"Animals can do charitable work. Ants do it. Dogs do it. What is the difference then? Men can be masters of themselves. They can resist the reaction to anything. ...The animal cannot resist anything. He is held...by the string of nature everywhere. That is all the distinction. One is the master of nature, the other the slave of nature. What is nature? The five senses....the animal has its happiness in the senses, the man in his intellect". - Swami Vivekananda












PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | December 2006  






    Vidya and Avidya



Swami Vipashananda


     The terms vidya and avidya represent opposites. Vidya refers to knowledge, learning, and to the different sciences - ancient and modern. So avidya would mean the opposite - ignorance, absence of learning, and illiteracy. Mahendranath Gupta (M), the recorder of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, was a graduate of the Calcutta University and served as headmaster in several Calcutta schools. On his second visit to Dakshineswar, Sri Ramakrishna asked him, 'Tell me, now, what kind of person is your wife? Has she spiritual attributes [vidya shakti], or is she under the power of avidya?' M replied. 'She is all right. But I am afraid she is ignorant.' (1) That was a reply typical of his times. He took vidya, as we still do, to mean formal education. Later on M came to understand from Sri Ramakrishna that 'to know God is vidya and not to know Him, avidya'. To know about the world and worldly things falls within the domain of avidya. This same interpretation is provided by the Upanishads too.



     Para and Apara Vidya



     In the Mundaka Upanishad, a student reverentially questions a rishi about Truth: 'Revered Sir, what is that by knowing which everything (in this universe) becomes known?' (2) The rishi begins his reply by classifying knowledge or vidya into two categories: para (higher) and apara (lower). Apara vidya refers to the four Vedas and the six accessories of Vedic knowledge (the vedaigas): phonetics, the ritual code, grammar, etymology, prosody, and astrology. The compass is clearly very wide: the process of creation, the nature of gods and goddesses and their relation to creation, the nature of the soul and of God, the rituals that procure worldly and heavenly enjoyments, and the way of release from the series of birth and death; in short, religious or scriptural knowledge and the ways of living prescribed by different religions are all subsumed under apara vidya. Para vidya, the rishi informs his student, is that 'by which the immutable Brahman (akshara) is attained'. This Brahman is imperceptible, eternal, omnipresent, imperishable, and the source of all beings. Scriptural study is apara vidya, secondary knowledge. To know Brahman (or God) directly and in a non-mediate fashion is the primary aim of life, and is therefore termed para vidya.

     If the scriptures tell us about life, then what about the other sciences - physical science and technology, and the social and political sciences? They do play a very valuable role in our lives, and are classed as apara vidya. But they are secular sciences. What do we get through secular knowledge? Wealth, power, luxury, and pleasure, but not the bliss that results from spiritual knowledge. The apara vidya that comprises scriptural knowledge helps us know that this world is not the only world, that there are other divine worlds accessible to human beings. The keeping of religious injunctions and performance of scriptural activities are prescribed as means for attaining enjoyment in these higher divine worlds. But these gains are transient and ephemeral. However, if the obligatory duties prescribed by one's faith are performed with the aim of cultivating love of God and love of people of all faiths, the performer gets his or her mind and heart purified, and can attain the realization of that immutable Brahman which secures eternal bliss.

     The Upanishads remind people with dogmatic and fanatic tendencies that scriptural injunctions also lie in the domain of 'lower knowledge'. The Mundaka Upanishadsays that people devoted to mere scriptural ritualism are 'deluded fools': 'dwelling in darkness, but wise in their own conceit and puffed up with vain scholarship, [they] wander about, being afflicted by many ills, like blind men led by the blind'. They think of their way as the best and delude themselves into believing that they have attained fulfilment, and so continue to suffer the ills of life (1.2.8-10).



     Ritual, Knowledge, and Wisdom



     The Isha Upanishad makes the enigmatic statement: 'Into a blind darkness they enter who are devoted to avidya (rituals); but into a greater darkness they enter who engage in knowledge alone.' (3) Here avidya refers to scriptural rituals. But the term vidya is open to several interpretations. It could mean mere theoretical knowledge of the scriptures or meditation on various deities, which too has limited results. Even the highest forms of meditation detract from the knowledge that is para vidya, direct and immediate. A subsequent verse (11) points out that harmonizing rituals with meditation leads to the attainment of greater good-the relative immortality consequent upon identification with a deity.

