terms vidya and avidya represent opposites.
Vidya refers to knowledge, learning, and to the different
sciences - ancient and modern. So avidya would mean the opposite
- ignorance, absence of learning, and illiteracy. Mahendranath
Gupta (M), the recorder of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna,
was a graduate of the Calcutta University and served as headmaster
in several Calcutta schools. On his second visit to Dakshineswar,
Sri Ramakrishna asked him, 'Tell me, now, what kind of person
is your wife? Has she spiritual attributes [vidya shakti],
or is she under the power of avidya?' M replied. 'She is all
right. But I am afraid she is ignorant.' (1) That was a reply
typical of his times. He took vidya, as we still do, to mean
formal education. Later on M came to understand from Sri Ramakrishna
that 'to know God is vidya and not to know Him, avidya'. To
know about the world and worldly things falls within the domain
of avidya. This same interpretation is provided by the Upanishads
and Apara Vidya
the Mundaka Upanishad, a student reverentially questions
a rishi about Truth: 'Revered Sir, what is that by knowing
which everything (in this universe) becomes known?' (2) The
rishi begins his reply by classifying knowledge or vidya into
two categories: para (higher) and apara (lower).
Apara vidya refers to the four Vedas and the six accessories
of Vedic knowledge (the vedaigas): phonetics, the ritual
code, grammar, etymology, prosody, and astrology. The compass
is clearly very wide: the process of creation, the nature
of gods and goddesses and their relation to creation, the
nature of the soul and of God, the rituals that procure worldly
and heavenly enjoyments, and the way of release from the series
of birth and death; in short, religious or scriptural knowledge
and the ways of living prescribed by different religions are
all subsumed under apara vidya. Para vidya, the rishi informs
his student, is that 'by which the immutable Brahman (akshara)
is attained'. This Brahman is imperceptible, eternal, omnipresent,
imperishable, and the source of all beings. Scriptural study
is apara vidya, secondary knowledge. To know Brahman (or God)
directly and in a non-mediate fashion is the primary aim of
life, and is therefore termed para vidya.
the scriptures tell us about life, then what about the other
sciences - physical science and technology, and the social
and political sciences? They do play a very valuable role
in our lives, and are classed as apara vidya. But they are
secular sciences. What do we get through secular knowledge?
Wealth, power, luxury, and pleasure, but not the bliss that
results from spiritual knowledge. The apara vidya that comprises
scriptural knowledge helps us know that this world is not
the only world, that there are other divine worlds accessible
to human beings. The keeping of religious injunctions and
performance of scriptural activities are prescribed as means
for attaining enjoyment in these higher divine worlds. But
these gains are transient and ephemeral. However, if the obligatory
duties prescribed by one's faith are performed with the aim
of cultivating love of God and love of people of all faiths,
the performer gets his or her mind and heart purified, and
can attain the realization of that immutable Brahman which
secures eternal bliss.
Upanishads remind people with dogmatic and fanatic tendencies
that scriptural injunctions also lie in the domain of 'lower
knowledge'. The Mundaka Upanishadsays that people devoted
to mere scriptural ritualism are 'deluded fools': 'dwelling
in darkness, but wise in their own conceit and puffed up with
vain scholarship, [they] wander about, being afflicted by
many ills, like blind men led by the blind'. They think of
their way as the best and delude themselves into believing
that they have attained fulfilment, and so continue to suffer
the ills of life (1.2.8-10).
Knowledge, and Wisdom
Isha Upanishad makes the enigmatic statement: 'Into a
blind darkness they enter who are devoted to avidya (rituals);
but into a greater darkness they enter who engage in knowledge
alone.' (3) Here avidya refers to scriptural rituals. But
the term vidya is open to several interpretations.
It could mean mere theoretical knowledge of the scriptures
or meditation on various deities, which too has limited results.
