Indeterminate aspect of avidyā

Posted: January 24, 2016 in education, inspiring, philosophy, sanatana dharma, sanskrit
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Trying to understand avidyā as a negated form of vidyā, or interpreting it as ignorance or delusion is not a straightforward comprehension.  Though vidyā  is generally understood as knowledge, the lakshana (unique characteristic definition) of vidyā  (the lakshya) as per vedānta (upanishads)  is – “that knowledge which leads to moksha (liberation) alone”.  All other knowledge related to material understanding is vidyā’s sādharana-dharma (general characteristics, not a unique one). It is difficult to comprehend avidyā as something opposite to vidyā in terms of lakshana.

The lakshya-lakshana can be well understood based on an example. When we give a lakshana – “an animal with a trunk”, then the  lakshya is elephant, because no other animal exists with a trunk, and it becomes a unique characteristics (lakshana).  A description like – an animal with four legs, or with two eyes, etc are not lakshana, they are sādharana-dharma.

Avidyā is a dosham (defect) to our intellect which makes the Supreme Self (Brahman) to be misinterpreted as materialistic world (jagath-vasthu). When milk becomes separated upon adding drops of lemon juice while heating, we say that the milk possess dosham. When our intellect suppresses the real nature of things and manifests something else in its place, our intellect possess dosham.

The lakshana of avidyā is anirvachaniyam (indeterminate, or which cannot be defined). To understand this, we need to understand what sat-vasthu and asat-vasthu means.  sat-vasthu are those objects which are physically real, or existent, such as rabbit and lion. asat-vasthu are unreal, or non-existent objects such as horn of a rabbit, and trunk of a lion.  Here, horn and trunk by themselves are sat-vasthu, but when they are associated with rabbit and lion respectively, they become asat-vasthu.

Is it possible for an object to co-exist as both sat-vasthu and asat-vasthu? Shankaracharya says it is possible, which is also the lakshana of avidyā and describes it by giving snake-rope upamāṇa pramāṇa (analogy).

A person can misinterpret a rope as a snake in a dim light. Why this person thinks of only a snake and not any other animal? Because, snake is a sat-vasthu which the person is already familiar with before, and is highly correlated with the attributes of a rope, like zig-zag or curly shape formation. In this situation, snake exists, and is a sat-vasthu. Upon inspecting the situation under bright light, the person understands that it is only a rope, and also the rope never gets the qualities of snake just for mistaking it (adhyāsa – false attribution). Now, before close inspection, the snake existed (sat), and upon close inspection, there occurred a perceptual error (khyāti) to the previous cognition and the person has to accept that snake is non-existent on a rope (i.e., asat, similar to horn non-existent on a rabbit, or trunk non-existent on a lion).  Since in this situation, the snake was both sat and asat, and consequently it cannot be concretely categorized into either sat or asat, it becomes a peculiar entity termed as anirvachaniyam (which cannot be defined).

Lakshana of avidyā is also similar to this, i.e., anirvachaniyam.  Avidyā cannot be said as asat, because its effect is experienced (like suppressing a rope and  presenting a snake in its place). Avidyā cannot be said as sat because it does not really exists (a rope becoming a snake just because it is mistaken is non-existent). The reason why avidyā cannot be real is due to upanishads ordaining that there exists only one real object (sat-vasthu), and that is the Supreme Brahman. So, accepting avidyā as sat will contradict upanishad teachings. This leads to a conclusion that avidyā is neither sat nor asat, and is therefore undefinable (anirvachaniyam).

This dosham of suppressing the real nature and presenting something unreal in its place exists in two levels. When this is attributed in the level of jivātma (individual consciousness), then it is referred to as avidyā, and when it is attributed in the level of paramātma (supreme consciousness), then it is referred to as māyā. So, māyā and avidyā can be related to each other as whole and part respectively. In an individual, for instance, the avidyā engulfs the intellect and suppresses the real nature of atman which is brahman, and presents body, names and forms as real which in supreme reality is non-existent on brahman. Vidyā will help us remove this veil of avidyā eventually with the grace of God.

Further reading:

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