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The one who transcends death knows the world and the self || On Advaita Vedanta (2019)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
8 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

They enter into a blinding darkness who worship avidyā; into still greater darkness, as it were, do they enter who delight in vidyā.

~ Ishavasya Upanishad, Verse 9

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अन्यदेवाहुर्विद्ययाऽन्यदाहुरविद्यया । इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस्तद्विचचक्षिरे ॥

anyadevāhurvidyayā'nyadāhuravidyayā iti śuśruma dhīrāṇāṁ ye nastadvicacakṣire

Different indeed, they say, is the result attained by vidyā; and different indeed, they say, is the result attained by avidyā. Thus we have heard from the wise who had explained it to us.

~ Ishavasya Upanishad, Verse 10

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विद्याञ्चाविद्याञ्च यस्तद्वेदोभयं सह । अविद्यया मृत्युं तीर्त्वा विद्ययाऽमृतमश्नुते ॥

vidyāñcāvidyāñca yastadvedobhayaṁ saha avidyayā mṛtyuṁ tīrtvā vidyayā'mṛtamaśnute

He who knows vidyā and avidyā together transcends mortality through avidyā and reaches immortality through vidyā.

~ Ishavasya Upanishad, Verse 11

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Questioner: In these verses sages are saying that one should know both vidyā and avidyā together, and that worshiping one without the other will lead us to darkness. While reading these verses, I am considering avidyā as worldly knowledge and vidyā as understanding of real Self.

I have a six-year-old kid who is going to school and spending most of his day there. The entire school environment focuses on worldly knowledge: they teach social science, math, etc. They also consciously or unconsciously teach kids to compare themselves with others, compete, go after rewards, fear punishment, etc.

At home we encourage the kid to question everything, not to compare or compete with the other kids, and not be afraid to express himself. But for a child who spends most of his day throughout his childhood in such a school environment, I feel that in the process of giving worldly knowledge to him, he will lose touch with his true Self and become materialistic.

Acharya Ji, please help me understand what should be my approach towards such young kids while exposing them to worldly knowledge. I can’t introduce scriptures to him at such a young age. How do we ensure that vidyā and avidyā go together right from childhood?

Acharya Prashant: First of all, vidyā is not the understanding of the real Self. Vidyā is the understanding of the false self. The real Self is not available to be understood. The real Self transcends all understanding. It is the solvent; you disappear into it.

Now, you’re asking, the school environment is focusing on avidyā and also conditioning the kid to compete, compare, go for rewards, be afraid of punishment, etc. So, that’s what the school is doing. That surely is avidyā . What is vidyā , then? Vidyā is to take the kid inwards. Ask the kid to describe what happens to him when he is threatened, or what happens to him when he is tempted.

Vidyā is about knowing who you are, and that does not mean knowing Brahman or Ātman . They are ajñeya (unkowable), they are aprameya (immeasurable). They are beyond mental faculties.

And that is the reason why vidyā and avidyā must go together. It’s a basic necessity. Avidyā means understanding the world; vidyā means understanding yourself. Even if you want to have deep avidyā , you will need vidyā because you cannot know the world beyond a point without knowing yourself. Spiritual seekers face that hurdle. Even contemporary physics is facing that hurdle. The last problem, it appears, in front of physics is the problem of consciousness. Physics has come to a point where it cannot proceed any further without going into what consciousness is.

So, even to know the world, you have to know yourself. Avidyā and vidyā must go together. The world will tempt and threaten and allure, and you have to ask yourself what happens to you when the world allures you or frightens you. You don’t have to teach scriptures to the kids, not needed. You just ask the kid to describe himself. Just ask the kid to know what is happening in his mind. And that’s easy, is it not?

So, how did you feel when the teacher said, “Very good”? So, how did you feel when the teacher said, “I will throw you out of the class if you are caught gossiping once again”? How did you feel? What happened in the mind ? How did the body react? Did it stay with you? So, yesterday the teacher had scolded you. How did that impact your relationship with the teacher today? These are the questions that you must ask the kid. This is vidyā .

So, which teacher do you like the most? Why? Who is your best friend? Who is the one you avoid? Why? What do your choices tell about you? It’s an easy thing to ask. And it becomes a great adventure; the kid starts loving it. You can actually train the kid to be a lover of vidyā . Just as kids love to describe how the world is going about them, you can educate the kid to love to describe what is happening inside him. That is vidyā . It’s fun.

And vidyā doesn’t have to wait for a right age. If the kid is old enough to absorb avidyā , he is old enough to begin exploring vidyā . Avidyā and vidyā have to go together. That is why the Upanishad said, and so beautifully, “He who knows vidyā and avidyā together transcends mortality through avidyā and reaches immortality through vidyā .” What does that mean, “transcends mortality through avidyā and reaches immortality through *vidyā*”?

There are two deaths: there is the physical death and then there is the death of the ego. If you know the world, it will help you avoid physical death. If you do not know the world, you will quite likely and literally die young. The average age-expectancy, the life-expectancy used to be no more than twenty-five or thirty-five till a century back. Why? Because man did not quite clearly know the world. We did not know how the pathogens operate; we did not have depth in our medicine, so the mortality rates were high.

To overcome physical mortality, you must know the world. You must know how Prakriti operates, how the physical elements operate, what the bacteria are, which chemicals would act upon a certain virus. These are the things you must know.

And to transcend inner death, you must have vidyā . What is inner death? Inner death is when the ego does not get what it is really looking for. You have heard some wise man say that—I think it was Voltaire—most people die at the age of twenty-five but keep walking till seventy-five. So, inner death has already happened.

You need vidyā to avoid the inner death. You need avidyā to avoid the outer death. You need both to avoid death altogether. If you don’t have vidyā , what you will have is a healthy and strong body but no life within, no joy within, no beauty, no compassion, no love. Outwardly, you would be quite stout; all the physical indicators of health would be alright—blood pressure alright, liver alright, kidney alright, heart alright, everything alright. Still, you would be lifeless. To have real life, vidyā is needed so that you can be internally lively.

This post-modern world is in the danger of being greatly healthy from the outside but being totally dead inside because it has a lot of avidyā but very little vidyā . It is a strange thing. We think a lot of avidyā can help us, without realizing that these two always go together. And if they are not going together, then we will have walking corpses.

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