Essentials of Vidya & Avidya: Hindu Knowledge and Ignorance

The meaning of Vidya

Vidya is a Sanskrit term that is translated as knowledge, and is closely related with another Sanskrit word “jnana”.

Most Hindu religious and philosophical traditions distinguish between two types of knowledge. The lower knowledge is informational, derived from study of texts or hearing of teachings; while it is useful, perhaps even indispensable, it must be brought to fruition with the higher knowledge, or wisdom.

The higher knowledge (often called Prajña) is typically derived from meditative insight, direct perception of reality, or the grace of God.

Though vidyā, like jñāna, denotes knowledge it is more specialized, like that of the sciences and arts.

It initially comprised four branches of knowledge:

  • Trayi-vidyā, meaning the knowledge of the triple Veda.
  • Anviksiki, or logic and metaphysics;
  • Danda-niti, the science of government;
  • Värttā, agriculture, commerce, medicine,etc.

To these Manu (the first human, creator of humanity) adds Atma-vidyā, the knowledge of the Supreme Essence (ātman), and hence the term Vidyā-guru, an instructor in sacred wisdom.

Magical skill is also called a vidyā, as is the knowledge of hallucinogenic medicines, including one which is said to give the power of ascending to the heavens.

Knowledge is also personified as a goddess and identified with Durgã, as a composer of prayers and magical formulas.

In Indian philosophy and metaphysics, vidyā denotes the complete knowledge that “lies before and after the incomplete empirical knowledge (a-vidyā) which is veiled by the embarrassing multitude of actual experiences.

Literally it is the knowing of “all things however apparently different and divergent.”  Avidyā [non-knowledge] like mayā, is the fiction of separation between the real, empirical world and higher world.

In a philosophical sense, vidya means true knowledge, the synoptic vision of the whole; it is genuine conception, “gathering-together”, “consciousness” in its literal sense of “knowing-together” all things however apparently different and divergent. Avidyā then, is the fiction of separation between things.

The meaning of Avidya

Avidyā is the opposite of vidya, and means ignorance, lack of true knowledge (vidya or jñana).

As a general term it lacks any ambiguity, but when applied by the writers of the Upanişads and by the quasi-philosophical schools (darśanas), and later still by the metaphysical theologians of the sectaries, the term acquired a significance of bewildering complexity.

The result was an attempt to define true knowledge and its sources; to distinguish the real from the often inconsistent empirical real; to determine the nature of the essence (ātman) of existence; and to reconcile the apparent gap between its cosmic and individual aspects.

The complexity of the problem was increased by the necessity of relating knowledge per se to the dogma of samsāra or concept of the individual’s evolution through a series of re-births or new lives; to enable him to shed his ignorance (avidyā) and thus realize his unity with the Ultimate Essence of Existence (brahman-ātman).

As the attainment of such knowledge was recognized as intellectually impossible, meditation of the most profound kind was advocated.

Subsequently, faith (śraddhā)and devotion (bhakti) were presented as aids’ tomeditation. Radhakrishnan considers that avidyā is not intellectual ignorance, but spiritual blindness.

Mahavidyã, Hindu goddess of knowledge

So important is vidya to Hindu religion and philosophy, that there’s even a goddess that personifies the concept and elevates it to divine status.

Mahavidyã is the goddess personifying that kind of knowledge, vidya,  which transcends intellectual cognition (jñna) and wisdom (prajñā).

Though mahāvidyā is a post-Vedic notion, it probably owes something to the prehistoric cult of the mother-goddess, and particularly to that of the Vedic A-diti (aditi meaning “without limit”, ie. “beyond all human apprehension”).

The notion of mahā-vidya appears to be even more closely connected with Vãc, the Vedic goddess of speech, the Word, without whom the hymns of the Veda could not have been composed, or knowledge acquired and transmitted.

Mahavidyā is not concerned with knowledge for its own sake, but with the apprehension of that particular knowledge which will eradicate avidyā (false knowledge or ignorance) and dispel the mists of illusion (māyā),and lead to the attainment of liberation (moksa).

Vidya and Avidya, as yin and yang versus western knowledge and ignorance

This Upanishad texts have many riddles with the words Avidya and Vidya. Each of these words seems to be used in more than one sense.

In the case of riddles like these many guesses must be applied in order to find out the hidden meanings.

For example, one common interpretation of verses 9 to 14 is thus:

Those who are attached to Avidya (ignorance or unprofitable works) will enter blinding darkness;

But even more so will those who are attached to Vidya (worldly knowledge by which worldly benefits are obtained).

He who knows both Avidya and Vidya together(in this case avidya means “un-knowing” or “un-learning” of all worldly knowledges and vidya means real spiritual knowledge of the Self), will cross death by avidya and enjoy immortal bliss by vidya.

The wise who have explained this to us mean by Vidya and Avidya quite separate things (other than those which they ordinarily mean). In this case, both avidya and vidya are necessary to achieve enlightenment and can be viewed as different sides of the same coin.

Interaction between the Supreme Self and “little soul”

The Upanishad texts say there are many individual souls; but says that only the Supreme Self is infinitely great while the individual soul is infinitely small.

However small it may be though, the individual soul is not a material object. It is spirit and immortal.

But because the individual soul is infinitely small, Maya or avidya can cover it with ignorance.

So covered, the individual soul identifies itself with the mortal body.

By nature, the individual soul it is pure and infused with knowledge and bliss as its dharma or quality.

For the soul, knowledge is like the light of the flame of a lamp bulb. However, avidya covers it and prevents the soul from seeing far, hence its errors and wrong-doing.

Unlike the soul however, the Supreme Self is infinitely great so it cannot be obstructed and hidden by avidya. The Supreme Self however, connects all individual souls, and so it is the fault of each individual soul if it does not realize the connection it has to the Supreme Self.

By removing one’s ignorance or avidya, one realizes the connection of their individual soul to the Supreme Self.

Instead of identifying itself with the mortal body, let the immortal soul consider that it is, so to say, body to the Supreme Self, with the Supreme Self as its inseparable Self or Life of Infinite Bliss, and it will have immortal body and Life together with the Supreme Self.

In other words this figure of speech suggests that the individual soul, instead of hugging the mortal body, should hug the All-loving Supreme Self who is always hugging it.

A question arises however: why doesn’t the omnipotent God tear away the soul’s avidya veil and connect it to the Supreme Self.

The answer is that no one can become moral and good through outside force, and that knowlege, vidya, comes from within.

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