Q: I have been studying Advaita for the last 20 years. I have read multiple books on the subject and I am presently reading your book “Answers…” but have only read 213 pages so far.
The dilemma I have concerns praying or addressing myself to what I call ‘Infinite Consciousness’.
I start by asking that the veil of ignorance be lifted from the mind so that ‘what is’ may be revealed. Next, I give thanks for the day, for all things done, for animals and vegetables eaten and meaningful words read. But, in so doing, 3 questions have occurred:
- Adhering to the teachings of Advaita, I find myself asking: “Who am I praying to?” and
- “Who is praying?”.
- If I am simply an expression of ‘God’, am I addressing myself in these prayers (because if so, I have a huge issue with an ego inflating itself)?
A: Many traditional teachers, when they are beginning a class, recite along with the students a prayer from one of the Upanishads which some call the ‘teaching mantra’. And its aim is exactly how you describe it. It asks for divine blessing so that teacher and student may not have any obstacles to speaking-hearing-understanding what is being taught. See https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/8571/om-sahana-vavatu for example.
The ‘dilemma’ you describe is simply the dichotomy between the empirical realm of the world appearance (vyavahāra) and the actual non-dual reality (paramārtha). From the standpoint of the world, Advaita speaks about gods and creation as if that is how things actually are. As the seeker advances in understanding, ideas such as those are taken away until the final teaching is that there is no creation, no world, no gods, no jīva-s – there is only Brahman. Even that does not change the appearance. The enlightened ‘person’ still sees the world and moves about in it as though it were real, but knowing that it is mithyā. These terms are explained and questions answered relating to them later in the book.
So the answers to your questions are that:
- You are addressing a God, who is not you, when you pray. (But both are mithyā in reality.)
- You, the jīva, are the one praying, and you are not God when you pray. (But you will eventually realize that both you and God are mithyā and there is really only Brahman.)
- When you gain Self-knowledge and realize the truth, you will no longer need/want to pray. For the time being, there is no problem at all – stop worrying about it!
Admittedly prayer is not a hot topic in Advaitic literature, though Shankara does mention it in his commentary on Mundaka 3.2.3 where he says “the means to attain the self consists in praying (prarthana) for this consummation to the exclusion of all else.” The context here is the need to have a burning desire to be free from ignorance, and to pursue that desire until Brahman is directly known. According to Shankara, the self is realized by those who long for it deeply. One should pray for its knowledge and realization; only then does one’s sadhana prove to be effective in realizing the self.
In his commentary on the Balaki-vidya in chapter 4 of the Kaushitaki Upanishad the learned Swami Brahmananda of Rishikesh makes the following observation: “Prayer plays an important part in the scheme of Self-realization – prayer to that Self, the Absolute which alone has been dealt with directly or indirectly in this as well as in all other meditations. Is prayer possible in or to that Supreme which is one and non-dual, wherein the grammatical subject, predicate and object do not exist as separate entities, wherein the triad of the devotee who prays, the act of praying and the god to whom he prays coalesce into the pure Consciousness, wherein the transcendental and the immanent lose their significance, wherein ‘doing’ and ‘being’ are identical? This question of possibility and impossibility should not and will not arise, as this pair of opposites, viz. the ‘possible’ and the ‘impossible’ , dissolves along with all the remaining similar pairs. So the seekers should pray to the Absolute which is ‘dur-darsam, ati-gambhiram, ajam, samyam, visaradam, ananatvam padam – perceivable only with difficulty, being inscrutable, which is profound and unfathomable like an ocean to the non-discriminating, which is birthless and therefore deathless, homogeneous and holy, which is one and non-dual’ and bow down to It, bringing It as it were within the range of empirical dealings, though it defies all empiricism.”