Adi Sankaracharya

Avidya – The Anti-Knowledge

The most confusing component of ആdvaita വ്വ്edanta philosophy, that evoke uneasiness among the beginners, is the doctrine of Avidya or Maya. (There is an opinion that both are different and not same. But no such classification can be found in the Bhashya of Sankaracharya). The doctrine of Avidya makes the വ്വ്edanta incomprehensible at the first sight. But as the student study deeper she can understand that it is the kernel of വ്വ്edantic philosophy. Hence a thorough knowledge about Avidya is mandatory to understand Advaita Philosophy.

Avidya is using not in the sense of ‘non existence of knowledge’. Instead, Avidya is the one which will lead us to the opposite, of which Vidya will lead us. Avidya (anti knowledge) is the opposite of Vidya (knowledge). It is the veil to knowledge. So when we avoid Avidya, by acquairing Brahma Vidya, we get Vidya/knowledge. What need particular attention here is that, after the extinction of Avidya we don’t gain any new knowledge. Knowledge is inside us by default. In normal circumstances it will be covered by Avidya. So, when Avidya become extinct, Vidya comes forward and shines forth.

Avidya prevents us from knowing the exact nature of experiential world. Avidya makes us believe that, there are multiplicity in the experiential world and they are ultimate by themselves. Avidya hides the single monistic reality that acts as the foundation of the multiplicity in the experiential world. Because of this, people who are under the clutch of Avidya, hold fast the multiplicity, enjoys them and experience many hardships. Avidya is also called as Ajnana. And when we say avidya in relation to Brahman, we call it as ‘Maya’.

The locus of Avidya is considered to be Brahman[1]. However, this can’t be explicitly stated because no one experience both together. When Avidya exist, Brahman is beyond graspable. When someone realize Brahman, Avidya came to a halt. So even though it is considered that Avidya is rooted in Brahman, there is no duality. Avidya when associated with Brahman is called Maya. And when it is termed along with an individual person, it is called as Avidya or Ajnana. To be clear, if Maya is a forest, Avidya is a tree in that forest.

Mode of operation of Avidya:-

The mode of operaton and existence of Avidya is not easy to comprehend. We shall try to get its meaning from an example. In this example, Avidya is clearly present and its operation can be easily understood.

Take the example of snake and rope. Initially, we will misunderstood that the rope is a snake. We will least doubt about the nature of the snake. In fact there is no reason to doubt. We had seen the snake many times and here is such one a little far away from. This will the thought of people. So it is obviously a snake. Nothing else.

Here what we have is not the absence of knowledge, but we have a clear knowledge, which conceals the ‘real nature of a thing’. Absence of knowledge cannot force a man to act or think wrongly. Instead he will be inert in front of ‘non-knowledge’. But a wrong knowledge can induce action in a man and he will act accordingly. This wrong knowledge or anti knowledge is known as Avidya. It is that, which makes us think that ther is a snake in the rope and force us to fear of it.

This is the mode of operation of Avidya. To dent this effect of Avidya, one has to acheive Brahmavidya.


[1] There are difference of opinion about this among Advaitins. Please refer ‘idealistic thought in Indian tradition”. Suchita Divadia.

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