Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

An Introduction to Advaita
Dr. N K Srinivasan

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The author of this article has also published the book Safe and Simple Steps to Fruitful Meditation, and Essence of Srimad Bhagavad Gita, both of which may be purchased from Pustak Mahal, New Delhi.

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This article is based on the Hindu philosophical tenets and practice of Advaita or non duality. It is the traditional approach, in contrast to what is now commonly developed as neo-Advaita. This has been written by me as a simple introduction, without giving quotations from standard scriptures or Advaitic texts. Much of the  inspiration is derived from Bhagwan Ramana's teachings and the divine grace of Shirdi Sainath whom I regard as my pAramaguru.

Advaita philosophy is the basis for the path of j~nAna or j~nAna Yoga. Self enquiry or Atma vichAra and the path of discrimination are specific methods under the broad umbrella of Advaita. Bhagwan Ramana extolled the method of self-enquiry with the deep question ‘Who am I’ [Nan Yaar in Tamil language] as an approach in Advaita for the modern man to delve deep into the question of Self. Self-realization masters, including Paramahamsa Yogananda, advocated methods of self-enquiry along with kriyA yoga meditations.

Before we proceed further, I must state categorically that there is no conflict between j~nAna Yoga or Advaitism and the path of devotion or bhakti yoga. Both are not only valid paths, they can be practised concurrently. One is not opposed to the other. A true Advaitin is a bhaktiman of the highest order. A true bhakta realizes his oneness with the divine at some stage and is indeed an Advaitin. But these are felt or realized in the higher stages of attainment. For a beginner or misconstrued philosopher, the two ways or yogas appear contradictory or impossible to follow at the same time.

Some saints and sages like Yogananda would include meditational practices such as kriya yoga or raja yoga along with bhakti and j~nAna in their own particular style. These variations are for the most part minor. Yogananda stressed the devotional practices as much as meditation on the Absolute.

Therefore it is wise to accept that j~nAna and bhakti are one and the same after you practise for some time, though initially they tend to be very dissimilar. [There had been many texts in Hindu philosophy which had stressed one instead of the other. Some over zealous preachers and text writers have denounced one method or the other]. Some would even contend that bhakti is a preparative step for j~nAna – that bhakti or devotion is meant mainly for cleaning the mind. Such interpretations are based on restricted knowledge. Great  masters and  mystics like Ramana or Ramakrishna saw both of them to be equally applicable and effective.

One more question also arises in this context: Which is the easier path - j~nAna [Advaita] or bhakti [devotion]? Again endless arguments have surfaced in the long history of Hindu spiritual heritage. My opinion is that neither of them is easy. Both are difficult. But one of the paths may be relatively easier for a particular individual depending on his mental make-up or personality and the circumstances in which he or she grows. This tendency for bhakti or j~nAna may also be influenced by the social milieu. Thus bhakti movements in India [roughly from 10th century to 16th century] spawned a number of saints and sages following devotional path and many lay persons were drawn to this path. Even then several ascetics following Advaita or j~nAna yoga were to be found in India . Those who even attempt to follow any of these two paths would know that both are like climbing the Himalayas to reach Mt Everest.

Having said that both j~nAna and bhakti can be practised concurrently and that neither of them is easy, one may wonder why one should follow the Advaitic method. The answer is simple. For an intellectually tuned person, the path of devotion [either monotheistic or polytheistic] appears childish, naive or crude. He or she would like to think in terms of cosmic forces and spirits or energy or consciousness pervading the cosmos or a realm in which mind does not operate or is annulled. He likes to meditate on a formless God. Such a person would be drawn to Advaita.

Advaita philosophy, which admits only one entity ['not two'] is based on Hindu philosophy. Adi Shankara, who came after Lord Gautama Buddha [Sakyamuni] tried to resurrect the Hindu religion after the onslaught of Buddhists. Adi Shankara [approximately 788-820 AD] propounded the Advaita philosophy with several serious texts. But it should be added that he did not invent or develop this philosophy. The philosophy is as old as the hills and can be traced to part of the Vedanta or the Upanishads. Adi Shankara reinterpreted the Upanishads in the context of Buddhist arguments.

