Q.454 How should one live one’s life?

Q: One of the problems I encounter with Advaita is that, even though it makes sense and resonates with me, it does not help from the point of view of providing guidelines on how to live my life. If we consider Buddhism, for example, we find a clear path on how to live one’s live that goes in accordance with the deeper philosophical explanations of what reality is, etc.

This is the part in which I find myself discouraged and not knowing how to move forward. What could you tell me about this? What would you recommend that I read?

A: All of the guidance given by Advaita regarding ‘how to live’ is directed at preparing the mind so that it is optimally able to gain Self-knowledge. Once this has happened, you know that in reality there is no world, there are no persons. ‘Life’ is just the apparent movement of forms of Brahman.

An enlightened person will simply continue to operate according to prArabdha karma until death of that body-mind. Of course, cause and effect still operates at the empirical level. So, now knowing the truth and probably feeling sympathy for other apparent (and ignorant) jIva-s, there will be a tendency to behave more considerately towards them! If you look at someone like Swami Dayananda, you will see that he was not only a brilliant teacher but also very active in charitable works etc.

But the bottom line is that it is not really meaningful to talk about ‘how should a realized man behave’. The Bhagavad Gita has a chapter on how a realized man does behave, but that is more to do with recognizing such a person. Possibly the best text I have come across regarding the ‘life path’ of a seeker is jIva yAtra by Swami Jnanananda Bharati of Sringeri.

Swami Paramarthananda gave a 15-hour talk on this at a residential course some time ago. You can download these (http://hinduonline.co/AudioLibrary/Discources/LectureonJivaYatraParamarthananda.html) and they are very good, but there is a lot of Sanskrit in them (he breaks down each verse for the Sanskrit students). This is not a problem really, since you can just ignore those aspects if you do not understand them. You can also download a transcription of the talks (http://arshaavinash.in/index.php/download/jiva-yatra-swami-paramarthananda/).

8 thoughts on “Q.454 How should one live one’s life?

  1. I have immense respect for Buddhism. At the same time, I would like to clear some confusion here.
    Ramana Maharishi quotes:
    “Our own self-realization is the greatest service we can render the world”.
    So there’s one way of 8 fold noble path whereby we can attain the same realization. However, as Dennis mentions, Advaita emphasizes on “preparing your mind” to attain self knowledge.
    And “how a jnAni would live his life” is the question that becomes meaningless because every jnAni’s has got a different prArabdha that we do not (need not) know.
    In short, to answer above question: One should live life so that he realizes his true Self (or no self). How to come at this realization? By constantly rejecting the different illusions we perceive, the defects in our cognition (cognitive dissonance, cognitive biases, etc).

    I continue rejecting false notions and I am **not** worried about where does it lead me. Towards Brahman, or Emptiness……..!

    Now about the Ultimate Reality! It is (has to be) Brahman (advaita), or emptiness (buddhism), or potentiality (quantum mechanics) or whatever! Who cares?
    This is just academic, philosophical and extremely dry discussion/topic. Journey is important, and practical! Happy Journey!

  2. From the point of view of traditional Advaita metaphysics, inaction is the logical conclusion of a position that denies any value to this world. When asked how Vedanta can be of practical value in our everyday lives Swami Dayananda replied, “Vedanta is to be understood, it is not something you practice”. Since the enlightened still see the illusion after enlightenment they must act, but indifference to the welfare of others, the characters in the dream, is the only consistent response – otherwise the enlightened would be giving expression to an unenlightened point of view.

    Unlike Buddhism, where the conduct of the ideal sage necessarily embodies the highest standards of moral rectitude both in the spirit and in the letter, Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta does not present a moral value-system but a nonmoral one for aligning ourselves with the true nature of reality. Evaluative and factual problems are found for both the path to enlightenment and the enlightened state. The values center on an individual’s own quest for enlightenment, not concern for others’ welfare. As Dennis indicated, the metaphysics conflicts with the presupposition of morality that there is a reality toward which one can be other-regarding. Once we see that a rope is just a rope
    and not a snake, questions about what to do about the snake evaporate, and the same is true of “other people.”

  3. Hi Rick,

    You say that “indifference to the welfare of others, the characters in the dream, is the only consistent response”.

    How then do you explain Swami Dayananda’s devotion to helping others by founding the All India Movement (AIM)?

