Q: Over the past eight years I have developed a personal relationship with a God of my understanding – or should I say with a God of my non understanding and I know that the term God is loaded and perhaps not word enough. I love God and naturally want to be with God.
I have some experience of Hinduism and spent time studying Buddhism, I even spent time living at a Buddhist center while going about my ordinary business of work, life and family. I couldn’t continue with Buddhism even though they were wonderful people because in my heart I knew it was not the right path for me and I felt conflicted. I returned to my love of Hindu practices because it felt more right for me and over the past two years I have tried to find my way. I have deepened my understanding through reading books, internet teachings on you tube and meditation.
More recently I have ventured upon Advaita Vedanta and it feels right for me. However, I have no teacher and no one to ask when I have questions. Sometimes it all gets a bit too non dual for me and I feel disconnected from the love part with all the philosophy and intellectual explanations. I experienced the grace of God eight years ago when I was in a desperate plight and Divine Grace is an absolute for me. What I want to know is how does Grace happen, is it Brahman or Divine consciousnesses. Thank you for any time and consideration you might give to answer my question.
A (Ramesam): Congratulations, for you have arrived at the right place with the right questions! All the background experience you have had thus far and the mental processing you have done have undoubtedly done good as can be seen from the way you could expressively articulate yourself. Let me try to answer your doubts from an Advaita perspective.
Divinity, Grace, God, Love, Peace, Consciousness, Awareness etc. are just the other names for brahman, which is described as sat-chit-Ananda in Advaita texts. But sat-chit-Ananda is not some ‘thing’ in some unknown place existing forever, always conscious and constantly happy. It is not like any physical ‘entity’ we come across in our daily life. sat-chit-Ananda is the very Existence Itself. It is also the very Consciousness as well as Happiness. In fact, Existence, Consciousness and Happiness are not considered to be three different things. The three are the pointers to one and the same thing. It is like saying that the heat, light and brilliance are not different from the Sun. Therefore, we write It as one hyphenated word – Existence-Consciousness-Happiness.
sat-chit-Ananda or Existence-Consciousness-Happiness or brahman is not something that comes and goes. It is also not something that’s available only in some place and absent elsewhere. Hence, brahman or Grace never disappears and is present everywhere and everywhen! And surprise, surprise, “You” are yourself none other than that brahman‼ Advaita is the only one philosophy which could state this so confidently and boldly unlike any other philosophy or religion in the entire world!
But there is a subtle twist here. Whenever we normally refer to a ‘you’ or ‘me’, we think that we are referring to the limited body and mind which I call as ‘myself.’ Advaita teaches us that this is a mistaken view. The real “You” is that “sentience” or “sensitivity” because of which you are able to read this on your computer, are aware of things and know and understand all things. It is because of that ‘sentience’ only, you are able to see and know your body also. In other words, the real “You” is not the body or mind which are also seen by you, as you see and know other things like the computer, the chair your body is sitting on now, the wall in your room, the tree in the garden or the bird that is chirping on the tree. So the “real” you is not any object perceived by you, but the subject, the perceiver or that ‘quality’, of perceiving.
Normally, in all your activities, you pay your attention all the time towards something out there external to you. That is the way you think happiness or fulfillment is derived. We feel sad and unhappy when the expectation fails because the external object does not seem to provide happiness anymore. In addition to that, if something unwanted happens unexpectedly, we feel terrible, our misery gets doubled. We then begin to recognize that happiness is not out there in external things. Our attention turns inwards and we embark on a course of introspection. The stretching of our mind outwards towards remote things in search of happiness ceases. The mental tension eases a bit when the mind during the self-examination seems to dissolve into its ‘source’ instead of stretching itself outward for a few moments. That ‘source’ is the true “You.” Therefore, those so called unfortunate conditions of ‘plight’ themselves are the harbingers of Grace. Depending on the circumstances of the situation and our experience at that time, we describe brahman by different names as Grace, God, Divinity etc.
Hence we do not have to really run after an imaginary God or Grace supposed to be present at some distance somewhere out there. The Grace is right with you, in you, as you!
Just turn your attention inwards.
Be aware of that “Awareness” because of which
(i) you are able to know things including your body and mind, and
(ii) you realize, without the need of any external proof, that you exist and also simultaneously that you are conscious of your existence.
To be aware of this “Awareness” is the true meditation. Abidance as that “Awareness” is the highest Meditation. Rupert Spira expresses this in a memorable one liner: Meditation is not what you do, meditation is what you are!
A (Martin): If your background is Indian, you have much advantage over a Westerner, given that you also have an interest in Advaita Vedanta. Hindu tradition is rich in manifestations of beauty and worship in many forms. Any image of God or a deity is the Divine Itself presenting Itself to one (the devotee or worshiper), albeit the individual person usually has a preference for a particular deity. But you, doubtless, must know all this.
