THE VIDYA AND AVIDYA OF THE ISAVASYA.
The passages of the Rig-Veda, "The one Being the sages describe in several ways" (1. 164. 46, and X. 114. 5) have a far more comprehensive application than the contexts in which they respectively occur. What is said there of the Deity is equally true of the mode of attaining it. Just us, by whatever diversity of names the One Entity is spoken of or known, the same Supreme Intelligence is everywhere meant, in the same way, however various the methods may be by which an advance in evolution and the achievement of spiritual ends are said to be possible, all of them tend to the same goal, and a primary unity is discovered to run through them all. No simile can be apter than that of the same rain-water that at first took its rise from the ocean, returning to the same source by different innumerable rivers and streams (Mahimna). The first endeavor of every religious student must be not to create differences where the texts are in accord, but to unify the meaning though the texts are seemingly contradictory. That was the noble purpose which Sri Sankaracharya had in view and which he successfully carried out, and that is the direction in which every advance science is developing in this enlightened age.
Amidst apparent conflicts and overlapping's the spirit of the Scripture is in most cases clearly discernible. Fresh water springs are known to rise to the surface of the sea from the very bottom through all the bitter brine. The short and concise Upanishad, the Isavasya, speaks of a vidya and an avidya, by which I understand Jnana and karma. The passages are not at first sight concordant or supplementary. The first sloka enjoins the protection of one's self by the complete abandonment of the world we live in. The next sloka proclaims in all seriousness that a man should live the hundred years of his life by performing all the duites prescribed by the Vedas, without fear of being affected by their results. The 9th, 10th, and 11th slokas speak directly of vidya and Avidya. The 9th says that Avidya lands one in darkness, and vidya, on the other hand, in a still gloomier darkness. The next one says that by vidya and Avidya different things are understood and that the results are different. The 11th sloka recites that he who follows both vidya and Avidya together, crosses beyond death by his Avidya and reaches eternal immortality by his vidya. What does the Upanishad mean? The first two slokas indicate the broad aim of what follows. Vidya must mean knowledge and Avidya action. The two kandas into which the Vedas divide themselves are held to supplement and not contradict each other. May not the same be said of two sets of ideas in the same Upanishad, an Upanishad of such limited extent as the Isavasya?
The opinion is prevalent that this Upanishad owed its origin to the ascendancy of Buddhism and its principles. This may or may not be the fact, and it does not concern us in any way. Its object, however, is the same as that of the Buddha, namely, to arraign in strong language the pernicious hypocrisy of some, who, appearing to be possessed of the sacred lore, pretend to have found out (only in words) the narrow pathway that directly leads us to salvation, and give up all moral, social and religious bonds to lend additional color to their pretensions and their frauds. Such persons may not be consciously guilty of the crime attributed to them, but once they are in their fools' paradise, the evil consequences of an unconscious step follow each other in quick succession. The Kathopanishad authoritatively states that "fools, presuming themselves to be all knowing, though steeped in ignorance, rush head long to destruction, as blind men led by the blind." (I. 2.5)
The brahmavidya or the "path of the heart" is said to be "as sharp, as the edge of the razor" (Katha, I. 3. 14). The same comparison is to be found also in the Bible of the Christians. What does this simile mean? It means that he who travels along that difficult path must do so without swerving a hair's-breadth either to the right or to the left. It is only a line without breadth, and the gentlest motion, be it never so imperceptible, takes away the marching soul altogether off the line. As the "Voice of the Silence" puts it, "Long and weary is the way before thee, O Disciple. One single thought about the past that thou hast left behind, will drag thee down and thou wilt have to start the climb anew." Have we not come across instances of men who have abruptly renounced one or more fleeting pleasures of this world, only to return to it with a relish intensified all the more by an unprepared-for separation? The human mind, thrown suddenly and with vehemence on a hard and unaccustomed ground rebounds from it with astonishing elasticity like a tennis ball. Without systematic preparation, gradual submission to hardship and a tenacious assiduity, it is impossible, nay, it is rash and risky, to plunge into the extremely difficult pathway of Jnana. It pains me to remember the sad death of an esteemed friend of mine, who took to the life of a recluse on the shores of the Narmada in the prime of his youth, and left this world within the short space of a year which was mainly due to the abrupt change in his diet and other conveniences of daily existence which his untrained constitution could not bear and to which it had to succumb in the long run.
