Vidya and Avidya, Knowledge and Ignorance in Vedanta


by Jayaram V

The Upanishads identify two types of knowledge: the lower knowledge of the rituals, sacrifices, obligatory duties, occupational knowledge and the like, and the higher knowledge of the Self (Atman) and the Supreme Self. The former is often equated with ignorance (avidya) and the latter with true knowledge (vidya).

Inferior knowledge or ignorance arises from our minds and their faculties. Their interaction with the phenomenal world is responsible for our experience of duality and delusion. From this perspective, even the knowledge we gain from the study of the scriptures, unless it is augmented by spiritual experience, is considered inferior.

Many spiritual teachers affirm that mere book knowledge does not help much in our liberation. Some even say that it becomes an obstacle and comparatively an empty mind is better suited for spiritual sadhana than an intellectual mind full of theories and concepts.

This knowledge is considered inferior, because it does not liberate us from the cycle of births and deaths. Instead, it leads to more attachment, karma, egoism, worldliness and more involvement with things and Nature.

All learned knowledge is accumulated knowledge and as long as the mind is clogged with worldly knowledge, peace and equanimity are not possible. In contrast, spiritual knowledge arises from the contact with the Self in a deeper state of self-absorption, at the end of a long spiritual journey and self-purification.

It arises in a state in which the mind and the senses are withdraw and fully resting. Spiritual knowledge is transcendental knowledge which arises in a person who is self-aware without the involvement of his mind or its faculties.

The Upanishads state clearly that both types of knowledge are important. From the lower knowledge comes the discipline and the ability to practice the higher and realize the highest. They also affirm that knowledge of Brahman is the highest knowledge, because it is permanent, unchanging and indivisible, by knowing which there is no further knowing.

It is important to know that Brahman is not an object of knowledge, something that we need to know or gain or possess or remember but the goal of our spiritual effort to achieve liberation. In worldly life, we seek knowledge for some worldly gain.

We think knowledge in material terms, because we cannot conceptualize knowledge that arises spontaneously without the intervention of the mind, the senses and the ego.

To aspire for divine knowledge through our minds and senses would be equal to creating another distraction or activity in our lives, another mirage or delusion in which our egos indulge and lead us astray.

In spiritual world, we have to seek knowledge transcend it and enter into a state of awareness in which the distinction between the knower and the known are completely absent. It is as state in which knowing alone exists without the duality of these two.

Brahman is realized only in a transcendental state, when we manage to rise above the habitual movements of our minds and senses and cease all goal oriented effort to know him or experience him.

The paradox of pure knowledge

The problem and paradox of spiritual experience is that, from a mental perspective, in a state of duality, the knowledge of Brahman is indescribable, and in a state of unity it is unknowable.

When we are in a state of samadhi, we have no means of knowing what is happening, and when we come out of it we have no means of remembering what happened, because our minds and senses were not involved in that experience. It is like the deep sleep state, beyond dreams and all mental formations, about which we have no idea.

Brahman is the absolute, infinite and complete being. In his indivisible and absolute state he is not subject to duality, because he is not united with Prakriti (nature ) or its qualities (gunas) and elements (tattvas).

So the absolute Brahman does not know, other than by himself, that he knows or that he exists. It is a state of Being, in contrast to the state of Doing, in which he simply is without a second and without any instruments such as a body or senses. It is a purely subjective state in which there is no process, no otherness, no knowing, no doing and no remembering.

Such is the paradox of the state of Brahman. To know him is not to know him and not to be him in the present. To describe him from the memory of our experience is to negate his transcendental unity and continuity! I

In his absolute state Brahman has no sense of objectivity, no simultaneous experience of self and the not-self, but only a subjective sense of "I am" ness, because to be aware of the self means duality which is not the state of Brahman.

Why Brahman Manifests Creation

The only way the knowledge of Brahman becomes known is in a state of duality because if there is no creation, there is no object to be known, and there is no possibility of knowing. Brahman is the subject. In the beings, the same subject manifests as individual Selves. The purpose of objectivity is experience and enjoyment.

