Editorial - All our Ignorance brings us closer to Death

by M. Govindan Satchidananda

"All our ignorance brings us closer to death" — T.S. Eliot

This line from the great American poet, T.S. Eliot, which I came across recently, paraphrases what an eminent gerontologist said to me at a conference on aging at the National Institute of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, more than 25 years ago. During the question and answer period I asked the panel of eminent doctors and scientists, "Why do humans die?" The respondent’s answer was both surprising and humble. He replied: "Humans die because of their ignorance. We have so many bad habits which wear us out." When I then asked him, "Is there a theoretical limit to human life?" he replied "There is no real theoretical limit to human life. Humans could live indefinitely. We do not know why there should be any limit to human life."

Since that time, many scientific studies have pointed to the effects of "free radicals" and even the existence of a gene which seems to control aging, but we are still basically ignorant as to why we die. Many have tried to correlate the effects of stress, diet, lifestyle, one’s environment, social status, and genealogy with aging The Siddhas, of course had a great deal to say about the correlation between our rate of breathing and aging

However, the topic of "ignorance" itself, is often overlooked. The term "avidya" is the Sanskrit word for "ignorance." It refers not to an absence of knowledge, or a lack of education, as the term is used in the preceding paragraphs. According to Patanjali: "Ignorance is seeing the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasurable and the non-Self as the Self." (Yoga-Sutras II.5) This is the fundamental error to which humans are prone, and involves the mistaken sense of identity with what we are not. We say: "I am tired" or "I am sick, angry or worried." We approach the truth, however, when we say: "My body is tired," or "I have angry thoughts." Our current cultural context, the media, our language syntax and our educational system all foster this fundamental error, which hides our true identity, the Self. The Self is the eternal witness, the Seer, a constant, pure One Being, infinite, all pervasive, present in everything. Everything else is changing and will therefore be lost one day. By clinging to the impermanent, to what changes, we ignore the Real, and we suffer. All desire is painful for it creates an insatiable need to have something which we currently do not possess, or to be something, which we are not. Even when we fulfill desires there will always be more desires, as well as the desire not to lose what we have, hence more suffering.

Patanjali tells us that "Ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and clinging to life are the five afflictions (klesah) "(II.3). These five afflictions prevent Self-realization. Ignorance is the most significant, he goes onto say in the following verse: "Ignorance is the field (from which other) afflictions (arise) and can be dormant, weak, intercepted or active." That is, ignorance is the primary cause of our suffering and it brings about the others. It is the cause of the confusion between the subject "I am," and the objects of our experience. It hides our inner awareness and creates a false identity: I am the body, mind, senses, emotions, etc.

In the average person, ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and clinging to life are constant and sustained. We constantly follow the promptings of subconscious based desires. When our well-being or survival, is threatened, we typically respond in fear without any reflection. When we begin to practice Yoga, however, we intercept many such promptings, detach from or resist them, and substitute feelings of love, self-discipline, and generosity, etc. It requires vigilance and effort however; if not, the old habits are revived.

In an advanced practitioner of Yoga, the afflictions become very weak, or dormant, because he or she no longer responds to them. The practitioner’s constant discipline (sadhana) has resulted in a state of equanimity, which cannot be disturbed by such promptings.

So to overcome this ignorance, we should seek ways to remind ourselves of who we truly are: by the regular study of texts such as the Yoga-Sutras and the Bhagavad-Gita, by using affirmations and auto-suggestions regarding our true Self, and by the cultivation of Self-awareness through the five-fold path of Babaji’s Kriya Yoga.

Copyright 2001 by Marshall Govindan. All rights reserved.


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