The reification of ignorance or the One-percent Brigade
There has recently been a brief spate of posts relevant to this topic on the Advaitin List. I rarely post there these days for fear of getting involved in long arguments with members committed to opposing views. But, after someone claimed that 99% of Advaitins accepted that ‘ignorance’ was a really existent entity, I posted to assert my membership of the ‘1% Brigade’, explaining that “I mainly wanted to reassure those readers who were dismayed to think that they were in the 1% and apparently did not understand Advaita!”
What I said was:
“(In volume 2 of ‘Confusions’), one of the aspects that I specifically address is the notion of avidyā as a really existent entity and I am afraid that I have to conclude, using reason and common sense, as well as the quotations, that what is meant by ‘ignorance’ is simply ‘lack of knowledge’. Essentially, it is a language problem. So, yes, there is certainly ignorance in the deep-sleep state, simply because the mind is resolved and incapable of having knowledge about anything. But there is no mūlāvidyā, I’m afraid. And I hope that many will be convinced if they read all of the arguments.”
I later used the metaphor of darkness, stating that “darkness is not an entity – it is simply absence of photons in the visible electromagnetic spectrum”. But Chandramouli rightly pointed out that Ṥaṅkara uses the metaphor of darkness as a real entity, so this would imply that ignorance, too, is real.
Accordingly, I later thought to use a different metaphor and I embodied it into a short story to provide interest:
A: It was probably a suicide pact. Either that or they were both incredibly stupid. But it did not entirely add up. The bodies of both had obviously suffered, but the organs of X – the one who died ¬– were seriously damaged, while those of the other, Y, were still functioning more or less normally.
B: So what was it that actually killed X?
A: Emptiness. There was literally nothing in the stomach, and had not been for some considerable time. No one can survive for long with that, especially in those conditions. Emptiness causes the body to degenerate and eventually die. They just set off to walk across the desert with only a supply of water.
B: But wasn’t Y’s stomach also empty? If so, why didn’t the emptiness kill him, too?
A: No idea – very mysterious. The emptiness certainly made him weak but he is recovering quite successfully in hospital.
B: I suppose you could look at all this as a metaphor for ignorance and saṃsāra. Emptiness causes death of the body in the same way that ignorance causes saṃsāra.
Yes – that’s very perceptive. It hadn’t occurred to me but you are quite right!
Incidentally, there was one other strange fact, although it seems unrelated. Y had apparently told X that he (Y) was diabetic and had to have daily injections of insulin. But, when we analyzed the contents of the syringe, it wasn’t actually insulin at all. It turned out to be a glucose and protein solution with added vitamins and minerals. Can’t imagine what the purpose of that might have been…
My intention here was to make the readers work out the symbolism for themselves (so as to emphasize the point) but maybe it was a little too obscure. At any rate, there was only one response – from someone who did not understand it! Accordingly, I tried a different approach:
Valid teaching does not contradict reason or experience. The statements that are often made about ignorance frequently contradict both.
There will be innumerable topics about which you are ignorant. Let’s take the Mandarin Chinese language and Particle Physics as likely examples. Why are you ignorant? Because you never made the effort to learn about them from qualified sources. Yes, we say that we are ‘ignorant’ about them but what this really means is simply that we do not have knowledge of them.
If we go to night school, read books and spend time living in China; if we have the dedication, mental discipline and still-functioning memory, we may conceivably come to be able to read, speak and maybe even write a little of the language. We can then say that we have acquired some knowledge of Chinese. We might even say that we have eliminated some Chinese ignorance, although this would be a somewhat contrived way of putting it.
But will we then also have acquired knowledge of Particle Physics, or destroyed some of its ignorance? Of course not!
Knowledge and ignorance are topic-related. We have Advaita-related ignorance (call it ‘Self-ignorance’ if you like) because we haven’t followed a suitable course of learning. This ignorance is ‘removed’ by sādhana catuṣṭaya sampatti followed by śravaṇa-manana with (ideally) a traditional teacher.
There is nothing obscure or complicated about this and no need at all to reify ignorance. If you do not know something, you study it and acquire knowledge. In the case of Advaita, it is the acquiring of Self-knowledge that gives mokṣa, not the ‘destruction of ignorance’. (And actually, of course, we are already free, we just don’t know it – hence the need to study all of this until that truth dawns!)
So now, to return to the ‘murder story’. Character A believed that it was ‘emptiness’ that killed X. But Y’s stomach was empty, too. A could not explain this. It was revealed at the end that Y had been injecting himself with a solution of minerals, sugars, protein etc. I.e. he had actually been effectively taking in food intravenously. And this, of course, was the explanation as to why Y had not died. The body needs food in order to live. X had not been getting any so died. Y had executed a very clever and premeditated murder.
The parallel is simply that A was reifying ’emptiness’ in the same way that many Advaitins reify ‘ignorance’. Ignorance is simply a word we use to speak about lack of knowledge, just as ‘emptiness’ is a word to talk about lack of food. It is lack of knowledge that causes saṃsāra, not ‘ignorance’.
Volume 2 of ‘Confusions in Advaita Vedanta’ has now gone to the publisher for copy-editing prior to publication. There are around 70,000 words on the topic of ‘Ignorance’, covering all of the areas of confusion that I encountered in my two years of reading and research. (The rest of this volume covers what happens on enlightenment and, in particular, the fact that the world does not disappear!) My current best guess is that the book will be published mid-2024. The good news is that it will probably be available from Amazon quite quickly after that, unlike Volume 1, which is still only available from the publisher in India. I will obviously post again when more definite information is available. I will also post some extracts and the complete ‘Contents’ list in due course.