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Advaita for the 21st Century

Atmananda (Krishna Menon)
Philip Renard

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Philip Renard

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See the section on the teaching of Atmananda Krishna Menon.

The following article constitutes part 3 of 4 entitled "'I' is a Door". The other parts may be read at his website.

In the two preceding parts of “‘I’ is a door”1 attention was paid to the remarkable phenomenon that the word ‘I’, may be referring to a limited and bound entity, as well as to That which is infinite Light, sheer Freedom. In the preceding articles both Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj spoke about this phenomenon. Now we will discuss the third one of the ‘Great Three’, the three truly great Advaita teachers of the twentieth century,: Sri Atmananda, or Sri Krishna Menon.

P. Krishna Menon was born in 1883 in Peringara, near Tiruvalla in the state of Travancore ( now a part of today’s Kerala). After completing a study of law he became a Government Advocate and Inspector and District Superintendent of Police. He once said that in his early life he prayed at length to encounter a Sat-guru, a Teacher in the true sense of the word. One day in 1919 he met such a teacher, one Swami Yogananda, who lived in Calcutta.2 They met during the course of one night only. Krishna Menon was particularly touched by the utmost humility of this teacher. He later stated, “This paralyzed my ego."
Because of this encounter, he started a sadhana, which contained both bhakti- and raja-yoga as well as pure jnana. Later on having become a teacher himself, he would pass on to others only the jnana-aspect, and even criticise both the bhakti and raja yoga aspects.3
In 1923 he came to realise his true Nature. He assumed the name Sri Atmananda and began teaching. He continued to work in the Police Department up to 1939. Later on, he once said that a profession within the police or the military offers an ideal foundation for a spiritual sadhana, because such a profession offers in particular the maximum obstacles and temptations.4
In 1959 Atmananda died at Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala.

One of the ways by which Atmananda’s approach became known in the West was through the book The Nature of Man According to the Vedanta by John Levy. He was an English pupil of Atmananda who had stayed regularly with him. Levy rephrased Atmananda’s typical approach in a somewhat more Western style; though he did retain Atmananda’s particular and unique way of dealing with logic.5
I got to know of Atmananda while a pupil of the late Alexander Smit, a Dutchman who had been a pupil of Atmananda’s pupil Wolter Keers. Alexander gave me a copy of two small books by Atmananda, Atma-Darshan and Atma-Nirvriti.6 These books are Atmananda’s brief summary of his teachings; they have been written in his mother tongue Malayalam and translated into English by himself. For two years Alexander Smit thoroughly dealt with these books. I am grateful having had the privilege to attend to these meetings; owing to this opportunity I became familiar with Atmananda’s specific approach.

What is specific to his approach?
It is his own special linguistic usage, his particular logic (or ‘subjective’ logic, see note 5), his way of reducing all things to their ultimate nature, and in particular his entire emphasis on what he called the ‘I-Principle’.
To him this ‘I-Principle’ was a synonym of Ultimate Reality, the Absolute – there is nothing which precedes it; it is what is truly meant with the word ‘I’. He said for instance: “Pure consciousness and deep peace are your real nature. Having understood this in the right manner, you can well give up the use of the words ‘Consciousness’ and ‘Happiness’ and invariably use ‘I’ to denote the Reality. Don’t be satisfied with only reducing objects into Consciousness. Don’t stop there. Reduce them further into the ‘I-Principle’. So also reduce all feelings into pure Happiness and then reduce them into the ‘I-Principle’.”7
Although Atmananda loved to use words like Consciousness and Happiness in order to refer to the Ultimate, a quote like this shows that ultimately he preferred the term ‘I-Principle’ (he once even said that compared to the I-Principle the word Consciousness can be called theory!8). He did so because he considered that the word ‘I’ has the least chance of being misunderstood. Everything that can be perceived can be subject to misunderstanding, however that which can be called ‘yourself’, that which cannot be perceived, ‘I’, cannot cause misunderstanding..9 He considered the I-Principle to be everybody’s true goal, because it is in fact contained in each endeavour.10

