[Advaita-l] The deliberation on vidyA - avidyA in Advaita Vedanta

bhaskar.yr at in.abb.com bhaskar.yr at in.abb.com
Wed May 2 07:55:02 CDT 2007

Hare Krishna

In  this  mail I shall just attempt to address the topics vidyA (knowledge)
&  avidyA  (ignorance)  which  is  there in our day to day experience & how
these  terminologies  have  been explained by shankara based on our general
day  to  day  experience...So,  in  my  mail,   there  wont be any hi-funda
terminologies  of  avidyA-s   like  epistemic  or ontic while explaning the
nature  of  it.  There wont be explanations for dry logic's (shushka tarka)
objections like chakrAshraya dOsha, anyOnyAshraya dOsha & AtmAshraya dOsha,
there  wont be deliberation on whether avidyA is epistemic or ontic or both
or  none   etc..  ..For  that  matter  I've not traditionally studied tarka
shAsra  nor pUrvamImAmsa to give valuable explanations to these objections.
My   simple  understanding  is  that  since  bhagavatpAda  himself  refuted
pUrvamImAsaka-s  &  tArkikA-s views in his commentary, I dont feel I should
study  those  before  persuing  my  studies  in  shankara vEdAnta... So, my
observation  on  concepts  of vidyA & avidyA would be purely based on one's
own  experience  (lOkAnubhava)  wherein  the  logic plays only a supportive
role....I  believe  logic  which  goes  against  anubhava  is  fruitless  &
baseless...Hence  there  is  no point in discussing siddhAnta with the ONLY
support  of  dry  logic...our  logic  should  be  constructed  on anubhava.
Without  the  support  of  anubhava  if you cling to mere logic then it has
intellectual  limitations  &  restricted one's own capability of presenting
the things with his/her conditioned minds..I can say, to arrive at the real
&  ultimate  purport  of  concepts  of  vidyA & avidyA we should invariably
depend  on  shruti,   shrutyanugrahIta tarka & anubhava.  The yukti what we
are going to use to present our views should not contradict our lOkAnubhava
& scriptural authority & bhagavadpAda's bhAshya vAkya.

In  my  opinion,  the  subject  matter i.e. deliberation on avidyA which is
being  cited  as fundamental error/hurdle by shankara for self realization,
should  be  understood based on or following the lOkAnubhava (experience of
the  common  people)  and  not  by  mere  dry  logic without the support of
anubhava  &  vAkya  pramANa of AchArya.  The anubhava here mentioned is not
any  individual  experience,  the  anubhava which I am talking here  can be
tested by the touch stone of one's own experience.  For doing this exercise
everyone  who  has  an  open mind is qualified.  So it is important to note
that the yukti-s (logical devices) provided to prove the concepts of avidya
etc.  should be supported and sustained by such anubhava...If these yukti-s
donot  have  the appropriate support from lOkAnubhava & AchAryOpadEsha then
it  is  mere ku-yukti (illogical). So, the rule followed by me in this mail
is  quite  obvious  that is...lOkAnubhava --> AchAryOpadEsha --> shruti -->
tadanugrahIta  yukti.  Ofcourse, I know, lOkAnubhava presupposes jIva bhAva
&  jIva  bhAva  itself  an avidyA kalpita...but let me first start from the
outer  layer  of  avidyA  &  then  we  can  move  on to the subtle vEdAntic
intricacies in determining the inner layers & its treatment of avidyA.

With  this  background  &  fundamental  rules  I  shall now try to share my
understanding  of  avidyA.   Readers  who  wish  to  be neutral without any
prejudices  should  comeforward  and  discard  that  which  is  irrelevant,
essenceless  &  contradicting  lOkAnubhava.   I'd be the happiest person to
correct  myself  if  it is in accordance with anubhava & bhAshya vAkya. I'd
also  like  to mention here that  in this attempt  for each & every opinion
of mine ( strictly speaking there is nothing that can be claimed as  *mine*
it   is  only  *bhiksha*  from  my  revered  parama  guruji  H.H.  Sri  Sri
Satchidaanandendra  Saraswati  mahAsannidhAnaM  and gurUpadEsha/aapta vAkya
from  my  guruji-s) I shall try to append a sentence or two from shankara's
bhAshya  vAkya  and  if  necessary one or two sentences from *anubhavAtmaka
yukti*  .  I've left the task/responsibility of adjudicating as to how much
reasonable  &  universally acceptable are my definitions on avidyA-vidyA to
the esteemed readers of this list.

