Author: Adarsh Gouda.
Be it designing new-to-market products, developing a novel technology or faced with an unprecedented product or system failure, as engineers, we all often find ourselves knee-deep into the absurdity of such problems that question our competence. We are dumbfounded, feel helpless, maybe even hopeless and completely lost. The process of arriving at solutions or unbiased conclusions can be unbelievably stressful, chaotic and futile if we do not have a systematic, well-defined process for effectively solving problems.
It should come as no surprise to those who grew up in India, that Sanatana Dharma was built on sound philosophical foundations that heavily relied on empirical methods of acquiring knowledge through a systematic process broadly termed as Yoga. Although the Yogic principles, practices and methodology existed back to the times of Rigveda around 3000 BCE, the ‘Yogasutras’ authored by Patanjali, consolidated the knowledge and the philosophical system of Yoga in its entirety. Yogasutras that are said to date back to 200 BCE contain a total of 196 sutras and are considered to be one of the most important works of Indic origin. This is predominantly because the Yogasutras not only analyze and interpret the state of ultimate consciousness, but also systematically describes step-by-step methods by which such a state can be achieved.
The entire corpus of Yogasutras is divided into 4 chapters – 1. Samadhi pada; 2. Sadhana pada; 3. Vibhooti pada; 4. Kaivalya pada. We are interested in just one sutra, sutra 7, from Samadhi pada. This one sutra has such a profound significance that as engineers we can apply that to our practice in improving our efficiency and integrity for solving problems.
Dissecting the Sutra 1.7
‘Is that it?’, you’d ask. ‘Yes, that’s pretty much it’, I’d grin. Like everything else in the Indic scriptures, the sutras/shlokas are short and compressed which then needs to be unpacked and elaborated. Vaguely put, the verbatim translation of shlokas and sutras do not convey the deeper essence of what it truly means unless it is studied in conjunction with other related Vedic topics. Think of unpacking the sutra as a process of squeezing the honeycomb to extract all the honey there is. So, let’s get to dissecting and then unpack this sutra.
Pratyakṣa = direct perception, cognition through experimentation
anumāna = hypothesize
āgamāḥ = knowledge base, fundamentals, first principles.
pramāṇāni = are the valid sources or means of seeking the solution
To unpack this sutra and study it in the right perspective, I have put together a flowchart that not only interprets the meaning of the sutra but also provides a visual reference for engineers to prescribe to when problem solving.
Let’s explore the flowchart in detail in the following sections.
Prashna (Question, Problem Definition)
The great Indic past has been one of seeking the truth through questioning. So much so that there is an entire Upanishad full of questions, the Prashnopanishad. Even Bhagavad Gita is also nothing short of a viva between Arjuna and Krishna. As engineers, we ought to be seekers. It isn’t enough that we pose questions, we need to be able to define the problem as precisely as possible. The quality of your problem definition will have direct consequences on the quality of the solution. The process of defining a question should involve all or either of – What, When, Where, Who, Which, Why or How.
Agama Pramana (Background Research)
Agama Pramana is all about undertaking background research. Rather than starting from scratch in putting together a plan for solving your problem, you would want to look at published papers, textbooks, journals, consult Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to help you find the best way to do things and ensure that you have everything you need and thus not reinvent the wheel or repeat past mistakes. Agama also means understanding the fundamentals and first principles that are relevant to the problem that you are about to solve.
Anumana Pramana (Hypothesize, Assumptions) with Vairagya (Unbiased)
Anumana Pramana is about constructing a hypothesis, an educated guess about how things might work. You can use this hypothesis to predict the likely solution to the problem. For example – where this is rising smoke there is an obvious fire; there is smoke coming out of a room; hence, there could be a fire in the room. Hypothesizing with also help in formulating reasonable assumptions. It could provide clarity in determining boundary conditions for your simulations, for example. In hypothesizing, vairagya or not being biased is very much important to minimize the iterations in the problem-solving process. Engineers are human beings too (are they?!) and we all have our opinions and subjective drishti that might interfere with the process of solving or investigating. Involving peers to have second set of eyes will likely eliminate the problem.
This is where you would test your hypothesis through experimentation or via validated engineering models and simulations. Pratyaksha Pramana will determine if your hypothesis is supported or not. The experimentation or engineering simulation must be a fair test. This is where ethical karma comes into play. Read about Ethical Karma for Professional Engineers . The 5 Yamas from Ashtanga Yoga will guide you on the path of Engineer’s dharma. Prepare a detailed Test Plan that considers all the risks in testing and clearly mentions your assumptions. Review the test plan with your peers and with subject matter experts before you begin the test. Once the test is complete, verify your experimental setup to make sure the results are repeatable.
Simply put, this is a peer review process of your test or simulation results. Purvapaksha-Uttarapaksha used to be a graceful way of ensuring that the truth prevailed. This process was extensively used by Adi Shankara to restore Sanatana Dharma in India. It is important that the reviewers clearly understand your point of view during the process of review. If you happen to be a reviewer on your colleagues’ work, you are obligated to fully understand what is being presented before critiquing their work – this is Purvapaksha. If you are defending your work during a review, realize that the reviewers are critiquing the work to improve the quality of your work and not to humiliate you. You will defend your work gracefully, respond reviewers doubts and concerns with clarity – this is Uttarapaksha. If mistakes are pointed out, accept responsibilities for the mistakes and put forth a plan to retest the hypothesis. Clearly, personal differences should be set aside throughout the process of Purvapaksha-Uttarapaksha.
The solution proposed by you is no good if the end user is unable to interpret your report recommending the answer or the solution. A report is where you, as an engineer, communicate your ideas to other engineers who will troubleshoot the problems in the future, or it will be referred by the end user itself in using the solution. Clarity is crucial, so is non-negligence. Clearly state your assumptions at the beginning of the report, if any. Suggest further work to be done or accomplished and mention applicable references and standards.
It is amazing how much the ancient Indic scriptures have to offer. There is a plethora of principles and guidelines for engineering that can be derived from just Patanjali’s Yogasutras. Imagine the amount of knowledge that we can infer from the entire library of Vedic scriptures.
These eternal pearls of wisdom passed down to us are not only relevant but also applicable even to present-day scientific research and engineering. It’s a heritage we need to be proud of and as engineers, we should strive to dive deeper into this ancient repository of knowledge and look for inspirations and answers. There are better and more efficient methods of engineering than what we have learned via “study” over the years.
It is a shame that our Indian educational system has wholeheartedly abandoned the rich, scientific research based Vedic knowledge and fallen prey to Western Universalism when it comes to Academia.
Adarsh is a Sr. Mechanical Engineer with expertise is Product Design & Development has keen interests in innovating new-to-market products. He holds a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, from NTU, Singapore. (Read More)