The Consolations of Bodhayana’s Sutras

It is now almost three weeks since I lost my father. A massive cardiac arrest took him within seconds of him even realizing that anything was wrong with his heart; there are things good and bad about such a passing (although in a deeper sense it is all good): the death is completely painless, but leaves you and those close and near to you in a situation that Hamlet the King so brilliantly defines in Hamlet.

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:

There are no last moment conversations, no final goodbyes, no saying of things left unsaid for too long. Whether this outweighs the benefit (if benefit it can be called) of a painless death, I am not very sure. But I do not want to be morbid. And this is not a personal essay; I wouldn’t use this forum for that. This small post is about my existential confrontation with a particular ritual, which then served as a means of transforming my view and attitude of rituals and prayers and the whole karma portion of my tradition which I have long ignored in my love for philosophical and intellectual pursuits.

I have read Anantanand Rambachan’s books on Shankara where he critiques the commonly held view (for which he claims Swami Vivekananda’s popularizing of the Vedantic tradition to be one of the main culprits) that the tradition of Advaita Vedanta, which can neatly be compartmentalised as a Jnana Yogic path, is a purely philosophic one from which either the ritual element can be entirely removed or in which this element may play a secondary and marginal role. In a totally non-intellectual form, I was confirmed of the falsity of this position, of a position that views the tradition as a  purely intellectual one, in which the paramarthika vision of the Brahman as absolute Reality and the world as total contingency can give rise to an attitude that can totally do away with rites and rituals that are prescribed in the Vedas.

The scholarly debates on these points be as they may, it was Bodhayana’s elaborate distillation of the Vedic mantras and tantras (using the word literally) in his Grihya-Sutras that gave me the consolation that I so craved. I did not get, nor did I especially crave for, the consolations of philosophy! Yet this distinction itself to my mind is an academic one. For the priest who accompanied me in this 13-day journey of homas and nitya vidhis began with an elaborate explanation of the nature of the body and the soul, the purpose of human existence, the final abode of the soul, the meaning of ritual activity and so on. All this from the point of view of Shankara’s Advaita. Yet this Advaitic elaboration of meanings did not do away with the rites that were to follow and continue for the 13 days, but it in fact reinforced them; I remember getting a distinct feeling that the knowledge in theory (using the term with caution) was being congealed and materialized into praxis. The priest told me that we were doing Advaita.

The nitya karmas that we performed (in a guru-shishya staging) began grimly. And it was difficult to hold the heart and tears in place in the first couple of days. The deceased (ideally the father; as the first-born male child performs it) is conceived in the preta or ghost form. The ghost of the father takes a year to reach the abode of the pitrus or the fathers and forefathers. And the carrying out of the karmas is to help him to reach that abode peacefully. The preta is made to stay at the place where the karma is taking place – and the karma basically for the first 10 days involves giving the departed food and drink, while at the same time the performance is structured to repel the spirit from the pleasures and allures of this world that it has just departed from; the only world that it knows and loves. This making it stay at the place of the food and drink offering is done with the help of two stones on which we do avahanam of the ghost. Now the stones represent the deceased. Everything that is done to the ghost – and this doing includes feeding, directing, praying for the forgiveness of sins – is done left-sidedly. The yagnopavita is worn in the inverse, and all the offerings are given in an inverse hand movement. This is the very opposite of how one would conduct one’s affairs with one’s beloved father, and the opposite of what he’d expect of the son. The idea seems to be to reverse the patterns of behaviour that our (father-son) relation dictates. This must be either to repel the spirit from here or to confirm the passing away in the mind of the doer of these rituals. I could witness firsthand the psychological power and genius of both the mantras involved in all this and (more importantly) the techniques of performance (using both these in their literal sense).

This goes on for 11 more days, and slowly you come to terms (via the ritual) with the death and the loss. And you also psychologically feel more and more elevated as the days go by because you are slowly building up a relationship all over again with your father. You get a sense of duty and of love. In all this, a belief or faith in what is being done is not a pre-requisite, it is rather the result. And the truth of what you are doing is not a propositional truth or a credal matter – but it is rather a relational truth; it is about relationship and is therefore deeply existential. You pray for the forgiveness of sin and for the increase of knowledge, light, and insight for your father in this new world that he has been thrown into, and about which he knows nothing. As days go by, his knowledge increases, he gets fed, his sufferings get slowly resolved with the prayers for forgiveness to the gods that his son is committing himself to. By the 11th and 12th days, he is offered clothes, a torchlight, a pair of slippers, a boat to cross the vaitarani river (which belongs actually to the Garuda Purana), and an umbrella to assist him from the sun and the rains. The ritual converts him, inadvertently, into a living person with a new life. But what I want to emphasise, and it is something I cannot prove for it is something I personally experienced, is the reversal here. It is not something that one needs to go to with faith already, but it is something that one comes out with faith. Faith not in propositions, but a sort of relational faith. And it is as strong and profound as any other.

