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Advaita for the 21st Century

Recommended Reading
General Books on Advaita

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This section consists of modern books that provide an overall presentation of Advaita.

Link to the Advaita Bookstore to read other reviews of these books, buy them from Amazon.com or generally browse.

   
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A. Parthasarathy - Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities
Swami Parthasarathy has written a number of books, including one on the Gita, one on Shankara’s Atmabodha and commentaries on several of the Upanishads. The Vedanta Treatise was his attempt to summarize Vedanta from his readings of the classical texts and from his studies with his own guru, Swami Chinmayananda. He still travels the world giving lectures on the Gita and also runs a school in Bombay, which provides a three-year residential course on Vedanta. An excellent introductory book, it tends to be more practical than theoretical, emphasizing bhakti and karma yoga aspects more than those of j~nAna. This is in line with the quotation on all of his cassettes that “The Bhagavad Gita is a technique, a skill for dynamic living, not a retirement plan”.

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"Selfish love or devotion is that which caters to your individual satisfaction, which merely pleases your body, mind and intellect. It is impure. It ceases to be love or devotion. It is attachment. Whereas, unselfish love or devotion satisfies the interests of others as well. It is directed towards your community or your nation or your fellow beings. It is pure. Selfless love or devotion is universal. It is directed neither to individuals nor to nations. It pervades everywhere, resides nowhere. It is divine."

   
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Nitin Trasi - The Science of Enlightenment
This provides a comprehensive coverage of the subject in an informed manner. It reads like a school textbook on the subject (though this is in no way intended to be a criticism) and has, indeed, been selected by the Department of Education in India for university libraries. It quotes very extensively from the works of Ken Wilber. It is thus particularly useful if you wish to acquaint yourself with the latter's work but, like me, find him not particularly readable (also 5* rating at Amazon). (Buy US or UK)


"In fact the very idea that a 'method' or 'technique' is required for Enlightenment reveals a deep ignorance of what Enlightenment is all about. Most people fail to realise that Enlightenment is simply the understanding of the situation, and not a physical, mental or intellectual feat or achievement. (And Liberation is the automatic, natural result of Enlightenment.) And thus it is that the seeker makes a very fundamental error right at the point where he begins the search - he begins with the presumption that he is a separate entity - and the battle is lost before it is even begun!"

Read the essay 'The Man Who Wasn't There' by Dr. Trasi.

   
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Swami Dayananda - Introduction to Vedanta (Understanding the Fundamental Problem)
Exactly what it says - an introduction to some of the key concepts, explained in simple terms. 'The fundamental problem', 'The Informed Seeker' and 'Ignorance and Knowledge' form the core of this very clear exposition. It also uses all of the correct Sanskrit terms so that these will be understood when moving on to more general reading.
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"A teacher does not produce anything; he does not need to produce anything. Nobody can produce knowledge. Knowledge is the accurate appreciation of what is. The teacher throws light upon something which is already there. If an object I want to see is in a completely dark room, all I need is light to see it in. The light does not produce the object; it merely dispels the darkness so that I can see it. A light in a dark room produces neither the room nor the objects in it; it only reveals what is."

   
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Two more general books on Advaita by Swami Dayananda, both highly recommended, are Self-Knowledge and Dialogues with Swami Dayananda. The former is based on nine talks on Atma vidyA given in May 2003 while the latter is collected from various sources and was originally published in 1988. Both are very readable and suitable for any level of student. They are both short but contain key topics presented with original lucidity. Swami Dayananda is, in my view, the best living teacher of traditional Advaita and one of the few to teach in the west. He is able to explain the most difficult aspects clearly, using modern language and often amusing metaphors.

The links are to Arsha Vidya Gurukulam since the books are not available from Amazon.

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Swami Muni Narayana Prasad - Vedanta Sutras of Narayana Guru
The original twenty-four sutras from Narayana Guru are even more terse than those of the Brahmasutras but Swami Muni has provided a commentary that is both lucid and informative; authoritative, yet eminently readable, covering many key topics. Despite its unpromising title, this is certainly one of the better books on Advaita, traditional or modern. Full references are provided and there is a comprehensive glossary of Sanskrit words. (Buy US or UK)

"Though blind, we are aware of self-existence; even when deaf, self-awareness remains. If all five senses are withdrawn from their objects and there is no awareness at all of externals, even then awareness of self-existence would continue. That self-effulgent self-awareness, devoid of externals, pure and unconditioned, is Atman, the Self of all and everything."

