness (ahakāra ) are all evolutes (vikāras ) of matter. The spiritual substance is called purua ("man"). Consciousness is the essential attribute of purua, the spiritual reality. But because the intellect (a material evolute) is extremely transparent and mirrorlike by nature (Vācaspati's view), it reflects the consciousness of the purua, that is, it becomes tinged with awareness, and thus an awareness-event arises. It is called a vtti ("modification") or transformation (pariāma ) of the intellect. It is therefore the spiritual illumination of the mental form, that is, buddhi transformed into the form of an object, which makes jñāna possible. In Advaita Vedānta, a special manifestation of consciousness (the self-consciousness) is jñāna in the primary sense. But the vtti that the buddhi ("intellect") obtains is also called jñāna in a secondary sense. Of the two components, the vtti grasps the form of the object and destroys the veil of ignorance or the state of "unknowing" (avidyā ), but the particular manifestation of consciousness is what actually reveals the object.

Jñāna has soteriological significance. It is almost unanimously claimed (except by the Cārvāka) that some sort of jñāna, or tattva-jñāna ("knowledge of the reality as it is") is instrumental in bringing about the final release from bondage. Here, of course, jñāna stands for "knowledge." Knowledge is what liberates one from human bondage. Even the Nyāya Sūtra states that the ultimate good (niśreyasa ) springs from human knowledge (tattva-jñāna ) of different realities. It is commonplace to say in Advaita Vedānta that brahmajñāna ("knowledge of the brahman ") is the ultimate means for liberation: It is that which establishes the essential identity of the individual self with the ultimate Self or universal Self, brahman. One's congenital misconception (avidyā ) creates a false disunity between the individual and the brahman, but jñāna establishes their ultimate union. In some Buddhist texts (cf. Vasubandhu, Triśikā ) a distinction is made between jñāna and vijñāna where the latter is subdivided into ālaya-vijñāna and pravtti-vijñāna. The pravtti-vijñāna stands for all the ordinary cognitive events of life, cognition of blue for example; while the ālaya is said to be the seed (bīja ) or the subterranean current that causes the "waves" of other cognitive experiences and in turn is fed back by such experiences to continue the process of sasāra ("the round of births and deaths"). But when the saint acquires jñāna, there is a complete reversal (parāvtti ) of the base (ālaya-āśraya ) in the saint. There is pure jñāna, which is also called bodha and which eliminates the vijñāna series. For there cannot be any grāhaka or vijñāna or apprehension when there is no grāhya, no apprehensible object. This is called the dharmakāya of the Buddha.

In certain religious or philosophical texts that promote syncretism, such as the Bhagavadgītā, three principal ways of attaining the final goal of salvation are mentioned. They are karmayoga (the path of action), jñānayoga (the path of knowledge), and bhaktiyoga (the path of devotion). The path of knowledge means that ultimate knowledge, or comprehension of the ultimate truth, is sufficient to bring about liberation. But sometimes this path is combined with the path of action, which means that religious and moral duties are performed with a completely unattached disposition (nikāma karma ). One's actions with motivation to obtain results create bondage, but if one is unattached to the result one's actions cannot bind one. Hence knowledge of the Ultimate, when it is combined with such "unattached" action, opens the door to liberation. Bhakti, devotional attachment and complete surrender to the deity, is another way. Sometimes a situation is recognized as jñāna-karma-samuccaya-vāda, that is, it is claimed that jñāna and karma are like the two wings of a bird: It cannot fly with just one of them.

See Also

Ālaya-vijñāna; Mīmāsā; Nyāya; Sākhya; Vaiśeika; Vedānta; Yoga.


For jñāna in Nyāya-Vaiśeika, see chapter 2 of my The Navya-nyāya Doctrine of Negation (Cambridge, Mass., 1968). For the views of other schools, see Kalidas Bhattacharya's "The Indian Concept of Knowledge and Self," Our Heritage (Calcutta) 24 (19541956). For jñāna-yoga, one may consult Surendranath Dasgupta's A History of Indian Philosophy, vol. 2 (London, 1932), chap. 14. Editions and translations of the Bhagavadgītā are too numerous to be mentioned here.

Bimal Krishna Matilal (1987)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Jñāna." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 17 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Jñāna." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 17, 2018).

"Jñāna." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.