Vedic approach to critical thinking for effective decision making

Column by U. Mahesh Prabhu 

Life is a series of decisions, some major and most minor. Time and the consequences of decisions are key factors when making any kind of choice. Ability to understand consequences of our decision before taking them is in essence the intent of educational  knowledge  and experience be it our own or another’s.

 Some decisions are taken depending on data or information available, while others are based on the perspectives of other people and on the basis of historical references.

Often in life, decisions are taken based on plain emotion or by rationality. Yet we see both kinds of people repenting and suffering vehemently for their decisions. “I should have been more careful!” they often say after some decision has gone wrong. Further, the current trend towards rationality would ensure the success of almost every rational person; but then how many rational people truly are? And so we see people of all ages, professions and mindsets suffering in some way or the other and eventually concluding that life is essentially full of pain. There are only a fraction of people, for whom decisions work out to be positive and, who would say that the world is full of bliss. Hence, none of the above always yields a good result; decision making is then a matter of probability rather than a definitive method.

While the goal of education is to teach diversity of thought and perspective, it is rarely achieved. Limiting factors such as background, experience of teachers and even field of study creates roadblocks in thinking and perspective. Irrespective of cost or distinction, education seldom teaches to take decisions in a way as to have a certain positive effect.

The question then arises, is there a method to take better decisions? Moving beyond   conventional thinking of rationality, logic and experience, we should first ask pertinent questions on how we think, what constitutes sources of information, and even our biases before even starting the reasoning process.

Vedic Rishis (sages) had a better understanding of both reasoning and critical thinking. To take the right decision, they suggested, it’s important to know the facts by utilizing all the available avenues. For most rational people of present experiential reality, logic reasoning with a scientific temperament, respected publication(s) and opinion from a revered person of their choice become facts and then the basis for any decision. Four avenues are mostly used, and rarely are they used together. The depth of the Vedic rishis on this subject was rather significant. They provided 16 logical methods (Padarthas) for ascertaining the truth. Without understanding these sixteen methods it’s almost impossible to arrive at the right conclusion.

Let me give you a short introduction to this. The 16 Padarthas are:

