The Ignorance that Isn’t – 5/8

Part – 4/8

8.  Self is never in Bondage (Contd.): 

Shankara is very categorical in his observation that “Very rare is the person who attains discriminating wisdom. The ignorant don’t follow the man of Wisdom, because of their attachments and evil passions which necessarily lead to action.” He regrets that such people resort to even black magic. He adds that “Therefore, samsAra is only based on avidyA and exists only for the ignorant man who sees the world as it appears to him. Neither avidyA nor its effect pertains to Kshetrajna, pure and simple.”

9.  A Man of Erudition (paNDita) vs. A Scholar:

Shankara says that, not only many of the common people, even some of the scholars (Experts in shAstra-s) fail to understand the essential message of the scripture. Proud of their knowledge in the Vedic rituals, they think that they are the doers (with a strong sense of a “me”) and believe they will attain great merit (as “mine”) in this life-time so that they can reap the fruits of their meritorious actions in the next world. They perceive their body, life-force, senses, and mind, but are unable to grasp their innermost Self (pratyagAtmA) which is the actual witness to all that they perceive. If they are able to recognize their inner Self, they will easily cognize the Supreme Self (paramAtmA) that is present everywhere and in everything. They will come to realize that their inner Self is not different from the Supreme Self.  As the Gita says,

विद्याविनयसम्पन्ने ब्राह्मणे गवि हस्तिनि |
शुनि चैव श्वपाके पण्डिता: समदर्शिन: ||    —  5.18, Bhagavad-Gita.

[Meaning:  The truly learned, with the eyes of divine knowledge, see with equal vision a brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater.]

Shankara explains at 2.11, Bhagavad-Gita that the word paNDita is derived from the root word “paNDa,” which means the Knowledge of the Self. A real paNDita, a man of erudition, is one who has developed a divine vision that sees only the Universal in everything. Such an individual would not care for the ephemeral results obtained through activities like yoga, rituals, worship etc. He will have no interest in such activities because a sense of “I am separate,” “I am the doer” lies behind them. A paNDita will not hoard things. He sees a seamless Oneness and all things as a manifestation (vibhUti) of his own Self.

In contrast to the paNDita, the scholar sees multiplicity in the One. Instead of grasping the Supreme Self as the Consciousness that permeates the entire universe at the micro- and the macro- levels, he holds everything as a ‘particular’ (viShesha) entity.  Like a person who chases after castles in the air in vain, the ignorant one runs after particulars trying to find the Supreme Self. Only the one who realizes that there is no space in the entire universe where the Supreme Self doesn’t exist, stops running after particulars. He becomes still. That stillness is sahaja samAdhi. His entire being — body, mind and senses included — will be totally attuned to and in alignment with the Supreme Self.  When his body/mind are still, he sees them as the Self, and when they move to perform bodily functions, he sees those movements as a manifestation of the Self.  He feels that his Self is flowing from stillness to movement and from movement back to stillness.

Some people grieve that they are stuck in samsAra. They think they should perform spiritual practices, such as chanting (japa) and meditation (dhyAna) in order to appease the paramAtmA, the Supreme Self, who, they hope, pleased by their practices, will bestow upon them liberation. Such people not only deceive themselves, but they also deceive others. They put the Supreme Lord (Ishwara) on a pedestal at a distance from themselves. They conceive the Lord to have a specific form and to be present in a particular place. They do not see Him as the Supreme Self that permeates everything. Being ignorant themselves, they promote ignorance in others.  Such people are heretics and must be ignored, says Shankara.

आत्महा स्वयं मूढः अन्यांश्च व्यामोहयति शास्त्रार्थसम्प्रदायरहितत्वात् , श्रुतहानिम् अश्रुतकल्पनां कुर्वन् तस्मात् असम्प्रदायवित् सर्वशास्त्रविदपि मूर्खवदेव उपेक्षणीयः —  Shankara writes at 13.2, Bhagavad-Gita.

[Meaning: He is the slayer of the Self. Ignorant in himself, he confounds others, devoid as he is of the traditional key (sampradAya) to the teaching of the shAstra-s. Ignoring what is directly taught, he suggests what is not taught. Therefore, not being acquainted with the traditional interpretation, he is to be neglected as an ignorant man, though learned in all shAstra-s. (Translation: A. Mahadeva Sastri, 1923)]

10.  Knowledge (vidyA) vs. Ignorance (avidyA):

vidyA and avidyA are like light and darkness. What appears as a snake in the dark is not a snake at all. It is just an illusion. Similarly, jIva is only an appearance, an illusion created by ignorance. Just like a house built in a dream that disappears upon waking up, the notion of a separate jIva disappears when the Knowledge of the Self arises. Like the waves and foam that merge into the sea and lose their separate existence, the separate self (jIva) and the separate world (jagat) must be melted into pure Existence and Consciousness by the practitioner (sAdhaka).

