The vice of knowledge

A lovely, but enigmatic verse in the Ishopanishad says, “Those who worship Avidya enter into blinding darkness; but not into greater darkness than those who are engaged in Vidya.”

The first part is easy enough to understand, especially in these times when action without knowledge is not unknown. The adverse consequences of such action can be glossed over when the blame can be shifted to someone else. But the idea itself has been with us for millennia, finding a place in our parables, like the one about the king and the monkey.

A king once had for a friend a very loyal monkey. The king trusted the monkey implicitly and allowed it to stand guard when he slept. One afternoon as the king slept peacefully, a fly was buzzing over his face. Afraid that the fly would wake up the king, the monkey, in complete good faith, pulled out the dagger and was about to plunge it into the king’s throat. The disaster was averted by the intervention of a thief who had come to rob, but ended up saving the king’s life. The king woke up, realised what had happened, rewarded the thief and let him go. One assumes he also got himself a trained guard.

The second part is more intriguing. It is difficult to imagine someone engaged in the pursuit of knowledge or even someone who has been informed of the consequence of an action, allowing that knowledge to lead them into darkness worse than that of being blinded. Yet, getting carried away by pride about knowledge, ego or even curiosity is not unknown. In Mahabharatha, Kunthi’s childish curiosity in invoking the Sun God and giving birth to Karna became a life-long problem in the unfortunate warrior’s life.


Or take the folk tale of the learned Brahmin whose learning gave him the power to breathe life into the non-living. Finding a dead tiger he could not resist the temptation to give it life. When the tiger came alive its first act was to eat the Brahmin. In more recent and real times, Robert J Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, is believed to have said that had he visualised the catastrophic result of his brainchild he would have been happier to have become a horologist like his father.

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