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       


How to use the word “I” in Vedanta

L: What is the correct way to speak using the word “I” with all of the knowledge of vedanta?

V:  To use the word “I” the way any other person does, while knowing that it refers to your true nature instead of the body/mind.  That’s all.  Saying the word “I” or referring to yourself as “I” is only a problem if you think “I” means the body/mind.    

L: It seems like the word itself has problems.  It is a habit to use “I” to refer to the thoughts, feelings, and memories that consciousness is illuminating.  But this is not the most real essence of what I truly am.    

V:  True, but it’s impossible to communicate without using words that refer to concepts.  So it’s okay to use “I” as long as you know what “I” really means.  If you identify yourself with the thoughts, feelings and memories that “I” refers to, then it’s a problem.  If not, then it’s not.   

L:  On the other hand, it seems very difficult to use the word “I” to refer strictly to atma, because to my way of thinking, pure atma alone doesn’t think, feel, or remember, except as a differentiated illusion. 

V:  Like I said previously, it’s like the water / wave metaphor.  If the illusion of the wave says, “I am water” then it’s a true statement.  Likewise, if the illusion of Lee says, “I am atma” it’s a true statement. 

If there is any thinking, feeling or remembering going on, even if it’s illusory, that thinking etc. is none other than atma.

One of the key features of Vedanta is switching back and forth between different viewpoints or ‘levels’ of truth in order to make sense of reality.  Let’s call the real truth the absolute viewpoint and the relative truth the empirical viewpoint.  From the absolute viewpoint, there is no actual Lee, no thinking etc.  This is not a viewpoint you ever experience directly but simply understand to be true.  On the other hand you have the empirical viewpoint where you undeniable experience Lee and his thinking etc.  To ignore one of these viewpoints is to not view reality as a whole, and doing so can make your life very difficult.  Strictly taking the empirical viewpoint is obviously problematic because Lee has a whole host of problems, most notably sadness, sickness and death. 

But simply taking the absolute viewpoint (even though it is true) is not helpful either as I think you’re starting to notice.  The reason is that even if Lee is an illusion he is undeniably there, along with the world he inhabits.  When you understand that Lee isn’t real and that you are actually atma, the world is still there, just the same as before.  This means you have to interact with it like you always have.  You can’t simply sit in one place not speaking, thinking, eating or breathing.  The world demands that you act.  To acknowledge the world and act accordingly is allowing for the empirical viewpoint, the relative truth.  You simply do it knowing the absolute truth and you can switch back to that viewpoint in your mind any time you need to. 

But you don’t need to look at things from that viewpoint all the time (you can’t even if you want to because it isn’t helpful).  For instance, if I know my name I don’t have to remind myself of it constantly, lest I somehow forget it.  It’s there in the back of my mind all the time.  When someone asks me what it is, I simply recall it.  This means that if you are sitting there eating a sandwich you don’t have to do it thinking, “I am not really eating this sandwich.  Lee is not real nor is this sandwich.  I am the real, action-less atma.”  You just eat the sandwich.  If for some reason you need that knowledge (namely, if you find yourself mentally suffering) simply recall it.  Otherwise, live your life.       

L: Perhaps it is best to say “I have this thought,” or feeling, or memory? 

V:  Initially, yes.  This is a required practice in order to break our normal identification with the mind.  Usually, “I have a thought” equates with the belief “I am the thinker.”  So at first we need to objectify our thoughts to see them as the ‘separate’ objects that they are.  This is the artificial duality we spoke about previously.  When the practice of objectifying our thoughts bears fruit, namely the fruit of the knowledge “I am atma,” then the practice is no longer necessary. 

L:  But the concept of a separate “I” is essentially an illusion.  To some extent, is it necessary to participate in the illusory drama, to play the role of the “I”?

V:  Yes.  The only way not to participate in the illusion is to die.  And even though you are the immortal atma, I don’t recommend that 🙂 Besides, the illusory drama can be a very interesting and enjoyable thing, especially when you know that you are free of it.  You simply ‘participate’ knowing that you are not really participating.  

L:  It would sound odd to say “The illusory Lee-creature is wondering what book to read next” but this seems like the most truly accurate way to speak. 

V:  It would be the most accurate way to speak but as you’ve pointed out, it would in fact be odd.  And it would also be a bit contrived and pretentious.  Luckily, as I’ve said, it’s not necessary.  Once you’ve gotten it absolutely crystal clear that you atma instead of Lee, you simply say “I’m wondering what book to read next” with the full understanding that none of that is actually true.  You are like an actor in a movie, knowing who you really are (without any conscious effort) while playing a role.  As long as you’re not a method actor, losing yourself in the character, you’ll be just fine.     

L:  I’m getting the feeling that truly arriving at the deepest level of understanding of this knowledge of non-duality must require the “I-ness” to stand down, to figuratively self-immolate. 

