Q. 386 – Has enlightenment been ‘dumbed down’?

Q: Self-Realization is a very rare occurrence – the Gita states something like 1 in a billion, and there are very few authentic, fully realized beings known to us, such as Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj and a few others, (as well as the great anonymous ones). Granted, the world has changed and everything is much faster than it was, but this cannot surely apply to self-realization. The Neo-Advaitins’ awakenings or enlightenments cannot possibly be synonymous with the self-realizations of the great sages such as Ramana and Nisargadatta? 

Also, the hallmark of the great sages such as those mentioned above is that they have a transparent, translucent quality that emanates contentment and  peace.  The Neo-Advaitin teachers that I have observed do not emanate peace, instead, they come across with their body-mind personality traits/baggage as either ‘manic’, ‘neurotic’, ‘depressed’, ‘nihilistic’, etc. The talking, and so much talking at that,  is coming from the mind, and not from “mauna”. It is more like a mixture of counseling, psychotherapy and psycho-babble rather than pragmatic Advaitin philosophy. 

So my question is … has self-realization been dumbed down and redefined by the Neo-Advaitins, or do they not claim full self-realization, but only to be ‘awakened’ or ‘enlightened’?   Tolle comes to mind and Mooji, too… the talking never stops.

Responses from Melanie, Martin, Ramesam, Charles, and Dennis

A (Melanie): In my understanding/practice of non-duality, the question is somewhat moot. If self-realisation is what it is, then any so-called “dumbing down” is not self-realisation but something else completely. And whatever we label something is simply what we label it. Whatever we claim is simply what we claim.

Furthermore, however we judge or define self-realisation as a concept, as a process, or as a cosmology… is simply how we judge and define it. Just as however we choose to judge and define what so-called others believe/practice is simply our judgement and definition. How else can one answer the question without first claiming authority and special knowledge?

I cannot claim to know anything about anyone. For me it is a practice of allowing; of asking the question and being present to ‘what is’, certain that Trust reveals all that is as sacred.

I must confess that I’ve never read Tolle or Mooji. I’ve never adopted a religion or a philosophy. And I’ve never prescribed one truth for everyone either as an ideal (practice) or as a standard model (philosophy). Nor have I ever questioned anyone else’s decision to be religious, promote a perspective, or practice whatever it is they practice… what is, is.

A (Martin): Who says that self-realization is very rare (1 in a billion, or whatever)? Has someone carried out an extensive investigation in terms of populations, geographic areas, time periods, etc., to reach that conclusion? That would be an empirical research needing appropriate tools, a well planed procedure, and competent investigators. Definitions and observational data based on categorization of what to look for, followed by a detailed analysis of such data, as well as the percentage of the population investigated so as to come up with a statistical analysis would also be required. To be credible the results should be reproducible… etc.

A different thing is making an elliptical statement (by someone) indicating that that which is referred to is very rare based on the common experience of humanity throughout the ages. Just an approximation and enough in itself since it is only a point being made.  Still, this may sound as a gratuitous statement if there is a lack of supporting – qualitative and quantitative – evidence.

Only two names of self-realized beings are mentioned:  R. Maharshi and Nisargadatta M., which may be a clue in view of my comments above though, fortunately, the same sentence contains: ‘as well as the great anonymous ones’ at the end, as if an after-thought. A contrary opinion is that there are more self-realized people today than there were in ages passed, not just due to a larger world population, but also to widespread means of communication and the availability of tools (books, videos, etc.) and of teachers. Whoever looks, finds.

‘Also, the hallmark of the great sages such as those mentioned above is that they have a transparent, translucent quality that emanates contentment and  peace.’

Many, however, will think that the translucent quality, etc. is a very subjective statement (Sufis call it barakah), hard or impossible to assess – it is, to be sure, ‘in the eyes of the beholder’. Quite a different opinion or assessment from what the above is saying, and it has been said, that ‘if you pass by or come close to a self-realized person, you will not be able to notice that s/he is such, since there are no external signs to reveal  it, the outward behaviour appearing as quite normal or unexceptionble.

Are there degrees of realization? If not in its fullness, evidently there are degrees in the level of maturity and understanding. It has also been said that an initial awakening is, or may, be followed – usually after a number of years – by established or permanent self-realization. Who can tell what is the degree of such realization in the two examples given by the questioner (while putting it into question), Mooji and  Eckart Tolle?

