Q.404 Practising Advaita

Q: I need some practical guidance on practising advaita in daily life. Please advise me of the best course of action.

A (Dennis): You cannot ‘practise’ Advaita. Advaita is a teaching/philosophy. Its aim is to bring you to the total understanding that reality is non-dual; that all-there-is is brahman or Consciousness, and that who-you-really-are is that brahman. Only the body-mind can ‘practise’ or ‘live a life’ and you are not that. The body-mind and the world are mithyA, which means that they are not real in themselves; their real substratum is brahman.

Q: Many thanks for the response. I have a question though. I understand that Advaita is a philosophy.  But what does one do with a philosophy? Try to understand? Try to live it? What is my next course of action? I know that action should be ruled out. But what is the next step for me? What do I do or where do I go from here. I hope I am able to explain my point. I look forward to hear from you.

A: Advaita is a teaching methodology. It provides a step by step ‘education’ for the seeker to bring him or her Self-knowledge. Ideally, this teaching is given by a qualified teacher. This is someone who already has Self-knowledge and also has the skills to teach it to someone else. Since the original teaching derives from the scriptures, a deep understanding of these and a knowledge of Sanskrit is also deemed by many to be a necessary qualification for a teacher.

Accordingly, the next step would ideally be to find such a teacher and study with them for as long as necessary – usually at least a few years. Failing that, you have to read widely (but only those books that do not confuse!) and ask lots of questions (of someone who can answer them!).

19 thoughts on “Q.404 Practising Advaita

  1. Speaking personally, my ‘search’ began in my teens, driven by a fundamental dissonance with the objectives / ambitions that I was conditioned to have and the concessions I made to fit in, juxtaposed against the knowledge of the suffering wrought by the civilisation in which we live (‘there but for the grace of god go I’), which in itself is an inevitable corollary of such personal ambition and greed.

    So, in asking oneself what is the purpose of life, advaita points out that the first and most important question to ponder is who is this ‘I’ that is running around with so much ambition, desire, greed, fear and sorrow. And advaita, in my view, provides the most straightforward and yet majestically beautiful literature to guide one towards an answer to such questions.

    Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. I would suggest that the very examination of life, will bring about changes in the way it is lived, without even trying to practice. Who can read the Bhagavad Gita without being taken by the beauty of its nishkama karma (desireless action), without pondering deeply over its meaning and being indelibly changed by it?

    But I suspect such changes only come about depending upon the earnestness with which one examines, ponders and understands for oneself these fundamental questions. Which brings us back to why Shankara insisted that liberation can only come about through jnana, knowledge, and not through any kind of action or practise.

  2. In my view everything happens spontaneously, whether one wants it to happen or not. ‘Destiny’ (Ramesam will say that there is no such thing as destiny) is another word for it. There are no accidents in life; a netweb of causes is operative without anyone knowing how; this, of course, is vyavahara – empirical life as it is, which is time-constrained. If you were ambitious before and are not so any longer, it had to be the case. This despite the shruti utterances, ‘man is made of desire… or of will’ (‘as he wills so he becomes’, etc.). Bad counsel – or suggestion – for teaching?

  3. Dear Martin,

    “In my view everything happens spontaneously, whether one wants it to happen or not.” ‘Destiny’ is another word for it.

    I am fully with you when you say as above. I beg to submit, however, very humbly a small correction to what you put in the parenthesis after ‘Destiny.’

    It is none other than the Great Sage Vasishta who teaches us “that there is no such thing as destiny.”

    I give below a few excerpts – The full text can be seen at this site here:
    http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/downloads/Yogavasishta_ii.pdf

    29. DOES DESTINY EXIST?

    Rama: Life supporting rivers, very prominent mountains and bright stars are all disintegrating in this world. Is it not due to fate?
    Vasishta: That is also not destiny. There is a being, extraordinaire. His name is ‘Shiva’. His job is to destroy things. He follows a specific order in the act of annihilation. In other words, it is because of his effort that things get destroyed. Except that, there is no ‘destiny’

    31 Destiny is a word of Solace:

    When the weak-hearted people are overtaken by a string of miseries, they often lose their sense of balance and thinking ability. This word ‘destiny’ is invented only as a solace to such weaklings. Other than that, there is no truth to it.

