On the face of it, this is a well-written and readable book, ideally suited for a new seeker. E.g. the sections on ‘The Illusory Nature of the Separate Self’ and ‘Knowledge Dispels Ignorance’ are excellent.
Unfortunately, should any reader accept everything that is written at its face value, they will come away with some serious confusions. In what follows, I apologize in advance for some of what may seem to be harsh criticisms, but my own perception of these points is heightened as a result of spending the last year writing my own work on ‘confusions’ of precisely this sort.
The author uses the traditional teaching method of adhyāropa-apavāda but it is not made clear when what is being said is only provisional. Also, there are very few references to the source of what is being presented. (And one of those that is provided doesn’t exist!) There are many places where the author writes ‘as Shankara said’ but scarcely a single pointer to where he said it. There are numerous places where I, as an informed reader, need those references before I will even consider what is being said to be credible!
The author did not belong to a saṃpradāya and appears to have been self-taught. Whilst not in itself diminishing the value of his teaching, it does make it even more important to quote the source in order to provide authentic validation.
We can never appreciate/intuit the non-dual nature of reality whilst at the same time maintaining the subject-object outlook that is intrinsic to the working of senses and mind – an outlook that is inherent in the way that this book has been written.
No matter how many times it is repeated (and the author repeats it very many times), enlightenment has nothing to do with ‘experiencing’ Brahman. The truth is NOT available by ‘direct perception’ as claimed. He even says that “we can experience the Self just like we experience the objects we perceive”! And yet the title of the book is “the essence of non-duality”!
Shankara says (brahmasūtra bhāṣya 4.1.13):
“The knower of Brahman has this realization: ‘As opposed to the entity known before as possessed of agentship and experience by its very nature, I am Brahman which is by nature devoid of agentship and experiencership in all three periods of time. Even earlier I was never an agent and experiencer, nor am I so at present, nor shall I be so in future’. From such a point of view alone can liberation be justified.”
In a ‘cart before horse’ fallacy, he says that we “experience Consciousness with our mind and senses”, when it is Consciousness that enables the mind and senses to function in the first place.
The author admits that “one may doubt whether it is possible to experience Pure Consciousness” but states that “Shankara assures us that it is quite possible”. WHERE? He then explains that “When we hear such statements (as tat tvam asi), we experience a feeling of expansiveness. That feeling itself is the experience of Consciousness.” No it isn’t! Feelings relate to body and mind.
Much later, he claims that the jivanmukta “experiences everything as undifferentiated Consciousness” and “his experience is not dualistic”. He goes on to state that this view is substantiated by Shankara, who “says that not only the scripture, even our own experience proves it”! Where does he say this?? As far as I am aware, Shankara did not even use the word ‘jīvanmukti’ anywhere in his commentaries on prasthāna traya. śataśloki is not a well-known work and its authorship is uncertain.
Rao explicitly claims that “Shankara points out that theoretical Knowledge of the Self obtained in shravaņa will only provide an intellectual understanding of the nature of the Self, but experiential Knowledge of the Self will help us grasp the Self ‘As It Is’ without an iota of doubt.” And he states that this ‘experiential knowledge’ is provided by manana. But, of course, no reference is given for these claims.
Rao’s understanding of manana and nididhyāsana is wrong. The former is not ‘contemplation’ but ‘removal of doubts’ and the latter is not ‘meditation’ as the seeker would be likely to understand it, but ‘consolidation’ of the understanding by whatever means might be appropriate. The author claims that “deep contemplation on the Self is in itself the experience of the Self.”
Rao later concedes that our problem is one of Self-ignorance and, as soon as this is removed, we gain Self-knowledge, which is mokṣa. Knowledge has to come from a pramāņa and the only pramāņa for Self-knowledge is shabda which comes from hearing a guru explain the scriptures. Once any doubts have been removed by manana, what remains is doubtless knowledge. There is no reason for ‘doing’ anything subsequently in order to gain some sort of ‘experience’.
Nor can we ‘practice’ Advaita. The sādhana recommended by Shankara is to provide mental preparation prior to shravaņa-manana.
And, regarding ‘merging with Brahman’, Shankara specifically addresses the term in his bhāṣya on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.6):
“(Therefore) the statement ‘He is merged in Brahman’ is but a figurative one, meaning the cessation, as a result of knowledge, of the continuous chain of bodies for one who has held an opposite view.”
Another apparent misunderstanding, which leads to confusion on the part of the reader, regards the status of the world. it appears that the author mistakenly equates the word ‘mithyā’ with ‘illusory’. This is a common mistake but not one that is acceptable for a teacher and writer who does not want to pass on this confusion to his readers. He actually states that Ishvara is real while jīva and jagat are unreal or illusory. The truth is that all three are mithyA. And he claims erroneously that “the phenomenal world hides brahman from our sight”. (He does later state that the word ‘Ishvara’ is used to refer to brahman and not to a creator – but why introduce such unnecessary confusion?)
On a number of occasions, it was apparent that the author did actually have the correct understanding. E.g. in the section on ‘The Reality that is Consciousness’, he provides a correct description of the concept of mithyA. But having used apavāda to remove the prior explanation, he then reverts to using words such as ‘illusory’ for the rest of the book, thus making confusion increasingly likely. Having explained what ‘mithyA’ actually means, why not then use this word henceforth?