The use of the word ‘Principle’ by Atmananda should not be considered a mental or philosophical attempt to understand or frame the ‘I’. It is his way of using a word for what ‘I’ is in itself, I as such. What ‘I’ as such really is, precisely, is prior to each mental movement or framing.
With expressions like ‘in itself’ and ‘as such’ language stops short. Here language arrives at its limits. Something is referring to itself. Something as such does not change the next moment into something else. It is the constant factor in the ever changing, it is its own true nature. It does not rely on anything else. Atmananda frequently used the Sanskrit word svarupa, true nature, which referred to this constant factor. He used it together with a number of words that he considered its synonym, such as ‘background’, ‘content’, ‘substrate’, ‘pure state’ and ‘natural state’. Atmananda used these various words as indications for one and the same thing.
The trouble with language is that each attempt to refer to the essential nature of something can, as quick as a flash, be misunderstood. For instance a term like ‘the essence’ can suggest the presence of a tiny ‘being’ or ‘core’ within a more coarse form. As if you might discover something’s essence by enlarging it more and more using a microscope, continuously looking to what is inside the core. Something of this suggestion repeatedly arises in popular commentaries on the famous ‘You Are That’ passage in the Chandogya Upanishad, in which Uddalaka teaches his son by splitting a fruit further and further.
Atmananda was a master in emphasising the mistake that can possibly lies lie in this short-sightedness. For this kind of enquiry will always get trapped in what he called the ‘objective’. Atmananda used the terms objective and subjective in a way that is uncommon in the West. To him objective was not an indication for the impartial, but for everything that can be observed, everything that is an object to the senses and thoughts. The same goes with subjective: here he did not mean a view or opinion coloured by a person, but that which is merely Subject, — that which can not be observed by definition, and which by Itself constantly illumines whatever is the object.11
This means that the enquiry into something ‘inside’ as a findable ‘essence’ or ‘core’ is incommensurate with any insight in the Ultimate. Hence, one cannot say that the modern research of physics and true self-enquiry are one and the same thing, as is suggested nowadays in some advaitic circles. Physics will always remain the field of the ‘objective’.
This is likewise the case when the concept ‘all-encompassing’ is used to express notions such as Cosmos, Space or the Infinite. Atmananda once gave us a useful indication or insight:
“Space (Akasha), though not perceptible to the senses, is certainly conceivable by the mind. So it is really objective in nature. If we take out of Space this last taint of objectivity, it ceases to be dead and inert, becomes self-luminous and it immediately shines as its background, the Reality.”12

Everything in Atmananda’s teaching is about the Subject. It refers exclusively to That which knows. That which knows is not a Knower (not a He or She), but Knowing as such (Jnana). He named this 'Knowing as such' also as ‘Experience’ (Anubhava), meaning Experiencing as such, and also Feeling as such (Rasa), — all three are synonyms of the Wonder which is in fact ‘I’ am. Take for instance the following:
“The ‘I-Principle’ is the only Experience that one can have. Even though he be an ignorant man, he can only experience Himself. (...) If the experience has many objects, it is no Experience. You are superimposing objects upon your Experience. Your Experience is one and the same, always” ; and “I have already proved to you that no one can know or experience anything other than one’s own Self, the ‘I-Principle’. (...) The only experience is ‘I’, and ‘I’ is the only word which denotes experience”; and “The ‘I-Principle’ is the only thing that exists; ‘I’ requires no proof either. The objective cannot exist independent of this ‘I’, and therefore the ‘I-Principle’ is the only ultimate Reality.”13
This radical way of speaking, in which virtually everything can be reduced to That which knows, implies that objects need not be ignored or removed, but can be considered pointers to Reality. In order to recognize the Self, most texts in the Advaita tradition consider it a must for a student to learn not to pay attention to sensory objects. However, Atmananda made it clear that as a matter of fact, nothing is an obstacle. One is never really swallowed by an object, or hindered by an obstacle. Nothing needs to be removed. “Nothing hides consciousness.”14
The so-called ego too, is not an enemy; on the contrary, Atmananda said it is a help: “Even the much despised ego is a great help to the realization of the Truth. The presence of the ego in man, though in a distorted form, is infinitely better than the absence of it, as for example in a tree”; and “It is the whole ego that seeks liberation and strives for it. When it is directed to the ultimate Reality, the material part automatically drops away and the Consciousness part alone remains over as the real ‘I-Principle’. This is liberation.”15

