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Knowing the Divine

Updated on February 18, 2011

Everyone has beliefs of various sorts. It is, for various reasons, a good thing that our beliefs are true, as opposed to false. But if it is a good thing to have true beliefs, it is better yet to know that you do. But how do we know that our beliefs are true? Epistemology considers questions that are significant to our cognitive lives. What is true about our beliefs in general is prima facie also true about religious belief in particular. Not everyone has religious beliefs, but nearly everyone takes some kind of stance toward religious belief.

Epistemology (from episteme, to know, and logos, account or reason) is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature, origin, and extent of knowledge, and related concepts such as truth, rationality, justification, and belief formation. Religious epistemology concerns these questions with reference to religious beliefs, chiefly belief in the existence and nature of God. It throws light on the following questions.

  • What are the grounds of religious belief?
  • Do these grounds contribute to the rationality or justification of religious belief?
  • What is required to have religious knowledge?
  • Does religious belief have any implications for how we think of knowledge and related epistemic concepts?

Religious knowledge

Revelation forms the basis of religious knowledge. Revelation means the disclosure of something unknown. Facts are never created but are only acquired. This revelation could be in any of the following forms or in combination of different forms. Perception (Pratyaksa), Inference (Anumana), Testimony (Sabda), Intuition (Anubhav) and Tradition (Aithiya) are the various forms. Revelation is the acknowledgement of a message from the divine and that this message could not have been discovered by man all by himself, as the divine is involved in the revelation process.

Religious knowledge is called revealed in a different sense because of the claim that its source is neither the empirical worldly reality nor man’s rational power but a reality totally other than himself and the world. For this reason it is properly speaking ‘revealed’ knowledge, the antithesis of ordinary knowledge because it is not discovered but received. In religion, knowledge comes from another and the believer receives it in faith.


It refers to the immediate and primary relationship of a subject to an object or of the knower and the known. It is based on sense experience. Generally, the word perception is used to denote the knowledge that comes from the operation of the five senses. There is nothing in the intellect which is not first in the senses. Awareness accompanies any kind of perception. This awareness leads to distinction between different sensations and activities, integrating the data that comes from external senses and arrive at a determinate perceptual judgement. The Carvakas admit only perception as a valid source of knowledge.


Inference is the derivation of conclusions from given information or premises by any acceptable form of reasoning. It is the indirect contact between the knower and the known. Inferences are commonly drawn (1) by deduction, which, by analyzing valid argument forms, draws out the conclusions implicit in their premises, (2) by induction, which argues from many instances to a general statement,


Testimony is that source of knowledge whereby an auditor acquires knowledge upon hearing a spoken sentence or sentences. Here the object known is not evident in itself but is known by the evidence provided by someone/something other than the object itself. It could be either oral or written.


It is the handing down of information, beliefs or customs by testimony or example, from one generation to another. A tradition is valid when it arises as close as possible to the originating event, that there are no long gaps in handing down of the tradition. The facts and practises should be properly stated, attested to and practiced by many.


It is an inner conviction or certainty about the truth that has not come from the other sources of knowledge. It is the power of obtaining knowledge that cannot be acquired either by inference or observation, by reason or experience. As such, intuition is thought of as an original, independent source of knowledge, since it is designed to account for just those kinds of knowledge that other sources do not provide. It forms an important source of religious knowledge.


Vedism was the religion of the ancient Indo-European-speaking peoples who entered India about 1500 BC from the region of present-day Iran. The Vedas are the only existing Vedic texts which were written down over a period of about 10 centuries, from about the 15th to the 5th century BC, this being the period when Vedism was a living force.

The vedic literature is termed as Sruti (Learning by Hearing) which is based on revelation. It is the most revered body of sacred literature in Vedism. Sruti works are considered divine revelation, heard and transmitted by earthly sages, as contrasted to Smrti, or that which is remembered. Thus Sruti is a form of intuition, on which the most important revealed texts are based. The revealed texts encompass the four Vedas—Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda—and the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanisads.

Vedism was basically polytheistic, involved the worship of numerous male divinities who were connected with the sky and natural phenomena. The forces of nature like Air, Fire, Water and Earth were worshiped on account of the dependence that humans had on them. The ancient Vedic worshipers offered sacrifices to these gods in the hope that they in return would grant abundant numbers of cattle, good fortune, good health, long life, and male progeny, among other material benefits. To ensure the efficacy of their prayers, the people came to believe that their offerings could be made more acceptable to the gods if accompanied by songs of praise (from the Vedas) and other invocations of the gods' might and power.

All this denotes the effects of perceiving the power of various forces of nature. The burning/destroying capability of fire, the nourishing capability of water, the producing capability of earth and the refreshing capabity of air were perceived to be the ultimate capabilities and hence were attributed to gods. For example, Agni is the fire-god second only to Indra in the Vedic mythology of ancient India. He is equally the fire of the sun, of lightning, and of the hearth that men light for purposes of worship.

