A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 4

Indian Pluralism

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1949 | 186,278 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of perception of ajnana (ignorance): a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the fifth part in the series called the “controversy between the dualists and the monists”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 5 - Perception of ajñāna (ignorance)

The Śaṅkarites urge that ajñāna can be dirfcctly intuited by perception and that therefore its existence is attested by perception. In regard to this Vyāsa-tīrtha says that what is regarded as perception of ignorance as a positive entity is nothing more than negation of knowledge. Thus the substratum of the ego (aham-artha) is not admitted to be a support of the positive entity of ignorance. The apperception “I am ignorant” is to be explained therefore as being the experience of absence of knowledge and not of a positive ignorance (ajñāna). Again, since neither pleasure, pain, nor the illusory entities cognized in illusion are directly manifested by the sākṣi-consciousness, absence of such knowledge (e.g., “I do not know pleasure,” “I do not know pain,” “I do not know conch-shell-silver”) is to be explained as negation of knowledge and not as due to an experience of positive ignorance. So also, when one says “I do not know what you say,” there is only an experience of negation of knowledge and not of positive ignorance. In mediate knowledge also, since the illumination does not proceed by direct removal of the veil of ajñāna from the face of the object, the theory that all knowledge which does not involve the removal of ajñāna involves an intuition of positive ignorance would land us into the position that, when something is known in mediate knowledge, one should feel as if he did not know it, since no ajñāna is directly removed here.

On the Śaṅkarite view it is not admitted that there is any veil covering material objects; consequently the explanation of the experience of ignorance in such cases as “I do not know what you say” is to be found in the supposition, not of a positive ignorance, but of absence of knowledge. It may be contended that, though there may not be any ajñāna veiling the objects, yet these very material creations represent the creative (vikṣepa) part of ajñāna and so the experience of the unknown objects represents an experience of positive ajñāna, since ajñāna creations do not always arrest knowledge. Thus, for instance, when a jug is known as a jug, if someone says that it is a cloth and not a jug, that does not produce a confusion in the perceiver of the jug, though the delusive words of the speaker must be supposed to produce a false impression—a vikṣepa of ajñāna. It will be shown later that the experience “I do not know” with reference to a material object does not refer to pure consciousness as limited by material qualities[1]. On the view which admits the vṛtti in order to explain the reflection of pure consciousness no ajñāna can be admitted as veiling the consciousness under material limitations. Moreover, if the experience “I am ignorant” (aham ajñaḥ) is explained as being a direct intuition of ajñāna and, as such, different from the experience “there is no knowledge in me” (mayi jñānaṃ nāsti), then the two propositions “the ground without the jug” and “there is no jug in the ground” are different in meaning, which is absurd; for certainly the two propositions do not differ in meaning, any more than any other two propositions, e.g., “I have a desire” and “I have no antipathy.” There is no difference between the two concepts of absence of knowledge and ignorance. Again, when one is engaged in Vedāntic discipline for the attainment of Brahma-knowledge, there is at that time the negation-precedent-to-the-production of Brahma-knowledge; for, if it were not so, then there would be the Brahma-knowledge and there would be no necessity for Vedāntic discipline. Now a negation-precedent-to-production cannot be known without the knowledge of the entity to which it refers. If this is admitted, then without the knowledge of Brahman there cannot be any knowledge of its negation-precedent-to-production; and, if there is knowledge, then Brahman becomes known, and, if it is considered that such a negation of Brahma-knowledge is known as a positive entity by direct intuition (as it would be on the theory of the direct intuition of ajñāna), then Brahman also would be known directly at the stage of the negation precedent to it, which is self-contradictory.

