Ajnana, the School of Skepticism in Ancient India

Pandita, Hindu Scholar

by Jayaram V

From a spiritual or philosophical perspective, just as jnana, ajnana also has a wider meaning. It not only means ignorance but also any knowledge which is rooted in ignorance, imperfection, ambiguity, misunderstanding, distortion, doubt, confusion, perversion, evil nature and so on. If you have doubts about the validity of any truth or knowledge, such knowledge is not reliable and cannot be construed as true knowledge.

Knowledge must stand the test of truth to be considered true. To be universally acceptable, it must be universally indisputable, reliable and free from doubt and contradictions, irrespective of time, place, conditions or perspective. The scriptures must be consistent about it. If they make contradictory statements and offer divergent explanations about it, it will lead to confusion and skepticism and unsettle our faith.

Unfortunately, the scriptures of any religion are not free from contradictions. For example, in some passages the Upanishads declare the Self to be indescribable, incomprehensible and incorporeal since it is beyond the mind and senses. Yet, in some passages they suggest that it is of the size of a thumb or a dot and exists in the heart or in between the two eyebrows. You will wonder, if no one has seen the Self or perceive the self with the mind or the senses, how can anyone describe it?

One may see similar contradictions even in the Vedas. The Nasadiya Hymn expresses doubts about who the creator might be or whether he created anything at all. Yet, in the same Vedas you will find Purusha Sukta which describes how the Purusha or Brahman created the worlds out of himself through a universal sacrifice. Some passages in the Upanishads suggest that the worlds and beings manifested from a cosmic egg; some suggest that they manifested from Time or Death (kala), while some Puranas suggest that Brahma manifested from the navel of Vishnu and created the worlds and beings according to the will of Vishnu.

Ajnanis, The Skeptics of Ancient India

Such contradictions made some independent ascetic groups of ancient India to doubt all the knowledge contained in the scriptures or held in esteem by religious scholars, teachers and philosophers. They existed during the Buddha’s time and belonged to an atheistic or agnostic school of Sramanic tradition, known as Ajnana. They challenged every metaphysical assertion and refused to acknowledge any knowledge as true. They preferred to acknowledge their ignorance rather than accept erroneous knowledge as true. The Buddhist and Jain texts allude to them and their arguments.  It is possible that Alexander might have met some of them during his invasion of India.

The Ajnanis were atheists or agnostics who accepted ignorance as an inevitable or unavoidable reality of our existence as far as metaphysical truths were concerned. It is not that they worshipped ignorance as such, but preferred to admit their ignorance rather than blindly submit to unverifiable knowledge. They saw that doubt and ambiguity or uncertainty were unavoidable obstacles in their search for truth or valid knowledge. They found no metaphysical system or religious philosophy or scriptural affirmations about God, etc., which were free from contradictions and ambiguity.

Therefore, they questioned and challenged every metaphysical notion and assertion, arguing that the statements found in the scriptures about God, nature of existence, creation or life after death, etc., were unreliable since they were not free from contradictions, and their validity could neither be accepted nor refuted. The Jain and Buddhist texts mention them as skeptics, eel-wrigglers or jugglers of words, who doubted everything and refused to reach any conclusion about the validity or invalidity of any religious dogma or philosophy. For them, speculative knowledge about metaphysical truths was indeterminate, and our understanding of it was limited since our thinking and judgment were influenced by our desires, attachments, delusion, perversions, etc. Modern psychology too recognizes the fact that we are prone to many cognitive errors due to the way the brain functions and the selective manner in which we perceive reality.

Due to their rigid and stubborn approach to validate and ascertain right knowledge and their refusal to compromise their methods and principles, the Ajnanis (the skeptics) held on to their reasoning and refused to fall into the trap of any belief system, other than their own. It is difficult to say that they were open-minded or participated in debates and discussions to explore truth objectively, because they were most likely predetermined in their minds about their approach and tried to reinforce it on each occasion. Their objective was refutation rather than validation, without letting themselves fall into the trap of submitting to irrational beliefs.

The approach of Ajnanis was not without merit. Some of their methods are invaluable in the exploration of truth and in rational and philosophical inquiry. Hence, subsequently they found their way into various schools of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. One may find their influence in the anekantavada theory of Jainism, which holds that truths are relative and valid only from certain perspectives. To know the truth of anything one must examine it from different points of view or multiple perspectives. This idea is also reflected in the Syadavada, which points to the uncertain nature of knowledge and suggests the different states of awareness which can arise in reference to a particular truth or doctrine such as “is, is not, is and is not”, etc.

The methods of the Ajnanis also found their way into Buddhism. The Brahmajala Sutta, a Pali text, refers to endless arguments of skeptics (amaravikkhepavada) and how they presented their arguments about life, death and life after death. It is also said that the fourfold logical scheme (chatushkoti) used by them in their questioning and refutation of metaphysical assertions was later adapted by Buddhist scholars. The system relied upon four generic predicative relationships to present or refute any truth or argument through questioning namely “is”, “is not”, “is and is not”, and “not is and not is not.” The Buddha himself probably used it in his teachings to illustrate a point or to counter opposing views, followed by some early Buddhist scholars such as Sariputta, Moggallāna and Nagarjuna.

The Concept of Ajnana, Ignorance in Hinduism

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