Atmananda's emphasis on radical non-duality does not mean that he construed that in the day to day contact between people, the ego has already totally dissolved, and that this was also the case in the contact his students had with him as their teacher. In other words, he did not have the illusion that that which he outlined to be ultimately true, was already true for his students or readers in their activities. Thus, he did not think it to be helpful at all to honour the ‘differencelessness’ or non-duality in his actual activities as teacher and police officer. He considered it a pitfall to shout all too soon that ‘everything is Consciousness’ in a worldly or relational environment, and he continued pointing out ‘difference’ as long as this was the true state of affairs to the student. Thus he considered advaita, non-duality, not applicable to the relationship between teacher and student. “Think of your Guru only in the dualistic sphere”, he said, “apply your heart wholly to it and get lost in the Guru. Then the Ultimate dances like a child before you.”16 And moreover: “Advaita is only a pointer to the Guru. You do not reach Advaita completely until you reach the egoless state. Never even think that you are one with the Guru. It will never take you to the Ultimate. On the contrary, that thought will only drown you. Advaita points only to the Ultimate.”17
Atmananda considered a devotional attitude to be a great help. But in an instruction he made it clear that such an attitude is only appropriate towards your own Guru. “That particular Person through whom one had the proud privilege of being enlightened, that is the ONLY FORM which one may adore and do Puja to, to one’s heart’s content, as the person of one’s Guru. It is true that all is the Sat-Guru, but only when the name and form disappear and not otherwise. Therefore the true aspirant should beware of being deluded into any similar devotional advance to any other form, be it of God or of man.”18 In another statement he reveals how strict and dualistic he was in respect to the student and guru relationship: “A disciple should never bow allegiance to two Gurus at the same time”; to which he added that “accepting more than one guru at a time is even more dangerous than having none at all.”19
The following story illustrates how in his daily life Atmananda showed that each of the levels (the Absolute and the relative) requires its own approach, and that consequently, one does not apply the non-dualistic approach to the relative level of being. At the beginning of his career as a station inspector of the Police Department, Atmananda once interrogated a man he suspected of having stolen something. The man had constantly denied it.. Then Atmananda told him: “If you have really committed the theft, as I believe you have, it will be better that you confess it and admit your mistake. If, on the other hand, you want to hide the truth from me, you may be able to do so for the time being, but that Principle in you which is watching all your actions will make you suffer throughout the rest of your life for having lied once. You will never be able to hide the Truth from that Principle in you.”20 This shows the sensitivity required to live the truth, and not peremptorily claim that untruth is simply Consciousness as well. Imagine the implication of Atmananda's statement: to lie once would end up in a lifelong suffering! If you realise that this statement is made by a truly radical non-dualistic teacher, it stimulates us to consider in all this the apparent paradox between what Atmananda teaches at the highest level of understanding and the recognition of consequences of the actions made by individuals in their day to day activities. If we are identified with the dualistic world we will experience the effects of our actions.