   
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Swami Muni Narayana Prasad - Karma and Reincarnation. An eminently readable and reasonable, if slightly controversial, treatment of this subject. This is definitely the book for any Westerner (or even modern Indian) who is attracted to traditional Advaita but is not altogether happy with these concepts.] (Buy US or UK)

   

Raphael is an Italian writer who is also very popular in Germany and has inaugurated the Aurea Vidya Foundation in New York, who is now publishing his books. (N.B. This is not Raphael Cushnir, a teacher currently active in the US, about whom I know nothing.) He has spent over thirty-five years writing and publishing on the spiritual experience, commenting and comparing the Orphic Tradition with the work of Plato, Parmenides, Plotinus, for the Western Tradition and is also the author of several books on Advaita. I have recommended his Mandukyakarika and Atmabodha in the Classical section of Recommended Reading. Several of his books are listed below:

   
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The Threefold Pathway Of Fire - divided into three sections corresponding to the three sadhanas (ways) of the Path of Fire:
1. Alchemy - the means necessary to accomplish the Opus.
2. Love of Beauty - references the philosophy of Plato and Plotinus.
3. Asparsha Yoga - bridges the discursive mind and pure Intellect.
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At The Source Of Life - depicts man's ideals, deviations and weaknesses, looks for their cause and investigates the Ultimate Reality as well as man's position towards it. Raphael offers a solution for dealing with the problem of desire and refers to the condition of the Liberated, who is not moved by anything that life can offer.
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Tat Tvam Asi - a dialogue between a seeker of the ultimate Truth, and an Asparsin Yogi. The text is not scholarly and aims simply at expressing the Doctrine upon which realisation is to be based. The metaphysical discussions have been abridged so that it may be of greater and more direct interest to the western reader.

I have now read this myself and can affirm that it contains some excellent material on the nature of reality. The style of presentation, as a fictionalised dialogue between a reformed drug addict, now spiritual seeker, and his guru makes Raphael's teaching much more accessible, with only occasional lapses into mystical confusion.
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"Therefore, only your true reality can give you the certainty of total completeness, and the implication is that all those other external realities, although perceived and experienced, were unable to give you completeness. This leads us again to conclude that they are not realities after all and that, most likely, what you have perceived and experienced must have belonged to a certain order of enslaving phenomena."

Vivekachudamani (The Crest Jewel of Discernment) -This is a translation, with commentary, of the famous introductory book to advaita, whose authorship has been attributed to Shankara. See the Shankara page for a complete review.

(Buy US; not yet available at Amazon UK)

   
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The Rope and the Snake by Arvind Sharma.
All students of Advaita will be aware of the famous metaphor of the rope and the snake, used amongst other things to explain the theory of adhyasa. However, this book presents many other uses from pre-Shankara buddhist times through to modern interpretations of Advaita. The purpose of metaphor is of course to make difficult concepts easier to understand and makes this particular one the metaphor par excellence. Highly recommended (but only for the relatively advanced)! This Amazon version will cost you $24.95. You can obtain it more cheaply (but it will take longer) from Motilal Banarsidass in India. (Buy US or UK)

"Another issue which arises in Advaita may be raised in terms of the rope-snake metaphor. If one superimposes a snake on a rope it implies that one has seen the snake before. If, however, one superimposes the universe on Brahman, does it not similarly imply that one has seen the universe before?"

   

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The Magic Jewel of Intuition by D. B. Gangolli. This is one of the few books that specifically attempts to investigate the nature of reality from the standpoint of all three states of consciousness, on the grounds that to do so from only the waking state is necessarily partial and incomplete. Accordingly, this is an important book. It is written by a disciple of Swami Satchidanandendra, the author of “The Method of the Vedanta” (I.5.2 above) and the investigation is therefore conducted rigorously using the methods of Shankara. Unfortunately, in addition to being a difficult topic, the book is unedited and suffers from stilted use of English. Consequently, it is often difficult to read and even more difficult to understand. Also, it was published in 1986 with a print run of only 1000, so it is very difficult to obtain - Alibris is your best bet.

