Truth versus Truth or Apples versus Oranges

The other night I had dinner with a young friend.  She is someone whom I would describe as a sincere spiritual seeker.

She isn’t familiar with the traditional teachings of Advaita/Vedanta.  She asked me a lot of questions about my life and journey, and I began to speak about the importance of a teaching which uses a methodology, versus satsang teachers who may or may not have recognized the truth, but who do not have methodology to use when they teach.

When I tried to explain to her that the value of Advaita/Vedanta is that it has a very clear teaching methodology—a way of pointing to the truth of one’s being that works for the student—right away and much to my surprise I found myself engaged in an argument.  What I was saying sounded to her like the dogmatic teachings of the Catholic Church, the religion in which she was raised.  She took my words to mean, ‘My way is the only way to the truth, and everything else is false.’

When I tried to point out that wasn’t exactly what I was intending to say, I next found myself confronted with the words, “What makes you think your truth is more valid than anyone else’s truth?”

Initially I found this statement so puzzling that I didn’t quite know how to respond.

Then she told me some things that constituted ‘her truth,’ her ways of viewing the world and her experiences, and I realized that we were not using the word ‘truth’ in the same way.

Spiritual seekers now days often combine various practices like meditation and chanting with psychology work (all well and good in my opinion).  As an outcome of this combination of pursuits, a particular type of language has developed, which includes certain catch words and phrases that are commonly used and understood.

One of these phrases is ‘speaking one’s truth.’  One is encouraged to speak ‘one’s truth,’ and in general each person’s truth is quite different from that of another.  And that’s okay, and even encouraged.  Here everyone is entitled to his or her own truth, each person’s truth is held to be entirely valid for that person.

‘One’s truth’ generally means one’s view in the moment.   Speaking one’s truth may be a way of accessing and expressing deeply held psychological wounds previously buried in the unconscious mind, and again that is all well and good.  Validating another person’s truth is a compassionate action, as that person may not have been validated by his or her parents when a child, and as a result a wound was produced and held in the child’s unconscious mind to be processed at a later time.  So all of this work is important within a certain sphere of the order that governs the entire manifestation of duality.

However as opposed to the realm of psychology, in Vedanta there actually only one meaning for the word truth.  There may be many relative truths, but there is only one truth that is absolutely true. And I can see that for a person who is accustomed to honoring all truths as equally valid such a statement would sound fundamental.

However the nice thing about Vedantic truth is that it is universal.  It is inclusive. No one is left out. The recognition of this ‘truth,’ takes place as an actual direct and immediate recognition of something about the individual, which is exactly the same for each and every person. It isn’t a belief, it isn’t a conviction, it isn’t a truth that changes as one’s psychological work progresses, it isn’t subject to later negation or revision.  It’s just the truth, plain and simple, and everyone who recognizes this truth, recognizes the exact same thing.

An analogy might be if I’m looking at a lamp in the middle the table and you are looking at a lamp in the middle of the table, you and I are looking at the same ‘thing.’

As with any analogy, this one isn’t perfect because we may be seeing the same lamp from different angles—leaving aside the argument that there isn’t really a lamp there at all, only molecules, atoms, etc.—but for now, for simplicity’s sake, let’s say it’s just a lamp, and you and I are seeing the same lamp.

It’s the same with the recognition of the truth, as Vedanta uses the word ‘truth.’  There are not two of them.  There are not even different angles of recognition. In this instance there is only one truth, everyone recognizes the exact same truth, fundamental as that statement might sound to some.

After going round and round with my friend for a while, her speaking ‘her truth’ and defending the ‘truths’ of others, and my trying to explain the word ‘truth’ from the Vedantic standpoint, I gave up.

Something my teacher often pointed out was well and truly brought home to me in that moment. Vedanta is a means of self-knowledge which uses words differently from the way words are commonly used.

When Vedanta is taught in an English speaking country it is taught primarily in that language.  However the original language of the teaching is Sanskrit.  And there are words in the Sanskrit language which are specific to the teaching, and for which there really is no English equivalent—words like satyam, which can be translated as ‘true’ or ‘the truth,’ and jnanam, which can be translated as ‘knowledge.’

But the words truth and knowledge when used in Vedanta do not mean what they mean in English.  All of our English words are used to describe something in duality.  Words used in Vedanta are pointing to something nondual, something not available for our usual means of perception, yet entirely present to be recognized.

When I attempted to explain this to my friend, suggesting that were having an apples and oranges type of discussion, she then told me that she knew the word ‘satyam,’ and even  ‘satchitananda’—a word I hadn’t introduced.

