Analysis of Isha Upanishad: Knowledge and Ignorance, Part 1

The human propensity for setting up black and white distinctions and opposing them to one another causes a rift between seeking for spiritual realisation and living a life in the world and society.  Even the terms we use show a bias that highlights this distinction.  Vidya, knowledge, and Avidya, ignorance are the terms used in classical Vedanta.  In order to achieve knowledge, it is said, we must abandon the illusory life of the world, maya.  Underlying these distinctions, however, is a view that separates the divine Reality from the outer life, whether we call it a dream, an illusion or a distraction.  If we look at it from the unified standpoint that life in the world is the self-manifestation of the Brahman, as the Isha Upanishad clearly describes it, then these distinctions lose their force, and another view becomes necessary.

Verses 9-11 address this point: “Into a blind darkness they enter who follow after the Ignorance, they as if into a greater darkness who devote themselves to the Knowledge alone.  Other, verily, it is said, is that which comes by the Knowledge, other that which comes by the Ignorance; this is the lore we have received from the wise who revealed That to our understanding.  He who knows That as both in one, the Knowledge and the Ignorance, by the Ignorance crosses beyond death and by the Knowledge enjoys Immortality.”

Sri Aurobindo emphasizes that the Upanishad is debunking the traditional idea that separates the “knowledge” and the “ignorance” by showing the limitations of each alone, and the need for an integral approach based in the divine standpoint of Oneness.

“All manifestation procees by the two terms, Vidya and Avidya, the consciousness of Unity and the consciousness of Multiplicity.  They are the two aspects of the Maya, the formative self-conception of the Eternal.  Unity is the eternal and fundamental fact, without which all multiplicity would be unreal and an impossible illusion. … Multiplicity is the play or varied self-expansion of the One, shifting in its terms, divisible in its view of itself, by force of which the One occupies many centres of consciousness, inhabits many formations of energy in the universal Movement. … But the consciousness of multiplicity separated from the true knowledge in the many of their own essential oneness … is a state of error and delusion.”

“The perfection of man … is the full manifestation of the Divine in the individual through the supreme accord between Vidya and Avidya.  Multiplicity must become conscious of its oneness, Oneness embrace its multiplicity.”

“The purpose of the Lord in the world cannot be fulfilled by following Vidya alone or Avidya alone.  Those who are devoted entirely to the principle of multiplicity and division  and take their orientation away from oneness enter into a blind darkness of Ignorance. … Those who are devoted entirely to the principle of indiscriminate Unity and seek to put away from them the integrality of the Brahman, also put away from them knowledge and completeness and enter as if into a greater darkness.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Isha Upanishad and analysis, pp. 21-23, 28 & 51-73