"But if properly examined, what is this world? Is it not the totality of the objects seen in our waking? When we are awake all this is seen spread out; the moment we go to sleep it 'hides' itself somewhere. Such being the situation, what reason is there to believe that this world exists independently and we exist in it?"

   

The Book of One - Dennis Waite. Someone pointed out that I was not recommending my own book in this section and that I really ought to be. Modesty aside, I obviously think that what is said here is worth reading or I wouldn't have written it. I will not try to write a subjective-objective review of it however and refer anyone interested to the section devoted to extracts, endorsements etc. (Buy US or UK)

   

But then Back to the Truth is even better. It is more advanced in the sense of covering many more topics and it does so using examples from hundreds of different sources so as to maintain interest and give a wide perspective. See section devoted to extracts, endorsements etc. (Buy US or UK)

   

The Supreme Self: The Way to Enlightenment - Swami Abhayananda. A very readable book offering valuable information on the topic of bhakti, which the author seems genuinely qualified to provide.

The first part describes the author’s own spiritual search and ‘enlightenment experience’, and reads very much like a modern-day ‘Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’.

The second part, and for me the most interesting, draws parallels with other non-dual philosophies, showing how they all differentiate between the transcendent, non-dual reality and a manifest world which is simply an appearance of duality, created as it were through a divine power.

The third part looks in greater depth at the philosophy and highlights particular aspects such as the problem of evil, the nature of grace and the question of free-will.

The last part addresses the apparent conflict between the paths of j~nAna and bhakti and provides the best rationale I have encountered to explain the essential non-difference of these approaches.

I have to say that I would quibble over a few points of exposition of the philosophy but I would definitely recommend this book for anyone whose outlook is more oriented to the heart than the mind and also for those who have difficulty reconciling the two paths.

It should also be noted that the author is a firm believer in astrology and in addition to mentioning this in the body of the book he provides an extensive appendix containing charts. If, like me, you believe that one’s personality/destiny is affected or revealed more by the passing of a truck in the street outside than by a planet in the outer reaches of the solar system, you should note that this idiosyncrasy in no way affects the quality of the rest of the book. (I do also know of other Advaitins who believe in Astrology.)
(Buy US or UK) ** now out of print - but may be downloaded for free from the author's website **

 

 

The Wisdom of Vedanta - Swami Abhayananda.
This is a wide-ranging introduction to the non-dual philosophy of Advaita and should be of particular interest to those who have been brought up in a background of Christianity but who have never been altogether comfortable with the interpretation given by the established church.

Some of the material reads like a modern scriptural text, with prayer-like 'meditations' at the end of each chapter, but the word 'God', used throughout, refers to our own essential nature and not to some remote and separate, omniscient being.

The book is a collection of lectures on a variety of topics, which do not need to be read sequentially. Many of these are commentaries on Upanishads and on 'advaitic treatises' by the key philosopher, Shankara. In particular, there is an excellent complete commentary, in three lectures, on Shankara's important work on the nature of the self - Atmabodha. There is also a chapter comparing Vedanta and Buddhism and there are frequent references to Jnaneshvar, the thirteenth century Hindu poet, on which Abhayanananda has also written a book.

All religions have to begin from where we are and then lead us gently to the truth. Unfortunately, over time, there is a danger that the metaphors will be read as literal and the hidden, non-dual message will be lost. This is what has happened with Christianity and there is a need for books such as this to point the misguided back to the truth.

As with his other book 'The Supreme Self', this will appeal most to those of a bhakta nature. It lacks intellectual rigour and occasionally makes statements that are not pedantically in accord with Shankara's vision of Advaita but this is a minor quibble over a book that can be heartily recommended to those unfamiliar with the subject. (Buy US or UK)

   
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The Essence of Vedanta (The Ancient Wisdom of Indian Philosophy) - Brian Hodgkinson.
This is a very well written book, both informative and readable. It covers considerable ground but, it should be noted, it is not solely related to Advaita – it also touches on dvaita and vishiShTAdvaita and there is a significant treatment of bhartRRihari’s theory of language.

