What is the meaning of Avijja in plain English?

I am trying to learn and understand Paticca-samuppada. I am not that satisfied with the explanations of the Pali words in English. However, I do not know Pali. Therefore, I seek to learn form those who know. Could it be that in the course of long time - the Pali that was spoken in the days of Buddha - some 2600 years ago - and the Pali that we understand today could have different meanings? I am a biological scientist and Darwinist. In my free time, I study the philosophical aspects of the religions. Thank you.

The Pali word avijja is the negated form of the word ‘vijja’, sometimes translated as ‘true knowledge’.
So, a translation of ‘avijja’ is often ‘ignorance’.

1 Like

The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary is a good place to, well maybe not start but to dig deeper:

1 Like

Buddhism has a different epistemology than western science. It’s aim is not to explain the workings of samsara, but the ending of suffering. To understand the suttas involves actual practice, energy and striving. To get a comprehensive understanding it is required to study the positive processes and avoid dependent origination. This explanation of ignorance is from the view of the active processes:

“When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned.”

—Anguttara Nikaya 2.30

I currently translate it as “lack of gnosis”.



The essay “Ignorance or Misconception - A Note on Avidyā in Buddhism” by Bimal Matilal on avijjā (he uses the Sanskrit avidyā) is interesting and informative. It was also recommended by Ayya Dhammadinna.

Here’s the link:

He makes the case that rather than this term pointing to an absence of understanding or discernment it can also, and perhaps mainly in his thesis, point to the presence of wrong understanding.
In this way, it can act as a cause for the arising of sankhāra and the other dependent links in Dependent Arising.

Here are some brief excerpts:

“My main objection against both ‘nescience’ and ‘ignorance’ is that they both express a predominently negative meaning: ‘lack of knowledge’ or ‘absence of knowledge’. Thus, both translations are too vague to make avidyā a meaningful concept with­ in the system of concepts found in Buddhism. Besides, and this is my second point in this essay, the Sanskrit term avidyā (Pali: avijjā), although it is ‘grammatically’ negative (having been formed with a negative particle), does not mean negation (or absence or lack) of anything. For, it is well-known in Sanskrit grammar that the negative particle in a Sanskrit compound does not always express simply negation or absence.”

“…avidya’ refers to what can be mistaken as vidyā. If ‘vidyā’ means knowledge of reality, or ultimate knowledge, or simply knowledge; ‘avidyā’ will mean something that is liable to be mistaken as such.”

" For, ‘avidyā’ as an avyayibhiiva compound would mean a non-entity, or non-existence (non-existence of knowledge). But in Buddhism a non-entity or non-existence cannot (causally) condition another thing. Thus, since avidyā is regarded as a condition (pratyaya) of samskhāra, it would be wrong to interpret avidyā as non-existence of knowledge.

“If, on the other hand, we take ‘avidyā’ to be a bahuvrihi compound, we have to interpret it as anything that is not vidyā. For, in this case the com­pound acts as an adjective of anything that is not called vidyā. But this also will falsify the notion of avidyā in Buddhism. For such things as the eye­ organ (and many other things in the world) would then have to be designated as avidyā But ‘avidyā’ is not applied to such things in Buddhism. Thus, it seems better to accept Patafijali’s first interpretation of the negative com­pound, according to which ‘avidyā’ will mean only those items that can be mistakenly thought as vidyā.”

1 Like

Matilal makes some interesting points. But it seems to me that what he argues against and what he proposes are just two sides of the same coin. Because the unawakened mind needs to have a way to understand the world, in the absence of right understanding it will adopt or construct a wrong understanding. The absence of one implies the presence of the other.

And I wonder how Matilal supports this assertion (sorry the quote shows up as if it’s by you, Jasudho, when you may not necessarily agree with it :pray:):

Just as an obvious example, the absence of the five hindrances is a necessary condition for the arising of the first jhāna.


Avijja is no knowledge or insight regarding suffering, regarding the arising of suffering, the ceasing of suffering, the path leading to the ceasing of suffering.

Hi, thanks for your comments.

I had the same idea as you regarding the two sides of a coin.
(All the quotes are by Matilal after “Here are some brief excerpts…”).

I agree with your points. I just thought it was interesting and useful that he did, in fact, point out the two sides of the coin, whereas we usually only see it expressed as the “absence” side.

In a sutta (which I can’t specifically cite now, sorry), the Buddha teaches how some beings see the permanent in the impermanent…and so on for other aspects. In this context, this mistaken seeing/understanding can be denioted as the “positive” non-vijjā side of avijjā in the way Matilal was expressing.