Moreover, the concept of ajñāna is clearly that of negation of knowledge, as in the sentence “I do not know.” Even in cases when one says “I am ignorant” the sense of negation is apparent, though there is no negative particle. The Vivaraṇa also admits the opposition of ajñāna to knowledge; and, if this were admitted, then with the knowledge of such opposition there would not be knowledge of ignorance as a positive entity, and without such knowledge of opposition there will be no knowledge of ajñāna, that being the essential concept of ajñāna. Even a negation of knowledge which has a reference to the object of which there is the negation may also have no such reference when it is taken up as being itself an object of the enquiry of knowledge. Thus there is no way in which ajñāna can be regarded as anything but a negation of knowledge; and the supposition that ajñāna, though in its analytical concept it involves two constituents—knowledge and its negation—yet is only a name for a positive concept which does not involve these constituents, is wrong[2]. If ajñāna can be removed by vṛtti knowledge, it is unnecessary to suppose that it has any other meaning different from that involved in its constituent negative particle qualifying knowledge. Experience also shows that ajñāna has no other meaning than the negation of knowledge; so, unless the entity which is the defining reference of ajñāna is known, there cannot be any knowledge of ajñāna. But such a defining reference being Brahma-knowledge which has no ajñāna associated with it, the inclusion of the defining reference would make the concept impossible: hence there cannot be any knowledge of ajñāna[3].

The reply made by the Śaṅkarites is that the defining reference of ajñāna is Brahma-knowledge and this Brahma-knowledge as sākṣi-consciousness, being the manifester of ajñāna, is not opposed to it; for it is only the vṛtti shade mind that is opposed to ajñāna. So, there being no opposition between the Brahma-knowledge as sākṣi-consciousness and the ajñāna, it is quite possible to have a knowledge of ajñāna in spite of the fact that Brahma-knowledge becomes in a sense its constituent as a defining reference. But it may be pointed out in reply that the awareness of Brahma-know-ledge is the sākṣi-consciousness; the experience “I do not know” is a negation of vṛtti knowledge and, as such, it may be referred to the sākṣi-consciousness even when there is no vṛtti knowledge. Thus the solution in the theory that ajñāna is nothing but negation of knowledge would be just the same as in the theory of ajñāna as positive entity. If it is contended that, though denial of knowledge may be related to the defining reference in a general manner, yet it may, in its specific form, appear as a mere positive ignorance without involving such an explicit relation to the defining reference —to this the reply is that, even if this contention is admitted, it does not lend any support to the admission of a positive ignorance; for even in the case of a negation of knowledge one may well admit that, though it may be generally related to a defining reference, yet in any specific case it may not always involve such a reference. It is further urged by some that an entity may be known directly and that such knowledge may not involve always the specific defining relations of that entity; it is only the latter type of knowledge which makes doubt impossible. But the fact that there may be doubt regarding an object that is known shows clearly that an object may be known without its specific and negative relations being manifested at the same time.

Moreover, if ajñāna cannot be grasped by the vṛtti knowledge, then there also cannot be any possibility of inference regarding ajñāna. When one says “you do not know the secret,” the hearer to whom the secret is presented through a mediate cognitional state would not be able to have the awareness of the ajñāna, if the ajñāna could not be presented through a vṛtti cognition. It cannot be said that the mediate cognitional state is not opposed to ajñāna ; for, if that were so, then even when an entity was known through a mediate cognition he might have had the experience that he did not know it. It is admitted by the Śaṅkarites that the vṛtti of direct intuition through perception is opposed to ajñāna ; and, if vṛtti of mediate cognition also is opposed to ajñāna, then there is no mental state through which ajñāna can be known.

The experience in deep dreamless sleep, “I did not know anything so long,” also refers to absence of knowledge, and not to any positive ignorance. It cannot be said that, since at that time all other knowledge has ceased (there being no awareness of the perceiver or of any other content), there cannot be any awareness regarding the absence of knowledge; for the objection would be the same with regard to the experience of positive ignorance. If it is urged that in that state ajñāna is experienced directly as a positive entity, but its relationing with regard to its special defining reference becomes apparent in the waking state, the same explanation may equally well be given if the experience in the dreamless sleep be regarded as being that of absence of knowledge; for negation of knowledge may also be experienced as a knowable entity without any relation to its defining reference; or the so-called experience of ignorance may be explained as an inference of the absence of knowledge, in the dreamless state, made from physical and physiological conditions in the waking state. In the Śaṅkarite view also, since the ego cannot be experienced in that state, the experience “I did not know anything” must be regarded as being in some sense illusory. If it is urged that in the dreamless state ajñāna, being reflected through a state of avidyā (avidyā-vṛtti), is intuited by the sākṣi-consciousness, then it might equally well be intuited in the same manner in the waking state also. If it is regarded as being intuited directly by the $ā£«-consciousness, then, being an eternal cognition, it would have no root-impression (saṃskāra) and could not be remembered. Moreover, if it is not agreed that the absence of knowledge in the dreamless state is a matter of inference from conditions in the waking state, then the absence of knowledge in the dreamless state cannot in any other way be proved; for it cannot be inferred from a positive ajñāna, since the negation of knowledge, being material (jaḍa), has no ajñāna associated with it as a veiling factor. Moreover, if from ajñāna, a positive entity, the negation of knowledge can always be inferred, then from the negation of attachment in the dreamless state positive antipathy will have to be inferred. Thus the ajñāna can never be regarded as being susceptible of direct intuition.

