ESSAYS

What is ignorance and how is it ultimately defined?

There’s that old adage that says “ignorance is bliss.” What it implies is not knowing equals having no worries. As human beings we worry a lot, which creates mostly unnecessary anxiety and internal conflict. For example, animals don’t worry about tomorrow or what might happen next year or the year after. Nor do they worry about gas prices soaring, how much is in their 401K, or existential issues like nuclear proliferation or the effects of global warming. So at first glance, “ignorance is bliss” sounds pretty good. But before we begin to make it our new mantra, we should probably remind ourselves that even though ignorance might mean having fewer worries, it doesn’t mean we get to avoid pain. It’s inevitable that the bliss of ignorance will turn into pain when certain outcomes are not understood or aren’t prevented due to lack of knowledge.


When we take a closer look, ignorance is bliss only in the sense that the mind isn’t occupied and agitated with thoughts about the future and what might come to be. Animals don’t have the same worries as humans because they lack an intellect and act based on instincts. However, when stuff happens (and it always does) ignorance is not bliss—it’s confusion, fear and suffering. So, ignorance isn’t something anyone should want to practice.


In the Bhagavad Gita, we find this somewhat encrypted verse:

In that which is night for all beings, the one who is wise, who has mastery over oneself, is awake. That in which beings are awake, is night for the person who sees. (2.69)


In the first sentence, “night,” signifies ignorance, while “awake” signifies having knowledge and applying it. Night is often used as a metaphor for ignorance. At night, darkened objects are difficult to make out. Night time also makes us drowsy and lures us to sleep. However, in this case, “that which is night for all beings” is referring to those sleep walking in broad daylight. They conduct their lives as it dictates, unaware of the remarkable truths that surround them, including the truth about who/what they are.


In the second part of the verse, these metaphors seem to reverse and contradict themselves. We might ask, “How can it be night for the wise person who sees while the others are awake? We must conclude that what most people thinks is day, is really night. Beings may be “awake” to all kinds of beliefs, but they are only awake to a world of their own making. So, the two sentences in this verse are distinct but have similar meanings. In the first sentence it’s telling us that only the wise see the truth, while in the second it’s telling us that what appears to be the truth for most is really ignorance. Thus, in both sentences “night” (ignorance) is something to avoid.

In Vedanta, ignorance is known by several names such as “absence of knowledge” (ajñana), “non-apprehension” (agrahana), “not knowing” (anavabodha), “not understanding” (anavagama) and “not awakening” (apratibodha)⁠1 , but it’s most commonly expressed as avidyā (from the verb-root vid = “to know” + a = “not”). The great 8th century proponent of Advaita Vedanta, Śankaracharya, noted at the beginning of his commentary on the Brahma Sutras that avidyā is synonymous with “superimposition.” For example, an individual might believe they are the body, which Vedanta would argue that the body is only a veil covering one’s true identity—the Self. Thus, avidyā, or ignorance, is really the inability to discriminate between the Self and non-Self. Vedanta’s purpose then, is to remove all superimpositions through the use of logic and a process of negation that leaves only that which cannot be objectified—the Self.


According to Śri Sācchidanandendra Sarasvatī , Śankara uses various expressions to signify avidyā throughout his vast work, including: ”superimposition” (adhyāsa, adhyāropa), “erroneous inversion” (viparyaya), “error” (viparyāsa), “wrong knowledge” (mithyājñāna), “wrong cognition” (mithyāpratyaya), “misapprehension” (anyathāgrahana), “darkness” (tamas), “confusion” (bhrānti) and “delusion” (moha). ⁠2


Let’s take a look at some of the more common ones:

Superimposition (adhyasa, adhyāropa)

If we take a close look at the significance of the word “superimposition,” it suggests the placing of something onto another so that the original appears to be something it is not. This is traditionally described using the analogy of the rope and the snake. When a traveler walking through a town at dusk passes by an old well, he sees a snake coiled next to it ready to strike. To the man, there is no question about the authenticity of the snake. He sees the snake and takes immediate action to avoid it, so much so that he stumbles backwards falling on his bum. He points it out to a nearby villager and warns her emphatically about the snake next to the old well. The villager, seeing that the man is confused, confidently walks over to the well and holds up a coiled rope—the “snake.” For the traveler, what appeared to be a snake just moments ago, immediately vanishes upon learning the truth. Similarly, because of the body’s proximity to the Self, we erroneously believe it to be the Self. However, Vedanta shows us that the body is just one of many “sheaths” that apparently cover the truth about who/what we are.


