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Lessons in Advaita- 1

N K Srinivasan

Advaita or non -duality or 'No-Two" system of philosophy is a universal method in Jnana Path or Jnana Yoga of the Hindus. This method can be used by anyone [not only Hindus] as long as you believe in a soul or Atman ,also called "SELF" with capital 'S'. This method is derived from the Upanishads [ a part of Vedas ,called Vedanta'--the appendices attached to the Vedas which have lot of rituals and hymns .]The Upanishads are insightful utterances of Rishis or seers who had trascendental experiences. There are ten principal Upanishads , besides many others, which form the standard scriptures. The ten Upanishads were commented upon by the great Acharya or preceptor Adi Shankara and hence their importance.It is worthwhile to study at least a few of these Upanishads, [say Katha, Kena, Mundaka and Isavasya] before embarking on a deep study of Advaita. Many excellent English translations are available.[See for example: Swami Nikhilananda's

translation.] Advaita was systematically explained by the great Acharya, Adi Shankara [788-820 AD]whose works form the basic texts of Advaita.[The dates of Adi Shankara had always been in dispute, but we need not enter into that controversy.] Since his time, several great masters have expounded on Advaita with various levels of rigour---for instance Vidyaranya, Madhusudan Saraswati,Sadananda, Sadashiva Brahmendra. A student of Advaita in modern times would hardly have the time or energy to plod through these texts. Masters in India do study these texts at suffcient

depth. It should be noted that these acharyas took liberties to 'reinterpret' basic Advaita philosophy with march of time. The present author did delve into these texts mainly to learn the minor variations in interpretation. But a modern reader is well advised not to spend time on these texts of these authors.

The torch of Advaita The torch of advaita has been carried by numerous saints and sages in India to teach and simplify the path. In modern times, that is 20th century, we may note two great masters of advaita whose teachings are well studied and carefully recorded---Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi

[Thiruvannamalai, Aruncahala] and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj in Mumbai. [Lot of books and tapes exist about their teachings that I need not give a list. I focus on these two masters.. One can also learn Advaita from the writings of other teachers, especially Swami Sivananda {Divine Life Society, Rishikesh} and that of his chief disciple Swami Chinmayananda.] Several later teachers have appeared claiming their 'lineage' or tutorship with these two masters.These are the modern "neo-advaita" teachers with their own groups or sat sanghas or teaching shops. I may mention that H W L Poonja [Poonjaji or Papaji] , an early disciple of Ramana, had a large following ;he was located in Lucknow. Ramesh Balsekar, in Mumbai, a follower of Nisarga Maharaj had his own advaita groups. These two teachers, Poonjaji and Ramesh Balsekar ,in turn, spawned several advaita teachers ,particularly in USA and in Europe.It may be added that these two masters, who are no more with us, considerably diluted the pure advaita path to simplify for the large number of people who flocked to them. Many of them were

ill prepared to receive or absorb the tenets of Advaita.[Some state that this happened after the demise of Acharya Rajaneesh or Osho in his Pune ashram.] Be that as

it may, it is important not to take the teachings of these masters in literal sense and only understand the overall perspective of the approach of Advaita, but draw upon the concepts from Ramana or Nisargadatta. The Bhagavad Gita, the bible of the Hindus, contains Advaita in direct language and interspersed with Bhakti [devotion] and karma [selfless action] yoga approaches.

One can learn advaita from the Gita with proper commentaries and teachings. In fact Adi Shankara himself wrote a commentary on the Gita ['bhashya'] in the terms of advaita. But his commentary , along with his other works, are difficult to follow and form the standard curriculum for a Vedanta scholar. My personal advice is not to spend too much time on these works but get on with your sadhana or practice. I wrote this fairly long introduction mainly to instruct the reader who may be confused with much that is being written or told about advaita in the past two decades."Neo-advaita" is being advertised so much that one writer called it a new kind of rash or "advaita disease."

Preparations for Advaita In traditional advaita path, Shankara wrote about 'sadhana chatusthaya"--four steps --which are indeed hard.These are

the four qualifications for a seeker or sadhaka. In 'Vivekachudamani", Shankara elaborates on this. [It is a moot point whether Shankara wrote this text or a later day acharya wrote.] [Such texts also contain many points derived from the social context---for instance that sadhana is meant for male members, that too born in a brahmin caste! We should ignore such statements.] I would suggest that the most important preparation is to follow the moral precepts of 'yama' and 'niyama' [don'ts

and do's] given by Patanjali as the first two steps or parts of his eight-part or ashtanga yoga. Please read them. See how far you can control yourself in terms of yama and niyama.