Also, I’m not sure how a mere “absence” or lacuna in DO can be a necessary condition for the arising of sankhāra. Again, here it appears the “presence of a real mistake” in understanding is required for this.

I just thought Matilal’s pointing out how avijjā can be seen not only as absence of right understanding but also as the presence of wrong understanding was interesting.
As you wrote – two sides of a coin :slightly_smiling_face:

But I may be presently mistaken!

1 Like

Apologies for not using plain English, part of my intention is to help intermediate & advanced learners of Pali so this post may not make full sense to those who are only beginning to learn Pali / Sanskrit.

The word avidyā, like the word anātman is called a nañ-tatpuruṣa (a determinative compound formed with the word ‘na’ - i.e. here the words in the compound are na & vidyā).

The ancient thesaurus Amarakoṣa equates avidyā to ajñāna & aham-mati . The Pāli thesaurus Abhidhānappadīpikā (which is based on the Amarakoṣa) does not directly define avijjā but equates vijjā (vidyā) to ñāṇa (jñāna)

A nañ-tatpuruṣa compound can have the following 6 possible meanings (and must be construed using all these possible senses to get a wholistic mental-picture of the word’s semantic-range):

  1. sādṛśye yathā — abrāhmaṇaḥ brāhmaṇasadṛśa ityarthaḥ
  2. abhāve yathā — abhojanaṁ bhojanābhāvaḥ
  3. anyatve yathā — aghaṭaḥ ghaṭabhinna ityarthaḥ
  4. alpatve yathā — anudarī kanyā alpodarī ityarthaḥ
  5. aprāśastye yathā — adhanaṁ apraśastadhanam ityarthaḥ
  6. virodhe yathā — adharmaḥ dharmavirodhī ityarthaḥ

1 Like

Yes, I think we’re in agreement. Based on what I’ve read of your posts since you’ve been on the forum, I think our understandings of the Dhamma are very similar.

As an example, someone who enters a darkened (but not pitch black) room begins to try to make sense of the vague, amorphous shapes they see. They likely interpret many objects in the room incorrectly, due to the condition of darkness (absence of light), and they then react to those mental constructions with fear, excitement, etc. The absence of light is a condition for the distorted mental constructions.

Similarly, one way to understand the first few nidānas of dependent arising is: Due to the absence of clear understanding (avijjā), the deluded mind creates constructions (saṅkhārā) out of the flow of experience, reifying them into ‘things’ or ‘entities.’ The first and most subtle entity constructed is consciousness (viññāna), understood here as the subject of experience (the one to whom experience happens). Once there is a subject of experience, there necessarily must be the content of experience (nāma-rūpa, which is the material aspect of experience (rūpa) interpreted by various aspects of the mind (nāma) and presented to consciousness).

In this perspective, the absence of clear understanding (avijjā) is the condition for constructing (or adopting) a faulty understanding (which is seen as a type of saṅkhāra).

1 Like

Agree we’re on the same page. :slightly_smiling_face:
I appreciate your comments.

I guess it comes down to definitions and ways of expressing the same truths.
Avijjā expressed as the presence of false-understanding or mistaken knowledge → sankhāra;
Avijjha expressed as the absence of correct understanding is the other side of the coin.

As in your nice example of the dark room – the misapprehension of amorphous shapes can be seen as the presence of avijjā as wrong knowledge in the way Matilal, I think, is expressing it.
I mean, the very absence of understanding comes with the presence of wrong understanding.
The two faces of Janus! :laughing:

But this can turn into wordy stuff and I agree our understanding of the Dhamma seems very congruent. :slightly_smiling_face: :pray:

1 Like


This may be helpful or not.

The freemasons have a teaching system that is based on their most famous symbols of square and compass. These represent aspects of our existence, aspects and/or forces that in immediate human experience are the same for everyone. Depending on your religious or philosophical background, you will have a specific concept for each of these in mind. But that makes no difference in practice, since the same things follow for everybody that approaches practice according to what is implied in the symbols.

I find that (and I need to mark this as my personal oppionion) with the teachings of the Buddha, it is very much the same. Dependent Origination: Call it the law of cause and effect if you are materialist. Call it creation if you are theist. Call it the emanation or evil demiurge if you are gnostic. And so with many other of the difficult concepts like emptiness and not-self. They are like a Rorschach test to somebody who tries to define them philosophically in western-style.

This is why I believe that you might not gain anything by defining certain Pali words differently. Take them to mean what makes sense to you and grasp the concept of the eightfold path.

Everyone: Thank you so much for the answers. It is a wonderful experience. I am trying to learn from every answer and information that being kindly given to me. It will take some time for me to digestion - even if I can - all the info. I may come up with more questions if needed. Thank you all, again.

Thank you. A sensible approach.