Knowledge is an antidote to ignorance. This is not a surprising statement. Organizations, schools, various groupings of all sorts, are built around it and profess it’s attainment.
In the Indian mystical traditions, there is an important focus upon knowledge in overcoming of ignorance; more precisely, the illusion of ignorance. The prime reason ignorance is to be overcome is for the purpose of overcoming suffering. Simply stated, we do not know the truth of who we are, what we are made of, capable of, and in that, we suffer. We are under the illusion that the limited self we come to think of as “I” is pretty much the whole subject and the world of objects and indeed other beings, are separate from us. We walk around in our own, as Muktananda says, “play of consciousness.”
The goal in these traditions then is to overcome this circumstance. In Classical Yoga we find the topic of ignorance discussed in the Yoga Sūtra. In the sadhāna pada, which focuses on practice, we are told that the agenda of yoga is two fold: (1) to become immersed in samādhi, pure awareness and (2) to weaken the kleśa-s. We must therefore engage in the steady practice of yoga to fulfill this goal. It is a lifelong process.
There are five kleśa-s, which are described as the source of suffering. These include avidyā (ignorance), asmitā (limited ego), rāga (desire; dependence upon certain experience for fulfillment), dveṣā (aversion to certain experiences), and abhiniveśā (fear of death).
The first one, is ignorance, avidyā and its place of primacy is not arbitrary. If we look at all of the other kleśa-s, besides ignorance, we can see that they too are a result of avidyā. How? To the extent that we are ignorant of our true nature, and identify solely with our mind-body as the full description of who we are, and what we are capable of, we experience craving and aversion. We further the never ending inadequate strategy of comparison, sucking up all our energy in a game that can never truly be won. If this were all it would be terrible enough, but there is more. We then act from this place and since we are ignorant as to the truth of our fullness, we must of necessity act out of ignorance regarding that fullness. Therefore whatever we do will also be limited.
The tradition tells us we must refine the space of discrimination, the place of yes and no, the buddhi. Briefly, there are three parts of the mind: the manas, the ahaṃkāra, and the buddhi. The manas is the most surface-level part of the mind. It takes in sense perceptions, does surface-level functions; it organizes and categorizes. The ahaṃkāra is literally the i-maker, Aham = "I", kara = “author, maker”, it personalizes, brings all that the mind organizes around the orbit of self. The buddhi is that part of the mind that thinks deeply, decides, discriminates. It is also the storehouse of the saṃskāras, the karmic impressions, the residue left of every experience had, positive, negative and neutral. It resides behind the sense of self as described and is closet to the doorway of what the ordinary mind thinks of as consciousness, pure awareness.
A famous metaphor that is used to illustrate the role of discrimination is that of a snake and a rope. If the appearance of a snake slithers across our path, naturally we are gripped with fear and our heart will begin to race. A few moments later, low and behold, it turns out that it is not a snake, but rather a rope. So this illustrates the notion that what seems to be the case, but is actually not, can still have profound effects. It is neither fully really, nor fully unreal. But what is crucial is having the right kind of knowledge in order to discriminate what is most fully real.
The Śaiva Tantra tradition also places a great deal of importance upon the problem of ignorance. There are two types of ignorance and two types of knowledge: that type of ignorance which is related to the puruṣa -non-conceptual- pauruṣa ajñāna. One might think of this as the soul but that is fraught with many connotations. We can frame it as our pure awareness, unrelated to feeling, thinking, perceiving, or action. And then there is that ignorance related to the buddhi, the deepest level of our mind, bauddha ajñāna.
Regarding intellectual ignorance, we want to understand two things. The intellect spoken of is not merely the mind, though indeed that is to be refined and made sattvic. What is being spoken of is a specialized intellect. Bauddha, refers to the buddhi, that level of the mind, of citta, that is the most subtle, nearest the transcendent portal on the tattva schematic and, as stated, the place of discrimination as well as the storehouse of samskāras.
The light of consciousness flows through the layers of mind, or citta and we quickly comprehend the reason we seek to make the space of the buddhi, optimal, light filled, sattvic in nature.
How? See the agenda of yoga above. The first step is introversive, meditate. All of the limbs of yoga, asana, pranyama, etc says the great Śaiva Tantric master Abhinavagupta are in service of attaining the highest truth, sat-tarka. The truth of our nature and that of every knowable object. Not as an intellectual concept, or as a wish or hope or some late night dorm room subject, but as the living experience of the yogi.
We want to understand that these two types of knowledge and of ignorance are very closely related; they feed and support each other. As we deepen in our meditation we are experiencing the puruṣa more potently and yet at the same time, this experience is reflected through the citta. To permit the light to flow fully, the vessel it moves through must be refined.
We could make a good case that it would be easier or less challenging to maintain equanimity in a renunciatory setting in which the goal is to have as little to do with the world as possible. In a householder setting, in which one is constantly engaged in different relationships, various environments, work situations, etc., there are many more ways in which one can be overwhelmed, confused, and lose one's sense of freedom, peace, and bliss.
Yet, it is the engagement in this very setting that permits the frictional transmutation of the body-mind, the prakritic vessel, to occur. This is a deepening of the “dyeing of the cloth” nyaya. We must bring awareness in and out on a regular basis to wash clean and refresh; to strengthen what is brought out so that it may be utilized, lived. This is the second step, extroversive in nature, described in the Śaiva Tantra tradition.
Meditation then not only brings one knowledge of the Self, but makes the practitioner smarter. I will never forget the first time I heard Paul Muller-Ortega say, “want a better quality of thought? change the thinker.”
Knowledge is an antidote to ignorance. Meditate.