Basic steps in Advaita In traditonal Hindu approach, advaita should be learned from a master or guru who is himself "self-realized". Where to find such a master?---Will a lesser master or teacher will do? Again our tradition tells us that if a pupil or chela is ready , a master will come or sent by God himself or Higher Power will send one. The moral is : prepare yourself with sincerity of purpose. The purpose is to become one with "Reality" or understand "Reality."One would not learn Vedanta or advaita to earn

money or build large ashrams. Some caveats are in order at this stage for one learning Advaita. Advaita, being an intellectual approach, often leads to "intellectual arrogance' in an advaitin. He or she tends to look upon others...those following the path of devotion or karma yoga with ridicule or contempt, assuming a

superior air. This should be avoided. The other two paths--devotion and karma ---are equally valid. The Advaitin thinks that his path is direct,faster, more efficient and air-plane route compared to others which are considered as pedestrian approaches. This is the height of ignorance in spiritual knowledge in Indian context. Many great saints have followed the other paths and reached advaitic experience at appropriate times.! It is also common among Advaitins to speak ill of rituals and worship while great masters have done these in good measure. Some advaitins hold that Bhakti or karma are like stepping stones [to purify the mind] and only through Jnana one can attain liberation.This is a wrong view and I have written about this elsewhere. I may also add that if one is under the influence of a guru ,the guru would remove these false notions and correct one's path curbing the tendency for intellectual

arrogance. In fact this is one advantage of learning from a guru, instead of from books or tapes or listening to discourses. Ashram life is eminently suited to curb such tendencies. What are the basic steps in advaita? There are two basic steps: Acquire "VIVEKA" or discrimination; Cultivate " VAIRAGYA" --dispassion or detachment. Without these two, you cannot make any progress in Advaita. Without these, Advaita will remain an intellectual game. Viveka or discrimination is frequent reflection on impermanence of this world---with names and forms. Nothing is permanent in this world...things are born and then die. Things are created and destroyed. We lose our kith and kin,friends and colleagues---life keeps changing. Even mountains disappear. Institutions die,as also empires and civilizations. Vairagya which follows viveka is a tougher , steeper climb.It is to develop dispassion or detachment for things of this world. This happens gradually for some,over several years or months ;for some it is a sudden process, a life-changing event.This is not easy to achieve. Many take to austerities and frugal life to cultivate vairagya.

They give up food, clothes and other possessions one by one. This could be an excruciating step. Some renounce everything in one stroke, like St Francis of Assisi did. There is a quaint story.One lady told her husband that her brother had developed lot of vairagya and often speaks of leaving everything and going to the Himalayas. Her husband listened calmly and smiled, and said that that is not the way to get vairgya. He quietly went to his room, collected a few things in a sling bag and walked away. Many times, a word or a sentence from someone could trigger vairagya. Read the biography of Bhagwan Ramana. Note that these two basic steps alone do not constitute advaitic path but they are essential steps. If one has acquired viveka and vairagya, he had accomplished 90% of his effort. Then the higher Power will take over to show the path through the right guru. In India it is commonly said that it is easy to find gurus, but difficult to find proper chelas or disciples. Keep this in mind. Viveka and vairagya make one a fit student for advaita---to receive higher teachings.

Two basic practices for advaitin In traditional advaita, three steps are repeatedly mentioned for a student of advaita: sravana [study of

scriptures], manana [reflection or introspection on what is learned or told by guru] and nidhi-dhyasana [deep meditations].An advaitin would constantly practise these three things and alter his life style to suit such practice. He may avoid the company of worldly people and

retire into solitude at several moments. In more general practice, one should practise "Japa"

[chanting] and "dhayana" [meditation].As you know, japa and meditation can take many forms. One's guru would guide or in Indian context, one's family tradition could be helpful. [Unfortunately, in modern times, both these are areas of money spinners for bogus gurus, by peddling mantras for japa and teaching meditation for a fee. Stay away from such gurus whose interest is to build large ashrams ,ensuring their life styles...They had forgotten all about viveka and vairagya. They run corporate houses and even use trade marks for their techniques, with a bunch of lawyers to protect their interests. In India, these are always done by real masters without any fee, except an offering of some fruit or flowers during the formal ceremonies by the student. [I know of two groups going to court over their claim about the technique of yoga used or patented by them,

while the techniques owe their origin to rishis who lived thousands of years ago!.I can understand all these because we live in a highly commercialised world in which

everything becomes a commodity to be packaged and marketed.]

Analogies help! Being an abstruse subject, advaita teachers use several analogies to explain the basic concept. One analogy is the snake and rope one; when we enter a dark room with a piece of rope lying on the floor, we may wrongly think that a snake is present and have fear. But in reality ,it is only a rope. Likewise this world creates a wrong impression in our mind but Reality is without attributes and emotions. Another famous analogy is that of a movie theatre. We sit in front of the white screen which is real.On that screen several pictures are thrown which create emotions in us. Consciousness is the light that shines through the projector while the illusory world is the film that carries the stories.!The white screen alone is "real". There are several such analogies which a teacher may use.

But remember this---the analogies should not be carried too far, when endless arguments could result.

Two basic texts There are literally hundreds of books on Vedanta and advaita in English.New books are being written by writers , often diluting the core concepts and adding lot of anecdotes and stories. Some books are mere repetitions of earlier texts by established authors like Swami Sivananda. I shall recommend two basic books 1. Maharshi's Gospel ,publisher: Sri Ramanasramam, Thiruvannamalai. 606603 India 2 "I Am That" by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj ,Chetana Books, Mumbai/Acorn press,USA. Both the books were compiled,translated and edited by Maurice Frydman. The author can be contacted:]