The Concept of Ajnana, Ignorance in Hinduism

Vedas, Sruti

by Jayaram V

"Jna" means to know, to learn or to become acquainted with something. Jnanam means knowing, becoming aware, understanding, comprehending, making sense, etc. Ajnana is the opposite. It is, not knowing or not being cognizant. In English language jnanam is frequently translated as knowledge, and ajnanam as ignorance.

In a religious sense, jnanam means sacred knowledge or knowledge derived from study, contemplation, observation and recitation of scriptures, which is helpful in the practice of dharma, engaging in righteous actions and attaining liberation. Such knowledge may arise from perception, inference or through the testimony of sacred scriptures or of knowledgeable people.

In Hinduism, it refers to the knowledge contained in the spiritual part of the Vedas, especially the Aranyakas and the Upanishads, which are collective known as jnanakanda, the knowledge-part, as opposed to the ritual portions (Samhitas and Brahmanas) known as karmakanda, the ritual-part. The Upanishads even go a step ahead and declare the karma kanda as ignorance (avidya).

Thus, ajnanam does not necessarily means ignorance per se, but lack of right knowledge. Ignorance is a form of knowledge only because it is also a state of awareness or consciousness. You know something which may not be right, but no one can say that you do not know at all, especially when there is no unanimity about what constitutes true knowledge.

The distinction between knowledge and ignorance becomes blurred when we cannot clearly determine what constitutes right knowledge or wrong knowledge. Most truths about the reality around us or our existence are relative and contextual and true only in a limited sense. They make it even more difficult to distinguish knowledge from ignorance.

Just as knowledge, ignorance can be relative. Many states of knowledge and ignorance can exist or arise when they are mixed or when we do not have the correct means to ascertain them. For example, you may know something, but not fully. You may have the right knowledge, but drawn wrong conclusions due to faulty reasoning or outside influence. You may have wrong knowledge, but you may not know about it at all. These situations and our perceptions of them are summed up in the following states of awareness.

  1. I know
  2. I do not know
  3. I know and do not know
  4. I neither know nor do not know
  5. I know I know
  6. I know I do not know
  7. I know I know and I know I do not know
  8. I neither know I know nor I know I do not know

There can be further gradations in each of these, when you add the extent of knowledge and ignorance in each case, making the list even more complex. (For example, I know partially, I do not know partially, I know partially and I do not know partially, and so on).

If you bring other people into this equation, it gets even more complex.

  1. I know.
  2. You know
  3. I do not know.
  4. You do not know
  5. I know and do not know
  6. You know and you do not know
  7. I neither know nor do not know
  8. You neither know nor do not know
  9. I know I know
  10. You know you know
  11. I know you know
  12. You know I know

This can go on...The point is that we do not possess absolute truths. Our knowledge is mixed. Therefore, we cannot always determine with certainty what constitutes right knowledge or wrong knowledge or ignorance.  The story of the elephant and nine blind men misses one important moral. If those nine people could see, they would have perceived the elephant correctly, although they might have had different opinions about how they related to it or what they felt about it. Knowledge can be personal and subjective. When it is so, others will be ignorant about it.

In Buddhism, ajnana refers to ignorance of Dhamma or the teachings of the Buddha, especially the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. In the Yogasutras (2.34), it is a consequence of negative thoughts (vitarka) such as thoughts of violence (himsa) which may be triggered by greed, anger and delusion.

Thus, jnana is not just any knowledge but right knowledge or useful knowledge or knowledge which arises from pure discernment. In this sense ajnanam means any knowledge which is not right knowledge or which arises from wrong perception, wrong understanding, imperfection, impurity, delusion, falsehood, doubt or skepticism, clouded thinking, and so on.

From a spiritual perspective, ajnanam refers to spiritual ignorance of not knowing, not being wise or not being right or correct about one’s essential nature or current condition or the means to attain liberation. It refers to any knowledge or awareness which deludes your mind or incites your desires and selfishness or motivates you to engage in evil actions and materialistic pursuits.

In this sense, knowledge can be ignorance too, and vice versa. Whether you call it knowledge or ignorance, ignorance of self-knowledge, which constitutes spiritual ignorance, not only leads to suffering and the spiritual downfall but also keeps you bound to the mortal world. This type of ignorance is common to all living beings who are caught in the cycle of births and death and bound to the mortal world. Because of that, they mistake truth for falsehood and the unreal for real and engage in desire-ridden actions which lead to their suffering and rebirth.

Thus, the state of ignorance is a serious problem. It cannot be taken lightly since it deludes our thinking and endangers our very survival, freedom and wellbeing. Hence, in liberation theologies such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, ajnana (ignorance) is perceived as a problem, cause, condition, defect or effect which need to be resolved with right methods and right knowledge.

Ajnana or spiritual ignorance is the normal or natural state of all living beings. It exists in us and around us. It is not an auspicious state since most of our problems can be traced to it. Hence, in art, literature and cultural expressions, it is either compared to or associated with darkness, mire (thimiram), evil quality, delusion, impurity, weakness (durbalam), confusion, indiscretion, perversion, inferior condition, dark path, demonic nature, eclipse, cloud, mode (guna), and so on.

In Hinduism, the path of ignorance is a downward path (adhogati) which leads to a downfall into darker worlds or a lower birth. The path of knowledge is an upward path (urdhwagati) which leads to a higher world or a higher birth. The Bhagavadgita mentions the path of knowledge (jnanayoga) as one of the most important yogas for liberation. Its alternative terms is jnana-yajna, the sacrifice of knowledge or the sacrifice in which knowledge is offered in the service of God and his devotees,

It is also the foremost of all other yogas, because it is the foundation upon which they can successfully be practiced. Even to worship God and practice devotion, you must know the right way or the correct way to do it. The scripture states that if you ignorantly worship the lower gods, spirits, demigods, etc., you will reach them in the afterworld, but you will not attain the highest goal, which is liberation. To attain liberation, you have to worship Isvara himself, and for that you need to overcome ignorance about yourself and God and know the right means or yogas.

Ajnanis, the skeptics of ancient India

There existed during the Buddha’s time an atheistic or agnostic school of Sramanic tradition, known as Ajnana. They challenged every metaphysical assertion and refused to acknowledge any knowledge as true. To know more about them, please follow the link below.

Ajnana, the School of Skepticism in Ancient India

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