Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Interview with Dhanya (part 1)

conducted by Paula Marvelly

 What exactly does Advaita Vedanta mean and what is its purpose?

DM. The word Vedanta is a combination of two words – ‘Veda’ and ‘anta.’ The first word, Veda, refers to the Vedas, the ancient scriptures from India. Anta means ‘end.’ The Upanishads, which contain the teachings of nonduality, are found at the end of the Vedas, thus those teachings are referred to as Vedanta.

Advaita means nondual. I have heard Swami Dayananda say you don’t need to add the word Advaita to Vedanta, because Vedanta is already the teaching of nonduality. I think the reason Advaita is sometimes added is because there are some philosophies that may cite their authority as coming from the Upanishads but they are not nondual teachings. So that’s why the word Advaita is added to Vedanta, but truthfully, it shouldn’t really be necessary.

The purpose of the teaching is moksha; the purpose of the teaching is to guide the student to recognize what is really going on here. Who am I? What is all of this, and what am I in relationship to it? 
 Right now you take yourself to be a limited person, limited by the body, mind and sense organs. You think that your existence is subject to birth, death and change. You think that your well-being is vulnerable and at risk. 
 The recognition of the reality of who you are and what all of this is shows you that what you previously thought isn’t true. Your being is the being of everything. You are not limited. You are not subject to birth or death. You are not subject to change. Your well-being is never at risk. Whatever you have been seeking, you already are.

This recognition is moksha. It is the recognition that the happiness and joy you have been seeking to find in all changing experience is actually your very own ever present Self. The Vedas tell us that there are basically four types of human pursuits. The first is to survive, or to be secure; the second is to enjoy, have pleasure; the third, according to Vedic culture, and for most of the other religions in the world, is that you behave in a certain way, perform certain rituals, do certain things in order that when you die, you go to a good place – which could be a heaven realm, or you have a better rebirth. These are the three basic pursuits of a human being, and they are the ones that most people are interested in.

But for those people who say, 'That’s not enough,' there is what is called the fourth human desire or pursuit. These people have recognized something very fundamental about the nature of the world and their experience, which is that no matter how good it gets, it will never be good enough, because whatever one gets is subject to loss and change. Possessions, things, relationships, circumstances – all only offer a modicum of happiness; at any moment circumstances may change and that happiness, peace and security can go away. It is very shocking when you recognize that, and it can be very depressing too. So at that point, you kind of throw up your hands to God, or to the Lord, or to the universe, and you say, 'Help, I am drowning, get me out of here. I am tired of coming up for air once in a while and being pulled down into the water again. Please put me onto the shore.'

This plea heralds the desire for moksha, for liberation. Moksha is considered as the fourth human pursuit. Not everybody gets to the point of recognizing that stability and lasting happiness, which is what everyone really wants, cannot be gained in the realm of changing experience. But for those people who have recognized this, the desire for liberation can arise, and it’s for those people, who want out of the highs and lows of samsara, and who want to know if there is something that can truly provide them with what they are seeking that the teachings exist.

 Why do we say non-duality rather than ‘Oneness’, which is very much a Neo Advaita word?

DM. First of all, Vedanta does talk about ‘One.’ Swami Dayananda will say ‘nondually one.’ But the point is, one what? Because you can have one species – cat – but there are many cats. Or you can have one forest, but there are many trees. Or one tree, but the tree has many parts, bark, branches, leaves, etc.

You have to understand what the word ‘One’ means because as with everything, all words initially point to something in duality, because that’s how words work, that’s how we use them. So in Vedanta, we generally use the word ‘nondual’, which points out that the underlying reality is just one thing. You can use the word ‘One’ but you have to knock off any initial concepts that the student comes with about what that word means.

 Is it also that the word ‘nondual’ recognizes that there are ‘levels’ of reality, whereas people who just talk about Oneness suggests perhaps that there isn’t a subtle understanding that there is a realm of apparent duality within the nonduality?

DM. That may well be. There is often a mixing of the two ‘levels,’ or ‘orders’ of reality. I think ‘orders’ is a better word to use. People who are not well-grounded in traditional teachings mix up the two orders of reality all the time because they don’t really understand them. Dvaita means duality, two; and ‘a’, as in A-dvaita, negates that there is duality, because there really is only one thing here. When we look at the world of objects it appears as if there are many things here. And in a way that is so. We experience that.

