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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