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.
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.
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.
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.
Types of "Ignorance"
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.
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,
arguing, and reading books, the highest flights of the intellect,
the Vedas themselves, all these cannot give knowledge of
the Self. (2)
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,
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
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?
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,
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
other words, knowledge is the true basis of life, peace and
joy, and ignorance is the source of all pain and death.
through the Prism of Four Yogas
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Meanings of "Ignorance"
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".
Ramakrishna also refers to ego, the sense of "I"
as ignorance. God is the doer but ego thinks it is the doer.
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)
Sri Ramakrishna says that God creates through his Primordial
Energy called Shakti. Also called Maya, it is of two types:
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.
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.
of Maya, Swami Vivekananda says,
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
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
definition of "ignorance" is given by the sage Patanjali
in his Yoga Sutras. Here is Swami Vivekananda?s translation
of it (9):
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).
"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.
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)
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.
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)
is this inner change that a spiritual seeker aims to attain
as Swami Brahmananda said,
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)
Mundaka Upanishad, 1.1.4-5
Kena Upanishad, 11.3
Eternal Companion, p.39