What is VIVEKA

The word viveka is a commonly used Sanskrit word. It is used by people, who do not even know Sanskrit, as it is present in almost every Indian language. The widely used meaning of the word viveka is the faculty of discernment. In many Indian languages, it also means intelligence. However, it is necessary to see the other meanings and the origins of this word. This is a Sanskrit word. Sanskrit is a classical language like Greek, Latin, and Persian. And in Sanskrit, as in most classical languages, most words are derived from a stem or root.  

The word viveka is derived from the root word vich by adding a vi prefix. Vich means to sift, separate, deprive, discriminate, discern, or judge. Viveka means discrimination, judgement, discernment, discretion, consideration, discussion, investigation, distinction, difference, true knowledge, a receptacle for water, basin, reservoir, reflection, right judgement, and a water trough. Viveka also means the faculty of distinguishing and classifying things according to their real properties.


In Vedanta, viveka means the power of separating the invisible Brahman from the visible world, spirit from matter, truth from untruth, reality from mere semblance or illusion. Viveka also means the faculty of understanding the reality with certainty by distinguishing between entities that mutually superimpose one another just like the principles of Prakriti and Purusha. It is the ability to discern the Self or Atman from the empirical world. Viveka is the discernment between the real and the unreal that leads to the understanding that Brahman alone is real and everything other than Brahman is unreal. It also means the faculty of distinguishing between righteous and unrighteous actions. It means the understanding of the true state of affairs.


Viveka is considered to be one of the four qualities necessary for a spiritual aspirant.


The quartet of these qualities are called sadhana-chatushtaya, the quartet of sadhana. The other three qualities are vairagya, dispassion; shama-adi-shatka-sampattih, the sextet of the wealth of virtues beginning with shama, calming of the mind; and mumukshutva, the desire for moksha.


The quality of viveka has been emphasised as the starting point for the beginning of a spiritual or religious life. Viveka presupposes deep thinking, which helps a person understand the ephemeral nature of everything that is perceived, the entire universe. Once a person becomes aware of the repetitive and cyclical nature of suffering that is bound to be experienced during a lifetime, one desperately seeks a way out of this cycle of suffering.


Viveka is not a one-time process. One has to constantly engage in discernment throughout one’s life till one dies. The need for this incessant practice of viveka is avidya, primal ignorance, which clouds our mind and leads it to believe that the unreal is real and the truly real, ie the Atman, is unreal.


The parama-hansa, the mythical swan is credited with possessing the highest degree of viveka, because of which it can separate milk from water. It is by constant questioning and critical thinking that viveka can be practised. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that in this universe everything is a mixture of sand and sugar, the good and bad, and one should practise viveka to sift the sugar from the sand.


Author is Editor Prabuddha Bharata. The Balabodha series as written is a glossary of words and not an article. So insights is not intended. 


To read all articles by the Author

This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To subscribe https://shop.advaitaashrama.org/subscribe/

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