First  and  foremost  thing   that  needs  to  be addressed is "what is the
*essential*  nature of avidyA??"  Let us see that with an example.  "Do you
know  computer  programming??"   suppose  somebody asks me...my spontaneous
answer  would  be  "sorry I donot know", "OK atleast do you know how to use
computer"    next  question,  my  answer  would  be  "  yes  I  do  to  the
extent".....So,   *not  knowing*  (agrahaNa) something is quite natural for
human mind..No sane person will ask "why you dont know programming or since
when  you  dont  know programming"!!!  It is common experience of knowledge
about  something  &  ignorance  about  something  else  in  our  day to day
business...Eversince  we  born  on this planet earth we have been learning,
learning  and  keep  on  getting  rid  of our ingnorance gradually ..In our
child-hood  we  didnot  know  who  is  father,  who is mother, what is this
multifarious  surroundings   etc.etc.   as  we  grow  slowly,  we  keep  on
acquiring  the  knowledge about our parents, our surroundings etc. etc.  We
never ever doubt since when we are the victim of this ignorance & we accept
it  *as it is* as chronic problem without giving mind to it & start gaining
knowledge  to eradicate this ignorance...So, it is clear that in our day to
day  life,  *ignorance*  is  quite  natural  with regard to *anything*..and
further  when  the  light  of  knowledge  dawns  on a particular thing, our
ignorance of that particular thing will be removed completely.

This ignorance is normally of three types :

(a) Not-knowing/non-perception/non apprehension or in Sanskrit agrahaNa.
(b)   taking    something   else   as   real    in   place  of  original  /
misconception/misunderstanding   or   in  Sanskrit  it  can  be  called  as
adhyAsa/anyatha-grahaNa, anyaTha-jnAna, viparIta grahaNa, mithyA-jnAna etc.
(c) doubting the nature of a thing...in Sanskrit saMshaya.

These  three  types  of  ignorance  are quite natural to our mind & day-in,
day-out we have been experiencing one or the other type of ignorance.  When
the knowledge occurs in the mind then all the three types of ignorance will
vanish  at  once.   There wont be any trace of agrahana, anyatha grahaNa or
saMshaya  when  we have the *knowledge* of a thing correctly.  When we know
the  real  nature  of  rope  with  proper  illumination,  we can get rid of
ignorance  about  rope  completely & there will be no trace of doubt in our
mind  about  the  true  nature  of  rope.   A couple of bhAshya quotes from
shankara would be appropriate in this context..

(i) shankara in gIta bhAshya  says : Ignorance is a tAmasic notion which of
three  types,  it does not exist where there is the light of discrimination

(ii)  in  bruhadAraNyaka : ignorance whether it means the want of knowledge
or a false notion is always removable by knowledge.

I  think nobody can dispute this.  So, the ignorance such as misconception,
doubts  etc.  are  natural  for  human  mind  &  it  can  be removed by the