Karmas will produce corresponding results, but will not lead to Self-Knowledge. Like the water in the mirage that cannot wet the sun rays, actions performed in ignorance do not touch the Supreme Self in anyway. Shankara assures that since it is ignorance that propels the jIva to perform shAstra-vihita karma-s, it is ignorance (avidyA) that is the problem, and not the jIva. Only a scientific approach (inquiry) can lead one to Self-Knowledge and not ritualistic karma. Repeated shravaNa, manana, and nididhyAsana will culminate in the realization that “I am brahman.”

11.  Ignorance is not in the jIva:

Shankara normally follows the technique of first describing things as commonly understood by people. He reveals the actual truth later on, establishing that the popularly held notions are false. The line of argument pursued thus far by him has been that the locus of ignorance is with the individual jIva. But now, he explains that to be not the case. He declares:

;  ज्ञेयस्य  क्षेत्रधर्मत्वात् ,  ज्ञातुः क्षेत्रज्ञस्य तत्कृतदोषानुपपत्तेः| यावत् किञ्चित् क्षेत्रज्ञस्य दोषजातम्  अविद्यमानम् आसञ्जयसि,  तस्य ज्ञेयत्वोपपत्तेः  क्षेत्रधर्मत्वमेव, न क्षेत्रज्ञधर्मत्वम् । न च तेन क्षेत्रज्ञः दुष्यति, ज्ञेयेन ज्ञातुः संसर्गानुपपत्तेः । यदि हि संसर्गः स्यात् , ज्ञेयत्वमेव नोपपद्येत । यदि आत्मनः धर्मः अविद्यावत्त्वं दुःखित्वादि च कथं भोः प्रत्यक्षम् उपलभ्यते, कथं वा क्षेत्रज्ञधर्मः ॥ —  Shankara bhAShya at 13.2, Bhagavad-Gita. 

[Meaning: No! For, what is perceived is an attribute of kShetra (matter); and kShetrajna, the Cognizer, cannot be vitiated by the blemish due to it. To explain: whatever, blemish — not inhering in kShetrajna — you ascribe to Him, it comes under the cognized, and therefore forms a property of kShetra, and not a property of kShetrajna. Nor is kShetrajna affected by it, since such intimate association of the Cognizer and the cognized is impossible. If there should be such an association, then that blemish could not be cognized. That is to say, if misery and nescience were properties of the Self, how could they be objects of immediate perception? (Translation: A. Mahadeva Sastri, 1923)]

Therefore, Shankara holds that ignorance is in the object (anAtma) that is perceived and not in the subject (Atma) that perceives the object.

(To Continue …. Part – 6/8)

5 thoughts on “The Ignorance that Isn’t – 5/8

  1. A couple of queries, Ramesam.

    You use the Sanskrit term ‘puNDita’. Shouldn’t this be ‘paNDita’? (Latter is in Monier-Williams; former is not.) ‘paNDA’ is then given as ‘wisdom, knowledge, learning’.

    The trickier question relates to your last section where you (Shankara) say that ignorance is in the object. This does not seem to make sense, Surely ignorance can only pertain to something that is conscious? (This then leads on to conclude that, since only Brahman is conscious, Brahman must be the locus of ignorance.) Furthermore, the purpose of the scriptures is to remove the ignorance of the jIva (who is really Brahman). If the ignorance is in an object, how could shruti go about removing it?

    Best wishes,

    • Many thanks, Dennis.
      You are absolutely right with regard to “paNDa/paNDita.”

      My apologies.

      It is sheer oversight on my part. It has to be “paNDita” and not “puNDita.”
      The habit of writing the word in English as Pundit has overtaken my attention to the diacritic notation.
      I made the corrections to the text.

      I shall separately respond to the other question.

  2. Dear Dennis,

    As you are aware, the topic OF “Ignorance” is much discussed and debated by Advaita philosophers.

    The questions you raise are very important and have deep ramifications. You ask:

    “Surely ignorance can only pertain to something that is conscious, Brahman must be the locus? If the ignorance is in an object, how could shruti go about removing it?”

    I don’t know if I can attempt to answer in these columns the questions you raise.

    You brought up the interesting point of * ‘Ignorance’ has to be brahman as well, since sarvam khalvidam brahma * at the previous instalment (Part – 4/8) of this Series on “The Ignorance that Isn’t.”

    I did not take your observation to have been possibly made in a lighter vein by you. I responded saying that “your assumption may work for or in specific teaching methods.”

    What I had in mind at that time was what Sage Vasishta himself said. Quoting from the Part – 7 of Yogavasishta available at this site itself:

    From the perspective of an “unrealized” man (p: 139):

    “What is, is Brahman alone. Hence ignorance is also a form of Brahman. It has no independent form of its own. It will appear as ignorance as long as this fact is not known. It does not go away even by knowing it to be so. It just remains as Brahman. If you run after ignorance without grasping this secret, it is like running after a mirage.”

