Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

New Ideas for Old

flower picture

by Peter Bonnici

Some vague notions that have been clarified by my teacher, Swamini AtmaprakAsAnanda, and her teacher HH Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswati:

1. puruShArtha nishcaya: Certainty about the Goal in Life

vedAnta study only makes sense if j~nAnam/mokSha is recognised as the SOLE, choiceless aim of human life, and the words of shruti (upaniShad) being the SOLE pramANa (means of knowledge) for it. All other practices without this aim are just ‘good actions’, the result of which may be puNya in the next birth or heaven at best. Even meditation without this conviction will deliver temporary peace but will not be of any other value: once I was agitated and limited, now I am peaceful and limited. Other yogic practices may deliver powers, but not freedom. Study, without puruShArtha nishcaya, delivers intellectual pleasure: no harm in it, but no contribution to mokSha.

The journey of freedom begins, as stated in the muNDakopaniShad, by a person finding that limitlessness is not the result of activity. When Arjuna saw the futility of action, he wanted to become a renunciate, but as he wasn’t of a contemplative nature, the advice to him, was to prepare his mind through karma yoga and upAsana. The key point of note is that he only got this advice when he begged for guidance that would lead to shreyas, i.e. mokSha. The kaThopaniShad says, 'shreyas (mokSha) is one thing, preyas (artha, kAma) another,' and that the mind of the wise is oriented towards shreyas. Old idea: Living a ‘good’, disciplined, prayerful life is enough for ‘realisation’.

2. Multiple 'Paths'

Since the problems of unhappiness, insecurity, fear of death arise from the single mistake of wrong self-identity, the ONLY antidote is knowledge leading to right self-identity (mokSha). For mokSha only two committed lifestyles (niShTha) are prescribed by the tradition: pravRRitti and nivRRitti, engagement and renunciation. Renunciation is for those of a contemplative disposition, who have a clear vision of reality, but still need to assimilate it. Engagement in activity (karma yoga and upAsana) is for those who still believe they have duties, etc., and have not yet gained the vision of reality. Every activity, apart from contemplation on the nature of myself as brahman (nididhyAsanam), comes under the karma yoga lifestyle.

BUT BIG NOTE: Even meditation, even prayer, even study of scripture or performance of dharmic acts of kindness, are not a yoga if mokSha is not the ultimate aim. They are good actions, no doubt, and the reward will be puNya or heaven at best, but it will not deliver purification of the antaHkaraNa (i.e. freedom from the grip of rAga dveSha, likes and dislikes). Old idea: A combination of meditation, study and service is the key to realisation.

3. shAstra and the Teacher

Knowledge leading to right self-identity (mokSha) is most succinctly expressed in the statement: 'Tat tvam asi,' you are that Absolute Reality. Or to express it as an equation Tvam = Tat. We already have a sense of ‘tvam’ but mistakenly take it to be only the gross and subtle bodies. vedAnta’s job is to use ordinary words to correct this error, and do so in such a way that the ordinary words reveal their extraordinary meanings. If one hears the word ‘elephant’, the thing indicated is immediately in mind. Say ‘Consciousness’ and there is no equivalent understanding. Scripture’s job is to correct this shortcoming. And this can only be done by a teacher for whom the word ‘Consciousness’ does evoke its meaning.

The difference between a teacher and a preacher is that the former wants the student to see the vision that the teacher sees; whereas the latter wants the listener to accept what the speaker says. Traditional teachers have teachers who have teachers who have been taught in the traditional way. Not only do they have the vision, but they also know how to unfold it, they have the traditional teaching methodology. The rule of thumb to distinguish between a traditional vedAnta teacher and a non-traditional one is to see what emphasis, if any, is placed on mokSha and on the role of j~nAnam in taking one there. The guru starts off as another person, then is seen as the Lord and finally as myself. Old idea: All you need is the text, and a good mind. Or, if you are not intellectually minded, by 'diving deep you will hear God speaking directly.

4. The Lord

The name given to brahman together with its intrinsic powers of manifestation (mAyA) is called Ishvara. Thus Ishvara is the name of the immanence and manifestation of the natural universal law and order. That’s the name at the macrocosmic level, the level of the whole creation. At the microcosmic level, the level of an individual, the name is jIva. Ishvara also has functional names: Brahma (when the universe is becoming manifest), Vishnu (when the show is running) and Siva (when the manifest universe resolves back into its original unmanifest condition). There is no ‘character ‘called Ishvara. There is no character called Creator. Just as from the point of view of the illuminated object, the sun is ‘The Illuminator’, but from the point of view of the sun, there is no activity of illumination because, by simply being, it illuminates (the power of illumination being its very nature), similarly from the point of view of brahman there is no act of creation. The creation is merely a manifestation of brahman, the Reality. All the devas and devattA-s are indicators that point to the one reality, called brahman.

One analogy used in the Indian tradition is 'shAkhA-chandra-nyAya' (the moon indicated by the branch). In the tradition, it is considered auspicious to see the crescent moon ('third day moon'). When someone wants to show it to another person, he can try just pointing to it, but the sky is a wide expanse. It is helpful to proceed by saying, 'Look at the tree. See the branch projecting out towards the side?' When his friend can see that, then, 'Do you see the fork near the end?' 'Yes.' 'Well, now look through the gap.' 'Ahah!' Ishvara is the branch; the reality is the moon. Ultimately we are not interested in the branch, we are only interested in what it points to. Old idea: Praying to Ishvara implies duality and must be transcended, so worship is for those who are new to the path.