Now  we  are  coming  to  the  heart  of  the subject matter i.e. ignorance
regarding  one's  own  true  nature.   What  is  this avidyA??  how can one
understand  him/herself  wrongly??  Before digging further, it is better to
spend  some  time  with  the  siddhAnta of advaita as enshrined in shruti &
methodology  shruti  used  to  convey  it.   According to shruti brahman is
yEkamEva advitIya (one without second) there is not even an iota of duality
in  brahman  ( nEha nAnAsti kiNchana), the jIva which endowed with upAdhi-s
is  nothing  but  in  true  form  is  brahman/nitya  shuddha,  buddha mukta
chaitanya  rUpa...  To  convey the nature of this reality vEdAnta adopted a
methodology  called  adhyArOpa  (superimposition)   & apavAda (rescission).
This  is  the primary method adopted by shruti.  In this main method one of
the  sub-variety   is  vidyA-avidyA adhyArOpa on brahman.  i.e. teaching of
the  true non-dual nature of self through the superimpositions of knowledge
and  ignorance.   Due  to this ignorance about the real nature of his self,
one  by  nature  attributes  certain  features  to   non-dual reality...for
example  the  distinctions  like  I  am  seeker  of truth (jnAtru/pramAtru)
brahman is an object to be known (jnEya/pramEya) and guru & shAstra are the
means  to  know it (jnAna/pramANa).  According to shruti there is an innate
ignorance  regarding  one's own nature of the self which is common to human
mind.  For example as said above, as per shruti one's own nature in reality
is non dual brahman.  If we ask the question to anybody as whether he knows
his true nature as brahman??  his reply would be that he does not know.  If
we again ask him then who are you??  his reply would be that I am so and so
a  person,  so  &  so's son etc. ( mainly pointing his body/his position in
society  etc. )..If we further dig him deep with a question like how do you
know  that  you  are this body??  dont you know one day you have to give up
this  mortal  coil etc. etc.  His reply will be something like * Hello sir,
please  leave  me alone, there are somany doubts regarding all these tricky
metaphysical  issues, dont expect me to involve in any sort of arguments on
these  issues...By  this  common  dialogue what we come to know is there is
ignorance  regarding the true nature of one's own self which is natural for
*human  mind*....And  this  ignorance  is  common for ignorant & as well as
scholar...Therefore,  the  dealings  of  the  ignorant  and the scholar are
within  the  boundaries  of  avidyA only.  (shankara says *sarva* loukika &
vaidika  vyavahAra).   In this way, vEdAnta shows the avidyA about the self
which is quite conspicuous & anubhavAtmaka in our life.  It is this natural
tendency    of    the    mind    (ahamidaM,   mamEdaM   iti   naisargikOyaM
lOkavyavahAraH--shankara  in adhyAsa bhAshya)  to mix up the real Atman and
the  anAtman  owing  to  a  misconception  (mithyAjnAnanimittaH; satyAnrute
mithunIkrutya  -  -  Shankara  in  adhyAsa  bhAshya).This is what is called
avidyA/adhyAsa  by  shankara  in  adhyAsa  bhAshya..  ...In all through his
adhyAsa  bhAshya  shankara  repeatedly  tells  us  that  this ignorance  is
*naisargika*,  *lokavyavahAra*, *sarva lOka pratyakshaH* etc. to convey the
fact  that  this  *dOsha*  pertains to human mind....He never ever tried to
explain  material  cause  for  this  *natural problem* of human mind nor he
tried  to  explain  this  by  bifurcating one is subjective (epistemic) and
another is objective (ontic) to appease the tArkikA-s...Please note that if
at  all  bhagavadpAda  has  undertaken  the  exclusive task of providing an
explanation  of  the  concept of  avidyA & its nature it is undoubtedly his
preamble  to  sUtra  bhAshya i.e. adhyAsa bhAshya...In that bhAshya without
any room for ambiguity he declared that it is a common problem of people to
misunderstand  Atman  and  anAtman to be each other.  Shankara implied here
Atman  is  one  who  is  the vishayi (subject), chEtana, satya which anAtma
vastu  is  vishaya  (object),  jada  (insentient), anrutha etc.  Further he
clarifies  that  not  only  have  the people misconceived the Atman and the
anAtman  to  be  each  other  but also they have mutually super-imposed the
dharma-s  (qualities)  of one on the other to misconceive the dharma of one
to  be  those  of the other.  Shankara after explaining all these gives his
verdict  that  this  *alone*  is  adhyAsa  & goes on to say this adhyAsa is
itself  *avidyA*.   There is absolutely no trace of explanation with regard
to *material cause* for this adhyAsa...His explantion in adhyAsa bhAshya is
simple   &   straightforward   :   "to   reckon   that  which  it  is  not"
(tasminsstandbhuddhirityavOchAM.....reference          vide         adhyAsa
bhAshya...*adalladdaralli  ademba  tappu  tiLuvaLike*  - Sri SSS in Kannada
book   AdhyAsa  bhAshyArtha  vimarshe).   As  you  all know, to remove this
ignorance  regarding  one's  own  self the knowledge of self must be gained
through   the   help  of  the  knower  of  the  self  (bramavid-  shrOtrIya
brahmanishTa) and vEdAnta shAstra.  This is the attribution of the dealings
of  vidyA  and avidyA in non-dual brahman...(tamEtamEvaM lakshaNaM adhyAsaM
paNditAH    avidyEti    maNyantE,   tadvivEkEnacha   vastusvarUpAvadhAraNaM
vidyAmAhuH ---shankara in adhyAsa bhAshya).

I  hope  the  above  definition  of adhyAsa/avidyA is strictly in line with
lOkAnubhava,  yukti  (logic)   &  more  importantly  as  per bhagavadpAda's
adhyAsa  bhAshya.   Now  you  tell  me, where exactly is the requirement of
definition  with  regard to cause for *epistemic* avidyA??  Can't we do our
brahma jignAsa with the understanding of above definition of avidyA?? Do we
face any problem of chakrAshraya dOsha (circular logic) while understanding
this type of adhyAsa??     Anyway, since for the further clarity let us dig
that circular logic problem also.