Madhusūdana’s reply is that, though the ego perceived cannot be a support of the ajñāna, yet, since the antaḥkaraṇa in its causal form is falsely identified with the pure consciousness which is the support of the ajñāna, the ajñāna appears to be associated with the ego perceived. This explains the experience in the dreamless sleep, “I did not know anything.” In the case of the experience “I do not know the jug” also, though there cannot be any veil on the jug, yet, since ajñāna has for its support consciousness limited by the jug-form, there is the appearance that the jug-form itself is the object of the veil of ajñāna. The objection that in the mediated cognition, there being the veil of ajñāna on the object, there ought to be the negation of awareness is also invalid; for, when the ajñāna is removed from the knower, the enlightenment of knowledge cannot be obstructed by the presence of the ajñāna in the object.

The objection of Vyāsa-tīrtha that ajñāna is only a negation of knowledge and that therefore, instead of admitting ajñāna as existing as a positive entity in the perceiver, it is better to admit the negation of knowledge only, is invalid; for the experience of negation of knowledge is invalid in this form, because negation implies the defining reference as a constituent. In order to know that “there is no knowledge in me” there must be a knowledge of knowledge in me, which is self-contradictory. The experience of negation of knowledge in the perceiver without involving any relation to a defining reference can only be valid in the case of positive ajñāna. A specific negation can never appear as a universal negation; for, if this were admitted, then even when there is a particular book on the table there may be an experience of there being no book on the table; since according to the proposed theory of the opponent a specific negation of this or that book is to appear as universal negation. Madhusūdana urges that what constitutes the difference between negations is not a difference between negations per se, but is due to the difference among the defining references which are a constituent in them. It is thus impossible that the experience of one’s ignorance could be explained on the supposition that such an experience referred to experience of negation; for it has already been shown that such negation can be neither specific nor universal. So the experience of ignorance is to be regarded as the experience of a positive entity.

It may however be contended that the concept of ajñāna also involves a reference by way of opposition to knowledge and thus implies knowledge as its constituent, so that all the objections raised against the concept of negation apply equally well to the concept of ajñāna. The reply is that on the Śaṅkarite view the pure sākṣi-consciousness grasps at the same time both ajñāna and the object as veiled by it without consequent destruction or contraction of either of them. Thus there is no chance of any self-contradiction; for the awareness of ajñāna does not involve any process which negates it[4]. If it is contended by the opponent that in the case of the awareness of negation also a similar reply is possible (on the assumption that the object of negation is directly known by the sākṣi-consciousness), Madhusūdana’s reply is that, since ajñāna can be known by sākṣi-consciousness, its defining reference is also intuited thereby—in the same manner; but, since negations are not intuited directly by the sākṣi-consciousness, but only through the pramāṇa of non-perception, the defining reference of ajñāna also cannot be intuited by the sākṣi. It cannot be contended that negation no less than knowledge may be manifested by the sākṣi- consciousness; for knowledge implies the non-existence of negation, and so the two cannot be manifested by sākṣi-consciousness at the same time; but unproduced knowledge may appear in a qualitative relation to ajñāna, since, the relation being qualitative, there is no contradiction between the two, and this explains the possibility of the knowledge of ajñāna. The Śaṅkarites do not admit that the knowledge of a qualified entity presupposes the knowledge of the quality; and so the objection that, the entity which forms the defining relation of ajñāna not being previously known, ajñāna cannot have such defining reference as its adjectival constituent is invalid[5].

