[Advaita-l] Nature of Avidya (fwd)

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at braincells.com
Tue Mar 23 03:39:45 CDT 2010

A forwarded message from Shri Subhanu Saxena.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at braincells.com>

---------- Forwarded message ----------

Notes on Avidya


Namaste Sri Subrahmaniam-ji


I read with interest your notes  on avidya as bhAvarupa which were well
argued. I thought it may be helpful to make a few remarks on your points,
but I felt the need to make a couple of prefacing comments:

·         As long as are minds are active debates are bound to continue
endlessly. We should therefore recognise that what is more important than
the intellectual discussion is to live a life of compassion, service and
humility according to our ancient tradition (and as described by Sureswara
in his “sAdhana-sopAna-krama”) that results in brahma-vidya here and now.

·         As such I write these notes in the spirit of atma-vichara and in
the spirit of sharpening my own understanding, and not in an attempt to
defeat any argument.

I will make some general remarks without reference to any text, and then
examine some of Suresvara’s points on this topic, as he deals with them with
a precision that is highly instructive.  I then have a few final comments to
the article in particular.

First, some general points, restricted to the teachings of the advaita
sampradaya of Shankara’s tradition:

·         The highest teaching of Vedanta is that there is only one Reality
that is Brahman

·         If all is Brahman then anything characterised as not Brahman
cannot be real , as there cannot be any entity other than Brahman

·         The only cause for seeing an-atman or modifications in the world
is because we have not known the above fact that Brahman  is the only

·         Anything viewed as an-atman, or other than Brahman can therefore
only be  provisional for the sake of instruction

·         If somebody posits something has having “bhAvarupa” or substance
other than Atman, or having a “cause”, they must therefore admit that this
can only be provisional also (as there is not actual entity called

·         Vedanta teaches that knowledge alone reveals the Truth. Since
knowledge cannot remove an actual entity , it can only remove that which is
not real (ie false), therefore ignorance cannot really be a real entity,
even if we designate it to be so for the purpose of some teaching or other,
for knowledge can never remove an existing substance or material, only a

·         This knowledge arises from following a path of sadhana derived
from following one’s nitya-karma , performed as sacred offering to the
Ultimate without care of reward, to develop purity of mind and introspection
rooted in sadhana-chatustayam, so that the seeker questions his seeker-hood
status, and turns to texts such as “that thou art” which eradicate our
ignorance leading to establishment in the Self alone ( I am cheating here
and paraphrasing Naishkarmya Siddhi 1:51)



I will now cover the above points in more detail with quotations and
translation from Suresvara’s works:

Notions of cause etc can only be provisional

Evam bhUtAtmasiddhyartham kAraNAdi prasAdhyate

upayaH so’vatArAya tathA tajjnaishca sUtritam (BBV 1.1.27)

Cause etc are established only to establish Atman

“For that is a means to explain the concept (of the uniquenss of) Atman”, so
it is said by the knowers of That

Suresvara is quoting the famous kArikA of Gaudapada 3.15 mrilloha ..etc..
Even though this shloka is in the context of creation the principle holds
true of the provisionality of causation

The only reality is Atman. The only cause for the world of manifestation and
modification is  Atman not being known, and no other material cause

sarpAdayo yatha rajjvA vikArAH syurabodhataH

ajnAnAdAtmanas tatvad tejobannAdi vikriyA (BBV 4.4.178)

As modifications of the snake as the rope can only occur through not knowing
its real nature

So in the same way modifications  into fire, water, food etc of Atman can
only occur because Atman is not known

Some may be tempted to see materiality in the causal nature of ajnAna here.
So, Suresvara clearly states in the next verse:

Na hi vedAntasiddhAnte hyajnAtAtmAtirekataH

sAnkhyAnAm iva siddhante labhyate kAraNantaram (BBV 4.4.179)

Indeed in the Vedanta siddhanta no other cause exists other than the unknown

This is in contrast to other systems such as Sankhya etc (which postulate a
material cause for the universe)

Now in a little more detail:



1)      Avidya is purely a notion whose cause does not brook enquiry


Chitta-sammoha-mAtre’smilloko’yam parikhidyate |

Ding-mohAkula-vijnAno naSTamArgah ivAdhwagah ||

In this (happening) which is merely a delusion of the mind, people feel
troubled like a traveller who has his knowledge (of the path) affected by
confusion of the directions and has lost his way [BUBV 2.1.267]


Tamo’nvayas tamah kArye buddhyAdAveva yujyate |

na tvakAraNa-kArye’sminnityabuddhe parAtmani  ||

The connection of ignorance is to be understood with reason only as
associated with the intellect

And not in the case of the ever-awakened Atman that is neither cause nor
effect [BUBV 4.3.1530]


bAhyam vrittim anutpAdya vyaktih syAnnAhamo yathA |

narte’ntahkaraNam tadvad dhvAntasya vyaktirAnjasi  ||


Just as no manifestation of “I” is possible without modification of the of
the mind directed to the external, so there is no clear manifestation of
ignorance unless the mind is manifest [NS 3.58]


Atah pramANato’shakyA’vidyA’syeti vIxitum |

kIdrshI vA kuto vA’sAvanubhUtyekarUpatah  ||


In fact one can never know ignorance as belonging to anyone, neither
determine its nature, or conceive how it can possibly be at all, since it is
essentially the nature of common experience itself [BUBV 184]



seyam bhrAntir nirAlambA sarvanyAyavirodhini |

sahate na vichAram sA tamo yadvad divAkaram  ||

This ignorance is a mental notion of the nature of confusion, is without
cause, and is opposed to logic (ie does not brook enquiry).

It (and its cause) warrant no further investigation just like searching for
darkness in the sunlight [NS 3.66]

This last verse is a comprehensive, clear statement of the nature of
ignorance as purely a mental notion, and for which deep enquiry into its
nature and its cause is fruitless. The example given is that the question
“what causes my ignorance?” is as illegitimate as the question “when did
time begin?”

Note this is different from the anirvachanIyatA of so called root ignorance.
It is a simple statement of the fallacy of looking further into a mental
notion of confusion that is only accepted as existing for the purpose of
teaching the Supreme Reality. In numerous cases, Sureswara refers to this
ignorance as bhranti (eg N.S. 2,31), vibhrama (N.S. 2.62), mithyadarshana
(BUBV 408, 671), mithyadhI (BUBV 4.4.827). Now, whilst it is absolutely
grammatically correct to see mithyAjnAnam as mithyA+ajnAnam, it is hard to
reconcile this meaning with numerous descriptions of this ignorance as
bhranti , abodhataH etc given above or mithyApratyaya (which cannot sensibly
be dissolved as anything other than false notion), or the numerous times
mithyAjnAnam is described as  opposite to samyagjnAnam in bhashya texts eg
BSB 2.3.30)

There are a few  important verses where it  can be easy for the careless
reader of the original Sanskrit to miss the true meaning and fashion a
meaning suggesting a root –ignorance view to Suresvara. Here are the 3 most
important verses in this context:

nAmarUpAdinA yeyam avidyA prathate’sati  |

mAyA tasyAh param saukshmyam mrtynunaiveti bhaNyate  ||

This avidyA, which is unreal, amplifies its supreme subtleness as mAyA
through name and form, and by the name mrtyu [BUBV 1.2.135]

Here, the proximity of avidyA and mAyA, both being in the nominative
singular, has led some translators to assume they are treated as equivalent.
You can see clearly that it is mAyA and name and form  that have
equivalence. They are described in the sense of being fashioned by ignorance
in a similar way to avidyAkalpita as used by Shankara in BSB 2.1.14. In this
important passage, he clearly sees mAyA and name and form as anirvachaniya
being fashioned by ignorance and not identical to it. A simple way to think
of it is as follows: Ignorance  (avidyA) is a basic
confusion/misunderstanding that leads to a delusion/illusion (mAyA) of
duality when there is none in reality.

