Are Language, Culture and Religion Essential to Vedanta?

THE QUESTION

I’ve dabbled in yoga over the years but lately I’ve really been drawn to Vedanta.  I’ve attended some local Vedanta classes and while everyone has been very nice and the teacher seems knowledgeable, as someone who hasn’t grown up in the Hindu tradition I feel really overwhelmed by the language, symbolism, religious practices and cultural references.  I have nothing against those things, it’s just that I either can’t relate to them or they confuse me.  But I still want to study Vedanta.  What do I do? 

THE ANSWER

As an American with a Christian upbringing, I had a somewhat similar experience when I first approached Vedanta despite already being a yogi, Krishna devotee and fledgling Hindu.  I’d been struggling with how mind-bogglingly vast and multi-faceted the religion was and how the culture, while alluring and intriguing, was so very different from my own.  When Vedanta showed up with yet another perspective and set of practices, I was exasperated.  I sensed that Vedanta was what I was really searching for but partly owing to my own misunderstanding and partly owing to the way the teaching was presented to me, I felt like I would have to fully comprehend and assimilate the language, religion and culture before I could even approach Vedanta.  I was totally prepared to try but wasn’t certain I would succeed.  In spite of my best efforts, I didn’t.  However, to my surprise this didn’t prevent me from studying and understanding Vedanta, which upon reflection made me ask myself: “Are language, symbolism, religion and culture essential components of Vedanta?”

On the outer level, yes, they are.  The native language of the Vedanta texts is Sanskrit.  Those texts often employ the symbolism of Hinduism and they’re usually taught by practitioners of Hinduism.  And of course, the language, symbolism and religion are all unique, fascinating and beautiful products of Indian culture.  In that way, Vedanta and the language, religion and culture it’s associated with are inextricable.  

However, on the inner level—and mind you, I say this as a Sanskrit enthusiast, a Hindu and someone who respects Indian culture—language, religion and culture are not essential to Vedanta despite the fact that Vedanta is undeniably the product of Indian language, culture and religion.  This is so because the sole purpose of Vedanta is to reveal something that transcends all languages, cultures and religions: the reality of your true nature.  The Taittiriya Upanishad itself says that this reality (you/brahman) is that from which words turn back, unable to reach it.  In fact, the Upanishads ultimately talk about your true nature in purely negative terms, denying that brahman has any name, form, quality or trait whatsoever in verses such as, “Not this, not this” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad II.iii.6).

The implication here is that reality can’t be described by any language, Sanskrit or otherwise.  And since the texts say that brahman is totally nameless, formless, limitless and free of all qualities—and thus has no location, lineage, ethnicity or origin—no particular religion or culture can be essential to its nature.  So while Indian langue, culture and religion are the oldest and most sophisticated pointers to the nature of reality, by necessity they can’t be the only pointers.

What does this mean for you?  First, you don’t have to be an expert in Sanskrit to study Vedanta.  There are numerous reliable translations of the Vedantic scriptures in English and many of the finest Vedanta teachers in the world, such as Swami Paramarthananda, teach primarily in English.  Furthermore, you don’t have to be a Hindu.  Perhaps some people would disagree with that but I think I have a valid point and here is why.  The aims of Hinduism are twofold.  The first is to gain a good afterlife and subsequent rebirth.  The second—at least from a Vedantic perspective—is to prepare the mind for studying Vedanta.  But when you do come to the study of Vedanta, one of the goals—assuming you believe in reincarnation—is to avoid rebirth entirely.  Also, you completely give up the pursuit of an afterlife.  So the first aim of Hinduism is negated, which in that regard nullifies its practice.  That only leaves the second aim, preparation of the mind for Vedantic study, which is the cultivation of a mind that is adequately peaceful and focused.  This is an absolutely necessary prerequisite, so how can Hinduism be optional?  Because, despite the fact that the Hindu religion and the lifestyle it espouses are excellent tools for training the mind, they aren’t the only tools. 