    32 Is Destiny The Doer or a tool?

    Rama! People, who argue that there is God and that God will take care of everything, have to think of one more thing. Is the God they speak about the doer of the action? Or is He an enabling tool for the action? Does he work with remote control? When we see the doer of an action right in front of us, it does not appear convincing to say that there is another doer called God.

    Even a dried up root might contain some energy to germinate, but the concept of a God is totally hollow!

    33 Destiny is space – like

    Neither does God do anything in this world nor does He do nothing. How is this conundrum possible? Viewed from a discriminating outlook, God appears to do nothing. From the plebeian perspective, He appears to be ‘doing’ things. Suppose a man gets an unexpected advantage or loss. Unable to find any earthly reason for the sudden turn, people search for a possible cause. It occurs to them that it could be the result of the actions done in his previous life. They postulate then that this man has got this result in the present due to some past action. The believers in God name the past action as ‘God.’ The past action becomes synonymous to God.

    34 Why to blame the destiny?

    Please listen. I said that the effect of the past actions itself is destiny. But what is action (karma)? It is work done. What then is work?

    regards,

  4. Yogavasishta is really enlightening, equal to the Upanishads and the B. Gita. And, talking about enlightenment and also destiny, I just came across the following:

    “Enlightenment is absolute co-operation with the inevitable”.
    Anthony de Mello

  5. I wasn’t going to comment further but feel compelled to do so – 😉

    As readers will know, I do not believe that we have any free will, as normally understood. However I also do not believe in destiny (as usually understood)! And I do not think that these views are contradictory, although everything as usual depends upon how you define your terms.

    In one of my posts on free will (http://www.advaita-vision.org/free-will-again/), I mentioned the excellent book by one of Martin’s compatriots – “The Questions of Life: An Invitation to Philosophy”, Fernando Savater, Translated by Carolina Ospina Arrowsmith, Polity Press, 2002, ISBN 0-7456-2628-9. Here is another excerpt from it on the subject of destiny:

    “Aristotle’s’ arguments, in Book IX of On Interpretation, are more subtle. He stands up for a real future, an open future, against those who, for strictly logical reasons, may feel inclined to deny that such a future is possible. Let us suppose, he says, that we are on the eve of a great naval battle. We can assert two propositions: ‘tomorrow there will be a naval battle’ or ‘tomorrow there won’t be a naval battle’. At this moment, one and only one of these propositions is true, we do not yet know which. But an implacable logician can remind us that what is true is true in aeternum (some people will say anything!) and therefore this future must already be written somewhere – one or the other of the two propositions must already be true, and the other one false. With his rationalist common sense that is like a breath of fresh air, Aristotle maintains that the only thing that is true today is that ‘tomorrow there will be, or there will not be, a naval battle’. It cannot yet be true either that ‘tomorrow there will be a battle’ or that ‘tomorrow there won’t be a battle’. [There is at present some argument as to whether Aristotle actually says this or whether he means that ‘necessarily’ there will, or will not, be a battle.]

    “That is to say, what is valid as regards ‘tomorrow’ is merely the uncertainty about two (or more) possibilities – we cannot have prophetic certainties about any of them, The future is ‘contingent’, things can happen like this or like that, and they are neither necessary nor determined by fate. What will happen tomorrow will, no doubt, be due to certain causes, among which would be our own decision to act, which will only influence events when we actually make it and not before. There certainly can be contingent futures that do not depend in any way on human actions but are not limited to simply ‘reading’ a future already written, we contribute to writing it. Thank you, Aristotle.”

  6. Perhaps the best advice is to treat whatever has happened in the past as destiny, and act now as if you had free will.

    But of course, for one without an ego, there can be no destiny or free will. There are just responses to the moment.

    • Venkat,

      Don’t you think that a reference to or appeal to or invoking an unverifiable and unfalsifiable “past” is nothing but an euphemistic appeasement to the uneasy mind which is not able to live with and accept the Present (What-IS as Is here and now)?