It  has  been  said earlier that ignorance is of three kinds i.e. agrahaNa,
anyaThA  grahaNa and saMshaya...If we take the problem of purely  epistemic
avidyA  it presupposes the jIva bhAva with antaHkaraNa which in turn itself
avidya  adhyArOpita on brahman...jIva without knowing that he is secondless
brahman  (agrahaNa)  misconceives  (anyathAgrahaNa)  that he is body, mind,
intellect  &  other external things.  So, jIva, to have an epistemic avidyA
either  there  should  be  a fundamental avidyA which is the cause for jIva
bhAva and from this fundamental ignorance (mUlabhoota avidya) there will be
a  subsequent  ignorance  which is epistemic in nature.  If that is not the
case  and  if  it  is  purely epistemic avidyA that avidyA ends in circular
logic....  and  hence it has logical limitations & cannot acceptable.  From
this  what we can understand is causal ignorance (kAraNAvidyA - not knowing
jIva  is  brahman)  is  the  root  cause for subsequent effective ignorance
(kAryAvidyA  - misunderstanding/misconception of  his real nature with some
anAtma  vastu).   So  from  this  it  is evident that predominant avidyA is
kAraNAvidyA  (agrahaNa ) & result of this kAraNAvidyA are antaHkaraNa dOsha
i.e.  anyaThAgrahaNa & saMshaya,  But what is this jIva??  is it a separate
chaitanya apart from nitya chaitanya??  what is the jIva svarUpa apart from
body, mind & intellect??  Without getting proper answer to these questions,
it  is  absolute  nonsense  to  search  for the locus of avidyA & cause for
epistemic   adhyAsa.   Strictly  speaking  questions  like,   'to  whom  is
avidyA'??   'about  which  matter  or  thing  is there avidyA'??  etc. etc.
should  not  at  all  arise in the advaita vEdAnta.  to whom??  about which
matter??   have  to  arise  only  where  there  is  duality  (dvaita)...and
according   to   shankara  the  whole  scenario  of  duality  is  adhyastha
(superimposed  / misconceived) and avidyaka (born out of ignorance) and not
real.   People  who  are  over  influenced  by tarka over siddhAnta can ask
questions  like  this!!! for them shankara replies in sUtra bhAshya (4-1-3)
through a question & answer session :

pUrvapaxi : to whom this avidyA or non-apprehension (agrahaNa) pertain??
vEdAntin : to you who are asking this question!!!
pUrvapaxi  :  is  it  not  stated  by  the shruti that I am Eshvara that is
absolute nature of consciousness??
vEdAntin  :  if  you  have  realized  this  thing  then  you are already an
enlightened person and there is no avidyA or non apprehension to anybody..

>From  this  dialogue  it  is  evident that how intellectual fools we are by
asking cause for adhyAsa!!!

However,  let us see this from another angle also.  What our  anubhava that
we   gain   from    our   day   to   day   life   says  here  is  something
interesting....Here  predominance status of one of the avidyA-s goes to the
misconception   (kAryAvidyA/epistemic   avidyA  )  and  NOT  non-perception
(kAraNAvidya  )  as  proved  above.   Because  human  dealings  start  with
misconception   at   first   not   with   non-conception/  perception...but
interestingly  he  does  not suspect that it is misconception.   He keep on
thinking  that his knowledge of a thing is *perfect* as long as *result* of
this  (wrong)  knowledge  goes  in  his  favour.   But once the result goes
against  his  expectations  then  immediately  starts  suspecting about the
*correctness* of his knowledge.  Then he approaches sources in which he has
faith  to  correct his knowledge. When he gets the correct knowledge of the
things  (like knowing the rope as rope)  then he himself realizes that what
he  had  thought/understood   earlier   is wrong.  Due to non-perception he
thinks  that  "I've misunderstood the thing".  So our lOkAnubhava says that
the  cause  of  misunderstanding is non-perception and gaining of *correct*
knowledge   proceeded   with  the  misconception  (anyathAgrahaNa)  in  the
beginning  and  NOT  with  the non-perception (agrahaNa).  From this we can
easily  understand  that misconception or adhyAsa is the predominant factor
in  our  ignorance.  Going by this lOkAnubhava, shankara expressly declares
this in his preamble to sUtra bhAshya that this adhyAsa is itself  *avidyA*
(tasmAt yEvaM lakshaNaM adhyAsaM paNditAH avdiyA iti manyantE).