For example, I was raised Christian.  Notwithstanding the negative things I was taught, I learned ethics and how to lead a decent life, which are a key part of developing a balanced mind.  Later I came to the practice of meditation, which can be practiced independent of religion entirely.  There’s other things too, such as psychology or just plain being a good person and learning from life.  Life is the greatest teacher and the proof is that I know some realized Vedantins that had no religious upbringing whatsoever.  Granted, I’ll admit that the idea that Vedanta can be independent of Hinduism could be considered highly unorthodox.  However, since the days of Swami Vivekananda, and thanks to the influence of later teachers like Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda, Vedanta has spread beyond its native context.  And because at its core Vedanta is proclaiming a universal truth, one that transcends all languages, cultures and creeds, it has successfully been adapted and utilized by people of many different backgrounds.    

On a practical level, if you study Vedanta in earnest, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to avoid Sanskrit or Hinduism entirely (not that that’s what you’re saying you want to do).  But I want to make the point that in spite of needing to learn a few Sanskrit vocabulary words, it’s okay if you don’t know the language in depth.  In fact, many Hindus don’t know Sanskrit at all.  And it’s okay to not be a Hindu.  I’d encourage you to be open minded and try to appreciate Hinduism as much as possible but it’s understandable if it doesn’t appeal to you or you find it confusing.  It’s okay to respect your own background and culture.  Just understand that the vivid symbolism of Hinduism and the rituals it employs are not arbitrary.  They are all sophisticated means of pointing to your true nature.  It’s easier to understand when viewed in that light. 

However, it bears mentioning that since Vedanta is simply a method for removing false notions you have about yourself, all of the cultural and religious aspects can be stripped away, and although the result is much less colorful and interesting, the methodology remains completely intact.  I’ve found this approach to be helpful, both to Hindus and Non-Hindus alike, because mind you, not all Hindus understand (or even like!) their own religion.  It’s also practical, because it takes Vedanta and makes it more universal and accessible.  At this time, not many teachers actually teach like that, although I truly believe that as Vedanta comes into its own in places like America, more will.  The difficulty posed by that approach is that you never want to entirely abandon the traditional teaching tool of scripture, full of cultural and religious references as it is, because the scripture is the source and foundation of the teaching.  But I’m sure over time, the proper balance between the two approaches will be found.   

So keep studying, you’ll be just fine.  It’s not necessarily meant to be easy or comfortable and you’ll need to stretch yourself and put in the work if you really want to find the truth.  If you’re really having a tough time I have a video series that I think you’ll find accessible and I’m in the process of working on some new material that will be even more universal and easy to understand.  I can also suggest reading Self-Knowledge by Ted Schmidt.  He takes the traditional approach but puts it in the modern vernacular.  Good luck to you!

All my best – Vishnudeva     

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HAVE A QUESTION?

Do you have a question about Vedanta? Or a suggestion for a Vedanta topic you’d like me to write about? Leave your questions/suggestions in the comments below or CONTACT ME directly and I’ll answer your question or discuss your topic in an upcoming post. I look forward to hearing from you.
All my best – Vishnudeva

A Vedantic Atheist?

THE QUESTION

I don’t believe in god. Can I still study Vedanta?

THE ANSWER

Yes, because Vedanta isn’t a belief system. At its core it’s simply a means of removing erroneous notions about yourself. While it’s true that Vedanta often employs theistic symbolism to accomplish this, it does so because of its target audience—followers of the Vedic religion—most of whom believe in some kind of creator God. Being a sensible teaching, Vedanta initially meets its students where they’re at and conditionally accepts the existence of a creator, only to later demonstrate that the creator is ultimately unreal, a mere appearance caused by ignorance of the true nature of reality. Now, if you don’t believe in God in the first place, you can ignore that part of the teaching and move on to the part about yourself, because surely you believe in the existence of your own self.
Despite Vedanta’s religious context, not believing in God or even the religious context of Vedanta itself is more common than you’d think. I have a few friends like that. And it’s interesting to note that Hinduism, the religious tradition that Vedanta is associated with, has branches such as Samkhya and Purva Mimamsa that are considered orthodox parts of the religion despite being atheistic. To my mind, that there have undoubtedly been Samkhyans and Purva Mimamsakas that have taken up the study of Vedanta over the years gives additional justification for you approaching Vedanta as a secular atheist. Welcome! If you look past the theistic symbolism of the teaching, understanding that it’s simply a means of conveying certain ideas, you’ll be just fine.