The connection with the School of Economic Science (School of Practical Philosophy) is obvious - from the influence of Plato and the importance of Sanskrit through to the quotes from Shantanand Saraswati and the particular books that are referenced and recommended. This means that correspondingly more emphasis is given to karma yoga and practical aspects of Vedanta and less to j~nAna yoga and the metaphysical truth of advaita. For example there is an entire chapter on nature and the guNa-s and another on time and the yuga-s, yet ajAtivAda is not mentioned at all. Similarly, the ‘elements’ of the universe are explained at length but the fact that all of this is mithyA is not (indeed it is not at all clear that the author understands this concept).

He also tends to be over-literal with respect to the various prakriyA-s in advaita methodology and consequently pushes the metaphors beyond the point at which they cease to be useful. The attempts to reconcile Plato’s philosophy with advaita cannot ultimately succeed. And he does tend to dwell on aspects that are ultimately irrelevant, such as conflicts between the various creation theories and evolution.

Nevertheless, there are some very clear descriptions of some aspects of advaita, such as upAdhi-s and sat; the section on karma yoga is very good indeed, as is that on the mind and reincarnation.

Overall, there is much to recommend this book for someone wishing to read generally on the subject of Vedanta and how the various philosophies relate to those of the West (the author is a teacher in Western philosophy). I actually enjoyed reading it, which is quite noteworthy for a book of this type. As long as it is realised that some of those aspects more directly relating to advaita may be hazy or misleading, I would certainly endorse it.

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BEING: The Teaching of Advaita, A Basic Introduction by Philip Jacobs.

This book is an excellent introduction to practical aspects of non-dual teachings. The book is well-written, readable and full of inspiring quotations from a variety of authors. The author’s enthusiasm and commitment is communicated clearly and is quite likely to inspire the ordinary reader to begin his or her own spiritual search. The book is very practical, addressing the ways in which we should act in the world and those practices we should follow in order to prepare the mind for self-realization. It touches on aspects of karma and bhakti yoga and numerous other topics are described clearly and succinctly.

The choice of title, however, is unfortunate. The book is not at all about the teaching of Advaita and, more seriously, it is not even clearly about Advaita. If a reader approaches the book with the intention of finding out definitively what Advaita is, he is going to be misled. A far better title would have been, simply ‘An Introduction to Practical Aspects of Non-duality’ – with this, there could have been no complaints.

Most of the quotations are not from recognized Advaita sources. They range from the mystical and poetic to modern interpreters such as Ken Wilber (whose quotes are amongst the best in the book, as far as Advaita is concerned.) Each chapter consists of a short essay on a particular topic followed by a selection of related quotations. The author notes in the introduction that each chapter was intended to form material for a single lesson at the Study Society, with whom the author is associated.

The author clearly understands Advaita much better than many satsang teachers writing books purporting to be about Advaita but there are numerous points which mislead or lack the clarity that would demonstrate complete understanding. (E.g. non-duality is not a ‘state’; we are not ‘aspects of the One Self’; it is not the case that “once we acknowledge that everything is Consciousness then the world of Maya is no longer experienced as an illusion or as a separate reality.”)

The book also propagates throughout a deistic view of reality, with turIya being referred to as ‘the Divine “I”’ for example and a habitual confusion between Brahman and Ishvara (Ishvara is not even mentioned). As an example, the Shankaracharya is quoted as saying that: “We should see Param-Atman in everything. If we do that, we receive special favours from Him.” Throughout, the author refers to an actual creation and never acknowledges ajAti vAda. E.g: “In the Advaita Tradition, the Universal Consciousness is described as having two aspects known as Purusha and Prakriti.” But this is from the sAMkhya tradition and causes considerable confusion when mixed up with Advaita – sAMkhya is a dualistic philosophy.