[It is clear that a serious student of Advaita would study and derive inspiration and concepts from the Upanishads as much as from Adi Shankara's texts. Incidentally, a profound work of Adi Shankara for understanding the Advaita is Viveka-Chudamani, the Crown Jewel of Discrimination. One can read the English translation by Swami Prabhavananda of Sri Ramakrishna Mission, Vedanta Society of Southern California. There are several translations and texts on Upanishads for the interested readers. A more recent and lucid translations or abridgements would be those of Eknath Easwaran.]

[It should be remarked that Adi Shankara amply emphasized bhakti in many texts which he wrote. We shall not go into the details here. ]

What is Advaita?

This philosophy, unlike Buddhism, entails the concept of soul permeating everything - all individuals and the material cosmic creation. This soul, or for the present Supersoul, is all that exists. Call it paramAtman [para = Super; Atma = Soul] or Brahman. This supersoul manifests itself in innumerable ways, including individual persons with the little soul or jIvAtman. But in reality there is only one Supersoul or paramAtman. Due to ignorance we think we have a soul which is distinct or separate from paramAtman. This is the illusion or mAyA to be dispelled.

Several analogies are given to explain this. Suppose we have four pots with water filled to the brim in sunlight. We would see four suns reflected in those pots. But the sun above in the sky is the real One. These are mere reflections. Such is the relationship between Jivatma and Paramatma. If we have kept a thousand pots, we would see a thousand suns. When the pots are emptied, these suns or reflections would disappear.

In other words, we are all reflections of God or Supreme Reality or the One permeating the universe.

The illusion or Maya of separateness from divine Oneness is a trick of the mind. Therefore Advaita says "destroy the mind" ['manonasham']. In this we come almost close to Buddhism.

We shall discuss later what is entailed in destroying the mind.

Thought and Mind

In Hindu philosophy, the two words, intellect [buddhi] and mind [manas] are clearly distinguished. Intellect involves discriminating and logical thinking. Intellect includes much of information one gathers in a lifetime, and wisdom based on knowledge or information. Intellect can be developed very fast, by learning, by the process of education in the western sense and by scriptural studies.

Manas or mind is built upon thought streams. Thoughts flow without interruption for a long time, associating one thought with another, like a chain reaction. Mind stores all these, with feelings and emotions. Mind interprets these thoughts - in terms of pleasure and pain, good and bad. Therefore manas is something superior to the intellect. Intellect can be strictly objective, rational and emotionless. But manas, full of emotions, filters many things. Manas also stores up impressions from the past - both pleasant and unpleasant.

The residual impressions in the mind - of events and actions - are called vAsanA-s. vAsanA-s trigger us into action - good and bad. If you recall that someone has done good to you, you may like to repay with gratitude in some way. If you recall that someone has wronged you, you get angry and want to take revenge. The vAsanA-s do not fade or disappear easily. What is worse, vAsanA-s have the habit of reinforcing themselves - by recalling over and over again. It is easy to say 'forgive and forget' an old incident or painful event but never easy. The more you think, the stronger the vAsanA-s become.

Controlling thoughts and thus controlling the mind is the important step. This can be done through meditation or through deep practices of devotion to the Supreme. You have to control both pleasant and unpleasant thoughts of the past. There is no easy way except sitting in meditation with initial forced constraint. You have to face your thoughts that well up in your mind.

Thoughts are like water bubbles that surface in the ocean or in a fizzy soft drink. They will surface many at a time. Is it easy to calm the mind?

