The expansion of the Internet and its rapid integration into the modern world as the principal reference source has meant that a wealth of info rmation on Advaita is now readily available to everyone. Teachers advertise their services and make available extracts from their books and satsangs. Organizations such as those of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Chinmayananda provide schedules of their meetings. Even Indian temples describe their facilities and give historical details of their development. Many scriptures are now directly downloadable in both original Sanskrit and transliterated form with many different translations and commentaries. Finally, the most basic and the most abstruse questions that challenge spiritual seekers are discussed on Email groups by students from beginner level to the most advanced.
Examples from all of these sources will be given to illustrate the various approaches to explaining some of the typical problems of our lives and in answering life’s fundamental questions. NB. The reader should note that any given section may quote extracts from several different teaching methods. Although the essential truth is always the same, care must be taken to note the source so as not to confuse these!
There are two major problems with the explanations from some of the sources. The first of these is that the original documents, i.e. the Vedas, were written in Sanskrit. Few westerners understand Sanskrit. Accordingly, not only does the text have to be understood and explained, it first has to be translated. If it is being translated into English, the writer has to understand both languages well. But it is even worse than this. There are many concepts in the traditional philosophy that have no direct equivalent in English and, of course, the words were originally directed at a society that differed drastically from our own. Thus it is that the only person really able to communicate the wisdom of the Vedas is someone who can read Sanskrit and speak English fluently, is as familiar with the ancient Hindu concepts and way of life as he is with those of western society and ideally is already enlightened. Needless to say there are not many such people around!
That this can cause very serious problems is highlighted by Stanley Sobottka (Ref. 205). The Bhagavad Gita is a practical manual for karma yoga, describing how we should act in our lives. Chapter II, Verse 47 tells us that we should only concern ourselves with the action itself and not worry about the outcome. We should not do something because we want a particular result, nor should we be attached to inaction. But, says Sobottka, Ramesh Balsekar interprets this to mean that “there is no free-will and work merely happens spontaneously.” A quite contrary interpretation is provided by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who says that “you have control over action alone, never over its fruits.” As Sobottka points out: “Any translation will inevitably convey the message that the translator wishes to convey.”
The second major problem is that, intrinsically, it is not possible to describe reality in any sense. As will become clear later in the book, who we truly are is the “ultimate subject,” that which is effectively “dreaming” the universe. Obviously, this “subject” can never be treated objectively – otherwise it would not be the ultimate subject. Thus it is that teachers have to approach the truth obliquely, using stories and metaphor, even resorting to half-truths as a step along the way to understanding. What is “half-truth” and helpful to one student may be nonsense and distinctly unhelpful to another. It is the perennial problem of the teacher to be able to judge where the student currently is in his or her understanding and lead them onwards from there. This is why a living “guru” is really needed, so that questions may be asked and answered face to face.
When we read a book, or even listen to a tape recording of a lecture or dialogue, we are receiving only a particular viewpoint, aimed at a student of a particular level. It may resonate or it may not. Even the method of expression is crucial. Whilst one person may appreciate logic and intellectual analysis, another may need sympathetic reassurance and practical guidance. Some benefit from the crutch-like support of a personal God, others from the karate-chop of a Zen koan. Ultimately, the truth is one and everything else that might be said is only at the level of appearance, using a language that is necessarily objective and dualistic. What is needed is a teacher whose words and style “click” with our particular mental conditioning. This book aims to present excerpts from traditional and modern teaching in a wide variety of styles, in the hope that something will click.
It is also apparent that many modern teachers are diverging from or even shunning the traditional scriptural sources. This is in keeping with the tendency of individuals in modern western society to want results now, to want to hear the bottom line and avoid preparatory material, especially when it may be admitted that this is only provisional anyway. Many students are no longer interested in studying the Upanishads, which are often alien to the western mind, and most of them certainly do not wish to learn Sanskrit. Thus it is that many of the teachers themselves are also in this position.
What this means, unfortunately, is that a background understanding of the ultimate claims of Advaita is often lacking completely and there is a grave danger that students will “have the experience but miss the meaning” as T. S. Eliot puts it in his Four Quartets (Ref. 196). Many teachers today seem almost to be providing more of a psychotherapy session through their meetings than a spiritual unfolding of the truth and, unfortunately, this seems to be effectively what many of their students are looking for. But that is not Advaita.