Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

What is Neo-Advaita?
James Swartz

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James Swartz


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(Note that in my forthcoming book 'Back to the Truth: 5000 Years of Advaita', I have referred to the teaching of Swami Vivekananda and his disciples as neo-Vedanta to differentiate it from the modern satsang teaching. This distinction is not made in the following article. Dennis)

James Swartz is a teacher of  and writer on the traditional Vedanta of Shankara and has studied for years with Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda. He teaches in the USA , Europe , and Tiruvannamalai , India.

Exoterically the word Vedanta refers to the knowledge contained in the texts that are at the end of each Veda.  These texts are called Upanishads.  The fundamental idea of the Upanishads is that reality is non-dual (advaita) Awareness and that the ultimate goal of human life is the realization of the non-dual Self.  The realization of the Self is called moksha or liberation.

Vedanta is a Sanskrit compound.  ‘Veda’ means knowledge and ‘anta’ means end.  So esoterically Vedanta is the knowledge that ends the quest for knowledge.  What is it, the Upanishad says, that ‘knowing which, everything is known?’  The realization that the ‘I’ is whole and complete actionless Awareness ends the quest for the meaning of life because it destroys the belief that the self is limited, inadequate, incomplete and separate, a notion that is commonly called duality.  Duality is a problem because it causes people to seek lasting happiness though the enjoyment of impermanent objects, a quest that always ends in disappointment and disillusionment.

A long teaching tradition has developed over the last three thousand years based on Upanishadic ideas.  This teaching tradition is also known as Vedanta.  But to convey the precise meaning of Vedanta the word ‘pramANa’ needs to be added.  A pramANa is a means of knowledge.  All knowledge takes place with the aid of some means.  Sense objects require sense organs to be known.  The knowledge of ideas depends on an intellect.  But since the Self is not an object, the senses and the mind cannot know it.  But Vedanta can reveal it by using ideas and logic to remove one’s ignorance about it, delivering direct Self knowledge.   

As Vedanta evolved over time it became a very attractive means of knowledge as great sages added their commentaries and contributions to the literature.  At some point in its long history enough apparent doctrinal differences concerning the nature of reality appeared that Vedanta seemed to be disintegrating into several ‘schools of thought.’  These apparently conflicting views do not compromise Vedanta as long as it is taken as a means of knowledge because the purpose of any teaching is to remove Self ignorance.  And because different minds formulate Self ignorance differently, an idea that may reveal the Self to one person may not reveal it to another.  But many people who are not interested in liberation and are not qualified for it are nonetheless attracted to Vedanta for intellectual reasons because it is a very beautiful and profound body of literature.  In India these people are known as pundits.  The pundit class by and large takes Vedanta as a philosophy and views the emphasis on different doctrines as ‘schools of thought’ or sects.  But in its original sense advaita is not an adjective used to modify a particular school of Vedanta but an adjective indicating the nature of Awareness, the Self. 

Vedanta is not a philosophy or a school of thought because it is not the contention of an individual or a group of individuals.  Philosophies are subject to negation and correction because they are invariably speculations, imaginations, beliefs and opinions of an individual or a small group of individuals…which means they are always subject to error or irrelevancy because they do not serve a fundamental human need, in this case the need be free of limitation.  Where is existentialism today?  Vedanta has thrived for several thousand years precisely because it is not a personal philosophy. 

Vedanta is called ‘shruti.’  Shruti literally means ‘heard.’  Its teachings are meant to be ‘heard’ from someone who has been freed by them and who can skillfully wield them to help the qualified aspirant remove his or her ignorance.  But ‘shruti’ has a more general meaning too.  It means revealed truth that has passed the test of time and is not the product of the human intellect.  In other words the essence of Vedanta, the teachings that remove Self ignorance, do not change because they effectively do what they are intended to do.  Nobody is pressing for a new improved eye, since the eyes do all they need to do.  So in this sense Vedanta, like the Sanskrit its mantras are formulated in, is a perfected body of knowledge.  Nothing needs to be added to it, no timely modifications are necessary help it adapt to recent times.  But this has not stopped people from making of it what they want. 

