One result, they say,
is obtained by vidya,
and another result, they say,
is obtained by avidya;
thus we have heard
from the wise ones
who explained it to us.
The truly learned, the wise ones, tell us that the fruit of true knowledge, wisdom, understanding – what the Upanishads call vidya – is quite distinct from the fruit of material, informational, acquired knowledge; this the Upanishads call avidya.
Avidya also means ignorance – absence of vidya. Its intended meaning in the Upanishads is material knowledge – physical, scientific knowledge which looks like real knowledge but which leaves the person ignorant. Through avidya we may know all the subjects of learning but remain ignorant of who we are. Such learning, which creates the illusion of knowledge, is called avidya, ignorance, by the Upanishads. It can be interpreted to mean science, though this interpretation may appear very strange. The word avidya, then, means knowledge about physical science, knowledge of other things; and the word vidya – literally knowledge, learning – means the knowing of the self.
Mere knowledge is not implied by the word vidya. The word vidya implies transformation. The Upanishads will not call that vidya which does not transform one’s being. If I know something and yet I remain as I was before knowing, then such a knowing is not vidya according to the Upanishads. That learning will be called vidya which transforms you immediately upon knowing it. No sooner do I know than I am transformed. I become another person on knowing it.
If I remain as I was before knowing, then knowing is avidya – ignorance; and if I am transformed it is vidya – true knowledge. Such learning is not merely an addition to your fund of information but is transforming. Through it you change, you become quite a different person. That which is called vidya, knowledge, by the Upanishads, gives you a new birth.
Socrates has given us a very short sutra similar in meaning to this interpretation of the Upanishads. He said, “Knowledge is virtue.” This was discussed and debated for hundreds of years in Greece, because the relationship between knowledge and virtue is not obvious. A person knows anger is bad, yet anger does not vanish. Another person knows stealing is bad, but he continues to steal. Another person knows that greed is bad, and yet his greed does not stop. But Socrates is saying that your greed goes away once you know that it is bad.
If a person knows that greed is bad and yet remains greedy, then his knowing is avidya. It is merely an illusion of knowing, it is false knowledge. The test of true knowledge is that it immediately becomes a part of your behavior; it does not even require practice. If someone thinks, “Let me know it first and then I shall put it into practice,” then that knowing of his is not knowledge but ignorance.