Mrtyurvai tama ityevam Apa evedam ityapi  |

avidyA prathate maulee vyaktAvyaktAtmanAshinam  ||

In the sentences “death is darkness” and “all this are the waters” we see
ignorance manifesting its presence in seed form as the manifest and
unmanifest, the “destroyer” of the universe [BUBV 1.2.136]


This last verse on a cursory read of the Sanskrit, could be seen as
clinching proof of avidya as mUlAvidyA, because of the word “maulee”.
However, we see the sense again clearly of avidyAkalpita, with name and form
as the seed-form of the universe (the empirical universe cannot be
contemplated without the notion of name and form, which can only be
contemplated when ignorance is assumed to operate). Once again, BSB 2.1.14
is relevant here, and I give it below for full reference:

Sarvajnasya Iswarasya AtmabhUte ivAvidyAkalpite nAmarUpe tattvAnyatvAbhyAm
anirvachanIye samsAraprapanchabIjabhUte sarvajnyasya Iswarasya mAyA ,
shaktih, prakrtih iti cha shrutismrityorabhilipyate | [BSB 2-1-14]


Ficticiously imagined by avidya as though they were identical with the
omniscient Lord, name and form, indefinable as either Himself or distinct
from Him, the seed cause of samsAra are called in the shruti and smriti
mAyA, shakti and prakriti

We also have one important reference where Sureswavra explicitly mentions
the phrase “upAdAna-kAraNam”:

asya dvaitajAlasya yadupAdAna kAraNam |

ajnAnam tadupAshritya brahmakAraNam uchyate ||

“ignorance of the Self is the precondition of this magic show of duality,

And the absolute is the called the cause mediated through that”

(Here many follow Anandagiri’s translation “having resorted to ignorance
which is the material cause of this magic show of duality, it is said that
Brahma is the cause”-the point Sureswara is making , consistent with his
many other vartikas, is that the only entity is Brahman which can appear as
a material cause because of ignorance. Nothing more is meant here)

You can see from the above quote how easy it could be to see anirvachaniya
as referring to avidya, when in fact it refers only to name and form as well
as maya. (btw I still hold that such dialectic differences should not get in
the way of one’s sAdhana)


2)      Only an empirical knower can experience ignorance, which ever
remains (either manifest or in seed form) if one accepts the 3 states to be
real from a standpoint of false attribution (adhyAropa)

vikriyAjnAnashUnyatvAt nedam na cha mamAtmanah |

utthitasya sato’jnAnam naham ajnAsiSam yatah  ||

In itself the Atman is ever free from ignorance feeling neither “this” or

For it is only one who experiences “Waking” from sleep as an empirical
knower that can say “I did not know” (anything then)  [NS 3.62]

sarvAnartha-bIjasyAtmAnavabodhasya suSupte sambhavAt | yadi hi
suSupte’jnAnam nAbhaviSyad antareNApi
vedAnta-vAkya-sravaNa-manana-nididhyAsanAnyaham brahmAsmItyadhyavasAyAt
sarva-prANa-bhrtam api svarasata eva suSupta-pratipatteh
sakala-samsArocchitti-prasangah | na cha kaivalyAt punarutthAnam nyAyyam
anirmoksha-prasangAt. Na chAnya eve suSupto’nya evotthita iti shakyam
vaktum  nAdraksham aham suSupte’nyat kimchid apItyutthitasya
pratyabhinjA-darshanAt | tasmAt avashyam suSupte’ jnAnam abhyupagantavyam
|nanu yadi tatrAjnAnam  abhaviSyad rAga-dveSa-ghaTAjnAnAdivat pratyaksham
abhaviSyad yatheha loka ghaTam na jAnAmItyajnAnam avyavahitam pratyaksham
|atrochyate |na| abhivyanjakAbhAvAt |

In sleep there is present that very ignorance of the Self which is the seed
of all evil. And if this ignorance were not present in dreamless sleep, then
it would be a fact that all living creatures would realise the complete
destruction of samsAra merely by falling asleep and without the discipline
of hearing, reflecting and sustained meditation on “I am the Absolute” and
the other Upanishadic texts. Nor can it be admitted that there is such a
thing as liberation from which one subsequently returns,  for in that case
the possibility of all liberation being but temporary would arise. Nor can
you say :One man went to sleep (and therefore liberated), and the man who
woke was another-for we see recognising their identity with themselves as
sleepless, as when they say “When  I was in deep sleep, I saw nothing”.
Hence for all these reasons, the existence of ignorance in deep sleep must
certainly be admitted.

