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.