The definitions of avidyā and its products

The reason for suffering is avidyā, and it is the beginningless cause of the ātmā’s existence in the material world. Without understanding the problem, it is not possible to solve it. Here we provide definitions of avidyā, and also define the terms that are the consequences/products of avidyā. Sri Babaji’s commentary on Anuccheda 10 of the Bhagavat Sandarbha provides these definitions by citing the Yoga-sūtras, which are reproduced below.

The definition of avidyā

Mahaṛṣi Patañjali defines avidyā as follows:

anityāśuci-duḥkhānātmasu nitya-śuci-sukhātma-khyātir avidyā

To consider

1) the impermanent (anitya) to be eternal (nitya),

2) the impure (aśuci) as pure (śuci),

3) the painful (duḥkha) as blissful (sukha) and

4) the inert (anātmā) as conscious (ātmā),

is called avidyā.

(Yoga-sūtra 2.5)

Note that the four types of avidyā are only potentials, in that they only become enacted when one becomes identified with a body and mind. This actualization is described below.

The consequences of avidyā

avidyā results in a chain reaction that brings suffering, which are listed below.

avidyā –> asmitā –> rāga, dveśa –> abhiniveśa

We now examine the definitions of the additional four terms.

The word asmitā is made by adding the suffix tā to the word asmi, which is the first person singular present tense form of the verbal root as, to be. Asmi means “I am”, and asmitā is “(I am)-ness”.

In this context, the definition of asmitā in the Yoga-sūtras is as follows:


considering the seer (dṛk-śakti) and the instrument for seeing (darśana-śakti, i.e. the mind) to be one and the same.

Yoga-sūtra 2.6

Once there is strong asmitā related to a particular mind and body, then the next steps are rāga and dveśa. Their definitions are below:

sukhānuśayi rāgaḥ: rāga or attachment arises as a consequence of pleasure

duḥkhānuśayi dvesaḥ: dveśa or aversion arises as a consequence of suffering

Yoga-sūtra 2.7-8

rāga gives rise to greed, and dveśa to anger and fear. Because of rāga and dveśa, one becomes entangled in the body, that is, one is constantly engaged in protecting the body from threats, which results in the fear of death or abhiniveśa.

svarasa-vāhi viduṣo’pi tathāruḍho’bhiniveśaḥ

Even amongst the learned (viduṣo’pi), the fear of death (abhiniveśaḥ) is naturally (svarasavāhī) established or found (āruḍhaḥ) just as in the ignorant (tathā). 

Yoga-sūtra 2.9

Below, we give examples of the four types of avidyā taken from Anuccheda 10 of the Bhagavat Sandarbha.

Considering anitya as nitya. Everything in the material world is temporary, including our own mind and body. And yet, most of us go through life forgetting this fact, and act as if the body will last forever. As one gets older, the realization that the body will end beings to inevitably creep onto our consciousness, although the solution generally is to try and forget it by absorbing oneself in some activity or the other. To consider the body permanent is the first step of avidyā.

Considering aśuci as śuci. A simple example of this is the fact that we forget that our bodies are full of impure things that we would generally recoil at if they were presented to us. This includes stool, urine, blood, mucus and so on. And yet, we are terribly attached to our body, take tremendous efforts to protect it, make it comfortable, try to beautify it, scent it with perfumes, and cover it with expensive clothes and so on.

Considering duḥkha as sukha. Śri Kṛṣṇa states that the body is a reservoir of suffering (duhkhālayam, Gītā 8.15) and devoid of happiness (asukham, Gītā 9.33). Even so, people mistakenly take this body as an instrument of pleasure. They strive to seek pleasure in it, and to seek pleasure in others’ bodies, but in vain. The body inevitably gives more suffering than pleasure.

Considering the inert as conscious. The body is made of inert atoms, the mind is material, and neither are conscious by themselves. Identifying oneself with them makes it impossible to understand that the self is distinct from the gross and subtle material bodies.

Categories: Definitions, Māyā

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