Our Upanishads often talk about vidya and avidya.
What is vidya? true knowledge, and what is avidya, something that is not true knowledge?
According to the Upanishads, Atma Dnyana, the atman or the soul’s knowledge is true knowledge, and all the rest is avidya. Avidya can be learned in schools and colleges, vidya can not be learned. The Atman is not something to know about through books and lectures, it is something that can be understood through direct experience. That experience can be gained only through a spiritual sadhana of years and years.
Performed under the able guidance of an able guru. Once one has gained vidya, it can be an eternal source of peace and bliss for one. That is why we often find saints, who are saints in the true sense of the term, peaceful and blissful under all circumstances. Avidya may bring short-term material benefits to one but it can not bring one the kind of perennial peace and bliss that vidya can.
So the Upanishads find vidya greater than avidya. The Kathopanishada sets the ideal of Nachiketa before us. He demands Atma Dnyana from Lord Yama, the god of death. Lord Yama offers him material pleasures in place of Atma dhyana. However, he strictly refuses to accept anything else than Atma dhyana. Pleased with his steadfastness, Lord Yama imparts Atma Dnyana to him. In the same way, we should also set a greater store by vidya rather than avidya – that is what the Kathopanishada expects from us.
The concept of the atman is not fiction, it is a fact. The Kathopanishada tells describes the atman as something with which we can perceive the rupas, forms, varnas, colors, and Gunas, qualities of the world even after our deaths. In the Marathi book Chamatkar ani Vidnyan, Prin. Adwaiyanand Galatge points out that there is certainly something in us that can perceive the world even after our deaths.
He refers to the book ‘Life after Life’ by Mr. Raymond Moody, which records as many as one hundred and fifty cases of people perceiving the world with something after their deaths and that something is the Atman or the soul.
Of course, all this does not mean that avidya is completely meaningless or that it need not be pursued. No material progress is possible without avidya and material development is as important as a spiritual one. However, gaining avidya can not be the ultimate aim of life.
Vidya is the knowledge of the soul and after all, it is the soul of the world that counts more than the world itself. What is the point in trying to know more and more about the world, without trying to grasp its soul?