Schools, colleges and universities claim to teach students all they need to know to succeed, but do they actually deliver on their promise? Do students automatically become successful simply because their diplomas and degrees enhance their ability to earn a livelihood? Based on your own personal experience, how do you define success? Do you believe that an education can fully prepare individuals if it does not teach them how to govern themselves, peacefully and creatively when dealing with all their thoughts, desires, emotions and the endless charms and attractions the world has to offer? Remember Krishna’s warning in the Bhagavad Gita, “When you know no peace, it is impossible to know joy.”
The ability to earn money is important, but when it becomes the exclusive goal of our institutions of higher learning, that limited education cannot fully serve the individual, the family, the nation and the world. Recognizing the inherent dangers in such a barren educational philosophy, ancient yogic sages examined the nature of knowledge to determine what kinds of knowledge were most beneficial. Their findings, received so long ago, remain remarkably relevant to our modern times and challenges.
In the Mundaka Upanishad, an earnest student named Shaunaka visited the sage Angirasa to discover the meaning of life and experience unbounded happiness. Shaunaka asked his teacher this provocative question: “Sir, what is that knowledge by which everything in the world becomes known?” Angirasa answered his student by classifying knowledge (vidya), into two distinct categories: apara vidya (knowledge of this world) and para vidya (knowledge of the Absolute Truth).
Apara vidya is every form of knowledge that is obtained through the process of reasoning and from the contact of the mind and senses with objects in the material world. Apara vidya is received indirectly, as hearsay, from outside sources such as lectures, books, the internet, television and other conventional methods of education. Apara vidya is far-reaching and a worthy form of knowledge. It includes the sciences, arts, commerce, management and technology. When an individual specializes in knowledge concerning a particular aspect of the world, that apara vidya can make one successful and prosperous. But, as the sage Angirasa explained, without the higher knowledge of the absolute (para vidya), that person will never be content nor liberated from the pain, misery or bondage of human existence. And because contentment (santosha) is the greatest of all wealths, every human being eventually is moved to investigate and cultivate a higher knowledge.
Para vidya (also known as Brahma vidya–the science of God) is the higher, or direct knowledge, received through one’s own personal experience. It is a profound, eternal knowledge that automatically comes to individuals as they increasingly base their thoughts, words and deeds on their own inner, intuitive wisdom. It is considered the highest form of knowledge because it represents a changeless, eternal Truth that lies beyond the changing relativity of the phenomenal world. Just as a razor shaves off the hair of a beard covering the face, para vidya removes the personality’s superimposed veil of ignorance–the fear, anger and greed that obscure our Divine Nature: Sat-Chit-Ananda (Eternal, Consciousness/ Wisdom and Bliss).
The distinction between higher and lower knowledge was also reiterated in the Chandogya Upanishad. In that teaching, the spiritual seeker Narada went to the sage Sanat Kumara to acquire higher knowledge. Narada was asked to discuss what he knew. In response, Narada admitted that even though he knew the finer points of mathematics, astronomy, science, the arts and logic, there was no end to his desires and cravings and, therefore, no peace of mind and satisfaction.
Ministering to Narada’s consternation, Sanat Kumara explained that all memorized lower knowledge of the material world (apara vidya) was secondary. Only the supreme, eternal knowledge of the Absolute Truth (para vidya) could facilitate the appropriate application of lower knowledge in order to fulfill the purpose of life.
For most of us, the eternal Truth of the divinity in man remains shrouded by the seemingly impenetrable veil of our thoughts, desires and emotions. It is only by knowing and realizing the higher Self or Eternal Witness within us through direct, personal experience that the compulsive identification with the gross body/mind/sense complex can cease. This is the genius of spiritual practice (sadhana). By applying the wisdom of para vidya in everyday relationships, human beings prove the abstract, philosophical Truth that provides the clear vision we need in order to act skillfully in the world with an appropriate form of lower knowledge.
For this life-saving endeavor, some outside assistance is needed. This is the role of education: to unravel the profound mystery of life in order to facilitate the liberation of each human being and to provide the framework for the life-affirming norms and values of a compassionate civilization.