But Vedanta tells us there is only one thing that is really here. Therefore we say there are two orders of reality; that which is relatively real—which is referred to as mithya—and that which is ultimately real—which is referred to as satyam. And these two orders of reality are both here, together as it were. The relatively real, which is characterized by change, has for its being that which is ultimately real.

 What sets Advaita Vedanta above other religions/philosophies as a means for Self-knowledge? Why not Sufism or Schopenhauer, for example? 

DM. First of all, I am not familiar with the two that you mention. I can only talk to you about what I know. The thing that sets Vedanta apart from anything else that I’ve ever encountered is that it is a direct means of Self-knowledge. It is a direct means of knowledge that uses words in teaching. Most importantly the words are used according to a certain methodology. It is this methodology, which is the reason why the teachings work. The methodology is contained in the Upanishads.

You can’t just read the Upanishads for yourself and discover the methodology therein because it’s not evident; there has to be a teacher who knows the methodology, who has learnt that methodology from his or her teacher, who learned the methodology from his or her teacher, and so on, all the way back. So the teacher uses the words of the Upanishads according to a certain methodology in order to guide the student’s mind to recognize something very fundamental about themselves and the nature of their experience. The methodology is called the pramana, (the means of knowledge).

The methodology, the pramana, is the means by which the direct knowledge of the truth is revealed. 
As unorthodox as it may sound, the teacher doesn’t actually have to use a text in teaching in order to use the methodology. Nor does the teacher have to use Sanskrit. My teacher does not use either when teaching Vedanta at university, but she does use a text and Sanskrit when teaching us privately in Vedanta class. This is the traditional way the teachings are given, but if the teacher is highly skilled and knows how to use the methodology, the teachings can be given in English, or any language, and without using a text.

There are some very basic teaching methodologies, known as prakriya-s, which are used in order to help the student directly recognize the truth. These prakriya-s are not intended to give the student some kind of philosophy to go away and think about, nor are they giving the student something to blindly believe in and accept; rather, the words are acting as a mirror to show the student what the truth of their here-and-now experience actually is.

So I don’t know of anything else that does that. I am not saying that there isn’t anything else, but I personally have never encountered anything else. So that for me is what sets Advaita Vedanta apart from anything else I have ever been exposed to in my life.

 Could you explain what the prakriya-s are?

DM. When we talk about the various topics of Vedanta, Swami Dayananda says it is like trying to pull out one noodle from a bowl full of noodles; you pull out one noodle and many other noodles come along with it because the topics are all connected.
 Before going into the prakriya-s and explaining how they work, we need to examine what Self-ignorance is. 

Everyone is born with Self-ignorance. The hallmark of Self-ignorance is taking one’s ever-present, never-changing Self, which in Sanskrit is called Atman, or Brahman, to be one with, affected by, and a product of the body, mind, and sense organs. Furthermore, we take every single object that we see and perceive to have its own separate existence, be it an object of sense perception, like a tree or a rock, or an object of mental cognition, like a thought or an emotion.

Vedanta tells us that the reality of everything is one thing. And that one thing is not divided. Therefore, the reality of myself, and the reality of yourself, and the reality of every single object is the same. Due to Self-ignorance, the mind takes this one thing to be divided up. The mind takes the being of the individual person and the existence of every object to be separate and independent, when in reality that’s not the way it is.

Existence is really only one. So we take baseline existence, the Self, Being, Atman, Brahman, which are all names for the same nondual reality, to be divided up when it isn’t. And then we take each body, mind and sense organs individual to be a separate self, which also isn’t true. What needs to become clear is that all changing things depend upon one thing for their existence.

First what is needed is to differentiate one’s changeless Self from the changing body, mind, and sense organs. Once that has been accomplished and the nature of the Self recognized as it truly is, then one needs to examine the world of changing experience in order to recognize that all changing phenomena have this very same Self for their being. This is done through the use of the prakriya-s.

The prakriya-s should really be gone into and explained in depth and from many different angles, which is what the teachings do. In one interview that wouldn’t be possible, but we can touch on them briefly here.

For simplicity’s sake, we can say that there are four prakriya-s, four basic teaching methodologies used in teaching Vedanta. 
 One prakriya is known as drig drishya viveka, or seer/seen differentiation. It’s one that my teacher uses all the time.
 The methodology of drig drishya works in two ways; it has two parts to it.

