The Sanskrit word “gnana” which was imperfectly translated as “knowledge” is a frequently used term in Indian Yoga. Similarly, the word Avidya or “Ignorance” is another word which is repeated constantly in Indian Yogic literature. One of the aims of yoga is to progress from Ignorance to knowledge. But this Knowledge and Ignorance in Yoga are very different from what they are normally understood in the world of human mind. This article briefly examines this Knowledge-Ignorance terminology of yoga.
Key Perspectives: Knots of Ignorance; Liberating Knowledge; Yoga and Mental Development
The Knots of Ignorance
According to Indian yoga philosophy, Man in his inmost and essential nature is an infinite, eternal, universal and unconditioned Being-Consciousness Bliss, one with all in the Oneness of his own highest Self, Atman. But in his present condition of evolution as a mental being, he is a limited and incomplete entity. How this happened? Indian answer is: Maya. There is a mysterious inscrutable power of limitation which operates on man’s consciousness, and imposes a severe conditioning on man’s being, consciousness, knowledge, power and delight and reduces him to his present condition of a limited, separate, mortal and suffering individuality. This Power of Limitation is called as Maya or Avidya `Ignorance’ in Indian philosophy. This great Maya, in the Indian conception, is a universal force which works in the individual through two psychological principles: Ego Ahankara and Desire Kama or Trishna.
We will examine in greater detail the precise nature of this knots of ignorance in our subsequent discussions. In yoga, this ego-centric, desire-driven human life is called as “Ignorance.” In this yogic perspective, our so-called “normal” state of being, however exalted it maybe in its mental or moral stature, is a state of ignorance. You may be a versatile scholar or a mental genius like Einstein or a moral giant like Mahatma Gandhi. But as long as you live in a consciousness driven by ego and desire, however subtle and refined they may be, without any inner contact or union or identity with your spiritual self, you are ignorant.
The Liberating Knowledge
Thus ignorance means in the Indian Yogic tradition, not lack of mental knowledge, but the state of forgetfulness or ignorance of our true self and the loss of consciousness of the spiritual unity of existence. Knowledge means rediscovery of our true self and the unity-consciousness inherent in it.
But in the Indian spirituality a mere intellectual or philosophic knowledge of the spiritual truth of Unity or Self is not considered as knowledge. Knowledge means, in Indian Yoga—knowledge through concrete spiritual experience, inwhich conceptual abstraction of the mind becomes concrete experiential realities of the consciousness. In this state of spiritual knowledge I know my true immortal and infinite self with a much more concrete sense of reality than I know my ego-centric individuality and I feel the unity of existence much more concretely than I feel my own body. All other forms of knowledge which falls short of this highest knowledge is considered as ignorance or lower knowledge apara vidya. All forms of mental knowledge like science, philosophy or even religion is part of apara vidya within the belt of ignorance, a learned ignorance perhaps, but still ignorance, not knowledge, Gnana. This is the reason why in the Indian culture, a mere mental gymnastics or “free thinking” is not given the name of philosophy. In ancient India, philosophy is called Darshana, which means vision. Philosophy in the Indian spiritual culture is always the intellectual expression of a spiritual experience, intuition or vision.
There is an interesting episode in the chandogya Upanishad to illustrate this Indian perspective on knowledge. Narada, a seeker, approaches a sage, Sanathkumara for the highest knowledge. The sage Sanathkumara tells Narada “what you already know, declaring it to me, be my disciple, what is beyond, I shall tell you”. And Narada gives a long list of his learning which includes the four Vedas, physics, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, linguistics, ethic, etymology, religion, fine arts and many others. But Narada was a humble and wise seeker steeped in the Indian spirit and therefore not puffed up with his knowledge. He admits humbly to his Guru “Revered sir, however I am only a knower of texts, mantra vid, and not a knower of the Self, Atma Vid.” and then makes a very significant remark, “I have heard from persons like you the a knower of self goes beyond grief. I am in such a state of grief. May your revered self take me across it”. After listening to Narada, Sanathkumara says, “what you have learnt, Narada, really is only Name” meaning probably verbal and abstract knowledge of the names and forms, a babble of verbiage and information without living experience of the Spirit.
The above episode from the Upanishad makes clear two points. First is the “practical” result of spiritual knowledge; it helps man to “go beyond grief” and releases him into the bliss and freedom of the Infinite. Second, the nature of intellectual knowledge made of cloudy abstractions, expressed in a babble of words, a description of the passing names and forms of the world, occasionally pierced by insights into truth from the beyond, brilliant in appearance and very useful for a practical and efficient organisation of the outer life of names and forms, but ignorant of the essence of Truth, cannot liberate man from sorrow and grief. So mental knowledge which is accumulated by the intellect may be very “practical” for the efficient organisation of our outer life but impractical for bringing fulfillment and well-being to our inner life. On the other hand spiritual knowledge which comes from Yoga is very “practical” for the inner life because it liberates him from sorrow.. But is it impractical for outer life? The Indian yogi will answer with a strong affirmative Nay. If the inner being is perfected the outer perfection is bound to follow as the inevitable result. So yoga is practical both for the inner and outer life. This means mental knowledge without the liberating knowledge of yoga is from the long-term point of view impractical for both inner and outer life. As Sri Aurobindo points out “… it is only by the perfection of the soul within that the outer environment can be perfected. What thou art within, that outside thou shalt enjoy”.
Yoga and Mental Development
However, we must note here that Indian yoga does not reject mental knowledge as useless; it only says that this lower knowledge is not enough for achieving the higher aim of human life; it may be useful for the mental development of the individual or in the cultural development of the community. So, the yogic paradigm of development will not reject mental knowledge, but will encourage it as a part of the mental evolution of the individual and the community.
An illuminating passage from Sri Aurobindo on the meaning of spirituality brings out with great clarity the distinction between mental and spiritual development and the role of mental development in the spiritual evolution of human being. This passage begins with a description of what spirituality is not. “It must therefore be emphasised” says Sri Aurobindo, “that spirituality is not a high intellectuality, not idealism, not an ethical turn of mind or moral purity or austerity not religiosity or an ardent and exalted emotional fervor, not even a compound of all these excellent things; a mental belief, creed or faith, an emotional aspiration, a regulation of conduct according to a religious or ethical formula are not spiritual achievement or experience.” As we have discussed earlier these activities are part of Avidya, ignorance. But Sri Aurobindo does not reject them as futile. In the second part of the passage, Sri Aurobindo states: “These things are of considerable value to mind and life; they are of value to the spiritual evolution itself as preparatory movements, disciplining, purifying or giving a suitable form to the nature; but they still belong to the mental evolution—the beginning of a spiritual experience or change is not there.” And finally Sri Aurobindo describes the meaning of spirituality, which is the aim of yoga:
“Spirituality is in its essence an awakening to the inner reality of our being, to a spirit, self, soul which is other than our mind, life and body, an inner aspiration to know, to feel, to be that, to enter into contact with the greater Reality beyond and pervading the universe which inhabits also our own being, to be in communion with It and union with It, and a turning, a conversion, a transformation of our whole being as a result of the aspiration, the contact, the union, a growth or waking into a new becoming or new being, a new self, a new nature.”