Even the highest forms of meditation detract from the knowledge
that is para vidya, direct and immediate. A subsequent verse
(11) points out that harmonizing rituals with meditation leads
to the attainment of greater good-the relative immortality
consequent upon identification with a deity.
the nisthe best way to wisdom? The second mantra of the same
Upanishad announces: 'If a person wishes to live a hundred
years on this earth, he should live performing action. For
a man such as you (who wants to live thus), there is no other
way than this, whereby work may not cling to you.' As an illustration
of this principle of work one may cite the diverse methods
used by Sri Ramakrishna to guide his disciples with varying
constitutions. He asked his disciple Girish to do whatever
he was doing but to surrender everything to the divine Will.
He instructed Narendranath on the non-dual Reality, knowing
him to be a fit subject for such instruction. In reality,
it is not work that binds but the mental attachment to work
and its fruits, the notion of doership and of enjoyment. Hence
selfless action, done in a spirit of service, is prescribed
by scriptures as sure means to the highest good.
is the best way to work and yet be free in this very life?
This is the subject of the first mantra of the Isha Upanishad:
"All this - whatsoever moves on earth - should be covered
by the Lord. Protect (the Self) through detachment (which
arises from this covering). Do not covet anyone's wealth."
The Shruti expressly states: 'all this'. Our usual notions
about 'I' and 'the world' (that both are real) are incorrect,
because these notions are changing continuously. Everything
in nature, including ourselves, is subject to death and destruction.
Even this earth, the stars, and galaxies are constantly undergoing
destruction and rebirth. This is an undeniable fact. So this
changing universe, and the 'I' therein, is to be covered with
the idea of divine permanence (that is, Brahman). With this
awareness that everything - I and the observed universe -
is nothing but Brahman, detached action becomes easier and
more natural. Enjoyment, which presupposes duality, is naturally
renounced if we become established in this idea. That is the
assertion of the rishis who have realized absolute Truth.
Not only do we then become unattached, but we actually love
this world as a manifestation of God. We then do our duties
to protect the world and do not covet anybody's wealth, for
this wealth too is God's.
and the Self
Ramakrishna says, 'The world consists of the illusory duality
of knowledge and ignorance. It contains knowledge and devotion,
and also attachment to "woman and gold"; righteousness
and unrighteousness; good and evil. But Brahman is unattached
to these. Good and evil apply to the jiva, the individual
soul, as do righteousness and unrighteousness; but Brahman
is not at all affected by them.' (4) The categorization of
'woman and gold' as avidya raises the inevitable question
(from a Brahmo devotee): 'Who is really bad, man or woman?'
Sri Ramakrishna answers, 'As there are women endowed with
vidyashakti, so also there are women with avidya shakti. A
woman endowed with spiritual attributes leads a man to God,
but a woman who is the embodiment of delusion makes him forget
God and drowns him in the ocean of worldliness. This universe
is created by the Mahamaya [the inscrutable Power of Illusion]
of God. Mahamaya contains both vidyamaya, the illusion of
knowledge, and avidyamaya, the illusion of ignorance.'
does one overcome avidyamaya? Through vidyamaya, for 'through
the help of vidyamaya one cultivates such virtues as the taste
for holy company, knowledge, devotion, love, and renunciation.'
Sri Ramakrishna further explicates the nature of avidyamaya:
'Avidyamaya consists of the five elements and the objects
of the five senses - form, flavour, smell, touch, and sound.
These make one forget God' (216).
vidya and avidya are aspects of maya, the cosmic power of
Brahman. This power does not however affect Brahman (or Ishvara)
itself. For maya is under the control of Ishvara. But it is
by maya that human spiritual knowledge is covered. Again,
it is the vidya component of maya that is responsible for
the generation of spiritual knowledge, while avidya, even
as it covers spiritual knowledge, is the source of all secular
knowledge and human discoveries.
avidya is nothing but human ignorance about God's nature,
by which one is perpetually deluded into doing the rounds
of samsara, the cycle of transmigration. This avidya again
is nothing but misidentification of real knowledge, which
is one's real nature. Therefore, religious scriptures ask
humans to purify their heart, mind, intellect, and ego. Real
human nature is pure and divine; each soul is potentially
divine. Maya personifies our illusory perception. This phenomenal
world is the longest dream come out of cosmic mind, of which
the individual is a part.