The ground on which a physical science claims superiority over other streams of secular knowledge is that its theories are based on and verifiable through laboratory tests. But no matter how many years a student studies and verifies the truths of chemistry, he or she will never become a chemical. Similarly, a practicing zoologist never becomes an animal. And a botanist never becomes a plant. But the amazing power of para vidya is that when one studies and applies the higher knowledge in thought, word and deed, she realizes that she already is and always was that which she has been studying: the absolute eternal Truth.
Knowledge of both para vidya and apara vidya is necessary to live successfully in the world, yet only para vidya can lead an individual to freedom, enlightenment and the fulfillment of life’s true purpose. Although apara vidya enables an individual to know the functioning of the mind, actions and speech, it does not reveal the ultimate, underlying Reality or root cause of the universe. Para vidya doesn’t teach about the specific objects of the universe, but it does enable an earnest seeker of Truth to understand the underlying fabric of the universe. Just as by knowing gold, all gold ornaments can be known, by knowing para vidya, the most beneficial way to cultivate relationships with the objects of the universe is known in its entirety.
A very old story illustrates the importance and practical benefit of being grounded in para vidya while engaging with the objects of the world.
A wealthy man owned 19 horses when he died. Through his last will and testament he bequeathed half the horses he owned to his only son, one fourth to the village temple and one fifth to his faithful servant.
After reading the will, the village elders were puzzled. How could they possibly give half of the 19 horses to the son? You can’t divide a horse in half. They brooded over this dilemma unsuccessfully for more than two weeks and finally decided to send for a wise man who was living in a neighboring village.
Soon the sage arrived, riding on his horse, and asked how he might be service. The elders explained to him that the rich man’s final request was that half of the 19 horses be given to his only son, one fourth to the temple and one fifth to the faithful servant.
Upon hearing the dilemma, the sage promptly announced that he would be glad to solve their problem. He instructed the villagers to arrange all 19 horses in a single row–standing side by side. When that was accomplished, he added his own steed as the 20th horse. The sage then gave half of the 20 horses–that is 10 horses, to the son. One fourth of 20–that is 5 horses, were given to the temple committee, and one fifth of twenty–that is 4 horses, were given to the faithful servant. Ten plus five plus four made 19 horses. The remaining 20th horse was his own–which he promptly mounted. Before he departed he delivered a few inspiring words to the crowd that had assembled, standing in awe and admiration of his wisdom.
The parting words of the wise man were inscribed in their hearts and minds, cherished and passed on to their succeeding generations till today. The sage spoke plainly: “In the daily affairs of life, when you are aware of the Absolute Divine Reality Within and then go about facing the day’s happenings, everything that is needed will come. Simply add the God Principle into your everyday life, and your problems will become lighter and lighter and eventually they will disappear.”
Without the divine vision of higher knowledge, lower knowledge is like a boat out of water. It’s not difficult for a boat on water to be moved to its intended port, but it is virtually impossible to arrive at that destination if the boat is dragged on dry land. It is only para vidya, knowledge of the Absolute Truth, that liberates and illuminates human creative capacity.
In acknowledgment of this principle, American psychologist Abraham Maslow noted, “When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.” To direct humanity in finding the appropriate tool that ends dis-ease, Albert Einstein provided this clue, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them. They can only be solved on a higher level.” But if our institutions of “higher” learning continue to instruct students only in the lower worldly knowledge (apara vidya) that enhances their ability to make a living, yet another generation will remain unschooled and ill-prepared to access creative solutions that can resolve personal, cultural, political, economic and environmental problems.
Many years ago my automobile mechanic unwittingly spoke to me as an instrument of Guru (the universal force of light of higher knowledge that dispels the darkness). He remarked that, “If you have the correct tool, every job is easy.” The higher knowledge of para vidya is that appropriate tool for every situation because it teaches us about the divine, Supreme Intelligence existing at our human core. Para vidya–the higher knowledge realized through the systematic practice of Yoga Science–is the appropriate tool that can help each of us make sense of the world and provide us, in every situation, the intuitive wisdom to overcome all our difficulties and all our ills.