In approximately the last one hundred years Vedanta has suffered an apparent change largely as a result of the teachings of Vivekananda around the turn of the twentieth century.  Its basic function as a means of Self knowledge became confused with the doctrines of Yoga because Vivekananda who had a profound influence on the West’s understanding of Vedanta (probably unintentionally) reduced it to ‘jnana’ (knowledge) yoga, one of the many branches of Yoga.  In fact, Yoga has traditionally been considered a subset of Vedanta, its purpose being to aid in the preparation of the mind to receive the teachings of non-duality.  Before Yoga sullied the pure teachings of Vedanta enlightenment was considered to be the removal of ignorance about the nature of the Self.  But with the ascendancy of the Yoga teachings enlightenment came to be considered a ‘permanent experience of the Self’ in contrast to the mundane experiences of everyday life, which it obviously can’t be if this is a non-dual reality as the Upanishads claim.  It can’t be a permanent experience first, because there is no such thing as a permanent experience and second, it can’t be an experience in a non-dual reality because the subject object distinction necessary for experience is missing in a non-dual reality.  If this is true then the quest for a permanent enlightenment experience is pointless and what is needed, as traditional Vedanta says, is the knowledge of reality since the craving for experience, including the experience of the Self, is mAyA, the consequence of seeing oneself a doer who is separate from reality. Or to put it another way, trying to get out of mAyA experientially is not ever going to happen because mAyA is unreal.  How can one be ‘in mAyA’ in the first place if mAyA is only an apparent reality?  The only way out of mAyA is to see that mAyA, the belief in duality, is only in the mind and to destroy it with the knowledge of reality.  In any case, the experiential notion of enlightenment has been the dominant view for the last one hundred years, although it goes back to the Yoga sutras of Patanjali.  This Vedantic evolution has been labeled ‘modern’ Vedanta, an oxymoron if ever there was one.

By and large the wave of ‘export gurus’ that inundated the West in the Sixties peddled Modern Vedanta with considerable success.  Then in the Eighties the Western spiritual world became reacquainted with Ramana Maharshi, a sage in the Vedic tradition who had achieved international recognition around the middle of the century but who had been all but forgotten since his death in the Fifties.  Ramana was not a traditional Vedantic sage but he realized the non-dual nature of the Self and taught both Vedanta and Yoga.  Self inquiry, which many Neo-Advaitins believe to be his invention, is as old as the Vedas itself.  The rediscovery of Ramana roughly coincided with the rise of ‘Neo-Advaita.’  Neo-Advaita is basically a ‘satsang’ based ‘movement’ that has very little in common with either traditional Vedanta or modern Vedanta or even its inspiration, Ramana…except the doctrine of non-duality.  Neo-Advaita is so abstracted from its Vedantic roots that I recently met a person who had been ‘empowered’ to give satsang who did not know that the word satsang was a Sanskrit compound meaning ‘keeping the company of reality.’ It is a typically American hybrid, although Europe, particularly Germany, has become its capital.  It would not be unfair to compare it to a beautiful period house purchased by a rich yuppie couple who had it completely gutted and then proudly installed all the latest modern conveniences.  In the end all that remains of the original is the lovely advaitic façade. 

Perhaps the best way to approach Neo-Advaita is not by what it teaches as by what it doesn’t, because taken at face value many of the teachings are quite reasonable although they owe more to modern than to traditional Vedanta.  Probably the most obvious omission is the notion of adhikAra, the qualifications necessary for enlightenment.  Neo-Advaita is burdened with an understandably democratic ethos, the idea being that anyone who walks into a satsang off the street can gain instant enlightenment.  Traditional Vedanta completely disagrees with this notion and insists that a person be discriminating, dispassionate, calm of mind, and endowed with a ‘burning’ desire for liberation along with other secondary qualifications like devotion, faith, perseverance and so on.  In other words it requires a mature adult with a one-pointed desire to know the Self.  The reason for this insistence is based on the fact that enlightenment takes place in the mind.  Therefore the mind must be capable of grasping and retaining the knowledge “I am limitless Awareness and not this body mind.”  The retention and assimilation of this knowledge will necessarily destroy one’s tendencies (vAasanA-s) to seek for happiness in the world, so the qualified aspirant has to have come to the hard and fast conclusion that nothing in the world can bring lasting satisfaction before he or she exposes his or her mind to Vedanta. This is what Vedanta calls maturity. 

