The nature of avidyÄ in Buddhism and VedÄ nta
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This thesis deals with the nature of ignorance as it was interpreted in the Upani~adic tradition, specifically in Advaita Vedanta, and in early and Mahayana Buddhism , e specially in the Madhyamika school of Buddhism. The approach i s a historical and comparative one. It examines the early thoughts of both the upanis.a ds and Buddhism abou t avidya (ignorance), shows how the notion was treated by the more speculative and philosphically oriented schools which base d themselves on the e arly works, and sees how their views differ. The thesis will show that the Vedinta tended to treat avidya as a topic for metaphysical s peculation as t he s chool developed, drifting from its initial e xistential concerns, while the Madhyamika remained in contact with the e xistential concerns evident in the first discourses of the Buddha. The word "notion" has been chosen for use in referring t o avidya, even though it may have non-intellectual and emotional connotations, to avoid more popular a lternatives such as "concept" or "idea". In neither the Upani,ads, Advaita Vedanta, or Buddhism is ignorance merely a concept or an idea. Only in a secondary sense, in texts and speech , does it become one. Avidya has more to do with the lived situation in which man finds himself, with the subjectobject separation in which he f eels he exists, than with i i i intel lect ual constr ucts . Western thought has begun to r ealize the same with concerns such as being in modern ontology, and has chosen to speak about i t i n terms of the question of being . Avidya, however, i s not a 'question' . If q ue stions we r e to be put regarding the nature of a vidya , they would be more of t he sort "What is not avidya?", though e ven here l anguage bestows a status t o i t which avidya does not have. In considering a work of the Eastern tradition, we f ace t he danger of imposing Western concepts on it. Granted t hat avidya is customari ly r endered i n English as ignorance, the ways i n which the East and West view i gno rance di f f er. Pedagogically , the European cultures, grounded in the ancient Greek culture, view ignorance as a l ack or an emptiness. A child is i gnorant o f certain t hings and the purpose o f f ormal education , in f act if not in theory, is to fill him with enough knowledge so that he can cope wit h t he complexities and the e xpectations of s ociety. On another level, we feel t hat study and research will l ead t o the discovery o f solutions, which we now lack , for problems now defying solut i on . The East, on the o t her hand, sees avidya in a d i fferent light.Ignorance isn't a lack, but a presence. Religious and philosophical l iterature directs its efforts not towards acquiring something new, but at removing t.he ideas and opinions that individuals have formed about themselves and the world. When that is fully accomplished, say the sages , t hen Wisdom, which has been obscured by those opinions, will present itself. Nothing new has to be learned, t hough we do have t o 'learn' that much. The growing interest in t he West with Eastern religions and philosophies may, in time, influence our theoretical and practical approaches to education and learning, not only in the established educati onal institutions, but in religious , p sychological, and spiritual activities as well. However, the requirements o f this thesis do no t permit a formulation of revolutionary method or a call to action. It focuses instead on the textual arguments which attempt to convince readers that t he world in which they take themselves to exist is not, in essence, real, on the ways i n which the l imitations of language are disclosed, and on the provisional and limited schemes that are built up to help students see through their ignorance. The metaphysic s are provisional because they act only as spurs and guides. Both the Upanisadic and Buddhist traditions that will be dealt with here stress that language constantly fails to encompass the Real. So even terms s uch as 'the Real', 'Absolute', etc., serve only to lead to a transcendent experience . The sections dealing with the Upanisads and Advaita Vedanta show some of the historical evolution of the notion of avidya, how it was dealt with as maya , and the q uestions that arose as t o its locus. With Gau?apada we see the beginnings of a more abstract treatment of the topic, and , the influence of Buddhism. Though Sankhara' S interest was primarily directed towards constructing a philosophy to help others attain mok~a ( l iberation), he too introduced t echnica l t e rminology not found in the works of his predecessors. His work is impressive , but areas of it are incomplete. Numbers of his followers tried to complete the systematic presentation of his insi ghts . Their work focuses on expl anat i ons of adhyasa (superimposition ) , t he locus and object of ignorance , and the means by which Brahman takes itself to be the jiva and the world. The section on early Buddhism examines avidya in the context o f the four truths, together with dubkha (suffering), the r ole it p l ays in t he chain of dependent c ausation , a nd t he p r oblems that arise with t he doctrine of anatman. With t he doct rines of e arly Buddhism as a base, the Madhyamika elaborated questions that the Buddha had said t e nded not t o edi f ication. One of these had to do with own - being or svabhava. Thi s serves a s a centr e around which a discussion o f i gnorance unfolds, both i ndividual and coll ective ignorance. There follows a treatment of the cessation of ignorance as it is discussed within this school . The final secti on tries to present t he similarities and differences i n the natures o f ignorance i n t he two traditions and discusses the factors responsible for t hem . ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I would like to thank Dr. Sinha for the time spent II and suggestions made on the section dealing with Sankara and the Advait.a Vedanta oommentators, and Dr. Sprung, who supervised, direoted, corrected and encouraged the thesis as a whole, but especially the section on Madhyamika, and the final comparison.