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Experiential Learning in the eyes of Patanjali

Dr. S.N.Omkar, Advisory Board Member, Prayoga and Chief Research Scientist, Department of Aerospace Engineering, Indian Institute of Science,Bengaluru


Inquisitiveness is an inbuilt human nature that leads to observations. Observations yield data. Data organized and structured becomes information. When information is assimilated and understood to solve some problem it becomes knowledge. The application of knowledge to solve the problem while creating value is wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to make correct judgments and decisions. It is an intangible quality gained through our experiences in life. For example, spices and their chemistry are data. spices and their uses are information. Knowing Asafoetida can solve some digestive problems is knowledge; putting it in rasam is wisdom – putting in payasam is unwise! Wisdom comes from experiential learning!

What is the process of gaining experiential learning? We will try to answer this based on the Patanjli Yoga Sutras (PYS). Particularly we shall focus on four aphorisms sutras in the first chapter.

Wisdom is based on correct experiential knowledge. The process of correct knowledge is called pramana.

pratyaksha anumana agamah pramanani (PYS 1.7)

This means: there are three ways of gaining correct knowledge (pramana): 1) perception (pratyaksha), 2) inference (anumana), and 3) testimony or verbal communication from others who have knowledge (agama).

  1. Perception: Direct experience through the organs of perception, namely, eyes, nose, ears, tongue, and skin respectively conveying colour and form, smell, sound, taste, and touch. This is a very ideal way of gaining knowledge. However, there are instances where what we perceive may not be true. For example, the sunrise and the sunset.

  2. Inference: Logical reasoning, based on data and information, is yet another way to correct knowledge. As in, there is a smoke seen on the hill and therefore there must be fire.

  3. Testimony: Authentic texts and verbal communications from learned persons is yet another way of correct knowledge. For example, some principles of Physics can be learnt by reading an authentic book or listening to a learned professor.

In general, correct knowledge gets confirmed if perception, inference, and testimony converge. Students need to go through all these three so that they are confident about their learning. Perception means “doing things”, “wetting hands”, “make and feel” etc. This is an important step in imparting confidence, skill, and curiosity without taking out the fun element.

Apart from this, “Doing things” has brought revolutionary changes in the pages of science. Aristotle had taught: that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones, in direct proportion to their weight. None bothered to check, but all just believed. Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (then professor of mathematics at the University of Pisa) is said to have dropped two spheres of different masses from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to demonstrate that their time of descent was independent of their mass. This simple act of “doing things” disproved Aristotle's theory of gravity (which states that objects fall at speed proportional to their mass).

Leaning Tower of Pisa: Experiment, Experience, Educate, Enjoy

The lesson: Don’t hesitate to experiment and verify. Experiential learning boosts confidence and understanding.

The popular perception of the sun rising and setting would make anyone infer that the sun is revolving around the earth. It was also documented as such. Using his telescope, Galileo found that Venus went through phases, just like our Moon. But, the nature of these phases could only be explained by Venus going around the Sun, not the Earth. Galileo concluded that Venus must travel around the Sun, passing at times behind and beyond it, rather than revolving directly around the Earth. We know that this was not easily accepted and took a lot of time in history for this idea to sink in.

The lesson: Perception can also be misplaced and misleading. What is, and, what we understand, can be deceiving. Perception needs to be refined to arrive at the truth.

According to Patanjali, the misapprehension is called viparyaya.

viparyayah mithya jnanam atad rupa pratistham (PYS 1.9)

This means incorrect knowledge or illusion (viparyaya) is false knowledge formed by perceiving a thing as being other than what it really is.

Although an agreement between perception, inference, and testimony is a standard protocol for correct knowledge, one should be cautious about viparyaya.

For the triad of perception, inference, and testimony to work in unison, the memory should serve well. Patanjali defines memory (smriti) as:

anubhuta vishaya asampramoshah smritih (PYS 1.11)

This means, recollection or memory (smriti) is mental modification caused by the inner reproducing of a previous impression of an object, but without adding any other characteristics from other sources.

The variety of data and information we get from perception, inference, and testimony gets stored in the memory. This framework is good to understand, with clarity, the concepts already given in the testimony. But that is not just enough – one needs to think “out-of-the-box”. That is when one becomes innovative. For this, imagination is essential. Patanjali defines imagination (vikalpa) as:

shabda jnana anupati vastu shunyah vikalpah (PYS 1.9)

This means, fantasy or imagination (vikalpa) is a thought pattern that has verbal expression and knowledge, but for which there is no such object or reality in existence.

This is a foundation for innovation – imagining something new. However, imagination should not become fantasising, instead should lead to creativity. Creativity necessarily involves perception, inference, testimony and imagination devoid of misconception. It is this creativity that crystalizes the amorphous information into knowledge to solve some problems. Channelizing the knowledge for good purposes is wisdom. Wisdom needs finer creativity, which comes from experience.

Early 1900, in the USA, they used to do ice harvesting – shift millions of cubes of ice, during winters, and store them for subsequent use. Later, came the ice factories – manufacturing ice all through the years. They overcame the limitation of winter-for-ice. Both harvesters and manufacturers of the ice had a distribution network to reach their customers. Then came the age of refrigerators – generate the chill at home. The ice harvesters were focussing only on how they can transport more ice quickly; the ice factories focussed on improving production. Both of these did not contribute to refrigerators as their creativity was limited. Their main motto was how to improve their earnings rather than how to empower the customers. However, some innovators recognized the difficulty with these systems and wanted to redeem the customers from the associated difficulties. They wanted to make value addition for the customers. This resulted in the next generation technology – refrigerators. This big leap in creativity – out-of-box thinking, which is a result of a higher motive is wisdom. This can come only from experience.



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