To my knowledge no Neo-Advaita satsang teacher espouses this view.  The reason is obvious: he or she would have virtually no disciples.  And although Neo-Advaita attracts people of all ages it basically appeals to middle-class people who are looking for an alternative spiritual lifestyle, one that offers a sense of ‘community.’  The word ‘sa~Nga’ means a company of like-minded souls.  Far from  relying on the Self to supply one’s needs from within most satsangis believe that enlightenment will help them gain the worldly things that have so far eluded them, particularly love.  And it is clear from the behavior of most of the teachers of Neo-Advaita who have ‘got it’ that their Self knowledge has in no way diminished their lust for fame, wealth, power and pleasure.

Traditional Vedanta does not reject any person who is sincerely trying to solve the existential riddle.  So, if a person has a strong desire for liberation he or she might wish to develop the qualifications.  The lifestyle that prepares the mind is called ‘sAdhana,’ the ‘means of attainment’ in Vedic culture.  Yoga is a traditional Vedantic sAdhana because its disciplines prepare the mind for enlightenment.  Even modern Vedanta, with its emphasis on Karma, Bhakti, j~nAna and rAja Yoga, is sAdhana based.  Yogas are by definition sAdhanas made for doers.  Sadhana is evolutionary because the mind is a very conservative instrument and much extroverted by the pressure of the vAsanA-s.  So progress is incremental.  It is not uncommon that many years are required to produce a clear, quiet balanced mind…depending on the nature of the vAsanA load.

Neo-Advaita does not endorse sAdhana.  Again, the reason is obvious.  Most who are attracted to Neo-Advaita are children of the modern age looking for instant gratification.  Hard work is out of the question.  The idea promoted by the teachers of Neo-Advaita is that at any moment you can ‘wake up’ and ‘get it.’  All you have to do is ‘surrender’ and pay attention.  If you don’t get it today you can come to the next satang and maybe you will hit the jackpot tomorrow.  A second argument against sAdhana is that it strengthens one’s sense of doership.  It is true that, lacking the right understanding, a sense of spiritual doership can replace one’s sense of worldly doership when one takes to spiritual life.  But this idea is promoted in the Neo-Advaita scene to make it easier to attract followers, not for a legitimate spiritual reason. 

It would be impossible to underestimate the importance of Karma Yoga in the Vedic tradition.  In fact the Bhagavad Gita, which has the status of an Upanishad as a scripture on liberation, devotes perhaps twenty percent of its verses to the practice.  Karma Yoga is an attitude that one takes with respect to one’s actions and the results of one’s actions.  It is based on the understanding that a person has every right to act in this world with the idea of getting a certain result but that the result is not under the control of the doer of the action.  The result is a consequence of the appropriateness and timeliness of the action and the nature of the field in which the action happens.  In religious terms it is up to the ‘grace of God.’  Or, in New Age terms, ‘the universe.’  Because the results of one’s actions are not up to the doer, whatever result, positive or negative, comes should be gladly accepted as a ‘gift’ from God.  Because it is the identification of the doer with the action and its result that produces binding vAsanA-s, the Karma Yoga attitude reduces the vAsanA load and eventually causes the attention to turn inward and meditate on the Self.  A mind that has operated with the Karma Yoga understanding for a long time becomes peaceful, pure, and rock solid.  It takes pleasure in itself and is indifferent to the temporary joys that come from the senses and their objects.  A mind prepared by Karma Yoga is ideally suited to receive and assimilate the teachings of Vedanta.

