Fitness Magazine

Spiritual Ignorance

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

Spiritual Ignorance

No. 9 (Dark over Light Earth) by Mark Rothko*

The presence that pervades the universe is imperishable, unchanging,
beyond both is and is not;
how could it ever vanish?
These bodies come to an end;
but that vast embodied Self
is ageless, fathomless, eternal.
—Bhagavad Gita, translated by Stephen Mitchell

Although we have a post  What If We Could Weed Out Avidya? by Baxter about avidya (ignorance), the type of ignorance he focuses on in that post is not the primary meaning of the term in yoga philosophy. While Baxter talks about ignorance in that post as lack of knowledge in general as well as misunderstanding the world around us, this is really a secondary meaning of the term avidya, one which many translations of the Yoga Sutras don’t even mention.And although Baxter includes a paragraph at the end of his post about how “the concept of avidya originally applied more specifically to the relationship of ignorance and misapprehension to yoga concepts,” I feel there is something very important missing from that statement. Recently I’ve taken a deep dive into Edwin Bryant’s book The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which I’ve started reading cover to cover (and will discuss with my friend, Melitta). Bryant not only translated the sutras from the Sanskrit but also studied the early commentaries in the original Sanskrit as well. The commentaries on the sutras in the book synthesize the old commentaries rather than being Bryant’s own personal interpretations. So I feel this particular book is an excellent resource for a traditional understanding of the Yoga Sutras.As I started to read this book, the topic of ignorance (avidya) came up over and over as a concept that is very central to the Yoga Sutras and to yoga itself. That’s when the light bulb went on for me. For Bryant defines ignorance (avidya) quite specifically as:“Avidya. Ignorance. Considered by the Yoga school as a mental state or perception which confuses or misidentifies the nature of the soul (Purusa) with that of the body.”As you can see, this definition of avidya is very specific and refers to a spiritual ignorance. And this spiritual ignorance is specifically about the difference between the soul (also called the “self”), which is eternal, pure, and joyful, and the body-mind (also called the “non-self”), which is ephemeral, impure, and sorrowful. Several translations and commentaries I’ve read say the same in slightly different words. "2.5. Ignorance is seeing [that which is] eternal, pure, joyful, and [pertaining to] the Self as ephemeral, impure, sorrowful, and [pertaining
to] the nonself (anatman).” —translation by Georg Feuerstein
“2.5 Mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and that which is not the self for the self: all this is called lack of spiritual knowledge, avidya.” — translation by B.K.S. IyengarSo I just wanted to clarify today that this specific spiritual ignorance is the primary meaning of the term avidya. In my mind, this is very important to be clear about because this concept is at the very heart of classical yoga. According to the Yoga Sutras, the purpose of yoga is to still the fluctuations of the mind in order to allow the soul to “abide in its own nature, the highest state of pure consciousness.” So from the very beginning of the Yoga Sutras, you need to understand the difference between the mind and the soul. And according to yoga ignorance of this difference between the soul and the body-mind is the root of human suffering. This is why in the Bhagavad Gita when Arjuna is in despair at the thought of fighting a battle against an army that includes people for whom he cares, Krishna tells him that he shouldn’t despair because the soul is eternal:Knowing that is eternal,
unborn, beyond destruction,
how could you ever kill?
And whom would you kill, Arjuna? 
In the Yoga Sutras, ignorance of this spiritual reality is the cause of the other four klesas (see The Pains Which Are to Come), the obstacles that disturb your equilibrium and prevent the true practice of yoga. For example, because the soul is eternal and deathless, fear of death and clinging to life can only exist if you’re ignorant of the true nature of the soul. You wouldn’t be afraid of dying or cling to life if you truly understood your soul was eternal.And mistaking your mind—including both thoughts and emotions—for your soul is also a cause of suffering. Your pure, eternal, joyful soul (or “consciousness” below) is the real “you,” not all the thoughts and emotions, pains and pleasures that your body and mind experience throughout your days. But mistakenly believing that you are your thoughts and emotions causes typical everyday pain and suffering because, well, you know what your everyday thoughts and emotions are like.Likewise, when one is not aware of the distinction between consciousness and the mind, one wrongly attributes the states of mind to the self. The cause of the person’s anxiety, frustrations, and experiences in misidentification with something that he or she is not. —Edwin BryantYes, according to yoga, your states of mind are not you, although most of us ordinary humans feel like that are. And that’s why I had a kind of annoying day today. If we deeply understood that our states of mind were not us, we would experience true equanimity.Sorry, I realize we’re getting a bit abstract here. And I regret that I can’t provide an example here to demonstrate how this concept plays out in “real life.” But I’ve never met anyone who actually lives this truth. To be honest, I’m not even convinced that this IS the true, although it’s certainly intriguing. But this basic concept about the difference between the mind and the soul relies on a traditional yogic theories about how the mind and the soul interact that are quite technical in nature. And as you noticed, I’m not the type who tends to take theories like that on faith. So I’d have to say I myself am still in a state of spiritual ignorance.However, I am working on my general ignorance. I had my own post on ignorance up on the blog for a couple of years that was based on some conversations I had with Baxter a while back, but I’ve taken that down now as I felt it was incorrect. I’d like to apologize for not looking more deeply into the subject at the time. But, well, live and learn! Or, as they sometimes say in American politics, my thoughts about this are “evolving.”Krishna:Have you truly heard me, Arjuna? Has my teaching entered your heart?
Have my words now driven away
your ignorance and delusion?
Arjuna:Krishna, I see the truth now,
by your immeasurable kindness.
I have no more doubts; I will act
according to your command.
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