The first part is called negation, neti, neti, not this, not this; and then there is the second part, which many people who speak about neti, neti don’t know, and it’s what’s called the positive assertion. While what you are not, neti, neti, is being negated, at the same time, what you are, the Self, Atman, Brahman, is being pointed out.

In the drig drishya prakriya the way it works is first you start out with what you identify yourself to be. We identify ourselves as the body, mind, and sense organs, an individual person, so we can start out by just sitting here and observing that the body is changing; you can see that that has happened over time; you can see that that is happening right now. And yet, you, the basic you, actually isn’t changing at all.

And so you start to negate those things which your mind thinks you are, is totally convinced that you are, like your body, bodily sensations, the breath, everything that is changing, as well as anything having to do with the sense organs and the mind, such as your perceptions, your thoughts, and your emotions.

At the same time as you are negating those things which change as ‘not I,’ you are being guided through the positive assertion to notice that which doesn’t change, which in fact is you, the essential you, your being, who you really are. You are always present in exactly the same way, and you are not changing.

Another prakriya using negation and positive assertion introduces the idea of the pancha kosha-s in order specifically to highlight different points of misidentification.

Pancha kosha translates as five sheaths or five coverings. There can be confusion regarding the pancha kosha-s because some people assume that there are actually five sheaths that literally cover the Self, which then need to be removed one by one, in order to arrive at the ‘inner’ Atman, the Self. But that understanding isn’t at all correct. 

The pancha kosha-s are five points of misidentification that require to be negated as ‘not I.’ And the way that happens is again you are led to make the differentiation between the ever-present, never-changing Self, and anything having to do with the body-mind that you take that Self to be. So it’s very simple actually.

The first kosha is the gross body, or the annamaya kosha; this corresponds to the ‘I am the body’ idea. In which ever way the body is, fat or thin, I am that.

The second is the pranamaya kosha, which refers to the different internal systems of the body, such as the circulatory, respiratory, and digestive systems, ‘I am thirsty, hungry', etc.; then the next three koshas have to do with the mind and different types of thought.

What is happening as this prakriya is being unfolded is that you are working your way from gross to subtle points of identification, you are moving inwards towards the Self, so to speak, through a process of negation. The third kosha is the manomaya kosha, which is a type of thought, fluctuating thoughts and emotions. These correspond to ‘I am happy, I am sad, I am agitated', etc.; then we have vijnyanamaya kosha, which is characterized by decisive thinking, thoughts such as ‘I am the doer, I am cooking, I am walking, I am talking', etc. Then we get to anandamaya kosha, which is what we experience in deep sleep, or in a moment of happiness when the mind relaxes through the fulfillment of a desire, or due to having a pleasant experience; this corresponds to ‘I am the enjoyer of this or that experience'.

We see that what is invariable in all those five ‘kosha-s’ is ‘I am.’ Pointing out and negating from the I which am, these five incorrect points of identification is another way of differentiating the changeless Self from the body, mind, and sense organs experiences.

Then there is a third prakriya called the witness of the three states of experience – avastha traya sakshi prakriya.

avastha traya means ‘the three states of experience,’ waking, dream, and deep sleep. These are the three states of experience that each person passes through every day. We go from the waking state, to the dream state, to the deep sleep state; and although each of these states is very different one from another we aren’t bothered by that at all.

In the waking state we live our ‘normal’ everyday lives. Then we enter the dream state and everything changes. We may take a different body in the dream state, or perhaps we are just watching the entire dream unfold. Fantastic things happen in the dream that could never take place in the waking state. It’s a completely different reality. In deep sleep, the mind resolves, and there aren’t any thoughts. Just a big ‘I don’t know,’ but when you wake up you say, ‘I really enjoyed that.’

Now the question is why are we not bothered to enter these three completely different states of experience? The answer is because you are still there entirely present to each of them. You are there throughout. You never change while these states of experience change. If you can be without one, and then the other, and then the other, it indicates that none of them actually touches you at all. None of them has anything to do with the essential you, which is present to all of them. The you that is always present is the Self. In this prakriya the Self is referred to as the fourth state, turiya.

Turiya is not a state of experience; it is the witness of the three states of experience. In fact, there isn’t really a witness, there’s just the Self, the Atman, which is Brahman. It is the You, the invariable You which lights up all experience. You never change, and You are always present no matter what. 