It is also implied that practice (especially of meditation) alone will take one ‘all the way’. The Shankaracharya quotes: “Faith is the most important thing – faith in the unchanging Absolute, and faith in the meditation. One simply steadfastly keeps on going and in the course of time it will become natural and give the needed truth.” From the Advaitic point of view, this is not so, for our problem being one of self-ignorance, the only solution is self-knowledge. No amount of practice, devotion or meditation will ever provide the knowledge that there is only Brahman and I am That. The Advaita tradition is more than able to communicate self-knowledge, which equates to enlightenment. But the material needs to be unfolded by a teacher who is thoroughly familiar with the methods and the metaphors and is able to wield that knowledge in a skilled manner appropriate to the needs of the seeker. Schools such as the Study Society and the School of Economic Science (another group of devotees inspired by the words of Shantananda) are ill-equipped to do this since, as far as I am aware, none of the tutors have undergone sampradAya training through to their own enlightenment.

Providing that the potential reader does not treat this as a text on Advaita, nor as a guide to teaching, but as a basic introduction to non-duality with an emphasis on how to behave and begin to think about such matters, then this book will provide both varied and worthwhile material and can be sincerely recommended. (Buy through Amazon UK Marketplace or from the bookshop at The Study Society.)

Read an extract from the book and an essay by myself, triggered by reading the book: 'Potential Problems with Schools'.

   

A Tradition of Teachers: Shankara and the Jagadgurus Today by William Cenkner.

A scholarly study of the saMpradAya tradition in India, in which the truth of advaita and the techniques for teaching it are passed down from teacher to disciple in an unbroken tradition. Cenkner begins with a look at the roots of the tradition in the Vedas before moving on more explicitly to Shankara's own involvement in this. The requisite characteristics of teacher and student are examined, as well as the teaching method and the particular relevance of meditation. The last part of the first half of the book looks at how Shankara's four main disciples continued the tradition. In the second half, Cenkner looks at how all of this is manifest in the teaching of the present-day (up to the early 1980s) Shankaracharyas.

Both readable and informative, this is an invaluable book if you wish to understand how the tradtional teaching of advaita has developed.

Teacher and scripture are an integral unit, because the former embodies the latter and the latter articulates the experiences of the former.

Although the book may be obtained from Amazon, it is not usually in stock. It is far better (and cheaper) to obtain from Vedic Books.

   
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‘Blueprints for Awakening’ by Premananda.

An excellent idea, brilliantly realized by Premananda in this book, was to ask a number of acknowledged Indian teachers essentially the same set of questions. This enables one directly to compare the differing styles of teaching and the extent to which they are able to communicate the truth about the Self and the world. He chose to use, as his set of questions, those addressed in Ramana Maharshi’s booklets ‘Who Am I?’ and ‘ Self-Enquiry’ and these are key elements in the understanding of Advaita.

Accompanying the book is a DVD showing short extracts from the interviews and there is a longer version that can be purchased separately. These are useful to gain a sense of the ‘aura’ surrounding these teachers, their ‘aliveness’ and sense of humor etc. But the book itself contains the complete material and there is no danger of distraction by such aspects as struggling to understand accents or grammar.

The significant advantage of a book such as this over the typical ‘satsang transcription’ type of book common in the West is that, here, we have an informed questioner rather than seekers with varying degrees of prior understanding. Premananda is able to tease out valuable explanations of key points, thereby avoiding the potential for confusion.

The main aspect that struck me was the widely differing levels of ability to transmit understanding, regardless of whether or not these teachers are truly enlightened. What is said ranges from what I would term ‘mystical mumbo-jumbo’ and the neo-advaitin views common in the West, through the simple faith of the more traditional bhakta style to the deep and reasoned understanding, and ability to communicate this to others. One tends to have the notion that perhaps few Western teachers are both enlightened and able to communicate well; that maybe most are probably not enlightened and tend to speak in unsubstantiated, psychological or mystical language, with many using the absolutist and totally unhelpful pronouncements of neo-advaita. And again one tends to think that the ‘real’ teachers, who both know and are able to pass on that knowledge, are all in India. The interviews in this book show such a belief to be unjustified.

In mitigation, it must be recognized that the teachers are answering Premananda’s questions in the latter’s presence. So, although the understanding may be there (for both parties), the audience is not. The audience will be the readers of the book. They are unable to ask further questions for clarification and the teacher is not in their presence so as to be able to gain feedback and make an appropriate response. The only way around this problem is to take explanations step by step, beginning from a certain ground and using reason to advance to the conclusion, so that the reader is certain to be able to follow. (This argument applies equally to Western satsang books, of course.)