5. Fate and Grace

The common misconception here is that prArabdha is what delivers the circumstances and events in the life. This is not strictly true, but not totally untrue either. One useful way of thinking of the link between the unseen results of action (puNya/pApa), AgAmi, saMchita and prArabdha is to think of it as the journey of a parcel. The result of any action is the equivalent of posting a self-addressed parcel. The sorting office is where the parcel starts off (AgAmi) from which it is delivered to the sub-post office (saMchita) from which a postman (prArabdha) delivers as many of your self-addressed parcels as he can possibly carry. What do you get when you open the parcel? You get pleasure or pain, (sukha duHkha) in varying degrees, according to what you posted (i.e. how you acted). Adharmic actions deliver duHkha. Dharmic actions deliver a moment of sukha. How? The most ‘handy’ trigger (nimitta) from the environment is chosen to deliver the pleasure or pain.

Note: the event is only the trigger, not the cause. The cause is you: what you chose to put in the parcel before you posted it to yourself. So, if you are at work at the moment when the pain parcel is delivered, the trigger (nimitta) might be a computer crash. If you are home, it could be forgetting to turn off the cooker and burning your dinner. If you are asleep, it could be a dream of being chased by a tiger. None of the trigger events are absolutely fixed, but that you will experience sukha or duHkha at a given time is fixed. This is where prayer can help soften the blow. For example, when the time for pain arrives, you could dream that you have lost your wallet – with all the accompanying anxiety that gets relieved on waking and re-discovering the money. Or you could have actually lost your wallet. The pain is common in both cases, but prayer could mean that it doesn’t have to cling. The other advantage of this view is that no one else, or nothing else, can be held responsible for what happens to me. It is just a postman, delivering my own self-addressed parcel. In a general way, however, one finds oneself in an environment that is most likely (logical) for the triggering of the pleasure or pain. Even this is not mechanical: millionaires experience great sorrow and paupers can be uplifted by the smile of a child. Old idea: prArabdha seen as a synonym for luck and no link with prayer is made (especially as prayer is seen as a dvaita activity, not for those interested in advaita).

6. Mind

There is only one, undivided mind which is nothing but the name of the movement of thought (vRRitti). When the thoughts are of the nature of vacillation and emotional entanglement, the one mind is called manas. When the thoughts are of the nature of clear decisiveness, the one mind is called buddhi. When the thoughts are of the nature of recollection of the past, the one mind is called chitta. When the thoughts are of the nature of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ or anything appended to the ‘I’-thought, the one mind is called ahaMkAra. So it is not strictly accurate to say that ‘buddhi decides’, ‘manas emotes’, ‘chitta remembers’ or ‘ahaMkAra misleads’. It is even inaccurate to say that ‘mind (antaHkaraNa) thinks’: the very surfacing of thought is mind.  Old idea: Mind (antaHkaraNa) is divided into functional departments manas, buddhi, chitta that produce different sorts of thoughts. ahaMkAra is the causal form of mind.

7. Meditation

There is a hierarchy mentioned in the aShTA~Nga Yoga: dhAraNA, dhyAna, samAdhi – concentration, meditation and contemplation. Concentration is prolonged focus on anything, from a candle flame to music to a picture of a deity. It develops mental strength and steadiness. When the object of attention is saguNa brahman, Ishvara, as a symbol of reality, then contemplation is given the name meditation. In meditation there is still a duality between meditator and object of mediation. When the object of meditation is none other than my own svarUpam (fundamental nature) as sat-chit-Ananda Atma, then meditation is called contemplation (nididhyAsanam).  Contemplation, when practiced for a long period of time, leads to the ascertained vision of the non-duality of reality. In that sense, samAdhi is not contemplation, but another state of mind.

There are two levels: savikalpa, when all thoughts are resolved, but there remains an observer of this thought-free mind; and nirvikalpa, when this final duality between observer and observed is not there. It is a state akin to conscious deep sleep, a state of mind produced by tremendous effort, and one that is extremely enjoyable – intoxicating even. But as it has been produced by activity, it will have an end. Old idea: In the stillness brought about by meditation one realises the self.

8. Real and Unreal, satyam and mithyA

The common misunderstanding is in the translation of mithyA as unreal (asat). Two types of asat are recognised by the tradition: tuchCha, totally unreal, like ‘the barren woman’s son’; and mithyA, ‘as though’ real: empirically real, but not absolutely real. Wave has a reality. But remove water and there is no wave. Water is satyam, and wave (a name of a form taken by water) is mithyA. First we see just the wave, then we learn that wave is nothing but water. Finally we conclude that there is only water. mithyA is satyam. Old idea: The world is to be shunned.

9. ahaMkAra

This is the name given to Consciousness manifest as the ‘I’-thought, and identified with the body. And any other notion that is added to ‘I’. Old idea: ahaMkAra is a destructive lodger that needs to be destroyed.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012