All my best – Vishnudeva

P.S. – For anyone reading this who does believe in God, it’s important to know that Vedanta doesn’t negate belief in God, merely the belief that God is real. There’s a difference, because in Vedanta the word “unreal” is not synonymous with “non-existent.” That’s why Vedantins can—and often do—continue to lead religious lives even after understanding Vedanta for themselves. Why someone would continue to worship something they know to be unreal may seem confusing but there’s a reasonable justification behind doing it. But that’s a topic for another day. The important thing to understand is that Vedanta can accommodate believers and non-believers alike.

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Vedanta Is Not The Answer

S: My goal is to reach a continuous peace of mind. I think that knowing and controlling my mind/thoughts is the key to reach it. Self-mastery!

V: That’s a good goal, assuming continuous peace of mind is even possible. Since the mind changes constantly how could you keep it one way alone? You might try to slow down or temporarily stop the changes in the mind by using techniques to control it but the changes themselves are often caused or influenced by a factor you can’t control at all: the external world. Since you can’t predict what the world is going to do you never know how your mind is going to react to it. It’s true that you can—and should—work on lessening your reactions to external situations. But the hitch is that your reactions to external situations are often dictated by the subconscious and unconscious mind, two things you can barely access, let alone control.

Because of the external world and the subconscious/unconscious you can never be sure what your mind will do next, regardless of how much you try to keep it in check. That’s why you can make the mind more peaceful but it’s impossible to make it continuously peaceful. There’s no harm in trying but it’s very frustrating when it doesn’t work. And ironically, that frustration further robs you of peace of mind.

That’s why Vedanta is different than science, psychology and other kinds of spirituality. While those things treat you as if you are the mind, Vedanta says that you aren’t the mind. Therefore Vedanta asks, “How can mastering the mind be self-mastery if the mind isn’t the self”?
This a radical difference, and if understood, the benefit is that you can work on your mind with total objectivity, never taking the condition of the mind personally. When the mind is angry you don’t think “I’m angry” and then get even more emotionally disturbed thinking, “I shouldn’t be angry!”
The mind is something that ‘belongs’ to you. It’s merely an instrument, the same as your car. The difference is—despite the fact that both the mind and the car are objects known to you—that you don’t identify with your car. When your car is running poorly you don’t take it personally saying, “Oh no, my fuel injectors are malfunctioning! I feel terrible about myself because they shouldn’t be doing that!” This doesn’t happen because you know clearly that the car isn’t you. So you’re able to look at the situation objectively, free from emotional disturbance or guilt, and deal with it. You get to work on the car. If the car can be fixed you don’t say, “Hurray, I fixed myself!” Nor if the car can’t be fixed do you say, “Woe is me, I’m broken!”

Do you understand the value of what Vedanta is offering here? It’s saying that if you want to work on the mind, great, but working on the mind is much easier and more effective when you do it objectively, with the clear understand that you aren’t the mind. Furthermore, when you understand that you aren’t the mind, the mind’s problems become a lot less important because you know they don’t belong to you or affect you, the same as the problems of your car.

S: I’m struggling to figure out how my mind works through Adavaita Vedanta.

V: I want to save you the trouble of struggling by saying that Advaita Vedanta won’t help you figure out how your mind works. It doesn’t even really try. Its goals are to 1) Show you that the mind isn’t real and 2) Show you that you aren’t the mind. That’s it.
If you’re trying to understand how your mind works, psychology is the way to go. If you want to go the ‘spiritual’ route, then yoga and meditation is the way. Meditation has taught me A LOT about my mind. It’s an excellent practice. But to be clear, Vedanta is not the answer.

