If the idea of the self as consciousness doesn’t help you, don’t use it


Jenny: It is clear we are not different from the totality of existence but it is not clear that all of existence is consciousness.  I can see how my personal ‘world’ (my experience) is only consciousness but the entire universe being consciousness can only be speculation.  I’m not relating to the idea of the world being consciousness.


Vishnudeva: That’s okay.  I could launch into a long winded justification for the idea that the universe is consciousness but truly, if you don’t relate to the idea of the universe being consciousness then set it aside and focus on the existence aspect instead.  This is just fine because Vedanta is not trying to prove that the universe is consciousness (or even existence).  Rather, it simply employs those concepts to point to the fact that the true nature of the universe is non-dual and not limited by the appearance of objects.  And further, that the true nature of the universe is identical with your true nature, that YOU are non-dual and unaffected by the appearance of objects.  Getting to that understanding is what is important, not how you get there.     

So always keep in mind that the teaching method of Vedanta is to temporarily superimpose concepts onto reality that point to the truth.  The superimposed concepts are not the truth they point to, which means they are relative and subject to later negation*Once the concept has served its purpose, you disregard it in the same way that you disregard a finger after it has pointed to a star you were searching for in the sky.  This means the concepts themselves are not what is important so you can use whichever ones make the most sense to you.  I once had a teacher who said (I’m paraphrasing) that you don’t need all of Vedanta’s many teachings to understand who you really are.  You just need the ones that address your particular doubts.  If the consciousness teaching isn’t helping you see that your nature is non-dual and ever-free then don’t worry about it right now and focus on the existence teaching.  You may never need the consciousness teaching or perhaps it will help you later.  For me, the consciousness teaching helped me at the initial stages but the existence teaching is the one that ‘sealed the deal.’  And in the end I gave up both teachings because my true nature is beyond all concepts, “that from which words and the mind turn back, unable to reach.” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:4:1)   

All my best- Vishnudeva     

*The teaching method I’ve described is called adhyaropa apavada, superimposition and negation.  In his commentary on Bhagavad Gita 13:12, Shankara references it as the method of teaching known to those versed in the tradition.       



Are the Upanishads a Consistent & Error Free Means of Knowledge?

S: In a nutshell what is your take on the “traditional” position that the Upanishads are a valid means of knowledge?  The usual justification goes something like this:

1) They aren’t authored by any one person, therefore they are free from human error.

V:  If, as the tradition claims, the truths in the Upanishads were ‘revealed’ to people—and therefore free of error—it doesn’t mean that the people who received the revelation were perfect.  So on one hand, I think the Upanishads are absolutely correct (free from error) about the true nature of reality.  And that is what ultimately matters. But on the other hand, regarding relative issues such as cosmology and human conduct, I think the Upanishads are subject to the errors of the people who wrote them, specifically scientific error, religious speculation and sociological biases.   

For instance, at one place in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (BU 5.1), the non-dual nature of the universe is explained.  At another place, how a man can get his wife to ‘talk’ with him—meaning how to convince her to have sex with him—is discussed.  It is advised that if she does not consent the man should bribe her.  If she still does not consent he is to beat her barehanded or with a stick (BU 6:4:6-7).  The first example is an undeniable truth.  The second example is a sociological bias.  But, does this deplorable sociological bias negate the truth given at another part of the Upanishad?  Not at all.  Does it negate Vedanta as a whole?  No.  But it goes to show that any time people are involved, there is going to be error.  I think those errors should be acknowledged and recognized as byproducts of a time long since passed and then discarded so the timeless truth can become the focus.        

S: 2) They are consistent in their teachings. 

V:  It depends on what you mean by “consistent.”  If you mean systematic, then no, the Upanishads are plainly not systematic.  If by “consistent” you mean that they point to one and the same truth, then yes, I more or less agree.  I say “more or less” because there are supposedly hundreds of Upanishads, many of which have been lost.  Without being able to compare them all, how could we really say they all point to the same truth?  However, among the Upanishads usually studied by Vedanta—the ten ‘primary’ Upanishads commented upon by Shankara, along with others such as Kaivalya and Svetasvatara—there is a consistent underlying view of the ultimate reality. 