A time comes after several sessions of meditation or devotional fervour that you 'learn to forgive yourself and forgive others'. When you reach that stage, compassion and love surge in your mind. Only then you truly understand: "Forgive them, they know not what they do"

One may ask: "Why all this discussion on thought and mind?" The answer is simply this: Unless you practice these to learn to forgive yourself and others, unless you learn to tap the wellsprings of love for yourself and others, you cannot have a calm mind. Without a calm mind, Advaitic contemplation or vichAra or self-enquiry cannot work.

The unruly mind has to be subdued, before you can direct it or the mind can be stopped or annihilated. [In Vedantic literature, mind is compared to a drunken monkey, bitten by a scorpion!]

Glimpses of Reality

In the Vedas and Upanishads, the RRiShi-s or seers defined three stages of progression.

In the first stage, one admires Nature, rejoices in the seasons, rains, harvest and so on. One's mind is fully externalized. One feels that he [or she] is part of Nature. Many Vedic seers sang their hymns from that perspective. They felt the 'power' of the Supreme through observation of external Nature. Many scientists would feel the same way today. [Many scholars have wrongly interpreted this as a reaction to the fear for natural events.] This stage is also called vibhUti Yoga, as given in the Bhagavad Gita.
In the second stage, one feels, after considerable reflection, that there is a mysterious force in each one of us that makes us live, work, think and so on. It is not the eye, but the eye of the eye and so on. One feels that the Supreme is present in each one of us in a subtle form - call it Soul or Atma or some other. One feels that there is an inner heart in which the supreme dwells [not the mechanical pump called heart by physiologists] or rather the Supreme abides in the cave of the heart [hRRidaya guha]. Then one can invoke this Indwelling Spirit in prayer or meditation. This realization also implies that all are sacred, because the supreme resides in each one of us. Without this indwelling spirit we are just a bag of bones or a corpse, fit to be buried or burnt. No one wants a corpse to be kept in a house.

The formal religions,  religious philosophers and saints, mostly speak of this second stage. This stage has the important effect of civilizing humans. Much of the progress of mankind is attributable to the influence of religions in this respect. Do unto others as others should do to you - this aphorism refers to this thinking. Show respect and fairness to others. Yes, we all made in the image of the Supreme - that is, carry a parcel of the Supreme. The Kingdom of God is within you. Your body is a temple. All these concepts are based on this second stage of 'realization'.

[It is a sad commentary on our society that this stage is not reached by millions of people who may or may not profess religious affiliation. We see much bloodshed, violence and lack of peace.]

In the third stage, the spiritual explorer finds that the indwelling spirit in man is the same spirit that pervades the universe. The Self within is also the Self without, the Supreme; the Cosmic Force or Being. He feels a sense of unity with everything in the Universe. It is this Unitive experience that one finds in the State of samAdhi [savikalpa or the higher state of nirvikalpa] as given in Vedanta. It is this stage sought by an Advaitin, for whom there is only ONE and not two.

Let us not worry now whether or how one can attain that stage, how easy or hard it is to attain, what methods to follow and so on. Let us recognise that such a stage exists and is attainable.

Three Doors to Reality

It is impossible to describe the experience of Reality or Brahman or the Supreme. Yet, Vedic seers have attempted by using three words to satisfy the curiosity of ordinary thinkers: sat-chit-Ananda.

sat is Truth, Being, Existence - the substratum of everything. This door is opened by j~nAna yoga or path of Advaita and self-enquiry.

chit is the aspect of reality called consciousness or true knowledge. This doorway is opened by meditation and rAja yoga - essentially Patanjali's aShTA~Nga yoga [eight-part yoga] which includes prANayAma and kriyA yoga and similar techniques. [Bhagavan Ramana endorsed this path also but suggested that it might be difficult to follow for the modern man.]

Ananda is bliss, the ineffable joy. The experience of this aspect is the fruit of bhakti yoga or the path of devotion.