The clear message that I derived from reading the book is summed up by Swami Dayananda: “Go to a teacher who is very well informed, who has teachers. If someone says, ‘I have not studied anywhere’, leave him alone – don’t learn from him.” And he is referring to sampradAya, here [the tradition or established doctrine of teaching from master to pupil through the ages]. It is necessary to acquire the skills that have been passed down for generations – the stories, metaphors and their meaning; and the systematic methodology of traditional Advaita – so as to be able to represent the truth to the seeker. Knowing the truth on its own is not sufficient.

This book is therefore something of a revelation in that, whether intentional or not, it demonstrates that (assuming the selection to be representative) India is pretty much in the same situation as the West! It does seem common to very many teachers that they make ‘pronouncements’: “This is the way things are (because I say so and I have realized the truth). Just accept it and maybe eventually you will realize it for yourself (perhaps if you keep coming to my satsangs)”. This sounds very harsh but shows up in sharp contrast to those teachers in Swami Dayananda’s lineage, for example, where statements are always backed up by solid reasoning so that you feel you have understood at the end, even if you cannot yet really ‘take it on board’.

I suspect that Premananda is not going to agree with me on this. And this may be because he actually met all of these teachers and knows that they are sincere, selfless etc. And I am not suggesting that this is not the case – just that in some cases, on the strength of their responses to the questions, they are not good teachers!

In fact, it occurs to me that ‘Blueprints’ provides an excellent companion to my own book ‘Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle’. The latter provided theoretical justification for the assertion that traditional, sampradAya teaching is superior to satsang and neo-advaita. The book under review seems to provide the practical and anecdotal evidence for this!

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An Advaita Vedanta Perspective on Language
by John Grimes.

What can�t be known, can�t be known. Ludwig Wittgenstein.

This is a book about the language of religious discourse, with a particular emphasis upon the way in which Advaita Vedanta approaches this, with its �two-level� perspective. Its tone is academic (hardly surprising when it was originally submitted as a doctoral thesis) but, for the most part, it is perfectly readable, given an interest in the subject and a little concentration. And the effort is most definitely worthwhile. For me at least, this way of looking at the teaching of Advaita was a novel one. And I found that it enables one to bring fresh understanding to some intrinsically difficult concepts.

Much of the material is about religious discourse in general and the various arguments given by philosophers as to why it is or isn�t meaningful. Initial discussions relate to the basic problem of how we can speak about a transcendent absolute reality, given our intrinsically dualistic language and what it can actually tell us that is meaningful. There is a section comparing the views of the various schools of Eastern philosophy to put Advaita into context and this is followed by a more in-depth study of Advaita�s treatment of the scriptures as a source of knowledge. This also addresses the meanings of and relationships between words and sentences, knowledge, universals, primary and secondary meanings etc. And it explains the key differences between �descriptive� language or �existential� statements and �prescriptive� or �injunctive� ones.

There is also a fascinating section about Western philosophers� thoughts on the subject. This is the most taxing part of the book but there are numerous opportunities for flashes of insight. It takes us from the �quasi-cognitive approach of analogical predication� (yes � I will have to read the book again to remember what this means!) to the �conceptual relativism� of D. Z. Phillips (ditto) and philosophers such as Ian Ramsey (who proposed that religious language is logically �odd�!). Much of the section revolves around the famous �challenge� of Anthony Flew who modified the �Gardener Parable� of John Wisdom, in order to argue that the problem with religious discourse is that it cannot be falsified. And, if a scriptural statement can be neither verified nor falsified, it is essentially meaningless. (See Theology and Falsification.)

It is one of those books that really does need to be read again in order fully to appreciate what is being said. But, unlike most books that fall into that category, this one actually does merit re-reading � and I will certainly do so!

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The Circle of Fire: The Metaphysics of Yoga
by P. J. Mazumdar.

The Circle of Fire deals with the philosophy of ancient India, and covers Advaita, metaphysics, Buddhism and Yoga. It compares the tensions and synergies between these important philosophical systems and lays the bold claim that Advaita philosophy is the only philosophy and belief system that is not only not weakened by science but actually strengthened by it.

See The Circle of Fire blog for more information.

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