An objection may be raised to the effect that, since Brahma-knowledge is to be attained by a definite course of discipline, so long as that is not passed through there is a negation-precedent-to-Brahma-knowledge; and admission of such a negation exposes the Śaṅkarites to all the criticisms which they wished to avoid. The reply is to be found in the view that instead of admitting a negation-precedent here the Śaṅkarites assume that there may either be knowledge of Brahman or ajñāna relating to it, i.e., instead of admitting a negation-precedent-to-Brahma-knovvledge, they admit a positive ignorance regarding Brahma-knowledge; and thus there is no contradiction.

Vyāsa-tīrtha’s contention is that negation of an entity does not necessarily imply the knowledge of any particular entity in its specific relations as a constituent of the knowledge of it, and such knowledge may arise without any specific reference to the particularities of the defining reference. In such experience as “I do not know” no specific defining reference is present to the mind and there is only a reference to entities in general. On such a view, since the knowledge of the defining reference is not a constituent of the knowledge of negation, there is no contradiction on the ground that, since negation is affirmed with regard to the defining reference, its presence as a constituent is impossible. To this Madhusūdana’s reply is that no negation of any particular entity can appear merely in a general reference without regard to the specific relations of that particular entity. If it is urged that no negation-precedent can appear in association with the specific particularities of the defining reference as a constituent and that all negations-precedent can appear only in a general reference, the criticism is answered by Madhusūdana to the effect that such negations-precedent as are associated only with the general reference to their defining character are impossible[6]. The opponent of Madhusūdana is supposed to argue that the nature of the defining reference in a negation involves only that particular content which is a character inherent in the thing or things negated. Such characters, forming the content of the knowledge of negation, may indeed constitute the defining limit as such of a thing or things negated; but such an objective reference is wholly irrelevant for the knowledge of any negation. What is essential in the knowledge of the negation is the content, which, indeed, involves the character associated with the things negated, and so the defining reference involved in the knowledge of negation has reference only to such characters as are psychologically patent in experience and do not imply that they are objectively the defining characters of the things negated. Thus, since on such a view the knowledge of negation does not involve as a constituent the things negated, there is no such contradiction as is urged by the Śaṅkarites. As to this Madhusūdana says that such a reply does not provide any escape from the strictures already made by him; for the opponents seem to think that it is sufficient if the defining reference involved in a negation is regarded as a defining character of the knowledge of negation and does not involve the supposition that at the same time it is also the defining character of the objects negated, and they hold that in a knowledge of negation the particular entity that is negated does not appear in its specific character, but only generically, and, if this were so, then, even when an object is present in a spot as a particular, there may be an experience of negation of it in a general manner, since according to the opponents’ supposition particular negations always appear only generically. Thus, when one says “I have no knowledge,” if knowledge here has only a generic reference, the proposition is absurd, since the knowledge of not having knowledge is itself a knowledge, and in the proposition the negation of knowledge, having a general reference, contradicts the very supposition of not having knowledge.

