Ashtavakra Samhita, Chapter 9, Verse 05

Ashtavakra and Janaka

Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V


Index, Verse Index, Verse 1, Verse 2, Verse 3, Verse 4, Verse 5, Verse 6, Verse 7, Verse 8,

Verse 05

naanaa matam maharsheenaam saadhoonaam yoginaam tathaa
drishtvaa nirvedamaapannah ko na shaamyati maanavah


After seeing the diversity of opinions among great seers, saints and spiritual people, which human being does not cultivate indifference to learning and attain peace?


The Problem with the Desire to Learn

Cultivating distaste for learning is an important aspect of spiritual practice. It is a well known adage that an ignorant and illiterate person has better chances of realizing the self than an educated and well-informed intellectual. Learning hardens the mind and makes it difficult to be humble and receptive to the knowledge of the self to shine through.

This verse refers to the perils of pursuing the desire to learn and the problem of acquiring knowledge through study and learning since it is counterproductive and does not lead to true knowledge, enlightenment or equanimity. It also unsettles the mind and distracts it from the practice, since we have too many scriptures and the teachings of seers and saints who offer diverse opinions and approaches with no unanimity among them.

The diversity of knowledge which exists in almost every field of study makes it harder for any student to gain mastery of any subject. Even science is not fully settled. For example, we have many religions, and each of them claims divine authority as its source and promises salvation and eternal happiness for its adherents. Within each religion we have multiple sects and subsects and numerous institutions.

It is more pronounced in Hinduism, which is not an organized religion and which is a collection of diverse religious traditions and practices. It has six Darshanas or major schools of philosophy which express an array of opinions on the existence or nonexistence of God and the nature of reality. They range from atheism and agnosticism to theism, and from materialism to spiritualism. Within each Darshana, there are further subdivisions and variations, each offering its own solutions, perspectives and approaches to salvation, peace and happiness.

Our religious literature also reflects a lot of diversity. It is broadly divided into shruti (the heard ones) and smriti (the memorial ones). The Vedas constitute shruti. However, even among the four Vedas there is no unanimity. Each Veda is divided into four parts, and each has a different appeal and purpose. The Upanishads contain profound wisdom, but they are rather fragmentary, disorganized and disconnected. They are not uniform in their presentation of ideas and methods of salvation. For example, some of them regard Shiva as the highest deity, and others accord the same status to Vishnu, Brahma, Indra, and so on. The same can be said about the Puranas also.

Apart from them, we also have many texts, commentaries, tantras and sutras, which offer different perspectives on the nature of existence, the role of God and the means to spiritual transformation and salvation. They suggest both left-hand and right-hand practices which are diametrically opposed to each other. Anyone who reads them ought to wonder which of them are correct and worthy of practice. These texts and teachings have the world or the intellect as their source. Hence, they are bound to confuse and delude any seeker.

Smriti knowledge or the knowledge which arises from the senses, the mind and the intellect pertains to the not-self domain. It is subject to duality, diversity, desires, attachments, confusion, delusion and the constricted perceptions of the ego, the mind and the intellect, shaped by the experience, awareness and the thinking of the people who contribute to it or create it. Hence, as a source of knowledge, it is not of much use in spiritual practice or self-realization.

The knowledge which arises from the not-self may be helpful in the initial stages to perform duties or earn name and fame or wealth, but not so in the transformation and purification of the mind and body or in self-realization. The adepts equate all memorial knowledge with ignorance (avidya) because it is riddled with the impurities of not-self and contains both light and darkness or knowledge and ignorance. Even the Samhita portion of the Vedas is considered ignorance (avidya) only, in contrast to self-knowledge which alone is deemed vidya and which arises from oneness.

You may pursue book knowledge or memorial works as a student or householder or as a part of your duties, but you cannot look to them for all answers and solutions in the pursuit of liberation. If you pay attention to the knowledge and teachings of different seers and sages or study the diverse knowledge which is available on any particular subject, you are bound to feel confused and lose focus. Your desire to know or learn (bhubhutsa) remains unfulfilled

When two or more opposing views on any subject are available and both enjoy popularity and support, how can anyone choose the right method or ascertain which of them is true and valid? Since the dawn of civilization, the world witnessed hundreds of religions and thousands of philosophies, schools of opinion, and spiritual traditions. One lifetime is not sufficient to pursue them or know them.

Therefore, Ashtavakra implied here that one should not engage in learning for learning sake. The knowledge which we gain through study does not open our eyes to truths of ourselves. It rather strengthens our egos and involves us even more in the pursuit of worldly gains. The knowledge which we acquire in this manner is but ignorance only as it increases our delusion. It not useful to attain peace and equanimity since their source is not the self but the not-self.

The knowledge and wisdom of the spiritual masters might have been born out of their personal experience. It might have helped them to cleanse themselves and achieve liberation, but there is no guarantee that it would universally help everyone. For the creators of that knowledge it was their internal (adhyatmika), but for others it is external knowledge (bhautika) only and has limited value, unless it is personally tested and found valuable. For all practical purposes, as far as you are concerned, the knowledge of any seer or saint or guru has no value since it is external knowledge or the not-self-knowledge. If you want to make use of it, you have to put it to test.

Therefore, you will be better off by cultivating distaste for all external learning and withdraw your mind and senses into yourself to remain focused upon knowing through introspection and self-realization. You may choose just one guru or a seer or a saint for guidance and put that to practice, or just rely upon yourself, with faith and devotion.

The knowledge of the self is self-existent. It is spontaneous knowledge, which does not arise from learning or external aides but from within yourself and by itself. Focusing your mind upon the indivisible, indestructible and eternal self, you have to strive for oneness with it. When you are dissolved in it, true knowledge (arises) on its own as the light of the morning sun appears on the horizon. This is clearly stated in the next verse.

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