 Objection:  If ignorance was present in deep sleep then we ought to have
direct awareness of the fact during the time of sleep, just as we are aware
of our ignorance in reference to particular emotional states and external
objects in the waking state. For in waking experience we know through direct
perception (at that time) “I cannot see the pot”. But in deep sleep we are
not immediately aware of such ignorance. Hence there is no ignorance in deep

Answer: Not so. The ignorance is there. It is merely that there is nothing
to reveal it. [NS 3.57]

The above passage requires careful examination for a correct understanding.
The very notion that one is an empirical knower is from the standpoint of
ignorance. Since only an empirical knower can be said to pass through
different states. Therefore, when one says “I woke up”, one is still under
the clutches of ignorance, as the false notion of being an empirical knower
has not been removed. It is therefore natural that ignorance cannot be said
to be sublated even in deep sleep , since we erroneously talk of deep sleep
having a reality in its own right. Since ignorance is a mental notion, and
there is no mind in deep sleep, there is no vehicle for this ignorance to
manifest itself. This is poles apart from having to assume a material root
ignorance clinging to every state and ever present as some inert entity. In
addition, we have:

Suptah prabuddha ityevam svapnam pashyati cheti yah |

Vikalpa eSa bhUtAnAmavidyArAtrishAyinAm ||

The imaginary notion that the Self is asleep or awake or dreaming belongs
only to beings asleep in the night of ignorance [BUBV 2.1.265]




3)      From the highest standpoint ignorance cannot exist


Vibhaktam yattamo’stIva nAvibhaktam manAgapi |

Tamo’nvitatvAbuddhyante na prAjne’nvaYAttamah ||


Where there is distinction, there is the appearance of ignorance- in deep
sleep there are no distinctions, as ignorance belongs to the mind, as this
is where it is consistently found, and not in deep sleep [BUBV 4.3.1517]


kUTasthadriSTAvekasmin avibhakte sahasradhA |

nAmarUpAdibhedena vibhaktam yattamo drsheh ||

In the changeless immutable undivided consciousness, distinction arises
through vision based on ignorance, comprising thousands of further
distinctions through name and form [BUBV 4.3.1518]

tattu dvitIyam nehAsti tamo’narthasya kAraNam |

draSTrAdirUpa-sambhedAt yat pashyet jAgare yathA ||

But in dreamless sleep that duality is not there, for ignorance, the cause
of evil is not found. There is there no duality for the Self to perceive
through subject, object and empirical knowledge, as in waking or dream.
[BUBV 4.3.1519]

It is also important to remember that this enquiry is essentially to reveal
the nature of Atman, and not to examine the 3 states or ignorance just for
the sake of themselves:

avidyAderabhAvoktyA kUTasthAtmaiva bhaNyate |

kAraNAtmA yato’bhAvah kAryAkhyasyeha vastunah  ||

To speak of the absence of ignorance and its effects is to affirm the sole
existence of the Self, eternal changeless, the only reality. To affirm the
sole existence of the Self, the cause, in dreamless sleep is to deny the
existence of the effect as a reality [BUBV 4.3.1520]

Finally, we have:

kuto’vidyeti chodyam syAt naiva prAghetva sambhavAt  |

kAlatrayAparicchatter n chordvam chodya sambhavah  ||

The objection “how can ignorance exist (in the face of the Self) is
illegitimate both before and after realisation. Before realisation its
presence cannot be contested. After realisation it stands destroyed for
past, present and future. [NS 3.116]


We then have the following 2 verses from Suresvara which are explicit in
denying the statius of avidya as in entity:

avidyAvAn avdiyAm tAm na nirUpayitum kshamAH |

vastuvrittatamo’pekshya nAvidyeti nirUpyate ||

He who is endowed with ignorance cannot establish it. In consideration of
the nature of reality it is established that there is no ignorance [S.V.

tattvamasyAdivAkyottha-samyagdhIjanma-mAtrataH |

avidyA saha kAryeNa nA’sIdasti bhaviSyati ||

On the rise of right knowledge from sentences such as tat tvam asi etc,
ignorance and its effects  was not, is not, and never will be