      Is there a need at all to invent these terms like “destiny”?
      Consciousness which is eternally Complete and Perfect as-IS in every moment does not have to wait for the rising of a ‘me’ and its doing or not doing in order to that It can be more perfect. [As you know, Peter Dziuban expresses much better what I am trying to convey.]

      regards,

  7. On this topic of practising advaita, I received (below) this nonsensical marketing email today, from another peddler of advaita..

    The best response is Ramana’s, when someone asked him how to investigate ‘who am I’:
    “The way is subjective, not objective; so it cannot and need not be shown by another. Is it necessary to show anyone the way inside his own house?”

    Dear Friend,

    I’m pleased to announce the release of Rupert’s new book-CD box set Transparent Body, Luminous World: The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception.

    See below for information and links to buy online.

    Copies will be available at the day of meetings at Colet House, London this coming Sunday, 19th March. For more details please see the website here.

    With love,
    Ruth

    The 24 yoga meditations explore the experience of the body and world as a continuously changing flow of sensations and perceptions appearing in, known by and made of awareness. These direct and penetrating contemplations discuss and facilitate the gradual alignment of the non-dual understanding with the way the body and world are felt and perceived.

    • The easiest thing to mimic in the world is “enlightenment”, “spirituality” whatever you want to call it. I am not commenting on this particular product, just a general statement.

      Caveat emptor, and carpe diem.

      Martin could say it much better, I am sure.

      Shishya,
      since the day Ramesam insulted me by calling me Guru, heh, heh.

      • Hello “Sishya”,

        My sincere apologies. I never meant to or intended to “insult” you.
        i think I did mention that I was only playing a pun – a figure of speech – for fun.
        Sorry you seem to have taken it so much to heart.
        You may continue to call yourself Guru, I have no problem.
        Now that you did teach a lesson, you are a guru !

        regards,

        • Dear Ramesam:

          Anything or anybody can act as guru when the time is right, so if my something I wrote acted in that fashion I am glad…

  8. I am just reading Alton’s Sankara on enlightenment (volume 6 of his source book). Pertinently, he quotes US Chapter 4:

    “How can action, which has its seed in the ego-notion and which is located in that which has the ego-notion sprout forth again after it has been burnt in the fire of the notion of no-ego? You may object that the actions of the one who has realised the Absolute have visible results. And you may claim that they will also result in further activity in future lives in the same way as before. But it is not so. THE ACTIONS OF SUCH A MAN ARE DUE SOLELY TO HIS PREVIOUS ACTIONS.”

    In other words, if he was a king, like Janaka, he may continue to play that role. If he was a bidi seller (Nisargadatta) he may continue to earn his living in that way. If he was a lawyer (Atmananda) he may continue in that role. And if he was a Ramana, there was no action to perform except that of the model renunciate per Sankara / Gaudapada.

    Like an arrow, shot from a bow, continues on its path, until it is spent.

    And none, following their enlightenment, built a commercial enterprise out of teaching enlightenment.

  9. Just to put the above into context, I was having an email discussion where I wrote the following:

    “As you will know, MK37:
    “He should have this body and the Atman as his support and depend upon chances, ie he should be satisfied with those things for his physical wants that chance brings to him”

    Sankara’s comment: “He entirely depends upon circumstances, that is to say, he maintains his body with whatever food or strips of cloth are brought to him by mere chance”

    This is mirrored in BG and in BU.

    In essence he does not ask anything of anyone. How could he if there is no actor, and no motivation for action. He can only be carefree, not planning for the future, not building a publishing empire, just living by what comes to him by chance. Inaction in action.

    I’m not convinced by your point on ancient India. Logic dictates that if there is no ego, there can be no concern for oneself. Just in the 20th century, Ramana’s life was an exemplar of this principle. Nisargadatta was not much different. It is just not logically consistent for one where the ego has dissolved, to be able to start and market a product set in this way. ”

    The point was made to me that scriptures point to other realised ones that lived normal lives – Janaka, Rama and Krishna. Hence the above post on Sankara’s logically consistent argument of how a jnani is one of inaction.

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