samAdhi (part 1)

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

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’.

And later:

‘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!]

Read Part2

10 thoughts on “samAdhi (part 1)

  1. What Dennis says about Swami Satprakashananda and nirvikalpa samAdhi is correct in that it does not correspond with Shankara’s teaching in some important points. The former was a Neo-advaitist. Related to this, it has been written, ‘Ramakrishna Mission never transcended ethnicity in any absolute sense; instead, its distinctive teachings and structure brought it into complex negotiations with the various cultures it encountered, in India and in the West…’ Śaṅkara the Missionary.

    Can the same, or a similar, observation not be made with respect of Sw. Dayananda? I have the following, from a conversation with Suka a few years ago:

    ‘The advaitin blog:

    “The teaching of Sri Vachaspati Mishra (Bhamatikara) and Swami Dayananda is opposed to the Sampradaya of Shankara… Swami Dayananda (and Jaisankar), it would seem, belongs to Mandana’s Sampradaya not Shankara’s…the post-Shankara theories lead to a number of logical problems, already pointed out by Ramanuja in his 11th century critique of the Advaita school as he knew it (that is, the post-Shankara Advaita school). The critique of Ramanuja only applies to the standpoints of the post-Shankarites, and could have been avoided if the post-Shankarites had remained faithful to the teachings of Adi Shankara himself. And this critique makes way for the rise of the dualist schools. So, at least to some degree, the post-Shankara theories were responsible for the forming of rival Vedantic schools.”’

    The above would be consistent with the position (and teaching) of Sw. Satchidanandendra (SSS) as well as that of of Sw. Madhavananda and Hari Prasad Shastry, though I cannot be sure about the last two.

  2. I would be very surprised to hear that Swami D did not follow Shankara’s teaching in any significant point, Martin. Can you provide any example of this? (Otherwise the accusation has no value.) Of course, we know that divergencies occurred post-Shankara; the principal one being the bhAmatI and vivaraNa schools.

    Incidentally, you have to be careful now in using the term ‘neo-Advaitin’. Most people today understand that this refers to the ‘This is it’ satsang people who refute all traditional teaching, seekers and gurus alike. The term now used for the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda schools is ‘neo-Vedantin’.

    P.S. Are you sure that Shuka was not talking about Dayanand Saraswati (Swami Dayanand Saraswati)(1824–1883), founder of the Arya Samaj?

  3. (Sorry, my mistake: I meant Neo-Vedanta)

    Suka’s reply was that his guru is (or was) the current Sw. Dayananda, who, he said, belongs to the Shankara sampradaya via Vivarana. Also, that the Dayananda referred to above is probably a different one.

    ‘ from The Advaitin blog:

    “The teaching of Sri Vachaspati Mishra (Bhamatikara) and Swami Dayananda is opposed to the Sampradaya of Shankara… Swami Dayananda (and Jaisankar), it would seem, belongs to Mandana’s Sampradaya not Shankara’s…the post-Shankara theories lead to a number of logical problems, already pointed out by Ramanuja in his 11th century critique of the Advaita school as he knew it (that is, the post-Shankara Advaita school). The critique of Ramanuja only applies to the standpoints of the post-Shankarites, and could have been avoided if the post-Shankarites had remained faithful to the teachings of Adi Shankara himself. And this critique makes way for the rise of the dualist schools. So, at least to some degree, the post-Shankara theories were responsible for the forming of rival Vedantic schools.”’

    It is on record that “Mahamahopadhyaya R. Krishnamurthi Sastrigal, a former principal of the Madras Sanskrit College, once attended a seminar conducted by Swami Dayananda. In that Swami Dayananda severely criticised the views of Swami Satchidanandendra Sarasvati. Though Krishnamurthi Sastrigal is a follower of the traditional Acaryas and does not accept the views of SSS, he strongly resented Swami Dayananda’s criticism of SSS.Thus it turns out that Krishnamurthi Sastrigal who is an orthodox Brahmin and a traditional scholar is more open-minded than modern scholars who know English.”

