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Beginningless Avidya—Coupled with Vidya

The jīva is conditioned by avidyā, which has no beginning—anādi-avidyā-yuktasya puruṣasya (SB 11.22.10). There was never a time that the jīva was not under the influence of avidyā. The interesting fact is that like the conditioning of avidyā, the jīva also has vidyā without a beginning. Vidyā here means the awareness of being a conscious being, distinct from the mind and body. This vidyā is the basis of spiritual life. It is the very first instruction by Kṛṣṇa to Arjuna in Gītā. Yā vidyā sā vimuktaye—“That is vidyā which leads to mukti.” There is no mukti without knowledge of the distinction between the self and matter. Then, why we are not aware that avidyā has overpowered vidyā? This is the sense of Kṛṣṇa’s statement: ajñānena āvṛtaṁ jñānaṁ tena muhyanti jantavaḥ—“The jñāna of living beings is covered by ajñāna; therefore, they are deluded” (Gītā 5.15). The usage of the plural here signifies the pervasiveness of this phenomenon. No one is spared from it. The jñāna mentioned here is not inherent in the svarūpa of the jīva. It is external to it, just as ajñāna is external to its svarūpa, both being products of the material energy. This is stated by Śrī Kṛṣṇa to Uddhava:

vidyāvidye mama tanū viddhyuddhava śarīriṇām
mokṣa-bandhakarī ādye māyayā me vinirmite

O Uddhava, understand that both knowledge (vidyā) and ignorance (avidyā), which lead to liberation and bondage [respectively] for embodied beings, are two primordial energies of Mine, generated by My māyā.  (SB 11.11.3)

Here Śrī Kṛṣṇa explicitly states that both vidyā and avidyā, which are synonymous with jñāna and ajñāna respectively, are products of māyā. In Bhagavad Gītā (14.17), Kṛṣṇa makes it more explicit, while using the word jñāna and ajñāna for vidyā and avidyā:

sattvāt sañjāyate jñānaṁ   rajaso lobha eva ca
pramāda-mohau tamaso   bhavato ‘jñānam eva ca

Jñāna springs from sattva, and from rajas only greed arises. Likewise, from tamas arises inattention, delusion, and ajñāna.

It is clear without a doubt that the word jñāna here belongs to external energy, māyā, and is not part of the svarūpa of the jīva. The same words have been used in verse 5.15 of the Gītā cited above. Thus, it should not be misconstrued that the svarūpa of the jīva is full of knowledge.

The guṇas of prakṛti are ever mixed. They are always together, as is said: anyo’nya-mithuna-vṛttayaḥ—“The guṇas are always mixed with each other” (Sāṅkhya-kārikā 12) and anyo’nya-mithunāḥ  sarve sarvtra gāminaḥ/naiṣāmādiḥ samprayogo viyogo vopalabhyate—“The guṇas are mixed with each other and exist everywhere. There is no beginning of them coming together nor are they ever separated” (Devī-bhagavata Purāṇam 3.8).

Because the guṇas are always together, it naturally follows that their effects will also be together. Their intensity or percentage, however, keeps on fluctuating. Therefore, if the jīva has anadi avidyā, which results in ignorance, it can be concluded that there must also be anādi vidyā. This is understood from the following words of King Satyavrata: anādi-avidyopahitātma-saṁvidatanmūla saṁsāra-pariśramāturāḥ—“People whose knowledge about their own self is overshadowed by beginningless avidyā are troubled by the labor of material life caused by that very avidyā” (SB 8.24.46). 

From here also it can be derived that if the knowledge of one’s own self is covered by beginningless avidyā, then the knowledge must also be beginningless. One may argue that the covering is by avidyā, which is beginningless, and not that the covering itself is beginningless. Although it is possible to derive such a meaning, it is not in harmony with the previous statements that clearly state that the jīva’s very conditioning is beginningless. This is confirmed by Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravarti in his commentary on verse 2.5.19 of Bhāgavata Purāṇa. He writes: jīvasya yathā anādi-ajñānaṁ tathā anādi-jñānam api astīti—“Just as the jīva has anādi ajñāna, beginningless ignorance about oneself, it also has anādi jñāna, beginningless knowledge about oneself.” 