When through the use of the first three prakriya-s we have negated anything having to do with the body, the mind, the sense organs, and their experiences as ‘not I,’ and recognized that the never changing Self is ‘I,’ then we can introduce a further question. If my Self is not this body, mind or sense organs which change, then it follows that your Self also cannot be the body, mind or sense organs which change, therefore what is it that separates my Self from your Self? What is it that separates my Self from your Self or the Self of anyone? The answer is nothing, nothing at all. This Self is the very same in all beings. There is only one Self.

Then we get to the fourth prakriya, karya karana, cause and effect, satyam-mithya, What this prakriya does is help you to recognize that the existence which all things share is really just One, and that One is your Self. There are many examples, which the teaching uses to show this; often they are juxtaposed.

For example, the clay-pot illustration is one that is often used. There are many objects made of clay, and they all have different names, forms, and functions, but the reality of all of those objects is clay alone. So the satyam, the reality of the objects, is the clay; the mithya, the apparent or relative reality, is their different names, forms and functions. Whatever you do to the clay objects – you can change them into another form, break them, smash them, crush them, but the reality of them will always only be clay alone.

Another example is the wave-ocean illustration. The ocean has lots of wave forms; but the reality of the ocean and the reality of the waves is water alone. 

All examples, however, because they are using duality to illustrate something, will have their limitations. So then we have to bring in other illustrations; one is the dream. The dream comes from you, is sustained by you and resolves into you. You project the dream; everything in that dream is you. The intelligence that manifests the dream is you, the material of the dream is you, and all the characters in the dream, who have their own thoughts and opinions, are you. When you wake up from the dream, nothing has happened to you.

Again what we are trying to show here is what the satyam, the being, the ultimate reality of the mithya changing dream world actually is. 
 There’s one example that’s very useful and that’s intentional imagination. The one my teacher uses often is that you imagine a meadow. Everything in that meadow is you; the animate objects, the inanimate objects, the people, the animals, the grass, the rivers, the trees, the sky. All of those are you, every single thing. Then you can just withdraw that imagination back into yourself and nothing has happened to you at all. Your being was the material of the entire imagination. The changing names and forms of the imagination were mithya, and your being was the satyam, the truth of the entire thing.

There’s one more method used here, which is not so much an illustration, but an analysis of the world of objects and of time. Time and space arise together and belong to the mithya, relatively real, world. Literally, you cannot find any object to be truly existent here because every object is infinitely divisible. Any object you take can be divided into smaller and smaller parts. 
 Take an object like your wrist watch. We call the object a watch. But what is it really? It is composed of parts, a leather band, and a metal disk. Take those apart and what do you find? More parts with more names. Take those apart and what is there? More parts with more names. Divide those. Eventually we arrive at molecules, atoms, quarks, smaller and smaller parts, but never can you arrive at the smallest part. Every part is infinitely divisible into smaller and smaller parts.

All the while you are doing this analysis, dividing the objects up into smaller and smaller parts, there is one thing that remains constant throughout. That one thing is the isness of the object. Watch is, leather band is, metal disk is, part is, molecule is, atom is, quark is. What all of these objects have in common is 'isness'. This 'isness' is your 'amness'.

'Am', and 'is' denote the same ‘thing.’ 'Am' and 'is' denote existence. That existence which is the Self, which is Brahman, which is the satyam, the reality of everything, can never be negated.

All units of time are also infinitely divisible. You can never get to the smallest unit of time. However, what is always there in the analysis of time is the present. Time takes place in the present. The present is your own ever present presence, the Self.

So these four prakriya-s when properly handled over time allow for Self-knowledge to take place. Self-knowledge, the recognition of the Self, as it really is replaces Self-ignorance. The first three prakriya-s help the mind to recognize that the Self is always present in exactly the same way. The Self never changes, and is unaffected by, and not dependent upon, the individual body, mind, sense organs, or their changing experiences. We also come to understand that there is nothing that can separate my Self from your Self, or the Self of anyone. The fourth prakriya helps the mind to gain the recognition that the reality, the satyam, the being of everything, of all changing phenomena, including the body, mind and sense organs, is this very same Self.

... Read Part 2 of this interview ...

Page last updated: 21-Mar-2015