The structure of the ritual, across the 13 days that it is spread, has a cathartic effect because it is structurally developmental. It begins rather grimly as I said. But slowly this changes. Day by day you find your heart uplifted. However, in the final days, agni makes his appearance. And he so radically changes the very flavour of what is being done (changing it from grimness to auspiciousness) that one’s heart cannot but change too! One now offers to agni and it is agni that takes the offerings to him, and one does it without wearing the yagnopavita inversely. All this has a very profound effect – a “change of heart” effect! And the catharsis lies in this fact, in this evolution from the grim to the beautiful.

The ritual is teaching us something. You are engaged in a learning exercise. And if I may bring Carl Jung in here (for I had moments when I was thinking quite a bit about his psychological methodology in the midst of all this), the ritual is an enactment, a drama, a hero’s journey (the deceased being this hero who has to go through the all the travails of the intermediate world and yet swim across), a theurgy, but at the same time, it is also a teaching methodology. And the teaching is given to the depths of one’s mind, to the deepest layers of the soul; so that, when one comes out of this dramatic activity, one doesn’t really know what exactly has changed, but one is absolutely certain that life would never be the same again.

This is my evidence for the equal priority of ritual, of karma. My argument is from experience. And a deep soul-changing experience. I have also recognised how the Grihya Sutra of Bodhayana is no less in its subtley and beauty than Badrayana’s Sutras. And that the former is no less entrancing to someone with an intellectual bent of mind than is the latter.

Shanti.

pratibandha-s – part 1 of 6

Here begins the promised article on pratibandha-s. It is actually one of the topics in the book that I am currently writing called ‘Confusions… for the seeker in Advaita Vedanta’. The book will be in two volumes: Vol. 1 – Knowledge, Experience and Enlightenment; and Vol. 2 – The World of Ignorance.

The first volume is specifically about aspects relating to what enlightenment is, how it is achieved, and its results; e.g. (facetiously) whether you gain it by reading books, dropping out of society or going into a permanent trance. The second volume will deal with what is actually taught by Advaita regarding the world, creation etc. and the various miscellaneous topics encountered on the way, such as ‘grace’, ‘teaching through silence’ etc. It will also cover the massive topic of ‘Ignorance’, although logically this might have been included in Volume 1.

Accordingly, if you read the posts of this topic (there will be 6 parts), you will encounter references to other sections and to sources that will only be referenced in the Bibliography. Please ignore these (apart from deciding that you must buy the book when it appears – probably second half of 2021.)

This post on pratibandha-s will cover the following sub-topics. Accordingly, please do not post comments on an early post that are likely to be addressed in a later one. Ideally, wait until all parts are posted before commenting, although I realize that some may find this difficult. 😉

      pratibandha-s – Part 1

  • prArabdha – Part 2
  • vAsanA-s
  • nididhyAsana – Part 3
  • viparIta bhAvanA
  • avidyA lesha
  • j~nAna phalam – Part 4
  • vij~nAna – Part 5
  • ‘Who am I?’ in communication
  • ‘Who am I?’ in thinking
  • The ‘mixture of Atman and mind’ – Part 6
  • No one is ever liberated

Continue reading

‘sAdhana in Advaita’ – 4/6:

[Part – 3]

If the world is the superstructure, like what is seen in a magic show, the Magician is the Knower, the Substratum! A seeker on the Knowledge Path pierces through the multiple layers of the superstructure to discover the base. He finds what is at the core. He knows that the ‘Universal’ has to be present wherever a ‘particular’ manifests. For example, if there is a bubble or foam or spray or a wave, he knows that water is the substance inside them all. Even an eddy can “be,” only if there is water.

The Advaitic seeker, hence, goes behind the apparent form to find the ‘Reality.’ He is aware that the world is merely an appearance of The Supreme Self and that the Universal and the particular exist woven together as the warp and the weft. Therefore, he understands that there is no occasion to be overwhelmed by the ‘appearance.’

Continue reading

Debate with a crypto-buddhist – 5

S. Whatever we call ‘Knowing our true nature’ it is something that is doubt free and possible in any given moment. It is always present no matter what the circumstances are, positive or negative, with thoughts and without them. This knowing is of a radiant nature that encompasses all appearances. It is all appearances, nothing is separated from it. If this is your experience, then indeed, your path has borne fruit. If not, finding a real teacher is of paramount importance. Nothing can replace what we call Transmission. A real teacher introduces you to your own nature directly.

