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Avidyā is a Sanskrit word whose literal meaning is "ignorance", "delusion", "unlearned", "unwise" and opposite of, Vidya. It is used extensively in Hindu texts, including the Upanishads, and also in Buddhism.
Avidyā, in all Dharmic systems, is a cognitive limitation to be overcome by each individual and does not imply a failure or transgression. The "entrenched misunderstanding of ourselves and the world" is avidyā (false knowledge) which gives rise to several root causes of misery or kleshas, which include ruinous states of mind and addictive habits.
Nomenclature and etymology
In Advaita Vedanta
The effect of avidya is to suppress the real nature of things and present something else in its place. In effect it is not different from Maya (pronounced Māyā) or illusion. Avidya relates to the individual Self (Ātman), while Maya is an adjunct of the cosmic Self (Brahman). In both cases it connotes the principle of differentiation of an experienced reality into the subject ('I') and an object, as is implicit in human thinking. Avidya stands for that delusion which breaks up the original unity (refer: nonduality) of what is real and presents it as subject and object and as doer and result of the deed. What keeps humanity captive in Samsara is this avidya. This ignorance,"the ignorance veiling our true self and the truth of the world", is not lack of erudition; it is ignorance about the nature of 'Being' (Sat). It is a limitation that is natural to human sensory or intellectual apparatus. This is responsible for all the misery of humanity. Advaita Vedanta holds that the eradication of it should be humanity's only goal and that will automatically mean realisation of the Self (Ātman).
Adi Shankara on avidya
Adi Shankara says in his Introduction to his commentary on the Brahma Sutras, "Owing to an absence of discrimination, there continues a natural human behaviour in the form of 'I am this' or 'This is mine'; this is avidya. It is a superimposition of the attributes of one thing on another. The ascertainment of the nature of the real entity by separating the superimposed thing from it is vidya (knowledge, illumination)". In Shankara's philosophy avidya cannot be categorized either as 'absolutely existent' or as 'absolutely non-existent'.
- Malhotra; Rajiv. Being Different : An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, Pg no. 72, HarperCollins Publishers India, 2011.
- Mohrhoff, Ulrich. "The Veil of Avidya" (PDF). Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Pondicherry, India.
- Dr. V.K. Maheshwari. "The Indian Concept of Education". College, Roorkee, India.