A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1922 | 212,082 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of avijja and asava: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the sixth part in the series called the “buddhist philosophy”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 6 - Avijjā and Āsava

As to the question how the avijjā (ignorance) first started there can be no answer, for we could never say that either ignorance or desire for existence ever has any beginning[1]. Its fruition is seen in the cycle of existence and the sorrow that comes in its train, and it comes and goes with them all. Thus as we can never say that it has any beginning, it determines the elements which bring about cycles of existence and is itself determined by certain others. This mutual determination can only take place in and through the changing series of dependent phenomena, for there is nothing which can be said to have any absolute priority in time or stability. It is said that it is through the coming into being of the āsavas or depravities that the avijjā came into being, and that through the destruction of the depravities (āsava) the avijjā was destroyed[2]. These āsavas are classified in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi as kāmāsava, bhavāsava, diṭṭhāsava and avij-jāsava.

Kāmāsava means desire, attachment, pleasure, and thirst after the qualities associated with the senses; bhavāsava means desire, attachment and will for existence or birth; diṭṭhāsava means the holding of heretical views, such as, the world is eternal or non-eternal, or that the world will come to an end or will not come to an end, or that the body and the soul are one or are different; avijjāsava means the ignorance of sorrow, its cause, its extinction and its means of extinction. Dhammasaṅgaṇi adds four more supplementary ones, viz. ignorance about the nature of anterior mental khandhas, posterior mental khandhas, anterior and posterior together, and their mutual dependence[3]. Kāmāsava and bhavāsava can as Buddhaghoṣa says be counted as one, for they are both but depravities due to attachment[4].

The diṭṭhāsavas by clouding the mind with false metaphysical views stand in the way of one’s adopting the true Buddhistic doctrines. The kāmāsavas stand in the way of one’s entering into the way of Nirvāṇa (anāgāmimaggd) and the bhavāsavas and avijjāsavas stand in the way of one’s attaining arhattva or final emancipation. When the Majjhima Nikāya says that from the rise of the āsavas avijjā rises, it evidently counts avijjā there as in some sense separate from the other āsavas, such as those of attachment and desire of existence which veil the true knowledge about sorrow.

The afflictions (kilesas) do not differ much from the āsavas for they are but the specific passions in forms ordinarily familiar to us, such as

  • covetousness (lobha),
  • anger or hatred (do sa),
  • infatuation (moha),
  • arrogance, pride or vanity (māna),
  • heresy (diṭṭthi),
  • doubt or uncertainty (vicikicchā),
  • idleness (thīna),
  • boastfulness (udhacca),
  • shamelessness (ahirika)
  • and hardness of heart (anottapa);

these kilesas proceed directly as a result of the āsavas. In spite of these varieties they are often counted as three (lobha, dosa, moha) and these together are called kilesa. They are associated with the vedanākkhandha, saññākkhandha, saṅkhārak-khandha and viññānakkhandha. From these arise the three kinds of actions, of speech, of body, and of mind[5].

Footnotes and references:


Warren’s Buddhism in Translations (Visuddhimagga, chap. XVII.), p. 175.


M. N. 1. p. 54. Childers translates “āsava” as “depravities” and Mrs Rhys Davids as “intoxicants.” The word “āsava” in Skr. means “old wine.” It is derived from “su” to produce by Buddhaghosa and the meaning that he gives to it is ‘‘ cira parivāsikallhena" (on account of its being stored up for a long time like wine). They work through the eye and the mind and continue to produce all beings up to Indra. As those wines which are kept long are called “āsavas” so these are also called āsavas for remaining a long time. The other alternative that Buddhaghosa gives is that they are called āsava on account of their producing saṃsāradukkha (sorrows of the world), Atthasālinī, p. 48. Contrast it with Jaina āsrava (flowing in of karma matter). Finding it difficult to translate it in one word after Buddhaghosa, I have translated it as “depravities,” after Childers.


See Dhammasaṅgaṇi, p. 195.


Buddhaghosa’s Atthasālinī, p. 371.


Dhammasaṅgaṇi, p. 180.

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