Part I – The Fundamental Questions
In these talks, I will be presenting my understanding of what Vedanta is and why it is important to know Vedanta. This presentation is aimed at the freshman in Vedantic study who has little understanding of Sanskrit. It must be recognized, however, that we have to use some Sanskrit words to bring out the full impact of the terms that are defined. A typical example is the word ‘vAsanA’ which is a technical word with no appropriate equivalent word in English. One can say vAsanA-s manifest as ‘likes and dislikes’ both at individual level and at collective level. Thus we have individual vAsanA-s as well as collective vAsanA-s that propel us to act the way we act, individually or collectively.
Another Sanskrit word is ‘mAyA’, which is poorly translated as ‘illusion’. It can be considered as that ‘power’ because of which one appears to become many. While more of these terms will be introduced as we proceed further, the point I would like to make is that there are many technical words in Vedanta with which one should familiarize oneself early in the game, if one wants to understand and participate in Vedantic discussions. Like many of these things, it is not essential that one should understand all these terms to know Vedanta, but it will be helpful. It is not really a big deal, since we do use many technical or mathematical terms without fully appreciating their significance. For example, we learn the symbolic language of mathematics in early schooling without questioning their meaning or validity. We use two parallel lines to signify an equals sign, symbolizing an equality of what is on the left hand side with that on the right hand side of the equation. Symbolically the equals sign establishes a relation between the two sides of the equation.
Later we learn in mathematics that a symbol of three parallel lines is used to establish an identity equation, i.e. to declare that what is on left side of the equation is identically equal to what is on the right side of the equation. No, I am not writing on mathematics, but I want to lead you to simple but profound statements of Vedanta that establish some relations; not relations establishing equality, but statements confirming identity-relationships. The first one (equal sign) provides a relation of two entities that appear to be different. The second one (identity equation) provides a relation (in fact, a relationless relation) of two entities that appear to be different, but, in truth, are one and the same. Vedanta zeros in on the second aspect.
Before I discuss about the above aspects, I want to identity those who are the beginners to Vedantic study, since this writing is intended for them. A serious study of any subject would require a student to have met some prerequisites. Vedantic study is no exception. Shankara defines these requirements as ‘The four-fold qualifications’ – collectively called the ‘4-Ds’. These are:
1. Discrimination between what is eternal and what is ephemeral;
2. Dispassion to reject that which is ephemeral in order to gain that which is eternal;
3. Discipline of the mind to divert it from trivial or ephemeral pursuits in life in order to conserve the energy to pursue that which is eternal, and finally
4. Desire strong enough to motivate one in that pursuit without getting discouraged by any type of obstacles that arise.
They are somewhat interrelated with each one reinforcing the other. Hence, from Shankara’s point of view, if one does not have these four-fold qualifications, he has not prepared his mind for the knowledge of Vedanta. The mind that has acquired these four-fold qualifications is a ‘pure’ mind that is ready to ‘take off’ when the Vedantic teaching is imparted by a competent teacher. The discipline of the mind (the third ‘D’ above) involves six subsidiary disciplines for uncompromising commitment to the study. The most important among these is complete faith in the import of Vedanta, as explained by the teacher. Each word and idea in this paragraph is important and elaborate discussion of these is available in texts such as the vivekachUDAmaNi – they will be discussed as needed, later.
Hence, a beginner in Vedantic study is one who has acquired the four-fold qualifications for the study. If one has the pre-requisites, then the study will be fruitful. I will address some of the misconceptions of Vedantic study later, but suffice to say here that, if one experiences that the study has not been fruitful, it is not the fault of Vedanta but only signifies that the prerequisites have not been met adequately.
The next question that arises then is: should one study Vedanta without these pre-requisites? Vedanta itself address that issue, saying that one has to listen to Vedanta from a competent teacher (shravaNam) and reflect on it until all doubts are fully resolved (mananam) and finally contemplate on this until the teaching has been fully assimilated (nidhidhyAsanam). Listening to the teacher is sufficient if one has all the pre-requisites. For those who do not have the prerequisites, the other two are required until conviction takes place in the mind - a conviction that what Vedanta says is indeed true to the letter.