In spite of this accurate handling of ‘difference’, on the level where differences simply have to be handled, Atmananda was a truly radical non-dualist. His radicallity made him use a style of writing in which he does not speak about an ‘I’ or an ‘I-Principle’, but from the perspective of that. In Atma-Darshan he wrote some passages in which Consciousness itself is speaking, in which ‘I’ is speaking, not one so-called ‘Atmananda’.21It invites the reader to look at things from this ‘I’- point of view, as the one and only Reality:
“I am that Consciousness that remains over after the removal of everything objective from Me. (...) Realising that every object wherever placed is asserting Me, I enjoy Myself everywhere and in everything”; and: “It is in Me that thoughts and feelings rise and set. I am their changeless Witness. I am the Light of Consciousness in all thoughts and perceptions and the Light of Love in all feelings.”22
A couple of years later he continued this style of writing in Atma-Nirvriti: “The world shines because of My light: without Me, nothing is. I am the light in the perception of the world”; and: “How can thoughts which rise and set in Me, be other than Myself? When there is thought, I am seeing Myself; when there is no thought, I am remaining in My own glory.”23
These are beautiful texts, which through their originality can bring about a shock of recognition even more so than traditional texts about ‘the’ Self. The Self, after all, remains an indication for something in the third person. Whilst speaking about the Self, the suggestion can linger that that is something else than ‘me’ who is after all, simply I, first person. No, I am already That. I am That. ‘The I’ is not That. It is about the recognition of the fact that I am now already That, Consciousness Itself, and that, therefore, I am allowed to speak as such about Myself. The author is giving us, the readers, the example of how to recognise Yourself, and then to speak from that perspective as a consequence. The reader is likewise invited in the following passage to experience this recognition:
“I am pure happiness. All the activities of the sense-organs and the mind aim at happiness. Thus all their activities are puja [acts of worship] done to Me. I am ever in repose, disinterestedly perceiving this puja. Again and again they touch Me unawares and lapse into passivity. Coming out of it, they continue their puja again. Once they understand that by their activities they are doing puja to Me, and in passivity they lie touching Me, all their suffering ceases. Thereafter, action done will be no action, and passivity will be no passivity, because ignorance has been rooted out.”24

Atmananda deftly conveys in these texts the understanding that in our thinking and speaking about ourselves a reversal can occur. We are already looking from that which we are looking for; we really need not go anywhere. Many authors describe thinking and feeling as enemies but really these faculties express the celebration of Us. All my thinking is ‘heading’ in My direction, in order to arrive at a dissolution in the peace that I am, and this heading in My direction is not an assault. The wrong supposition that thoughts or feelings still have to be removed first, results in fact from the identification with someone who suffers – a someone who is disturbed by these thoughts and feelings. Atmananda justly calls this a puja (and translates puja as meaning ‘acts of worship’) because That towards which this worship is directed is so totally No-thing, that it can only be devoured Therein. It is, therefore, appropriate to say that I, being No-thing, am the only true direction for all thoughts and feelings – they form a plea to be dissolved, to be ultimately allowed to rest in Me.
“The real nature of thought is Consciousness, and the true nature of feeling is Happiness. Whenever a thought or feeling arises, you are in your Real Nature as Consciousness and Happiness”; and: “When you are in deep sleep, you are in your Real Nature. When you are in deep sorrow, you are in your Real Nature. When you are in extreme dispassion, or when you are terror-stricken, you are in your Real Nature. When you are in heated logical argument, you are in your Real Nature. When you come to the end of all activity (what is called death), you are in your Real Nature. In all these experiences you stand divested of even the idea of a body or mind, and when you transcend the mind, you are always in your Real Nature.”25
This passage really covers all states we can experience, there is no more to be said. I am never deprived of my Real Nature, I can never escape It. This ‘I’ everybody says – exactly the same word, always ‘I’,25 always pointing to Itself, which everybody experiences as ‘Myself’, my Real Nature. Each state or feeling of separateness has been devoured in Me. ‘I’ is no door anymore, but the Devourer Itself.

(English translation from Dutch: Johan Veldman)