It is worth leaving the final word to Sri Shankara, who reminds us that
notions of passing through various states only arises because of wrong
knowledge on our part. From the highest teaching, the eternal Atman is ever
above all notions of states, free, changeless and immutable:

yathA hi suSuptisamAdhyAdAvapi satyAm svAbhAvikyAm avibhAgaprAptau
mithyAjnAnasyAnapoditvAt pUrvavatpunah prabodhe vibhAgo bhavatyevahihApi
bhaviSyati |

Although in states like suSupti , samAdhi etc (note from Shankara’s language
he denotes samAdhi is a confirmatory experience like deep sleep of a state
devoid of distinction rather than some magical mystical state requiring its
own status) quite naturally the distinctions of jIva and Brahman have become
extinct, because of the reason that wrong knowledge has not been removed,
once again as usual, in the waking sate the division or distinction will
occur invariably again in the same manner here too . [BSB 2.1.9]

api cha na  kadAchit jIvasya brahmaNA satsampattirnAsti |
svarUpasyAnapAyitvAt | svapnajAgaritayorstu upAdhisamparkavashAt
pararUpApattim ivApekhsya tadupashamAtsuSupte svarUpApattirvakshyate |

Apart from this there is no moment of time whatsoever when Jiva has not
merged with Brahman; for, one’s own nature never leaves or departs from
oneself. But assuming that due to associations with upadhis in waking and
dream it appears as though another form is acquired, it is being stated that
in sushupti because of the reason that the upadhis disapper, he “attains”
his svarupa [BSB 3.2.7]


Some direct comments to the article posted

·         “tAmaso hi pratyayaH”: You are right to highlight the importance
of Shankara’s commentary on BG 13.2, as it is very consistent with adhyasa
bhashyam. In fact, a complete reading of this section shows how Shankara
uses avidya and adhyasa interchangeably and equates the two. I just wish you
had completed your quotation and added the important next sentence
“vivekaprakAsha-bhave tadabhAvAt”, meaning “when the light of discrimination
comes it is seen that avidya is a non-entity”, which goes contrary to your
explanation. Note the first phrase simply means that such ignorance is a
mental notion (this is correct translation of pratyaya) of the nature of
darkness/non comprehension.

·         You also note the orthodox view that ignorance cannot be
non-existent and bring out effects. The above section should answer this for
you but you may may interested to know that Suresvara has explicitly refuted
this view in BUBV 1.4. 423-427 and other places. Suresvara makes the point
that there is no entity as anatman, so the defect of something non-existent
bringing about anything does not arise.

·         mUlAvidyA itself is notional: I am happy to see you make this
importance clarification. I have to say though I have discussed with many
who follow the vivaraNa viewpoint who nevertheless attribute a real-entity
status to mUlAvidyA and really feel that a mysterious ineffable material
avidyA-shakti clings to all name and form, creating the illusion of duality,
and that it actually creates illusory snakes etc, and that such avidya
clings to even a jnAni resulting in the need for continuing mystic practices
even after the dawn of true knowledge (they miss the irony of a seeker who
has realised themself as the actionless atman still requiring to perform
actions to quell  impressions! Such a view has been refuted extensively by

·         adhyAropa-apavAda: I concur with your reminder of the fundamental
methodology of Vedanta. We know from even earlier times this method has been
termed as “siddham to nivartakatvat” etc.

·         SSS views: I note that you have a deep knowledge of Sanskrit. I
would recommend you read SSS’s works Sugama and Klesapaharini, as well as
sutrabhashyarthatattwavivechani which provide a more comprehensive view of
his views vs English works that I have come across. I have in my possession
23 mp3’s of 90 minute recordings of a series of lectures by Swami
Atmananendra Saraswati on Adhyasa Bhashyam.  Whilst a student of SSS, this
Swamiji also conducts classes on Panchadasi and is fond of quoting Drig
Drishya Viveka among other prakaraNa works. He goes through in some detail
in English and some Kannada both the Ratnaprabha Tika of Govindananda Swami
as well as SSS’s Sugama Tika. He presents an extremely balanced view
assessing both and makes the notable point that whatever the view, all
schools agree there is a fundamental error made, and that it must be
removed. One should follow a life dedicated to acquiring such knowledge so
the liberation accrues here and now. I am trying to load these lectures onto
the satchidanandendra list, but am struggling due to their length. If
anybody knows how to do this because of the size of the files, then please
let me know!




