[Advaita-l] On the nature of muula avidya

kuntimaddi sadananda kuntimaddisada at yahoo.com
Tue Oct 25 06:11:29 CDT 2011

Nature of Muula Avidya
This write up is based on my notes of the talk by Swami Paramarthanandaji on 2/11/2011, summarizing the 3rd chapter of Naishkarmya Siddhi. Shree Sureswara deals three different topics in this chapter and the first one deals with muula avidya or fundamental ignorance.  The other topics covered include mahAvAkya vichAra – enquiry into great (aphoristic) statements of the Vedas and pUrvapaksha nirAsha – refuting the objections of the opponents. Here we discuss only about the muula avidya. 
mUla avidya vichaara – inquiry into the fundamental ignorance. Under this we will discuss three subtopics: a) mUla avidya svarUpam, the nature of the fundamental ignorance, b) mUla avidya Ashraya – the locus for the fundamental ignorance and c) mUla avidya viShayaH – the object of ignorance or the ignorance of what? 
a) The nature of fundamental ignorance: Sureswara says its essential nature is anirvacanIyam or inexpressible. That means it is sat assat vilakshaNam – It cannot be that it is real or sat, since only Brahman which is of the nature of  pure knowledge is real, and Brahman being infinite there cannot be any other reality. Real is that which cannot be negated at any time and therefore is eternal. Thus ignorance cannot be sat or real. The ignorance is also not asat or unreal, since it is experienced by everyone. Unreal is that which has no existence at any time in any locus, therefore unreal cannot be experienced or known. However everybody claims that I am ignorant. No one claims that I am Brahmna or aham brahmaasmi that is I am infinite. On the other hand, everyone claims that he is finite; space-wise, time-wise and object-wise i.e world-wise. Hence there is no need to prove that I am ignorant since everybody knows that he is ignorant, besides the fact
 that sorrowful face reveals that he is not Brahman, but a miserable samsaari. Hence Sureswara says ignorance is sarva prasiddaH, that is, I am ignorant of real nature is universally experienced and hence naturally evident. However the nature of ignorance is it is neither real or unreal, sadasat vilakshaNam, or neither existent or non-existent.  In essence, it is inexplicable, anirvacanIyam.  
In addition ignorance cannot be proved by any known means of knowledge, pramANa.  In fact, it gets negated if you bring a pramANa, or an operation of an instrument of knowledge. Yet, it appears to exist until it is removed by knowledge. This is true for all types of ignorance, fundamental (related to oneself) or related to ignorance of any objective science, say physics. Ignorance is generally equated to darkness and knowledge as light that removes that darkness. Referring to darkness as an example, how can we prove the existence of darkness. When we say it is dark, how do we know it is dark? General answer is – I can see with my eyes that it is pitch dark that I cannot see anything. However, epistemologically, eyes are the means of knowledge only when we light up the objects by external light. Hence I can see any object only when the physical light illumines the object that I see. Without that light I cannot see any object in a pitch-dark room.
 However I still say it is too dark when there is no light (normal means of knowledge or pramANa). If I turn on the means of knowledge for the eyes to see (that is turn on the physical light so that eye can see the objects), the darkness that I am seeing itself disappears. Hence is the statement above that ignorance or darkness gets negated when we operate the pramANa to know it. Here eyes do not perceive darkness since there is no light and if there is light there is no darkness for the light to illumine that darkness. Hence darkness is neither real, since it gets negated by turning the light on, and it is also not unreal, since one can experience the presence of pitch-darkness. 
Thus the nature of mUla avidya is sat asat vilakshaNam, it is neither real nor unreal and it is called mithyaa or anirvachaniiyam, inexpressible entity. 
b) Locus of fundamental ignorance: Once it is established that its existence is experienced by everyone, the question that arises is what is the locus of ignorance or its Ashraya. Sureswara establishes that self or Atma alone is the locus of the fundamental ignorance involving the ignorance of the self itself. That is self does not know the self, and that ignorance is located in the self. Although this expression looks strange as it is presented, the fact remains that I, myself, do not know myself that I am Brahman. It is not that I am going to become Brahman at a later date after self-realization; but I am Brahman or infinite even when I do not know that fact and take myself to be a finite entity due to the lack of the knowledge of my infinite nature. Who has this ignorance? I am that is the one who thinks I am this (localized samsaari) and does not feel that I am Brahman who is ananda swaruupa. Hence I am the locus of that ignorance of myself. 
 Because of that ignorance of myself, I project the world of plurality. Hence we can say that the ignorance is the cause for the creation of the world of plurality, jagat kaaraNam. Implication is the ignorance has to be preexisting before the creation of the world of plurality since it is the cause while the world is the effect, as cause pre-exists before the effect. Vedanta refers the fundamental ignorance or mUla avidya as maayaa or prakRiti. Some religions call it as the original sin. Ignorance is beginning-less, since beginning is a concept of time, which itself is part of creation. The fundamental ignorance existed before the creation of time and space too.  Hence it is called beginning-less. However when the appropriate knowledge takes place the ignorance is destroyed, just as beginning-less ignorance of chemistry is removed by the dawn of the knowledge of chemistry. 
