Q.490 Consciousness and the Brain

Q: My question is one I can’t seem to clarify through any book, teacher or teaching:

How do we know that the brain isn’t responsible for consciousness? While we can observe mind with all of it’s contents as objects and then say we cannot be that which we observe, how can we be sure that there is not just some part of the brain which does the observing that is giving us this ability to watch thought? How does Vedanta address this? How can we know that the brain isn’t simply the one observing all phenomena?

Side note: I lost consciousness once due to a fall and blacked out, and all I can say is that there was complete absence of being and no one there to be aware of the non-beingness. No observer nor observed. Beyond no-thing. Absolutely no experience beyond the concept of the word. Continue reading

Q.484 Sense of Self

Q: About six years ago I was looking for the separate self through directly paying attention to the sense of self in my immediate experience. I did this over about a week or ten days during regular life. I followed this sense of self when it shifted say from the body to the thinking mind, to the sense of will etc. Suddenly everything dropped away and what was seen was just openness/absence of self /no me /nothing +everything.

I’m not sure how long this lasted. Then the mind came back. I felt liberated from all worry and desire for a couple of months. Then slowly old habits reestablished themselves. Since then I am at a loss what to do. 

So I have no problem accepting Advaita teachings but I could do with some further guidance. 

A: Presumably you are prepared to accept the basic premise of Advaita – that reality is non-dual. If it is true, then it must be the case that you already are the ‘Self’. So it is not really a case of ‘looking for it’ but rather realizing that you are already ‘It’. So you can ask yourself the question ‘who would be looking for what?’. The ‘sense of self’ is not the Self; it is a feeling or an idea in the mind.

If you practice meditation seriously (twice a day, 30mins at a time, for several years), you will eventually experience periods of samAdhi, which correspond to the experience you describe. But this is just an experience – as you can tell because it has a beginning and an end. Realizing the truth of Advaita, becoming ‘enlightened’, is Self-knowledge, not an experience.

Having said that, it is possible to gain Self-knowledge and yet still not have the ‘sense of bliss’, fulfillment or whatever, that you believe ought to result. This is because of ‘obstacles’ in the mind (pratibandha-s) remaining from having insufficiently ‘prepared’ the mind beforehand (sAdhana chatuShTaya sampatti).

The book I am currently writing is all about the confusions that are brought about in seekers as a result of wrong understanding by many modern teachers. pratibandha-s will be one of the topics covered and, because there has been much discussion on related issues at the website recently, I will be begin posting the material for this topic within the next week. It is quite long so will be in 3 or 4 parts. I suggest you look out for it and join in any subsequent discussion if you like. [Since this Q&A, I have posted the pratibandha series, now in around 11 parts, and it begins here.]

pratibandha-s – part 5 of 10

Read Part 4


Shankara differentiates what might be called ‘ordinary’ or ‘intellectual’ knowledge (j~nAna) from ‘transformative’ knowledge (vij~nAna). The knowledge becomes transforming – i.e. making it efficacious in conveying the status of jIvanmukti – when the gaining of it has been preceded by successful sAdhana chatuShTaya sampatti. In his bhAShya on muNDaka upaniShad 2.2.8, he says:

“Wise, discriminatory people (dhIrA) see through vij~nAna; vij~nAna is a special (vishihtena) knowledge (j~nAna), born out of the teaching of shAstra and AchArya (shAstra AchArya upadesha janitam), and received in a specially prepared mind, born (udbhutena) out of total detachment (vairAgya), having control of inner and outer organs (shama and dama), and which is therefore capable of upAsanA to begin with and later of nididhyAsana which together are called meditation (dhyAna). Through such a vij~nAna, wise people realize that the nature of the Atman (Atmatatvam) is non-different from the nature of Brahman (brahmatatvam)…” (Ref. 10)

‘Who am I?’ in communication

Who are we speaking of when we use the words ‘I’ and ‘you’ in writing and speech?

Since we are Advaitins, there are actually three possibilities:

  1. ‘I’ could mean Atman/Brahman, if used from the ‘as if’ pAramArthika viewpoint;
  2. ‘I’ could mean the reflected Consciousness (chidAbhAsa);
  3. ‘I’ could mean the usually understood ‘named person’.

Continue reading

Q.477 Meditation and Brahman

Q: I have just been initiated into japa meditation. I just wondered: is the mantra a sound or a word?

And if Atman and Brahman are one, I am interpreting that correctly to mean that in my deepest Self (soul) I am divine – at one with Brahman? And that that signifies a unity (oneness) not sameness (identity)?

To put it in Christian terms, in my soul the Spirit of God dwells (as Eckhart said: ‘the I with which I see God is the same I with which God sees me’ and ‘my ground is God’s ground, God’s ground is my ground’). 

Thus Advaita: ‘not two’ (but not completely one either – monism). In Christianity: ‘whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me’ (Matthew 5: 45).

A: ‘japa’ meditation is the mental repetition of a sound or a mantra. You could use the name of a god but it would still function as a sound. I.e. you are not supposed to ‘think’ about it, dwell on its significance etc. – that is a different form of meditation entirely. You give attention only to the repeating sound, ignoring any other thought. The repetition gradually loses its intensity and frequency and you are eventually left with complete mental silence. (May take a few years to get to this point!)

