Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The role of scriptures in enlightenment
Stig Lundgren

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Based upon a discussion on the Advaitin Egroup April – May 2004.

Q: Reading a book about swimming cannot make you an expert swimmer. How, therefore, can reading the upaniShad-s make one enlightened?

A: This is not a valid analogy. It is true that you cannot learn swimming by just reading books on how to swim. This is because reading or hearing about swimming does not give you direct knowledge about swimming. But the upaniShad-s actually give direct knowledge on Atman, and this is clearly pointed out by Adi Shankara.

I guess you are familiar with the story about the Swami and his disciples crossing a river. When arriving on the other shore, the Swami counted his disciples and it turned out that only nine persons had successfully crossed the river! He counted all his disciples over and over again, concluding: "There is one missing. We are only nine people, and it should be ten!" Then a stranger walked by. He overheard the conversation, and said to the Swami:

"But there are actually ten persons. You have forgot to count yourself. You are that tenth person!". From the uttering of these words, the Swami at once realized that he was the tenth person.

Well, the words of the stranger gave the Swami direct knowledge about himself as the tenth man. He didn’t have to put this knowledge into practice or anything. The very understanding came immediately by the words of the stranger. ShravaNa gave him perfect knowledge, because he was the tenth man from the very beginning. He did not become the tenth man.

This is also the case regarding the knowledge of Atman. You are Atman, you are not becoming Atman. But due to avidya you are wrongly identifying yourself with your body, your senses, your feelings, your thoughts etc. Shruti gives you direct knowledge of Atman, because it enlightens you on what you actually are, not what you are about to become. Realizing your true nature (Atman/brahman) is not about creating anything. J~nAna is just dispelling your superimpositions and thereby your misconceptions.

You surely have to swim in order to learn swimming; you have to practice and not just read books on the subject. But this is because learning how to swim is about gaining something which was not there from the beginning. You have to get outside of yourself, so to speak, in order to learn how to swim. Swimming is not your true nature, and this is the reason why just reading books doesn’t work when learning how to swim. Books on swimming are not sufficient, because learning how to swim is not a matter about dispelling the ignorance of something which was there from the beginning.

Gaining knowledge about something is usually a matter of a subject (you) learning about something external (swimming, or the taste of sugar). But regarding knowledge of the absolute (Atman/brahman), the case is different: You are about to realize your true nature, and hence there is no such thing as subject and an external object. You are realizing yourself, you own true nature.

Perfect knowledge rises when avidya is dispelled. It is not a matter of getting control over your thoughts, feelings etc. You can attain perfect control over your mind, but you will still be ignorant of your true self, Atman. Knowledge is not about getting perfect control of the mind. The mind is actually within the realm of avidya, and accordingly brahmavidya implies the dispelling of mind! Hence, the expression "the mind is under complete control" is valid only when you are still ignorant and within the realm of avidya.

Adi Shankara says that samAdhi is subject to the same conditions as deep-sleep: You are ignorant before sleep/samAdhi and when you wake up (or come out of samAdhi) you will still be ignorant. SamAdhi does not dispel avidya. In his adhyAsa bhyAShya (preamble to brahmasUtra bhyAShya), Shankara says that avidya = adhyAsa = mithyAj~nAna (false conception or error). Hence, dispelling avidya is the same as dispelling your superimpositions and wrong knowledge of the Self. According to Shankara, this is the purpose of the upaniShad-s. So, shruti is the pramANa - not samAdhi, thought control or the like.

Q: Is it possible to become enlightened simply by hearing a sage quote from the shruti?

A: Yes.

But perfect knowledge of the absolute is possible only under certain conditions, like detachment etc. It goes without saying that enlightenment through shravaNa only is extremely rare. This is possible only for the most outstanding aspirants. You can study for a lifetime and still not be capable of REALLY grasping the meaning of the upaniShad-s. Of course, this is the reason why most students of VedAnta do not become jIvanmukta-s. Then one has to wait for another birth and another chance.

Shankara says (brahmasUtra bhyAShya 1.1.2.) that when enquiring into brahman, the shAstra-s are not the only means of knowledge because there is also intuition. However, one must keep in mind that this intuition - according to Shankara - is the final result of the study of the shAstra-s. There is no question of any intuition as a separate pramANa. This intuition is the very realization that comes at the moment avidya is finally dispelled through the study of the scriptures.

