Advaita Gurus and Critics – part 4

by Prof. Phillip Charles Lucas

<Read Part 3>

Theme Two: The Necessity for Moral Development

The second critical theme claims that NTMA teachers ignore moral development as a prerequisite for spiritual realization. TMA proponents claim that efficacious sadhana includes the cultivation of traditional Vedic virtues such as faith, devotion and perseverance, and allege that many NTMA gurus not only lack these virtues but also fail to emphasize their importance. Some critics articulate the development of virtues employing the traditional practice of Vaidika Dharma, rules of conduct that govern human behavior according to a system of duties to society, the gods and one’s family. TMA proponents contend that when a person sacrifices personal desires to serve the Divine and others, vasana-production becomes non-binding and therefore no longer an impediment to realization of the self. [Swartz, “What is Neo-Advaita?”]

By taking Advaita out of context, unethical and immoral actions can be justified as predestined and part of the Self’s grand plan. The purity of mind required for authentic self-realization requires sustained efforts at meditation, ethical action, and devotion. To counter NTMAs who reject devotional (bhakti) exercises such as puja (worship), bhajans (devotional songs) and circumambulation of shrines, as well as carrying out everyday service duties to family and society, TMAs point to the examples of sages such as Swami Vivekananda and Ramana Maharshi, who incorporated devotional practices and service duties into each day. The ideal, they maintain, is a balance between head and heart, knowledge, devotion and practical service. [Christopher Quilkey, “Ramesh Balsekar and Advaita,” The Mountain Path (October-December 2006): 101; Swami Viditatmananda Saraswati, “The Qualifications Necessary for the Study of Vedanta,” at <>, accessed 6 May 2013.]

In response to the NTMA contention that no action is necessary since the person and world are illusions, TMA proponents cite Vedanta’s longstanding teaching concerning the qualifications for authentic self-inquiry, including samadhisatkasampatti, a set of six virtues that bring about mental purity and qualify the student to hear and understand Upanishadic truths.

As articulated by traditional Advaita guru Swami Dayananda, they include contentment or self-composure (sama), self-discipline and sobriety (dama), detachment from the desire to possess material things (uparama), the capacity to bear small difficulties with patience (titiksha), faith in one’s teacher and the words of Vedanta to deliver true knowledge (shraddha), and the power of inner concentration so that the mind can become self-absorbed (samadhanam). [Swami Dayananda Saraswati, “Qualified Student of Vedanta,” at  < student_of_Vedanta.pdf>,” accessed 6 May 2013.]

Chinmaya Mission teacher Swami Viditatmananda emphasizes the pressing need to foster a pure and orderly mind free of likes and dislikes, lust, anger and greed. These distractions cloud the mind, making it unreceptive to transcendent knowledge, and they perpetuate unrighteous and unmeritorious patterns of action leading to a life out of harmony with cosmic order. He includes harming others, ingesting intoxicants, lying, cheating, and stealing as unrighteous actions. [Swami Viditatmananda, “The Qualifications Necessary for the Study of Vedanta.”]

TMA proponents contend that teaching on the development of these virtues and ethical living is sorely missing from NTMA satsangs, and this inattention bypasses an essential step in the process of self-realization. [Anonymous, “Neo-Advaita Demystified,” at <>, accessed 6 May 2013.]

Development of these virtues traditionally has been seen as prerequisite to the maturity required to “hear” Advaita teaching. TMA proponents maintain that although teachings claiming there are no prerequisites for self-inquiry, that the practice can be undertaken by anyone regardless of lifestyle or qualifications, and that little change of personal behavior is necessary may appeal to the libertarian, egalitarian and democratic attitudes of Western spiritual seekers, they are self-defeating. TMA author Dr. David Frawley, founder of the American Institute for Vedic Studies, asserts that Advaita tradition is unbending with regard to practices of asceticism and moral purification, unappealing as these may sound to Western attendees of weekend enlightenment seminars. [David Frawley, “Misconceptions about Advaita,” American Institute of Vedic Studies, at < misconceptions-about-advaita/>, accessed 6 May 2013.]