  4. Dear Dennis, Martin

    In Hari Prasad’s commentary on Vivekachudamani he writes of v.355:
    “In the state of nirvikalpa samadhi, there is a slight consciousness of duality but it gives rise to no attachment and is not an obstacle. The triad of the knower, knowledge and the known does not appear in the form of duality”.

    Sri Candrasekhara of Sringeri, comments on Vicekachudamani, and does not depart from, or take issue with, the statements on nirvikalpa samadhi.

    His successor, Sri Abhinava Vidyatheertha has a chapter entitled nirvikalpa samadhi, which perhaps ‘squares the circle’ as it were:

    A: During nirvikalpa-samadhi the Atman is experienced. After emergence from that state, the experience gradually begins to fade. However, just after coming down from it, everything is perceived as Atman. Nothing distinct from the Atman is discerned. To cite an example, one feels, “1 am a big ocean. It is in me that the
    bubbles constituted by the world are produced.” The experience of nirvikalpa-samadhi must be had to be understood. Verbal descriptions are woefully inadequate. If one gets the experience of nirvikalpa-samadhi repeatedly, one’s jhana becomes stable. After the realisation becomes stable, the mind is destroyed and one becomes a jivanmukta.

    D: Why should one descend from nirvikalpa-samadhi ?

    A: If prarabdha is not exhausted one is obliged to emerge even from nirvikalpa-samadhi. We can find different illustrations for this in the Yoga-vasistha.

    D: Can one attain jnana without experiencing nirvikalpa-samddhi ?

    A: Jhana is nothing but the knowledge of one’s True nature. Technically, it can be obtained even through just vicara (enquiry). Nirvikalpa-samadhi is a wonderful means but it is improper to say that it is the only means.


  5. Dennis

    One other thought on Vivekananda’s “practical vedanta” as he called it. The focus of his talks was never to set up a philosophical argument about vedanta and / or the need for nirvikalpa samadhi, though he states he had such experiences. Indeed, in one talk, he quotes approvingly Ashtavakra’s “This verily is your bondage, that you are practising the attainment of samadhi”.

    His focus was on ‘practical vedanta’ – to bring it out of the caves and forests of Sankara’s renunciates, and to apply its realisation to daily life, for the upliftment of all. From his Jnana Yoga;

    “This is what Vedanta teaches: give up the world which you have conjectured, because your conjecture is based upon a very partial experience, upon very poor reasoning and upon your own weaknesses. Give it up. The world which we have been thinking of so long, is a false world of your creation. Give that up. Open your eyes and see that, as su h, it has never existed; it was a dream, Maya. What existed was the Lord himself”

    His emphasis in these teachings is to understand vedanta and its implication, and therefore shed the Maya, the delusion.

    “He who has nothing desire for himself – whom does he fear and what can frighten him? What fear has death for him? What fear has evil for him?”

    What further moksha can there be than this?

  6. “Only knowledge can give enlightenment: When the shAstra says that knowledge alone is mokSha, it does not amount to fanaticism. If I say eyes alone see colors, I am not a fanatic. There is fanaticism only when I propagate a belief, which is subject to negation, as the only truth, or hold onto one means as true while there are many equally valid options. When the self is mistaken for a limited being (saMsArI), nothing other than knowledge can save the person.” Swami Dayananda

  7. The advice of the renowned Shankaracharya of Sringeri or Dayananda? Not much of a contest. 🙂

  8. OK. Here are some quotations from Shankara, whose authority you do presumably recognize (?):

    “Just as, when a mother-of-pearl appears through mistake as a piece of silver, the non-apprehension of the former, although it is being perceived all the while, is merely due to the obstruction of the false impression, and its (subsequent) apprehension is but knowledge, for this is what removes the obstruction of false impression; similarly here also the non-attainment of the Self is merely due to the obstruction of ignorance. Therefore the attainment of It is simply the removal of that obstruction by knowledge; in no other sense it is consistent.” Br.Up. Bh. 1.4.7

    “When ignorance is eliminated and knowledge reaches its perfection, the state of identity with all, which is another name for liberation, is attained.” Br. Up. Bh. 4.3.20