A (Ramesam): I shall mainly respond to the concern of “dumbing down” Self-Realization raised in the above question without going into the philosophical, pedagogical or theoretical aspects of what exactly is Self-Realization in Advaita.

The Questioner seems to give the impression that certain Teachers of Non-duality whom s/he christens as ‘Neo-Advaitins’ represented by a few examples cited by him/her have a responsibility or role in diluting the rigorous character of Self-Realization revered in the ancient lore of Advaita and converting it into an incessant talking shop.

Whoever are ‘Neo-Advaitins’ or whatever may qualify to be called as ‘Neo-Advaita’ is not clear to me.

However, I dare say that some amount of ‘redefining’ of what may be called the traditional Advaita Vedanta began way back towards the end of the 19th century itself and it is not a recent phenomenon. By traditional Advaita Vedanta, if you ask me what I mean, well my answer is that I consider the ‘siddhAnta’ (theoretics) held in high sacred esteem by the Sringeri Peetham, the only monastery that has an unbroken tradition of having a guru-shiShya lineage right from Shankara to the recently anointed 37th AchArya, Shri Vidhusekhara Bharati as the gold standard to accept a system to be worthy of being called ‘traditional.’

The notion of exporting (and unwittingly diluting by cutting a few corners) of the Advaita Vedanta began most probably at the time of the Chicago meetings of the Parliament of World’s Religions. It later gained a momentum and even earned the sobriquet ‘Neo-Vedanta’ when some teachers took up the promotion of sanAtana dharma as a Mission imitating the Missionaries of the religions that believed in proselytization. Advaita Vedanta did not and does not require proselytization. Anyone born in this universe is already a sanAtana dharmi as per Advaita based on the principle of “vasudhaiva kuTuMbakaM” (the entire universe is one unit), almost akin to one getting the citizenship of a country by being born in that State.

 The words वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम्  (vasudhaiva kuTuMbakaM) come from the mantra VI-72 in Maha Upanishad which belongs to sAmaveda tradition. The mantra reads:

अयं बन्धुरयंनेति गणना लघुचेतसाम्

उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् ॥

Meaning: The distinction “This person is mine, and this one is not” is made only by the narrow-minded (i.e. the ignorant who are in duality). For those of noble conduct (i.e. who know the Supreme Truth) the whole world is one family (one Unit).

(The meaning of words like ‘family’ etc. should be understood in the context of what the Upanishad is talking about. It is describing the quality of a man who understood the Truth, transcending the multiplicity of the world).

The Upanishad mantra is not a geo-politico-socio-cultural statement. It is a matter of fact of observation and analysis.

The observation and analysis were done by the Scientists of the day and recorded in their reports written in the style and idiom of the ancient times in India. The Scientists were the Seers, Rishis. Their reports were the Upanishads. Each Scientist used to teach with care and affection sitting close to his students (upa + nisha). The Upanishads were the foundation stones on which the magnificent edifice called sanAtana dharma developed. What they taught was not under any IPR regime, because their authors never considered their finding to be their brainchild. They felt that it was a Knowledge revealed when their individualistic ID, the sense of “I am a separate person” was totally lost. A sense of “me” was not there to claim ‘ownership’ rights.

What would remain when an “I” in me is not conscious of my separate body-mind but is fused with the totality of “Whatever-actually-IS”? There cannot be an answer for this question. The nearest comparison that can be given is the dreamless deep sleep condition. It does not matter who you are  – a prince or a pauper; an angel or a devil; an illiterate ignoramus or an intellectual giant – all differences and separations dissolve in deep sleep. Only one stark naked truth remains then. “Whatever-that-Truth-is,” “It” must have to be existing to be present. So what we can at the most say about it is, it “EXISTS.” That basic ‘Isness’ is called “Beingness” or “Existence.” In Sanskrit, the word is sat (सत्).

taittIriyopanishad gives two more of Its features in the mantra (II-i-1)  — सत्यं  ज्ञानमनन्तं ब्रह्म (Beingness, Knowingness, and Infiniteness). It’s something deep sleep-like and space-like. That’s about all we can say. brahman  is the word used as a pointer to It.

And of all the philosophical thoughts ever expressed anywhere in the world, only Advaita Vedanta boldly declares, That brahman Alone is, there is NO second thing. If anyone feels that s/he sees more than one thing, it is declared to be a delusion.

