Experience versus knowledge – a brief look at samAdhi
I do not know an awful lot about neo-Vedanta. The term is generally applied to the teaching ‘introduced’ by Swami Vivekananda and carried on by the disciples of the Ramakrishna movement. There has been much written on this topic (which I have obviously not read!) and those who are interested will know that there are many contentious issues. Refer, for example to the book ‘Neo-Vedanta and Modernity’ by Bithika Mukerji, which may be read or downloaded at http://www.anandamayi.org/books/Bithika2.htm.
However, one aspect that I am aware of is that neo-Vedanta claims that enlightenment is attained through the experience of nirvikalpa samAdhi. They also insist that Shankara himself stated this, whereas what I would call ‘traditional’ Advaitins believe that Shankara’s teaching was that it is self-ignorance that obscures our understanding of the truth and that only self-knowledge can remove it. Thus, one of the key issues around the topic of neo-Vedanta is that of experience versus knowledge. Accordingly, at the risk of inciting acrimonious discussions (!), I would like to look briefly at this assertion that samAdhi is a sine qua non for enlightenment.
There is an excellent book called ‘Methods of Knowledge according to Advaita Vedanta’ by Swami Satprakashananda of Advaita Ashrama. If you want to find out about Advaita epistemology without having to read anything too academic, this is the book for you! But he was a member of the Ramakrishna order so that it is inevitable some of his ideas will reflect their particular views. Here is what he says about nirvikalpa samAdhi:
“This is the acme of spiritual experience, according to non-dualistic Vedanta, and is called ‘nirvikalpa samAdhi‘, being free from all ideation. As stated by Shankara, ‘the truth of brahman is clearly and decisively realized by nirvikalpa samAdhi, and not by any other way, in which it is apt to be mixed up with alien ideas because of the fluctuation of the mind’.”
“‘The illumined one realizes in his heart, through samAdhi the Infinite brahman which is something of the nature of immutable consciousness and pure bliss… which is free from the relation of cause and effect… which is undecaying and immortal…’” and so on.
All of these quotations are alleged to be by Shankara but are taken from the vivekachUDAmaNi, which most experts are now agreed was not written by Shankara.
In a later chapter, he states: “Meditation on the self is the direct approach to brahman. Its culmination is immediate experience. Scriptural study, reasoning, and all other disciplines are subsidiary means.” And he has a section entitled: “The process of meditation that leads to the realization of brahman in nirvikalpa samAdhi”.
As an example of the sort of scriptural reference that is used to justify this attitude, Mundaka Upanishad II.2.3 is quoted (this is also duplicated in the Katha Upanishad I.2.23): “This Atman cannot be attained by the study of the Vedas, nor through intelligence, nor by much hearing of the sacred texts. He who chooses Atman–by him alone is Atman attained. To him this Atman reveals its true nature.” But again, the interpretation of such text is supported by quotations from the vivekachUDAmaNi, such as: “For one who has been bitten by the serpent of ignorance, the only remedy is the knowledge of brahman. Of what avail are the Vedas and the shAstra-s, mantras, and medicines to such a one? A disease does not leave off if one simply utters the name of the medicine, without taking it; similarly, without direct knowledge one cannot be liberated by the mere utterance of the word brahman.” (VC 61-2)
But this Mundaka mantra is translated rather differently by Swami Dayananda: “The Self is neither gained by mere recitation of Veda, nor by mere memory, nor by mere study of many disciplines of knowledge (or by repeated listening to Vedanta without the right teacher). The person who chooses to know the Self gains it. Then the Self reveals its nature to that person.” The word pravachana can mean oral instruction or teaching, a system of doctrines expounded in a dissertation or sacred writing but, here, Swami Dayananda insists that it refers to the way that the student repeats the chants of mantras after the teacher and eventually commits everything to memory so that it can be repeated verbatim – such a procedure clearly does not enable one to attain Self-realization. Simply chanting or repeating the words cannot make any difference. One has to see the meaning clearly – hence the recommendation that one hears them from someone who understands them backwards and has the proven ability to explain them to the student.
And – here is the key point – one has to want to understand. In talking about the person ‘who chooses to know the Self’, the Upanishad is referring to mumukShutva – the deep and driving desire for liberation to the exclusion of all other pursuits in life. It is not implying that the words of the scripture are not up to the job, and that one has rather to go away and meditate. But the words will only have their effect if the seeker genuinely wants to know the truth. One has to convert the desire for freedom into the desire for Self-knowledge. And that conversion itself comes about as part of the process of hearing the words from a qualified teacher.
There is no doubt that vivekachUDAmaNi talks about nirvikalpa samAdhi. But the way in which verses are translated does seem to depend upon one’s prior point of view. Here is how Swami Madhavananda translated Verse 70 in the 1918 edition of the Ramakrishna Math publication ‘Prabuddha Bharata’ (note that verse numbers vary slightly depending upon which translation you are looking at):
“Then come hearing, reflection on that, and long, constant and unbroken meditation on the truth for the muni (man of reflection). After that, the learned seeker attains the supreme nirvikalpa state and realizes the bliss of nirvana even in this life.” And he includes the following note to explain the meaning of the ‘nirvikalpa state’: “that state of the mind in which there is no distinction between subject and object, all the mental activities are held in suspension, and the aspirant is one with his Atman. It is a superconscious state, beyond all relativity, which can be felt by the fortunate seeker, but cannot be described in words. The utmost that can be said of it is that it is inexpressible Bliss, and pure Consciousness. nirvANa, which literally means ‘blown out’, is another name for this.”
We can contrast this with the commentary by Hari Prasad Shastri: “Next comes listening to the metaphysical texts of the Veda, then pondering over them, accompanied by longer, regular and unbroken meditation on their content by the Sage. Then the enlightened one passes beyond the vagaries of the mind here in this very life and attains the joy of nirvANa.” And his further explanation is as follows: “Let us understand from Shri Shankara AchArya himself the system of the cognition of the Self. First the truth is known from scriptures and the AchArya. This is known as shravaNa, listening. Then follows reasoning and logical corroboration (manana); and in the end it is spiritual contemplation (nididhyAsana) which leads to the direct experience… the spiritual experience of the cognition of self is possible only through nididhyAsana.” It can be seen that, here, there is no mention of nirvikalpa samAdhi at all.
The word that is actually there in the verse is tato.vikalpam, which means ‘that (tat) without distinction (avikalpam)’, i.e. non-dual and is nothing to do with samAdhi at all. (To be fair, the word nididhyAsana does not appear either; the word used for ‘meditation’ is dhyAna. But the words ‘hearing’ and ‘reflection’ are used also so, if the text were by Shankara, we would naturally expect that the meditation referred to equated to nididhyAsana.)
[As an aside, all of this does make one realize two things. Firstly, it is very important whom one chooses as a teacher. Secondly, it can be extremely useful to know a little Sanskrit!]