M. You speak the words of Advaita Vedanta, including “a real teacher is of paramount importance”. It is indeed very helpful, almost indispensable — but, essential? Please allow me to make a few points for your consideration:

1). The teacher of teachers, guru of gurus, Dattatreya (as per the Avadhut Gita), when asked from whom he obtained his wisdom he replied that he had had 24 gurus: water, earth, space, moon, sun, maker of arrows… Yes, of course, not anyone can be a Dattatreya, the supreme guru – he had what we can call ‘spontaneous – or congenital – Atmanubhava’ (final intuition). But intuition is universal. ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth’ (Spiritus ubi vult spirat).

2). In the Gaudapada karika 1-18 (Gaudapada being grand-guru of Shankaracharya) one reads that ‘all concepts like Prapañcha (world of duality) – guru, shishya (disciple), etc., – are mere misconceptions. In his bhashya to this karika Shankara states that ‘these ideas are for the purpose of teaching which are (appear as) true until one realises the Highest Truth’. Then, as I wrote before, ‘mind becomes no-mind’ since there are no longer any objects, no multiplicity at all remaining.

3). As to Transmission of spiritual power from teacher to disciple (shaktipat), this is prominent in forms of Tantra, and one reads that Abhinavagupta elaborated on it extensively, but it is not a tenet of AV, as implied by what was said under #2.

 

S. Regarding #3: Transmission. This is something that is quite commonly misunderstood as something given or received. There is no giving of anything, nor receiving of anything. When circumstances converge and there is a conjunction between teacher/friend and seeker, there can be an unusual meeting of minds. This is just a figure of speech, but there is something behind this which cannot be shown. It is not Shaktipat which is really transference of energy that many people have experienced in the presence of certain people. This is not what I’m referring to at all.

Having a living friend with whom you can talk and observe someone who has ‘realized’ the ‘Highest Truth’ can be the greatest gift one can get. You see the living embodiment of this. That’s all I can really say about it. I would think the Hindu term ‘Darshan’ would be appropriate. Since your choice of traditions is Advaita, I would seek out someone whom you think is a living embodiment of it.

 

 

Answers

I would like to announce publication of my book ‘Answers… to the Difficult Questions’. It will be ‘in the shops’ (if you know of a shop that sells this sort of book) on March 27th.

All seekers encounter problems periodically. A question arises which appears to challenge the veracity of their chosen path. If an answer is not found quickly, there is a great danger that the particular teaching will be abandoned and another sought. I cannot speak for other teachings but I know that traditional Advaita has answers to all (seeker-related) questions. This book records the questions from hundreds of seekers over the years and the answers I gave. (I first invited questions to my website in 2005.) It would be surprising if your particular worries are not covered somewhere and it is likely that there will be answers to many questions that have not yet occurred to you! (If you have one which is not answered, contact me via the website!)

The questions that are covered (over 450) can be read here but there are several problems with doing this. Firstly, the questions here appear in the order in which they were asked; questions covering a particular topic could be anywhere. Secondly, my own understanding and knowledge has obviously increased over the 15 years since I first began answering questions. Accordingly, my answers to early questions may not be as informed as they would now be. Thirdly, there is no introductory or summary material for the various key topics in Advaita. Continue reading

‘sAdhana in Advaita’ – 3/6:

[Part – 2]

Our mind is accustomed to get the impression of an object which has a finite shape (form). It is easy for the mind to think of finite forms. But AtmA is formless. Further, if AtmA were to be located at a particular place, the mind can see in that direction to find the AtmA. But AtmA is everywhere. It exists in all directions, at all points; there is no specific locus for It. The mind cannot look for It in all directions at the same time. The doctrine also says that AtmA is not an object to be seen but is “my own real nature.” How do I see my own nature? Therefore, it feels like a big effort to get a thought that corresponds to the AtmA.

As a result, we find the practice (sAdhana) in Advaita to be difficult. However,  the very problems could be the cues which help us to have AtmAnubhava. We have from Bhagavad-Gita,

प्रत्यक्षावगमं धर्म्यं सुसुखं कर्तुमव्ययम्    —   9.2, Bhagavad-Gita.

[Meaning:  Immediately comprehensible, unopposed to dharma, very easy to perform, imperishable.]

Krishna says that the Self is seen directly and easily at every locus. We need to understand carefully the implication of this statement. Continue reading

Q. 480 Being ‘present’

Q: I feel that reading and writing feeds the mind. But, when I am in Presence I don’t feel the need to read and don’t really have anything to say. For me this is a problem, since reading and writing are for me pleasant activities.