The great ancient Indian tradition exhorts us to see clearly that the apparent differences and separations are like ‘virtual image’ in a mirror. One cannot demolish the virtual image. Have you ever tried bull-dozing a mountain reflected in a mirror?

If you are able to see through the falsity of multiplicity, you will see Oneness. That is samyagdRRiShTi (perfect perception). This dRRiShTi of Oneness leads to the understanding that vAsudeva (‘Beingness’) is the innermost of all (once the illusory layers of coverings are pierced through). (The Sanskrit root vas (वस्) has several meanings. Here we have to understand vas means ‘to be’).

We have from IshAvAhsya, mantra 6:  

यस्तु सर्वाणि भूतानि आत्मन्येवानुपश्यति ।

सर्वभूतेषु चात्मानं ततो न विजुगुप्सते |

Meaning: He who perceives all beings in the Self alone, and the Self in all beings does not entertain any hatred on account of that perception.

That means he sees everyone as himSelf. That is the height of Oneness. No distinctions. Total unity. When what is, IS one Unit, there is no scope for hatred because there is nothing separate from himSelf to be hated. That is the perception of the really real Reality, वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम्  !!

In contrast, the proselytizing religions created institutional structures with a hierarchy of a Father, Brothers, Sisters and so on for the promotion of their religion. Emulating them, a few over-enthusiastic people embarked on launching their own outfits, not always without a personal ambition to head a huge organization of their own. I know there are some such Indian organizations that offer Fellowships in spirituality and some others that have even borrowed the institutionalization of brothers and sisters into their organizational structure. Often times, the head of the organization relishes (and even some times insists) being addressed as the most Adored (pUjya) while the rest down the hierarchy are to remain contented with ‘Shri.’ The former Secretary of a monastery run by a famous Swami Ji once told me that the worries of that Master were much worse than a householder in trying to get revenues and to balance their budget.

So it is not fair, IMHO, to point out to any real or imagined group of ‘Neo-Advaitins’ as the ones dumbing down Self-realization or for redefining it.

Having said all the above, let me also add the following: The basic message of Advaita itself is pretty simple and not beyond easy comprehension. Some over-zealous sects in the past did, however, hold the message captive and treated it as something ‘hidden’ from the public at large (though for a good reason so that it may not get mis-interpreted because of its very simplicity). In the process what Advaita taught sounded to be remote and inaccessible to many sections of the society. We do owe it to the crop of current and a few of the past teachers (Neo-Advaitins or whoever) who unshackled the message from the clutches of a select few and helped in the wider dissemination of the basic wisdom taught by the ancient Seers. But to reach the heights of the Ultimate Truth that was discovered by those Sages, uncompromising attitude of relinquishment (vairAgya) is sine qua non. The relinquishment has to be not merely in wrapping oneself in an attire of particular color but in leading a life of a total sanyAsa where even thoughts are given up (BG VI-24; BG IV-19) spontaneously and in utter humility. And such a life of complete surrender to Oneness is indeed rare, vAsudeva sarvamiti sa mahAtmA sudurlabhaH (BG VII-3; BG VII-19).

A (Charles): There are actually several questions here, which require separation in order for reasonably cogent answers to be supplied. To begin with, terms like awakened, enlightened, and self-realization need to be carefully defined. Can one person know with certainty whether another person is “enlightened”? Are there clear markers for this condition? These are more questions contained within the inquiry above. Then there is the matter of Neo-Advaita and its take on these matters, which is yet another consideration. So we have to be clear about which question we are trying to answer here before proceeding too far afield.

Let’s start with your question on whether there is a different level of claim, a mere “awakening” or “enlightenment” being different from or less than what you are calling “full self realization.” Neo Advaita teachers certainly do not bill themselves as having a “lesser” achievement compared to traditional Advaitins. And these are terms are usually considered to be generally synonymous, at least in casual discussion.

What we need to do is add more precision, by narrowing down the proper understanding of these terms. You are really asking about what Shankara called Moksha, usually translated as Liberation. The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma Sutras – the core texts of Advaita – all provide extensive discussions of Liberation and the markers of a Liberated being. Shankara does say that it is rare.

I remarked previously in a comment here on AV that when the Upanishads were written, the human population was tiny compared with the 7 billion people in today’s world. If Liberation happens to one in a million, then there should be 7,000 illuminated souls roaming around right now! I was jesting, of course, because the original Sanskrit term was not intended with mathematical precision in mind, but rather simply to suggest rarity. We can say that Liberation in the sense that Shankara intended is still rare today, without trying to quantify it, which would be impossible anyway.