It’s true that Vedanta is sometimes presented as a means to self-mastery but that comes from teachers co-mingling yoga/meditation with Vedanta. Vedanta isn’t against yoga/meditation in any way—in fact it encourages it as a preliminary step—but their goals are totally different. Yoga/meditation is for manipulating the mind, Vedanta is for transcending the mind altogether. And by “transcend” I mean the full understanding, “I am not the mind nor does it affect me.”

S: I’m continuously looking for practical tools to improve my being.

V: That’s why it’s so helpful to know that your true being, pure consciousness-existence, can’t be improved. It’s perfect, which means YOU’RE perfect. Knowing that, you can take the condition of the mind in stride and work on it much more objectively and effectively, always understanding that has nothing to do with you.

All my best – Vishnudeva

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Metaphors & The Meaning of Life

S: I guess I have a problem relating to a non-material pure consciousness the same way I can’t relate to the idea of an abstract god/creator. It’s my mission to overcome my old beliefs of materialistic existence only.
V: If you’re having trouble relating to a non-material entity, then I’ll ask this: do you have trouble relating to empty space, even though it’s totally immaterial and not something you can perceive? No. This proves that things don’t necessarily have to be material to be relatable.
One of the definitions of the word “relate” is to “identify with.” The reason you can’t yet identify with pure consciousness is because you don’t understand that it’s you. If you keep studying Vedanta, over time your identity with pure consciousness becomes perfectly clear and the issue of relating or not relating becomes moot.
Imagine an eyeball looking outward trying to see itself. When it can’t, it thinks, “I must not exist!” instead of realizing, “Because I see, I know I exist.” Right now you’re kind of like the eyeball. You’re looking outward, trying to see yourself, pure consciousness, as an object. When you can’t, you think that pure consciousness is something that’s as good as non-existent instead of realizing, “I know pure consciousness exists for the very fact that I am conscious. It’s self-evident.” And if you can see this, then you have no trouble relating to pure consciousness because it’s clear that you are it.
S: In the examples of water-wave or clay-pot (from your previous e-mail) there is a cause and effect. Some kind of force created a new form (wave or pot) out of the same substance (water, clay). So something did happen (a cause/force) to create a new form (shape). In the sun-objects example, the sun only reveals the pre-existing objects that were in the dark before. Both sun and objects has a separate materialistic existence.
V: The examples of clay/pot, water/wave, sunlight/objects are metaphors, and all metaphors have limitations. Hence, they’re not mean to be taken literally. They merely imply certain truths from different perspectives.
The sunlight metaphor is meant to deny that you, pure consciousness, are any of the things you illumine. The sun reveals the world but it isn’t the world, nor is it affected by the world. Similarly, you reveal the body/mind but you aren’t the body/mind or affected by it. That’s all the metaphor is trying to say: you aren’t an object nor are you affected by objects. Anything besides that is beyond the scope of the metaphor and shouldn’t be taken literally.
If you do take the sunlight metaphor at face value then you’re left with the problem you’ve pointed out: that the sunlight and the objects it reveals are two different things. But if you study Vedanta as a whole you’ll see that it flatly and utterly denies duality. It unambiguously states that there’s absolutely nothing other than brahman (pure consciousness/pure existence). So you have to take the sunlight metaphor in that context. While it may seem like it’s establishing two different things (you and objects) it isn’t. It’s only denying that you’re an object or that you’re ever affected by objects. All objects are you, brahman, but you are not an object, nor are you affected by objects. Explaining that last statement is one of the purposes of the wave/water and clay/pot metaphors. Similar to you and objects, all waves are water but water is never a wave. All clay pots are clay, but clay is never a clay pot.
