The Ignorance that Isn’t – 6/8

Part – 5/8 

What we have are clearly two entities. They are the kShetra, the field comprising all that which is the knowable, and the kShetrjna, who is the Knower. If ignorance and misery were to be the inherent properties of the Self, it amounts to say that Self perceives Itself because the Self is able to know them (the misery and nescience). That obviously is an absurd position, “since one and the same thing cannot be both the agent and the object of an action.” Whatever is perceived, as for example form and color, cannot be a property of the perceiver.

Likewise, it is the Self that perceives joys and sorrows. They cannot perceive themselves. They are objects to the Self; they are not the Self.  For the Self to perceive these, they must be different from the Self. Only then can they be experienced. If the object is totally identified with the Self (me), it cannot be perceived anymore. It itself becomes the Self.

Hence it is incorrect to say that “nescience and misery and the like are the attributes and specific properties of kShhetrajna.”

The characteristic features of the Knower (the Self) can be easily  distinguished from those of the field (the known or the not-Self). The differences are shown in the Table below:

Atma (Self) anAtmA (not-Self)










Has multiple forms


Exists on its own


Cannot exist on its own


Indivisible, without parts


Contains parts within it


Perceives, but cannot be the perceived Perceived, but cannot perceive

In short, Knowingness (jnAna) Itself is the intrinsic nature of the Supreme Self. Therefore, ignorance cannot exist in It. Like the light that cannot be touched by darkness, the in-dweller (Self) cannot be touched by ignorance.

We have from IshAvAsya:

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति ये अविद्यामुपासते   — mantra 9, IshAvAsya Upanishad.

[Meaning:  Those who worship avidyA (karma born of ignorance) go to pitch darkness.]

It is the individual (jIva), with his predilection to worship through upAsana, bhakti, yoga, who is in darkness. His mind, life force, name and form are all darkness. None of those defects pertain to the Self.

Much like darkness cannot exist in the presence of (or in contact with) light, an object cannot exist in contact with the subject. The moment darkness enters light or light falls on darkness, darkness dissolves into the light, and light alone remains. Similarly, the moment anAtma (not-Self) is perceived by the Self, anAtma melts into Atma. Then the not-Self will become the Self. As Bhagavad-Gita says:

सर्वं कर्माखिलं पार्थ ज्ञाने परिसमाप्यते    —  4.33, Bhagavad-Gita.

[Meaning: All action, without exception, O’ son of Pritha, is comprehended in wisdom. (Translation: A.M. Sastri, 1923).]

Everything, bhakti, yoga, and karma will dissolve in Consciousness.

12.  Whose is avidyA (Ignorance)?

Shankara has been able, thus, to establish very forcefully and convincingly that the Self cannot be the seat of ignorance. But then no not-Self could have arisen in the absence of ignorance preceding it. This leads us to the dilemma who actually has ignorance, because all of us, the seekers, do feel that we are covered by a veil of ignorance which obstructs us from knowing brahman.

Shankara at this point shifts gear from a narrative type of commenting to a dialog style for emphasis. He dramatizes his commentary at 13.2, Bhagavad-Gita in the form of a dialog between a discussant and the Vedantin to examine who has ignorance.

[We reproduce below the actual words of Shankara along with an explanatory meaning of the words.]

The puzzled Discussant:  सा अविद्या कस्य इति ।

[(You say that the entire appearance of the world is ignorance. But you also argue that the only One that exists, the Self, cannot have ignorance. If that is the position, who has ignorance?) Whose ignorance is it?]

Vedantin: यस्य दृश्यते तस्य एव । 

[Whosoever sees ignorance, it is his only.]

Discussant:  कस्य दृश्यते इति ।

[Who is that to whom avidyA appears? What is his ID?]

Vedantin: अत्र उच्यते — ‘अविद्या कस्य दृश्यते ? ’ इति प्रश्नः निरर्थकः ।

[Is your question about whom does avidyA appear to? Such a question is meaningless. It is a waste of time to raise such a doubt.]

Discussant: कथम् ?

[How come? Why is it a meaningless question?]

Vedantin: दृश्यते चेत् अविद्या, तद्वन्तमपि पश्यसि ।

[If avidyA has been noticed by someone, s/he would also have noticed the owner of avidyA right there. Wherever one finds avidyA, its owner will also be present along with it.]

Vedantin (continuing): न च तद्वति उपलभ्यमाने ‘सा कस्य ? ’ इति प्रश्नो युक्तः।

[When the owner of the ignorance is already visible along with the avidyA, it is unwise to ask to whom does ignorance belong.]

न हि गोमति उपलभ्यमाने ‘गावः कस्य ? ’ इति प्रश्नः अर्थवान् भवति ।

[When the cowherd is seen right there along with the cows, would anyone ask who owns the cows (in whose charge are the cows)?]

Discussant: ननु विषमो दृष्टान्तः ।

[Oh, no please, it’s not a foolish question. The illustration of cowherd and the cows is inappropriate in the present case.]

Discussant (continuing): गवां तद्वतश्च प्रत्यक्षत्वात् तत्सम्बन्धोऽपि प्रत्यक्ष इति प्रश्नो निरर्थकः ।

[The illustration given is inapplicable here because both the cowherd and the cows are clearly visible entities. Both are concretely seen by us, hence we will not question that.]

