This mantra offers a comparative study of vidyā and avidyā. Avidyā, or ignorance, is undoubtedly dangerous, but vidyā, or knowledge, is even more dangerous when mistaken or misguided. This mantra of Śrī Īśopaniṣad is more applicable today than at any time in the past. Modern civilization has advanced considerably in the field of mass education, but the result is that people are more unhappy than ever before because of the stress placed on material advancement to the exclusion of the most important part of life, the spiritual aspect.
As far as vidyā is concerned, the first mantra has explained very clearly that the Supreme Lord is the proprietor of everything and that forgetfulness of this fact is ignorance. The more a man forgets this fact of life, the more he is in darkness. In view of this, a godless civilization directed toward the so-called advancement of education is more dangerous than a civilization in which the masses of people are less "educated."
Of the different classes of men—karmīs, jñānīs and yogīs—the karmīs are those who are engaged in the activities of sense gratification. In the modern civilization, 99.9 percent of the people are engaged in the activities of sense gratification under the flags of industrialism, economic development, altruism, political activism, and so on. All these activities are more or less based on satisfaction of the senses, to the exclusion of the kind of God consciousness described in the first mantra.
In the language of the Bhagavad-gītā (7.15), people who are engaged in gross sense gratification are mūḍhas—asses. The ass is a symbol of stupidity. Those who simply engage in the profitless pursuit of sense gratification are worshiping avidyā, according to Śrī Īśopaniṣad. And those who play the role of helping this sort of civilization in the name of educational advancement are actually doing more harm than those who are on the platform of gross sense gratification. The advancement of learning by a godless people is as dangerous as a valuable jewel on the hood of a cobra. A cobra decorated with a valuable jewel is more dangerous than one not decorated. In the Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya (3.11.12), the advancement of education by a godless people is compared to decorations on a dead body. In India, as in many other countries, some people follow the custom of leading a procession with a decorated dead body for the pleasure of the lamenting relatives. In the same way, modern civilization is a patchwork of activities meant to cover the perpetual miseries of material existence. All such activities are aimed toward sense gratification. But above the senses is the mind, and above the mind is the intelligence, and above the intelligence is the soul. Thus the aim of real education should be self-realization, realization of the spiritual values of the soul. Any education which does not lead to such realization must be considered avidyā, or nescience. And to culture such nescience means to go down to the darkest region of ignorance.
According to the Bhagavad-gītā (2.42, 7.15), mistaken mundane educators are known as veda-vāda-rata and māyayāpahṛta-jñāna. They may also be atheistic demons, the lowest of men. Those who are veda-vāda-rata pose themselves as very learned in the Vedic literature, but unfortunately they are completely diverted from the purpose of the Vedas. In the Bhagavad-gītā (15.15) it is said that the purpose of the Vedas is to know the Personality of Godhead, but these veda-vāda-rata men are not at all interested in the Personality of Godhead. On the contrary, they are fascinated by such fruitive results as the attainment of heaven.
As stated in Mantra One, we should know that the Personality of Godhead is the proprietor of everything and that we must be satisfied with our allotted portions of the necessities of life. The purpose of all Vedic literature is to awaken this God consciousness in the forgetful living being, and this same purpose is presented in various ways in the different scriptures of the world for the understanding of a foolish mankind. Thus the ultimate purpose of all religions is to bring one back to Godhead.
But the veda-vāda-rata people, instead of realizing that the purpose of the Vedas is to revive the forgetful soul's lost relationship with the Personality of Godhead, take it for granted that such side issues as the attainment of heavenly pleasure for sense gratification—the lust for which causes their material bondage in the first place—are the ultimate end of the Vedas. Such people misguide others by misinterpreting the Vedic literature. Sometimes they even condemn the Purāṇas, which are authentic Vedic explanations for laymen. The veda-vāda-ratas give their own explanations of the Vedas, neglecting the authority of great teachers (ācāryas). They also tend to raise some unscrupulous person from among themselves and present him as the leading exponent of Vedic knowledge. Such veda-vāda-ratas are especially condemned in this mantra by the very appropriate Sanskrit words vidyāyāṁ ratāḥ. Vidyāyām refers to the study of the Vedas because the Vedas are the origin of all knowledge (vidyā), and ratāḥ means "those engaged." Vidyāyāṁ ratāḥ thus means "those engaged in the study of the Vedas." The so-called students of the Vedas are condemned herein because they are ignorant of the actual purpose of the Vedas on account of their disobeying the ācāryas. Such veda-vāda-ratas search out meanings in every word of the Vedas to suit their own purposes. They do not know that the Vedic literature is a collection of extraordinary books that can be understood only through the chain of disciplic succession.
One must approach a bona fide spiritual master in order to understand the transcendental message of the Vedas. That is the direction of the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (1.2.12). These veda-vāda-rata people, however, have their own ācāryas, who are not in the chain of transcendental succession. Thus they progress into the darkest region of ignorance by misinterpreting the Vedic literature. They fall even further into ignorance than those who have no knowledge of the Vedas at all.
The māyayāpahṛta-jñāna class of men are self-made "Gods." Such men think that they themselves are God and that there is no need of worshiping any other God. They will agree to worship an ordinary man if he happens to be rich, but they will never worship the Personality of Godhead. Such men, unable to recognize their own foolishness, never consider how it is that God can be entrapped by māyā, His own illusory energy. If God were ever entrapped by māyā, māyā would be more powerful than God. Such men say that God is all-powerful, but they do not consider that if He is all-powerful there is no possibility of His being overpowered by māyā. These self-made "Gods" cannot answer all these questions very clearly; they are simply satisfied to have become "God" themselves.