"He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know. Close the mouth. Shut the door. Blunt the sharpness. Untie the tangles. Soften the light. Become one with the dusty world. This is called profound identification." - Lao Tzu
































VEDANTA MASS MEDIA Ignorance and Knowledge | Editorial | February 2015  




        Ignorance and Knowledge



        In some context or other, all spiritual seekers encounter the term ignorance. But ignorance of what? And knowledge of what? How "ignorance" affects us and how "knowledge" changes our lives - we are left wondering about these questions.


        In practical world, we use these two terms - knowledge and ignorance - in a variety of ways. We all know how knowledge and ignorance play a vital role in serious issues of life. Think of a subject that one is studying (and the tension and anxiety of not knowing our subject well while appearing for a school or college examination!) or the latest discoveries in science or changes in government policies or legal matters, and so on? knowledge or ignorance of something can create or destroy a situation. Of course "too much of knowledge" has a lighter side as well. "My mother can speak for hours on any subject," said a boy to his friend. "So what! My mother can speak for hours without any subject," responded his friend. "Ah, knowledge?!


        Indeed, we all want "knowledge". The urge to know is inherent in man. But mere knowledge is not sufficient. Knowledge is power but only increase of knowledge will result in increase of sorrow - unless there is increase in wisdom as well.



        The terms knowledge and ignorance, however, acquire a completely refreshing meaning when used in the context of spiritual life. In mundane matters, ignorance can be overcome by studying and knowing things but in spiritual matters, ignorance is rather intangible, invisible and incomprehensible "something". For instance if we do not know how to operate a simple email, we can learn from others and in a trice we can become "experts" in handling the emails. But spiritual ignorance does not go away by just increasing our "knowledge" by reading or listening. With all his knowledge of emails, internet, and modern technology, a person may still be utterly ignorant - spiritually speaking! For spiritual knowledge is something so very different from our knowledge of the world.




        Two Types of "Ignorance"



        According to the Mundaka Upanishad, (1) there are two types of knowledge - objective and subjective. Objective knowledge is the knowledge about various properties, functions and aspects of the world of objects which senses can perceive. It is objective knowledge that we mean when we use the term "general knowledge". Where there is "knowledge", there is also "ignorance". All science, literature, political news, Internet data and so on, all comes within the purview of objective knowledge.


        The Upanishad goes further and classifies even knowledge of spiritual knowledge one gets from spiritual books or scriptural texts, without "realisation" as ignorance. Referring to it Swami Vivekananda says,

        Talking, arguing, and reading books, the highest flights of the intellect, the Vedas themselves, all these cannot give knowledge of the Self. (2)


        Knowledge in the spiritual sense is a specific term. It is not about knowing and quoting what one knows but becoming wise, growing in love and calmness, and cultivating unselfishness and purity of character which is the real sign of spiritual knowledge. Swamiji further says,


        In intellectual development we can get much help from books, but in spiritual development, almost nothing. In studying books, sometimes we are deluded into thinking that we are being spiritually helped; but if we analyse ourselves, we shall find that only our intellect has been helped, and not the spirit. That is the reason why almost everyone of us can speak most wonderfully on spiritual subjects, but when the time of action comes, we find ourselves so woefully deficient. (3)


        "He whose efforts are bereft of all desire and selfishness has burnt all this bondage of action with the fire of knowledge. He is wise." Reading books cannot do that. The ass can be burdened with the whole library; that does not make him learned at all. What is the use of reading many books? (4)


        Reading books helps one get some knowledge about spirituality but intellectual knowledge does not guarantee spiritual realization. It is an inner experience, change in one's thinking that is the function of spiritual knowledge. The Chandogya Upanishad says, "The knower of Self goes beyond all sorrow." Knowledge of the objective world cannot extinguish the flames of pain and sorrow, fear and anxiety or the cycle of birth and death that plague the human existence. Which law of physics and chemistry or which accounting principle or which political news can remove the pain of a heart sunk in ignorance of Self? Swami Vivekananda says,