He claims that Advaita is a science, with the knowledge collected by sages (through a “direct experience of reality” over the ages. This is NOT according to Shankara who maintains the stance that the Veda is apauruṣeya. In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (2.4.10), he says: “It is the eternally composed and already existent Vedas that are manifested like a man’s breath – without any thought or effort on his part. Hence, they are authority as regards their meaning, independently of any other means of knowledge.”
The author set out the book in chapters supposedly identifying the six ‘basic principles fundamental to Advaita’, “reusing the terms that Shankara himself used in his commentaries”. The last of these is ‘jīvanmukti-videhamukti’. But these are not terms that Shankara himself used and it is not really one of the ‘basic principles’ at all.
Regarding the fraught topic of the world disappearing on enlightenment, the author says:
“When the individual stops perceiving names and forms, the world will stop appearing. ‘yāvattāva dabhyupgamyate’ ‘yathā dŗṣṭam gŗhyate’ – commented Shankara many times.”
Not only are no references given to these ‘many times’ but the Sanskrit is not even translated, so most readers (including myself) will be none the wiser as to what the justification might be for this outrageous statement. The dream metaphor which is then given does not adequately explain anything.
And, just to confuse matters further, the author at another point makes the statement that “Even after we know that the world is only notional, we continue to experience it.” And then, just two paragraphs further on: “When ignorance disappears, all appearances (world and individual) will dissolve, without a trace, into Consciousness because they were only imagined to begin with!” One wonders if it is just the reader who is confused!
He later adds that, once the phenomenal world is ‘removed’, “there is nothing anymore that separates the individual from Consciousness. The individual will experience Self as Consciousness. There will no longer be any difference between the individual consciousness and the Absolute Consciousness.”
Apart from noting that there never was any difference in reality, my response to this was ‘where will the individual physically BE if the phenomenal world has been removed’??
In the section on ‘Action and Knowledge’, he reiterates the claim about duality ‘disappearing’ and still seeing it would be due to viparyaya or misapprehension. But a few sentences later he says that we must “strive to develop an uninterrupted homogeneous vision that is not distracted by the multiplicity of the phenomenal world”. How could it distract if it has disappeared? One assumes that he meant ‘apparent’ multiplicity but this sloppiness of expression is precisely what leads to confusion.
The lack of references is frustrating and damning. The author makes statements such as “If one has true Self-Knowledge, one should be seeing the One and not the many” and attributing them to Shankara, presumably to give them authenticity. But the lack of any reference means there is a real danger that they are likely to be taken as authentic by the reader when it may simply be the author’s misunderstanding being passed on.
Even when references are given, they do not obviously support the assertions. E.g. at one point it is claimed that “because of its dualistic nature, the mind is often described as being both incapable and capable of realizing the Universal Self”. The scriptural support is then given as Kena Up. 1.6: “That which is not known by the mind but by which the mind is known, know That to be brahman.” To my understanding, this is explicitly saying that the Self cannot be (objectively) known by the mind!
The practice of pravilāpana is referred to as being something to which Shankara refers but, again, no reference is given so that it is impossible to verify this claim. The idea of knowledge causing the world to ‘melt away’ is, however, quite unbelievable and totally inimical to reason. And Shankara does point out that what is said in scriptures cannot be held to contradict what is available to basic perception.
“…the validity of the Vedas lies in revealing what is beyond direct perception… Surely, even a hundred Vedic texts cannot become valid if they assert that fire is cold or non-luminous!” (bhavadgītā bhāṣya 18.66)
An unrelated (but equally incorrect) claim is made in the chapter on ‘Action and Knowledge’, namely that “According to Shankara, the only reason why we fail to grasp the Self… is due to prārabdha karma, the results of our past actions.” And “When prārabdha karma weakens and our practice intensifies, we will attain Self-knowledge.”
I really cannot imagine where this comes from. Since prārabdha karma continues after enlightenment, how could it possibly be the cause of non-enlightenment? Shankara explicitly says that prārabdha continues in, e.g. his bhāṣya-s on Chandogya Upanishad 6.14.2 and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 and Brahmasutra 4.1.15. And, in a later paragraph in the section on jīvanmukti, Rao makes it clear that he does understand how Shankara explains prārabdha.
In the chapter on ‘Liberation’, it is clear that Rao does actually understand and accept what Shankara says about it being ‘our very nature’, ‘ever-present’, ‘identity with the Absolute’, and that it is the same as Self-knowledge. So it is not at all clear why such misleading language is used throughout. He says accurately that “Self is already present and does not have to be newly acquired. The moment ignorance is removed, the Self is revealed.” But then, in the very next sentence spoils this by saying that “The moment Self is revealed, Self is experienced.”
As the book moves into describing videhamukti, it becomes increasingly incredible, speaking of the videhamukta (who, remember now no longer has a body or mind) ‘playing a dual role’: “He can transcend the world as well as being immanent in it.” “His Self transcends all objects and experiences only itself. This is a non-dual experience of the Self.” Yet it “experiences every object and Itself. This is a dualistic experience generated by the Self of its own free will.” !
The author claims that “I churned the vast ocean of Shankara’s knowledge, extracted the cream of his teachings, and presented them to you in this book. There is no scope for any discord whatsoever, I can say so without any hesitation.” I beg to differ! (With apologies to the translator who, I am sure, did a sterling job!)