At the same time, Vedism also advocates training in mystical insight. This training is denoted as Yoga. The different steps in Yoga are intended to bring us scientifically to the state of Samadhi. Yoga means the experimental union of the individual with the divine. The Yogi or disciple, who has by persevering exercise, diet, posture, breathing, intellectual concentration, and moral discipline overcome the obscurations of his lower nature sufficiently, enters into the condition termed Samadhi and comes face to face with facts which no instinct or reason can ever know. The effects of Samadhi remain even after the person comes out of it.


Buddhism is the religion and philosophy that developed from the teachings of the Buddha Gautama. Buddhism came into being in northeastern India during the period from the late 6th century to the early 4th century BC, a period of great social change and intense religious activity. It evolved as an atheistic discipline that stressed on the solution of current problems of living than on the search for the ultimate reality.

As a prince, Gautama enjoyed a luxurious life; his father shielded him from exposure to the sufferings of the world, including old age, sickness, and death. But once having been exposed to the various ills of human life, and the existence of those who seek a state beyond them, Gautama left his family and princely life, became an ascetic and embarked on a search for the cause and cessation of suffering. Once while meditating under a tree, he grasped in extraordinary clarity the cause and cessation of suffering.

During the first watch of the night, he had a vision of all of his past lives, recollecting his place of birth, name, caste, and even the food he had eaten. During the second watch of the night, he saw how beings rise and fall through the cycle of rebirth as a consequence of their past deeds. In the third watch of the night, the hours before dawn, he was liberated. Accounts differ as to precisely what it was that he understood.

He thus became Buddha, the enlightened one and propagated his teachings. The accounts in Gautama’s life portray that he first perceived the suffering in the world. This led him later to infer that the main cause of suffering is desire. Finally, in his intuition he realised the four truths: of suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to the cessation of suffering.  In his teachings, he stressed on the attainment of the enlightened state or Nirvana.

The Buddha did not want to assume the existence of the soul as a metaphysical substance, but he admitted the existence of the self as the subject of action in a practical and moral sense. In response to his enlightenment, the Buddha described the eightfold path of correct view, correct attitude, correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood, correct effort, correct mindfulness, and correct meditation and also the doctrine of no-self. These have become the foundation of Buddhism and have come done as tradition.


Christianity is a major world religion founded on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity is a system of religious belief. The earliest members of the Christian faith were the Jews, as was Jesus himself, and thus they stood in the faith tradition inherited by Hebrew people in Israel. They were monotheists, devoted to the God of Israel. Thus a considerable portion of the Christian religious literature (The Bible) is taken from the Jewish scriptures.

The Jewish scriptures are based of perceptions of the various characters present in different times in history. All these characters have perceived God through their senses. The book of Genesis states that Jacob wrestled with God and was struck by God on the hip. Finally, after the fight Jacob says that he was blessed to have seen God face to face. The book of Exodus states that Moses saw the angel of God in form of a burning bush. “There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed” (Ex 3:2). Samuel heard God calling his name and when Samuel answered, God told him what he intended to do to Eli and his family. In the same manner there are many kings, judges, prophets and priests who seen, heard or touched God and related with him.

In addition to perceiving God, there were many characters that saw the vision of God as mentioned in the Bible. These are termed as mystical experiences fall under intuition. In the book of Isaiah (Ch. 6) it is mentioned that Prophet Isaiah saw God in a vision. There are some visions mentioned in the New Testament of the Bible. The baptism of Jesus is one of such events. When Jesus had been baptised and when he came up from the water, John the Baptist saw a dove descending on Jesus from heaven. Another vision was seen by three of Jesus’ apostles, Peter, James and John. They saw the transfiguration of Jesus. “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking to him” (Mt 17: 2-3).

One of the archangels, Gabriel was sent to Daniel to explain the vision of the ram and the he-goat and to communicate the prediction of the Seventy Weeks. He was also employed to announce the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah and to announce the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. These three accounts are mentioned in the Bible as well as in the Quran. Such mystical experiences fall under the category of revelation which is in turn part of intuition.

The books in the New Testament of the Bible are arranged in a logical narrative order, the Gospels telling the life of Jesus and his teachings that were either perceived the gospel writers or have reached them as testimony or tradition; the Acts detailing the work of Christ's followers in propagating the Christian faith; the Epistles teaching the meaning and implications of the faith that give rise to further traditions; and Revelation prophesying future events which is an excellent example of intuition


Every religious group has its own cognitive stance with respect to their knowledge of the divine. As cognitive stances, each of these stances should be evaluated in terms of truth and rationality. We ought to reflect on our religious stance to see if our beliefs are true and rationally warranted. Religious epistemology provides such an opportunity by assessing the various sources of our religious knowledge, concerned with its nature, origin and extent, at the same time relating it to truth, rationality, justification and belief formation.

We may not be able to answer all the questions related to our religious beliefs, but we can identify the grounds on which our beliefs depend. Then we can assess these grounds to see if they contribute to the rationality or justification of the religious beliefs. I have tried to do just the same in this assignment. I have presented the different sources of knowledge and discussed three major religions based on the same in order to reach a cognitive understanding of the beliefs held by various religious groups. These observations are only evaluative but by no means comparative as much of the religious knowledge is ultimately based on revelation.


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      Katty 7 years ago

      Excellent analysis. This article is an in-depth study of Religious Epistemology. A good comparison between the religious beliefs of different religions.