NOTES
1. Published in two issues of The Mountain Path in 2004 (pages 23-34 of the Jayanti issue and pages 45-57 of the Aradhana issue respectively).
2. This is not the yogi Yogananda who became well-known in the West, nor the Swami Yogananda who was one of the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna.
3. See for instance pages 139-140 of Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Sree Atmananda (of Trivandrum) 1950-1959. Taken by Nitya Tripta. Trivandrum: Reddiar Press, 1963. On page 140 of this book Atmananda uses the word ‘obstacle’ for the yoga approach. This book has again been edited by Ananda Wood (son of Mrs. Kamal Wood mentioned on page vi of the book, and entirely published in a digital version on the internet. See http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/downloads/notes_pdf.zip. Here (in the notes to this article) the book is indicated as Discourses; the indication of the digital version of Ananda Wood is AW, with the number of the discourse (the discourses have been numbered consecutively by Ananda Wood); the passage mentioned here is taken from AW nr. 369.
4.Discourses, p. 544; AW page 467.
5. Atmananda once phrased his specific kind of logic as follows: “They [the Grecian philosophers] go by logic and I go also by logic. But there is much difference between the logic employed by them and the logic employed by me. The logic employed by me is something subjective. The logic employed by them is something objective. That is the difference.” Atmananda Tattwa Samhita. Austin, TX: Advaita Publishers, 1991; p. 119. For John Levy, see the article by Hans Heimer in The Mountain Path, Deepam 2004; p. 29-42. John Levy, The Nature of Man According to the Vedanta. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956.
6. Atma-Darshan, At the Ultimate, by Sri Krishna Menon – Atmananda. Tiruvannamalai: Sri Vidya Samiti, 1946 (reprint: Austin, TX: Advaita Publishers, 1989); Atma-Nirvriti (Freedom and Felicity in the Self), by Sri Krishna Menon (Atmananda). Trivandrum: Vedanta Publishers, 1952 (reprint: Austin, TX: Advaita Publishers, 1989). In 1977 and 1978 Wolter Keers published his Dutch translation of these texts.
7. Discourses, p. 9; AW nr. 21.
8. Discourses, p. 442; AW nr. 1323.
9. Discourses, p. 7 ; AW nr. 17.
10. Discourses, p. 9 and 8; AW nr. 22 and 21.
11. See note 5, in which Atmananda connected the notion ‘subjective’ to his way of dealing with logic. 12. Discourses, p. 18; AW nr. 42.
13. Atmananda Tattwa Samhita (see note 5), p. 154 and 157; Discourses, p. 218 and 184; AW nr. 600 and 496.
14. Atma-Nirvriti, Chapter 20; p. 25.
15. Discourses, p. 191 and 272-273; AW nr. 512 and 802. That which Atmananda called here ‘the material part’, is similar to what Ramana Maharshi indicated by the term ‘this’ (idam), as distinguished from ‘I’ (aham). See ‘‘I’ is a door’, part 1. Atmananda sometimes used these terms as well: “Without the ‘I’ (aham) being there, there can never be the ‘this’ (idam).” Discourses, p. 443; AW nr. 1324.
16. Discourses, p. 270; AW nr. 790. Also see p. 251; AW nr. 713. Ramana Maharshi has also emphasised this repeatedly. See Ulladu Narpadu Anubandham, nr. 39, and Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi. Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 1955; Talk 458.
17. Discourses, p. 176; AW nr. 466.
18. Discourses, p. 16 (not in AW). The expression ‘name and form’ (nama-rupa) is a classic expression in Advaita Vedanta for all manifestation, but also for the ‘seed of the world’ not yet manifested.
19. Discourses, p. 545 and 544, and xii ; AW pages 468 and 467.
20. M.P.B. Nair, Rays of the Ultimate. Santa Cruz, CA: SAT, 1990; p. 53-54; and Atmananda Tattwa Samhita (see note 5), p. 45-50.
21. Atma-Darshan, Chapter 16 (p. 23) and 17 (p. 24).
22. Atma-Nirvriti, Chapter 1 (p. 1) and 11 (p. 12).
23. Atma-Nirvriti, Chapter 19 (p. 22-23). See also Discourses, p. 179; AW nr. 476.
24. Rays of the Ultimate (see note 20), p. 125 and 126.
25. See Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad ( the oldest Upanishad) I.4.1: “In the beginning this (world) was only the self (atma), in the shape of a person (purusha). Looking around he saw nothing else than the self. He first said: ‘I am’. Therefore arose the name of I (aham). Therefore, even to this day when one is addressed he says first ‘This is I’ and then speaks whatever other name he may have.” The Principal Upanisads. Translated by S. Radhakrishnan. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1953; p. 163.

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