To illustrate this point, we can remind ourselves the story of our friend, Mr. Jones and the rat. Mr. Jones got the feeling that he was rat and not a man. Do not ask me when that feeling started for Mr. Jones. As far as we are concerned, it was there from the beginning. So Mr. Jones used to hide in a closet whenever he saw a cat since, being a rat, he needed to protect himself from that terrible looking cat. Mrs. Jones saw this and, somehow recognizing his problem, took him to a psychologist who tried to convince Mr. Jones that he was in fact a man. After many hours of sitting with his psychologist, Mr. Jones understood that he was indeed a man and not a rat, as he had previously thought. With that clear understanding he returned home to discover to his horror that the terrible cat was still sitting there and waiting for him. He rushed back to the doctor and asked: “Sir, I now know that I am man and not a rat, but I am afraid that the cat does not yet know this.”
We may laugh at this but our situation is not much different from Mr. Jones, as we will see later. What Mr. Jones needed to understand was about his true identity, not just ‘as a thought’ but ‘as a fact’ - that he was always a man and never a rat, even when he doubted this. Shankara says that, with adequate prparation of the four-fold qualifications, the Vedantic teaching from a competent teacher would become immediately fruitful. Otherwise, one has to develop that clarity of understanding through constant reflection and contemplation on the teaching until it is assimilated, or until what Bhagavan Ramana calls ‘firm abidance in that knowledge’ is reached.
What constitutes clear understanding of Vedanta? We will discuss this more extensively later but here it is sufficient to know that it involves two essential aspects. The first is a clear understanding of the INDENTITY relations or relationless relationships called mahAvAkya-s or great aphorisms, and the second is to realize that nothing else is required other than the clear understanding of the identity relations. The significance of these two aspects will become apparent when we discuss the identity relations, and their implications. From the Mr. Jones and the rat story, we should now have a clear understanding of what clear understanding means!
If we do not have a clear understanding of Vedanta it only means that, either we have not had proper exposure to Vedantic study (with the emphasis on proper), or our minds are not adequately prepared, in which case sAdhana is required to purify the mind for the teaching to sink in. Hence, from the point of view of Vedantic study, most of us are beginner-students requiring listening, reflecting and contemplating on the teaching. The purpose of the Advaitin Egroup is exactly to accomplish that – hence it is intended for all beginners trying to get a clear understanding of Vedantic teaching. For the silent majority – there is no silent teaching or learning in any field of study, including Vedanta. The only way to clarify one’s understanding is through discussion and by raising questions.
If one has the four-fold qualifications, then Vedanta declares that such a student will be lead to an appropriate teacher needed for his evolution. Now we can ask ourselves if we have those four-fold qualifications or not, and who is going to evaluate if we have them to qualify us to study Vedanta? In olden days, the teacher normally used to observe the students individually for a prolonged length of time and determine who was qualified and who was not. In modern days we do not have such system of teaching. A student has to develop these qualifications through association with the wise and by following karma, bhakti and j~nAna yoga-s. These aspects are extensively discussed in the Bhagavad Gita as preparatory for brahma vidyA or Vedantic study.
Not all minds are ready for such kind of study. Krishna gives out statistics in the Gita: of thousands of people, very few are interested in this study and of those who are interested only a few have the commitment to study and of those even fewer have the commitment to pursue until they realize that identity emphasized in Vedanta. However, once one is exposed to Vedantic teaching, there is no fall back in the sense that the teaching will start to germinate slowly but steadily, once the mind is purified through normal life’s trifles. Krishna says that, even if one dies in the Vedantic pursuit, he will be born in the next life into an environment conducive for his rapid growth. It also means that our preparations will never go to waste and we do not have to redo everything in the next life. It is a continuous evolution. Examination of the life stories of some great souls indicates that they took off rapidly without any preparatory disciplines. All that means is that they had already done all those preparations in their past life or lives. Hence nothing will be wasted as per the law of action and result. It also means that nothing is given free - one has to work for it. This is true for any field of study, and so is true for Vedantic study too.
Shankara says that to be born as human being is very rare indeed when there are billions of life forms available for birth. Having been born as human being, the desire for liberation is even more rare, as emphasized by Krishna’s teaching. Finally, getting exposed to teaching of Vedanta through the association of great masters is extremely rare indeed. In that sense, we are blessed to have that opportunity to learn and those who can avail themselves of this opportunity are blessed indeed.
With this sense of optimism, let us begin our study of Vedanta.
Proceed to the next essay.