to the Advaita philosophy,' says Swami Vivekananda, 'there
is only one thing real in the universe, which it calls Brahman;
everything else is unreal, manifested and manufactured out
of Brahman by the power of Maya. To reach back to that Brahman
is our goal. We are, each one of us, that Brahman, that Reality,
plus this Maya. If we can get rid of this Maya or ignorance,
then we become what we really are.' (5) While lecturing on
'The Real Nature of Man' Swamiji dwelt upon the nature of
is the great mother of all misery, and the fundamental ignorance
is to think that the Infinite weeps and cries, that He is
finite. This is the basis of all ignorance that we, the
immortal, the ever pure, the perfect Spirit, think that
we are little minds, that we are little bodies; it is the
mother of all selfishness. As soon as I think that I am
a little body, I want to preserve it, to protect it, to
keep it nice, at the expense of other bodies; then you and
I become separate. As soon as this idea of separation comes,
it opens the door to all mischief and leads to all misery
(2.83). Swamiji also makes a distinction between objective
knowledge that is in the domain of avidya, and para vidya,
which is our very Self: 'Knowledge is a limitation, knowledge
is objectifying. He [the Atman, the Self] is the eternal
subject of everything, the eternal witness in this universe,
your own Self. Knowledge is, as it were, a lower step, a
degeneration. We are that eternal subject already; how can
we know it? It is the real nature of every man' (2.82).
the above discussion it is apparent that both avidya and vidya
are forces, the two currents of one powerful Shakti, multiplied
into many currents. This fundamental energy, or Shakti, is
called maya, and is termed inscrutable because it is impossible
to characterize it in definitive terms. The epistemological
categories of knowledge and ignorance, as well as affective
attachment, are its components. Maya is Brahman as power.
The whole universe in its causal, subtle, and gross aspects,
and as perceived by the senses, is maya.
Horizontal lines are parallel
does not always mean absence of vidya or knowledge. It also
has creative or projective components that make for the cosmic
abstractions of illusion, delusion, and confusion. In classical
Vedantic terminology avidya has two forces: avarayashakti
or the power of obstructing knowledge or consciousness, and
vikshepa shakti, the projection of individuality or ego Similarly,
vidya does not refer merely to epistemologically valid knowledge
- perception, inference, scriptural testimony, and the like
- but also to spiritual knowledge derived from intuition.
refers to a state of confusion, delusion, and illusion: no
rational being would like to remain in such a state. Every
human being would surely like to transcend this state. True
But how? One cannot transcend it by a mere wish. Attempting
to rid oneself of maya while still in it is kin to trying
to lift oneself by one's own bootstraps. Therefore, Sri Krishna
tells Arjuna in the Bhagvadgita: 'This divine maya of mine,
consisting of the gunas, is hard to overcome. Those who take
refuge in me alone cross over this maya.' (6) Here submission
to the divine implies not only devotion to the transcendent
Reality, but also surrender of the ego, the key component
of avidya. Sri Krishna says further: 'Ishvara resides in the
hearts of all beings, causing them to move like puppets through
maya. Take refuge in Him alone with all your soul, O Bharata;
by His grace will you gain supreme peace and the everlasting
noted earlier, vidya has two components: apara and para. The
former consists of words, sentences, and their meaning. Therefore,
it is essentially word-power. It urges the human mind to activity.
It functions not only on mental and intellectual levels, but
also on the spiritual level. On the latter plane it comprises
the spiritual power of persons who have experienced spiritual
truths: such persons are called rishis, seers. That is how
the scriptures of all religions retain the potential for transmission
of spirituality. When a person utters, 'Blessed are the pure
in heart, for they shall see God' or 'tat-tvam-asi; That thou
art' or ' aham brahmasmi; I am Brahman', these entences act
to remove the ignorance covering the spiritual insight of
the receptive heart. On the other hand, it is also through
the power of apara vidya that people start riots, crusades,
and wars in the name of religion. Therefore, true religion
lies in the transcendence of apara vidya. That is the goal
of human life.
An illusory bulge
M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 79-80.
Mundaka Upanishad, 1.1.3.
Isha Upanishad, 9.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.254.