Avidya and Advaita


Swami Vivekananda stood for a long time allowing his gazing eye to wander all over the stormy waters around him. He was now in the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, at Kanya Kumari the seat of the goddess Mahishasuramardhini, the destroyer of the demon Mahisha. Here the three great seas merged—the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea came together in a great confluence. Earlier, he had asked a local fisherman to ferry him across to the jutting rock face a few meters into the sea, but the man had refused because the sea was too rough. Nothing could keep Vivekananda back from his destiny—he jumped into the raging sea and braving the current swam across to the rock face. Even to this day there is a shrine built on those rocks to commemorate the Saint’s presence. Vivekananda was shocked at the inhuman system of caste hierarchy prevalent in those parts in those days. He termed it a madhouse of superstition and segregation. Even today things have hardly changed, if not in one way but another. Those men in power –the present day politician princes– drunk with the potency of power drive around in huge flocks of cars and vans driving all human traffic away. When a politician prince moves over the highway there will be a pilot streaming with blaring horns ahead and over open windows many men will throw their arms out and wave away all commoners on their path as though the common folk are so negligent as to be non existent. Nothing can or should obstruct the way of power politics. Whether it be in religion or politics we humans are indeed so stupid as to consider ourselves superior to the other in body and soul. Granted a politician’s time is rather precious most often and any delay could be quite decisive, but so is the quality of time and space for all men and women. And now what right does a single individual have in pushing his/her way through?

A Victorian poet wrote:… that men may rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things!  Rising on their own dead selves to higher things is a process of erasing the ego and arousing the spirit within. However, trampling and treading on other selves to promote their own ungainly selves is still the sick decease of present day actuality. We pride ourselves in having built civil societies of equal opportunity for all and social equity for all. And our religious literature and thought have already scaled great and glorious heights. Human achievements are unimaginably high, and human societies have collectively reached hitherto unreachable heights of excellence and material plenitude. Nevertheless we have hardly changed.

There is a curious but equally mean tale that goes like this: A deal had been stuck between a Japanese company and an Indian company for exporting live crabs from India to Japan. Now when the first packages arrived the Japanese wrote to their Indian counterparts: “Many thanks for the great work you are doing. But, pray, tell us how you manage to export live crabs in open containers?”  “Simple,” wrote the Indian exporters in reply, “simple, indeed! Remember they are from India.  If one crab attempts to scramble up to the open end the other crab would pull it down! So none can escape!” Such is the lethal cut-throat level to which physical and material competition has come to be in this part of the world! Politics and spirituality are two sides of the same paper—tear one you tear the other. And competition is a matter of ego based on the stupid assumption that the physical self is of prime importance. The information-rich society that we have built around us is a huge market place where all values are simply prices, and all wealth is bound around avarice and greed of the advancing physical self that elbows itself around, pushing and pulling. All that we are informed or are interested in being informed is about how to promote ourselves. As Nietzsche derisively wrote: “All waters are impure where the rabble also drinks!”  And the rabble is the majority. The minority that is practically effaced is content to sleep the deep sleep of pretentious ignorance. After all, all life is a mind game, and once we have laid aside our humanness all that remains is our sordid petty self of ignorance and meanness. This is what Sankara terms Avidya. He distinguishes between Vidya (knowledge) and Avidya (Ignorance). This ignorance is not the binary opposite of knowledge, but both are complementaries, extending into one another. Avidya is nescience,absence of knowledge.

The modern day politician who sears  through the crowded streets with a pilot car making the way clear for him with horns blaring and arms waving through the open windows is of course so ignorant of what he or she is doing in this world of so called democracy. It is said that once while Sankaracharya was walking down the steps toward the Ganges in Benares he was confronted by a Chandala, a person of low birth walking up the steps leading a couple of hounds on a belt. The jagatguru’s alarmed disciples tried to wave him off the saint’s path but the man stood his ground and stared straight at the Saint. Sankara himself was a little taken aback at this audacity of a lower caste person and quizzically raised his brows.  The Chandala asked him: what are you waving off your path? Me or my body? Isnt my body made of the same annamaya and pranamaya as yours is? Is my spiritual self different and contaminated? 

Sankara found himself dumbfounded and stuck speechless. It dawned on him all of a sudden that his own advaitic teaching had a different dimension. How could he have been so ignorant and blind not to have perceived the sameness everywhere? The poet in him then composed a sloka with this profound meaning of oneness. Now the tale is not merely instructive and illustrative of the universality of the all pervading spirit but it also goes a long way to prove the uniqueness of the saint. It was indeed his humility that made him realize blatant truth hidden from his own eyes thus far. The Chandala was perhaps sent there or it was lord Siva himself, come to open his inward eye. The adavitin realized his avidya or ignorance within a split second. And that is spiritual revelation. Avidya is not absolute ignorance as we would perhaps understand it, but on the other hand it is not knowing the full implications of knowledge, a knowledge that transforms and remakes, a knowledge that leads itself on to wisdom. How far from this is our modern day politician who whisks past us in the crowded streets of the present. We are all Chandalas, perhaps. Well any way it is good to be the Chandala who is potential eye opener for some Sankara rather than being a fully ignorant political leader!

As Tiruvalluvar says: all beings are born alike; their actions make them different.

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