Ignorance is a fundamental concept in Advaita and most people who call themselves Advaitins will believe that they understand what it is. After all, enlightenment is often equated to the gaining of Self-knowledge, which is equivalent to the removal of ignorance. Here is the definition of avidyA in John Grimes’ excellent ‘Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy’ (I will be reviewing this book shortly):
“It is the key concept in the Advaita Vedanta system. It serves as the cornerstone for Advaita Vedanta metaphysics, epistemology, and ethical disciplines; thus its role cannot be belittled. It is characterized by six marks: it is beginningless (anAdi); it is removed by right knowledge (j~nAna- nivartya); it is a positive entity of the nature of an existent (bhAva rUpa); it is indescribable (anirvachanIya); it has the two powers of concealment and projection which respectively represent the truth and suggest the false (AvaraNa and vikShepa); and its locus is either in the individual self (jIva) or in the Absolute (Brahman).”
And this is pretty much how most teachers and writers use the term. For example, in ‘Back to the Truth’, I say: “As long as the ignorance remains, there will be identification of one form or another and we will believe ourselves to be other than our true nature. The ignorance is said to be anAdi, without any beginning, and it will continue until it is removed by knowledge and enlightenment dawns.” This is backed up by shruti. The sarvopaniShad, for example, says (verse 1): “…this egoism is the bondage of the soul. The cessation of that egoism is mokSha, liberation. That which causes this egoism is avidyA, nescience.” Other, later scriptures echo this; e.g. the advaita bodha dIpaka: “Though the Self is Brahman, there is not the knowledge of the Self (being Brahman). That which obstructs the knowledge of the Self is Ignorance. Just as ignorance of the substratum, namely the rope, projects the illusion of the snake, so Ignorance of Brahman projects this world.”
And these twin powers of avidyA are also spoken of in the scriptures. Here is a quotation from the vedAntasAra of Sadananda (although this is post-Shankara):
51. This ignorance has two powers, viz., the power of concealment and the power of projection.
52. Just as a small patch of cloud, by obstructing the vision of the observer, conceals, as it were, the solar disc extending over many miles, similarly ignorance, though limited by nature, yet obstructing the intellect of the observer, conceals, as it were, the Self which is unlimited and not subject to transmigration. Such a power is this power of concealment. It is thus said: “As the sun appears covered by a cloud and bedimmed to a very ignorant person whose vision is obscured by the cloud, so also That which to the unenlightened appears to be in bondage is my real nature – the Self – Eternal Knowledge.”
53. The Self covered by this (concealing power of ignorance) may become subject to saMsAra (relative existence) characterized by one’s feeling as agent, the experiencing subject, happy, miserable, etc., just as a rope may become a snake due to the concealing power of one’s own ignorance.
54. Just as ignorance regarding a rope, by its inherent power, gives rise to the illusion of a snake etc., in the rope covered by it, so also ignorance, by its own power creates in the Self covered by it, such phenomena as AkAsha (space or ether) etc., Such a power is called the power of projection. It is thus said: “The power of projection creates all from the subtle bodies to the cosmos.”
55. Consciousness associated with ignorance, possessed of these two powers, when considered from its own standpoint is the efficient cause, and when considered from the standpoint of its upAdhi or limitation is the material cause (of the universe).
Not everyone accepts this idea of ignorance being a positive entity. Jean Klein for example (‘Be Who You Are’) says that ‘Ignorance begins at the very moment when the ego takes names and forms to be separate realities’. Here the word is being used to refer to the ‘process’ of making the mistake. And it specifically states that it is not beginningless.
But traditionally, ignorance is spoken of as something positive, with all of the aspects mentioned in Grimes’ definition. The Bhamati school has its theory of avachCheda vAda to describe the jIva, in which ignorance is the upAdhi which appears to limit the Atman. The Vivarana school has its pratibimba vAda, in which ignorance ‘reflects’ the Atman. Either way, ignorance is an actual entity, whose locus has to be Brahman, since that is all that exists in reality.
There is a metaphor which talks about putting pure water in a colored vessel, analogous to the idiom of seeing the world through rose-colored spectacles. It is as though the truth is being ‘obscured’ by viewing the world through a covering of ignorance. But there is not really something positive here, in the same way as the colored glass. What is happening is that we have accumulated various opinions and beliefs from books and parents etc and these are ‘coloring’ our judgment. Even the word ‘coloring’ is forcing us to uphold the metaphor and believe that it refers to something real. But what this actually means is that they are influencing our judgment; there is no physical medium in place.