At that point I just kept quiet, because what could I do?  I had a feeling that in her mind the word ‘satyam,’ might not mean what it means in Vedanta, that again it might mean ‘truth,’ as in everyone has their own and each is equally valid; and I certainly didn’t want to touch the word satchitananda.  Who knows where that might have led?

As I had grown weary of attempting to define and defend apples versus oranges, I introduced the topic of Neem Karoli Baba and His love about which we had no difference of opinion at all.


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About Dhanya

Dhanya developed an interest in Hinduism and Eastern philosophy in the early 1970s. In 1973, she traveled to India in search of a guru to guide her on the spiritual path. While there she encountered disciples of Neem Karoli Baba and his teachings of bhakti and karma yoga which influenced her life from then on. She studied Vipasana meditation for some time with S.N. Goenkaji beginning in 1974. In 1991 she met HWL Poonja, whose words sparked a desire in her to understand the teachings of nonduality. Subsequently she met other advaita teachers, including Jean Klein and Sri Ranjit Maharaj, who were great sources of inspiration to her. In 2002 she met her current teacher, Dr. Carol Whitfield, a traditional teacher of Advaita/Vedanta and a disciple of Swami Dayananda Saraswati. Having found a teaching and a teacher with whom she has a deep resonance and who clearly and effectively elucidate the means for self-knowledge, Dhanya now lives in Northern California, where she studies Vedanta and writes on the topic of nonduality.

3 thoughts on “Truth versus Truth or Apples versus Oranges

  1. Interesting post. Thank you. You say that “Words used in Vedanta are pointing to something nondual”, and, further, that “All our English words are used to describe something in duality”. Can that be so? Is the issue (language and truth) not dependent on whether one is expressing her/himself either at the empirical (vyavaharika) or the higher (paramarthika) level of discourse and understanding? Language is dual by nature, but only in the second case it directly points to absolute reality, which is even beyond ‘universality’, since this last may just be a very wide consensus of expressed truth/s. 2) Is not ‘satyam’ equivalent to ‘absolute truth’?, and, if so, words from different languages can have the same meaning – though not always.
    The important point must be that absolute truth or reality (satyam) is non-conceptual, indefinable, timeless, nameless and non-transferable. In other words, it can only be attained through mystical intuition (prajna), as it was that of the Upanishadic sages.
    (Incidentally, you used the word ‘fundamental’ twice; you must have meant ‘fundamentalist’)

  2. Yes, use of words is very different in the West or in traditional advaita vedanta. Words like consciousness, stillness, self/me/I, bliss, God etc. will be defined differently and without first understanding what people usually think they mean, it is impossible to make oneself understood. Actually I think that this is one of the main reasons why Western people do not usually turn to traditional teachers. There is a deep communication gap. The problem is that most traditional teachers are not aware of the extent of this gap and do nothing to bridge it. This is not to say that it is always possible to bridge it but I think a whole new ‘science’ can be developed to enable teachers to approach Western seekers too.

    • Hello Sitaraji, You make some very good points. Vedanta is called a shabda pramana, a means of knowledge which uses words in teaching. In fact, words are all that are used.

      My teacher often says, “All words are inadequate, but they do the job.” By inadequate she means that no word will ever be able to describe that which is ultimately real.

      Anyone who comes to the teachings does not initially know what the teaching words actually mean, whether the word used is an English word or a Sanskrit word. In fact, no one really knows what the words mean until that person realizes the truth of them through direct recognition. Prior to that one will always have a concept in one’s mind, which doesn’t match the reality of what the word is pointing out.

      A seeming paradox, no? And yet words do the job.

      If the student has heard the Sanskrit words that are used before, whether that person is Indian or Western, still he or she will have an incorrect understanding of the meaning of the word.

      The teachings work primarily through negation and positive assertion. They work this way, pointing out the true nature of one’s actual experience. Negating from one’s being all that is changing and previously thought to be ‘me,’ and then asserting, or pointing to that which is unchangingly ever present and is in reality ‘me’ (atma).

      This process of negation and assertion also applies to the way the intended meaning of the word is explained. All the wrong concepts one might have about the meaning of the word are knocked off first before the word is used as a pointer. An example of this would be the word ‘eternal.’ People might think eternal means that which goes on forever, but which changes in time. The teachings don’t mean that when using the word eternal. They mean that which never changes, is not affected by time, and is ever present in exactly the same way.

      As Swami Dayanandaji says, ‘Vedanta is a handled word mirror,’ so the way the words are handled is the key to the efficacy of the teaching, and for that the teacher has to be trained, and know how to knock off our wrong concepts, not only about the nature of reality, but also about the meaning of certain words themselves.

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