YogavAsiShTa vs. Bhagavad-Gita

A question that is often asked of me is why YogavAsiShTa is not as popular as Bhagavad-Gita.

[Frankly, I am not sure if that is true and if so why it is so. I spell out a few of my thoughts to start a healthy discussion.]

 In my own case, it was Bhagavad-Gita that I was first exposed to, even as a teenager, and it was much later in my life after my pate turned bald and the few hairs that remained acquired a silver gray hue, that I happened to study YogavAsiShTa. I can say with certitude that both books must have been equally present in my house when I was growing up with my parents. Could it be that my parents somehow conspired to see that I did not get access to read the YogavAsiShTa in my youth because of my mother’s apprehension or belief in an adage that was popular in those times that one who reads YogavAsiShTa would surely fling the family life and retire to a forest as a Sannyasi (renunciate)? Continue reading

Q.436 Ishvara and the existence of fossils

Q: Dinosaur fossils point to a world history that greatly exceeds the history of human beings. I realize that from the Absolute perspective, there is no creation, no world, and therefore no fossils. However, I also realize that Advaita is not equivalent to solipsism. When ‘I’ die, the relative world will still continue in ‘my’ absence. What is puzzling is why there should be any such consistency. When I go to sleep tonight, I do not expect to pick up the dream from where I left off last night. Yet on waking, I definitely expect to be in the same room I went to bed in, with the same clothes hanging in the closet, etc. In short, there is a direct continuity that occurs in jAgrat that does not apply to svapna. Doesn’t this very continuity (e.g. fossils having existed for millions of years before ‘I’ was born) point to a definite need for a Creator, aka Ishvara or saguNa Brahman? Otherwise, I don’t see how the continuity would make any sense. ‘I’ as the jIva cannot have had anything to do with it!

A: Ishvara is just as real as the world. Ishvara is the order that we see, the laws that govern it and so on. All this is empirically real, not absolutely real; it is mithyA. You and I and Ishvara and the world and jAgrat and svapna and suShupti are all mithyA. So yes, if you are talking about fossils and dinosaurs, Ishvara is needed as the creator of the world and of the laws of evolution etc. that enable such things to be a part of our history. Ishvara maintains the waking dream so that I have some clothes to put on when I wake up.

Conversation with ‘H’ – 5

M. … Of course, we know ‘we’ are primarily awareness where no distinctions whatsoever are valid, such as male/female. But something occurs to me just now, and is that prior even to the apparent multiplicity I mentioned above, and perhaps even more significant if not more real, is the presentation or exhibition in nature – amounting to a cosmological law – of the dichotomy or binary positive-negative, active-passive, static-dynamic, yang-yin, potentiality-actuality (this one an Aristotelian distinction). And, of course, male-female.

And, by extension or implication we have: angularity-roundness, left brain-right brain, etc. Someone I knew (a traditionalist or perennialist) wrote in one of his books that poetry is masculine and musicality and dance feminine… man is protector and woman nurturer; doctrine male, method female (in Buddhism it is the reverse, i.e. doctrine as prajna). Further, Sophia (wisdom) is female, represented by the goddesses Athena and Saraswati, also Minerva. And so on.

A final point: Is your metaphysical position, rather than pure non-duality, closer to the mitigated non-duality of Ramanuja (a great sage in the Indian philosophical tradition)? If so, who can find fault in that? Continue reading

Q.435 How can we be sure?

Q: I have a friend who became a born-again Christian as a young man. I knew him before his ‘conversion’ experience, and he became very different afterwards. For decades, he has maintained his rock-solid belief in Jesus and evangelical Christianity. He has that ‘glow’ of certainty and confidence that seems to come with believing in such a system with 110% conviction. His faith is literally unshakeable, and he is dead certain that he is right. I have a back-of-the-mind concern that when someone ‘gets it’ in terms of Advaita after a long period of seeking, that something similar is happening. We cannot think directly about the nondual Brahman, cannot experience non-duality, cannot even really talk about it. How can we be sure that we are not simply hypnotizing ourselves into this conviction after long years of painful seeking?