Yes, there may be discrepancies from text to text, or even within a single text, but these discrepancies are primarily superficial and relate to the relative or ‘lower’ teachings of Vedanta (see Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.4-5).  Vedanta is a smart teaching, so it will assume various positions on relative issues in order to meet people where they are at, with the aim of eventually negating and transcending all relative issues by revealing the ultimate truth.  When you understand this basic methodology of the teaching—temporary superimposition of relative views that will be negated by absolute truth—the relative inconsistencies of the texts become unimportant and it is easy to see the Upanishads as being consistent.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that not all of the Upanishads point to the truth.  This doesn’t change the fact that some of them definitely do.  I would personally have no problem simply focusing on the ones that do point to the truth and disregarding the others.  No harm done.                

S: 3) The teachings when properly understood stand outside the scope of other pramanas and reveal unique information (i.e., on Brahman)

V:  On this point I completely agree.  Brahman can’t be an object of thought or reasoning.  It can’t be experienced by your senses.  It can’t be inferred either, since inference depends on sense experience.  Since those are your only means of knowledge, the only way to know that you are brahman is for someone or something to tell you.  Scripture is what tells you.  Think about it.  How did you first come to know that you were brahman?  Did you simply realize it sitting under a tree somewhere?  Or did someone tell you?  Even if you did realize it under a tree somewhere, did you fully understand the experience?  Or once again, did someone have to explain the full implications to you?   

S:  What I find interesting about this is that a traditional teacher like Swami Dayananda places an enormous emphasis on this.  While the Neo/Direct Path teachers place far less emphasis on scripture or avoid the topic completely.  Does this all come down to a difference in teaching methodology in your view?  Or is it just a bi-product of some teachers being experience focused vs. those like Swami Dayananda understanding that Vedanta is a Pramana.

V:  I don’t like assuming that I know what another teaching is thinking or why they do certain things but as I’ve pointed out, what other means of knowledge, other than the scripture, is available for knowing brahman?  Because of that, why wouldn’t Swami Dayananda put enormous emphasis on the teaching?

Regarding Neo-Advaita and Direct path, again, I don’t want to assume too much but based on what I’ve seen I think they put less emphasis on scripture or avoid it because, for the most part, teachers from those groups don’t have in-depth exposure to it.  I’ve never personally come across a Neo-Advaita or Direct Path teacher with extensive scriptural training or knowledge.  So perhaps they focus on experience because that’s all they have to work with?  But this is a problem since brahman is not an object of experience.  Therefore another means of knowledge is required.  Hence, Dayananda’s emphasis on scripture.  This is an absolutely practical stance, not simply one of orthodoxy as some may argue. 

I want you to understand that my responses here are not me simply toeing the party line. I wrestled with the question of whether the scripture is a necessary means of knowledge for years and I went back and forth on my position many times.   But after careful consideration and a tremendous amount of inquiry I couldn’t help but conclude that knowledge, specifically knowledge of brahman, is the key to freedom—not experience—and the only source of that knowledge is the scripture.  Experience plays a role yes, but knowledge is needed to explain the implications of experience and seal the deal.    

Does this mean that I am against Neo-Advaita and Direct Path?  No.  I don’t personally care for their approach to teaching but it seems to work for a lot of people.  And more importantly, what they have to say has a lot in common with Vedanta.  I think this is because there’s not a single original figurehead of the Neo-Advaita or Direct Path (at least one I know of) that wasn’t influenced by scripture either directly through the tutelage of their own teacher or indirectly, through osmosis, owing to the influence of the Vedic culture and religion they were surrounded by.  This means Vedanta, Neo-Advaita and Direct Path all share commons roots, whether anyone wants to admit it or not.   

All my best – Vishnudeva   


A Progressive Vedanta


I recently read your post, “A Vedanta Atheist?.”  I’ve never heard anyone express the point of view that Vedanta can work for atheists.  Does that really conform to the teachings of Vedanta?  Do you advocate atheism? 


I’m not surprised. I’d only ever heard the idea that atheism and Vedanta are compatible expressed privately in discussions with fellow Vedantins.  That’s exactly why I wanted to go on record and say it.  The idea of atheism is certainly not new but I think its prevalence today—coupled with an increasing number of spiritual people who do not believe in religion—requires a proper response from Vedanta.  I believe it’s fully in line with the tradition of Vedanta to progressively extend eligibility to groups previously excluded from studying the teachings.  There was a time when someone like myself, a caste-less foreigner from outside the religious tradition, would most likely have been denied the teaching.  There was also a time, not so long ago, when it was controversial to teach Vedanta to the general public.  It was even more controversial when it was taught in English!  I am very thankful those times have passed and grateful to the pioneering teachers that ended them.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have had access to a teaching that has dramatically changed my life for the better.  So it’s no surprise that continuing to make the teaching available and more accessible to an even broader audience is near to my heart.  I think Vedanta can—and should—be progressive while staunchly holding on to its fundamental principles, namely the pursuit of freedom through self-knowledge. 