It may be urged that, if the above criticisms against the knowledge of negation be valid, then the same would apply to negation-precedent also. To this Madhusūdana’s reply is that there is no necessity to admit “negation-precedent”; for the real meaning of the so-called negation-precedent is future production, which, again, means nothing more than that time-entity which is not qualified by any object or its destruction—such object being that which is supposed to be the defining reference of the so-called negation-precedent. This is also the meaning of futurity[7]. It must be noted in this connection that production must be defined as a specific relation which stands by itself ; for it cannot be defined in terms of negation-precedent, since the negation-precedent can be defined only in terms of production, and thus, if negation-precedent is made a constituent of the definition of production, this entails a vicious circle. So, even if negation-precedent be admitted, it would be difficult to show how it could be intuited; and, on the other hand, one loses nothing by not admitting negation-precedent as a separate category. The negation involved in a negation-precedent is equivalent, so far as merely the negation is concerned, to the absence of the negated object at a particular point of time, which, again, has for its content a specific negation limited by a particular time, where the specific object appears only in a generic relation. An analysis of this shows that in negation-precedent (prāg-abhāva) there is negation of a specific object as limited by the present, yet that specific object does not appear in its character as specific and particular, but only in a generic manner[8]. The dilemma here is that negation of a specific object (viśeṣābhāva) cannot have for the content of its defining reference merely the generic character of the thing negated, without involving any of its particularities; and, if this is so, then there cannot be any negation-precedent involving this condition. Again, if the possibility of such a contingency be admitted, then general negation (sāmānyābhāva) is impossible; for no negation limited by any kind of particularity either of time or of object would be entitled to be called a general negation. Thus both the negation-precedent and the general negation appear to be interdependent in their conception, and so thwart each other that neither of them can be admitted. The main contention of Madhusūdana in all these cases is that no specific object can as defining reference in any negation appear only in a generic nature devoid of relation to particularity. Thus, when one says “I do not know,” the experience involved in such a proposition is not that of the negation of a particular object appearing only in a generic aspect. If this contention is admitted, then the experience involved in “I do not know” cannot be interpreted as being one of general negation.

Again, it is a matter of common experience that the mere locus of the negation can itself furnish the awareness of negation; thus the bare spot is also the negation of the jug on it. Looked at from this point of view, even positive entities may yield a comprehension of negation. It is wrong to suggest that the nature of the defining reference defines the nature of the negation; for, if this were so, then it would have been impossible that the different negations, such as negation-precedent, destruction, etc., should be classed as different, since they all have the same defining reference. According to the view of Madhusūdana the differences of negation are due to illusory impositions no less than are differences in positive entities.

Even if it is held that there is only one negation, which under different conditions appears as diverse, the Śaṅkarites will have nothing to object to; for according to them both negation and position are but illusory impositions. But Madhusūdana points out that, since the experience “I am ignorant” does not (even under the trenchant analysis undergone above) disclose as its origin any negation, it must be admitted that it is due to the experience of the positive entity of ajñāna.

So Madhusūdana further urges that the apperception in the waking state of the experience of the dreamless sleep, viz., “I did not know anything so long,” refers to a positive ajñāna. Now, if this apperception be an inference, the opponent points out that it may be an inference of negation of knowledge and not of positive ignorance. For one may well infer that, since he existed and during the interval between the two waking stages had a state of mind, that state must have been a state of absence of knowledge. The apperception cannot be said to be mere memory; for memory can only be through root-impressions. The intuition of the sākṣi-conscious-ness being eternal, no root-impression can be produced by such knowledge; for the mechanism of root-impressions is only a psychological device for producing memory by such cognitions as are transitory. To this Madhusūdana’s reply is that the apperception under discussion cannot be called an inference; for the inference is based on the ground that the sleeper had a mental state during the dreamless condition. But, if he had no knowledge at the time, it is impossible for him to say that he was at that time endowed with any specific mental state. It also cannot be said that negation of knowledge during dreamless sleep can be inferred from the fact that at that time there was no cause for the production of knowledge; for the absence of such cause can be known only from the absence of knowledge (and vice versa), and this involves a vicious circle. Nor can it be said that absence of cause of knowledge can be inferred from the blissful condition of the senses, which could happen only as a consequence of the cessation of their operation; for there is no evidence that the cessation of the operation of the senses would produce the blissful condition. It must be noted in this connection that intuition of ajñāna is always associated with absence of knowledge; so that in every case where there is an intuition of ajñāna the inference of absence of knowledge would be valid. The so-called non-perception is really an inference from positive ajñāna', thus, when one has perceived in the morning an empty yard, he can infer from the absence of the knowledge of an elephant in it the fact of his positive ignorance of an elephant there. Thus the apperception of absence of knowledge can be explained as inference. It can also be explained as a case of memory. The objection that the intuition of ajñāna cannot have any root-impression is also invalid; for the ajñāna which is the object of the sākrc-consciousness during dreamless sleep is itself a reflection through a vṛtti of ajñāna, since it is only under such conditions that ajñāna can be an object of sākṣi-consciousness. Since a vṛtti is admitted in the intuition of ajñāna, with the cessation of the vṛtti there must be a root-impression and through that there can be memory of the vṛtti, as in the case of the memory of any other cognition[9].

