There has been much debate on “pure” or classical Advaita and the Neo-Advaita as preached/practiced by present-day gurus and satsang givers.
I do not belong to neo-advaita in that I do not give satsangs and have not attended any - by Indian or western teachers. Brought up in India , with a traditional background and having been influenced by Ramana since boyhood days, I venture to write the following which might be of some use to an aspiring Advaitin.
Advaita, as such, is a system of philosophy or darshana, elaborated by Adi Shankara, but derived from the Upanishads. The kernel of this Advaita is found in the Bhagavad Gita, but more lucidly and forcefully expressed in the aShTAvakra gIta and avadhUta gIta. Therefore these texts have the entire conceptual framework of Advaita and one need not look elsewhere. Other writers and teachers can expound only the same concepts, perhaps in simpler words and in easier terms, but diluting it in that process. In my opinion, these texts are the foundations of Advaita. Teachers and scholars in recent times, following the expositions of Swami Vivekananda at the turn of 20 th century, have tried to popularize these concepts with eloquent lectures. One may derive much benefit from the lectures of Swami Vivekananda even today.
But learning the concept is only the first step. One needs to practice, and some effort is needed. Here comes the difficulty as well as the dilemma: whether one should choose a teacher or guru or wait patiently for a guru to seek you [as told in the Hindu tradition] and how much ‘grace’ from the Guru or the Supreme Being is needed.
This mixture of ‘grace’ versus ‘effort’ is an age-old question - not only for aspiring Advaitins but for all spiritual seekers, in fact in the Hindu tradition as well as in Christian and Islamic traditions. Even in Buddhism, the Lord Buddha said: “Be a lamp unto yourself” [presumably his last message] but many Buddhist traditions have the need for guides and so on. From the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, it is clear that effort is needed, even if the grace is always flowing. As Ramakrishana Paramahansa puts it: ‘One should unfurl the sails, then the blowing wind [grace] will carry you forward.” This effort takes many forms - approaching a guru itself is an effort in the right direction provided one approaches him for ‘Self-knowledge’ and not for gathering lecture notes or satsang techniques to preach to others. What is essential is the inner awakening and ‘desire’ to know the self - a desire which will end all other desires.
While one learns, if one removes at least a part of one’s vAsanA-s, and is weaned away from some of the mundane desires and thoughts, that would be a right step. One such step is attending satsangs. Therefore satsangs as such are not bad and can serve very useful purpose. Satsangs are required for Advaitins as much as for those following a devotional [bhakti] path or marga. Therefore masters who give satsangs serve a useful purpose - perhaps to learn the basics of advaita philosophy.
If neo-Advaita is built on satsangs even by masters who are not enlightened themselves, that is not bad. But the seeker must realize that it is only a preliminary step - there is much uphill task ahead. If the time is ripe, the seeker may get enlightened by the influence of the master or other members in the satsang… or else the wait will be long. In pure advaita, there is no saMkalpa or wish to hold onto. “They also serve who stand and wait”, wrote Alfred Tennyson in another context (“On His Blindness”) This is also true of spiritual seekers, advaita marga or any other marga.
One need not pour out carping criticism of neo-Advaitins. But they should know that they have only taken the first few steps. If their satsang leaders claim instant realization or transmission of quick results to the seekers, let them take such assertions with a pinch of salt. If they are hopeful of getting instant realization through satsang or other means, only time will tell…
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