Perhaps even the most progressive Vedantins would balk at the idea of a Vedantic atheist.  But I would have to politely disagree because I actually know a few.  It can and does work.  I would also say that Vedanta is such a vast and beautiful tradition.  If one teacher or their views don’t appeal to you, there are so many other good teachers to learn from.  I’m not trying to upset anyone or claim that my view is the only right one.  I’m just a link in the chain, albeit one that’s a little funny shaped.  If you think what I say makes sense, great.  I think my point of view is reasonable.  If you disagree with me, well, you probably won’t attain enlightenment 🙂  I’m kidding.  You’ll be just fine.  That’s my point.  Vedanta can accommodate a wide variety of people and opinions. 

All the same, I’d like to clarify what I mean by atheism.  Atheism, as I understand it, is a lack of belief in a personal, anthropomorphic God.  In other words you don’t believe in the whole “man-in-the-sky” idea of God.  Perhaps you don’t believe in anything supernatural at all.  Now, are the ideas of a personal, anthropomorphic God and supernatural occurrences present in Vedanta?  Absolutely!  Just read the Upanishads. 

But…are those things presented as absolute truths in Vedanta?  No.  They are only true from a relative point of view.  This means they are not essential, and therefore don’t preclude someone who doesn’t believe in those things from studying Vedanta.  Does that mean someone can have success in Vedanta while being an atheist in the sense that they think the universe is merely a blind mechanical process consisting of matter alone?  I doubt it.  Why?  Because Vedanta is unyielding when it declares that the universe is ultimately nothing but brahman, pure consciousness, not matter or anything beholden to it.  And precisely because brahman is pure consciousness, Vedanta contends that the universe is a deliberate and orderly ‘creation’ not a blind, mechanical chaos.

Still, is being open-minded to these contentions incompatible with a rational mind that doesn’t believe in a personal God or the supernatural?  No, because brahman is consciousness and consciousness isn’t something we have to believe in.  Consciousness obviously exists because we are obviously conscious.  Granted, the exact nature of consciousness and how it can be the entire universe requires much investigation to understand but the jumping off point of our everyday conscious experience is rooted in fact, not belief.  Something else rooted in fact is the existence of the universe.  We all know it’s there because we experience it.  Since “I only believe in what I see” is often the criteria for belief according to an atheist I contend that Vedanta’s concept of God works fine with atheism, at least in the way I’ve defined it above.

How? Vedanta says that God (Isvara) is simply the world around you as well as the laws that govern the world.  So if someone is an atheist in regards to a supernatural personal God but they accept that the world exists and runs on natural laws, then they essentially accept Isvara.  Again, the part that Isvara is actually pure consciousness (and hence not really a God at all) requires a lot of investigation to understand but as in the case of consciousness, the starting point is rooted in fact, not belief.  And since Vedanta says that brahman is ultimately none other than yourself, no belief is required there either because no one needs to believe in themselves.  That we can even contemplate our own existence proves that we exist because a non-existent entity can’t contemplate anything.  For all of these reasons, I see atheism—at least a certain kind of atheism—as compatible with Vedanta. 

I certainly don’t mean to be dismissive but whether or not this view conforms to so-called traditional Vedanta doesn’t really matter to me.  I’ve already seen it work for people so the question of conformity serves no purpose.  I’m extremely practical, and considering that freedom is the point of Vedanta, whatever helps get someone get free is fine with me.  Besides, there is no definitive consensus among Vedantins as to what the ‘real’ or ‘traditional’ Vedanta even is.  A brief examination of the history of the teaching shows that some groups within Vedanta strongly disagree while others outright contradict each other.  The umbrella of Vedanta accommodates many viewpoints, any of which you are free to disregard if you so choose, so I don’t see why allowing atheism in Vedanta should cause a problem for anyone.      

As for the last part of your question, asking if I advocate atheism, I don’t really advocate anything in regards to belief or lack of belief in a personal, supernatural God because that is a purely personal decision.  Since I want to be able to decide for myself what I believe or don’t believe in that matter I extend that same courtesy to others.  And because I want Vedanta to be available to whoever is interested in it I try to remain open to other points of view and teaching methods, even ones I may not necessarily share or agree with.

What I do advocate is an open-minded, progressive Vedanta with the hope that everyone’s pursuit of freedom will be successful, whether the pursuit is traditional, non-traditional or something else entirely.   

