A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 3

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1940 | 232,512 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of refutation of shankara’s avidya: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the second part in the series called the “philosophy of the ramanuja school of thought”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 2 - Refutation of Śaṅkara’s avidyā

It is urged by Śaṅkara that the self-luminous differenceless one reality appears as the manifold world through the influence of defect (doṣa). This defect, called avidyā, hides its own nature and produces various appearances and can neither be described as being nor as non-being: for it cannot be being, since then the illusion and the realization of its being an error would be inexplicable, and it cannot be non-being since then the world-appearajice, as well as its realization as being wrong, would be inexplicable.

Rāmānuja, in refuting avidyā, says that this avidyā is impossible since it must lean on some other thing for its support (āśraya), and it is clear that individual souls cannot be its support, since they themselves are regarded as being the products of avidyā. The Brahman also cannot be its support; for it is self-luminous consciousness and is hence opposed to avidyā, which is regarded as being liable to be recognized as illusory as soon as the true knowledge dawns. It cannot be argued that it is only the knowledge that Brahman is of the nature of pure knowledge, and not pure knowledge forming the essence of Brahman, that destroys avidyā', for there is no difference between these two, between knowledge as the essence of Brahman and knowledge as removing avidyā.

The nature of Brahman that is revealed by the knowledge that Brahman is of the nature of pure knowledge is already present in His pure self-luminous nature, which must necessarily on that account destroy avidyā[1]. Moreover, in accordance with Śaṅkara’s view, Brahman, being of the nature of pure intuition, cannot further be the object of any other knowledge, and hence the nature of Brahman should not be further the object of any other concept. So, if knowledge is to be opposed to ignorance or avidyā, it must be in its own essence as it is, in itself, and so Brahman, as pure knowledge, ought to be opposed to avidyā. Moreover, to say that Brahman, which is of the nature of pure self-illumination, is hidden by avidyā is to say that the very nature of Brahman is destroyed (svarūpa-nāśa)\ for, since pure self-illumination is never produced, its concealment can only mean that it is destroyed, since it has no other nature than pure self-illumination.

Again, if the contentless pure self-luminous intuition is said to assume diverse forms on account of the defect of avidyā, which is supported by it, then the question may be asked, whether this defect is real or unreal. If it is real, then the monism fails, and, if it is unreal, then the question arises, how is this unreal defect brought about? If it is brought about by some other defect, then, that also being unreal, the same question will again arise, and hence there will be a vicious infinite (anavasthā). If it is held that even without any real basis one unreal defect may be the cause of another unreal defect and so on in a beginningless series, then we virtually have nihilism (Mādhyamika-pakṣa or Śūnya-vāda)[2]. If, to escape these criticisms, it is held that the defect is the very essence of intuition (anubhūti) or Brahman, then, Brahman being eternal, the defect also will be eternal, and emancipation, or the cessation of the world-appearance, will never take place. Again, this avidyā is said to be indefinable, being different from both the existent and the non-existent (sad-asad-vilakṣaṇa). But how can this be? A thing must be either existing or not existing; how can there be anything’which is neither existing nor not-existing ?

Referring to the arguments of the Śaṅkarites in favour of the existence of ajñāna (nescience) as a positive entity and as directly perceived in such perceptions as “I am ignorant,” “I do not know myself or any others,” Rāmānuja says that such perceptions refer only to the non-existence of the knowledge of an object prior to its apprehension (prāga-bhāva). Rāmānuja argues that the ignorance perceived cannot refer to its specific and determinate object; for, if it did, then the object would be known and there would be no ignorance at all; and if the ajñāna does not refer to any specific object, how can the ajñāna or ignorance, standing by itself, be perceived or realized? If it is urged that ajñāna refers to indistinct (a-viśada-svarūpa) knowledge, then also it may be said that this may be regarded as the absence of the rise of distinct knowledge. Thus, even if a positive ignorance is admitted, it must somehow be related to something else to which it refers.