    Best wishes,

  4. Hi Dennis,

    I would not presume to explain “Swami Dayananda’s devotion to helping others”. By all traditional accounts Shankara himself was quite active in the realm of illusion, presumably after he was enlightened, in teaching, setting up centers for monks, and writing. He showed a real concern for the “realm of nescience.” What I would say is that Shankara’s (and Dayananda’s) practice did not conform to his (their) theories, in ways consistent with their vastly different historical and cultural milieus.

  5. Rick,

    The enlightened still have to live out their remaining prArabdha karma. They now know sarvam khalvidam brahmA and have no wish to fulfil personal desires so it is perfectly natural that the actions that are done, semingly by them, should be for the good of all.

    Bhagavad Gita 3.25 emphasizes: “As do the unwise with attachment, so should the wise act without attachment for the guidance of the world (loka-saṃgraham), O Bharata.”

  6. Thanks, Dennis. Those of us who accept the explanatory power of prarabda-karma and the moral efficacy of ‘sarvam khalvidam brahma’ and other mahavakyas may well be satisfied by what you say.

    As you know, according to Shankara the enlightening knowledge burns all actions (karma) that have not yet begun to produce fruit (phala), but it cannot stop the fruit of past actions that has begun to take effect (prarabdha-karma). How the enlightening knowledge does this and why it cannot destroy all fruit is not explained. But prarabdha-karma can even prevent knowledge from arising in one’s current embodiment, thereby preventing one’s enlightenment until the next life (BSB III.4.51). None of this fits with a strict nondualistic metaphysics, since it makes karma real in some sense.

    My point, vis a vis the question what guidance Advaita gives for living our lives, is that values on the traditional Advaita path are self-centered, but they are not moral (other-regarding) nor immoral and thus are nonmoral. 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 others, —as morality must be—would only be a reflection of their nescience, as I said before.

    I would suggest that Gita 3.25 “acting for the guidance of the world’ is not what we would call acting for the good of others. The enlightened can remain in society and become exemplars of proper conduct for the unenlightened by disinterestedly carrying out the prescribed rules and injunctions of the Hindu way of life. Another translation is ‘the wise shall act as one who wishes to keep the world together’. Cognates of this, such as ‘to preserve the world order’ are favored by Radhakrishnan and others. Seen from the perspective of worldly order, it does not matter how one acts, whether with or without attachment, since performing one’s duty is all that counts. One must become a ‘turner of the wheel’ of sacrifice in order to avoid sin and this can only be done by performing karman, ordained action for the sake of sacrifice, and thus maintaining the cosmos. It is only with regard to the prospect of individual liberation that detachment is important. This is emphasized in the next verse (3.26) which warns one not to ‘sow doubts’ (buddhibheda) among the ignorant. It is deemed better to be secretive about one’s insights than to cause turmoil in the minds of ordinary people.

    But basta!

  7. Rick

    You really seem not to understand the hypocrisy between your espoused “concern for others” and the actuality of people’s actions.

    You may have mastered the literature, but you really have not understood the fundamental human problem, or Advaita’s solution, at its essence.

    Our everyday lives are perpetuating a system of consumerism, impoverishment, never-ending wars and environmental degradation – all with the professed best of intentions. You no doubt also believe in American exceptionalism, its high purpose, and its rules-based world order.

    Not only is the world one of nescience, but so is the ego. If you have done any real reflection, you would understand that it is the ego that is the cause of sorrow – others as much as one’s own.

    And if the ego is not there – then true there may not be an impetus for any action . . . But the absence of action, in a world overflowing with selfish action in every aspect of our lives, is the only real virtue.

    Self-awareness is the light that one shines on one’s own ego and its mischief, and thereby brings it to an end. It goes to the root cause of evil.

    That is the liberation that is talked of. Eastern philosophies seem to have understood this deeply, not scholastically. In the Tao te Ching, there is a passage along the lines of when good arises then also does the bad, and:
    “When the Great Way disappears,
    We meet kindness and justice”

    JK addressed this well:

    I did not quite understand it – or Ramana Maharishi’s lack of involvement – when I was younger. But appreciate now that it is the only true virtue.

  8. One other point – for the jnani there may not be a world.

    But for the seeker, the viveka-vairagya, the process of detaching oneself from one’s own petty concerns, will as a indirect product, lead to less harm to the world, to others, less consumerism, less avarice. Arguably far more efficacious than setting up some societal-inspired ideal of virtue.

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