Q: The knowledge that is expressed in the upaniShad-s was no doubt ‘direct’ knowledge as far as concerned the sages who perceived it but this is now being passed onto us via words and must therefore be indirect.

A: As I mentioned earlier, the spiritual aspirant needs to have the necessary preconditons in order to gain knowledge of the absolute. Shruti is the source of this knowledge, but whether one is capable of grasping this knowledge depends on whether the necessary preconditions are there or not. I have not dispelled my ignorance, but I do not blame the shrutis. The shrutis gives direct knowledge, but whether I am capable of grasping that knowledge is a matter of MY preconditions. The fact that shruti gives direct knowledge does not mean that there exists an infallible causal relationship between shravaNa and attaining moksha. The ability to grasp must be there. In his Bhagavad Gita bhyAShya, Adi Shankara shows that we have to get spiritually purified through karma yoga. Prior to that, we are not able to grasp the absolute knowledge because of our disturbing attachments to our possessions, our families, our ambitions etc.

It is not direct in the sense that the upaniShad RRiShi directly perceived this knowledge but in the sense that really grasping its true meaning immediately gives rise to moksha.

The knowledge given in the upaniShad-s is direct because it is the knowledge about the true Self, (Atman/brahman). You are that Self. You can’t realize this knowledge of the Self by searching in the streets, in the woods, in your body, in your feelings or even in your mind. You can get this knowledge only by dispelling avidya. And avidya is dispelled by absolute knowledge of your true Self. Please note that dispelling avidya through knowledge means the negation of avidya. Nothing new is created in you by this process. And since the ‘object’ of the absolute knowledge is actually your true nature, you cannot go anywhere outside your true self in order to find it. You are yourself the ‘object’ of your own spiritual aspirations, so to speak.

Knowledge of the Self does not mean knowledge about something external that has to be verified before realizing its truth. When someone tell you "you are the tenth man" you grasp it immediately (or not, if the preconditions to grasp what the stranger says are lacking).

The example of the ‘tenth man’ story is just a simple illustration of the problem we are discussing here. It goes without saying that finding a perfect and 100 per-cent proof analogy is impossible: The knowledge of the Self is unique in its kind, and hence can not be fully and perfectly illustrated by anything else.

And this is the important thing to keep in mind here: Direct knowledge from a book is possible only if the book talks about your true nature, your absolute Self.

It is a common misconception that the upaniShad-s can give only intellectual conviction but no actual experience of the Self. Hence, people often believe that after studying the upaniShad-s, then we have to put its teachings into practice in order to gain enlightenment. But if your true Self is clouded by ignorance, then what really is the solution to our problem? The answer is: Knowledge. Ignorance can only be wiped away by knowledge. Knowledge - not mind-control, yogic Asana-s, detachment from possessions etc. etc. - is the antithesis and eradication of avidya. And this knowledge is experienced at the very moment your avidya is dispelled. And since the avidya is yours, and the upaniShad-s are talking about your true Self, then what the upaniShad-s say can actually make you experience your true Self. The upaniShad-s are dealing with what you actually are. Hence, shruti can give rise to direct knowledge of your Self.

Q: What is this direct knowledge and for whom is it direct? If it is direct for you and if direct knowledge leads to realization, then you must be enlightened. If you claim not to be enlightened, then how can the knowledge be direct?

A: My answer: I think I have tried to explain this already. The standpoint of the advaitins was summarised in the following way by VimuktAtman a couple of hundred years after Shankara:

"Even verbal knowledge can be direct knowledge, because it can concern that which is immediately and directly known, as in the case of a human sentence proclaiming the self-luminosity of the Self."
(Sri VimuktAtman, ‘Ishta Siddhi’)

Below are some further quotations from Adi Shankara, and some from his foremost disciple, Sureshvara on the fundamental role of scriptures and direct knowledge. Hopefully these will throw light on the traditional standpoint regarding the means for moksha.