It cannot be contended that, if ajñāna requires for its cognition a vṛtti state, then, if there is no such vṛtti, there may be doubt regarding ajñāna ; for there cannot be any ajñāna regarding ajñāna, and doubt itself, being a modification of ajñāna, has the same scope as ajñāna. It cannot be urged that, like ajñāna, negation may also be perceived by the sākṣi-consciousness; for, since negation is always associated with its defining reference, it cannot be intuitively perceived by the indeterminate intuitive sākṣi-conscious-ness. Though ajñāna involves an opposition to knowledge, yet the opposition is not as such intuited in the dreamless state. Madhusūdana says that it is contended that, since there is a continuous succession of ajñāna states, from the dreamless condition to the waking stage (for in the waking state also all cognitions take place by reflection through ajñāna states), there is no occasion for a memory of the dreamless intuition of ajñāna ; for through saṃ-skāras memory is possible on the destruction of a vṛtti state of cognition. To this the reply is that the ajñāna state of dreamless condition is of a specific nature of darkness (tamasī) which ceases with sleep, and hence there is no continuity of succession between this and the ordinary cognitive states in the waking condition. From one point of view, however, the contention is right; for it may well be maintained that in the dreamless state ajñāna exists in its causal aspect, and thus, since the ajñāna is the material for experience of both dreamless sleep and waking state, there is in reality continuity of succession of ajñāna, and thus there cannot be any memory of dreamless experience of ajñāna. It is for this reason that Sureśvara has discarded this view. The view taken by the author of the Vivaraṇa follows the conception of sleep in the Yoga-sūtras, where a separate vṛtti in the dreamless state is admitted. Thus the experience of the dreamless state may well be described as relating to experience of positive ajñāna.

Footnotes and references:


jaḍe na jānāmīty anubhavasya jaḍāvacchinnaṃ caitanyaṃ viṣaya iti cen na, nirasiṣyamāṇatvāt.
p. 309(c).


jñānābhāvo’pi hi prameyatvādinājñāne pratiyogy-ādi-jñānānapekṣa etena nipuṇe kuśalādi-śabdavat bhāva-rūpa-jñāne ajñānaśabdo rūdha iti nirastam.
p. 312.


api ca bhāva-rūpājñānāvacchedaka-viṣayasyājñāne ajñāna-jñānāyogāt jñāne ca ajñānasaivābhāvāt kathaṃ bhāva-rūpājñānajñānaṃ.
p. 313.


pramāṇa-vṛtti-nivartyasyāpi bhāva-rūpājñānasya sākṣi-vedyasya virodhi-nirūpaka-jñāna-tad-vyāvartaka-viṣaya-grāhakeṇa sākṣiṇā tat-sādhakena tad-anāśād vyāhaty-anupapatteḥ.
p. 550.


na ca avacchedakasya viṣayādeḥ prāgajñāne kathaṃ tad-viśiṣṭājñāna-jñānaṃ. viśeṣaṇa-jñānādhīnatvād viśiṣṭa-jñānasyeti vācyaṃ viśeṣaṇa-jñānasya viśiṣṭa-jñāna-jñanatve mānābhāvāt.
p. 550.


pratiyogitāvacchedaka-prakāraka-jñānābhāvena prāg-abhāva-pratītir asid-dhaiva.
p. 552.


bhaviṣyatvaṃ ca pratiyogi-tad-dhvaṃsānādhāra-kāla-saṃbandhitvam.
p. 552.


ihedānīṃ ghaṭo nāstīti pratītis tu sāmānya-dharmāvacchinna-pratiyogitāka-tat-kālāvacchinna-yāvad-viśeṣābhāva-viṣayā.
p. 553.


ajñānasyājñāna-vṛtti-prativiṃbita-sākṣi-bhāsyatvena vṛtti-nāśād eva saṃskāropapatteḥ.
p. 557.

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