One may question: “How can the knowledge or awareness of the self and its ignorance exist simultaneously?” To this effect, Kṛṣṇa says, ajñānena āvṛtaṁ jñānaṁ tena muhyanti jantavaḥ—“The jñāna of living beings is covered by ajñāna and therefore, they are deluded” (Gītā 5.15). Although they exist simultaneously, one is prominent. In the conditioned state, ajñāna subdues jñāna. But if one practices spirituality, or even practices sattvic life, then jñāna overtakes ajñāna; this is because sattva leads to knowledge of the self—sattva sañjāyate jñānam (Gītā 14.17). Jñāna leads to mukti, or awareness of Brahman—jñānaṁ yad brahma-darśanam (SB 3.32.31). However, this is only jīvana-mukti and not ultimate liberation because one is still conditioned by sattva-guṇa. To become absolutely free from the guṇas and thus attain ultimate liberation, atyāntikī mukti, one needs to perform bhakti. This is stated by Kṛṣṇa:

mām ca yo ‘vyabhicāreṇa   bhakti-yogena sevate
sa guṇān samatītyaitān   brahma-bhūyāya kalpate

A person who serves Me alone through unswerving devotion completely transcends these guṇas of nature and becomes qualified to realize Brahman. (Gītā 14.26)

Thus, it is understood that in our conditioned state, we have both beginningless avidyā as well as vidyā of the self and neither are part of our svarūpa.

Satyanarayana Dasa


7 thoughts on “Beginningless Avidya—Coupled with Vidya”

  1. So, basically both vidya and avidya( since they are material in nature) are still Avidya( with a capital “A”); ultimate beginningless non awareness of Bhagavan and transcendental reality/phenomena?

  2. Very helpful. Thank you. Brings in a clarity hitherto unavailable.

  3. A question just popped up in my mind: What is meant by ‘vijñāna’ in Gītā 3.41?
    The English translation says it means “realisation of truth”. If kāma can cover up (or destroy) realized-truth, doesn’t that make realisation of truth reversible? I understand that “jñāna”, which is awareness of “I” springs from sattva and is thus subject to get covered by avidyā as is explained in the article. But what is meant by “vijñāna”? If the “realized-truth” is taken to mean “svarūpa” of atman, that would be a state beyond the guṇas, and thereby irreversible. Please clarify.


    1. The word nāśanaṁ in 3.41 does not mean “destruction” but “covering”.
      It is derived from the Sanskrit root naś adarśane “to become invisible”.
      Kāma does not destroy vijñāna but can cover it.

  4. I am enthusiastic about this paradigm for conceptualizing the situation. It makes very good sense to me and feels right. I would like to check what misunderstandings I might have – by expressing what I think is the “bottom line” deduced from this.

    Jīva, really is an ātmā (specific/actuate brahman – viz akṣaraṁ brahma paramaṁ svabhāvo ’dhyātmam ucyate bg8.3).

    Jīva-Ātmā really is the PERCEIVER.

    Vidya and Avidya are CONDITIONS of perception.

    Conditions of perception require a perceiver and a perceived. So Vidya and Avidya are produced by a combination between the perciever (jīva) and the percieved (māyā).

    What does the jiva contribute to the production? It is the stage / foundation / substrate for vidya/avidya.

    What does māyā contribute? It is the object for vidya/avidya. The object itself generates conditions for its perception, but these conditions are meaningless without the perciever.

    So the jīva-svarūpa is the foundation for vidya and avidya, and in that sense only has vidya and avidya capacity inherent in it. The actual vidya or avidya is a condition of perception, hence it is provided by the perceived, and received by the perceiver.

    Depending on the condition of the maya, the substrate of the jiva is filled differently. Should the maya be in a tamasic condition, it will mainly fill the avidya capacity of the jiva. Should it be in a sattvic condition it mainly fills the vidya capacity of the jiva. Should it be suddha-sattva, then the avidya will not be utilized at all.

    How is this?

    1. It is correct as long you understand that the perception does not happen within jiva but outside it.
      This is confirmed by Krṣṇa in Gita verse 13.6 (Gita Press edition), or 13.7 (BBT edition).
      It means all the vikāras are in kṣētra and not in kṣetrajña.
      He also calls ātmā as avikārya (Gita 2.25)

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