"Here you might object that no concrete experience, like the concrete satisfaction that follows eating, arises from the mere hearing of a sentence. And to analyze a sentence in the hope of getting a concrete experience is like trying to make milk-pudding out of cow-dung. To this we reply that it is true that all sentences about the not-self yield abstract knowledge only. But it is not so with sentences about the inmost Self, for there are exceptions, as in the case of the one who realized he was the tenth. One should accept that the Self is its own means of knowledge, which means it is directly knowable to itself. On our view, when the ego is dissolved, experience of one’s own Self is realized."
(Shankara, Upadesha Sahasri 201-203)

"It is as when Brahma removed the nescience of Rama by his mere words (‘O Rama! Thou art Vishnu, not the son of Dasharatha’). He did not mention any other task Rama had to perform in order to become awake to his nature as Vishnu apart from mere listening to the words. It is in this way (i.e. without any further work being required) that the word ‘I’ reveals the Light, the inmost Self.

"That same revelation is given in the text ‘thou art the real’. The fruit here is liberation. If the holy knowledge did not ensue on merely hearing the relevant texts, one would certainly have to assume there was some act that had to be performed. But in fact there is no such contingency. For it is accepted that one’s own Self exists even before one has immediate intuition of it in its totality through such texts as ‘I am the Absolute’."
(Shankara,Upadesha Sahasri 100-102)

"Is it then impossible that the Absolute should be communicated by the Veda, since the Absolute is not an object of Knowledge? No. For the function of the Veda is to put an end to the distinctions imagined through nescience."
(Shankara, BSB 1.1.4.)

"And the empirical distinctions such as ‘I am the agent and this is the object of my act’, which depend on this false notion, are not contradicted until the truth declared in the text ‘That thou art’ that only the Self exists has been directly apprehended."
(Shankara , BSB 1.2.6.)

"Meanwhile, those gifted persons who are not afflicted by any ignorance, doubt or erroneous knowledge to obstruct the comprehensions of the meaning of the words can have direct knowledge of the meaning of the sentence when it is heard only once. For them, repetition would quite evidently be superfluous. For once the Self is known, this knowledge suppresses nescience. [...] But in the case of the person in whom this immediate experience does not arise at once, we admit that repetition is necessary in order to aquire that immediate experience. But even here, one should not become involved in any departure from the true meaning of the text ‘That thou art’ through false ideas about what is implied by ‘repetition’. One does not marry off one’s daughter with the idea of killing the bridegroom."
(Shankara, BSB 4.1.1-2.)

"Because this entity [the Absolute] has no attributes like colour, it is not an object for perception. And because it has no signs which can be used as a basis for inference (since these, too, depend on perception) or any other features that could lead to indirect forms of knowledge, it is not within the realm of inference or other forms of indirect knowledge either. This entity can only be known through the traditional texts". (Shankara, BSB 2.1.6.)

"And while it is true that the Absolute is an already-existent entity, it is not true that it is an object of perception and the other means of empirical knowledge. For the Absolute cannot be known as the Self without the help of Vedic texts like ‘That thou art’." (Shankara, BSB 1.1.4.)

"The Spirit proclaimed in the upaniShad-s, and only in the upaniShad-s, is the Absolute."
(Shankara, BSB 1.1.4.)

"The Absolute is identical with man’s immediately evident Self, but is not known, and is conceived as ‘other’ [pArokSha]: similarly, man’s Self is the Absolute, but is conceived as having a second reality over against it. But in the case of the ascetic whose ignorance has been destroyed by the true knowledge conveyed by the text (That thou art), all causes of distinction are eradicated and only the conviction ‘All is the Self alone’ remains."
(Sureshvara, Brihad. Bh. Vartika 1.2.1391-2.)

"That which has ultimately to be known, which is initially unknown and which transcends the individual knower and his knowledge and its objects - that can be known in this world from the Veda and from no other source."
(Sureshvara, Brihad. Bh. Vartika 1.4.339.)

"Hence reasoning by agreement and difference, which operates in the realm of cause and effect, cannot throw light on the reality taught in the upaniShad-s. The final reality can be known only through the upaniShadic texts, the sole means for knowing it." (Sureshvara, Brihad. Bh. Vartika 4.3.401.)

"The fact that the true Self is identical with the Absolute and the Absolute identical with the true Self is the special topic of the metaphysical texts in the upaniShad-s like ‘That thou art’; and it cannot be known through any other means of knowledge".
(Sureshvara, Brihad. Bh. Vartika 4.3.1115.)