     Which the nisthe best way to wisdom? The second mantra of the same Upanishad announces: 'If a person wishes to live a hundred years on this earth, he should live performing action. For a man such as you (who wants to live thus), there is no other way than this, whereby work may not cling to you.' As an illustration of this principle of work one may cite the diverse methods used by Sri Ramakrishna to guide his disciples with varying constitutions. He asked his disciple Girish to do whatever he was doing but to surrender everything to the divine Will. He instructed Narendranath on the non-dual Reality, knowing him to be a fit subject for such instruction. In reality, it is not work that binds but the mental attachment to work and its fruits, the notion of doership and of enjoyment. Hence selfless action, done in a spirit of service, is prescribed by scriptures as sure means to the highest good.

     What is the best way to work and yet be free in this very life? This is the subject of the first mantra of the Isha Upanishad: "All this - whatsoever moves on earth - should be covered by the Lord. Protect (the Self) through detachment (which arises from this covering). Do not covet anyone's wealth." The Shruti expressly states: 'all this'. Our usual notions about 'I' and 'the world' (that both are real) are incorrect, because these notions are changing continuously. Everything in nature, including ourselves, is subject to death and destruction. Even this earth, the stars, and galaxies are constantly undergoing destruction and rebirth. This is an undeniable fact. So this changing universe, and the 'I' therein, is to be covered with the idea of divine permanence (that is, Brahman). With this awareness that everything - I and the observed universe - is nothing but Brahman, detached action becomes easier and more natural. Enjoyment, which presupposes duality, is naturally renounced if we become established in this idea. That is the assertion of the rishis who have realized absolute Truth. Not only do we then become unattached, but we actually love this world as a manifestation of God. We then do our duties to protect the world and do not covet anybody's wealth, for this wealth too is God's.



     Ignorance and the Self



     Sri Ramakrishna says, 'The world consists of the illusory duality of knowledge and ignorance. It contains knowledge and devotion, and also attachment to "woman and gold"; righteousness and unrighteousness; good and evil. But Brahman is unattached to these. Good and evil apply to the jiva, the individual soul, as do righteousness and unrighteousness; but Brahman is not at all affected by them.' (4) The categorization of 'woman and gold' as avidya raises the inevitable question (from a Brahmo devotee): 'Who is really bad, man or woman?' Sri Ramakrishna answers, 'As there are women endowed with vidyashakti, so also there are women with avidya shakti. A woman endowed with spiritual attributes leads a man to God, but a woman who is the embodiment of delusion makes him forget God and drowns him in the ocean of worldliness. This universe is created by the Mahamaya [the inscrutable Power of Illusion] of God. Mahamaya contains both vidyamaya, the illusion of knowledge, and avidyamaya, the illusion of ignorance.'

     How does one overcome avidyamaya? Through vidyamaya, for 'through the help of vidyamaya one cultivates such virtues as the taste for holy company, knowledge, devotion, love, and renunciation.' Sri Ramakrishna further explicates the nature of avidyamaya: 'Avidyamaya consists of the five elements and the objects of the five senses - form, flavour, smell, touch, and sound. These make one forget God' (216).

     Both vidya and avidya are aspects of maya, the cosmic power of Brahman. This power does not however affect Brahman (or Ishvara) itself. For maya is under the control of Ishvara. But it is by maya that human spiritual knowledge is covered. Again, it is the vidya component of maya that is responsible for the generation of spiritual knowledge, while avidya, even as it covers spiritual knowledge, is the source of all secular knowledge and human discoveries.

     So avidya is nothing but human ignorance about God's nature, by which one is perpetually deluded into doing the rounds of samsara, the cycle of transmigration. This avidya again is nothing but misidentification of real knowledge, which is one's real nature. Therefore, religious scriptures ask humans to purify their heart, mind, intellect, and ego. Real human nature is pure and divine; each soul is potentially divine. Maya personifies our illusory perception. This phenomenal world is the longest dream come out of cosmic mind, of which the individual is a part.

