Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Why Ishvara is essential for
by Peter Bonnici

flower picture


Peter Bonnici

Peter is a London student of traditional vedAnta teacher, svAmini AtmaprakAshAnanda,
a disciple of svAmi Dayananda Saraswati.

1. It is essential to be clear that lasting happiness will only come from understanding that ‘I am not limited’. This understanding will only come to stay when I discover the truth of myself. Knowing the truth of myself is what is essentially meant by mokSha. With the appreciation that no amount of action aimed at acquiring pleasures (material, intellectual or aesthetic) or security (material, intellectual, psychological, etc.) will ever deliver me from the sense that ‘I am small, I am limited’, I come to realise that the notion of limitation needs to be addressed differently. This is when, if lucky, one stumbles across a teaching and a teacher that says that the notion of smallness is a mistake and the search for the truth of one’s identity becomes the main aim of life (without any need to give up doing what is necessary in the world to meet the needs of daily life). This realisation is called puruShArtha nishcaya [unshakable certainty that mokSha is the ultimate goal].

2. It is essential to understand that without puruShArtha nishcaya there is no spirituality: there is either a life spent in pursuit of pleasure and security (with or without discipline), or a religious life which adds an ethical dimension – values and god – to the same pursuits. A spiritual person is one who is clear that mokSha is the ultimate and choiceless goal of life. He or she is invariably a religious and disciplined person; but a religious and disciplined person is not necessarily spiritual. For a spiritual person, mokSha is the primary driver of activity.

3. mokSha, the freedom from seeing oneself as small and limited, in other words 'happiness', is a cognitive step. The cognition changes from 'I am limited, insecure and unhappy' to 'I am limitlessness happiness itself'. This cognition is born from right knowledge. Happiness is realised to be not a state of mind delivered by experiences, but to be my essential nature which needs to be understood. The ONLY means of this knowledge are the words of shAstram. By shAstram is meant Vedanta; by Vedanta is meant upaniShad-s in the Indian tradition. The only means of Self-knowledge are the words of the upaniShad-s whose sole subject matter is the nature of Reality.

4. The words of shAstram cannot reveal their meaning through mere reading (self-study) or through a non-qualified teacher. The qualified teacher is described in the muNDakopaniShad as ‘one who is steeped in scripture (shrotriya) and established in brahman (brahma niShTha)’. The teacher is necessary because the words of shAstram are not easily understood. In the Indian tradition the purity of the meaning of the words is preserved by a system called sampradAya in which the vision of the teaching is passed on unchanged in an unbroken line from teacher to student. (In this way the Indian tradition is unique in preserving a teaching methodology that is largely absent from other traditions which may have the teaching but not the teaching tradition). No study of ad-hoc technical terms or imposed disciplines or ‘esoteric’ practices can reveal the truth of the Self.

5. Even if one does have access to the words of the upaniShad-s and a qualified teacher, however, it is not inevitable that understanding will result. This is because the mind may not be prepared. An unprepared mind is one that is (a) impure and (b) unsteady. By ‘impure’ is meant ‘under the influence of rAga/dveSha (love and hate; I-want or I-want-to-avoid)’. By ‘unsteady’ is meant ‘the inability to focus on one thought for a length of time’. These impediments need to be cleared before the mind is fit for Self-knowledge.

6. The antidote to mental impurity is karma yoga (an attitude to activity that involves the dedication of the action to the Lord, Ishvara, an acceptance of the outcome of action with equanimity, and commitment to living a life of values). Without purity of mind (i.e. freedom from the pull of appetites and aversions) the mind is not fit for Self-knowledge. Action (karma) without Ishvara can never be a purifying yoga. It can only result in puNya/pApa (merit/demerit) which requires re-birth in order to be exhausted, or heaven at best (which is a temporary stop).

7. The antidote to mental unsteadiness is dhyAnam (meditation), mental activity focused for a long period of time on any form of the Lord as a symbol of the Ultimate Reality, and upAsana (worship and prayer). Meditation without Ishvara is just a technical exercise in concentration and is not a yoga that contributes to mental quietude. All experiences of stillness, expansion, lightness, brightness and the rest are merely experiences of states of mind. As long as there’s an observer witnessing and enjoying these states, it is obvious that what is being witnessed is not ‘I’.

