What is traditional advaita?

My teacher is a teacher of traditional advaita. I believe she is the only such teacher in the UK, if not in Europe. Some might look at what she teaches – Gita, Upaniṣads, Prakaraṇa Granthas (philosophical treatise) and stotras (devotional hymns) – and believe that they too, not only follow traditional advaita (because they too read these texts), but also have an additional, and arguably more powerful, key in the form of meditation or yoga or other such practice. Despite the surface similarity, however, I stick to my opening claim and will attempt to open up clear blue water between the teacher of traditional advaita simply by making clear what is mean by ‘traditional advaita’.

Two words set apart the traditional approach to teaching advaita from all others: sampradāya and pramāna.

Sampradāya is the established approach to unfolding the vision of Vedanta transmitted from one teacher to another. It is the traditional interpretation with a traceable lineage of teachers.

First we need to distinguish between a teacher and a preacher. The former wants the student to see what he or she sees; the latter wants followers to believe in, or be inspired by, what they say. The former is interested in removing confusion about the advaita vision, one thin layer of vagueness at a time, in a methodical and systematic way, exactly as was done by their teacher. The latter, whilst possibly making reference to scriptural texts, is not systematic or methodical: the approach is more ‘touch and go’ – whatever will inspire the audience. The former’s teacher had a traditional teacher who had a traditional teacher. The latter either did not have a teacher or the latter’s teacher was ‘inspired’ and did not have a teacher or the latter had a teacher for a very short time or went from teacher to teacher. The former doesn’t try to be ‘original’: he or she uses the same examples to illustrate the teaching as their teacher had used. The latter use modern idiom and modern examples to suit their audience. It is most likely that the former will have relinquished the world to live a monastic life and is totally devoted to teaching; the latter may head up a large organization offering self-improvement programmes or will live a worldly life with worldly concerns about growing the organisation, earning a living and so on.

What is the traditional advaita teacher teaching? Vedanta – by which one means the Upanishads.

What is so special about the Upanishads? The very understanding of the meaning of the words of the Upanishads is mokṣa, [freedom from the mistaken notion of limitation centred on ‘I’]. The meaning of the word of the Upanishads, therefore, are the pramānam for self knowledge.

Pramānam is simply translated as ‘means of knowledge’, but there’s more to it than that. Every means of knowledge that we’re familiar with can be divided into two categories: direct and indirect. The means for direct knowledge are senses backed by mind: we hear something directly with our own ears, we touch something directly with our own skin, we see something directly with our own eyes, we taste something directly with our own tongue, we smell something directly with our own nose: “I heard a song”, “I felt the warmth”, “I saw the man”, “I tasted the tea”, “I smelt the jasmine”. If all our senses are working well and nothing comes between a sense and its object, we can be 100% certain that we known about the object’s existence.

We come to know of something indirectly through a number of ways: we can infer it, we can presume it or we can be told about it. Although we can’t see fire directly we can infer its existence from smoke. So we ‘know’ there is a fire – though not 100%. The senses need to confirm our inference through direct perception for the knowledge that there actually is a fire. Or we can put two or more pieces of information together to arrive at a presumption of what exists: doctors get to their diagnosis this way, putting together various symptoms in the various parts of the body to come to their prognosis. Another indirect method is if one is given a description that uses illustration: e.g. a gnu is like a bison with zebra-like stripes on its neck and shoulders.

All these require a prior sense-experience that can back up the inference. One needs to have seen fire and smoke together a few times to realise that fire is the cause and smoke the effect: they go together. So strong is sensory knowledge that even the absence of things is classed as a means of knowledge. I know I don’t have any money in my pocket: in this case I am not feeling or seeing or hearing the jingle of any thing, but I know that I am not feeling or seeing or hearing the sounds that would indicate the presence of money. I ‘know’ absence.

