There is a prayer in one of the most ancient of documents � the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
Lead me from the unreal to the real,
Lead me from darkness into light,
Lead me from death to immortality
Its implication is clear. In our present state, we are ignorant of our true nature. We believe ourselves to be limited individuals, with vulnerable bodies and uninformed minds, condemned to a relatively short and frequently miserable existence in a largely inhospitable world. In virtually every generation however, there are a few people who see beyond this and discover how things really are. Though they may express this knowledge in slightly different ways, what they tell us is essentially the same, namely that we are completely mistaken in our current understanding. It is the purpose of this book to present these findings and to describe the disciplines that are open to enable us to discover the truth for ourselves.
The material is split into three sections. The first, �The Unreal�, describes how things appear to be to us now: who we think we are, what we typically want out of life and the means by which we try to achieve this. The second, �The Spiritual Path�, details the techniques and disciplines described by the scriptures and Sages within the Advaitic tradition, which are available to help us understand who we really are. The third section, �The Real�, explains how it is that we are unable to see reality now and why we are so mistaken in our present view of the world. The process by which we may realize the truth is looked at more closely, along with concepts such as cause and effect, and free will. Finally, our true nature is revealed and the nature of Consciousness itself investigated, as far as this is possible. Appendices look at the many sources available for finding more information and at the scheme used for representing Sanskrit in an Anglicized version (there is also a full glossary of all of the terms used in this book).
You may not have heard of Advaita before. It is pronounced �Ad-wighta� in the UK or �Ad-vighta� in the US, with the second syllable rhyming with �might� in both cases. You will naturally wish to know what it is and why you should pay attention to what it can tell us. All religions and many philosophers have offered explanations for life and prescriptions for how to lead it. Why should we pay any more attention to this version?
Advaita is one of the branches of Hindu philosophy. Very similar ideas are expressed in Sufism, the intellectual branch of Islam, in Taoism, Madhyamika and Zen Buddhism and in the more esoteric of Christian doctrines, e.g. the Gospel according to St. Thomas discovered amongst the Dead Sea scrolls. The writings of many philosophers show that they, too, reached similar conclusions, e.g. early Greek Philosophers such as Parmenides, the Romantic Idealists Hegel, Schelling and F. H. Bradley, and mystics such as Master Eckhart. Quotations from the key texts of most religions can easily be found, which suggest that this truth was known to them but that it was surrounded by ritual or deliberately hidden by the priests for their own purposes.
In fact, I should point out now (and this is one of the numerous clarifications/ additions made to this second edition) that Advaita is not, strictly speaking, a �philosophy�, although it is often referred to as this. A better noun would be �teaching�. Swami Paramarthananda who, together with his guru Swami Dayananda, I now regard as the person who has contributed most to my understanding of the subtler aspects, speaks of it as a pramANa, which can be translated as a �means of obtaining knowledge�. Advaita effectively provides a proven methodology for bringing about Self-knowledge. We begin with the firm belief that there is a separate world, containing separate people. Through successive stages of deconstruction, Advaita questions our experience and explains in a reasoned manner what is the true nature of reality.
An analogy might be that of a child seeing a magic illusion, for example the �sawing in half� of a lady. He sees the lady climb into an empty box; he sees her head and feet protruding from the ends and he watches as the magician saws through the box and moves the two halves apart. What he sees is indubitable and, in his naivety, he is forced to believe it to be true. If the child is intelligent, however, we may then draw diagrams showing the construction of the cabinet, and explain how there is a second lady already in the box behind a panel that is not visible because of the use of mirrors.
We are in the position of that child, seeing the world of objects and believing them to have a separate reality; seeing people being born and dying and believing them to have a separate and limited existence. Advaita explains how this is an appearance only, similar to that of the sun rising and setting. Despite the appearance, it is not actually like that at all.
The full title of the teaching is �Advaita Vedanta�. �Vedanta� simply means that it derives from the scriptures that form the last part (anta means �end�) of the Vedas, the four sacred texts of the Hindu religion. (It should also be noted that this really means the �final conclusion� � siddhAnta � of the Vedas, since Upanishads may occur in the physical middle of a Veda rather than the end.) It is not itself a religion, however � there are no churches or priests. The first parts of the Vedas does contain rituals and so on but Advaita does not itself rely on these. They may, nevertheless provide a valuable source of �preparation� for the mind. These aspects will be explained in Section 2.
If, after reading this book, you decide that the philosophy appeals to you, you may wish actively to pursue it. This is because, although you may relatively easily gain an intellectual appreciation of what is said, the full import is most unlikely to become immediately apparent. There are various ways in which practical �research� may be done and some of these are described in more detail. Appendix 1 contains a comprehensive list of pointers to further avenues � organizations that may be joined, E-Group discussions on the Internet, sources of information on all aspects � and Appendix 2 suggests some recommended reading.
Advaita is an extremely simple philosophy. Its complete essence is summed up in its Sanskrit name: a � not, dvaita � duality. In a very real sense, there is no need for a book to try to explain it. It can all be summed up in a single sentence: �There are not two things.� A well-known teacher of Advaita, Robert Adams, summed it up like this:
'Everything is Consciousness � everything. When you ask what is Consciousness, there is no valid answer. When someone asks me to write a book or give a lecture, then I have to explain Consciousness in about fifty different words, and each word has another fifty words to explain that, then those words have another fifty words. So your volume of the book is written. What does it say? �Everything is Consciousness.� I could have written one page. And in the middle of that page I would say: �Everything is Consciousness,� and the rest would be blank.' (Ref. 70)
What do we want from life?