Most Modern Vedanta teachers teach a perverted self-serving version of Karma Yoga that has no basis in the Vedanta scriptures.  According to them Karma Yoga is ‘selfless service.’  It is under the guise of this doctrine that ashrams, religions and spiritual movements of all sorts exploit the labor of unsuspecting seekers to build their satsangs and institutions.  On the wall of the kitchen of a large ashram of one of the Eighties richest and most famous export gurus was a sign reading.  “One hour of washing dishes burns up one lifetime of karma.” 

Karma Yoga is not taught in the Neo-Advaita world because its teachers define enlightenment in terms of an experience of the Self that comes ‘by Grace’ or as a result of ‘transmission’ from a guru, experiences that do not require a prepared mind.  And it is also not taught because it requires patience and diligence, qualities not in evidence in people seeking instant enlightenment.  Karma Yoga requires continuous monitoring of one’s motivations and reactions to events and the willingness to change one’s attitude when observation reveals it to be vAsanA producing.  It requires great awareness and diligence because the vAsanA-s continually divert one’s attention away from Self observation.  And, as is the case with any spiritual practices, change is incremental and gradual.

The Neo-Advaita movement owes a considerable debt of gratitude to the teachings of Bhagawan Rajneesh who rechristened himself as Osho when his bad karma became unbearable.  Rajneesh perverted the tantric concept that the essence of every experience is Awareness.  Tantra is a very broad concept that applies to every conceivable kind of experience and insists that its practitioners enjoy the same qualifications as those practicing Vedanta sAdhana.  But Rajneesh focused his attention on the sexual aspect, not that much focusing was required, and opened wide the gates of tantra to tens of thousands of immature disaffected Western hedonists with his brilliant concept ‘Zorba the Buddha.’  Zorba the Greek was the literary creation of a Greek writer Nikos Kazantzaksis.  Zorba was not a bad guy but was he emotional!  He was the original party animal: lusty and enthusiastic in his pursuit of pleasure.  As is well known the Buddha was a holy ascetic.  By wedding the two ideas he provided a clever ‘spiritual’ justification for the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure in the name of spiritual growth.  Wags not unfairly called his sAdhana the ‘fuck your way to God’ path.  I was once told in all seriousness by a devotee that Osho ‘’gave us permission to do what society forbids us to do.”  When he died thousands of his disciples gravitated to a relatively unknown guru, HWL Poonja aka Papaji, who was considerably more Vedic in his orientation and taught enlightenment as an experience of non-duality.  A number of them ‘woke up’ and began what is now called Neo-Advaita.  It seems the only practice encouraged by Neo-Advaita teachers is satsang and ‘the celebration of life’ which dovetails with the mindless hippie philosophy that so many Neo-Advaitins adhere to: if it feels good, do it. 

In contrast, traditional Vedanta and modern Vedanta are firmly rooted in the primary spiritual idea of the Vedic age: yaj~na.  A yaj~na is a sacrifice.  The members of a community bring offerings, a small portion of which are symbolically offered into the sacrificial fire. The remainder of the yaj~na is distributed to the less fortunate members of the community.  Sacrifice plays a central role in Vedanta sAdhana, the idea being that as far as the ego and its desires are concerned you cannot have your cake and eat it too.  The vAsanA-s that extrovert the mind need to be sacrificed for the sake of a quiet mind, one capable of meditating on the Self, reflecting on the non-dual teachings and assimilating the knowledge. 