        Spiritual knowledge is the only thing that can destroy our miseries for ever; any other knowledge satisfies wants only for a time. It is only with the knowledge of the spirit that the faculty of want is annihilated for ever; so helping man spiritually is the highest help that can be given to him. He who gives man spiritual knowledge is the greatest benefactor of mankind and as such we always find that those were the most powerful of men who helped man in his spiritual needs, because spirituality is the true basis of all our activities in life. . . Next to spiritual comes intellectual help. The gift of knowledge is a far higher gift than that of food clothes; it is even higher than giving life to a man, because the real life of man consists of knowledge. Ignorance is death, knowledge is life. Life is of very little value, if it is a life in the dark, groping through ignorance and misery. (5)


        In other words, knowledge is the true basis of life, peace and joy, and ignorance is the source of all pain and death.





        "Ignorance" through the Prism of Four Yogas




        According to Santana Dharma, the Perennial Philosophy of India, there are four major pathways to spiritual knowledge. Called by the generic term Yoga, these paths are: Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Raja or Dhyana Yoga. Each of these Yogas aims at removing "ignorance" by getting "knowledge" but have their own ways of understanding "ignorance." We may try to have a clearer idea about "ignorance" following these four yogas.


        According to Jnana Yoga, the Path of Knowledge, ignorance means ignorance of the true nature of the Self. We are all aware of ourselves. But what is self? We mistakenly think of self as body, mind and ego. This mistaken thinking is born of ignorance called Maya - a conglomerate of time-space-causation (also called Upadhis, "limiting conditions"). To know the Self, one has to overcome this identification with body-mind-ego. The process of doing it is called Jnana Yoga. While one has to analyze, separate the real Self from the non-self, one also has to cultivate virtues such as patience, forbearance, non-violence and so on. To "have" knowledge, in this sense, means that one is ever aware of one's divine nature - the atman.



        According to Karma Yoga, the Path of detached action, "ignorance" means ignorance of the true nature of the agent of work (karta - as also bhokta or enjoyer). A true Karma Yogi is never attached to action, or the fruits of action, nor to even non-action. He lives without expectations, just for the good of others. Removing ignorance, in case of Karma Yoga, means to get rid of the idea of being identified with Prakriti or Nature which included body, mind and ego, and being aware of one's true being which is beyond all conditions and fetters. To "have" knowledge, in this sense, means that one is ever free from all desires, expectations and being aware of one's divine nature - so to say.



        According to Bhakti Yoga, the Path of divine love, "ignorance" means ignorance of the eternal relationship or oneness between the lover and the loved - i.e., devotee and God. Bhakti is of two stages, preparatory and ripe. In the preparatory stage, a devotee follows rules of worship and love through forms, rituals, chantings and so on. At the "ripened" stage, he needs no supports to cultivate love; he is established in love. To "have" knowledge, in this sense, means that one is free from all hatred and negative feelings and one is full of sweetness and joy of divine love. It is a kind of divine madness.


        According to Raja Yoga, the Path of Meditation, "ignorance" means ignorance of the eternal separation of the seer and seen. We "see" through our mind, using our eyes. And in the process become one with the object of perception. That is what causes pain and sorrow - since all objects are in Nature which is ever changing, subject to the laws of decay, change and death. One should separate the Eternal Seer from what is experienced or "seen", in order to attain perfect peace and joy. To "have" knowledge, in this sense, means that one has overcome the Nature by getting rid of all false identifications through the practice of concentration and absorption.




        Other Meanings of "Ignorance"



        Sri Ramakrishna said that knowledge of many is ignorance and knowledge of One is true knowledge. How? According to the mystic experience of sages, the whole world itself is a manifestation of God. It is God, who is of the nature of Pure Consciousness, who becomes the multiplicity called the world. Multiplicity though tangible is not real; it is One out of which all have come from. Hence multiplicity is ?ignorance? and oneness is "knowledge".