A (Dennis): How can we be sure? I, too, encountered someone who was a ‘certain’ Christian. We had quite a few discussions and, as you say, the belief was unshakeable. The difference is though, in my experience, that such people are unable to back up their beliefs with reason. They will blithely quote from the bible as though that ends the matter. As you know, in the kArikA-s, Gaudapada uses more reason than he does scriptural citations, although scriptures are traditionally the final authority. Although I included some scriptural quotations in my book ‘A-U-M’, this was principally for completeness and so that the related commentaries might be referenced. The intention was that all that I said was reasoned and hopefully unarguable. I cannot imagine there is any Christian text that can claim that.

The key tool and argument is probably one of the earliest – the ‘neti, neti’ of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Rather than trying to ‘find’ the answer, you keep discarding all attempted explanations when you find that they do not stand up to reason. When everything has been rejected, you are still left with you, the ‘rejecter’. You can use reason to reject those religions/philosophies that rely on scriptural authority alone, because you can always ask: ‘Why should I accept what is written here when it can never be supported by reason or experience?’ Advaita cannot be rejected in this way. It is the difference between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’.

Conversation with ‘H’ (Knower, Witness) Prelude & Part 1

H. ‘… as regards the somewhat artificial distinction (ontologically speaking) that I make between awareness and consciousness, then this is something I do of my own choosing, accepting that there is an objectless state of mind that cannot correctly be termed ‘consciousness’ as it is not ‘with knowledge’ of any kind. In its stricter, more formal sense, then in the language of Pali this would be one of the Arūpajhāna, as you may well know – i.e. neither perception nor non-perception. I often find myself in dispute with phenomenologists over whether an objectless awareness is possible. Although the (8th) Arūpajhāna itself is of course a very rarified state, the very fact that it is a state gives me – I hope – the liberty to introduce the idea of a Tabula Rasa of mind, and which, again due to the ubiquity of the term, I call ‘awareness’ for the purposes of creating a template for learning only. I do not consider it to be its own ontological category.’ Continue reading

Q. 434 Modern debates about Advaita principles

Q: As I work through the Brahma Sutras, and having read Alston’s ‘Shankara on Rival Views’, I have a nagging concern that all of the refutation of alternate theories is too self-contained. What I mean is that much of it seems like a straw-man setup, where Shankara defines his opponent’s views for them and then shreds those views. The objections are being written by the same author that is refuting those objections. I would like to find texts that carry the debate outside of the closed circle, so to speak. Say, for example, a Buddhist took exception to those refutations and wrote a compelling argument against them, and then a traditional Swami responded in kind. Are you aware of any more modern works along these lines? In particular, I would like to see Shankara’s logic analyzed by a scholar and compared to our modern updated view of logical argumentation, etc.

A: Are you sufficiently certain of the Advaita stance on all issues that you would want to look at critical appraisals? I haven’t come across any easy work that deals with these. If you are studying Brahmasutras now, there is a version which is fairly readable and actually occasionally funny (in a superior, knowing sort of way), which looks at the other commentaries and interpretations. It’s called ‘The Brahmasutras and their Principal Commentaries: A Critical Exposition’ by B. N. K. Sharma. It’s in 3 volumes and almost certainly very expensive in the west. You can probably get it cheaper from India, though. Another book which I haven’t looked at is ‘A Critique of Vedanta’ by L. V. Rajagopal. It looks at the three Vedantic schools and applies Whitehead’s approach to philosophy to critically analyze them (so says the book cover!) It looks like a very serious read to me! The other book which might interest you is SSS’s (Satchidanandendra) book ‘The Method of the Vedanta: A Critical Account of the Advaita Tradition’. It looks at pre and post Shankara authors and endeavors to establish Shankara’s views as the correct ones. But it is a huge book of nearly 1000 pages and really not terribly readable. It is, however, translated by A. J. Alston so is at least understandable with some effort. But I can’t honestly actually recommend any of these. It’s up to you if you want to give any a try. From what you say, maybe the Rajagopal would serve your needs.