It is not easy for an aspirant to get past the question “why am I ignorant?”
or “what causes my ignorance?”.  Whilst Sureswara gives the simple
explanation that it is just because of avichArita-siddha (eg BUBV 1.4.1170,
1329, 1341; 2.3.192,224; 3.4. 131; 3.5.42; 3.8.31; 4,4,307 to name a few),
ie lack of critical reflection on our part, and whilst Shankara gives short
shrift to such questions (BSB 4.1.3, GBh 13.2), for those aspirants who see
the question “what causes my ignorance” as a legitimate question, there is
no doubt that seeing avidya as bhAvarupa mUlAvidyA may help their sAdhanA.
However, such aspirants must be absolutely clear that such notions are
provisional for the purpose of their teaching, and should not be seen to
have an actual status as a real entity. Ultimately all such notions must be
discarded. To realise that the very question “what causes my ignorance” is
an illegitimate question, is a great discovery for an aspirant.

If one sees mithyAjnAnam as mithyA+ajnAnam, then it will be natural to find
this everywhere in the bhashyas and vartikas, and a self consistent view can
be found. However, I would encourage all who hold to this view to take a
fresh look at the texts and take a literal view of mithyAjnAnam,  just for
the purpose of their atma-vichara, and  see how this can add perspective to
their sAdhanA.  I would also encourage all those who follow SSS to also do
the reverse and look at the texts understanding mithyajnAnam as unreal
ignorance to understand this perspective also.

We can see in addition that close attention must be paid to the traditional
method of adhyaropa-apavada to fully understand  the teachings regarding
avidya, especially in the context of an examination of the 3 states as a
method to reveal the Supreme Reality devoid of all distinctions. It requires
the discipline to recognise that the examination proceeding from the
standpoint of an empirical knower is still under the clutches of that very
ignorance the teaching is aiming to dispel. As long as false notions remain,
the false notion that one actually passes through various states still
remains. As such, states where the mind is present and distinctions exist,
may appear to have different characteristics vs states where the mind is not
present, and therefore distinctions are not present. Since ignorance is a
false notion in fact of the nature of wrong knowledge, it only will manifest
in states where the mind is present. It will appear to resurface then when
passing from deep sleep back into waking, and may therefore be said to have
been in deep sleep in seed form, without actually being manifest in deep
sleep. The word “seed” can be a little misleading. It does not mean the
existence of something as a material “seed”, just that something that
reappears is not manifest until it comes back.

For those interested, Mandana Misra actually distinguishes clearly between
Shankara’s tradition and the tradition that holds avidya as the upAdAna
karanam. He refers to Shankara’s school as “tathA aparaiH
adhyAropa-apavAdAbhyAm nishprapancham prapanchyate..” and then in B.S 10.13
he refers to the other school (known later as vivaraNa) as “tathA choktam
avidyopAdAna-bheda-vAdibhiH ‘anAdiraprayojanA cha avidyA’ ”, “and so say the
followers of the school that avidyA is a material cause of distinctions that
‘avidya is beginningless and purposeless’ “. So we have early authority for
the difference of Shankara’s tradition to the school that upholds the
mUlAvidyA theory.

However, all this is only from the standpoint of an ignorant empirical
knower who attaches some reality to passing through different states, as his
wrong notions have not been eliminated through right knowledge. For, the
ultimate truth is that the Atman has been, is, and ever will be transcendent
above all notions of time, space and causation. This leaves no room for
ignorance to have any existence in reality whatsoever, as all is the
eternal, changeless immutable Brahman. I would encourage all aspirants,
paraphrasing Mundaka, to shoot straight at the target of realising their
true nature by living a life conducive to bringing about such knowledge, and
not be waylaid along the journey by the minutiae of various dialectic

Harih Om!

More information about the Advaita-l mailing list