Daily Archives: January 29, 2021


What does a mirror look like when it reflects only itself, and no one is looking?

You know what it is to know. To see things and people, and to recognize them, and to know that they are there, and that you are here seeing them. But that is not the same as knowing their thoughts or feelings or knowing what it is like to be them. You are here and they are there and there are two of you. How would it be if you looked and knew you were not two, but one?

The essence of knowing is the mind perceiving external things and concepts and modelling them and assimilating those models into its schemes and structures and mental Minecrafts. Which means that knowing is an intrinsically separate and separating act; even knowing yourself takes parts of your self as objects, models them, and adds them to your miniature village of the mind. So what do you call the knowing that knows that the knower and the known are the same? The realization that all that is realized is all that realizes, and that at root the watcher is watching the watcher, and any plurality is just the reflector reflecting?

Well, you can call it jnana, if you want.

Yes, yes, jnana looks (a) like the word banana if it were in the process of realizing that it is a banana (does not a j resemble a banana?) and (b) rather hard to say. In truth, English speakers who use the word tend to use it on paper more often than on tongue. But it comes from a Sanskrit word. And the usual transliteration of the Sanskrit is jñāna, with a tilde on the n to indicate that it’s palatalized just like Spanish ñ. The way it’s written in Sanskrit even makes one out of two: from ज “j” and ञ “ñ” comes ज्ञ “jñ” – which sort of looks like your tongue trying to say “jñ.”

How do you say it? In English, just try to say what you see – it’ll end up sounding like a posh merger of “Jenna” and “banana.” In Sanskrit, you could say it like English “j” immediately followed by “ñ” (with no intervening vowel) and then “ana” (like in “Ana Gasteyer”), but you could also say it like “gyana” – the affricate-nasal-palatal sequence becoming one, sort of, as a palatalized stop, because when you’re speaking Sanskrit all the time you’re going to merge things and simplify things just like any other human will. Just like ज्ञ merges ज and ञ.

Why did that j and ñ get that way in the first place, then? Well, we know that its root jñā also gave rise to jānāti ‘know’, which shows clearly its parts, but we also know that it came from Proto-Indo-European *ǵneh₃-, which also led to Greek roots (e.g., γνῶσις gnosis) and Latin roots (e.g., notio, source of our notion) and Slavic roots (e.g., Russian знать znat’ ‘know’) and English know. It’s always the blade or back of the tongue (first g, from which k and the affricate j and the fricative z) followed by n and an at least somewhat open vowel. Same general form, same general meaning.

So yeah, this word for knowing the knowing that is beyond (or at the root of) knowing is the word for… knowing. And indeed, in Sanskrit that’s just what it meant. The word jñāna is the Sanskrit word (well, one of several) for ‘knowing’ or ‘knowledge’, in all the everyday and specialized senses, and its modern descendants in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Assamese, Kannada, Telugu, and even Burmese, Khmer, and Thai all mean the same thing and are all pretty similar in sound. It’s a very basic and broad word, just as English know is, and we know that know can have many special and distinctive senses, a few of which are suitable for a nudge and wink.

So why use jnana (our English borrowing of jñāna) rather than just, you know, knowing or knowledge? Well, it has that special sauce – the same special sauce as salsa has. 

You probably know that salsa is Spanish for ‘sauce’; in Spanish that’s what it means, ‘sauce’, and there are plenty of people who will point out that salsa sauce is redundant. And yet we’ve borrowed the word salsa to refer to a particular kind of sauce – a sauce we specifically associate with Spanish cuisine (well, Latin American cuisine). It’s not the only sauce called salsa in Spanish, but it’s the one we decided we liked, and part of its charm for English speakers is its exotic quality, so of course we took the word with it. This kind of culinary borrowing is popular in English but, let’s be fair, is pretty widespread around the world. 

Anyway, we did the same thing with jnana. All the other senses of knowing we pretty much have covered. But this idea of knowing that one is not separate from the ultimate unity of the universe (specifics depend on religion – Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh – and particular sect or school within the religion), well, that’s something that we particularly wanted to see as an exotic thing we could borrow from them, like a jewel from the East, the prize of a secret journey to find a holy man. Not that such ideas didn’t exist in the Western traditions – oh yes they did, and do, thanks to our own “mystical” traditions – but yeah, look, man, it’s jnana! It’s like, um, tikka masala of the mind!* Yum yum!

Do you discern a certain irony? That this word for knowing non-duality, non-otherness, is the result of a deliberate othering, a focused exoticism that treats something that has been known in our own cultures – and names something that, if it’s real, applies exactly the same to everyone everywhere – as something apart, distinct, foreign? And with an added bonus of a flagrant resistance to our own phonological rules (i.e., things we consider pronounceable)?

But, then, even the very idea of a word and concept for the realization of utter unity is irony on irony. And all words are a form of alienation. So perhaps this jnana split is as much apposite as opposite.

*Tikka masala, by the way, is a dish based on Indian cuisine but most likely invented in England, though most people who eat it don’t know that last bit.