Another argument in support of the fact that the self or aatma can only be the locus of ignorance is the locus has to be a conscious entity. Other than Atma there is only anaatma or non-self which is inert entity. Inert entity cannot be locus of ignorance or knowledge, or in other words non-self cannot be locus of ignorance. Hence by process of elimination, Atma alone is the locus of ignorance.
If aatma and anaatma, in this case the ignorance, are both beginning-less entities, an objector says that there is violation of advaita or doctrine of non-duality, since there are two entities that are beginning-less. This objection is dismissed on the grounds that ignorance as well the resulting creation, both are mithyaa, which is neither real nor unreal. It is like gold and the ring, which are not really two things but only one. Gold only appears in ring form with an associated name.  Forms and the associated names can change but the substance gold remains the same in all these changes. Similarly is the relation between Atma, ignorance and the associated creation of the world.  Ignorance and the ignorance caused creation appear to exist only for the one who is ignorant. Self realization, therefore, involves understanding that what appears is only name and form, but the essence of the whole world that appears is nothing but the self that I am. Hence
 advaita is not compromised by ignorance having locus in Atma. Another way of looking at this is ontologically the cause, gold, and the effect, ring are of different orders of reality. Hence oneness of gold is never uncompromised by it being as many ornaments. Similarly are the Atma, ignorance and the resulting creation. The same explanation is used to dismiss the arguments that Atma which is of the nature of light, and ignorance which is of the nature of darkness cannot co-exist. It has already been noted that I, the conscious entity, can recognize the pitch darkness in the absence of external light indicating that light of consciousness that I am is not opposite to external darkness. Similarly I am also conscious of the fact that I am ignorant of my true nature that I am Brahman, the infinite, just as I am conscious of the fact that I do not know Advanced Chemistry or Physics, etc. Hence that Atma is not opposite to ignorance is established since it
 illumines even the ignorance. Thus the locus of ignorance is established as Atma.
c) Object of ignorance: The next topic of discussion is the object of ignorance – or ignorance of what? It is mUla avidya or fundamental ignorance – the object of ignorance is my-self only. What I do not know is about the nature of the self that I am. Any ignorance of any object is removed by the knowledge of that object. Thus ignorance of chemistry or ignorance of physics can only be removed by the knowledge of the respective field. Just as the ignorance of physics cannot be removed by the knowledge of chemistry, knowledge of all objective fields cannot remove the ignorance of one self or mUla avidya. The ignorance of myself can only removed by the knowledge of myself. 
Scripture says a right teacher is the one who has the self-knowledge. However, if he knows his self or the self that he is, how would that knowledge helps me as a student who wants to know the self that I am? It can help only if the self that he knows as his-self is the self in all. That is knowledge of himself should also mean the knowledge of every self or the essence of everything in the universe. Hence a student in the scripture asks – Sir, please teach me that knowing which one knows everything – kasmin no bhagavo vijnaate sarvam idam vijnaatam bhavati or knowing one thing, everything else is known – eka vijnaanena sarva vijnaanam bhavati. If I know chemistry, I would not know Physics or Biology. In fact even in Chemistry, I would not know everything, as  I learn more in that field, I also learn that there are lot more things I need to learn. I specialize in smaller and smaller area in any field of specialization; such is the nature of the
 objective sciences. Given that as a basis, a Upanishadic student asks- please teach me knowing that one thing, I will know everything. Scriptures says that it is possible, just as knowing gold, I know in essence all gold ornaments. That is, knowing the material cause, I know, in essence, all the products of that material. Product is nothing but cause itself in different form. Therefore, if I know the material cause for the universe, I know essentially all the products since the products are nothing but cause itself in divergent names and forms. Scriptures state that the self that ‘I am’ is the essence of everything in the universe – aitadaatyma idagam sarvam tat satyam, sa Atmaa, tat tvam asi, swetaketu. Hence knowing the self that I am, in essence I know everything, which is nothing but Brahman. Knowledge of Brahman is not – this is Brahman as an objective knowledge, but it involves a subjective knowledge as I am Brahman. Hence scriptures say
 – brahma vit brahma eva bhavati – knower of Brahman becomes Brahman. Knower of astronomy does not become astronomy; where as knower of Brahman becomes Brahman since knowing Brahman involves knowing that I am Brahman or aham brahma asmi. Therefore knowledge of Brahman is the same as knowledge of ones own self. Ignorance of my own self is the object or vishaya of the mUla avidya hence that ignorance can be removed by the knowledge of oneself.  
Hari Om!

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