You Just Never Know


B:  Can you get enlightened by Vedanta if the person teaching you is not enlightened?


V:  Vedanta’s standard response to this question is “Yes.”  To understand this answer we first have to know that Vedanta strictly defines enlightenment as knowledge, specifically the knowledge that your true nature is brahman.  Then we have to understand what is required for this knowledge to occur. 

Any kind of knowledge—both ordinary everyday knowledge and knowledge of brahman—requires the appropriate means.  First, let’s examine ordinary knowledge, sense perception.  If I want knowledge of the color of a rose, I need to have the appropriate means of knowing color, which is eyesight. If I can’t see, then there’s no way for me to determine the color of a rose by listening to it, tasting it, touching it or smelling it.  So in matters of color-knowledge, sight is the only means.  And because of that, in the presence of the appropriate conditions, the means of sight will always produce color knowledge, automatically.

So what are the appropriate conditions?  First, I—the one seeking knowledge of the rose’s color—have to be present.  Second, I have to be alert and paying attention.  If I’m sleepy, agitated or otherwise distracted, knowledge may not occur. Third, the object I want to know—the rose—must be present.  No rose, no knowledge of the rose’s color, no matter how present and the alert I may be.  Fourth, my means of knowledge must be working properly.  In other words, I need to actually be able to see.  If I’m present and alert and the rose is also present but my eyes closed, or worse, I’m blind, well, you get the picture…that I won’t get the picture. Soooo….assuming I’m present, alert and paying attention, the rose is present, and my eyeballs are working properly, knowledge of the rose’s color of the rose will happen automatically.  I know this all seems obvious but bear with me here, I promise this is going somewhere.

Now, what if I’m seeking enlightenment, the knowledge of brahman?  What is the appropriate means of knowledge?  If brahman were something like the aforementioned rose, then the answer to that question would be simple.  But—and this is very important—Vedanta explicitly states that brahman is not an object of the senses.  In other words, you can’t see it, smell it, taste it, touch it or hear it.  To make things more complicated, Vedanta says that brahman is not an object of the mind either, like a thought or mental state.  Since that completely eliminates all of my normal means of knowledge, does that mean brahman will remain unknown to me?  No, it just means that brahman will not be known to me as a particular sense object, thought or mental state.  But what means is available to know such a ‘thing,’ that is not actually a thing (but also not a no-thing)?  That means is the words of Vedanta itself.

“Now wait a minute Vishnu, you just said I can’t know brahman through the normal means of knowledge because it can’t be known by the mind or senses.  Now you’re saying that the words of Vedanta are the means of knowledge of brahman?  Words only describe things I can think of or perceive.  You’re contradicting yourself.  I think you need to check your means of knowledge.  I’m going to go watch Netflix….” 

Hold on, hold on, I can explain.  I didn’t say that Vedanta uses words to literally define brahman as one thing or another.  In fact, the main way Vedanta uses words is in a negative fashion, meaning it tells you what brahman IS NOT“Not this, not this” says Vedanta when ‘describing’ brahman.  So Vedanta uses words to show you what brahman isn’t, and by process of elimination, what brahman actually “is” (heavy quotations here) becomes apparent.  Now, it’s true that sometimes Vedanta uses words in a positive fashion to ‘describe’ brahman such as when it says brahman is “satyam jnanam anantam” which means “existence, consciousness, limitless.”  In a way this actually is a negative definition.  Why?  Because it clearly states that brahman is NOT something non-existent, NOT something unconscious, NOT something limited.

“Yeah, fair enough Vishnu, but the statement is clearly and literally defining brahman as consciousness.  Looks like you’re contradicting yourself again.” 

