Keywords: jnā– and vid

In the last week, two students have asked me about the distinction between jñā- and vid- and this made me think that it might be worth adding a new section to Andrew’s collaborative enterprise (see here and here) of mapping the technical vocabulary of Sanskrit. Since jñā- (and its derivatives, such as jñāna) and vid- (and vidyā, etc.) have different acceptations in various areas of Sanskrit, let me state, once again, that I will only focus on śāstric, philosophical Sanskrit.
To begin with, let me state that jñā- is the most common and most generic way to refer to the semantic field of knowing. It is thus, like artha in another field, a valuable place-holder for almost any other verb, since all cognising activities, from the sense-perceptual grasping to the illusory conceptualising, can be referred to as instances of jñā-. However, more in detail:

  • vid- is etymologically linked with the act of seeing (as in Ancient Greek οἶδα, literally ‘I have seen’, but used in the sense of ‘I know’). It thus indicates what one has experienced and thus knows for sure. Moreover, vid- indicates a lasting knowledge, one which is valid and which one will be able to keep in one’s memory for at least a long time. Accordingly, the vidyās are branches of learning, like the German Wissenschaften. Long story short, use verbs such as ‘to know’ to translate it.
  • jñā-, by contrast, indicates an act of cognition (as shown by B.K. Matilal). It is thus not necessarily valid and it is instantaneous. One performs an act of jñā- when one erroneously grasps water in the desert, or when one dreams. And the single jñānas are just single ‘cognitions’ which one does not keep forever. vijñāna may add to that a nuance of ‘discriminative, dialectic cognition’, which makes it necessarily valid, but the distinction between jñāna and vijñāna is a moot issue, as proved by the commentaries on the one or the other. Long story short, use verbs such as ‘to cognize’ to translate jñā-.
  • In non-Śāstric contexts, jñāna can acquire different meanings and its non discriminative nature can be seen as an advantage, so that it can even ultimately amount to ‘insight’ or ‘wisdom’.

    What are your translations for jñā– and vid-?

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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2 thoughts on “Keywords: jnā– and vid

  1. In a Buddhist context one often find the metaphor “to see is to know” emphasised by the use of verbs, or derivatives, from both √jñā and √dṛś together. Famously the phrase-compound yathābhūta-jñānadarśana. But also ‘so jānāti, so paśyati’ (he knows, he sees). Contra what you’ve said above the same relationship doesn’t seem to exist between √vid and √dṛś in Buddhist texts.

    The experiential character of √vid is emphasised. The general Pāḷi verb for experiencing a sensation is paṭisaṃvedeti (prati-saṃ√vid). And vidyā is knowledge gained through experience, whereas jñāna is understanding of a more cognitive type. On the other hand we also see texts where the disciple experiences liberation (vimukti) and then gains knowledge of [being] liberated (vimuktijñāna), with the implication that the knowledge is gained through having had the experience.

    As well as vijñāna which has much the same sense, we have the important verb pra√jñā and its derivatives, which tend to convey deep understanding, or profound insight. I was surprised in my Sanskrit classes to discover that saṃjñā can mean ‘name’ because the noun has a technical sense in Buddhism of ‘recognition’, which is I suppose quite closely related.

    The vidyās are similarly branches of knowledge, though in early Buddhist texts they are also types of magic. A vijjā (vidyā) can mean ‘spell’, literally in the sense of a kind of magic. In the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra we see prajñāpāramitā being described as a vidyā (mahāvidyā, anuttaravidyā, asamasamavidyā). Later vidyā becomes a synonym for mantra (possibly because of a confusion in the Chinese rendering of vidyā/mantra).

    Another problem we see in Buddhist texts is the bleed over from √vid ‘to find’, largely because in Prakrit the morphology is the same (Pāli vindati).

    It seems to me that the same basic distinction holds for Buddhist texts, but that the terms are sometimes used interchangeably and one must be aware of context.

  2. jnana has a different range of the meanings to convey from its parallel term vidya. The root vid has fourfold contexts. On the other hand, jnana means total awareness which is without a subject or an object in the process of knowing.
    In the context of their ‘knowledge’ area,Vidya is about or of a thing which can be known. jnana can be both about a thing or not about a thing.
    I don’t know the European terms to compare as already done using the Greek words.