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Pleasure, happiness, and freedom from misery || Acharya Prashant, on Vedanta (2020)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
12 min
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अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽविद्यामुपासते । ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उ विद्यायां रताः ॥

andhaṁ tamaḥ praviśanti ye'vidyāmupāsate tato bhūya iva te tamo ya u vidyāyāṁ ratāḥ

Those who worship avidyā enter blind darkness. Those who delight in vidyā enter darkness as it were, yet deeper.

~ Ishavasya Upanishad, Verse 9

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Acharya Prashant: “Those who worship avidyā enter blind darkness. Those who delight in vidyā enter darkness as it were, yet deeper.”

If you worship avidyā , you enter darkness; if you worship vidyā , then you enter even deeper darkness. That’s what the verse is saying. Intriguing and fascinating!

I’m taken back many decades to the moment when this had first hit me. There was no way I could make sense of this as a child, but something within me knew that this was fabulous, much more fabulous than Chacha Chaudhary or Nandan , Parag , Chandamama — I mean, that was the stuff I used to have at that age. You know, that’s how I grew up. So, there is Chacha Chaudhary here, and then there are the Upanishads here, and then there is something by Premchand here, and then there is something by Tolstoy here; you know, some stories. And this kind of a motley combination is there.

So, I was branching out in all kinds of possible dimensions in a very unplanned and erratic way. So, one moment I am enjoying Indrajal comics, the other moment I am reading Cancer Ward , which was a Nobel winning work. And these two are coming to me together—something very childish and something very intellectual, literature of the street kind and literature of the university kind—and I didn’t really even differentiate much between the two. To me all these were things to be enjoyed, subjects to be studied. So, if I’m fed up of Lotpot then I go to Mundaka Upanishad . You know Lotpot ? Doctor Jhatka? And then there would be Taar Saptak ; then there would be Maxim Gorky; and then, if it is getting too late in the night, mother would shout, and I would be going to my history books, textbooks.

So, I remember when these first came to me. I was used to hearing that those who do not have knowledge live a life of dark blindness, but this was extraordinary. They said—and it was toying with the child’s mind, you know, like the old wizened seer playing games with the little one—and he was saying, “You see, if you are ignorant, mother will put you in that dark room. But if you become too knowledgeable, then you will be thrown into that dark well!”

I was like, “Huh? If I become too knowledgeable—what do you mean by that? I understand that if I get only eighty percent, I’ll be scolded. But are you saying that if I get ninety-nine percent, that too is a problem?” And that mischievous smile on his old lips! How do I forgive him? He would never reveal anything completely, the father of the Upanishads. He would incite you in a subtle way and then leave you to find things out on your own. And how would I find my answers then? By dumping the Upanishad and returning to doctor Jhatka. I said, “To hell with you! This is too much.”

You know, that trend continued. As I grew up and reached my teenage, there were all kinds of unmentionable books as well that would be there, but the Upanishads held their place. So, in my drawers or cupboard, closets, all kinds of places, all kinds of books started appearing—we didn’t have internet, we had to rely on books—but one thing remained a permanent certainty, a fixture: the Upanishads. They remained. Either the Upanishads, or some commentary on the Upanishads, or some other Vedantic text or something; in some way they remained. And that has kind of stayed with me, that strange mixture of everything.

Now, “Those who worship avidyā enter darkness.”

What is avidyā ? Has to be understood very carefully.

Avidyā is neither ignorance nor false knowledge. Avidyā is objective knowledge. Let this be very clear. Avidyā is objective knowledge. Avidyā is that which takes you to facts. You can even stretch the thing a bit and say avidyā leads you to objective truth. I know that sounds really bad, but don’t you know of people who keep talking of truth in a worldly way? They say, “Tell me the truth of this matter,” or “We want to know the truth.” Don’t they say that?

So, avidyā is that truth that the world talks of, the objective truth, which I never refer to as the objective truth, I just refer to it as facts. But the world doesn’t call it facts; the world says truth. No, the world doesn’t even say objective truth; the world says truth. “Tell me the truth. How many marks did you get? Tell me the truth. Where were you all this while?” Don’t we say that?

So, that’s in the domain of avidyā — knowing the world, knowing this objective expanse. That is avidyā . Is that getting clear? And that is very necessary. But if you worship objective truth or objective knowledge or facts too much, then you enter darkness because you are not really seeing anything. Of what use is seeing things if you cannot see the seer? You do not even know why you are interested in those things, or are you?

We are interested in so many things. A fellow who is addicted is interested in, let’s say, weed or brown sugar, and he is enquiring with great energy—in fact, desperation. Is he not enquiring? If you just look at it in a particular way, then there is as much force in his enquiry as is there in a scientist enquiring into matter, or is there not? Can you visualize? This fellow—and he has not seen any action since three months, and he is approaching this one and that one and really enquiring. “So, what’s the deal?” and “Where do I get things?” and “Which shop? How’s the market behaving?” There is enquiry involved here. But it is certain to all of us that this enquiry is of no value—in fact, it is harmful—because the enquirer is driven by his prakṛtik tendencies.