Not so fast.  The word “consciousness” is qualified by the two other words, “existence” and “limitless.”  The three words are all equally describing the same brahman so if one word contradicts another, we have to abandon the literal meaning of the word in favor of an implied meaning.  This resolves the apparent paradox and also sidesteps the objection that Vedanta is trying to literally define brahman with words as a ‘something.’  For instance, the literal meaning of the word “consciousness” refers to perceiving, knowing or some state of the mind.  Right off the bat, I’ll admit this seems to contradict Vedanta’s assertion that brahman is not a thought or mental state.  However, the word “consciousness” is qualified by the word “limitless.”  Is perception, knowing or a mental state limitless?  No.  So the word “consciousness” in conjunction with the word “limitless” can’t be saying that brahman is literally consciousness, which is a limited ‘something.’  Instead, the word “consciousness” together with “limitless” is saying that brahman is NOT a perceiver, knower or mental state.  At the same time it is implying that brahman is that which reveals the perceiver, knower or mental state.  This may seem odd but if brahman wasn’t there revealing the perceiver, knower or mental state then how could we even say they were there?

It’s the same situation in the case of the word “existence.”  “Existence” literally refers to something we can think of or perceive, an object of the mind or senses.  But the word “limitless” rules out the literal meaning because absolutely nothing we see or think of is limitless.  So once again Vedanta is using words to imply meaning.  Brahman is not something that exists in the literal sense that we can see it or think of it as a particular thought.  Rather, brahman is the unseen essence, or rather the pure existence, that makes objects of the mind and senses even possible.

Much can be said about the statements I just made about brahman being the revealer and essence of the mind and sense objects.  But I won’t go into that now because the purpose of my current line of reasoning is to show that the words of Vedanta are the means to ‘know’ brahman.  And it’s time to wrap that up.  So….to know something we must have the appropriate means.  For things we perceive the appropriate means of knowledge is our five senses.  For thoughts, the appropriate means of knowledge is the mind.  But brahman is not a sense object or a thought.  It is not a ‘something’ at all (but not a no-thing!).  This means that none of our normal means of knowledge can help us ‘know’ brahman.  A different means of knowledge is required and that means is Vedanta.

How does this relate to the original question, “Can you get enlightened by Vedanta if the person teaching you is not enlightened?  To explain let me go back to the example of the rose.  For knowledge of the color of the rose, I have to be present, alert and paying attention.  The rose has to be there.  And lastly, the appropriate means to know the rose, a working set of eyes has to be there.  In those conditions, knowledge of the color of the rose happens not only automatically but inevitably (the rose is red in case you were wondering).

The sum this up, I’ll apply the rose-knowledge situation to knowledge of brahman:  I am present.  The appropriate means of knowledge for brahman, Vedanta, is present in the form of the words of the teacher (I am making the assumption that the teacher is actually competent in conveying these words).  My mind is clear and alert and I am paying attention to what the teacher is saying.  Brahman is present because as the essence of everything (including me) it is always present. When the words of the teaching clear away my misunderstanding and resolve my doubts, knowledge of brahman happens automatically and inevitably. This means that whether or not the teacher is enlightened is immaterial because an enlightened teacher is not the means of knowledge for brahman.  Only the words of Vedanta are, so assuming the teacher is good at wielding those words, they will work.

Now, that is Vedanta’s traditional answer to the question.  However, its motivation behind giving that answer is not really to prove that an unenlightened teacher can get you enlightened. It is to show that the words of Vedanta, the Upanisads, are the real means of knowledge for brahman and that nothing else is required.  The argument is sound and on that point I agree with Vedanta.  However, I do wonder if someone who hasn’t understood the meaning of Vedanta for themselves would actually be competent enough to teach it.  Shankara himself, Vedanta’s foremost teacher, in his text Upadesha Sahasri, says that a teacher must be a knower of brahman and established in the knowledge of brahman.  But how do we know if a teacher actually has that knowledge and is established in it?  Is it even possible?  On that note, I go to the Practical Answer.        


The practical answer to your question is that we will never know if an unenlightened teacher can use Vedanta to enlighten students because we can never know if someone is actually enlightened. 