I’ll focus on the water/wave metaphor because it has the same meaning as the clay/pot metaphor. Water does not transform into some substance called ‘wave’ when a wave appears. It remains entirely unchanged as H20. Furthermore, no additional substance called ‘wave’ is created. Let’s say we have 1,000 liters of water that take the form of a wave. Is there now 1,000 liters of water plus a couple extra liters of wave? No. There’s still only 1,000 liters of water because a wave has no substance apart from the water. It’s merely an appearance. The wave is the water but the water is never the wave. It’s always water no matter what. This is how you, brahman, are not an object but all objects are nothing but you.
Taking the metaphor literally, you could say that it implies cause and effect, that water is the cause and wave is the effect. But if wave is found to have no substance of its own, that it’s nothing other than water, is there really a cause and effect? No. There is only water. You could argue that the appearance of the wave is an effect but the appearance is still absolutely nothing other than water. If you investigate the wave, you don’t find water plus some substance called ‘appearance.’ All you find is water. So in reality, the metaphor denies cause and effect, which is in harmony with Vedanta as a whole which asserts that in a non-dual (advaita) reality, there is only one thing and one thing alone: you, brahman. There is not two separate things such as cause and effect.
Again, taking the metaphor literally, you could say that gravity is the cause, water is the affected substance and wave is the effect. Or in the case of the clay and pot that the potter is the cause, clay is the affected substance and the pot is the effect. But Vedanta refutes this objection by stating that if there is a cause, a substance affected and a resulting effect, then all three are none other than brahman, while brahman is not them. To be clear though, this is a lower level of understanding because as I said, ultimately Vedanta denies cause and effect.
S: How can the false appearance of materialistic existence (my body/mind and the universe) be manifested in my mind with no cause, force, event or a reason? Why does this false world exist (even if it’s just in my mind which also doesn’t exist) if it has no meaning or purpose?
V: I have no idea. No one does. Again, if you’re looking for explanations for why the world appears you have to consult religion. There’re no other option because even if science determines the ‘how’ of creation, it can’t determine the ‘why.’ It’s a total mystery. That’s why explaining the appearance of the world is not the point of Vedanta. Its purpose is to show you that the appearance of the world is not real so you don’t have to worry about it. Because if you know that the world isn’t real, how concerned will you be with where it came from? For instance, if you have a dream that you’re flying through outer space on a giant pink bunny, do you wake up genuinely disturbed asking, “Why?! Where did it come from? What does it MEAN?!” No, you don’t. You dismiss it as a silly dream and move on with your day. It’s the same situation when you fully understand that the world has no reality, that it’s just a strange appearance.
However, Vedanta doesn’t leave things totally open-ended. After it denies the reality of the appearance of the world, is shows you what it actually is: you, brahman, pure existence. You could ask why pure existence exists but I would reply with the question, “How can it not exist?” Its nature is to exist so it does. Really speaking, the question of why it exists doesn’t factor in because existence wasn’t created. It’s eternal. Only things created, transient things, can have a reason for their creation. But you, brahman, were never created. You have always been.
Those are the highest teachings of Vedanta. I’m not holding anything back. I genuinely hope they make sense but it’s normal if they don’t. It took years of intense, dedicated inquiry–listening to the teaching and contemplating its meaning every single day–to understand what I was being taught.
Finally, on a personal note: It’s true that the world has no meaning, at least not an objective one everyone agrees on. You could take this in the negative sense and become a grouchy old nihilist if you wish. Or you could take it in the positive sense that if the world has no definite, objective meaning that you are free to superimpose whatever subjective meaning onto it that you wish. Find what makes life meaningful for YOU and pursue it. That’s what I do and it works great. I’m not beholden to a pre-determined meaning of life I didn’t choose, handed to me by society, my forefathers or some deity I can’t prove exists. Take that for what it’s worth.
All my best – Vishnudeva
This is a continuation of a previous satsang. You can read it here. If anyone has questions about this satsang or Vedanta in general, please contact me.

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