Q. 388 – Proof of Methodology

Q: I read an article of yours in which you said that traditional Advaita is a “proven methodology.” You also say that it is impossible to tell if another person is enlightened. But if you can’t tell if someone is enlightened as a result of practicing Advaita, how can you say that Advaita is a “proven methodology”? What constitutes “proof”?

Responses from Martin and Dennis

A (Martin): There are two parts to the question: 1) what constitutes proof in the context of Advaita Vedanta; 2) What does the questioner mean by enlightenment.

1) Is a proof here the proficiency in discussing/remembering/debating on topics of this tradition shown by one who has followed it for x number of years?

Answer: That can hardly be a proof. Whether parrot-like or not, ability in this regard may show, at best, a degree of intellectual understanding in the areas discussed as well as, possibly, a good memory and lexical ability. A real proof would consist in bringing about a complete change in outlook on life, meaning an inner transformation in the way the person sees the world and reacts to it. Does he/she see themselves as a doer? This may not be evident to anyone other the one undergoing the change.

I answered this question in Quora along similar lines:

“A prevalent idea is that ‘the hallmark of the great sages such as those mentioned above [Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj] is that they have a transparent, translucent quality that emanates contentment and  peace.’  Many, however, will think that the translucent quality, etc. is a very subjective statement (Sufis call it barakah), hard or impossible to assess – it is, to be sure, ‘in the eyes of the beholder’. Quite a different opinion or assessment from the above is saying – and it has been said – that ‘if you pass by or come close to a self-realized person, you will not be able to notice that s/he is such, since there are no external signs to reveal it, the outward behavior appearing as quite normal or unexceptionable.’”

2) What does the questioner mean by enlightenment or self-realization? Is there such? There are different views on this and I prefer not to elaborate, other than repeating that it is – from the empirical or vyAvahArika point of view – an inner transformation which brings about peace of mind, serenity or impassibility, and all doubts and uncertainties being eliminated.

A (Dennis): It’s a combination of faith/trust and personal validation. Before you are yourself enlightened, you have to place trust in the teacher/writer/speaker. You base that trust upon personal knowledge, experience and reason but ultimately there has to be some ‘faith’ since the essence of what is being taught is not accessible to any other pramANa. Once your Self-ignorance is eliminated, of course, you then know that the teaching worked. This is the final ‘proof’. But then you also realize that this teaching would have worked in the same manner for your teacher and would similarly work for others. This ‘proves’ the methodology.

It is similar to some degree to hearing about a foreign country. You have faith in what you hear/read initially. When you go there yourself, what you have heard is found to be true. It is dissimilar to the extent that what you find on enlightenment is not subject to opinion or contradiction, since the truth is your Self and not known via any intermediate mechanism. And, of course, it is the same Self for every other jIva.

The reason why you may have doubts about this may be that you do not accept that ‘enlightenment’ is only certain knowledge, gained in the usual ways. It is not any ‘experience’.

If you are going to put provisional trust in a claim that ‘you are Brahman’ or ‘everything is Brahman’, then it is no big deal also putting provisional trust in the teacher being enlightened.

You can compare this with the ‘method’ of the neo-Advaitin ‘teachers’: they simply give you the bottom line truth without any gradual, supporting explanation. The traditional ‘path’ has an entire series of partial explanations, suited to the seeker’s current level of understanding. These are successively superseded in a manner which has been ‘proven’ to work for seekers for over a thousand years. The traditional seeker is always satisfied at each step of the way, whereas the neo-seeker is usually left bewildered and floundering.


2 thoughts on “Q. 388 – Proof of Methodology

  1. Nisargadatta Maharaj re: what would constitute as proof:

    Excerpted from Q: 74. Truth is Here and Now, I Am That, 1981 edition.

    “M: You refuse testimony as the proof of truth: the experience of others is of no use to you, you reject all inference from the concurring statements of a vast number of independent witnesses; so it is for you to tell me what is the proof that will satisfy you, what is your test of a valid proof?

    Q: Honestly, I do not know what makes a proof.

    M: Not even your own experience?

    Q: Neither my experience, nor even existence. They depend on my being conscious.

    M: And your being conscious depends on what?

    Q: I do not know. Formerly, I would have said: on my body; now I can see that the body is secondary, not primary, and cannot be considered as an evidence of existence.

    M: I am glad you have abandoned the l-am-the-body idea, the main source of error and suffering.

    Q: I have abandoned it intellectually, but the sense of being the particular, a person, is still with me. I can say: ‘I am’, but what I am I cannot say. I know I exist, but I do not know what exists. Whichever way I put it, I face the unknown.

    M: Your very being is the real.


    Q: How am I to answer? My sense of being proves only that I am; it does not prove anything which is independent of me. I am relative, both creature and creator of the relative. The absolute proof of the absolute truth — what is it, where is it? Can the mere feeling ‘I am’ be the proof of reality?

    M: Of course not. ‘I am’ and ‘the world is’ are related and conditional. They are due to the tendency of the mind to project names and shapes.


    M: You are like a child that says: Prove that the sugar is sweet then only I shall have it. The proof of the sweetness is in the mouth not in the sugar. To know it is sweet, you must taste it, there is no other way. Of course, you begin by asking: Is it sugar? Is it sweet? and you accept my assurance until you taste it. Then only all doubts dissolve and your knowledge becomes first hand and unshakable. I do not ask you to believe me. Just trust me enough to begin with. Every step proves or disproves itself. You seem to want the proof of truth to precede truth. And that will be the proof of the proof? You see, you are falling into a regress. To cut it you must put a stop to asking for proofs and accept, for a moment only, something as true. It does not really matter what it is. It may be God, or me, or your own self. In each case you accept something, or somebody, unknown as true. Now, if you act on the truth you have accepted, even for a moment, very soon you will be brought to the next step. It is like climbing a tree in the dark — you can get hold of the next branch only when you are perched on the previous one. In science it is called the experimental approach. To prove a theory you carry out an experiment according to the operational instructions, left by those who have made the experiment before you. In spiritual search the chain of experiments one has to make is called Yoga. ”


  2. When Advaita is described as a “proven methodology,” we are not talking about the type of “proof” that could be held to scientific standards. Rather, there have been countless reports by Advaitins down through the centuries that Self-Knowledge ended their suffering. It is the cumulative effect of these reports that allows us to refer to Advaita as a proven method for stopping the suffering that stems from Ignorance (Avidya). Naturally, a skeptic will not accept these reports and simply discount them. But for one with shradda (i.e, trust) in the scriptures and the tradition espoused by Shankara, it is possible to “prove” it to oneself by going to a teacher and following the triple method of shravana, manana, and nididhyasana. As to the issue of being able to know whether or not another is enlightened, a book could be written on this topic alone, without reaching a true resolution. My view, in brief, is that it is unwise to make any assumptions that an enlightened person looks, talks, or acts in a certain way after attaining Moksha. That person may or may not act in a way that we personally consider to be consistent (or not) with our preconceived image of an enlightened being. This is why it is appropriate to say that we cannot know for sure whether another has achieved Liberation-in-life.

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