न तथा अविद्या तद्वांश्च प्रत्यक्षौ, यतः प्रश्नः निरर्थकः स्यात् ।

[But in the case here under discussion, neither can we see the entity that possesses ignorance nor can we see the ignorance. Therefore, the analogy cited is not helpful for us.]

Vedantin: अप्रत्यक्षेण अविद्यावता अविद्यासम्बन्धे ज्ञाते, किं तव स्यात् ?

[What exactly is your problem? Suppose I give you an answer to your question. What will you be able to make out of it?

You say that ignorance is not directly seen by you. The person having the ignorance is also not directly visible to you. Hence the relationship between the two —  ignorance and the entity who has it  —  is also not known to you. (Under these circumstances), what is it that you would like to achieve by knowing the answer to your problem?

In other words, what is your true purpose in wanting to know the answer? What will you do with whatever reply I give?]

Discussant: अविद्यायाः अनर्थहेतुत्वात् परिहर्तव्या स्यात् ।

[We know that ignorance is the root cause behind the appearance of the world and all the ensuing downstream problems thereon. We would like to get rid of the ignorance with your advice.]

Vedantin: यस्य अविद्या, सः तां परिहरिष्यति ।

[Why worry about where ignorance is located, or in what form it exists and so on? Whoever has the ignorance, s/he will take necessary action to get rid of it. Whoever is sick, only that person has to take the remedy. Why should you be concerned?]

Discussant:  ननु ममैव अविद्या ।

[Oh, no. The ignorance is mine only! (I would not have raised the question if the problem belonged to someone else. If I can know the locus of avidyA and in what form it occurs, I can take necessary steps to rid myself of it. This is the plea of every seeker.)]

Vedantin: जानासि तर्हि अविद्यां तद्वन्तं च आत्मानम् ।

[Ha, that means you are already aware of your ignorance. In other words, you are the one who possesses the avidyA. You feel it to be a burden for you. Why should you ask about its locus etc. when it is so directly known to you?]

Discussant: जानामि, न तु प्रत्यक्षेण ।

[Yes, I am aware that I am ignorant, but not very clearly. I cannot find where exactly it is located within me. I cannot see it directly. (I am unable to put my finger on it).]

Vedantin: अनुमानेन चेत् जानासि, कथं सम्बन्धग्रहणम् ?

[Is that the issue? The ignorance is not directly seen, but its presence is inferred by you. If you have just inferred it to be present, would it really affect you? How can an inference have any effect on you? If it is directly noticed by you, then only it could have an influence on you. But not if you merely infer that it exists. It just amounts to be an imagination.]

Vedantin (continuing): न हि तव ज्ञातुः ज्ञेयभूतया अविद्यया तत्काले सम्बन्धः ग्रहीतुं शक्यते, अविद्याया विषयत्वेनैव ज्ञातुः उपयुक्तत्वात् ।

[Please note that ignorance is always an ‘object’ to your ‘Knowingness.’

It is actually your Knowingness that senses and says “I have ignorance.” Without that Knowing in you, you would not have known that there is ignorance. That being the case, how could the ignorance be related to your Knowing it?

Strictly speaking, ignorance cannot come anywhere near you as long as Knowingness is with you.

There can never be any tangible contact between Knowingness and ignorance. There cannot be any relation between the two. It is the Knowingness that detects ignorance.

For example, if light falls on darkness, there is no possibility for both of them to co-exist. Likewise, the moment you notice ignorance, it will be flooded by the light of the Knowing. (And remember that the true you, who knows and detects the ignorance, is that Knowingness only – you are not different from that Knowingness).

However ancient the darkness that exists in a cave may be, the moment one turns on a flashlight, the darkness will immediately disappear. It cannot survive in illumination. Darkness cannot coexist with light.

Ignorance can never be a characteristic of “me” as I am the very Knowingness. Hence, if one asks how does a world appear, we have to understand that the appearance is illusory. It is not real).]

(To Continue … Part 7/8)

2 thoughts on “The Ignorance that Isn’t – 6/8

  1. Dear Ramesam

    Thanks for this expanded dialogue. It is superb isn’t it? In other words, the ignorance is the I-thought, that thinks it is bound and seeks liberation. So for ‘I’ to ask the locus of ignorance is non-sensical; similarly for the ‘I’ to have advaita-jnana is also just another form of ignorance.

    Nisargadatta almost parallels this dialogue of Sankara:

    NM: The one which is listening, which you do not know, is you, and the one which you know as you, you are not.
    Q: Who can get spiritual wisdom?
    NM: Except you, who could that be? You and you alone. Who could ask ‘who am I?” but you? If the questioner ‘I’ is not there, who is going to ask questions? This is the culmination of spiritual knowledge.

    And later:
    “Don’t talk about liberation, talk about yourself, what you are. When you understand that, both knowledge and ignorance disappear. You only require knowledge, so long as the ignorance is there.”

  2. Another way of looking at this whole issue is simply that ignorance is simply a term, ultimately, for our believing in the validity of thought, and thus that language is meaningful — which rests on the validity of the “I” as a separate, doing, experiencing entity and the difference between subject and object.

    When the I is looked into, of course, all that unravels.

    And when it does, what then can be said? The very tools by which one might speak are shown to be mere shadows, meaningless mumblings. One is necessarily reduced to silence.

    Ultimately maya shares exactly the same status as Brahman: about it simply nothing finally true can be said.

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