Causes of Suffering – Klesha #1: Avidya (ignorance)

In our previous post we learned about the five kleshas, or causes of suffering, according to yogic/Buddhist tradition.  If you missed that post, check it out here!  The five kleshas are mental afflictions that distort our perception of reality and cloud our judgement.  Although the kleshas originate in the mind, they manifest in behavior on both an individual and global level. 

The kleshas are defined in the Yoga Sutras, written between 200 and 500 B.C. by the Indian sage Patanjali.  The Sutras are the most referenced book on yoga, and they are all about how to transcend suffering through mental liberation.  In this post, we’ll reference the Sri Swami Satchidananda translation, available here.  The five kleshas, as defined in the Sutras, are:

Sutra 2.3: avidyā-asmitā-rāga-dveṣa-abhiniveśā kleśa

Ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred and clinging to bodily life are the five obstacles. (Swami Satchidananda translation).

In this post we’ll learn about the first klesha, avidya or ignorance.  We’ll also look at how this particular klesha might be manifesting in our lives, and what we can do to overcome it. 

Avidya is a Sanskrit word that means ignorance.  It can also be translated to misunderstanding or misconception in reference to the ultimate truth of life.

What is Avidya?

The first of the five kleshas is avidya, or ignorance.  It is a Sanskrit word that can be broken down into ‘a’ meaning ‘not’, and ‘vidya’ meaning ‘to know’ or ‘to see’.  So avidya essentially means to not know, to not see.  But avidya is more than just simply not knowing things. 

It can also be translated to misunderstanding or misconception in reference to the ultimate truth of life.  It is spiritual ignorance, or rather, when we are unaware of the nature of our spiritual selves, and therefore identify with external things. 

The Sutras say:

“Avidya is to mistake the impermanent for the eternal, the impure for the pure, sorrow for happiness, and the not-Self for the true Self.”

Avidya is considered the main klesha, in that all others stem from it.  Egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear of death all come from this foundation of spiritual not knowing.  When we are unaware of our place in the Universe, and do not understand our spiritual selves, we cling to external, worldly things.  We define ourselves by our jobs, our family, our hobbies, our thoughts.  But there is someone behind all of that, someone who sees everything with neutrality and understanding.  Being unaware that this higher Self exists is avidya. 

How Avidya Hinders Us

Being out of touch with our spiritual nature affects the way we navigate our lives.  The disconnect of avidya causes us to identify with things that are external, mistaking them for our true selves.  When we attach ourselves to external, temporary things, we experience suffering when they are taken away.  We create desires and aversions in our minds that direct our energy and create a false sense of self. 

When we create an image in our minds of how we should live our life, we create expectations, both of ourselves and of the external world.  We set a standard for the way things should be, and when they don’t work out that way, we suffer.  We make decisions based on these expectations and often lose touch with our instinct.  Or we might be able to identify our instinct, but deny it because it doesn’t align with what we think we should do. 

Avidya makes it difficult, often impossible, to see our lives from a big-picture perspective.  When something we perceive as negative comes up, we try to avoid it, fix it, make it go away, anything other than face the unpleasantness.  We might even become angry about our problems or feel victimized by life.  Spiritual ignorance causes us to see an obstacle as the enemy rather than the teacher. 

Avidya makes it difficult, often impossible, to see our lives from a big-picture perspective.  When something we perceive as negative comes up, we try to avoid it, fix it, make it go away, anything other than face the unpleasantness.  We might even become angry about our problems or feel victimized by life.  Spiritual ignorance causes us to see an obstacle as the enemy rather than the teacher. 

Ways to Decrease Avidya in our Lives

According to yogic tradition, avidya is something we are all born with to some degree and must actively work to overcome.  Throughout our life journey, we can decrease the suffering we inflict upon ourselves by self-reflection and connection to the Divine.

In Sri Swami Satchidananda’s translation of the Sutras, he discusses four levels of the kleshas’ effect on our lives, the fourth being the state of most people:

“The fourth type is seen in the case of average people.  The klesas constantly manifest.  Every minute their minds are affected by the obstructions.  They have no say over them because they are not exerting any force to control them.” 

They key phrase in this quote is “they are not exerting any force to control them”.  This implies purposeful action.  To overcome avidya, we need to mindfully direct our energy toward practices that can help us get in touch with our true selves and identify where spiritual ignorance plays a role in our lives.  When we commit to incorporating a regular practice into our lives, we create space for connection with our higher selves.  Getting to know ourselves on a spiritual level can help us decipher what is within our control, and what is not. 

Practices that focus on inward reflection are especially helpful for overcoming avidya.  There are so many ways to connect with our spiritual selves, it can be overwhelming to decide which to try.  The goal is to find something that resonates with you and leaves you feeling peaceful.  When you find something that feels good, it’s easier to create a habit that you incorporate into your daily life.  Here are a few you can try:

  • Meditation
  • Reiki (energy healing)
  • Sound healing
  • Pranayama (breathing exercises)
  • Yoga

You can try all these practices with us at Inspiring Actions at our studios in Hudson and River Falls, Wisconsin!  If practicing at home is more your style, we also offer classes online; check out our full schedule here!  Our asana classes and special events can help you get in touch with your true self in a safe, welcoming environment.  There is no experience necessary, just a desire to experience a sense of peace you can carry with you into your daily life. 

Join us next week as we learn about the second klesha, asmita, or egoism.  Thanks for reading! 

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