NTMA teacher and author Suzanne Foxton succinctly articulates the NTMA attitude toward the development of virtues and morality:

There is no right or wrong. There is what is. Including many differing ideas about what is right and what is wrong. However, compassion often seems preferable; yet if every apparent individual were consistently compassionate without exception…gag, barf! How dull would THAT be? […] We live in Utopia. We are Utopia. We are the perfect, dualistic playground with every possibility shining, weaving, tearing, growing, destroying, creating NOW. [Suzanne Foxton, quoted in “Dennis Waite, Interview with non-duality magazine,” non-duality magazine, July 2010, at <>. Foxton, born in Indiana, lives in England.]

It is worth noting that former NTMA teacher Andrew Cohen (b. 1955), a one-time student of Poonja, rejected his guru’s teaching concerning the irrelevance of progressive moral development. Cohen began questioning Poonja’s insistence that worldly behavior had nothing to do with self-realization and that it was impossible to completely transcend ego-based actions. Poonja had allegedly argued that these actions would not matter to the enlightened person, since the person no longer identified with such action and did not suffer karmic consequences.

All ethical standards were founded in a dualistic paradigm that assumed the reality of an individual moral agent. Since this paradigm was an illusion, such ethical considerations were only a distraction from true self-inquiry. In rejecting this teaching, Cohen, who now teaches a system marketed as Evolutionary Enlightenment that claims inspiration from teachers who spoke of evolution such as Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) and Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), came to emphasize the need for ethical behavior as a touchstone for authentic enlightenment.

He demanded flawless behavior from his students and imposed compulsory ascetic practices, public humiliation and outright expulsion from his community for those who came up short. Cohen began to speak of his former guru as immoral and power-hungry, and called attention to the moral lapses of other prominent gurus such as Osho, Adi Da (1939-2008) and Swami Muktananda (1908-1982). In spirit at least, it appears that Cohen has come around to the basic teachings of traditional Advaita (and other traditional spiritual systems) concerning ethical behavior and the cultivation of virtue as integral to authentic spiritual life. He also appears to have accepted the Advaita doctrine that at the relative level of awareness/reality, moral action is necessary and efficacious for spiritual growth. [See Ann Gleig, “From being to becoming, transcending to transforming: Andrew Cohen and the evolution of enlightenment,” in homegrown gurus: from Hinduism in America to American Hinduism, ed. Ann Gleig and Lola Williamson  (Albany: State University of New York press, 2013), 194-195. Email communication with Krishna, an American TMA commentator, 15 august 2012.]

Dennis Waite roots this TMA teaching on ethical conduct in the traditional guru lineage system, or sampradaya, in which the teacher’s guru is held in great reverence and the virtue of humility is fostered in this reverence. In India, belonging to a sampradaya constitutes a kind of prima facie evidence for a guru’s moral probity. Waite maintains that NTMA teachers who lack grounding in an authentic sampradaya will always face questions concerning their behavior. He also observes that newly “enlightened” teachers who have not undergone the rigorous moral training of traditional Advaitins may more easily succumb to the many temptations that beset roving gurus who are admired by young and attractive seekers. [Waite, Enlightenment, 121.]

*** Read Part 5 ***

5 thoughts on “Advaita Gurus and Critics – part 4

  1. For the record, Swami Viditatmananda is not a Chinmaya Mission teacher as the article states. He is a disciple of Swami Dayananda Saraswati and the President of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Saylorsburg, USA.

    As for the necessity for moral development, traditional Advaita discipline has a virtual lack of moral virtues. Many scholars label the whole course of training as “moral prerequisites” or “ethical discipline” without addressing the moral issue of whether the aspirant shows other-regardingness or not, which is the essence of morality.

    Even Radhakrishnan, the most adamant defender of the morality thesis, conceded that “Hindu ethics treat inner perfection and inward calm as of more importance than outer activity. . . . The motive behind ethical practices is that of purging the soul of selfish impulses so that it may be fitted to receive the beatific vision”. But, again, “ethics” is not the same as “morality.”

    Once initiated to the path, for Shankara there are five prescriptions: (1) abstaining from injury, lying, theft, sex, and possessions; (2) austerities (tapas); (3) concentration of the mind (samadhana); (4) emaciation of the body; and (5) performance of the obligatory rituals and sacrifices (nityakarma) to remove past hindrances (Upad I.17.21-23).Only one of the prerequisites noted above involves actions toward other people—abstaining from injury, lying, theft, sex, and possessions—and since its context is as part of an aspirant’s training in self-development, one must ask whether a genuine concern for others is the intent of that practice. That is, do we abstain from killing and stealing because such acts of selfishness would show that we take the world to be real, or because of concern for the effect on (unreal) others? The main concern seems to be only that selfish acts would further lock us into an unreal worldview. Even the interpersonal virtues like non-injury and forgiveness are valued mostly as a means of protecting the self from passions and involvements in the world. Thus, it seems these requirements are virtues for self-discipline and “purifying” one’s own character, not for helping others. What is “good” is what aids an aspirant in gaining enlightenment, and what is “bad” is what harms the quest. What is moral or immoral is not the determining value. Enlightenment or liberation is the only value on the path, not other people or anything else within this realm of illusion.