P.S. I have just checked, and the Sharma 3-volume work is available from Amazon.com for US$79.40. (Ridiculously, it is £89.99 in the UK but it is out of stock anyway.) ‘Method of the Vedanta’ is even more expensive (it is a big book!) – US$170.36 from Amazon.com but you can buy for only £20, new, in the UK from Shanti Sadan.
‘A Critique of Vedanta’ is only US$10.33 from Amazon.com.

Litmus Tests for Self-realization – 2

Abhinava Vidyateertha (standing in front of his Guru)

There is an embarrassing plenitude of teachers of Non-duality (of different shades) accessible both online and offline mushrooming  these days from all corners of the world. Some even  claim without any qualms that they have realized the Ultimate Truth; or leave enough of hints on their web sites to impress the reader that they are Self-realized. This is undoubtedly a happy situation that we have so many gurus in our midst but one is left a bit bewildered because of what Bhagavad-Gita tells us. In the Chapter VII, the third verse says:

 मनुष्याणां सहस्रेषु कश्चिद्यतति सिद्धये

 यततामपि सिद्धानां कश्चिन्मां वेत्ति तत्त्वतः — Verse 3, Ch VII, Bhagavad-Gita. Continue reading

Q. 459 The Unbridgeable Gap

(Question answered by Martin, Ramesam, Charles and Dennis)

Q: I have a few doubts regarding Advaita. I was fascinated by this philosophy when I started perusing different philosophies but, on reflection, I found it to be untenable or a logical travesty at best.

I suspect that ajAtivAda is the ultimate tenet of advaita – creation never happened, ontologically speaking. And yet, inexplicably, this vyAvahArika world with its jIva-s exists. And, to end his purported suffering, the jIva has to realize this ontological oneness or sole existence of unqualified Brahman.

Now, to be a little antagonistic, according to the frame of reference of the jIva, his realization will not have any effect on the pAramArthika Brahman because jIva, world and liberation are all only vyAvahArika truth. As ajAtivAda explicitly states, jIva, world, liberation and bondage do not exist.

I suspect that advaita is also not a realization (mental state) of the jIva as Brahman cannot be an object of knowledge or experience so, at the apparent instant of realization (apparent because of ajAtivAda) nothing really happens from the point of the jIva also. Even for the jIvanmukta, his mind and body exist, yet neither his body nor mind can get liberation because it will turn Brahman into a subject. Continue reading

Science and Consciousness

(This article was originally published in ‘Yoga International’ magazine Aug-2011. I don’t think the magazine exists any longer, which is why no link is provided.)

During the past few years, an increasing number of scientists have claimed insight into the nondual nature of reality. These claims, however, ignore a fundamental truth: Consciousness falls outside the scope of scientific investigation. Therefore, by their very nature, such claims cannot be valid.

There has always been a degree of animosity between science and spirituality. The Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo over his insistence that the Earth was not the center of the universe comes to mind, as does the current debate between Creationists and those preferring the more down-to-earth tenets of Darwinian evolution. It is encouraging, therefore, to see the growing number of books and articles written by scientists on the subject of nonduality. There is even an annual conference with the title “Science and Nonduality,” thus making it possible to explore these two avenues of knowledge in the same forum.

Paradoxically, both the power and the ultimate shortcoming of science as a tool for investigating the nature of reality lie in its objectivity. The scientific method of empirical observation and subsequent reasoning is something it shares with Vedanta, along with the acceptance of findings from those who have gone before (providing these findings do not contradict more recent discoveries).

Science has made a significant contribution to persuading people to consider that the world may not be as it initially appears to our limited organs of perception. At one end of the scale, the scanning electron microscope looks into the supposed solidity of the matter beneath our fingertips. At the other extreme, the Hubble telescope peers toward infinity into the swirling clouds of galaxies invisible to the naked eye. ‘Reality’ is far more subtle than everyday experience would have us believe. The hardness of the table on which I write is due to irrevocable laws regarding the spin of electrons and their sharing of orbitals around atoms. Massive energy sources in the universe result from entire galaxies being sucked into black holes. Our own senses are quite inadequate for the job of explaining the behavior of the world around us, whereas science seemingly can. Continue reading