The Concept of Jnana or Knowledge in Hinduism


by Jayaram V

This essay is about the distinction between knowledge and ignorance, jnana and ajnana according to the principles and practice of Hinduism.

Hinduism derives its knowledge and wisdom from many sources. Countless people enriched it. It is through the individual contribution of many pious people, enlightened masters and spiritual teachers Hinduism has acquired its current form.

There was little organized activity in the development of Hinduism. If there was, it would have happened through the caste system, which ensured that certain families dedicated themselves, generation after generation, to serve its institutions and preserve its knowledge and traditions. They ensured the continuity and purity of the sacred knowledge of Hinduism.

Thus, Hinduism is essentially a religion of the humans, by the humans and for the humans. Since it has been derived from many divergent sources, Hinduism has a rich ritual, spiritual and philosophical base. They represent the multidimensional aspect of Hinduism and multiple perspectives of eternal truths, exemplifying the limitations of the human mind and its continuing struggle to explore and comprehend the eternal truths of existence and the mysterious universe in which we exist.

However, it is incorrect to assume that God played no role in the origin and development of its Dharma. Hindu scriptures tell a different story. They suggest that the source of Hinduism was God himself, and it flourished in the backdrop of God serving as its protector and upholder.

He revealed the sacred knowledge of Hinduism through many channels such as incarnations, emanations, gods, humans, demons, saints and seers, who contributed to the flowering of its knowledge and wisdom.

Krishna an incarnation of God Lord Krishna, an Incarnation of God

Whenever it declined, he manifested upon earth to preserve it. Whoever threatened it with their evil nature, he destroyed them.

Thus, truly Isvara, the Lord of the universe, is the Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva of Hinduism. Gods humans and celestial beings constitute his army and play an important role in the continuation and preservation of Hinduism.

The meaning of jnana

Hinduism recognizes that knowledge is the means by which humans can seek the help of gods to survive in this world or safely cross the turbulent sea of impermanence to reach the world immortality. Knowledge opens their eyes to the truths of existence and the very truth which is hidden in them. Without knowledge they will be lost in a sea of ignorance and mental darkness.

In Sanskrit, jnanam is the word used to denote sacred knowledge. Jna means to know, to learn or to become aware of. “Am” means this or the Self. (It is almost so similar to the Am in I am). Thus, jnanam means to know or to become aware of the Self. From this it is clear that jnanam truly means the sacred knowledge by which one knows “this” or the Self.

A person may acquire jnana through several means, from observation, insight, intuition, intelligence, understanding, study, learning and contemplation upon the higher truths of God, religion, philosophy, scriptures, the world and existence. It may also spontaneously arise due to the merit (punya) accumulated in the past births or by the grace of gods.

Jnana or sacred knowledge has a great significance in Hinduism because it is the basis of Dharma, virtuous conduct, order and regularity, discernment, purity, self-awareness and self-realization. Knowledge distinguishes the enlightened from the ignorant and the seers from the deluded ones. With wealth, one may temporarily achieve peace and happiness or enjoy pleasures, but with one knowledge one can enjoy everlasting happiness, peace and stability.

According to Hindu beliefs until a person acquires right knowledge he remains ignorant and deluded, bound to the cycle of births and deaths. Upon attaining it, he first becomes the twice born. If he persists on the path and puts that knowledge to right use to cultivate purity of thought and vision, he achieves liberation and becomes one with God himself.

Related concepts

The following are a few words and concepts which are related to the word Jnana

Jnanayoga: Study and practice of the sacred knowledge of the Self and Brahman which leads to liberations. Its regular practice purifies the mind, sharpens the intellect and leads to discernment, concentration, equanimity, sameness and absorption of the mind in the contemplation of the Self.

Jnanayajna: The act of contemplation and meditation, or the offering of knowledge in the pursuit of liberation. Symbolically, it refers to the internal sacrifice of using the internal organ and its aspects (the senses, mind and intelligence, perceptual knowledge and intellectual knowledge) as offerings in the fire of consciousness to realize the Self.

Jnanakanda: That part of the Vedas which deals with the spiritual knowledge of Brahman, Atman, Yoga and Self-realization. Traditionally, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads constitute the Jnanakanda, in contrast to Karmakanda, which deals with the ritual knowledge.

Jnani: The enlightened master, the possessor of the secret knowledge of the Self, a true scholar who is well versed in the study and knowledge of the scriptures. A Brahmajnani is one who has the knowledge of Brahman and an atmajnani is the one who has the knowledge of the Self.

Brahmajnanam: The sacred knowledge of Brahman, the Supreme Self as found in the Upanishads. It arises from the study and practice of various Brahmavidyas, which are found in the Upanishads which leads to union with the Supreme Self. Brahmajna means the knower of Brahman.

Vijnana: It is often used as a synonym to Jnana. However, in some contexts it may mean verified or tested knowledge, practical knowledge and knowledge of material things (vishaya jnana). It is also used in vernacular languages to denote science (Vijnana sastram).

Ajnana: Ignorance or the lack of knowledge. According to Hinduism, ignorance is the root cause of delusion whereby we fail to perceive the truth hidden in things around us and mistake them for real, rather than the essence which is hidden in them. By overcoming ignorance, one become a true seer, the seeing one. Ignorance is also known as avidya.

Jnanendriya: The sense organs or the organs of perception. Indra (the mind) is their controller. Symbolically, they represent the divinities in the body where they are bound to the breath (prana) and exist as long as there is breath in the body. Upon death, they depart from the body along with the breath into the mid-region, and from there to their respective spheres.

Jnanachakshu: The mind’s eye, the third eye, intellectual sharpness or intuitive intelligence. When it is opened, one becomes aware of the truths that were hitherto hidden. It also refers to the discerning wisdom or intellectual ability to distinguish truth from falsehood.

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