What is samsara in Hinduism?

Q:  What does the term “samsara’ mean in Hinduism? 

A:  Hinduism is very diverse, with numerous different religious sects and philosophical schools.  So you’re going to get different answers depending on who you ask.  To be clear, I am answering from the perspective of Advaita Vedanta, particularly Advaita Vedanta as taught by Shankara, Swami Dayananda and Dayananda’s students.

Swami Dayananda defines samsara as “the life of becoming.” In other words, it is 1) Identifying with the body and mind, thinking it is who you are and 2) Subsequently believing that the mortality and suffering of the body and mind belong to you. Further, you believe that the qualities and character of the body and mind define who you are.

Because of this you are always trying to become something other than what you are.  Perhaps you want to be happier, perhaps you want to become immortal to escape death. Or perhaps you want something more mundane like a slimmer waistline and a more respectable position at work. Either way, feeling like you need to be something other than what you are, that you’re not good enough as you are, or that you’re somehow lacking is a painful cycle: this is samsara.

This painful cycle of thinking that you’re the body-mind continues (perhaps over lifetimes if the theory of reincarnation is true) until you see directly realize that instead of being the flawed, mortal, ever-changing and limited body-mind, that you’re the immortal, changeless, limitless brahman (the very essence of the entire universe) that is always perfect just as it is.

But you asked “What is samsara?” not “how do I end it?” so I’m getting ahead of myself.  That’s an answer for another day. 

All my best – Vishnudeva

Is Vedanta Only For Philosophers?

Q:  Is Advaita Vedanta only for philosophers? How can the average person practice Advaita Vedanta in his or her daily life in a way that it is easy to follow and not be drawn other ideologies?

Vishnu:  No. I don’t consider myself a philosopher and I’ve studied and “practiced” Advaita Vedanta for over a decade. Don’t take my word for it though. Just go to an Advaita Vedanta satsang and see for yourself. Spoiler alert: It is going to be filled will average, everyday people. Why? Because everyone is looking for truth, not just philosophers.

You practice Advaita Vedanta in your daily life by:

1) Living a life committed to dharma (in this case, dharma means right living).

2) Consistently applying the teachings of Advaita Vedanta to your mind until they help you directly realize your total non-difference from brahman, the non-dual absolute reality. After that, there’s nothing to practice. Sure, you continue to live a life committed to dharma.  But once you’ve seen the truth of your own nature, it’s not something you can practice. It’s just what you are.

Advaita Vedanta is not there to convince you to follow it’s teachings. Rather, it says you’re just fine as you are (but you just don’t know it!). If what Advaita Vedanta has to say appeals to you, you won’t need to be convinced to commit to it.  Nor will you look for answers in other ideologies (not that Advaita Vedanta is an ideology).

So if what Advaita Vedanta has to say speaks to you on a deep, inner level, then you’ve found the right teaching. If not, start looking for the one that does!

All my best – Vishnu

Purusha & Prakriti according to Vedanta

Q:  What is the relationship between purusha and prakriti in Vedanta? 

Vishnu: In Vedanta (specifically Advaita Vedanta), purusha is used as a synonym for atman, one’s true nature. The atman, in turn, is equated with brahman, the true nature of everyone and everything in the entire universe (both seen and unseen). Since atman and brahman are ultimately identical in Vedanta, purusha is brahman.

Prakriti is more or less the equivalent of maya in Vedanta. Maya is viewed a few different ways, depending on which school of Advaita Vedanta you’re asking. Most often, maya is conceived as a power inherent to brahman that makes the impossible possible: it makes the non-dual, formless and attributeless brahman appear to be the universe and all of its inhabitants.

What is their relationship? Well, technically, since Advaita Vedanta says that brahman is one alone, the only reality that exists, then there is nothing for brahman to have a relationship with (since a relationship implies at least two things).

However, when it’s admitted that our everyday experience patently contradicts Vedanta’s claim that brahman is one alone, an explanation needs to be given. That explanation is maya. In this case, maya is not a second thing over and above brahman. Instead, it is a false, seeming or illusory reality that depends on brahman to exist.

A common example given by Advaita Vedanta to illustrate this “relationship” between brahman and maya is that of the relationship between clay and a pot. When you really think about it, a pot doesn’t actually exist. How so? Because when you try to determine what a pot actually is, all you find is clay. Yes, you see a pot. This is undeniable. But where is the reality of the pot apart from clay? If a pot is made out of exactly one pound of clay, when the pot is weighed, does it weigh one pound (for the clay) plus a bit of extra weight to account for the addition of the pot? No. It is still precisely one pound of clay, nothing has been added except a form that is arbitrarily labelled a “pot.” Clay then is the only reality. And the pot is but an appearance with no actual substance, no actual reality.

It can’t be said that the pot is totally non-existent because it can be experienced, as plain as day. But it can’t be said that the pot is totally existent either, since it is nothing other than clay (all you’re really experiencing as a pot is in fact clay). In this way, their relationship is that clay is the reality and the pot is an appearance that has no reality apart from the clay.