One has to be very cautious when making assumptions as to what a proper sage must look like. Even the sages you mention, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, had radically different personalities. Also, innumerable teachers over the years have been able to feign the outward manifestation of radiant peace. So it is dangerous to make this assumption and base one’s rejection of a teacher on this factor alone.

The real problem with Neo-Advaita teachings is that they offer nothing for the seeker himself or herself. In traditional Advaita teaching, it is understood that just conveying the information “Tat Tvam Asi” will have no effect on the unprepared mind. A set of tools must be provided that allows the seeker to remove Ignorance so that Self Knowledge may shine forth. Neo-Advaita teachers usually speak only from the perspective of the Absolute, without acknowledging the importance of the Relative (mithyA) order of reality in which the seeker has come to them for assistance. What you are sensing is this lack in these teachings. I would say that Neo-Advaita teachings would only be potentially helpful in so far as they lead someone to traditional Advaita sources and ideally a teacher qualified to unfold those texts properly.

A (Dennis): It is certainly the case that many are teaching who ought not to be teaching. They may or may not be enlightened but being enlightened does not qualify one to teach. Teaching is a skill – with language, inter-personal communication abilities and so on; and those have nothing to do with enlightenment. Enlightenment is an event in the mind when Self-ignorance is dispelled by Self-knowledge. It does not in itself instantly bring about stillness, peace etc, unless the mind was already ‘prepared’ (sAdhana chatuShTaya sampatti) before. This may well come about in time as what is now known is dwelt upon (nididhyAsana). [Not everyone agrees with this schema! But I subscribe to the logic given by Swami Dayananda’s sampradAya.] But, as I recall from what I have read, Nisargadatta (as an example) was not the most tranquil of characters was he?

I also do not believe that enlightenment is such a rare occurrence as some make out. I think that there are many more who simply do not make such a big deal about it, simply getting on with their ‘as if’ lives until the body drops, in full knowledge that it is all mithyA.

But, yes, I do agree with you – self-realization has definitely been dumbed down and redefined by the Neo-Advaitins. More significantly, many of them have confused the whole subject, to the severe detriment of seekers.

2 thoughts on “Q. 386 – Has enlightenment been ‘dumbed down’?

  1. The observation below may please be NOT taken as an opinion or belief expressed or held by me. It is just a ‘loud thinking’ open for Comments.


    It is quite common these days to come across Ads or Announcements on teaching Advaita Vedanta. For example:

    1. CIF Webinars (http://www.advaita-vision.org/cif-webinars/)
    2. Swami Dayananda retreat (http://www.advaita-vision.org/swami-dayananda-retreat/)
    3. Spiritual Awakening and Meditation
    May 28, 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM, conducted … at Chinmayam, MD
    Longing for everlasting happiness seems to be the fundamental pursuit for all human beings. …. Vedanta says that the problem can only be solved by AWAKENING to one’s SPIRITUAL nature. To accomplish this is the goal of the camp. …..

    (Examples # 1 and # 2 are from AV site. # 3 is circulated online and pl note the ‘goal’ claimed for the single day meet on May 28, 2016 in # 3).

    Unless one’s ‘initial position’ itself is conditioned by one’s own biases, is it possible that these ‘teaching shops’ be any differently christened than the ‘talking shops’ being alluded to in the Question # 386?


  2. I suggest that it is generally the case that those people who search out ‘spiritual guidance’ of whatever nature do not really know what they want. They are simply disatisfied with their lives and prospects or with the ‘state of the world’ or vairiants on these. They are looking for ‘meaning’, a ‘sense of purpose’ etc, without having any firm idea as to how one might acquire these things.

    Accordingly, those people/organisations who believe they can help such ‘seekers after truth’ have to couch their ‘advertising’ in terms that will strike a chord.

    One could certainly argue that any ‘advertising’ is deplorable (and even unnecessary) but I do not think that it is the point. (We are, after all, living in a world where many things are less than ideal!) The point, to my mind, is that some teachers/organisations are unable to provide a viable path to an understanding of the truth. Many are cynically using the process as a way of making money. But their are some organisations – and I put Chinmaya and Arsha Vidya firmly in this group) – whose motives are sincere and whose ability to ‘deliver the goods’ is unquestionable.

Leave a Reply