imagesThe 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.”


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