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What is avidya?

The 8th century teacher of Advaita Vedanta, Shankaracharya, noted at the beginning of his commentary on the Brahma Sutras that avidya is synonymous with “superimposition.” For example, an individual might believe they are the body, which, Vedanta would argue, is only a superimposition onto one’s real identity—the Self. Thus, the ultimate definition of avidya, or personal ignorance, is the inability to discriminate between the Self and non-Self. However, Shankara uses various expressions to signify avidya throughout his work that, when translated from Sanskrit, include: superimposition, erroneous inversion, error, wrong knowledge, wrong cognition, misapprehension, darkness, confusion and delusion.

Avidya is also sometimes used interchangeably with maya as macrocosmic ignorance—that which "shapes" consciousness to give the appearance of the world. During the manifestation of the world, rajoguna (as pure energy) and tamoguna (as pure matter) mix with sattva guna (intelligence) to create a seemingly multifaceted, pluralistic world of objects. Vedanta teacher, James Swartz writes in his book Inquiry into Existence that when these two mix with sattva:

It shatters the pure mirror of awareness and scatters it into innumerable shards, which reflect awareness in the form of infinitely diverse living beings. As a result of Rajas limitless awareness appears as a limited entity. It is called Pragna Jiva, the eternal individual, the “son” of God. It identifies with the reflecting medium, its Subtle Body, which is made of Sattva and accounts for the belief that it is a conscious being in its own right, whereas the consciousness it enjoys actually belongs to original consciousness (puran bimba chaitanya).

Thus, in general, avidya refers to personal ignorance (microcosmic ignorance) and how the individual superimposes their own conditioning onto reality, and as a result, misinterprets it.


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