Atman and Brahman are two words for the same non-dual reality. The former is from the perspective of the (apparent) person and the latter from the as-if-perspective of absolute reality. Ishvara is the name given to Brahman from the perspective of empirical reality. Everything (including you and Ishvara) is simply name and form of Brahman. The relevant metaphor is that of bangle, ring and necklace being name and form of gold.

It would be best for you to temporarily forget all about Christianity and any other religion/philosophy until such time as you fully understand Advaita. Then you will be able to see that all the others are attempts, with varying degrees of success, to approach an understanding of the same truth. Trying to reconcile the views will only lead to confusion.

Q. 473 TM

Q: Good afternoon, I wonder if i may ask you about meditation please ? In particular TM, Transcendental Meditation.

I have been meditating twice daily for two years now and have not noticed any changes, no more calmness or anything really. I enjoy it while i do it but the feeling does not carry over into daily life.

From your experience would it be best to give it up or persevere a little longer please ? Is there something better than thus type of meditation?

A: Can you describe in some detail what you actually do and what you find? Continue reading

samAdhi Again – 3

Part – 2

  Many misconceptions and misunderstandings appear to be prevailing about Yoga and samAdhi in Advaita.  We shall take up in this Part of our Series,  an assortment of those topics in no particular order and examine the possible correct position.

1.  Yoga Terminology in Advaita:

The Sanskrit root “yuj” being common to words like ‘yoga, yukti etc. indicative of a union, we find that the Yoga terminology by itself is not an anathema for Advaita.  The word “Yoga” appears in as many as 10 brahma sUtra-s (e.g. 1.1.19; 1.1.31; 2.1.3; 2.2.9; 3.1.26; 3.4.41; 4.2.17; 4.2.21 etc.). It is used 93 times with different meanings in Bhagavad-Gita. kaTha and svetAsvatara Upanishads too refer to ‘yoga’ practices and the latter particularly holds special praise for ‘yoga’ techniques. Shankara himself extols the effectiveness of practicing Yoga in his commentary at brahma sUtra (BS) 1.3.33.

Patanjali Yoga sUtra # 3 explains samAdhi as:

तदा द्रष्टुः स्वरूपेऽवस्थानम् ॥   –  sUtra  #  3, samAdhi pAda.

[tadA draShTuH svarUpe ‘ vasthAnam]

Meaning:  For then (i.e. for samAdhi) finding our seeing principle entails insight into our own nature. Continue reading

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 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. Continue reading

Litmus Tests for Self-realization – 2

Abhinava Vidyateertha (standing in front of his Guru)

There is an embarrassing plenitude of teachers of Non-duality (of different shades) accessible both online and offline mushrooming  these days from all corners of the world. Some even  claim without any qualms that they have realized the Ultimate Truth; or leave enough of hints on their web sites to impress the reader that they are Self-realized. This is undoubtedly a happy situation that we have so many gurus in our midst but one is left a bit bewildered because of what Bhagavad-Gita tells us. In the Chapter VII, the third verse says:

 मनुष्याणां सहस्रेषु कश्चिद्यतति सिद्धये

 यततामपि सिद्धानां कश्चिन्मां वेत्ति तत्त्वतः — Verse 3, Ch VII, Bhagavad-Gita. Continue reading

Q. 433 Seeking ‘nondual experiences’

Q: For the better part of four decades, I was on the hunt for spiritual experiences that would ‘expand my consciousness.’ I now realize and understand that only Self-Knowledge can provide lasting peace, and any experience is something that comes and goes in time and therefore can never be a permanent condition. However, I still find it very difficult to drop the search for a Big Bang event, after which I can safely say: “Ok, now I am enlightened for sure.”

What is confusing about this is that there are so many teachers who seem to have a pretty clear grasp of nondual teaching and still speak in terms of what happened during their awakening or enlightenment event. Francis Lucille, for example, talks about his experience in Eternity Now. (“For a few moments, the pure I-thought seemed to vacillate, just as the flame of an oil lamp running out of fuel, then vanished. At that precise moment, the immortal background of Presence revealed itself in all its splendor.”) Franklin Merrell-Wolff provides an amazingly clear description of the ‘Recognition’ events that happened to him after studying Shankara. Ken Wilber talks of having been consciously aware for 11 straight days, even through deep sleep, etc. Clearly, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj both went through Big Bang type spiritual awakenings, and of course, there are numerous other similar reports by various sages and gurus. Continue reading

jIvanmukti – An Illustrative Case

The highly revered Sringeri Pitham in India, as is well-known to all, is the sterling center devoutly upholding, preserving, maintaining and propagating the Shankara Advaita. The unbroken succession of the Pontiffs right from the time Shankara established the Matha to date has many a jIvanmukta in its line embellishing the holy precincts of the Ashram. Their exemplary lives illustrate the way one attains liberation while in life (jIvanmukti) and provide answers to many of the doubts a seeker may have in his/her quest to freedom from the bondage in samsAra. Continue reading