  1. Pramana or means of right knowledge – most have their own predefined avenues which they consider to be the best source for right knowledge. Most of the times these are either publications or confidants or historical experiences.
  2. PrameyaObject of right knowledge – this is essentially specialized books or information source which they may or may not be confident about.
  3. SamasyaDoubt – whenever you think about facts you tend to get doubts. Clarifying the doubt can itself prove to offer answers in taking the right decisions. Equally, one should consider the experiences and values of their confidants, and doubt the validity of their opinions.
  4. PrayojanaMotive – whenever you’ve been offered something it’s important that you learn the motive of the person who is offering it to you. If you can clearly assess his motive it will be absolutely easy for you to take just that right decision. Even, publications have affiliations and agendas.
  5. DrishtantaIllustration – When you have to take a decision, you can think about the possible consequences and try to predict outcomes. This happens best when you have gathered enough Pramana with you and are clear minded in considering it. Then after you have ascertained the best, as well as, worst possible outcomes – it becomes much easier to achieve your desired objective.
  6. SiddhanthaDemonstrated truth – It is quite possible that your situation is not novel, and another person was in a similar predicament in the past .Contacting such a person either yourself or through a third person can also open up another possible solution. Typically, mentoring and networking programs provide such avenues and are used by businessmen. The limiting factor is that most people do not seek help from outside their circle of friends and lack flexibility in their perspective.
  7. AvayavaFactors of reasoning or syllogism – when you reason with the person who is seeking to take a particular decision or reason with yourself, you need to consider all possible scenarios, even seemingly improbable ones. All facts are then laid out and a deductive reasoning method is applied. It is reasoning by conventional standard which is deductive, but the arguments are predictable. An example: All men are mortal; Jack is a man, so Jack is mortal.
  8. TarkaReasoning and confutation – There is no better way to arrive at good decisions than by reasoning and confutation. It can be done with people whom you can trust or confide in or even with your own conscience. Unlike Avayava, Tarka involves stretching the thinking process to consider all arguments, everything is questioned and re-questioned; a priori presumptions are also questioned if required.
  9. NirnayaAscertainment – After you have collected substantial information, questioned, reasoned and considered all avenues, ascertainment follows in defining a definitive course of action. One then decides on a formal decision or point of view.
  10. VadaDebate – When you are being compelled by those with equal power and influence as much as you – you can be easily compelled to take the wrong decision provided you do not put up a strong case. Vada is the only way by which you can possibly avert taking decision that could possibly be counterproductive to your personal as well as your institutional interest. For this one’s judgement is held up to debate and arguments by others especially with those having a different perspective.
  11. JalpaDisputation – When you’ve to take decision against a powerful person, it becomes inescapable to avert confrontations. Jalpa offers ways by which one can handle disputes in a way as to do it without stress and strain, in it one can dispute the facts presented, question their basis. Like Vada, it is done against another person(s), with the intention of questioning the other’s basis of argument.
  12. VitandaCavil or Objecting – Imagine there’s a board of directors meeting where a resolution presented by one of the stakeholders is to be passed. You’ve no idea if that has any positive or negative consequences. Offering your blind support to it makes no sense. Under such circumstances, to know the truth raising blind objections to that resolution will force the person to present facts which will enable you to arrive at the truth provided you are also listening to what is being said while continuously objecting to anything or everything he has to say. Negation of presented facts then becomes a way to realise the truth.
  13. HetvabhasaFallacious reasoning – Consider a person is seeking your support for a very cause about which you’ve no idea whatsoever. Yet, you need information to take any decision. In such circumstances you can pretend to be absolutely knowledgeable about the subject matter and simply raise reasons out of nowhere or thin air. These objections will result in responses which can make the person show his/her true colours. This is the most effective methodology when you have to engage a sales person who comes to you with recommendations.
  14. ChalaCasuistry or unfair reasoning – this could be a crucial method to retort to while trying to choose the best person for a very important task – Job interviews. When you are absolutely unfair in reasoning the person often get stressed and shows his true colours. Handling stress is a very crucial part in today’s world. How much stress a person can take before breaking is crucial to determining if the person is up to the task. Chala is the best way to determine such qualities while taking the right decision. Another aspect of Chala is mistaking correlation for causation, in many journals and debates, for example homelessness causes crime is a correlation as causative factors such as drug abuse are not considered. Further, if all homeless people resorted to crime, the statistics would be overwhelming.
  15. Jaati Futile Rejoinder – When a person is giving you an argument to make a decision and you are unclear about the consequences; making futile rejoinder could be of great use. For example if a person is telling you how cheap the product is – you could say “So it’s cheap thing!” If he says the quality is good “I can determine what quality a cheap thing can provide.” Such arguments can frustrate the person provided he’s without stamina or patience. Patience and persistence is a crucial factor since it’s the hallmark of a genuine person. Jaati is the best way to determine this quality – enabling you to take better decision.
  16. Nigraha SthanaClinchers – Unless we are clear what we want and why we want it and the consequence that entail when we get it – it makes no sense to take any decisions. At times, the best decision is not to take a decision. Postponing something is not always bad. However, there are times when you get all that information you require and can take a decision in a moment, for example you are thirsty and you get a bottle of water. It’s a decision you could take in a faction of a second. You don’t need to wait for it. Imagine you need to get into a college and your scores are less – then you take whatever comes your way. You can take some decisions in a moment’s notice when you are clear of your situation and resources. Decision making is most easy when you’ve a firm grip of your own self, situation, resources, good judgement of people as well as time. Here you specifically look for just the right thing you need to take a decision – then the answer is yes or no.

Some of the above stated methods for decision making might be known to us, predominantly people follow Pramana or Prameya , then Nigraha Sthana, some might even consider Avayava or Tarka . Rarely do people equip themselves with all the 16 forms. Should they go through all 16 methods, they will not only have a clear answer at the 16th but also firm reasons for having it.

Although this piece has been long I’ve only provided you with a very small preview. The subject of rational thinking and decision making is a comprehensive subject in the ancient Indian Vedic sciences.

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