It also can’t be said that the pot is totally different from the clay, since the pot is nothing but clay. But it can’t be said that the pot is totally non-different from the clay either, since the pot can’t exist without the clay while the clay clearly exists without the pot. In this way, their relationship is an inscrutable, logical conundrum. It is, to use a Vedanta technical term, anirvaciniya, indefinable. Because how can something be neither different nor non-different from something else? And yet, it is that way.

The relationship between the clay and the pot is similar to the relationship between purusha (brahman) and prakriti (maya). Brahman, like the clay, is the reality, whereas maya, like the pot, is only a seeming “reality” that has no existence apart from brahman. Maya, since it is nothing but brahman is not totally different from brahman. And yet, it is not totally non-different from brahman since it can’t exist without brahman, while brahman exists without maya, seeing as brahman is existence itself. Hence, the relationship is indefinable.

But when it is taken into account that brahman alone exists (despite any appearance to the contrary), the question of relationship is ultimately rendered meaningless, for again, what talk can there be of a relationship between purusha (brahman) and prakriti (maya) if purusha alone exists?

As a note, purusha and prakriti, although they appear in Vedanta texts such as the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, are technical terms more commonly associated with Sankhya, the philosophical system that underlies the practice of Yoga. In that system, unlike Vedanta, purusha and prakriti are considered to be two independently existent realities. Also, in Sankhya, there is supposedly an infinite number of purushas, whereas in Vedanta (as stated above) purusha i.e. brahman is considered to be one alone.

What are the Primary Texts of Advaita Vedanta?

Q: What are the primary texts of Advaita Vedanta?  

A: There are three primary texts of Advaita Vedanta. Together they form what is called the prasthana traya, the “three means” or “three foundations/pillars” of Vedanta.

The first primary text is actually a group of texts called the Upanishads. In turn, the revelations of the Upanishads form the basis of the other two primary Vedanta texts: The Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. The Brahma Sutras are an attempt to systematize the teachings of the Upanishads and harmonize their internal inconsistencies. The Bhagavad Gita takes the essential teachings of the Upanishads and puts them into a story form that is easier for people to relate to and learn from.

A note:  There are many Upanishads but the ten most commonly cited by Vedanta are the Aitreya, Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Isa, Kena, Katha, Mandukya, Mundaka, Prashna and Taittiriya.  These are considered to be the mukhya (primary) Upanishads because they were commented on by Shankaracharya, Advaita Vedanta’s greatest teacher.  Shankara also supposedly commented on the Svetasvatara Upanishad but because the style of this commentary differs from his commentaries on the ten other Upanishads (as well as the style of his commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras) it is widely believed to be spurious.  Some, however, claim that the Svetasvatara commentary was originally an authentic work of Shankara but was later heavily re-worked by other authors to arrive at its present form.  As such, it’s still thought of as a useful tool for teaching Vedanta.  But it’s not considered to be a reliable guide to Shankara’s interpretation of Vedanta. 

Another significant Upanishad, despite not being commented upon by Shankara, is the Kaivalya Upanishad.   

Hope that helps – Vishnu

Nisargadatta & Neo-Advaita

S:  Why are the proponents of Neo-Advaita so opposed to the teachings of “traditional” Advaita, i.e., those of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj?

Vishnu: Probably because many modern Advaita Vedanta teachers make it their business to go out of their way to criticize Neo-Advaita (a term created by Advaita Vedantins, not “Neo-Advaitins themselves), as if they fancied themselves to be the great Shankaracharya, riding into philosophical battle to maintain the purity of the so-called tradition.

As a note, Nisargadatta Maharaj, while highly respected by Advaita Vedantins, is not considered to be “traditional” Vedanta, whatever “traditional” may mean (Vedantins can’t seem to agree, although what usually passes for “traditional” Vedanta these days is Vedanta as taught by Swami Dayananda and his disciples). The reason Nisargadatta isn’t considered “traditional” in this sense is that he doesn’t unfold the teaching in a systematic way, using the scriptures of Vedanta (Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Brahma Sutra and later works derived from these three such as Upadesha Sahasri) as the framework for his teaching. Nor does he use the method of self-inquriy (atma vichara) contained in those scriptures, which was further developed by teachers such as Shankara.

Nisargadatta, at least in my experience, is actually championed by many so-called “Neo-Advatins.” So as far as I know, most of them are not opposed to his teachings at all.

S:  Thank you for your answer. I have attended meetings with some of the more well known Non-Duality teachers and asked them the same question. None of them gave any credence to the older teachings and practices, even pronouncing outright that to follow them would be completely useless as they miss the point entirely. I asked JN, for example, if his “liberation” was not identical to Nisagardatta’s.  Surely they can’t be separate? He thought my question ridiculous and became visibly irritated by it. The more modern non duality teachers will stress over and over again the uselessness of spiritual practice as a means to enlightenment. You could liken it to the old story of a zen master burning a wooden Buddha to keep warm, but I can’t help feeling that to throw aside the older teachings of Advaita is both arrogant and futile.

V:   You’re welcome S. While I can’t say that Advaita Vedanta is the only way to directly realize the truth of non-duality, it is certainly a very good, time-tested way that worked for me. My teachers always met me exactly where I was at and never dismissed or ridiculed my questions.