What is the advice to be given in such cases? A comparison of the two paths and a clear definition of the evils of a hasty procedure, would be of little avail. The wandering eye sees the dazzling splendor of the distant horizon, and will take the hazard of being blinded by that effulgence rather than turn aside to a light which is pronounced to be decidedly inferior to the former in the intensity of its brilliance. A flat abuse of the method of knowledge would be against the aim and the spirit of the whole of religious literature. The only way out of the dilemma is to place two different texts in juxtaposition without pointing out in detail their connection or their significance. From this we have to draw an inference, which, while it is not in direct opposition to either of the expressed views, is yet reconcilable with both and brings to prominence that unity that is always intended to be discerned by a coherent interpretation of the different texts.
It is pointed out that by leaving off karma, and taking to Jnana, an incapable novice loses the fruits of both and subjects himself to a double suffering. The results that are enjoined for actions will never come to him, for he does no action. Nor will he reach final beatitude, for his Jnana never pierced his skin and touched his heart. By all means follow the higher pathway, says the Upanishad, provided you have gone through the necessary training and have sufficient confidence in your powers and capabilities, or provided a proper guru is to be found who can be relied upon as a safe and competent guide. But, in the absence of such circumstances, karma is the only desirable and harmless way. If you do good karmas by methods warranted by the Sastras, only good will come out of it. In no way should you do bad actions. It may be said that such a high degree of perfection cannot be approached by the performance of karmas alone, as by the direct knowledge of the attribute less Brahman. True; but every ascent commences from the first rung of the ladder, though the last one alone is the direct and proximate cause of our reaching the top. Moreover, much good can be got from the performance of actions without any desire for their fruits. This is the karma-yoga which is so flatteringly spoken of in the Bhagavad-gita. (V. 2). "Action for its own sake" is the watchword. What a commendable self-sacrifice! Who will doubt the cheerful promise of Sri Krishna that this too leads one to the same Unity to which all other processes tend (Gita, V. 12)? Did not Janaka and others reach the height of perfection by this method and by this method alone (Gita, III. 20)? When there are so many brilliant possibilities before us, there is no reason to discard such a golden mean and adopt a different method, as difficult as it is dangerous, without the necessary precautions and safeguards.
We can go even a step further. Even those who are on the way to perfection and those who have even reached perfection need not look down with disdain on the ignorant world that makes so much of rituals and ceremonials. Sri Krishna Himself did not think it a disgrace to proclaim to Arjuna that, though He was perfect and had nothing to gain by performance of actions, yet He remained doing actions without any definite aim, merely to set an example to the whole world and to keep a going the evolution of the universe. "As the Lord, so the people," and if the Lord indulges in inertia, the people too will grow inert, and the destruction of the worlds would be near at hand (Gita. III. 21-26).
Thus, while not condemning the karma-path and praising the gnana-path, nor, on the other hand, adding to the merits of the former at the expense of the latter, the Isavasya takes the only reasonable and possible course, namely, by prescribing Karmayoga for all those whose competency is not so far developed as to guarantee an unobstructed passage through the doorway of renunciation. It points out the perils of a rash and abrupt metamorphosis of the mind which inflicts a multiple loss on the foolhardly victom.
This is the spirit of the Isavasya, which every student might discern, by a careful contemplation of its passages.
[N. B – I am asked to append a translation of the stanzas referred to in the above article. I give my own free rendering of Stanzas 1 and 2, and borrow the authoritative version found in the Sacred Books of the East" for stanzas 9, 10 and 11.
1. All this that moves on earth is full of the Lord. Protect thyself by renouncing them all. Do not covet anybody's wealth.
2. One must live a hundred years, always doing (good) works. It is so, not otherwise. You will not be affected by the results of such works.
9. "All who worship what is not real knowledge (good works) enter into blind darkness; those who delight in real knowledge, enter as it were, into greater darkness."
10. "One thing, they say, is obtained from real knowledge; another, they say, from what is not knowledge. Thus we have heard from the wise who taught us this."
11. "He who knows at the same time both knowledge and not knowledge, overcomes death through not-knowledge, and obtains immortality through knowledge." ]