All my best – Vishnudeva       


There Is No Other Freedom

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Paul, my good friend and guru-brother.  While staying with him he showed me a book of Swami Dayananda’s transcribed talks and pointed out one titled, “Freedom – Absence of Self-Judgement.” While I’ve read a fair amount of Swami Dayananda’s voluminous body of work (all of it high-quality), this piece immediately became my favorite.  Why? First, while brevity and directness are not always Vedanta’s strong-suit, this talk had both in spades.  Second, and most importantly, it dealt with the most pertinent topic of Vedanta, freedom, an issue that every student of Vedanta finds perplexing at one point or another in their study.

One of the reasons for the confusion regarding the nature of freedom is the close association—and subsequent mixing up—of yoga, meditation and Vedanta.  Despite the fact that yoga and meditation are excellent practices (practices that Vedanta advocates), their ideas of freedom are usually different from Vedanta.  While yoga and meditation often aim to fully change, control or stop the mind, Vedanta does not.  Why?  Because Vedanta recognizes a simple fact:  While the mind can (and should) be disciplined, it can never be fully changed, controlled or stopped.  This means that freedom, as commonly defined in yoga and meditation is impossible.  Since freedom is desirable, that seems to present a major problem.  However, Vedanta says not to worry.  The condition of the mind is not an insurmountable obstacle to freedom because you, the self, are always free from the condition of the mind.    

The idea that freedom depends on a certain condition of your mind is by far the most common, persistent and harmful misconceptions about freedom.  Because Swami Dayananda clearly pointed out the error of this idea in his talk, I’ve re-printed the transcript below, taking the liberty of italicizing the parts I thought were of particular interest.  May it help you make your goal crystal clear.    


P.S. – I am always hesitant to quote teachers owing to the possibility that I may misrepresent them in some way.  I have a lot of respect for Swami Dayananda so if I have misrepresented him in any way, the fault is mine. 


To judge oneself, at any time, on the basis of the obtaining condition of one’s mind is an error.  The present condition of the mind may be sorrow, depression, frustration, regret, disappointment, or just a response to failure.  As long as you judge yourself based on the condition of your mind, you are a samsari (one enmeshed in the relative world of beginnings and endings.)  When you refuse to judge yourself from the condition of your mind, you are a mumuksu (one who seeks freedom from all apparent limitation) and a jignasu (one who seeks freedom through knowledge). And when you cease to judge yourself based on the obtaining condition of the mind, you are free.  This is the only freedom there is—the freedom from the error of self-judgement that is based on the condition of the mind. 

The error is evident.  The nature of the mind is to keep changing all the time.  In the morning you judge yourself in one way, and in the evening in a different way.  When the judgement is harbored, the harbored judgement, stored in memory, creates a “personality” out of a person.  The personality is purely psychological.  It is against the vision of the self that Vedanta is unfolded in the teaching of Vedanta.  And if the knowledge of the self that Vedanta unfolds does not work for you, it does not work only because of this judgement.  When you refuse to judge yourself on the basis of your mind then you are serious in seeking clarity in the vision of the truth of the self. 

This does not mean that you have to always have a particular type of mind.  Mind does and will change, unless you anesthetize yourself psychologically, which is unnatural.  Thoughts do not “dry up” because the source of thoughts, perception and memory, is always there. 

The student says, “I seem to understand the vision, but then why am I still bothered by a jumble of thoughts?”  Because of a condition of the mind, the student doubts the vision, the very knowledge.  The doubt is an obstacle to gaining the knowledge.  Knowledge is not an obtaining condition of the mind, not a state of mind.  Knowledge is recognition of the fact that I am thought-free.  This recognition is different from a state of mind that is thought-free.  The difference between recognizing my fundamental nature as thought-free and aiming for a thought-free mind is the difference between knowledge and ignorance. 

Refuse to judge yourself on the basis of the obtaining condition of the mind.  Then you are serious in the pursuit of freedom.  Then there is freedom.  There is no other freedom

Swami Dayananda – Piercy, CA March 1983




To everyone who has been kind enough to make a donation in the last two months, your generosity is greatly appreciated.  10% of the funds have been re-donated to Arsha Bodha, a Vedanta teaching center in New Jersey.  Thank you for helping to support them as well.  They make a tremendous amount of high quality Vedanta teaching material available for free every year.  I am also using some of the funds to upgrade to a better website plan, one that will let me to get rid of the pesky ads I was forced to display because I was using the free plan.  Also, I’ll be able to add new things like audio and video.  Looks for lots of changes and new teaching material coming soon.  Thanks again.

All my best – Vishnudeva