    “One conclusion stands out with all certainty in the Gita as also the Upanishads – liberation can be had only of knowledge.” Intro to Bhag. Gita ch. 3

    “Therefore, when that ignorance is removed one abides in oneself. One’s ability to abide in one’s own true nature is called mokSha.” Taitt. Up. sambandha bhAShya

    “Only knowledge [of Brahman] can destroy ignorance; action cannot [destroy it] since [action] is not incompatible [with ignorance]. Unless ignorance is destroyed, passion and aversion will not be destroyed. Unless passion and aversion are destroyed, action arises inevitably from [those] faults. Therefore, for the sake of the final beatitude, only knowledge [of Brahman] is set forth here [in the Vedanta].” upadesha sAhasrI metrical part 1.6 – 7

    “The knowledge born out of the realization of the supreme Brahman instantly destroys ignorance…” Atma Bodha 46.

    “All this is a product of Brahman. Therefore he who knows that I am indeed the absolutely eternal Brahman, which is everything, and which exists in the mind of all living beings; such a wise person destroys the knot of ignorance, which has become as though knotted firmly by the subtle impressions, vAsanA-s in the mind brought about by avidyA.” Mund. Up. Bh. 2.1.10

    “Just as objects like pot etc. reveal themselves when light falls on them, so also in the presence of Atma j~nAna, born from shAstra pramANa, the ignorance cover having been removed from it, the AtmA becomes evident, as though it is revealing itself.” Mund. Up. Bh. 3.2.3

    “Moreover, those who know Brahman, and therefore understand what mokSha is, look upon the attainment of mokSha as the removal of saMsAra bondage only, in the form of ignorance etc.; mokSha is not a produce born of any action.” Mund. Up. Bh. 3.2.6

    “…by mere knowledge all the obstacles are gone. This is so because the only obstacle between the jIva and mokSha is in the form of ignorance. There is no other obstacle because mokSha is one’s eternal nature, and also one’s intrinsic nature.” Mund. Up. Bh. 3.2.9

    Finally, a point I am sure I have made elsewhere. nirvikalpa samAdhi is the final aim of Yoga philosophy. Patanjali, as the proponent of this philosophy, must himself have experienced nirvikalpa samAdhi many times. Presumably you agree? (If he didn’t, then why should we pay any attention to what he says??) And you claim that nirvikalpa samAdhi is the final realization of the non-dual reality? This being the case, how is it that Patanjali supports/propagates Yoga, which is a DUALISTIC philosophy? Also, Vyasa/Shankara refute Yoga philosophy in Brahmasutra 2.1.3.

  9. Another couple of references for you, Venkat:

    “Even in deep sleep and meditative absorption there is the natural gain of non-distinction, however at the time of waking, there is once again distinction just as before because false knowledge has not been removed.” BSB 2.1.9

    And you might want to read the entirety of Shankara’s sambandha bhAShya to the Taittiriya Up. In it, he systematically refutes the pUrvamImAsaka-s convoluted attempts to argue that karma-upAsana can give mokSha.

  10. Thanks Dennis – and I concur. Apologies, you might have misunderstood the impetus behind my quotes.

    I am also persuaded (what do I know?) that moksha is the removal of false knowledge. And I too am not that much interested in “experiences” which are inherently dualistic. I am in this suffering world, and seeking some experience of bliss seems to me just another desire, another escape – how can that be congruent with freedom, which we already are? And as Sri Atmananda said, nirvikalpa samadhi is no different from deep sleep – what is required is the vedantic analysis of such states.

    I just provided the quotes from respected teachers as a point of discussion on why they saw value in it. And it is interesting to note that Sri Abhinava noted that nirvikalpa samadhi was indeed not the only way to realisation.

    For me the gist of the Vivekanda quote also supports the position of understanding / knowledge in moksha. From what I have read of Vivekananda, he did not spend his time exhorting people to meditate in order to achieve nirvikalpa samadhi. The emphasis of his talks, was reinforcing ‘you are that’, you are already free and one with “God”, so behave as such.

    Best wishes,

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