In the preface to Atma Darshan (page 2), Shri Atmananda points out that he takes an
approach which brings 'the universal under the individual'. This is what he called the
'direct' approach; and he distinguished it from another approach that he called 'cosmological'.
. In the 'cosmological' approach, an 'individual person' or 'jiva' is considered as an incomplete part of an encompassing universe. Hence that approach is described as one 'of bringing the individual under the universal'. It requires an expansion of consideration to a universal functioning -- which is ruled by an all-powerful 'God' called 'Ishvara', or which expresses an all-comprehensive reality called 'brahman'.
Literally, 'brahman' means 'expanded' or 'great'. When what is considered gets expanded, beyond all limitations of our physical and mental seeing, then brahman is realized. Such expansion may be approached through various exercises that have been prescribed, to purify a sadhaka's character from ego's partialities. In particular, there are ethical practices that weaken egocentricism; there are devotional practices that cultivate surrender to a worshipped deity; and there are meditative practices that throw the mind into special samadhi states where usual limitations are dissolved into an intensely comprehensive absorption.
Through such prescribed practices, a sadhaka may get to be far more impartial, and thus get a far broader and more comprehensive understanding of the world. A teacher may accordingly prepare a sadhaka, through a greatly broadened understanding of the world, before directing an enquiry that reflects back into non-dual truth. That cosmological path involves a characteristic attitude of faith and obedience, towards the tradition which has prescribed its mind-expanding and character-purifying practices. Accordingly, that path has been given public prominence, in traditional societies which have been organized on the basis of obedient faith.
. In the 'direct' approach, a teacher straightaway directs a reflective enquiry, from a disciple's current view of world and personality. On the disciple's part, the enquiry depends upon a genuine interest in truth, sufficient to go through with a deeply skeptical and unsettling questioning of habitual beliefs on which the disciple's sense of self and view of world depends. This calls for an independent attitude -- not taking things on trust, but rather asking questions and finding things out for oneself.
For traditional societies, such an independent attitude has been publicly discouraged, for fear of destabilizing the obedient faith that has been needed to maintain their social order. Accordingly, there has been a tendency to keep the direct approach somewhat hidden, away from ordinary public notice. As for example, the skeptical questioning of the Upanishads was kept somewhat hidden until its publication in the last century or two.
In the modern world, we have developed a different kind of society -- where education is far more widespread, and independent questioning is encouraged from a much earlier stage of education. So it is only natural that the 'direct path' or the 'vicara marga' should have been made more public, most famously through Ramana Maharshi.
In Shri Atmananda's teachings, there is a continuation of this trend towards independent questioning, by the individual sadhaka. Here, each 'individual person' or 'jiva' is considered as a misleading appearance that confuses self and personality. The questioning is turned directly in, reflecting back from physical and mental appendages to inmost truth of self or 'atman'.
The questions turn upon their own assumed beliefs, which take for granted mind and body's mediation showing us an outside world. Reflecting back from mind and body's outward mediation, the questioning returns to direct self-knowledge at the inmost centre of experience, from where the enquiry has come.
As the enquiry turns in, all observation and interpretation of the universe is brought back in as well, to an inmost centre that is truly individual. All perceptions, thoughts and feelings must return back there, as they are interpreted and taken into lasting knowledge. Hence this approach is described as one 'of bringing the universal under the individual'.
In short, Shri Atmananda's teachings start out with a direct enquiry into the 'atman' side of the traditional equation 'atman = brahman'. The enquiry is epistemological, examining the question of 'what is' by asking: 'How is it known?' Examining each object from the inmost standpoint of knowing self, the complete reality of world is reduced to non-dual consciousness, where self and reality (atman and brahman) are found identical.
And the examination is carried out without need of recourse to traditional exercises of bhakti worship or yogic meditation. In fact Shri Atmananda often discouraged such exercises, for many of his disciples, particularly for those whose samskaras were not already involved with them.
Clearly, this approach is not suited to everyone. For many in the modern world, traditional practices of religion and meditation are of much-needed value. In recent times, roughly contemporary with Shri Atmananda, the traditional approach has been taught by great sages like Kanci-svami Candrashekharendra-sarasvati and Anandamayi-ma, for whom Shri Atmananda had great respect.
In fact, Shri Atmananda made it very clear that his teachings were living ones, meant specifically for his particular disciples. He was quite explicitly against the institutionalization of such teachings, saying that the only proper 'institution' of advaita must be the living teacher (if one insists on talking of an 'institution' at all).
So, as I go on to further postings about some prakriyas that Shri Atmananda taught, it should be understood that these are only the reports of a particular follower, whose reporting is inevitably fallible. Some published works by and on Shri Atmananda are indicated in the post script below.
Vicara or enquiry is essential to the completion of knowledge in any path. When the traditional path is called 'cosmological', this does not imply a lack of vicara. It simply means that along with vicara there is also a considerable component of cosmology, which seeks to describe the world and to prescribe suitable actions for improving our personalities and the world around them.
Vicara must be there in both paths -- 'cosmological' and 'direct':
On the one hand, the 'cosmological' path gets its name from having a cosmological component that is lacking in the direct path.
On the other hand, the 'direct' path is so called because it looks directly for underlying truth. However bad or good the world is seen to be, however badly or how well it is seen through personally, there is in the direct path no concern to improve that cosmic view. The only concern is to reflect directly back into underlying truth, from the superficial and misleading show of all outward viewing.
The direct path is thus no recent development. It was there from the start, before traditions and civilizations developed. And it has continued through the growth of tradition, along with the personal and environmental improvements that traditions have prescribed. For these improvements are inevitably partial and compromised; so that there are always people who aren't satisfied with such improvement, but just long for plain truth that is not compromised with any falsity.
To find that truth, no cosmological improvement can itself be enough. At some stage, sooner or later, there has to be a jump entirely away from all improvement, into a truth where worse or better don't apply. The only difference between the cosmological and direct paths is when the jump is made. In the direct path, the jump is soon or even now. In the cosmological approach, the jump is put off till later on, in order to give time for improving preparations to be made for it.
There are pros and cons on both sides, so that different paths suit different personalities. An early jump is harder to make, and it means that the sadhaka's character is still impure; so even having jumped into the truth, she or he keeps falling back unsteadily, overwhelmed by egotistical samskaras. Then work remains to keep returning back to truth, until the samskaras are eradicated and there is a final establishment in the sahaja state.
A later jump can be easier, with a character so purified that little or no work remains to achieve establishment. But there are pitfalls of preparing personality for a late jump, because a sadhaka may get enamoured of the relative advances that have been achieved, like a prisoner who falls in love with golden chains and thus remains imprisoned.
So what's needed is to find the particular path that suits each particular sadhaka, instead of arguing for any path as best for everyone.