Traditional Vedanta deals with the vAsanA-s by insisting that the seeker practice Vedika Dharma.  Vedika Dharmas are the rules of conduct set out in the karmic portion of the Vedas that govern all aspect of human behavior.  Following Vedika Dharma is considered a sacred duty.  Indian society today is closely tied to its Vedic roots and is a duty orientated society.  Modern Vedanta adheres to Vedika Dharma and the Yogic idea of vAsanA exhaustion through the practice of samadhi, surrender to God, and other practices.  When a person takes a duty-oriented approach to life the vAsanA-s produced are non-binding and therefore are not an impediment to Self realization.  When a person practices karma yoga and surrender to God the binding vAsanA-s are neutralized.  But when neither of these ideas are operating and there are no teachings concerning the relationship between the pursuit of ‘kamya karmas,’ desire-prompted activities, and the production of binding vAsanA-s is it any wonder that whatever non-dual experiences are acquired in satsang quickly vanish with the appearance of the next binding vAsanA?  This is why the Neo-Advaita world is little more than thousands of people, including the teachers, who have had scores of non-dual experiences but who at the end of the day are still prisoners of their vAsanA-s. 

Ramana Maharshi, who had a profound experience of the Self at the tender age of seventeen, understood the wisdom of sAdhana in so far as he sat in meditation on the Self in caves for twenty years after he was ‘awakened.’  Had he been a Neo-Advaitin he would have immediately advertised satsang and begun instantly enlightening devotees.  But he had the wisdom to understand that his epiphany was not the end of it.  Had it been he could have returned home, eaten his mother’s iddlies and played cricket like any normal seventeen year old Tamil.  But in line with the traditional teachings of Shankara he ‘practiced knowledge’ until such time as all the vAsanA-s were reduced to ashes in the fire of Self knowledge (j~nAnam). 

Another essential component of any valid spiritual path Vedic or otherwise is bhakti, devotion to God or the Self.  Ramana, the shining icon of many Neo-Advaitins, gave devotion to God equal status with Self inquiry as a spiritual path because devotion to God functions in the same way as Karma Yoga; it exhausts vAsanA-s by breaking down the concept of doership.  “Not my will, but thine.”  It also teaches that God, not the ego, is the dispenser of the fruits of one’s actions.  But Neo-Advaita sees devotion to God as ‘duality’ and has nothing to do with it.  This shunning of the devotional aspect of life is based on ignorance of the value of devotion as one of the primary requirements for Self realization.  In fact ‘dvaita’ works just as well as ‘advaita’ in preparing the mind for Self realization because the Self functions through one’s chosen symbol to bring the necessary qualities into full flower. 

Some schools of Neo-Advaita subscribe to the notion that enlightenment can be transmitted in some subtle experiential way via the physical proximity of a master.  Traditional Advaita disagrees with this view for the reason that ignorance is deeply entrenched in the aspirant’s thinking and that it is only by deep reflection on the teachings that the ultimate assimilation of the knowledge is achieved.  This assimilation is often called ‘full’ or ‘complete’ enlightenment.  The ‘transmission’ fantasy fits nicely into the Neo-Advaitic conception of easy enlightenment as it does away with the need for serious sAdhana.  One need do nothing more that sit in the presence of a master and presto-chango! wakes up for good.  If this were true, however, the tens of thousands who sit at the feet of enlightened masters everywhere would be enlightened.

Another half-baked idea that has gained currency in the Neo-Advaita world is the notion of ‘awakening.’  While sleep and waking are reasonable metaphors to describe the states of Self ignorance and Self knowledge, Neo-Advaita assigns to them an experiential meaning that it not justified.  Just as anything that lives, dies, anything that wakes, sleeps.  The Self never sleep or awakens.  This ‘waking up’ and ‘going back to sleep’…all of which takes place in the waking state incidentally…is a consequence of the play of the gunas in the mind.  When the mind is sattvic, the reflection of the Self in it causes the individual to wake up to the Self, but when rajas or tamas reappear, as they inevitably do, the mind is clouded over and the experience of the reflection of the Self in the mind is lost i.e. the mind ‘sleeps.’  Until the rajasic and tamasic vAsanA-s are purified one is condemned to a frustrating cycle of spiritual waking and sleeping. 