Sat-Chit-Ananda svarUpa or form of sat, chit and Ananda is invoked in many prayers and hymns. Thus Reality can be conceived of a composite of all these three aspects. Does that mean that a bhakta or devotee cannot experience the Cosmic consciousness of a Yogi or the unitive state of a j~nAnI? The answer is no. One can achieve the full experience of all the three aspects - but the words used and the metaphors for description may vary.

Why do we use three different words? Well--- the answer is that we do not have a single word to describe all the three aspects in our languages, including Sanskrit. This is the limitation of languages, not that of the seers. We are indeed in a world of duality still!!

Thought and Mind Control

What is mind? It is the stream of thoughts flowing like a river. Interestingly, when we say that water is flowing in a river, we do not specify a particular volume of water; it is immaterial. We know that water keeps flowing. The volume of water we saw would have flowed at least a few feet before we register that volume in our mind. We refer to the substance called water in the stream. In the same way, one thought is replaced by another thought. Thoughts keep changing. Thus thoughts are not permanent or have any specific value except at that moment.

Mind is thus neither permanent nor valuable. One can say that Life is not a series of thought structures or product of mind, though it appears to be so. Déscartes stated that 'I think, therefore I am'. In other words, man is a thinking animal. Animals don't think the way we do and that distinguishes us. We know that we think; we are conscious of our thinking process.

For an Advaitin, mind interferes with the perception of Reality; mind obscures the process of understanding Reality; mind is like a fog that covers the Reality with an illusory cover. When the Sun of True Knowledge shines, the fog is cleared.

Why does this happen? For one thing, mind binds our thoughts to this body. The sense of 'I' is then limited to this body. Therefore we think about our body and keep thinking of this most basic of all our thoughts - birth and death identified with the birth and death of one's body. It is this body consciousness that restricts our total consciousness.

In Advaita, to realize one's self, one goes beyond the body consciousness. That is the essential step.

Sense of Time

We are bound by the tyranny of time consciousness. The past troubles us through past thoughts - both pleasant and unpleasant. We long for the pleasant events and associations of the past. We suffer pain due to certain past events. This is the suffering or duHkha of human kind.

When we perceive mind as a flow of thoughts without permanence or meaning as such, we have no notion of past and future. The present alone has meaning. The past and future are things that would be stored in the mind [as on a computer disk] and can be played at times but have no value. Reality is the present moment. We fail to experience the present fully because past and future intrude on our mind.

Suppose you enter a restaurant and order a food item. When the food item is brought to you, your mind immediately compares it with the same item eaten earlier or similar item. You may feel happy or unhappy with what is served now. You do not really experience the food items. Your perception is colored by past thoughts or what may happen later.

These thoughts, the structure of the mind, are seen to be required for daily life. One may say that "I cannot live without these thoughts anyway? How do I buy food? How do I do my daily activities without the mind? How can I switch off the mind and yet continue to live in the world or maintain my body?"

The answer is that you go through life without attachment to the thought impressions. Good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant - take them as certain impressions with very little meaning. We say in India that one should be unattached to Life - live like a lotus leaf unwetted by water. This is not easy but not impossible.

A consequence of this is that an Advaitin does not expect anything for the future - no saMkalpa or wishes or projections for the future. Whatever happens, he receives that with no feeling of either delight or disappointment. In fact this is the real test of Advaitic wisdom experienced by a person. Bhagavan Ramana and masters like him lived a life without saMkalpa, and they were eternally free. Every saMkalpa or expectation binds us to the future and causes pain or pleasure later.

[A similar effect is achieved by a devotee who surrenders all his will to the Divine and goes about feeling ‘Thy will and not my will - thy will be done'. He accepts whatever happens as the gift of God and surrenders all fruits of action to the Divine Lord or personal deity. Thus one can see that j~nAna and bhakti are not very different in the end results]

[Note: The author is a meditator and devotee, belonging to the Hindu religion but he accepts all religions to be equally true and every religion has Advaita philosophy embedded somewhere in their tenets. He lives in Palo Alto, California, leading a 'retired life' after a long professional career.] Contact the author.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012