As per the Bhagavad Gita, “It is only through devotion that I can be known in this way [the form it presented Itself to Arjuna]. Only through devotion to me alone can I be known and seen as I really am and entered into…
Whoever performs his actions for my sake, whoever makes me his highest goal, whoever devotes himself to me, without attachment and without hostility toward anyone – Arjuna, such a man comes to me.” 11.54-55
“For in fact wisdom is better than practice, and meditation is better than wisdom. Abandoning the fruit of action is better than meditation, for from this abandonment peace follows immediately.” 12.12 (transl. George Thompson).
The way of non-duality, jnana yoga, is hardest, according to the Gita (ibid. 12.5), and it is often recommended to seekers to go through a long period of karma yoga, as in the previous paragraph; this would be a necessary preparation. Then, in my opinion, ‘time will tell’: one should not worry about anything, leaving all things in the hands of God or Providence – one is being guided, rather than making decisions for oneself. Thus, things will necessarily change along with changing circumstances, and confidence, trust (or faith), are important elements. It is as if everyone’s destiny is already drawn.
One’s temperament (svarupa) and vocation are, by and large, determining factors as to which of the three (or four) ways to follow – or be drawn to.
Reading any of the Upanishads, and/or some of the shorter writings of Shankara (prakaranas) should be very inspiring. The Gita requires a degree of maturity or experience, and could be left for later (our friend here, Ramesam, has made recommendations along these lines).
Finally, let yourself be penetrated by Shankara’s ‘Soundarya lahari’.
A (Venkat): Grace implies some kind of unmerited blessing from God. So something ‘beneficial’ happens that was unasked for and is inexplicable as to its cause. In many ways this is also mixed up with the debate around free will and destiny – do we have control over whatever happens, or is it just random occurrences or some pre-determined fate that we need to go through.
In Hinduism the concept of God is used in the early stages to help guide people initially to lead an ethical life, and subsequently to increasingly question the values / desires / fears that we hold dear. At this point grace is often referred to, typically in the context of events in one’s life that precipitate a crisis and consequently a more contemplative stance, and also the arrival of a guru / teacher that can lead the student to ‘higher’ truths.
As this understanding develops, one arrives at advaita vedanta – the culmination of hinduism. In this one learns that the individual self that we think we are is illusory, and in fact we are not, and cannot be, separate from God / Brahman / divine consciousness, or indeed anything else in the perceived universe. For if we are separate from God, then that would imply a limitation to God’s omnipresence and omniscience. Consequently, in this context, grace as defined becomes untenable, since if you are non-separate from God, who is to give grace to whom?
Sri Ramana Maharshi, considered one of the great Advaita masters of the 20th century, commented:
“Sometimes in his life a man becomes dissatisfied and, not content with what he has, he seeks the satisfaction of his desires through prayer to God. His mind is gradually purified until he longs to know God, more to obtain his grace than to satisfy worldly desires. Then, God’s grace begins to manifest. God takes the form of a guru and appears to the devotee, teaches him the truth and, moreover, purifies his mind by association. The devotee’s mind gains strength and is then able to turn inward. By meditation it is further purified and it remains still without the least ripple. That calm expanse is the Self. . . There is no difference between God, Guru and the Self.
There is a book called ‘The path of Sri Ramana’ by Sadhu Om, in 2 volumes, which is worth reading if you have the interest. The first volume refers to the path of knowledge and the second to the path of devotion and love. I would recommend reading the second volume first.
A (Sitara): Thank you for your very relevant question. Please be so kind as to first follow me through the clarifications of some basic things.
It is important to understand what is god especially for someone who feels drawn to Advaita Vedanta and, at the same time, loves and cherishes his/her personal god, Ishtadevata. Shankara himself has never abolished god or prayer and every Vedanta scripture or class starts with a prayer. So in Advaita Vedanta both, knowledge of non-duality and love of god, can go beautifully hand in hand. The only thing that is needed for the Advaita student is the understanding of what exactly is god.
Brahman is beyond any duality, it is sat – chit – ananta, pure existence, pure consciousness, limitlessness. It is absolute fullness, purna, and therefore absolute bliss (ananda). It is sarvagatta (all pervading) and one (eka).
So being all of the above and beyond, Brahman is not a devata (god). To call Brahman “god” (as some do) is a little confusing. But Brahman being all of the above and beyond means Brahman is gods, humans, all living and non-living entities in the universe; and nothing of all this would be appearing without the Brahman-principle being their very essence.
