Having attended the School of Economic Science
myself for many years, this book clarifies for
me why it is that those schools supposedly ‘guided’ by
Shri Shantananda Saraswati failed in their endeavours.
The problem has effectively been explained
in my book ‘Enlightenment:
the path through the jungle’ (O-Books, Aug 2008). This book
criticizes modern western satsang teaching and,
in particular, the recent extreme variant of ‘neo-Advaita’.
But the book under review has made me realise
that many of the points that I made apply equally
to schools such as The School of Economic Science,
The Study Society and the School of Practical
The traditional teaching of Advaita has its
basis in the technique of adhyAropa-apavAda.
In this procedure, explanations (about the world,
the self etc) are given to the seeker at his
current level of understanding. But such explanations
are necessarily false (since reality has no attributes
and therefore can never be described) and must
be retracted later, as the understanding of the
seeker grows. Under the constant guidance of
an enlightened and skilled teacher (i.e. one
knowledgeable in the proven methods of the prasthAna
traya), self-knowledge grows as a result of application
of those methods over a prolonged period.
Satsang teaching falls down in its inability
to provide the continuity of teaching, irrespective
of the ability of the teacher or readiness of
the students. A school does have this continuity
and the commitment but it can never succeed unless
it also has the teaching skills and knowledge.
It is simply not possible to take random quotations
from an enlightened sage and expect them to be
efficacious, taken out of context from the discussion
in which they occurred and without the backing
of the methodology. It is well-known that a teacher
may say one thing to a student at one time and
something apparently quite different and even
contradictory to another at a different time.
This is because the teaching must be matched
to the level of understanding and needs of the
particular seeker. But this matching cannot happen
in these schools because the one with the knowledge
and skills to do this is not present.
There are at least two additional problems
with this approach. Firstly, students who happen
to join at the same time are assumed to have
the same level of (or should one say lack of)
understanding so it is also assumed that all
will benefit equally. Secondly, it is implied
that there is a clear progression in self-knowledge
as one proceeds from term to term. Neither of
these is the case. Moreover, tutors are themselves
students and are frequently unable to teach well,
if at all. When the teachers themselves do not
understand the material or the techniques and
are not themselves enlightened, how can they
be expected to help others? It is essential to
be able to ask questions following the presentation
of the material and receive an appropriate, enlightened
and elucidating response.
The specific quotations from Shri Shantananda
Saraswati that are presented in this book are
addressed as if to the lowest level of adhikArI
who understands very little and must be given
very simplistic explanations. They relate very
much to aspects of karma and bhakti yoga and
not at all to j~nAna yoga - and it is this self-knowledge,
presented by a qualified teacher, that is required
to bring about self-realisation. The more subtle
points of the radical metaphysical truths of
Advaita are not addressed at all. For example,
the key differentiation between vyavahAra and
paramArtha is never explicitly addressed and
the concept of mithyA (one of the most important
in Advaita) is never introduced. Some quotations
confuse, rather than clarify by appearing to
mix up the levels (the principal failing of neo-Advaitins).
For example, he says: “If once during our
lifetime an unshakeable faith in Param Atman
is established, that is that we belong to the
Param Atman and Param Atman belongs to us – then
we are out of reach of all harm.” And: “Certain
knowledge about the properties of Atman, such
as how Atman behaves, is necessary for the development
of love.” And: “The Absolute, or
the Atman, wants the human heart in its simplicity
and directness.” None of this is Advaita.
In fact, it is made to seem as if Shri Shantananda
is as guilty as the neo-Advaitins but in the
opposite sense. I.e. whereas the neo-Advaitins
refuse to acknowledge vyavahAra and try to make
all of their statements at a pAramArthika level,
the quotations of Shantananda Saraswati in this
book invariably seem to be speaking of vyavahAra
even when talking about paramAtman. Furthermore
(a point that I have made before), he mixes teaching
from other traditions such as yoga and sAMkhya – this
is very apparent from the many quotations in
this book. Whilst such ploys are perfectly legitimate
for a qualified sampradAya teacher and a realised
sage talking to a long-term student, they are
most unhelpful when taken out of context and
presented as Advaita in a class thousands of
miles away from the source of knowledge.
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