8. Thus, without Ishvara, the mind is not qualified for Self-knowledge. All disciplines required to prepare the mind for knowledge only make sense in the context of Ishvara, in acknowledgement that the Lord is dispenser of the fruits of action. No Self-knowledge, no mokSha. In order for the mind to be turned towards Ishvara it is essential to know what Ishvara is.

9. In Tattva Bodha, Ishvara is the name given to ‘brahman together with the unmanifest universe’ The Sanskrit root of the word ‘Ishvara’ carries the sense of ‘ruling’, the universe ruled by law. Ishvara is manifest as the universal law and order, personified in the Vedic tradition as Rama, Krishna, Siva, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Ganesha, etc; Jesus in the Christian tradition.

10. Everything that happens is within the law; nothing unlawful exists – even so-called unlawful behaviour is a result of the lawful coming together and interaction of various factors. Whatever results are obtained from action cannot exist outside the law. Everything in creation is an expression of law – the law of matter, of gravity, of movement, of physiology, of chemistry, of psychology, etc. Ishvara is the sum total of the laws in the universe. That is why Ishvara is called ‘karma phala dAta’ (giver of the results of action). Can the law be escaped? No. So why bother with establishing a relationship with the lawgiver? Because the severity of the penalty can be softened or the beneficence of the grace magnified. How? Because of the change of attitude engendered by such a belief.

11. Establishing a relationship with an abstract concept is difficult for one who is embodied: even Krishna says so to Arjuna. The Indian tradition has provided a ‘relationship bridge’ by personalising different aspects of Ishvara: Ganesha removes obstacles; Dakshinamurti is the first teacher; Siva is auspiciousness; Rama is righteousness; Lakshmi is the bestower of wealth; Sarswati of wisdom; Medha Devi of the power of intellection. If that which is worshipped stands for the Absolute Reality, the activity is called meditation. (In this sense, meditation isn’t a practice for two half hours: it is taking place any time the mind is turned to the Lord. And, as said above, meditation results in mental steadiness.)

12. Worship of the symbols of Absolute Reality has immediate benefits: (a) the ego admits its helplessness in being able to deliver the fruit of action; and (b) the creation is seen as full of potential instead of as a source of threat. One who is not graced with these benefits is possessed by the belief: ‘I am the doer and enjoyer’ despite ‘hearing’ the teaching of shAstram. Prayer and worship help reduce the blocking power of doership and enjoyership by re-orienting the mind away from the ego. Ultimately, prayer is auto-suggestion because, in truth, there is no other to pray to; but to arrive at this realisation one needs the teaching of shAstram. The characteristics of one who has such an understanding, the sthitapraj~na, the man of steady wisdom, is described in the bhagavadgItA, (Ch2.v55 onwards). Without this understanding, the repetition of the statements of shAstram is mere babble.

13. The effectiveness of prayer is magnified if there is clarity about what it can deliver and what it cannot. Clarity in this context means being able to distinguish between three activities: concentration, meditation and contemplation. All three involve focusing the mind on a single object for a length of time. The object of focus in concentration could be any worldly thing – work or cooking or music, or the flame of a candle or to tapes of whalesong, etc. – it develops mental discipline only. In meditation, the object of focus is saguNa brahman, Ishvara, a symbol of Reality. It leads to mental steadiness, a pre-requisite for knowledge. In contemplation, nididhyAsanam, the object of focus is one’s own true nature as brahman. It alone leads to mokSha.

14. nididhyAsanam is for assimilating what has already been ascertained through the words of shAstram. It starts from an acceptance of the unity of individual and brahman, which implies clarity about what brahman is. This clarity is delivered by shravaNa (systematic study of shAstram with a qualified teacher) and mananam (reflection on what has been studied to remove all doubts about its veracity). As we have seen, book knowledge or self-study cannot deliver this. And, as we have also seen, the mind needs to be qualified for knowledge. And this is impossible without Ishvara. This in turn requires shraddhA, (faith in shAstram and the teacher). And shAstram (bhagavadgItA and upaniShad-s) and the teacher (in our case, Adi Shankara) all enjoin worship of Ishvara. If the grandsire of advaita, Adi Shankara, recommends prayer, if Krishna’s advice to Arjuna was the worship of saguNa brahman, then shraddhA involves having trust in them, despite my ‘experiences’ or understanding of what Self-knowledge and unity implies.

Return to list of topics in Discourses by Teachers and Writers .
See the list sorted by Topic.
See the list sorted by Author.

Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012