    From the perspective of a Self-realized individual (at p: 152):

    “What every creature experiences in the world is only The Supreme Brahman. The ignorance they experience is also Brahman. There is nothing whatsoever anywhere anytime beyond Supreme Brahman. That is the last word!”


    The shruti’s main concern is, as you also say, the seeker’s attainment of “liberation” by removal of his/her ignorance. So also, I believe it is Shankara’s aim, as, for example, he comments at 1.4.7, brihadAraNyaka:

    फलं च मोक्षोऽविद्यानिवृत्तिर्वा ॥
    [The result is liberation on the cessation of ignorance.]

    But I suspect he never had any intention of exploring, expounding or deliberating on, from a scholarly pedantic viewpoint, the whats, whys and wherefores of “ignorance.” He just used ‘ignorance’ as a device, a placeholder, to explain an issue as per the context and moved on. Sage Vasishta too did adopt the same policy in Yogavasishta.

    A human being with an egotistic attitude and arrogance of her/his own intelligence, is unable to accept his incapability to notice the Truth that is starting him right in his face. He plays the “victim” role inventing all sorts of excuses – like ignorance, vAsanA-s, prArabdha, past-lives, destiny to justify his own ineptitude to “knowing and being” the Reality which IS.

    Dr. J. J. Thatamanil observes in his book, “The immanent Divine” (2006), that “For the Non-dualist who maintains that only the Self is ultimately real, the question “whose is the avidyA” is not easily answered. On the one hand the eternal Self is beyond ignorance and cannot be deluded. On the other hand there is really there is no other knower who can be deluded, particularly as the very idea of the individual selfhood is a product of ignorance. So then, ‘whose is avidyA?’”

    The author continues, “As Ingals has demonstrated, Shankara steadfastly refused to answer this question. Shankara insists on treating ignorance as a practical and pedagogical matter.”

    Dr. Thatamanil opines that Shankara’s approach is to suggest that there is no way “to account rationally for the irrational, let alone give ignorance proper accommodation within a Non-dualist ontology. … … Shankara is primarily concerned to eliminate [such] suffering rather than theorize its sources.”

    By and large, the best review of the position of ignorance in Advaita, I feel, comes from Ivan Kocmarek’s short book (1985) “Language and Release – Sarvajnatman’s Pancaprakriya.” He writes that “Shankara himself provides scant detail on the problem, but there seem to be at least four places where he touches upon the subject.”

    He contends that the “problem [of ignorance] gains more and more philosophical attention in the Advaita Vedanta school as we move ahead from the time of Shankara.” He discusses the issue quoting the Shankara bhAShya from BG as well as BS and the brihat Upanishad.

    I have with me a short and beautiful write up on the bhAvarUpa and abhAvarUpa of ajnAna from a Talk by Swami Kaivalyananda; but unfortunately, I forgot from where I obtained it.

    It may also be useful to mention that at another point Shankara argues that all the three, jIva-jagat-Ishawara, being the “known” cannot be real and all the three being unreal, there is no scope for ignorance to exist at all!

    Anyway, I shall post in the next instalment of the present Series, how Shankara establishes that the ignorance cannot possibly exist in the individual.


  3. Dear Ramesam & Dennis

    Thanks for the nteresting Q&A on ignorance.

    As you are aware, Suresvara tackled this in NS3.1: “for the very nature of the not-self is ignorance, and ignorance cannot experience ignorance on its own” and concludes that “the Self alone which is both the locus of and the object concealed by ignorance”.

    I always found Sankara’s response in BG13.2 striking:
    Objection: In whom is it perceived?
    Reply: Here the answer is: It is pointless to ask, ‘In whom is ignorance experienced?’ Objection: How?
    Reply: If ignorance be perceived (by you), then you perceive its possessor as well. Moreover, when that possessor of ignorance is perceived it is not reasonable to ask, ‘In whom is it perceived?’

    Linking this to Ramanamaharishi: the individual = I-thought = ignorance. By looking for the I-thought (through self enquiry) it disappears, as does the ignorance.

    Hope I have not missed the point!


  4. Thank you, Venkat, for your observations.

    I don’t have Naishkramya siddhi text with me.
    However, I understand that at 2.53 prose, Sureshwara states: “But in reality the atman neither has had, nor has, nor will have any relation with its products, because the atman possesses a nature which is undefiled consciousness.”

    All said and done, as I already hinted in my earlier comment, people’s search for a locus for “ignorance” shows to me their arrogance. It is like trying to find a, culprit instead of admitting my failure, for my foolishness (The Bus missed, as though the mistake was that of the bus, rather than saying, I was 3 minutes late). We invent non-existing causes!
    Anyway, I am waiting for Dennis to see what he says in his forthcoming chapter on the ontology of ‘ignorance.’

    Regarding Shankara’s commentary that you mention, I hope to cover that part in the next instalment of the present Series.


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