It is shravaNa that gives rise to the absolute knowledge of the Self, for the aspirant who has got the right qualifications. Less qualified aspirants, on the other hand, have to make use of manana and nididhyAsana. In any case, one has to stick to the shAstra-s. Manana and nididhyAsana have to be fully in line with the shruti, and there is no question of free speculation or logical gymnastics outside the meaning of the upaniShad-s. Whether one gets liberated by manana, nididhyAsana or shravaNa, it is nevertheless a direct knowledge. And this direct knowledge comes from the shruti, regardless of whether you have to ponder upon the meaning of the shruti or not. It is still a matter of direct and immediate knowledge from the shruti. Please note what Adi Shankara says in the quote I presented above: "But in the case of the person in whom this immediate experience does not arise at once, we admit that repetition is necessary in order to acquire that immediate experience."

Books on anything but your true Self (Atman) gives indirect knowledge only, but that it is a different case when the book is actually about your true Self. You don’t have to go outside yourself, so to speak, in order to verify knowledge about your Self. How would that even been possible, for that matter? You can’t find your true Self anywhere but in your true Self. Anything else - including your mind, feelings, senses etc. - is your non-Self, and hence your true Self can not be found of verified there. But texts such as "Tat tvam asi" are about that Self, and that is the reason why such texts can get you immediate knowledge.

The detachment necessary for gaining knowledge of the Absolute is different from the detachment resulting from brahmavidya. For the aspirant, it is necessary to not be a slave to desire, not long for property, sons or even a good future rebirth. The desire for gaining moksha must not be disturbed by other desires. That is what the precondition of detachment is about. Of course, absolute knowledge doesn’t rise only as a result from this kind of detachment. It is one thing to gain that kind of discipline that keeps you away from falling pray to the senses and temptations of different kinds. It is another thing -- through absolute knowledge of the Self -- to realize that there are really no such things as distinctions, temptations, rebirth etc. at all.

Perfect knowledge is the only thing that takes you out of samsara, and this perfect knowledge is to be found in the shAstra-s only. It is the hope of sometime gaining moksha that makes one study VedAnta. Moksha leads to the cessation of sorrow, but cessation of sorrow doesn’t lead to moksha. Absolute knowledge is what leads to moksha.

Q: To summarise, then, you are saying that the shruti provides direct knowledge but, in order to be able to grasp that knowledge, one must first have the right preparation?

A: Yes, that’s the gist of my statements. And also if one is gaining knowledge after manana and nididhyAsana (and not just shravaNa), that knowledge is still a direct knowledge from shruti. If a disciple is reading shruti or listening to a guru teaching the shruti, then all the necessary information comes from that reading or listening. But most likely, the disciple has to ponder and meditate upon the meaning of what he has read or listened to. When the meaning is finally completely grasped, the ignorance (avidya) is eradicated and hence perfect knowledge of the Absolute rises.

But it is still a matter of direct knowledge from the shruti, even though manana and nididhyAsana is needed. Remember the statement of Shankara: "But in the case of the person in whom this immediate experience does not arise at once, we admit that repetition is necessary in order to acquire that immediate experience." (BSB 4.1.2.). This is so, because it is the very meaning of shruti that liberates, not yogic practices, tranquillity of mind, samAdhi or the like. Regardless of whether you grasp shruti already by shravaNa only, or by the additional help of manana and nididhyAsana, the understanding comes by direct knowledge from the shruti.

However, practices such as yoga, samAdhi, tranquility of mind etc. can be of great use in purifying the disciple’s mind, and thereby preparing him for the grasping of the statements of the shruti. So, yoga, samAdhi, tranquility of mind etc. are of use, although they are not in themselves the means for final liberation. Only the shruti gives the necessary knowledge, according to Adi Shankara.

If we are unprepared, shruti cannot get us liberated through shravaNa only. Nevertheless, it gives us the information, so to speak, that is necessary for liberation, although we might have to do quite a lot of manana and nididhyAsana too. So in that sense, shruti can actually do everything to us, in the sense that it contains the texts necessary for eradication of ignorance. But most likely we have to ponder and meditate upon the meaning of those texts, before perfectly grasping the meaning of them.

All perfect knowledge of Brahman comes through shruti. It is not correct to say that some people get brahmavidya through shruti, and some other people get brahmavidya through some other source. If we are aspiring to attain knowledge of the Absolute, then that knowledge has to come through shruti. The knowledge through shruti includes not only knowledge arising from shravaNa. It also includes knowledge arising from manana and nididhyAsana. So even if someone has to study the shAstra-s for a lifetime (or for several lifetimes!), the resulting knowledge is nevertheless "knowledge of the Shruti". This is why Shankara is so emphatic in saying that all knowledge of the Absolute comes through the meaning of the shruti. For instance:

"The Spirit proclaimed in the upaniShad-s, and only in the upaniShad-s, is the Absolute."
(Shankara, BSB 1.1.4.)