The one thing that is common to all these ways of knowing – direct or indirect – is that there is a division between knower (subject), knowing (verb) and known (object). As self-knowledge means that the object of knowledge is ‘I’, and the knower is also I’, there cannot be any subject-object difference. Any object of perception, by definition, must be different from the perceiver, but in the matter of self-knowledge this is not possible because of the absence of such a difference, so none of the above-mentioned means of direct or indirect perception can be employed here.

So what can be the means of knowledge (pramānam) of Self? Traditional advaita vedānta says that the meaning of the words of the Upaniṣads is the pramānam for self-knowledge. This must be differentiated from our common understanding of verbal testimony which also employs words to give knowledge. If we are given a description of some thing by a reliable witness, even though we accept the existence of that thing, our knowledge will never be 100% established till we have actually experienced the thing with our own senses. The words of the Upaniṣads are not like that. Here we need to understand what is meant by the word pramānam.

Two definitions are given: pramā janakam [that which gives rise to knowledge] and anādigata artha bodhakam [that which reveals something not previously understood (through any other means of knowledge)]. This second definition is highly significant in distinguishing the traditional teaching of advaita. It tells us that no other means, other than the understanding of the words of the Upaniṣads, can lead one to self-knowledge. An example often quoted is that eyes are the only means for the knowledge of colour and they work instantly: just open the eyes and (if the eyes are not defective) colour will be effortlessly cognised. The same applies to words of Upaniṣads: just understand what they are saying and the truth of the non-dual self will be known. No other words would do the trick because the teachings of the Upaniṣads are very precisely designed to bring out the lifting of ignorance (in the hands of a qualified traditional sampradāya teacher that it, one who knows how to handle the words as intended).

These words do not need to be applied or practiced or translated. This is not a two-step matter: understanding and mokṣa are concurrent. This is the traditional teaching. It does not have four paths. It does not talk about salvation. It sees any ‘heaven’ as a temporary stop and not the ultimate, permanent goal. It never admits of the void. It does not require the suppression of thought or the killing of ahaṅkāra. It does not recognise ‘creation’: just the manifestation of that which was previously unmanifest. It does not accept self-knowledge as distinct from knowledge of the cosmos: I am Brahman means I am the self of all.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati summarises the essence of the above as follows:

Śruti is not afraid of experiential duality. The problem is the conclusion of duality – not the experience of duality.  The problem lies in the well-entrenched conclusion: “I am different from the world; the world is different from me.”  This conclusion is the core of the problem of duality – of samsāra.

Śruti flatly negates the conclusion of duality. Is śruti’s negation of one’s conclusion that the world and I are different, a matter for belief?  No.  Statements by śruti in the Upaniṣads, negating this conclusion, are a pramāṇa.

“A pramāṇa is a means for gaining pramā, valid knowledge, of whatever the particular pramāṇa is empowered to enable one to know. For example, eyes are the pramāṇa for knowing colour; ears are the special instrument for sound. The statements in the Upaniṣads are a pramāṇa for the discovery of the truth of the world, of God and of myself – for gaining valid knowledge about the nature of Reality.

“The Upaniṣad vākyās (statements of ultimate truth), when unfolded in accordance with the sampradāya (the traditional methodology of teaching) by a qualified teacher are the means for directly seeing – knowing – the non-dual truth of oneself.  The teacher, using empirical logic and one’s own experience as an aid, wields the vākyās of the Upaniṣads as pramāṇa to destroy one’s ignorance of oneself.”


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About Peter

I am a student of traditional Vedanta, in London, an interest that started in 1970s. Current Influences: In 2007 I attended a talk by Swamini Atmaprakasananda on Ganapati Atharvashirsha – and knew I had found my teacher. I am current Secretary of Arsha Vidya Centre UK, an organisation established to make available in the UK the teaching of traditional advaita as unfolded by Swaminiji and her own teacher, the illustrious HH Swami Dayananda Saraswatiji, the most respected teacher of traditional advaita. www.arshavidya.org.uk