V:  Yes, it is figurative because the “I-ness” doesn’t stand down in any literal fashion.  It stands down only through knowledge.  You make it stand down by recognizing it for what it is:  an illusion.   

L:  I have an inclination to undertake a process of detaching from the habits that feed the “I-ness” for a few weeks, long enough to break the habit.  But this does not seem to be a practice in traditional vedanta.

V:  I’m not sure what the details are of this process you’re thinking about so I’m not sure if it aligns with traditional Vedanta or not.  But if you think it will help, give it a try.  There is no rule that you have to conform to traditional Vedanta.  Besides, a cursory investigation of the history of Vedanta will show you that there’s not even a consensus about what traditional Vedanta actually is.  

L:  I had the thought to develop a set of sequential affirmations or thoughts to step through each day.  Is there already a standard sequence of realization statements in vedanta?  Things along these lines:

– This body and mind are temporary and limited illusions within infinite consciousness. –– My true nature is infinite and eternal conscious awareness.                                                    – This entire universe is an illusion created within one single consciousness.                        – I am the infinite and eternal consciousness that underlies this universe.

V:  Yes, that pretty much sums it up Lee.  But at the end I would add:

-I am not the universe but the universe is none other than me.

This means the appearance of the universe is you but does not affect your true nature in any way.  And this heals the artificial duality between atma and anatma (not-self).       

L:  Most of the questions that arise in my mind are resolved by coming back to one of these statements.  My thought was to repeat them and dwell on them every day.

V:  Yes!  In Vedanta this is called manana (reflecting on what you’ve learned until you understand it clearly) and nididhyasana (fully assimilating the implications of what you know to be true).  These are some of the fundamental practices of Vedanta.    

All my best – Vishnudeva

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Respect the Elephant: Self-knowledge Isn’t Denial

(Note: The first part of this Q&A is a response to a quote I was sent of a teacher discussing whether or not you can use self-knowledge to deny or ignore the everyday world.  For the sake of brevity, I’ve omitted the actual quote – V). On to my response:  

The goal of Vedanta is to understand how things really are, despite any appearances to the contrary (namely the false appearance of the body/mind/world).  Once you have gained this understanding, it profoundly affects how you view and interact with the appearance.  But in no way does gaining this understanding mean you should ignore or deny the appearance.  The body/mind/world may not be real but they are certainly not non-existent.  For instance, if your spouse is in front of you asking to discuss the hurtful things you just said to them, you can’t stand there with arms crossed, placid look on your face and say, “I didn’t say anything.  I’m the absolute.  This situation is not real.”  Instead, you respond appropriately and have a discussion, all the while fully knowing that you aren’t really responding to anything or discussing anything with anyone.  In fact, you know that you aren’t even a ‘you’ at all.  You know everything is really the non-dual brahman and that the body/mind/world is merely and illusion.  Yet, the apparent you (the body/mind) still acts according to the rules of the illusion. 

The good thing is that, informed with the knowledge that the body/mind/world is merely an illusory appearance of the non-dual brahman, the apparent you is able to respond to everyday situations in a much more objective and dispassionate manner.  This knowledge helps life go more smoothly (otherwise, as you said, what’s the point?) but it in no way is intended to deny life.  People who don’t really understand non-duality will try to use ‘non-dual denial’ to avoid ‘doing’ things they don’t want to do or ‘dealing’ with things they don’t want to deal with.  If an uncomfortable situation arises, instead of meeting it head on, they try to take the absolutist stance and avoid it.  But this is foolish and shows their lack of understanding because they refuse to acknowledge the world and respond when it’s convenient for them but if someone robbed them of their money or set their house on fire, they wouldn’t stand there saying, “I’m not the doer” while the thief ran away or “I’m the absolute that cannot be touched” while they burned alive. 

On the one hand they say the body/mind/world is an illusion—which is true—but on the other hand they act like their actions within the illusion are somehow real and that acting invalidates the fact that reality is non-dual.  Ironically they pick and choose when this applies and this shows they don’t know what they are talking about at all.  They are clearly mixing up the absolute with the relative, which Vedanta never does. 

My favorite story illustrating this point is about a king in ancient India who had two very different teachers.  One teacher was a dualist, who accepted the world as absolutely real.  The other was a Vedantin who claimed the world was merely an illusory appearance.  As the king and his teachers were walking through the forest, debating the various points of their respective teachings, the Vedanta teacher heard something stirring in the trees.  He realized it was an elephant on a rampage and shouted, “Run!  An elephant is coming!” and he pushed everyone out of the way as the elephant crashed across the path, nearly killing them.  After the king and his teachers regained their composure, the dualist pointed at the Vedantin accusingly and said, “Ha!  I knew you were a phony.  If the world, as you claim, is illusory, then why would you jump out of way?”  The Vedantin replied, “The world IS illusory, which means my reaction to the elephant was illusory as well.  My illusory reaction to the illusory elephant in no way contradicts my true nature as the non-dual brahman.”  The point here is that the one with self-knowledge does their best to act appropriately in a given situation, while clearly knowing that the situation and their reaction to it is not real.  They wouldn’t stand in front of a rampaging elephant saying, “I’m the absolute” only to get their guts smashed out on the forest floor.  That would simply be stupid.  Acknowledging the relative in no way contradicts the absolute.  That is the vision of Vedanta. 