Q: The Kathopanishad (I –II-23) says:

"The Self cannot be attained by the study of the Vedas, not by intelligence nor by much hearing. Only by him, who meditates seeking the Truth, can It be attained. To him the Self reveals Its own nature."

A: The meaning here is that the Self reveals only to him who seeks knowledge of the self. It will not be revealed to those who only try to learn as much as possible from the Vedas, nor to those only hearing or only reasoning without the right intention of knowing the Self. One must have the goal of attaining the Self, otherwise it doesn’t matter how much one learns, hear or speculates. The intention to really attain the true Self must be there. Study, hearing or reason alone will not be sufficient. This is the gist of Shankara’s bhyAShya, as I understand it. (Shankara, Ka. Up. Bh. 1.2.23.)

So the meaning here is not that gaining perfect and immediate knowledge from shruti is impossible or anything. The intention is merely to point out that the aspirant has to be in possession of the appropriate attitude and ambitions.

The very same passage (as in Katha upaniShad 1.2.23) is to be found also in Mundaka upaniShad 3.2.3. In his Mundaka bhAShya, Shankara gives a somewhat other (but in no way contradictory) explanation: "Atman is by its very nature always attained, but is "enveloped in ignorance". When knowledge dawns, then the Self becomes revealed just as pots etc. in a dark place gets revealed on the coming of light.

Shankara: "Hence the purport is that the means for the attainment of the Self consists in praying for this consummation to the exclusion of everything else."

Q: It seems reasonable to suppose that liberation is possible from shravaNa alone, providing that one is prepared. Whilst it seems reasonable that this preparation might come from manana and nididhyAsana, it does not seem reasonable that it could come from shravaNa itself.

A: Let’s imagine that you need your favourite book, which is placed on a shelf right under the ceiling. Then you bring your ladder, which has three steps. If you are a very tall person (qualified for reaching things placed on highly located shelves!) you might reach your book just by climbing up the first step. If not, then you have to enter the second step. And if that is not enough, well then you have to enter the third and final step too. You can not enter the second step if you not have entered the first step prior to that, neither can you enter the third step without having first entered the first and second steps. Here, the ladder is the upaniShad-s, the first step on this ladder is shravaNa, the second manana and the third nididhyAsana. The three steps are all dependent on the ladder, and in the same way are shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana dependent on the content of the upaniShad-s.

You can not prepare and qualify yourself for shravaNa by the help of manana and nididhyAsana, simply because shravaNa is the first step of the process. Of course, you can go back to shravaNa again after first going through shravaNa -> manana -> nididhyAsana, and then you are likely to be more qualified to understand shravaNa. Shravana is the first step in the process of understanding the upaniShad-s, and thereby also in the study of VedAnta. In fact, you have undergone some shravaNa already at that very moment when you first picked up a book and read some upaniShadic statements! Or when you for the first time listened to someone reciting these upaniShadic statements. And naturally, you can not reason or meditate upon these statements without first hearing or reading them. It is that simple! But just like me (and 99.9999999999...%) of the human population, you did not grasp the full meaning of these statements. So you had to proceed by pondering (manana) upon the message of the upaniShadic statements because, before starting to meditate upon them (nididhyAsana), you have to figure out their meaning -- just repeating a misconception will never lead to right knowledge.

In one sense you are prepared for shravaNa as soon as you can listen (as a small baby!) or as soon as you have learnt to read. But having the necessary preparations for actually grasping the meaning of the upaniShad-s by mere shravaNa is something entirely different, of course! If you are approaching a traditional guru within the Advaita tradition and he agrees to accept you as his disciple, then apparently he thinks that you have the qualifications necessary for entering the studies of the upaniShad-s, bhyAShyas, prakharana granthas etc. The inner qualities listed in Sadananda Yogindra’s VedAntasara are of course desirable, and if you are in possession of them all, then you are likely to be a rather successful student! And such qualities can be cultivated by karma yoga, as outlined by Adi Shankara in his Bhagavad Gita BhyAShya.

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