AVIDYĀ . Avidyā is the conceptual starting point of classical Indian thinking about the nature of existence. The Sanskrit term connotes "ignorance," "false understanding," or "nescience." There are, broadly, two schools of thought on its nature: Sāṃkhya-Yoga and Vedānta. Sāṃkhya locates avidyā' s genesis in the proximate association of puruṣa (spirit) with prakṛti (nature), which results in a sequential evolution of qualities and substances, from intelligence, embodiment, and senses to elemental traces of matter. The ensuing multiplicity of "I"-consciousnesses, forgetting the true identity of puruṣa, misidentify themselves with vṛttis, or the wavering flux of forms and properties of materiality, through a convoluted mix of three ontological aspects (guṇa s): the lightness (sattva), motion (rajas ), and denseness (tamas) of matter. Thus arise certain incongruent life-worlds (self, other, and spheres) with their related domains of being, causality, time-space, motion, mind, askesis, passions, and ends. Avidyā, then, is the epistemic foreclosure of access to true consciousness. Yoga attempts to erase this subreptitious affliction through rigorous ascetic, contemplative, and meditative praxis, freeing puruṣa from avidyā' s ontological concealment; set free, the spirit shines in its own effulgence.
Vedānta, on the other hand, proffers a more stringent metaphysical account derived from its fundamental presupposition that brahman, the unitary principle underwriting the universe, is without any trace of distinction and differentiation. The challenge is then to account for the heterogeneous recognition of differences among selves and entities. At the cosmic level the explanation is given in terms of māyā (illusion-making); at the phenomenal level it turns on the facticity of conscious experiences. Ātman (the innermost essence of the individual) is one with brahman, and is in its essence pure, impersonal consciousness. But our everyday experiences in waking, sleep, dream, and deep-sleep states belie this fact. This can be explained by the assertion that pure consciousness remains veiled by various adjuncts (upādhi s) and conditionings. For Śaṅkara (788–820 ce), a philosopher of the Hindu (advaita or non-dualist school) the process itself is more formal (efficient, nimitta ) than it is material (as in Sāṃkhya-Yoga); it is the function of adhyāsa (superimposition or transference). The "subject," revealed as the content of the "I-notion" (asmatpratyayagocara), and the "object," revealed as the content of "you" (yuṣmat-) or "that," are as radically opposed to each other in nature as darkness is to light, so that neither they nor their attributes can ever be identified with or transformed into each other.
In regular veridical cognition (jñāna), perceptual error occurs when the mind, in confusion, projects a residual memory of, say, silver, onto an oblique object, such as a seashell, and thinks it to be mother-of-pearl. This epistemic deception and aligned ignorance (ajñāna) about the other are analogically extended to the metaphysical context to account for the more pervasive and fundamental illusion inherent in our existential condition. Hence, owing to the superimposition of spurious concepts upon pure consciousness, the "I-awareness" tends toward differentiation and identifies itself with "nonconscious entities"; thus: "I am a princess"; "I adorn jeweled mangalsutras "; "I wear a hat." Śaṅkara frames this contradiction in terms of the "real" and "unreal," respectively. The phenomenological result of this projective transference afflicts all empirical experiences and is described as avidyā. The Vedanta philosopher and theologian Rāmānuja (1017–1137) synthesizes Śaṅkara's clinical purism with Sāṃkhya monadology and Yoga's pragmatism. He makes a distinction between substantive consciousness (dharm-ībhūtijñāna) and qualia-consciousness (dharmabhūta-jñāna). The false predication of the latter on the former is removed through love, devotion, and surrender (with a touch of alchemy); the individual attains higher stages of self-realization, and ultimately union in Viṣṇu as māyā -embodied brahman.
Later Vedānta scholastics pondered the ontological status of avidyā: on the one hand, if it were "real" then it would compete with the primeval Word (Śabdabrahman), which is prior even to manifest consciousness, thereby compromising ātman/brahman' s singular uniqueness; on the other hand, if it were "unreal" it would lack any efficiency and would stand to be conceptually sublated. This dilemma was resolved by the argument that a higher, second-order witness-consciousness (śakṣin-dharmībhūta-cit) persists in and through all levels of experience, unblemished by avidyā. Hence, avidyā is described as anirvacanīya, the inexplicable remainder of that which is "neither real nor unreal." Avidyā then becomes a sui generis ontological category, like that of the "Sublime," as the unexceptional precondition for all phenomenal experience.
Arapura, J. G. "Māyā and the Discourse about Brahman." In The Problem of Two Truths in Buddhism and Vedānta, edited by Mervyn Sprung, pp. 109–121. Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1973.
Rāmānuja. Śrībhāṣya. Translated by M. Rangacharya et al. Delhi, 1988.
Rao, Srinivasa. Perceptual Error: The Indian Theories. Honolulu, 1988.
Śaṅkara. Brahmasūtrabhāṣya, vol. 1. Rev. ed. Madras, India, 1981.
Sarasvati, Madhusūdana. Advaitasiddhi. Edited by D. Srinivasachar and G. Venkatanaraimha Sastri. Mysore, 1933.
Purushottama Bilimoria (2005)
In the Vedas avidyā means ignorance of ritual and moral obligations and so implies absence of knowledge rather than an ontological condition of bondage. In the Upaniṣads it comes to mean spiritual delusion and the non-knowledge of Brahman. In Sāṃkhya-yoga ignorance, which is the cause of bondage and suffering, is regarded as the non-discrimination of the individual self (puruṣa) from matter (prakṛti) in which it appears to be entangled. For Advaita Vedānta bondage is similarly due to beginningless ignorance which, in contrast to Sāṃkhya, is the creation of distinctions where none exist; in reality there being only Brahman. For Rāmānuja's Viśiṣtādvaita, ignorance is the absence of knowing that the self (jīva) is distinct from, yet also merged into, Brahman, while for the Dvaita school of Madhva, avidyā is ignorance of the self's eternal distinction from God.2. In Buddhism, avijja/avidyā is ignorance of the true nature of reality, the non-emancipated state of mind; it is specifically expressed in Buddhist writings as lack of experiential knowledge of the Four Noble Truths. Avijja refers to moral and spiritual ignorance, not ignorance of a factual and scientific kind, and is only finally extinguished with the attainment of nirvāna.