Brahman is sat (absolutely real). Devatas, jivas and whatever else are mithya (relatively real). But mithya in the final analysis is sat alone. – It is crucial to understand satya and mithya but I will not expand on this here. You will find many useful explanations in this website, and please feel free to ask more questions. We will be happy to do our best at clarifying doubts.
By all appearances, we (being mithya) live in a mithya world, i.e. we are born, grow, decline and die. We live in a reality limited by space and time, we have family, friends, a home, a certain world view, emotions of all kinds, ideas and concepts. Some of us like this better than that; others like that better than this. Some deeply enjoy being with their god, others do not like the concept of god at all.
Advaita is not so much concerned about whether you worship god or not but is asking: Who are you? The key question of Advaita is: what is it you are identified with? Who do you consider yourself to be?
You can identify yourself as a devotee (or a father, a business man, a student etc.). This means you are identified with some mithya entity. Or you may enjoy worshipping god without the belief that who you truly are is a devotee. (Respectively you may enjoy your children, your work, your study without the belief that who you truly are is a father, a business man or a student. )
This means you are going beyond the identification with the mithya world and moving towards the understanding that you are satya. Identification starts to shift.
In Advaita Vedanta “god” is the sum total of all natural laws and the perfect order they form – which seems to manifest as a subtle and gross universe. Ishvara (god), man/woman (jiva) and world (jagat) are all form. All of this in its essence is nothing but Brahman alone. The name for Brahman appearing as form is Saguna Brahman.
Worshipping a devata means that we have chosen one of the myriads of forms as a symbol in order to worship Saguna Brahman – devata, Saguna Brahman and oneself, all belonging to the same order of reality, which is dual and therefore mithya.
In the end your identity irrevocably shifts to who you truly are: Nirguna Brahman, Brahman beyond form. You may continue to enjoy worshipping Saguna Brahman in the form of your Ishta devata. But you know in every situation of your life and without a shadow of a doubt that even your devata is non-different from who you truly are.
If you are a seeker and not a jnani yet, I consider you very very lucky to being in love with your god and enjoying your rituals. This is karma yoga and upasana yoga, both of which will help you tremendously in your spiritual development. It calms the mind, you gain chitta shuddhi. And it helps you to develop many of the qualities of chatushtaya sampatti: vairagya, shama, dama, uparati, titiksha, shraddha, samadhana and mumukshutvam. Chitta shuddhi and those qualities are a necessary prerequisite for Jnana Yoga or Advaita Vedanta. So, please do go on with your practice!
Yet, there is one quality that even though it may be supported by karma yoga and worship, in its final completion it will be accomplished by Vedantic study alone. This quality is viveka, the ability to distinguish or discriminate. Your saying “I feel disconnected from the love part with all the philosophy and intellectual explanations” means that you are struggling with this one quality. But you do need viveka. Without it there is no way to find the answer to the question: Who am I? Please go ahead and develop more viveka.
How? Your intellectual understanding will deepen by study and by questions to a teacher who knows what he/she is talking about. There is no need at all to leave “the love part” but by itself it will not lead you to self-realization. Complete the love part and all that it contributes to your spiritual path by improving viveka. You need to think things through to the very end, apply rigorous logic until you really understand. You will become very particular about what you read or hear. This may be akin to starting up fitness training. At first it may seem uncomfortable and even strange to use your intellect that much in spiritual matters. But it soon will become clear how very rewarding this is.
“I have no teacher and no one to ask when I have questions.”
Pray for help and help will come. In fact it is already coming!
Now your question:
“How does Grace happen, is it Brahman or Divine consciousnesses.”
Grace is the work of the divine, meaning the result of the sum total of all natural laws and the perfect order they form. Grace and the divine and the recipient of grace are mithya, relatively real.
As explained, mithya in the final analysis is satya alone. So for who you truly are there is neither grace nor need for grace, neither god nor what you now call yourself: me, the lover of god. There is only Brahman.
And: Once you know yourself to be Brahman there is nothing but grace.
A (Dennis): The answers from the others above are much superior to my attempts (I am afraid I missed out on these aspects in my path!) I have always followed the dry intellectual approach and the brief paragraph below was my best attempt. You should probably ignore it and, instead, re-read the other answers!
It does seem that you are motivated by emotional rather than intellectual concerns. Advaita does initially cater for all outlooks but, as one progresses to the ‘path of knowledge’ or ‘Self inquiry’ (j~nAna yoga or Atma vichAra), it is inevitable that reason must take over from emotions. Advaita does not, ultimately, advocate the notion of a personal God. Such a God would necessarily be limited and the non-dual Brahman of Advaita is Consciousness-Existence, without any limit because there is nothing else.