So,  according  to  shankara  avidyA  is equal to adhyAsa (nowhere shankara
mentions   avidyA  is  the  upAdAna  kAraNa  for  adhyAsa).   Here  adhyAsa
undoubtedly  denotes *misconception* alone which is inturn *subjective* due
to  antaHkaraNa  dOsha.   As we have seen above, adhyAsa (misconception) is
the   predominant   factor   in  three  types  of  adhyAsa  i.e.  agrahANa,
anyathAgrahaNa  &  saMshaya.   And  to who this misconception pertains to??
>From  what  we have seen above from the anubhava, definitely it pertains to
antaHkaraNa.   Shankara  too confirms this in gIta bhAshya 13/2 & taitirIya
bhAshya  2/8/5...Here  shankara  clarifies  that  both  vidyA  & avidyA are
directly  perceived  like colours etc.  as attributes of the mind.  and NOT
that  colour  perceived as an vishaya can be an attribute of the perceiver.
And ignorance is objectified (vishayIkruta) by one's own intuition when one
thinks  *mUdOhaM*  (I  am ignorant).  Similarly the difference of knowledge
too  is  perceived and the AtmajnAni-s convey this Atma jnAna to others for
their  AtmOddhAra  in vyavahAra..As per this both knowledge & ignorance are
to  be  ranked  with  name & form they are not attributes of the Self.   ((
interested  may please refer to relevant bhAshya portion)...If at all there
is  a  problem  of  *chakrAshraya  dOsha*  with regard to subjective defect
(antaHkaraNa  dOsha)  shankara  would  have  defnitely addressed here is it
not??   It  is clarified by shankara without any ambiguity that these three
aspects  of avidyA are the modifications of the antaHkaraNa and there is no
dealings  such  as vidyA and avidyA in brahman.  Hence saying goes manayEva
maNushyANAM  kAraNaM  bandha  mOkshayOH....upAdhi  sambhandhavillada jIva -
jIvavalla  adhu  brahmavE  Sri  SSS  in one of his Kannada books--jIva that
which  does  not  have  association  with limited adjucts is not jIva it is
*brahman*  only...there  is  no  second  chaitanya  that  can  be called as

In  conclusion,  from  the  ultimate  view point, the outer world, the jIva
bhAva and his mind, and all the notions such as time, space, causation etc.
appear  *simultaneously* in a particular state & these notions are strictly
restricted   to   that   particular  state...these  notions  we  invariably
experience  in  dream  state  also.   The  same is the case with the waking
state.   This  is  to  be realized from the witnessing (sAkshi chEtaH) view
point  which is the uniform substratum of all our avasthA-s (states).  From
this  standpoint  there is no cause or effect.  Important point to be noted
here is the ideas like subjective avidyA, objective avidyA, prakruti is the
cause  and  the  world  is  the  effect  etc  etc.  are not imaginations of
brahman..but these are the grand imaginations of the individual sould which
is  the me-notion.  Therefore any complaints/objections regarding avidyA is
from  the  standpoint  of  the  jIva bhAva only and not from the witnessing
principle.   Without realizing this fundamental problem, if we start asking
questions  on avidyA with mere support of logic against anubhava it is like
imagining desert without soil.

H.H.  Sri Satchidaanandendra Saraswati says beautifully in one of his books
that  we  pass through the three states of consciousness, that we appear to
age,  die  and  are  born again and that there is creation, sustenation and
dissolution  of  the  world   etc. etc. are all an inborn delusion of human
mind  which  can  be  overcome  only  by the dawn of vEdAntic enlightenment
(shruti vAkya janita jnAna).

sadguru charaNAravindArpaNamastu

Hari Hari Hari Bol!!!

PS :

(a)  Please  ignore  any  grammatical mistakes, spelling mistakes, language
constraints in the above mail.

(b) I'd like to mention that those who have more passion towards mere logic
&  aversion  towards lOkAnubhava & shankara bhAshya vAkya should not bother
to answer/question my understanding...I'shall ignore those mails which have
completely ignored shruti/bhAshya vAkya & anubhava & hopeless dependence on
dry     logic...Mere     dry     logic     without     the    support    of
AchAryOpadEsha/lOkAnubhava is not my cup of tea anyway!!!:-))

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