In the Twentieth Century psychology came of age in the West.  It has left the confines of the therapist’s office and entered popular culture.  Much of the energy in Neo-Advaita satangs is devoted to pop Neo-Advaita psychology which is nothing more than an attempt to apply advaitic concepts to the ego and its dysfunctional patterns.  Vedanta sAdhana assumes a healthy ego.  The qualifications for enlightenment that are presented in Shankara’s Vivekachoodamani might be profitably thought of as the qualities of a mature healthy ego.  Traditional Vedanta begins where the ego leaves off by revealing the nature of the impersonal Self though its teachings.  One need not kill or destroy the ego, as many Neo-Advaita teachers claim, but one should embrace through understanding a greater or ‘universal’ Self.  This Self is not in opposition to the ego but provides the Awareness that allows the ego to function.

Finally, the reason Vedanta has survived as a viable means of knowledge is not due to its doctrines alone but to the application of a sophisticated method of teaching.  Many realize their non-dual nature but are incapable of teaching non-duality because they lack a viable method.  The Neo-Advaita statements to ‘Be the space for the thoughts’ or ‘Be what you are” are not skillful teachings because a non-dual teaching of identity is being delivered in experiential language.  Such teachings give the impression that something can be done to achieve Awareness and that Self realization can come about through an act of will.  In traditional Advaita not only should the teacher have realized his or her identity as the Self in such a way that he or she never re-identifies with the ego (the belief that the ‘I’ is limited) but he or she should be able to wield the means of knowledge skillfully. 

Although Neo-Advaita is essentially words lip service is often paid to the notion that ‘silence’ is the only legitimate means of enlightenment.  While understanding the nature of the Self in ‘silence’ apparently finishes the sAdhana of a tiny fraction of qualified seekers, silence is not superior to the skillful use of words in bringing about enlightenment.  This is so because silence is in harmony, not in conflict, with Self ignorance…as it is with everything.  One can sit in silence without instruction for lifetimes and never realize that one is the silence, meaning limitless Awareness.  Knowledge, however, which is the result of Vedanta pramANa, destroys Self ignorance like light destroys darkness.  Additionally no experience, including the experience of silence, can change one’s thinking patterns.  An experience of non-duality may temporarily suspend thought or increase one’s resolve to see oneself as limitless Awareness but the notion that the ‘I’ is limited, inadequate, incomplete and separate is hard wired.  It is only by diligent practice of the knowledge ‘I am limitless awareness and not this body mind’ that the mind’s understanding of reality gets in line with the nature of the Self. 

Why are binding vAsanA-s such a major problem for anyone seeking enlightenment?  Because they disturb the mind to such a degree that one’s contact with the Self as it reflects in the mind is broken.  It is meditation on the reflection of the Self in the mind that allows the intellect to investigate the Self and gain the knowledge ‘I am the Self’ that breaks down the subject-object distinction and ends one’s sense of duality.  I was informed recently by a friend who has considerable knowledge of the Neo-Advaita satsang world that we have now entered into the ‘Post-Neo Advaita’ period.  Not surprisingly Neo-Advaita has not lived up to its promise as a quick and easy means of liberation and people are now looking for the next most incredible path to enlightenment.  And you will be happy to know that it seems their prayers have been answered by the appearance of the “Kalki Avatar’ who, for the modest fee of $5,500 and twenty one days of your time will lay his divine hands on your cranium and rewire your nervous system, read brain, so that you become fully enlightened.  Evidently his promise is thinning the ranks of the Neo-Advaitins who, in typically Western fashion, are always looking for the most efficient shortcut to limitless bliss.

Does Neo-Advaita have any redeeming virtues?  In non-dual reality everything somehow eventually serves to reveal the Self.  Just as kindergarten is a prerequisite for grade school, people seeking enlightenment need to start somewhere and Neo-Advaita, imperfect as it is as a vehicle for spiritual practice or Self realization, provides entry-level access to the idea of non-duality.  Finally, because Neo-Advaita is more sanga ( a congregation) than sat (the Self) it serves to satisfy to some degree the emotional needs of those who pursue it.  Because it does serve a need it will probably continue in some form or other for the foreseeable future but will probably remain as a lifestyle fad unless it investigates its roots and discovers the wisdom of the Vedas.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012