The Upanishads have praised vidya greatly. It has been highly valued. It is considered the alchemy to transform life. What we understand as knowledge is simply an arrangement to earn our livelihood. One person is a doctor, another is an engineer, another is a shopkeeper. We all have our own knowledge, but it does not transform life, it simply helps us carry on with our lives. These various branches of specialized knowledge do not give a new turn to life, they simply make life secure. No new flowers open because of them, they simply prevent the roots of life from drying up. No ecstasy enters life because of them, only protection, planning and arrangements to avoid hardships and inconveniences in life. What we call knowledge is simply a means to earn our livelihood in an efficient and convenient manner. The Upanishads call this avidya.
That is vidya, according to the Upanishads, which does not simply drag life a little further on, but which raises life to a higher level. Remember, avidya is horizontal. Vidya is vertical – it moves towards the sky. Avidya is like a bullock-cart trundling along the ground. There is no take-off in it, as there is in an airplane. It cannot take off and fly high in the sky. In its journey from birth through to death it never leaves ground level, and we die at the very level at which we were born. Generally, the cradle is the grave. There is hardly any difference between the levels of birth and death. Continuously walking horizontally we all eventually find our graves because they are not very far from the cradles: and even if they are far, the level remains the same.
Vidya is vertical, going up. The level is changed. You are not what you were before. No sooner do you achieve true knowledge than you are another person. Buddha or Mahavira or Krishna are standing quite near to us, in our neighborhood, touching our shoulders, and yet they are not with us – they are nowhere near us. They are way up on some peak. Their bodies seem to be near to us, but their spirit is not with us. They have passed through vidya. They are learned in the true sense of the word.
This sutra of the Upanishad tells us that avidya has its own value just as vidya has its qualities. Avidya has its own usefulness. The Upanishad does not say, “Kill avidya”; it only says, “Do not consider avidya as vidya.” It does not mean that you should not live with your feet on the ground in this world but should only float higher and higher into the sky. Really, the man who wants to rise up towards the sky has to keep his feet firmly on the ground.
Nietzsche has said somewhere that the tree that wants to touch the sky has to send its roots deep into the ground below. A tree goes as far down as it climbs high. A tree that reaches for the stars in the sky has its roots deep into the earth. The tree can only go as high as its roots go deep.
The Upanishads are not opposed to avidya. The belief that they are, has given rise to a great delusion. I will explain it to you, because nobody can tell how much misery and affliction the East has suffered because of this mistaken belief. The Upanishads have not been correctly understood. We make the mistake of thinking avidya to be vidya. The Upanishads are opposed to this. They tell us avidya is not vidya and the distinction should be properly understood. Then we make another mistake. The simple truth is that we stubbornly insist on being mistaken, because we make either one mistake or the other.