Avidya, in Hinduism, means ignorance, or individual ignorance. Definitions of avidya, frequently given as a synonym for ajhana, have led Indian philosophers into endless and profitless speculation resulting in little concurrence. Avidya, according to Samkara, is endless but can end at any moment when man attains spiritual illumination.

Avidya causes man to move further away from the Self and obscure his knowledge of the truth. In the Bhagavad Gita it is noted that all sufferings and limitations imposed by the ego come from avidya; consequently man has to seek knowledge, with which hatred, injury and greed are incompatible.

Mandana stated that avidya is called illusion (maya), also false appearance (mithyabhasa), because it is neither the characteristic nature of Brahman nor an entity different from Brahman. It is neither real nor absolutely unreal. He infers that the locus of avidya is the individual soul (jiva). Ultimately the jives are identical with the Brahman but phenomenally they are diverse, diversity being the product of avidya. There exist two types of avidya: absence of knowledge and positive wrong knowledge.

Vachaspati also stated the locus of avidya is in the soul, but the illusion is psychological, for which each individual is responsible. Here a dilemma arises: Avidya resides in the soul, but the soul is the product of avidya; what Vachaspati sees is an endless chain of false illusions in which each succeeding illusion is due to its preceding illusion.

Sureshvara stated that avidya is beginningless error and is indescribable, as it is neither real nor unreal. It is an inconsistent category, a self-contradictory principle, for if it had been consistent, it would not have been avidya at all.

The many philosophers are mainly interested in refuting one another. Vidyaranya finalizes this series with the statement that avidya is a beginningless power that cannot stand dialectical scrutiny, cannot be described in any way, and is therefore false. When true knowledge dawns, avidya with all its world products, is realized as something that never was, never is, and never will be real.

Avidya when used as a Theosophical term denotes the ignorance of the mind that causes those commencing on the spiritual pathway to expend vain effort and pursue vain causes. It is the antithesis of Vidya, or true knowledge. A.G.H.

Sources: 9, 137; 83, 42-43.