Therefore to make possible duality and create objectivity, Brahman subjects himself to the illusion of otherness and enters into a state of beingness, reflecting Himself in the triple qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas. His association with Prakriti (Nature) results in diversity of creation.

The Vedas affirm that creation exists for the enjoyment of the Self and the Supreme Self. The senses, the mind, the speech, the organs of action, intelligence and breath perform their duties to facilitate this enjoyment of the Self only. Unknowingly, they participate in the sacrifice of life.

Thus, to consciously experience the joy of seeing himself in innumerable forms, Brahman projects himself outwardly, as a reflection of Himself, to manifest worlds, beings and objects. He subjects them to varying degrees of knowledge, intelligence, ignorance and delusion, through which He perceives the field of His creation as a playground of innumerable realities.

This is the secret and purpose of God's creation. Brahman descends into our worlds, as limited beings, in order to experience in his limited state the state of knowing and becoming, which are inconceivable in an absolute state of oneness. He associates himself with his materiality (the primordial nature) and manifests all this as a part of his universal play (maha-lila).

Knowledge in its absolute and relative states

In contrast to the knowledge of Brahman, which is self illumined and exists by itself and unaware of any other, the knowledge that arises from duality is illumined by the mind and intelligence and exists only in relation to things and otherness. Thus our mental and intellectual knowledge is objective knowledge, which is subject to duality, division and pairs of opposites.

Brahman is pure knowledge and awareness. In His manifested state, He becomes associated with diversity. In beings also the same conditions manifest. The Self, which is pure consciousness, remains enveloped by a field of modifications in the form of a body.

In this state, we experience knowledge as a condition or state or even a possession, different from us and other than us. In the state of duality, our knowledge does not truly represent us and cannot be considered perfect or complete. It is a mixture of light and darkness, subject to desires and attachment and guided by self-interest.

In our knowing there is a process, a movement, a conscious experience of knowing or not knowing, the division of time, a distinction between what we know and what we don't, what we can hold and what we cannot, a desire to know or not to know and an effort to know or resistance to know.

There is also a discontinuity in our knowing. In between two thoughts and two pieces of knowledge there is always a gap, a silence in which hides the unity of our existence. Our senses and minds are imperfect and unreliable as instruments of knowledge.

In Brahman there are such divisions and pairs of opposites. There is no effort to know, no desire to know, no process of knowing, no means of knowing, no experience of knowing, no contradictions of what is known and unknown and no division of time and movement.

It is a state of pure consciousness, the state of Being, the state of Truth which is veiled in us and which is denied to us by the power of maya. The purpose of our existence is to realize that consciousness and to become one with it.

The Journey Back to the Source

If we want to go back to our source, we have to overcome our limitations of Prakriti and duality and regain our true consciousness in the state of Brahman.

We need to experience our knowledge of oneness, withdrawing ourselves from the objects of the worlds, the senses and the mind and transcending our memory and phenomenal awareness.

As free individuals, we have the choice to choose our paths to arrive at the destination. We can continue with our limited existence as long as we want, for we have that freedom too.

There is nothing wrong with human existence or human knowledge. It is neither inferior nor superior. It is definitely not an evil or sinful existence. It is an aspect of Brahman, a plane of existence that has its own significance in the order of the universe.

We are here because of the will of Brahman. We are divine in essential nature because our source is divine. If that is not so we would not be worshipping so many divinities who represent the plurality of our cosmos in our microcosm.

In its ultimate aspect, existence is divine. So are all beings and objects. Through them Brahman witnesses His own actions and manifestations. At the end of each cycle of creation, He withdraws everything into Himself and goes into sleep.

Knowing the distinction between true knowledge and false knowledge will help us to realize who we are, why we are here and what is the purpose of our creation and existence. It will help us to know the mysteries of Atman and Brahman. It reminds us what we have been and where we need to go.

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