Seven interpretations


After this comes two units of three verses each. In these six verses, the process of experiencing that Reality Ultimate is discussed in a paradoxical language.  We shall first deal with the first three: Verses 9, 10 and 11:


andham tamaH pravishanti yo’vidyAm-upAsate /

tato bhUya iva te tamo ya u vidyAyAm ratAH // 9 //


Into blinding darkness  enter those who worship Ignorance (avidyA); they who worship knowledge (vidyA) go into an even greater darkness.


The first sentence seems to make sense, but the second one is mystifying.  In fact if now we read the next two verses which go in the same strain, the confusion is likely to get further confounded.


anyadevAhur-vidyayA anyadAhur-avidyayA /

iti shushruma dhIrANAm ye nas-tad vicacaxire // 10 //

vidyAm-cAvidyAm-ca yastad-vedobhayam saha /

avidyayA mRtyum tIrtvA vidyayA-mRtam-ashnute // 11 //


There are other things which have been said for Knowledge. Others say something else about Ignorance. This is how we have heard from great people (dhIras) who have talked about these things after good counsel and enquiry. He who knows both Knowledge and Ignorance together, transcends death by Ignorance and through Knowledge gains Immortality.


These three verses (and the other three following these) have been commented upon by every exponent of Indian philosophy or of the Upanishads. We have several interpretations.  Each one takes up the explanations in a very elaborate style. Still the final result is only an obscure understanding for the reader. All the interpretations depend upon what meaning you give to the words ‘vidyA’ and ‘avidyA’. The simple meanings of these words, namely, Knowledge and Ignorance do not carry us far as would have been felt by the reader from the above translation. We shall save ourselves a lot of bother by classifying the interpretations into three levels.  As always in Hindu philosophy, the explanation of the answer to a question  or a scriptural text is amenable to different levels of handling, depending upon the level of evolution of the speaker or the writer and the context to which the discussion applies. It is therefore necessary to distinguish three levels of interpretation of these two words vidyA and avidyA as far as Ishopanishad is concerned. We give them below in a chart form.



avidyA (Ignorance)  ;  VidyA (Knowledge)


1 Performance of rituals ; Knowledge about rituals

2 Actions done specifically for results '; Worship through the knowledge about deities


3 Sense-organs of Action ; Sense organs of Perception & Cognition

4 Knowledge of the universe thro. the six pramANas ; Knowledge of God thro. the feeling of doing & experiencing

5 Action ; Meditation


6 Efforts, spiritual, towards Enlightenment ; Scholarliness about Brahman

7 Consciousness of multiplicity ; Consciousness of unity




Different levels of Understanding, not different interpretations!


The above chart gives in two columns the various interpretations given to the words avidyA and vidyA.  Each one makes sense in its own context. It should also be noted that the above is not an exhaustive list covering all the different commentaries on the Upanishat.  But it is a representative sample.  Nos.1 and 2 may be taken to be at a simplistic level. Nos.3, 4 and 5 may be taken as representative of a middle level of understanding. Nos.6 and 7 are rather sophisticated. The different interpretations are mentioned here not for making a comparison and contrast among them but to tell the reader that he is to make his own choice as suits his temperament, taste and evolution. Once the choice is made then the interpretation of the three verses will go somewhat as follows. For instance, the first interpretation says that performance of rituals alone would not take one to salvation, it will take one only down the scale of evolution.  But perhaps this is better than having only a knowledge about rituals from books and not doing any of them! Such knowledge without practice would only take one to greater darkness. Ritualistic practice according to Vedas takes one to Heaven after death, but the practice of them with knowledge takes one to immortality which is higher than heavenly comforts and happiness. This way we have to understand each of the seven interpretations above. Not all the different levels of interpretations appeal to the same person. It does not matter. This is where the beauty of the Upanishat lies. Also what appeals to one at one point of time may not appeal to the same person at a different time in his spiritual growth. So there is no right or wrong interpretation. Though this is true of many of the facets of the eclectic religion of Hinduism as a whole, it is particularly true of these complicated passages in the Upanishats.


Knowledge and Ignorance


In avidyA there is no light. In vidyA there is no darkness. The first line of the Upanishat, IshA-vAsyaM-idam sarvam is of the form of vidyA.  The first line of the second verse kurvanneveha karmANi, is of the form of avidyA because there is no Light there. AvidyA represents the organs of Action; following them exclusively will make you blind to the Supreme. VidyA represents the organs of perception; following them exclusively will make you lame. AvidyA is Science. VidyA is Religion. And we come to Einstein’s famous statement: Science without religion is blind and religion without science is lame! AvidyA is knowledge of the universe obtained through the senses. Depending upon that exclusively will only increase our desires, effort and Karma and end up in attachment and hate. VidyA is knowledge of God through the organs of cognition. But real Godhead is beyond these sense organs. The real knowledge will come only after the mind has been purified by involvement in unselfish action or by the Grace of the Guru. Action is avidyA; it takes you to what you don’t have. Worship is vidyA; it shows you what you already have. Ritualistic action takes you only to the world of ancestors: karmaNa pitR lokaH. Worship unfolds for you the divine element in you: vidyayA deva-lokaH. Seeing the universe is avidyA. Seeing the maker of the universe is vidyA.

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© 2017 by V. Krishnamurthy