What? Vishnu you’ve lost it!  We have to be able to tell if someone is enlightened!” 

Really?  How? Enlightenment is clearly defined as knowledge of brahman, specifically the knowledge that you ARE brahman.  It is something that is known, something that is understood.  How can we tell what someone knows or understands?”

“Easy!  By their behavior.” 

What kind of behavior indicates that you are enlightened?

“Well, being happy, peaceful and nice all of the time.”

Does that mean that every happy, peaceful and nice person understands that they are brahman?

“Um, when you put it that way, no.  But surely what someone knows should affect their behavior!”

“Should” is the key word here.  Knowledge of brahman should change the way we think for the better.  And in turn, our thinking should positively change what we do.  But that isn’t always the case.  Let me give you an example.  I used to smoke heavily.  Now, did I know, clearly and without any doubt, that smoking is a cause of emphysema, cancer and a whole host of other health problems?  Yes, absolutely.  Did this stop me from smoking?  No.  Did my behavior indicate my lack of knowledge?  No.  I clearly had the knowledge.  It just took time for me to really assimilate that knowledge before I actually quit smoking.  But did quitting smoking validate my knowledge? Once again, no.  I already had the knowledge but it hadn’t yet changed my behavior.

That means it’s quite possible for someone to be anything from a jerk to a bona fide asshole and still have knowledge of brahman.  It’s sort of depressing, I know, but it’s true. We just can’t tell what someone knows or doesn’t know from the outside.   This is really, really important to remember.  Never—and I mean never—take a teacher’s word (or anyone else’s for that matter) that they are enlightened.  And never assume a teacher is enlightened because they dress a certain way, look a certain way or act a certain way.  On the other hand, don’t go around judging people as unenlightened for the very same reasons.

“But does this mean that a so-called enlightened teacher can act however they want and it’s okay because they’re enlightened?  Because they know that they are the changeless, action-less brahman?”

Let me say this unequivocally:  AB-SO-LUTE-LEY NOT.  Vedanta never, and I mean NEVER, sanctions bad behavior.  It is completely explicit that we are to follow the rules of good behavior, dharma, impeccably, whether we have knowledge of brahman or not.  Even if we do, no amount of brahman knowledge ever makes it okay for someone to lie, cheat, steal, speak ill, or hurt others.  If a teacher tells you otherwise or does those kinds of things, they may truly understand that they are brahman, but they are truly not worthy of being your teacher.  Following dharma is the only thing that is important in this world, even more so than enlightenment.  Why?  Because even if I know that I am unchanging, action-less brahman, ever unaffected by the body, mind and world, that knowledge is only there to personally give me peace of mind amidst an ever changing world of suffering.  Otherwise it has no transactional value whatsoever on the level of the empirical world, the world I happen to always find myself in.  If I could just zap myself out of the empirical world into formless, action-less, changeless, limitless reality, then great.  But I can’t.  I can only understand that I actually am that formless, action-less, changeless, limitless reality.  Because that knowledge never changes my experience of the empirical world, it means that my actions always matter.  My enlightenment will always be meaningless to those around me while my actions and character will always mean everything.

That being said, I will close with Shankara’s thoughts on what a teacher’s behavior should be like.  This excerpt is also from Upadesha Sahasri, II-1-6 to be exact (it’s a great text, check it out) “A teacher is…endowed with understanding, memory, tranquility, self-control, compassion, favor and the like…he is well versed in the scripture…he leads a blameless life, free from faults such as deceit, pride, trickery, wickedness, fraud, jealously, falsehood, egotism, self-interest and so forth.  He makes use of the knowledge with only the purpose of helping others.”  As I said before, Shankara does say that the teacher also needs to be a knower of brahman¸ but since we can never really tell what someone knows, the above qualities are the important things to look for.  Whether or not a teacher is enlightened is not knowable, therefore it is irrelevant.