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What is knowledge and what is ignorance? || Acharya Prashant, on Shri Ashtavakra (2016)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
15 min
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Question: Ashtavakra Gita, chapter 16 verse 1:

Son! Even if you read many scriptures many times, or you listen to them, yet you will not attain to your nature until and unless you forget all of them.”

Acharya Prashant : The mind proceeds on its spiritual pursuit, because it is fed up of itself. The mind does not turn towards the Truth till it has a certain belief in its own capability to heal itself. The mind tries its best. And when it sees that even its best is highly insufficient, then it turns to its concept of something beyond itself. So, that is the intention—to get relief, to go to a space that is outside of itself, contains a curative ability higher than itself. That’s what the intention of the mind is.

But then what is the mind?

The mind is all that which is accumulated in the mind. The mind is just its stuff, its content. Remove the contents of the mind, and nothing remains. The contents of the minds are also the container that contains them. This content of the mind is called knowledge. Mind is knowledge.

So, even when the mind tries to find relief from itself, it has no option, but to turn to knowledge, that’s what it does. It feels that by gaining another kind of knowledge it will be able to get peace. What it does not realize is that knowledge of any kind just becomes mind stuff. And mind stuff is mind. And mind is what the mind wants to get rid of.

So, more knowledge just increases the burden of the mind, even if it is the spiritual knowledge that we are talking of. It becomes just another burden, like the various other burdens that one is carrying. It is like someone carrying ten stones on his head, and he then picks up an eleventh stone, and this eleventh stone is equally heavy, probably heavier. This eleventh stone is picked up in the hope that it will relieve the burden of the previous 10 stones. It does not. It just becomes the eleventh one.

What does it mean then? Does it mean that one should not acquire knowledge? No it does not mean that. It simply means that one must not place undue and unrealistic hopes upon knowledge. Knowledge is knowledge. It should not be entrusted with the burden of liberation of mind. In fact the only proper use of knowledge is that it can show to knowledge the inadequacy of knowledge. And that is spiritual knowledge.

All the knowledge that you have that comes to you from education, media, society, family, various other sources, experience, past, tells you that knowledge has a certain potency, and it does have a certain potency. In day to day living knowledge is necessary, but that knowledge also somewhere-somehow makes a promise to you that it can give you the essential. That promise is false, hollow.

If you have knowledge of science, it will help you know the physical world better, but it cannot give you essential peace. If you have knowledge of medicine, it will help you treat and cure your body better, but it cannot give you love. If you have knowledge of worldly affairs, it will help you get money, respect, convenience, but all of this cannot give you freedom. So knowledge is knowledge. It has its limited utility; more must not be expected from it. And this knowledge that “more must not be expected from knowledge,” is called spiritual knowledge.

There is ordinary worldly knowledge which promises you a lot. It promises beyond its capacity. Technology comes and promises that it can change human life. Don’t they say, “We are creating better lives”? All that is false. Technology can give you convenience, but men lives not only by convenience; men needs something far more central and essential.

So there is that entire huge domain of knowledge which keeps making promises to you. And then comes somebody like Ashtavakra who tells you, “All that knowledge cannot give you what you want.” This too is knowledge, but this is honest knowledge, knowledge confessing its limits. Knowledge that is not boastful. Knowledge that is not presumptuous. But wait! This does not mean that even this spiritual knowledge is something that you can live with.

The proper function of this spiritual knowledge is to just expose the hollowness of other knowledge. The proper function of spiritual knowledge is to just expose that your belief and confidence in all that you know will not take you anywhere. That is the function of spirituality. That is the function of scriptures, and that is also the function of Guru–to break the false confidence that you have in yourself, to expose the deceptiveness of all that which your mental stuff, your intellect, your knowledge promise you.

So, that is what spiritual knowledge does. But even spiritual knowledge must not over live. It too must have an expiry point. Once it has exposed the falseness of your accumulated knowledge, spiritual knowledge too must vanish. Otherwise, it becomes, and remains as we had said in the beginning–a burden. All knowledge is a burden, including spiritual knowledge.

So, the scriptures give us a very apt metaphor. They say that, “Spiritual knowledge must be like the wood used in the funeral pierre.” That wood burns down the dead body, but having burnt down the dead body the wood does not remain itself. The wood too disappears. It removes all that which was dead, unnecessary, decomposing, and having removed that it goes away by itself. That is the best knowledge—knowledge which removes your falseness and then sublimates. Having performed its function it no more overstays. So, your mind is totally free, totally free of worldly knowledge, and also free of spiritual knowledge.

So, you see there are then a few kinds of people. The first kind, who carry a lot of worldly knowledge, and have a firm belief that this worldly knowledge can redeem them, we know a lot of such people. The world is full of such people who trust their intellect to liberate them. Of course they keep suffering. And then there is the second category who are not satisfied with all that which science, economics, medicine, politics, sociology, astronomy, have to offer.

They say we want more, and they turn to spirituality, and they gain a lot of spiritual knowledge. These people suffer doubly. Now they are under the weight of two kinds of knowledge: one—the intellectual, worldly, and the other—spiritual. And they suffer all the more because their expectations are belied. From spiritual knowledge they had expected something, they do not get it. And from spiritual knowledge they had expected something only because their expectations had not been fulfilled from worldly knowledge.

So, they are beaten doubly. Their suffering is double. Most people who indulge in, who dabble in spirituality belong to this category. They are not any better off than the common worldly folks. In fact their misery is compounded.

