On Ācāra, Vicāra, Viveka, Jñāna

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Editor’s note: Sri Aurobindo wrote these four short passages as part of a series ‘Passing Thoughts’ sometime in early 1910. These were probably meant for publication in Karmayogin.

The Indian mind today is trying to rediscover the true essence of Indian-ness and create new forms to express the eternal truth of the Indian spirit. The immense value and significance of these ‘passing thoughts’ of Sri Aurobindo can’t be missed in today’s cultural and intellectual climate.

For all the Sanskrit words in this article we have updated the simple spellings which were used by Sri Aurobindo in his writing dated 1910. In other words, achar is now being written as ācāra, vichar as vichāra, vivek as viveka, and jnanam as jñāna

Image by Narendra Joshi


Ācāra is a mould in which the thing itself rests and feels stable; it is not the thing itself. It is this sense of stability which is the great value of ācāra, it gives the thing itself the sraddha, the faith that it is meant to abide. It is a conservative force, it helps to preserve things as they are. But it is also a danger and hindrance when change becomes necessary. Conservative forces are either sattwic or tamasic.

Ācāra with knowledge, observance full of the spirit of the thing itself, is sattwic and preserves the thing itself; ācāra without knowledge, looking to the letter of custom and observance, disregarding the spirit, is tamasic and destroys the thing itself.

Intelligent observance and custom are always ready to change when change is needed, for they know themselves to be important but not essential. Ignorant observance and custom consider themselves the thing itself, rage against the hand that touches them and prefer to rot rather than change.

Tamasic ācāra is a rotten mould which has often to be broken to pieces in order that the thing itself may be preserved. But if it is broken to pieces by anger and prejudice, the thing itself is likely to withdraw from us. It must be loosened and split asunder by the heat of knowledge. The present mould of Hinduism has to be broken and replaced, but by knowledge and yoga, not by the European spirit, and it is an Indian and not an English mould that must replace it.


The need of vichāra is urgent in times of transition. Revolutionary times generate two sorts of mind who are avichāri, without perception and deliberation, the mind which clings fiercely to the old because it is old and the mind which runs violently after the new because it is new. Between them rises the self-styled moderate man who says, Let us have something of the old and something of the new.

The moderate man is no less avichāri than the men of extremes.

He swears by moderation as a formula and a fetish and runs after an impossible reconciliation. It was this kind of thought which Christ had in view when he said, You cannot put new wine into old bottles.

Vichāra never sets up a formula, never prejudges, but questions everything, weighs everything. If a man says, Alter your notions and habits on the lines of enlightened Europe, vichāra answers, “Let me consider that. Why should I assume Europe to be enlightened, India barbarous? It is possible the people of Europe may be the real barbarians, Indian knowledge the true enlightenment. I must see.”

On the other hand if a man says, “Be an Indian and do as the Indians,” vichāra replies, “I am not sure that I ought to do as the Indians in order to be an Indian. It may be that the present men of the country have become something Indians were not intended to be. I must see what Indians have been in the various epochs of our civilisation and find out what is eternal in the civilisation and what is temporary. It may even be that the Europeans have certain things really Indian which we have lost.”

It is good to be Indian, but to be Indian because of knowledge, not because of prejudice. Hinduism itself is based on vichāra, viveka and jñāna deciding what ācāra is the best for the preservation of human society and the fulfilment of our individual and associated manhood.


Indian vichāra guides itself by viveka. Vichāra by itself questions and considers, weighs, examines and ponders and so arrives at certain perceptions and conclusions by which it guides itself. This is European vichāra and its supreme example is Socrates. The danger of vichāra is that if it does not start with certain premises and assumptions, it will end in the absolute uncertainty of the Academic philosophers who could not even be sure whether they existed or not.

On the other hand if it starts with premises and assumptions, there is a danger of the premises and assumptions being erroneous and vitiating the conclusion. For this reason modern Science insists on all the premises being thoroughly proved before the vichāra commences, and its method of proof is experiment.

Modern European progress is an application of this principle of experiment to politics, society and every human belief and institution. This is a rather dangerous business. In the process of experiment you may get an explosion which will blow society out of existence and bring a premature end to the experiment. Moreover, you may easily think a premise proved when it is not. Science has had to abandon notion after notion which it thought based on unshakably proven premises.

Nothing was thought more certainly proved than that the process of breathing was necessary to life.

But we know in India that a man can live without breathing. The principle of proof by experiment was known to the ancient Indians, but just as the Europeans, dissatisfied with vichāra, progressed beyond it to vichāra guided by experiment, so the Indians, dissatisfied with experiment, progressed beyond it to vichāra and experiment guided by viveka, intuitive and inspired judgment gained by a previous purification of the organs of thought and knowledge.

The modern Indians have lost this guide and are compelled to rely on aptavakya or authority, the recorded opinions of men who had viveka, or traditions and customs founded on an ancient enlightenment.

This is unsatisfactory, because we do not know that we have the opinions correctly or completely recorded or that the traditions and customs have not been distorted by time and error. We must recover and go back to the fountainhead.


There are four operations in the Indian method of knowledge.

First, the inquirer purifies his intellect by the stilling of passion, emotion, prejudgment and old sanskaras or associations.

Secondly, he subjects received knowledge to a rigid scrutiny by sceptical vichāra, separating opinion from ascertained truth, mere conclusions from facts. Even the facts he takes as only provisionally true and is prepared to find his whole knowledge to be erroneous, misapplied or made up of half-truths.

Thirdly, he experiments in order to get upalabdhi or personal experience. Fourthly, he again uses vichar in order to ascertain how far his experience really carries him and what he is or is not justified in concluding from it.

Lastly, he turns the light of the vishuddha buddhi on the subject and by inspired discrimination arrives at jnanam.

The conclusions of the viveka he does not question, because he knows by experience that it is a fine and accurate instrument. Only, he is on his guard against mistaking vichāra for viveka, and is always prepared to balance and amplify his conclusions by fresh truths he had not considered and to find that there is another side to truth than the one with which he is familiar. He does not, like the European scientist, wed himself to previous generalisations and theories or consider every fresh enlargement of knowledge on new lines charlatanry and imposture.

A Story about Viveka, Mohini, Vishnumāya and Mrityu

~ Cover image by Rishabh Sharma

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