In whatever way one may attempt to explain ajñāna (ignorance), either as want of knowledge, or as other than knowledge, or as opposed to knowledge, it can be made possible only by a knowledge of the very fact of which it will be the opposite. Even darkness has to be conceived as being opposed to light; and hence one must have knowledge of light in order to understand darkness, as being opposed to it. But the ajñāna (ignorance) of the śaṅkarites cannot stand by itself, and so must show its content by a reference to the object or entity of which there is ignorance. Therefore, in the aforesaid experiences, “I am ignorant,” “I do not know myself or any one else,” it should be admitted that what is felt is this want of rise of knowledge and not any positive ignorance, as the latter is equally found to be relative to the object and the subject and has no advantage over the former. Moreover, the Brahman, which is ever free and ever the same pure self-luminous intelligence, cannot at any time feel this ignorance or avidyā. It cannot hide Brahman; for Brahman is pure intelligence, and that alone. If it is hidden, that amounts to the destruction of Brahman.

Again, if Brahman can perceive ajñāna, it can as well perceive the world appearance; if by hiding Brahman the ajñāna makes itself perceived by Brahman, then such ajñāna cannot be removed by true knowledge, since it has the power of concealing knowledge and of making itself felt by it. Further, it cannot be said that avidyā hides the Brahman only partially; for Brahman has no part. So the above experience of “I did not know anything,” as remembered in the awakened state and referring to experiences of deep sleep, is not the memory of ajñāna or ignorance directly experienced in deep sleep (suṣupti), but an inference during the awakened state of not having any knowledge during deep sleep on account of there being no memory[3]. Inference also is unavailing for proving the existence of any ajñāna; for not only would such premises of inference involve a faulty reason, but no proper example could be found which could satisfy the claim of reason by a reference to any known case where a similar thing happens. Moreover, it is quite easy to formulate other series of inferences to disprove the possibility of such ajñāna as is accepted by the Śaṅkarites[4].

Footnotes and references:


Sudarśana Sūri says here that, if there is such a difference between Brahman as essence and Brahman as destroying avidyā, that would mean that one form of Brahman is different from its other form, or, in other words, that it is qualified. Śruta-prakāśikā, Pandit edition, Benares, vol. ix, p. 658.


Sudarśana Sūri here points out that the Śaṅkarites try to evade the vicious infinite in three ways: firstly, those who think that ignorance (avidyā) is associated with jīva (jīvā-jñāna-vādī) explain it by affirming it so as to involve an infinite series like the seed-and-the-shoot (vījāṅkura), but not a vicious infinite; since on their view jīva is produced by avidyā and avidyā is again produced by jīva (avidyāyāṃ jīvaḥ jīvāda vidyā). Those again who think that avidyā belongs to Brahman (Brahmā-jñāna-vādī) hold that avidyā is by nature beginningless and the irrationality or unreasonableness of its nature is nothing surprising. As regards the beginninglessness of avidyā in an infinite series (pravāhā-nāditva) of jīva and avidyā and avidyā and jīva as propounded in the first view of the jīvā-jñāna-vādins, the refutation of it by those who hold that the ajñāna belongs to Brahman is enough. For they have pointed out that such a view goes against the universally accepted doctrine of the eternity of souls, since it held that the souls came out through avidyā and avidyā through souls. The other view, that the illusory series is by itself beginningless, is no better ; for, if one illusion were the basis of another illusion in a beginningless series, this would be practically identical with the nihilistic philosophy. Moreover, even if the illusion is admitted to be beginningless in nature, then also that must await some other root primary cause (mūla-doṣāpekṣā) from which this successive series of illusions springs, and from that another, and so there will arise the vicious infinite. If no such root cause is awaited, the world-appearance may itself be regarded as aiñdyā, and there will be no need to suppose the existence of any root cause as avidyā. Again, if avidyā is held to be irrational in nature, why should it not affect the emancipated souls and also Brahman? If it is answered that it does not do so because the emancipated souls and Brahman are pure, then that means that this avidyā is rational and wise and not irrational. Śruta-prakāśikā, in Pandit, vol. IX, pp. 636—665.


ato na kiñcid avediṣam iti jñānam na smaraṇaṃ kintu asmaraṇa-liṅgakaṃ jñanā-bhāva-visayam anumiti-rūpam.
p. 178. (Nirṇayasāgar ed. (916).)


Śruta-prakāśikā, pp. 178-180.

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