ROLE OF “REPETITION” IN SPIRITUAL INSTRUCTION, PRACTICE AND UNDERSTANDING — 1
All of spiritual instruction and learning has two aspects or dimensions: The Theory and Praxis – a doctrine to understand and a method to practice, so that the former may dawn in the seeker’s mind as an experiential realization of his/her own. In advaita Vedanta the goal is to understand the Reality by dispelling the misunderstanding. The final understanding to arrive at is that there is no essential distinction between the jiva (individual self) and Atman (Universal Self), and further, that Atman, the Self, is Brahman (its cosmic extension, as it were). Here the two terms of the polarity, subject-object, get obliterated, given the intuition (anubhUti, akhandAkAra vRtti) that reality is One. Knowing and Being are no longer distinguishable from one another, when Happiness shines self-effulgently and this is encapsulated in the three-pronged expression, sat-chit-Ananda.
The method of imparting the above Non-dual message is usually by teaching (through gradual and progressive steps) so that the seeker intuitively grasps the Reality, the ‘what Is’. Normally a teacher is required for this education; otherwise, the scriptures (basically the prasthAnatraya; the purANas and specific treatises likes the prakaraNa grantha-s being the accessories) are the source to which one can access again and again. Saying ‘again and again’ implies repetition… or does it? Repetition of what?
The word ‘repetition’ appears constantly (repeatedly) in the Upanishads in different contexts, and not always with the same meaning or intent. It is an important notion – advice, injunction, or command, as the case may be – and thus it is equally important to understand its possible, various meanings and intentions, in the elucidation of which the context has to be taken into consideration.
Distinctions should be made between 1) pure (‘mechanical’) repetition, 2) repetition of reading/listening ( shravaNa), 3) constant or repeated reflection (manana), 4) repetition cum contemplation (nididhyAsana), and 5) repetition of the teaching (by a teacher) from different angles.
There is also the question of emphasis surrounding the terms and expressions listed above as used in the different translations of the Upanishads and other texts. Is there an, even slight, bias (e.g. towards invoking a God and a theistic approach in contrast to an emphasis of pure Non-duality) on the part of the translator? In some cases there is no ambiguity concerning the meaning of the injunction, etc., but in many other cases it is not that clear. An example of the first kind is:
‘Constant meditation with the help of the symbol OM’, as the example of the two pieces of fire-wood being brushed against each other in the svetAshvatara Up. This type of meditation is called ‘aham-graha upAsana’.
Is constant meditation, or constant reflection, merely a repetitive act? Or does it become a habit of mind, and spontaneous at that, that is, without the concourse of the willful effort?
Some of the related questions in this context that need to be dealt with but not considered here are: Who meditates, reflects, repeats, etc.? If involuntary, spontaneous, do contemplation and reflection appear in the mind as vRtti/s under the influence of the reflected I-consciousness? One should add: in a prepared mind.
In this connection, one could refer to the three guNas or qualities (sattva, rajas, and tamas), and also to the three temperaments motivated or determined by them or a combination there of (paralleled in Neo-Platonism by the pneumatic, psychic, and hilic temperaments or constitutions). The different temperaments are illustrated in the story we find in brihadAraNyaka upanishad. (V, 2, 1-3) where a reference is made to the three types of beings: godly, human, and ungodly (described as Gods, men, and demons) who approached Prajapati for instruction; they had to answer what they understood by the syllable ‘da’ pronounced by Him. The answers – all correct – were, ‘self-control’ (damayata), ‘charitable’ (datta), and ‘compassionate’ (dayadhvam) respectively, which correspond to their proclivities, so as to reinforce good qualities in each of the groups or categories.
Shankara gives us guidance with regard to the role that repetition can play in his commentary at the beginning of the Fourth chapter of brahma sUtra-s. The relevant part as depicted by two translators is quoted below:
1. “There may be people that are so advanced, and so little attached to the world of sense objects, that in their case a single hearing of the statement may result in Knowledge. But generally such advanced souls are very rare. Ordinary people, who are deeply rooted in the idea of the body and the senses, do not realize the truth by a single enunciation of it. This wrong notion of theirs goes only through repeated practice of the truth, and it is only then that Knowledge dawns. So repetition has the effect of removing this wrong notion gradually, till even the last trace of it is removed. When the body consciousness is completely removed, the Self manifests Itself in all purity” (BSB 4.1.2, trans. by Swami Vireswarananda).
‘Repeated practice of the truth’… Meaning? However, in the sUtra at 4.1.1, the words used are: ‘repeated instruction’… ‘repetition of the mental act’… in meditation and reflection.
2. “For him, on the other hand, who does not reach that intuition all at once, we admit repetition, in order that the desired intuition may be brought about. He also, however, must not be moved towards repetition in such a way as to make him lose the true sense of the teaching, ‘Thou art that.’ In the mind of one on whom repetition is enjoined as a duty, there arise infallibly notions opposed to the true notion of Brahman, such as ‘I have a claim on this (knowledge of the Self) as an agent; this is to be done by me.’ But if a learner, naturally slow-minded, is about altogether to dismiss from his mind the purport of the sentence, because it does not reveal itself to him, it is permissible to fortify him in the understanding of that sense by means of reasoning on the texts relative to repetition and so on.–All this establishes the conclusion that, also in the case of cognitions of the highest Brahman, the instruction leading to such cognition may be repeated” (emphasis added) – BSB 4.1.2, trans. by G. Thibaut.
It is evident from these two quotations that Shankara relented from his position (that for the person well prepared and intelligent there is no need of repetition) in the case of slow learners – whatever their limitations as a cause for that – “who have not comprehended the terms of the proposition ‘Thou art That’”. It is only for these (a multitude? – time periods, prevailing culture, and possibly geography being relevant here) that repetition of shravana and manana are necessary.
The post-commentators Mandana and Vacaspati insisted on repetition even after the dawn of right knowledge, something contradicted by Suresvara (“avidya having been already sublated, can never sublate vidya” – Nai. 1-38). Sri Satchidanandendra Saraswati, the source for this quotation, adds this comment: [The above position] “will be readily seen to be a fight with one’s own shadow” – ‘The Vision of Atman’, p.50.
As per the second quote above, it is to be noted that what Shankara advocated in the cases referred to was repetition of shravana and instruction or reasoning, not just a mechanical repetition of a formula. This is confirmed by the following (also from 4.1.2):
Repetition would indeed be useless for him who is able to cognize the true nature of Brahman even if enounced once only in the sentence ‘Thou art that.’ But he who is not able to do that, for him repetition is of use. For this reason the teacher in the Chândogya, having given instruction in the sentence ‘Thou art that, OSvetaketu,’ and being again and again asked by his pupil–‘Please, sir, inform me still more’–removes his pupil’s reasons for doubt, and again and again repeats the instruction ‘Thou art that.’ We have already given an analogous explanation of the passage ‘The Self is to be heard, to be thought, to be reflected upon.’–But has not the pûrvapakshin [the objector] declared that if the first enunciation of the sentence ‘Thou art that’ is not able to effect an intuition of its sense, repetition will likewise fail of the desired effect?–This objection, we reply, is without force, because the alleged impossibility is not confirmed by observation. For we observe that men by again and again repeating a sentence which they, on the first hearing, had understood imperfectly only, gradually rid themselves of all misconceptions and arrive at a full understanding of the true sense.