Erroneous inversion (viparyaya)

Viparyaya is the reversal of an object’s orientation, such that it makes us believe it to be something other than it is. For example, we walk into a potter’s shop and see all kinds of wonderful creations including plates, bowls, cups, vases and pots. However, what we miss is the fact that all the pottery is just clay shaped into various name and form. The “plate,” “bowl,” “cup,” “vase,” and “pot” are just concepts. Another example is gold jewelry, which as we all know, is just gold. We say there’s a ”gold necklace,” but what we should really be saying is there is “necklace-y gold.” In this case, the gold is the truth about the necklace. “Necklace” is just a name and quality of the gold!

Similarly, when we examine objects, we find they are really just thoughts. If I experience a chair, what I experience are just sensations (data as form and color) registering in the mind as an object that matches with a particular memory I have called “chair.” Even the thoughts themselves are really just objects on the screen of consciousness. Thus, upon close analysis we find that all objects actually reside in consciousness and not “out there” (more reversal). What appears to be a chair then, is really just consciousness moving—like a play of light on a movie screen.

Wrong knowledge (mithyajñana)

Mithya is often used to describe that which is apparently real in contrast to that which is actually real or true (satya). Vedanta defines “real” as that which is never changing, always present and not dependent on something other. The conclusion is that only the Self can be real and that all objects are only apparently real. While it’s true that we experience objects, all objects lack substance, are impermanent and are made up of other parts. So, wrong knowledge is to believe that an object is permanent and substantial when in actuality, it is ephemeral and always changing into something else.


Concealment/darkness (āvarana, tamas)

Āvarana means concealment, veil, screen or obstruction. It is one of the twin “powers” of ignorance that keeps individuals from knowing the truth. Tamas means something similar and is often associated with the darkness that inhibits the individual’s ability to see things as they really are (see the gunas).


Projection (vikṣepa, rajas)

Vikṣepa is the second of ignorance’s two-fold powers. While āvarana conceals, vikṣepa projects. When watching a movie, we get the same two effects: the concealment of the movie screen, as well as the projection of movement on the screen. As a result, we are drawn into the movie—sometimes so much that it can elicit strong emotions.

As another example, while shopping for a used car, we might end up buying a new one knowing that it is well outside of our budget. Often, the case is that vikṣepa exaggerates the positives (it’s a new car!), while āvarana conceals the negatives (buying it will mean huge monthly payments and debt). Car salesmen, in general, are masters at yielding the powers of āvarana and vikṣepa. It’s only when we get home, sitting in our new car while parked in the driveway that we realize that we have been played! Rajas means something similar and is also associated with projection (see the gunas).


Delusion (moha)

Delusion, of course, is also avidyā. It’s the result of the twin powers of āvarana and vikṣepa, and is best understood as “being under the spell.” Total delusion is total blindness to what’s true. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is trying to convince Arjuna that he is deluded about his wanting to throw his weapon down and not defend the dharma. To get Arjuna to pick up his weapon and fight, Krishna must teach him the “secret knowledge” so that Arjuna can see the truth about what on the surface, appears to be a hopeless and debilitating situation.