Everyone wants something, usually many things, most of the time. Picking up this book now, even if it is not at the forefront of your mind, you will have some idea of what it is that might bring you satisfaction. It is interesting that, when we use the word �satisfaction�, we often qualify it by the phrase �short-term� or �long-term�. It is as though we know that it is not possible to obtain �permanent� satisfaction, only something which lasts a finite time before it is replaced by the more usual status quo. 'I can�t get no satisfaction' was the cry of the nineteen sixties� Rolling Stones� hit and it seems that youth ever since then has been trying desperately to prove that sentiment wrong.
There are several categories of people in respect of answering the question �What do you really want?� There are the younger ones, with their whole lives in front of them; a potentially infinite vista of possibilities stretching before them: �What should I go for to make the most of my life?� Then there are the older ones, with most of a lifetime of experience behind them; some ambitions achieved and some cherished dreams abandoned: �What must I do to avoid the danger of regret for lost hopes?� In between these two extremes, there are the people who, perhaps, have committed themselves to some degree but may still change direction to find fulfillment. Perhaps you have, once or twice, actually succeeded in achieving your aim! But, despair, you found that it did not bring quite the expected level of happiness that you had imagined. Disappointed once or several times, you may have begun to consider the possibility that the desire of the moment is possibly not what you really want at all.
People seem to want to �make a name for themselves�. They want to �live on in posterity� with their name on a book in the library. They want to be able to say �I am one of the few people who have climbed Everest, run 100 meters in under 10 seconds� or whatever. Or they want to say �I am the most beautiful woman in the country� or have the most expensive car and so on. We seek status, admiration, and respect; want to feel more important, be more intelligent, and be able to �drink everyone under the table� or �take on all comers�. Just look at a copy of the �Guinness Book of Records� to see some of the ludicrous things that people do in order to get their name in that book and be recognized as someone who has achieved dubious notoriety. Why?
Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.
Most people, at any given time in their life, usually have a pretty good idea of what it is that they want. If only they could have x or reach y, that would be it. They would have achieved fulfillment, at last be contented and able to relax. They might spend large portions of the day, dreaming about these desired objects or states and devote much of their efforts working towards them by whatever means are available or likely to bear fruit. In many cases, no doubt, people live their entire lives in pursuit of their elusive aims only to die frustrated. Perhaps these are the lucky ones � at least they still have their hope! Sometimes, objectives are achieved� and then what?
[My book How to Meet Yourself (and find true happiness) (Ref. 71), looks at the topics of meaning, purpose and fulfillment in life. It uses the findings of sociological surveys, evolutionary psychology and western philosophy to point towards the truth and to introduce the philosophy of Advaita.
There are not so many areas into which these most valued desires, ambitions or aims fall. Here are some general categories (some of which may overlap � and you may not always agree with the section into which I place them but it doesn�t really matter very much):
- Body � I want to be healthy, thin etc.; I want to run a mile in under four minutes; be beautiful � whatever that means; I don�t want to get/be old (not much we can do about that one).
- Material � I want a Porsche; a big house in the country, with a swimming pool and a tennis court and a wood behind and at least two bathrooms and...
- Mind/Intellect � I want to get a degree; be able to understand quantum mechanics / Picasso / Wittgenstein / The Simpsons; I want to be self-confident.
- Emotional/Self-esteem � I want people to like me; find my soul-mate (and live happily ever after); I don�t want to be afraid of _____ (fill in your least-favorite thing); I want to write a best-selling book on Advaita philosophy and become famous.
- Spiritual � I want to go to heaven; be a better person; see God.
You will probably think that many of these, in whichever category, can be summed up by the simple sentiment �I want to be happy�. And this is so, though what exactly we mean by the word �happy� merits some later discussion. Many people however, come to realize that most of our wants are either beyond the possibility of attainment or that, even if they are satisfied, the resulting �happiness� will be short-lived. Eventually, such a seeker recognizes that all but the desires of a spiritual nature are ultimately of no consequence. It is the �big questions� that really matter: Who am I? Why am I here and what should I do? What will happen to me after death? It is questions such as these that form the subject of this book. It will aim to tell you just what it is that you really want. And, if you are one of those strange individuals that wants to know the end of a book before you have even started it, it will also attempt to convince you that you already have this mysterious �something� now!
We do not really understand the true meaning of many of the words that we commonly use. In fact, we are often mis-taken � we take them amiss. We are ignor-ant � we are ignoring or turning away from the truth. We need to re-cognize, or know again, the situation for what it really is. We have to re-member who we really are, i.e. put together the seemingly separate bits into the unity from which they originated. You see how it is that most of us have even forgotten the true meaning of our own language.
We�ll begin by looking at who or what we think we are. By showing up our mistaken views we will be able quickly to dispense with some of the more basic of the wants in the list above. Some of the others are more tenacious and, in order to throw those off as well, we will have to delve more deeply into the nature of the world around us and our place in it. Along the way, we will see what (if anything) can be understood about reality itself and find out what is meant by lots of interesting things such as ignorance, truth, Consciousness and action. Some deeply entrenched ideas will be challenged by questions such as: �can we actually choose to do anything at all?� and �does it make any difference anyway?�
The journey is full of interest and mental stimulation; is hopefully entertaining; may shatter a few sub-consciously cherished illusions; is the only worthwhile thing doing; is life. And the end may be both surprising and a tremendous relief.
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