        Sri Ramakrishna also refers to ego, the sense of "I" as ignorance. God is the doer but ego thinks it is the doer. He says,


        Ignorance lasts as long as one has ego. There can be no liberation so long as the ego remains. "O God, Thou art the Doer and not I??that is knowledge. (6)


        Further, Sri Ramakrishna says that God creates through his Primordial Energy called Shakti. Also called Maya, it is of two types:


        Shakti alone is the root of the universe. That Primal Energy has two aspects: Vidya and Avidya. Avidya deludes. Avidya conjures up "woman and gold" [i.e. lust and greed], which casts the spell. Vidya begets devotion, kindness, wisdom, and love, which lead one to God. This Avidya must be propitiated, and that is the purpose of the rites of Shakti worship. (7)


        To a man of spiritual knowledge, the whole world, life itself, appears as unreal, like a film or drama. He is established in the Witness Consciousness which watches everything external and "internal". It remains unchanged in the three states of being too - waking, dreaming and sleeping.


        Speaking of Maya, Swami Vivekananda says,


        We are born in this Maya, we live in it, we think in it, we dream in it. We are philosophers in it, we are spiritual men in it, nay, we are devils in this Maya, and we are gods in this Maya. Stretch your ideas as far as you can, make them higher and higher, call them infinite or by any other name you please, even these ideas are within this Maya. It cannot be otherwise, and the whole of human knowledge is a generalisation of this Maya trying to know it as it appears to be. This is the work of Nama-rupa - name and form. Everything that has form, everything that calls up an idea in your mind, is within Maya; for everything that is bound by the laws of time, space and causation is within Maya.(8)



        According to the Bhagavad Gita, the whole creation, including our body and mind, are made of three Gunas or primordial qualities called Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. As they are the evolutes of Prakriti, they produce the sense of multiplicity which is "ignorance". To see the Reality beyond the Gunas is "knowledge".


        Another definition of "ignorance" is given by the sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. Here is Swami Vivekananda?s translation of it (9):

        Ignorance is taking the non-eternal, the impure, the painful, and the non-self for the eternal, the pure, the happy, and the Atman or Self (respectively).




        Here "ignorance" means a kind of mistaken thinking - taking the non-eternal as eternal and so on. It is a kind of confusion or delusion or wrong thinking. "Knowledge" means correcting this distorted thinking.


        Finally, knowledge and ignorance, in the spiritual sense, refer to the knowledge of Self and absence of it. It is Self knowledge which is the source of lasting happiness and joy in life. What happens when one "knows" the Self? He becomes peaceful, unruffled, pure and strong. The Kena Upanishad (10) says,


        He who says he does not know (Brahman, the Ultimate Reality), knows it. He who says he knows, does not know it. It is known to those who say they do not know it; it is not known to those who say they know it.


        In Swamiji's words,


        Ignorance is the mother of all the evil and all the misery we see. Let men have light, let them be pure and spiritually strong and educated, then alone will misery cease in the world, not before. We may convert every house in the country into a charity asylum, we may fill the land with hospitals, but the misery of man will still continue to exist until man?s character changes. (11)


        It is this inner change that a spiritual seeker aims to attain through "knowledge".


        Or as Swami Brahmananda said,


        Man suffers because of his ignorance. This ignorance is his sense of ego. When a man is free from this egoism, surrendering his life, his mind, and his intellect at the blessed feet of the Lord of all, renouncing all that he calls his own - then is he blessed indeed. That man alone is happy. (12)





        1. Mundaka Upanishad, 1.1.4-5


        2. CW, 7.70


        3. CW, 4.22


        4. CW, 1.477


        5. CW, 1.52

        6. Gospel, 204


        7. Gospel, 116


        8. CW, 2.112


        9. CW, 1.238

        10. Kena Upanishad, 11.3


        11.CW, 1.53


        12. Eternal Companion, p.39








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International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
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