So my question is whether it is possible to read and write while respecting and being in Presence, or is it direct contract with no-thought Presence that is necessary?

A: ‘Presence’ is not a term that is used in traditional Advaita. I assume that you mean just witnessing what is happening without mental commentary and without any investment in the outcome, whether ‘favorable’ or ‘unfavorable’. This practice is just that – a practice, helping you to become proficient at controlling the mind. Mental discipline and control of the senses are required to a degree, along with discrimination and dispassion before you can (successfully) undertake the real activities of Advaita. These are listening to a qualified teacher explain the scriptures and then asking questions to clarify any doubts. The end result is to gain knowledge about your Self and reality. That is enlightenment. Just ‘being present’ will never give enlightenment, no matter how long or how frequently you stay there.

‘sAdhana in Advaita’ – 2/6:

[Part – 1/6]

In order to experience the Self, AtmAnubhava, we should first know where the “I” is. If the ‘I’ is not already with us, we have to make an effort to obtain it.

In general, there are three ways by which we can obtain a thing. Say, we have to obtain a pot. If no pot is available, we have to newly produce (make) one. Or suppose it is available with someone or somewhere. We have to procure it from that place. Or, a pot is available but it is dusty or dirty. We have to wash off the dirt and make it neat and clean. These three ways are known as utpatti (production), Apti or prApti (procurement) and samskriti (refinement) respectively. Now let us apply it to the problem we have.

Do we have to newly produce the Self, or get It from some other place, or cleanse and refine the Self that already exists?

One may produce an idol or a symbol of a deity but none can manufacture the formless Self. Moreover, the knowledge that “I am” is already with us and that knowing itself is the Self. Therefore, we need not newly produce the Self. Continue reading

‘sAdhana in Advaita’ – 1/6:

[This Series of posts is based on Shri Yellamraju Srinivasa Rao (YSR)’s Audio Talk in Telugu – An Overview of The Advaita Doctrine  –   4/192 .The write up here is a free translation after slight modifications and editing. The Talk was described by a seeker as “Powerful and Compelling.” I do not know if I could achieve that ‘force of persuasion and spirit’ in the translation. Yet I hope the Reader gets at least a flavor of the original if not the whole taste in this English rendition.]

Any philosophical knowledge system comprises three components  – The Doctrine (siddhAnta), The Method or the Process (sAdhana) and The Results or the Fruit (siddhi). (‘siddhi‘ is attainment and need not be confused with ‘sAdhya’ which means aim or objective).

The doctrine expounds the subject matter of the teaching. The method or the process is the effort we make to experience what is taught. The result or the fruit is the fructification of our efforts, which is the im-mediated “experiential understanding” of what was taught.

We begin the study of any subject with an intention to learn and implement, and complete the study with an experiential understanding of the subject. We hope to experience a feeling of satiation at the end of the study. The effort to implement what we learn, sAdhana, therefore, is an important part of any teaching. ‘siddhAnta’ or the teaching is like a recipe, while ‘sAdhana’ is like cooking a dish following the recipe. In fact, the Sanskrit word sAdhana also means cooking! The siddhi or the fruit is the ‘contentment’ we get after eating the dish. Continue reading

Who am I?

In the (very long) thread of Q. 479 ‘What should I read?’, Ramesam asked the question: Who do we (the posters) mean when we use the words ‘I’ and ‘you’?

He suggested that ‘I’ could mean Atman/Brahman, if used from the ‘as if’ pAramArthika viewpoint; it could mean the reflected Consciousness (chidAbhAsa); or it could mean the usually understood ‘named person’.

I suggest that it can ONLY mean the usually understood, named person. When ‘I’ speak to ‘you’ or when I write the word ‘I’ in a post, I cannot be Atman/Brahman. The pAramArthika Atman/Brahman is non-dual. It is neither actor nor enjoyer. It does no do anything. It does not speak and it does not write. When I write and use the word ‘I’, if I mean Brahman, I need to add additional words to make this obvious.

The chidAbhAsa concept is a metaphor to explain how it can be that I am really Atman/Brahman and yet appear to be a conscious, embodied, independent entity. It relates the appearance to the reality. But I am not a metaphor.

Similarly, when I address ‘you’, I am speaking/writing to the named individual ‘you’. I would scarcely have the temerity to write to Brahman (and what would be the point?)! And, again, it would not be meaningful to address a metaphor.

If anyone is NOT using the same criteria when they post, could they please do so henceforth! 😉

Communication is only meaningful when an (apparently) independent entity A speaks or writes etc. to another (apparently) independent entity B.  B doesn’t know in advance what A is going to say or write. All is empirically familiar and obvious. There is no need to complicate things unnecessarily. Occam’s razor reigns supreme!