Mistakes and Misconceptions In Vedantic Investigation – 2/2

Part – I

Historically, Buddhism and Zen came to the West prior to the Advaita philosophy. Their teachings made a deep impact on the Western mind. Particularly, the Mountain and River Sutra and the Return of the Bull to the Market are well-remembered today even by those who moved on to the Advaita philosophy. The Mountain and River Sutra runs something as follows:

“When I first began to practice, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. As I trained, mountains were not mountains; rivers were not rivers. Now that I am established in the way, mountains are once more mountains and rivers are once more rivers.”

However, when viewed from an Advaita philosophy angle, the last line above gets modified roughly as: ‘Now that I am established in the Advaita way, I find that mountains are the Self, rivers are Self, and there is Self Alone and no second (thing).’ In the second story too, the fulfilled seeker would usually end up with no interest in the market or conducting transactions within it, because his/her sense of doership – experiencership (kartrutva – bhoktrutva) doesn’t continue after Self-realization is fully achieved.

But the Western Advaita teachers like to hold that “nothing needs to change” on the attainment of Self-realization and that the multifaceted world and their interactions within it will continue. In order to buttress their argument, they tell us that Ramana quotes Shankara to say that, “brahman is the universe” and being already brahman, the world cannot get affected. From their own personal code of conduct and behavior (see The Pre-requisites, we referred to in Part – 1), an observer gets the impression that they would, as though, like to keep their one leg entrenched in the dualistic world and its allurements.

[Note: True, nothing needs to change ‘out there.’ But a change does happen in one’s “vision” after Self-realization, as we will see towards the end of this article.] 

The Ramana quote claiming brahman is the world does sound a bit strange; It’s like saying all Gold is ring. But did not Shankara Continue reading

Mistakes and Misconceptions In Vedantic Investigation – 1/2

Shankara, the 7th-8th CE AcArya and unquestionably the biggest exponent of Advaita, maintains that:

नोत्पद्यते विना ज्ञानं विचारेणान्यसाधनैः 

यथा पदार्थभानं हि प्रकाशेन विना क्वचित्      —  11, aparokShAnubhUti.

Meaning: Knowledge of the Self is not brought about by any other means than inquiry, just as an object is nowhere perceived without the help of illumination.

Thus, “inquiry” or “investigation” is the unique and incomparable tool available for a committed seeker in search of Truth in the Advaita philosophy. The prominent trio of Advaita teachers of the 20th century popularized this method of approach called ‘Self-inquiry’ through what they often referred to as the Direct path. With its simplicity of expression and the promise of directness of access to the Self, the Direct path attracted many Westerners into its fold, resulting in a mushrooming of teachers, more condensed processes like Neo-Advaita, and even premature declarations of attainment of the Self.

Alas, people have totally forgotten what Shankara said in a verse just ahead of the one quoted at the beginning of this article. He said: Continue reading

Atma vichAra

The Self cannot be ‘known’ in any objective sense because it is the ultimate subject – there is no other subject that could know it. This is why science can never tell us anything about the Self. Science works by collecting data and analyzing it; formulating theories and then using them to predict what will happen when data are gathered in a different situation. This can never be applied to Self/brahman, because brahman has no data.

Strictly speaking, vichAra refers to investigation into ‘things’ so that Atma vichAra is effectively a contradiction in terms; the Self is not a thing. Spiritual investigation has to be done rather differently. The correct term is shAstra mImAMsA and it is really scriptural ‘investigation’ that we must conduct in order to find out about the Self. Monier-Williams translates mImAMsA as “profound thought or reflection or consideration; investigation, examination, discussion”. The philosophical branch that studies the Upanishads etc at the end of the Vedas (Vedanta) is called uttara mImAMsA. (uttara means “later, following, subsequent, concluding” but also “superior, chief, excellent, dominant”.)

We ‘discover’ the Self by removing ignorance. If someone holds up a screen in front of our face and then brings an object to show us, but keeps it behind the screen, we can say nothing at all about the object. However, as soon as the screen is taken away, the object is revealed to our senses and the perception takes place automatically. Similarly, knowledge of the Self is obscured by ignorance but as soon as that ignorance is removed, the Self is immediately self-evident; we do not have to do anything to ‘investigate’ it.

Scripture functions like a mirror. When we look into a mirror, we do not literally see our face and body, we only see an image of it. Yet this enables us directly to perform whatever actions are required on the body itself – combing the hair, shaving and so on. We do not shave the image but the actual hair on the face. Similarly, the scriptures do not directly represent the Self but the information therein, when explained by a qualified teacher, directly enables the ignorance in our mind to be removed, revealing the Self-knowledge which is as though hidden beneath.

Actions will never bring about Self-knowledge, since action is not opposed to ignorance. Nor will practices such as meditation or prayer. As Swami Paramarthananda puts it, meditation will only bring about quiet ignorance.

As Shankara puts it (if he was the author of vivekachUDAmaNi v.13): “It is through reflection over the words of a truly benevolent soul that one comes to a knowledge of reality, and not through bathing at sacred places, charity or hundreds of breathing practices”. [1] I.e. it is through shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana and not through asking ‘Who am I?’ that one gains Self-knowledge.

[1] The Crest Jewel of Wisdom; viveka-chUDAmaNi, commentary by Hari Prasad Shastri, Shanti Sadan, 1997. ISBN 0-85421-047-0.