    The values on this path are self-centered, but they are not moral (other-regarding) nor immoral and thus are non-moral. Not harming other beings, not lying, and so forth may have the effect of helping others, but the focus is only on how these actions help the aspirant overcome an error (the sense of individuality and multiple realities), not on a concern for others. Shankara’s is an ethics of self-cultivation, and other-regardingness is not a prerequisite to enlightenment. Morality cannot produce enlightenment and thus is not an Advaita value. In fact, any concern by the unenlightened for other characters in the world—as morality must be—would only be a reflection of their nescience.

  2. That is a very interesting observation, Rick. And ultimately, of course, must be correct. But all of these practices are preparatory – sAdhana chauShtAya sampatti – aimed at the seeker who is not yet ready for shravaNa. And who naturally believes in the reality of the world. So is it not the case that, for him, such practices do in fact constitute a ‘morality’? Could he indeed practice non-lying, non-theft, non-injury etc. if he didn’t believe there was a world?

    So in a sense Shankara is going along with this fiction for the benefit of the seeker? It is morality for the aj~nAnI and a necessary fiction for the j~nAnI.

    Best wishes,

  3. Hi Dennis,

    Yes, I presume the seeker does have a morality and believes that others exist. The question I am addressing is whether moral development is a necessary part of traditional advaita teaching. Shankara dealt mostly with knowledge, but he also dealt explicitly with the nature of action, both on the path and in the enlightened state, as they relate to knowledge. He also dealt with values, and he advanced non-moral ones: they are the values and virtues related to an individual escaping the realm of maya and attaining the bliss of brahman. Moreover, his concepts of knowledge (vidya ), enlightenment (moksha), and reality (brahman) are value-laden and have direct implications for how we should live. In particular, brahman is the only good and hence enlightenment is the only goal. Brahman, like many religious concepts, combines ontological and evaluative dimensions. In this way, values pervade his work. Treating brahman as the only reality and enlightenment as our ultimate goal does not merely ignore the issue of morality but negates moral concern for “other people” as a value at all. His talk of inaction and of being beyond social obligations was not merely hyperbole to shock students into the enlightenment insight—they were the only value-position consistent with his metaphysics. Indeed, not even enlightenment can be valued since nothing a character in the dream does ultimately matters. In sum, we are left with a value-system ultimately free of values.


  4. You have pretty much convinced me, Rick. On the one hand, a j~nAnI still has to work through his prArabdha karma – and I guess morality probably comes into that somewhere. On the other hand, knowing that there are no ‘others’, only the Self, morality has no place. It is a vyAvahArika thing, which obviously is not a significant factor for a j~nAnI.

    Best wishes,

  5. For the ajnani, the BG teaches karma yoga – action without personal desires. Sankara gives an example of Janaka, who acts for the benefit of the world.

    For the jivanmukta, there is no world, no other, and no personal body-mind. So his actions are minimal and totally detached. Without ego that gives rises to fear, anger, desire, he can do no wrong. He gives his body-mind no preference over another.

    With respect to “other regarding”, BGB18.54:
    “he regards the pleasure and pain of all creatures equally with his own, i.e.. that they would affect them just as they affect himself”

    Advaita focuses on self-perfection, or rather self-effacement (rather than any rules of morality and ethics), which has the inevitable corollary of doing no harm. I’m reminded of Tao Te Ching:

    “It is when the great Tao is forsaken that benevolence and righteousness appear”

    “The pursuit of learning means having more each day
    But the pursuit of the Tao means having less each day
    Having less and less, eventually one reaches the point
    Of no conscious action, yet nothing remains undone.
    One who takes all under Heaven as his charge
    Always tends to matters without deliberate action.
    But when it comes to one who does take conscious action,
    Such a one is not worthy to take all under Heaven as his charge.”

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