Accordingly, one has to wonder if the problem here is simply one of language. A new word ‘ignorance’ was introduced to refer to the state of ‘not knowing’ but then, because the word became so much a part of everyday usage, we started to think that there was an actual thing called ‘ignorance’. I am reminded of the Alan Watts’ talk which discussed the idea of cause and effect and suggested that so-called ‘causes’ were often invented terms of this sort. And he cited the example of this thing called ‘gravity’ being described as the ‘cause’ for objects falling to the earth when dropped. And he said that, if we dropped a particular object and, instead of falling to the ground, it rose up into the air, then we would have called it a ‘balloon’ and not a ‘stone’. Clever though this sounded when I first heard it, I nevertheless thought that he was deliberately taking an extreme, and unrealistic, example to make his point. But now I am not so sure.
In this case of ignorance, it seems quite reasonable to argue that we could quite happily live without the concept. Shankara’s key concept of Advaita (as indicated by the fact that his commentary on the Brahmasutras is introduced by an explanation) is adhyAsa. This is the mechanism by which we ‘mix up’ real and unreal, or ‘superimpose’ the not-Self upon the Self. And there is a tendency to say that ignorance is the cause of adhyAsa. What I say in ‘Back to the Truth’ about this is: “What Shankara begins by saying is that ‘I’ am different from the perceived object. I make a fundamental mistake when either I see one thing and think it is something else (e.g. I see a rope and think it is a snake) or I think something has an attribute that it does not really have (e.g. I think that the mirage is actually a lake). There is always something real (the rope or the sand with shimmering air above it) and something illusory. The real part is unaffected by our superimposition. What is effectively happening is that we partially see the real part, the substratum such as the rope, and then overlay it with some recollected memory of something else, such as the snake.” There is no immediately apparent reason as to why we should say that this happens because of something called ‘ignorance’.
In the metaphor, it is the absence of light which causes us to imagine a snake where there is actually a rope. This equates to absence of knowledge explaining why we fail to realize that everything is Brahman. But darkness is not a positive thing; it is merely absence of sufficient numbers of photons of visible electronic radiation to trigger impulses on the retina. It is a misunderstanding of the physical process that causes someone to claim that a thing is ‘covered’ or ‘hidden’ by darkness. What they really mean is that the thing is not being revealed because there is insufficient light. Thus, for example, I say in ‘Back to the Truth’ that it is ‘ignorance of our true nature’ that is the reason for saMsAra. What I should perhaps really say, to avoid this confusion, is that it is ‘failure to recognize our true nature’ that is the reason.
Prior to enlightenment, we identify with the body and mind etc. Since these things are always changing, we think that we are subject to change also – and we call this ‘ignorance’. As I say in BttT: “The Sanskrit word for ‘truth’ is satyam and this is also the word for reality. The only reality is brahman. Ignorance is ignoring (literally ‘turning away from’) this truth through identifying ourselves with a body, mind, belief, cause or whatever. We mistakenly take these things to be real in their own right instead of simply a form of one essential reality.” Ignorance is this ‘making a mistake’, not something positive in its own right.
The reason I have been thinking about all this is that I have been reading SSSS’s (that’s Sri Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati, if you didn’t know!) ‘The Heart of Sri Shankara’ (an incredible translation by A. J. Alston, since the original is in Sanskrit), which is all about logically destroying the idea of a causal, positive ignorance. I will be reviewing book this in due course (If I can manage to complete it, since it is not the easiest read!) and may also continue this discussion – because this is not the whole story by any means. There have been many discussions (or perhaps ‘arguments’ might be a better word) on this topic and there is another difficult, academic text, which looks at these ideas of SSSS and does not altogether agree with them! (This is the doctoral thesis of Martha Doherty, a disciple of Swami Dayananda.)
SSSS says, amongst many other things, that: “The final truth is that one cannot say that Ignorance really has either an object or a locus. For (Ignorance cannot be real, since) what is real cannot be brought to an end.” “…adequate reflection shows that there is no reality ‘Ignorance’ over and above different forms of (wrong) knowledge. Ignorance is either absence of knowledge or doubtful knowledge or wrong knowledge, as Sri Shankara has remarked (Brihadaranyaka bhAShya 3.3.1).”