     'According to the Advaita philosophy,' says Swami Vivekananda, 'there is only one thing real in the universe, which it calls Brahman; everything else is unreal, manifested and manufactured out of Brahman by the power of Maya. To reach back to that Brahman is our goal. We are, each one of us, that Brahman, that Reality, plus this Maya. If we can get rid of this Maya or ignorance, then we become what we really are.' (5) While lecturing on 'The Real Nature of Man' Swamiji dwelt upon the nature of ignorance, avidya:

     Ignorance is the great mother of all misery, and the fundamental ignorance is to think that the Infinite weeps and cries, that He is finite. This is the basis of all ignorance that we, the immortal, the ever pure, the perfect Spirit, think that we are little minds, that we are little bodies; it is the mother of all selfishness. As soon as I think that I am a little body, I want to preserve it, to protect it, to keep it nice, at the expense of other bodies; then you and I become separate. As soon as this idea of separation comes, it opens the door to all mischief and leads to all misery (2.83). Swamiji also makes a distinction between objective knowledge that is in the domain of avidya, and para vidya, which is our very Self: 'Knowledge is a limitation, knowledge is objectifying. He [the Atman, the Self] is the eternal subject of everything, the eternal witness in this universe, your own Self. Knowledge is, as it were, a lower step, a degeneration. We are that eternal subject already; how can we know it? It is the real nature of every man' (2.82).


     Transcending Maya



Horizontal lines are parallelFrom the above discussion it is apparent that both avidya and vidya are forces, the two currents of one powerful Shakti, multiplied into many currents. This fundamental energy, or Shakti, is called maya, and is termed inscrutable because it is impossible to characterize it in definitive terms. The epistemological categories of knowledge and ignorance, as well as affective attachment, are its components. Maya is Brahman as power. The whole universe in its causal, subtle, and gross aspects, and as perceived by the senses, is maya.



Horizontal lines are parallel


     Avidya does not always mean absence of vidya or knowledge. It also has creative or projective components that make for the cosmic abstractions of illusion, delusion, and confusion. In classical Vedantic terminology avidya has two forces: avarayashakti or the power of obstructing knowledge or consciousness, and vikshepa shakti, the projection of individuality or ego Similarly, vidya does not refer merely to epistemologically valid knowledge - perception, inference, scriptural testimony, and the like - but also to spiritual knowledge derived from intuition.

     Avidya refers to a state of confusion, delusion, and illusion: no rational being would like to remain in such a state. Every human being would surely like to transcend this state. True But how? One cannot transcend it by a mere wish. Attempting to rid oneself of maya while still in it is kin to trying to lift oneself by one's own bootstraps. Therefore, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagvadgita: 'This divine maya of mine, consisting of the gunas, is hard to overcome. Those who take refuge in me alone cross over this maya.' (6) Here submission to the divine implies not only devotion to the transcendent Reality, but also surrender of the ego, the key component of avidya. Sri Krishna says further: 'Ishvara resides in the hearts of all beings, causing them to move like puppets through maya. Take refuge in Him alone with all your soul, O Bharata; by His grace will you gain supreme peace and the everlasting abode' (18.61-2).

An illusory bulge     As noted earlier, vidya has two components: apara and para. The former consists of words, sentences, and their meaning. Therefore, it is essentially word-power. It urges the human mind to activity. It functions not only on mental and intellectual levels, but also on the spiritual level. On the latter plane it comprises the spiritual power of persons who have experienced spiritual truths: such persons are called rishis, seers. That is how the scriptures of all religions retain the potential for transmission of spirituality. When a person utters, 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God' or 'tat-tvam-asi; That thou art' or ' aham brahmasmi; I am Brahman', these entences act to remove the ignorance covering the spiritual insight of the receptive heart. On the other hand, it is also through the power of apara vidya that people start riots, crusades, and wars in the name of religion. Therefore, true religion lies in the transcendence of apara vidya. That is the goal of human life.


An illusory bulge





     1. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 79-80.
     2. Mundaka Upanishad, 1.1.3.
     3. Isha Upanishad, 9.
     4. Gospel, 101-2.
     5. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.254.
     6. Bhagavadgita, 7.14.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015







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