Saccidānandendra also adds:

At some place, in so far as it is the cause of the wrong knowledge (mithyajñana), [avidyā] is also referred to as the “cause” (kārana), “seed” (bīja) and “sleep” (nidrā, supti), and when that is so, wrong knowledge is then spoken of as the “effect” (kārya), “result” (phala) or as “dream” (svapna). ⁠3


We could also include in this list, other expressions such as “name-and-form” (nāmārūpa), “unmanifested” (avyakta), “nature” (prakrti), “non-perception” (agrahana), and “power” (śakti). But how is ignorance related to these, including prakrti—creation itself? This is where things begin to get fuzzy because now we are describing avidyā as māyā. There’s a reason for this: because ignorance is born of or is the result of beginningless māyā, avidyā can be used interchangeably. It’s probably more accurate to say that avidyā is an attribute or outcome of māyā. Avidyā is also most often used to express māyā at the microcosmic or individual level, which is why avidyā is often defined as “personal ignorance.”


Microcosmic ignorance can be thought of as the individual’s creation (jīva sriṣti), while macrocosmic ignorance is God’s creation (Iśvara sriṣti). The individual’s creation is unique due to his or her personal ignorance superimposed on reality—that is, his or her conditioning (habits, tendencies, and like and dislikes). This is the reason for not everyone always seeing eye to eye. Some will always see a snake where there is only a rope, regardless of how many times they are shown it to be otherwise.

Macrocosmic ignorance, on the other hand, works the same for everyone. The sky appears blue to everyone. However, in actuality, it is only refracted sunlight bouncing off gases and particles in the atmosphere in a way that filters out the other colors. Is the sky or sunlight actually blue? No. In a similar way, māyā uses its twin powers of concealment and projection to make consciousness appear to be other than it is. For example, māyā is that power that makes us forget that a pot is really just clay. If the pot is dropped and shatters into a million pieces, it is no longer a “pot” but it is still clay. The clay was there before the pot and remains after. If you are a potter, you will be able to see that the pot resides in the clay, but that the clay doesn’t reside in the pot. Again, it’s only by the power of māyā that we perceive the clay to be a “pot.” Similarly, it’s only by the power of māyā that we perceive objects to be separate from consciousness.


Vedanta radically suggests that māyā—a force within consciousness—creates the world out of consciousness. It’s like a virtual reality machine making the impossible, possible. It’s the one appearing to be the many. If this seems improbable, think of the last time you knew you were in a dream while having it. Most of the time, we don’t know that we were in a dream until we have awoken from it—such is the power of māyā.

Thus, māyā is the force that deludes. It’s that which makes a “pot” out of clay and a “snake” from a coiled rope. Fortunately, māyā’s powers of concealment and projection are not absolute—they disappears upon close examination. As long as we play along, māyā seems real. But upon learning the truth about māyā (ignorance), it disappears. So while māyā is beginningless (from where did the snake come from?), it is not without end and can be removed with knowledge. This is important because ignorance is always the cause of suffering. What we don’t understand causes us to suffer. Remove the ignorance and you remove the suffering that came with it.

Where does ignorance come from? Māyā is an inscrutable force, meaning it’s a power within consciousness that is impossible to ever fully understand. Māyā just happens—like a dream just happens. As such, ignorance, too, is beginningless. Everyday we go about our lives in a world that even scientists tell us is ephemeral and lacking actual substance. And yet, like a good movie, we play in the grand illusion—mostly because we can’t help not to take it all to be real! So, while microcosmic ignorance ends with knowledge, macrocosmic ignorance never ends because it’s an eternal principle. It’s like learning that the sun doesn’t revolve around the Earth. Even once known, the sun still appears to rise in the East and set in the West—no matter who or where you are.


Which brings us back to our ultimate definition of ignorance being the inability to discriminate between the Self and non-Self. Vedanta, a means for eliminating ignorance and understanding our experience, argues that it’s only through special knowledge that one can know oneself. This knowledge is special because it cannot be learned through the usual means of gaining knowledge, such as perception or inference. It requires a special word mirror (scripture) and a proper guide who is able to reveal its meaning to us. Only then can we wake up from the dream and begin to resolve that which, apparently, inflicts us.


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1 Sācchidanandendra, Sarasvati. “Vedanta-prakriya-pratyabhijña.” Holenarsipur: Adhyatma Prakasa Karyalaya, 1964. p.32f.

2 ibid.

3 ibid.

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