Then there is a third type—who goes deeply into the scriptures, who listens keenly to words of the teacher and sees the inadequacy of worldly knowledge. So, he withdraws the trust he had placed upon his intellect, upon anything and everything that is sun, soil and material. He withdraws that trust, but having withdrawn that trust, he now places that trust upon spiritual knowledge. Do you see this? So, he becomes empty of the world, but full of the scriptures.

The scriptures now become an alternate world for him. You would have seen such people as well. He feels that he is out of the world; whereas the fact is that he has just started living in an alternate world which is just as bad as, if not worse than the world that the ordinary people live in. Do you see this? He does not talk now of money, of growth, of respectability, of career, relationships, lust, he rather talks all the time about liberation, enlightenment, nirvana, sadhna, yog, and bhakti. But all this talk is just empty parietal. Like a parrot, he keeps repeating these words.

There is the house holder who is busy worrying about what would happen to his kids, and there is this so called ‘spiritual man’ who is busy worrying about what would happen to his next birth, same, just the same, in fact worse. At least the house holder has some contact with facts, this one is living totally in illusion. He is living in a fancy made believe world of his own.

Each of these categories is worse than the previous one. That is why most people who enter spirituality are worse off than those who never entered at all. They have less peace. You can find some peace in ordinary households, but you will find very little peace in those who regularly visit the temples and the churches. You will find very little peace in those who are absorbed in scriptures all the time.

So, we had the basic categories that live by the intellect, the worldly knowledge, and then we had the category who wanted to gather both worldly and spiritual knowledge. Then we had the third category which got rid of the worldly knowledge, but built an alternate world of spiritual knowledge. And we are saying that each of these is worse than the previous one

Then there is the fourth mind. This fourth mind, as you have already read, and expected, frees itself from even spiritual knowledge. Ashtavakra is referring to this fourth mind, this fourth man. This fourth man gives up even the scriptures. His mind is now totally light and empty, empty of everything. He does not even meditate. He forgets all methods of liberation. He does not indulge in any sadhna, any practice, any abhyaas. He has left yog far behind. This is the free man. This is liberation—to live without support of any kind, to live without mental projections, to live totally fearlessly, to not to depend on any mental props, to just live. This is the fourth man. Yes?

If you are in the first stage, you are probably still lucky, but there is no end to your agony if you belong to stage two or three. And at the same time no stages are no opportunity. Now jump to the final stage, forget all that you know. Are you getting it?

And you can forget all that you know only if first you see why you wanted to remember all that. You wanted to remember all that, because all that offered a consolation, a support, it offered a promise. When you see you are so strong that you need no support of any kind, then you give up your crutches. Knowledge is a crutch. Are you getting it?

When does it happen? It happens when you realise that which you are seeking through knowledge is already present within you. That which you are seeking though knowledge is your basic reality. When you realise that, then you see that knowledge is such an insufficient instrument, such an unnecessary middler. Are you getting it?

That is called faith, to not to rely upon anything other than the absolute. “I do not need the support of knowledge. I have the support of the absolute. Now, knowledge can be there just in the memory, just in some kind of a database, useful in these little matters, but not something that I use in central matters of living, not something that I entrust with to liberate myself. Now, knowledge can remain in one corner of mind, knowledge can remain, the memory can contain all that. The intellect can use all that.” Are you getting this?

“But I live not by knowledge, but by faith; my central trust is not upon my own knowledge, but upon my faith in something beyond myself. That which I, in one way, call beyond myself is actually my own heart. Both mean the same. I could refer to it either way; I could either say that it was beyond me, or I could say that it is the most central to me, that it is the closest to me.” Both mean the same. Do you see this?

You will not need to rely upon knowledge when you are relying upon the absolute. You can call that absolute as Atman, the Self, the Brahman, or God, doesn’t matter, or you may not use any name at all. Faith is not contingent upon a name. You need not even specify what is it that you have faith on, because faith really is on nothing. Faith is just Faith.

Do you get this?

Now, the question that, “If we do not have knowledge, won’t we become ignorant?” First of all, knowledge is not something that you can delete from your brain. It is there. We are not talking of sweeping the brain clear of all memories. It remains, but it remains not as a central support, but as a peripheral presence. Let it be there. Secondly, ignorance is not absence of knowledge. Ignorance means being full of knowledge. I repeat—

Ignorance is not an absence of knowledge. Ignorance means being full of knowledge in matters where knowledge cannot be useful. That is ignorance.

Now anything on this?

Listener : The same thing can be said about the Guru also? That you get the guru, and one day you have to leave him also.

AP: You don’t leave the guru. You become one with the guru. You leave the distance between you and the Guru. If the guru appears as a separate body to you, it means that there are limits to your intimacy with the Guru. When you talk of leaving the Guru, you talk of leaving a body. But where there is one body and another body there is bound to be a distance between the two bodies. When there is already a distance, what do you mean by leaving?

You leave the guru when the Guru enters your heart. You leave the Guru when you realise that you are already one with the Guru. Then you need not be close to the body of the Guru, because physical closeness is in anyway a deep separation. How close can two bodies come to each other? They would always remain afar. A distance would always be there. You are really one with the Guru only when you do not see the Guru as a body anymore.

Do we see…can we meditate on this? “How we use our cleverness to guide us through life? How we live not by our faith but by our intellect?” Do we see this? Do we see that where surrender is required there instead of surrender we use our smartness. Do we see that we try to be clever even in the deepest spiritual matter? Do we see that we try to be clever even with the Guru, even with God?

Unless you drop you cleverness you’ll remain a victim of your own cleverness. God, Truth, respond only to the innocent. To the crooked ones they say, “Let your crookedness and your cleverness help you. Let your knowledge help you.”

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