And it is a prakritik tendency to seek happiness. Don’t forget this. What is it that motivates the addict to seek an intoxicant even when he intellectually knows that the thing is destroying him? His urge for happiness. And everything in Prakṛti (physical nature) is just seeking happiness. When it comes to mental stimulation, we call it happiness, and if the stimulation is a bit more physical in nature, then we call it pleasure. So, animals seek pleasure, human beings seek happiness, and these two are not very different. It’s just that the gross physical body seeks pleasure, and the subtle mental body seeks pleasure called as happiness.

So, these two are in the same dimension: pleasure and happiness. Pleasure lies in consuming the object of your desire. Happiness lies in knowing that you control the object of your desire. Do you get the difference? Since two days you are happy because you know that the object that you want to consume is fully under your control. That is happiness. And what is pleasure? Pleasure is that which you experience in the moment of consumption. You could even say that all happiness is an anticipation of pleasure; all happiness is a preparation for pleasure; all happiness is assumed pleasure. Finally we want pleasure, nothing else, because finally we take ourselves to be physical beings, so ultimately we want pleasure, unfortunately.

So, that is the reason why avidyā is so important to most people: because all pleasure comes from consumption and all consumption requires objects. What else will you consume? Because you want to consume objects, that’s why you investigate into them. That is avidyā . That is the reason the seer is warning, “Those who worship avidyā fall into a deep darkness.”

Now, when it comes to the addict, we dismiss him because it is obviously clear what his intentions are. He too is rushing after an object, is he not? He too wants to know the details, this and that; so does a violent man or a terrorist. He too might be very full of knowledge, in full possession of a lot of information, a lot of details about the object he wants to strike at. But there we do not patronize it because we talk of intentions. We say, “Well, you see, yes, he is gathering a lot of knowledge, but his intentions are improper.”

Now let’s go to the scientist—and we are going to the scientist with due respect, but still, consider this. All that which science has discovered, what has it ultimately been used for? Has it not been used for your pleasure and happiness? Tell me. Then what is the difference really between the enquiry of the addict and the enquiry of the scientist? I don’t want to demean science; I just want us to understand something very fundamental.

If you do not know yourself, then all your external quest will definitely be towards your consumption and pleasure, nothing else; doesn’t matter whether you are the addict or the scientist. Great science ultimately just becomes technology for consumption; what else? When you are in class eleven or twelve, pre-college, then you move to college and university, you read about physics, then you move into modern physics, then you come into quantum physics, and you are reading science. And then, slowly you start seeing that that which you are reading of with such academic reverence is actually displaying itself in a very obscene way all around you. You are reading, let’s say, about nuclear fission and the tremendous power that it releases. And then you just find a fellow using heavy electrical equipment to pursue his obnoxious physical pleasure; many kilowatts of power does his equipment consume, it’s heavy—and what is that equipment being used for? Consumption and pleasure. Where did those many kilowatts come from? They came from the same nuclear fusion that you were reading as science. That science has been pressed into the service of our animal ego.

That’s what happens when you do not know why you want to know. You say, “We want to study the structure of this or that; we want to study the structure of that cell within the human body; we want to study the structure of galaxies or the entire universe.” Have you ever meditated into what exactly within you prompts you to do all of this or any of this? That we do not know of. And that’s the reason the sage had warned us in advance: you will move into deep darkness if you do not know why you want to know.

Whenever you feel curious, ask yourself, “Why do I want to know? Who am I to know? Who is it within me so eager to know? What will I do with this knowledge?” It’s a great question to ask: “What will I do with this knowledge?” And don’t trust your intentions; it’s far better to rely on your track record. Don’t trust what your mind is telling you in the moment. The mind will tell you, “I will use all this information to further the welfare of mankind.” Don’t trust your mind. It’s a cheat. See what you have done so far with all the knowledge or information that ever came to you. What did you use it for? You used it for consumption and all kinds of silly things, didn’t you? That’s exactly what you are going to use this next piece of information for.

That classic metaphor, the monkey holding the sword, is very topical, very relevant, and should be very discouraging when it comes to blind enquiry. Knowledge, objective knowledge, is like a sword. Who is holding that sword? Why are you allowing the monkey to have so much knowledge? And if you must strive towards knowledge, if knowledge is so dear to you, then you better know what keeps the monkey a monkey. That kind of knowledge is needed first of all, right? Before the monkey learns how to wield the sword, shouldn’t the monkey learn why the monkey is a monkey in the first place?

Do you get the dangers of objective knowledge? That’s the crisis this world is facing today—too many fools having too much knowledge. They know a lot; a lot of information they have. Just one thing they do not know of: who has that information. And if you do not know who has that information, obviously you will never know what that information is going to be used for. You will not know—but she will know. She uses everything for just one purpose: pleasure, procreation, furtheration.

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