With that in mind, let me address your questions. 

T:  I suppose that I have an idea that Vedanta will indeed take care of the doubts, fears and trauma of the body.

V:  It will certainly take away any doubts about who (or rather what) you really are.  The knowledge that you are the limitless, eternal brahman and not the limited, ephemeral body/mind is certainly empowering and helps greatly with fear because it shows you that you are always okay. 

Does this mean that the body/mind will never have doubt?  It may not have a doubt about what its true nature is, but it will certainly have doubts about other things, like whether or not to take a job or the appropriate thing to say to someone in a particular situation.  But when these moments of uncertainty arise, the person of knowledge knows what?  That they are not the one suffering from uncertainty. Uncertainty belongs to the mind alone, not to the self.  It’s like watching a TV show where someone doesn’t know what to do.  You don’t get concerned and think you are suffering from uncertainty because you know the character is unreal and has nothing to do with you. 

This applies equally to fear and trauma.  I know exactly what I am, but if someone points a gun at my body, my mind will naturally feel fear.  At the same time, I fully know that I am not the fearful mind.  And further, I know that if my body is shot and killed, I am not shot and killed. This is no way means I won’t run or try to defend myself.  But this doesn’t contradict my knowledge at all. 

Recently I had surgery.  Did I—or at least my mind—feel apprehension?  Yes.  Did my body feel pain?  Absolutely!  But at the same time, did I know for a fact that despite the fear and pain that I was totally okay?  Yes.  Did that make my mind feel better?  Yes. Again, that is the vision and beauty of Vedanta.  We can’t always change the world or the condition of the body/mind, but despite that, we can know for certain that unpleasant circumstances never affect us in any way.   

T:  (I think) that freedom means that you are not affected by the constant ups and downs that identification with being the body seems to bring.

V:  Sure, but that doesn’t mean constant equanimity and peace of mind.  The mind is fickle and you really never know what it’s going to do or why.  That’s why yoga is a great tool for controlling the mind but its success rate is relatively low.  This is where Vedanta really shines.  It steps in and shows you that despite the condition of your mind, you are always the self and perfectly at peace and unaffected.  Vedanta is total dis-identification with the condition of your mind.  This isn’t disassociation or denial.  It’s simply a recognition of how things actually are.  This means that you are never affected by ups and downs, even when your mind is.  Ironically, the knowledge that you aren’t the mind trickles down into the workings of the mind itself and over time increases its equanimity and poise.   

T:  “Not knowing all the answers” and “getting it wrong sometimes”, seems to indicate to me that there is still work to do? It doesn’t sound like the end of knowledge?

V:  From a Vedanta perspective, not knowing the answers or getting it wrong sometimes only indicates that there is still work to do if you don’t know the answer to the question, “Who am I?” or if you get it wrong by thinking, “I am the body/mind.”  If you know the answer to that question you understand that you are not the body/mind, and that in fact is the end of knowledge.  Why?  Because if you know who you are, you know you are the non-dual brahman, that there is nothing other than brahman.  So if you know brahman, by extension you ‘know’ everything else, in the same way that if you know a single drop of salt water, you know the entire ocean. 

Does this apply to relative matters?  Is self-knowledge omniscience?  Absolutely not!  The body/mind will still be ignorant of certain details of the relative world and will still make mistakes all the time.  But self-knowledge tells you what?  That YOU aren’t ignorant of certain details and that YOU don’t make mistakes at all because you aren’t the body/mind.  Problem solved.   

T:  I’m not expecting the separate self to go away, but that it will be seen for what it is.

V:  Exactly.  You see if for the illusion it is and you stop identifying with it.  This means you can accept it for what it is, even when it has problems.  As I’ve said before, you don’t deny the problems and avoid them, but the knowledge always keeps them in the proper perspective.  If my relative self is afraid of something, I take the appropriate steps to alleviate that fear.  But if that doesn’t work I’ve always got the knowledge “I am not the relative self and I am always fine” to fall back on.  After self-knowledge, life goes on exactly as before, but your understanding of it drastically changes for the better. 

T:  When you know 100% who you are, can you still feel lonely, frightened, confused?

V:  If we are talking about the real you then no, because the self is never lonely, frightened or confused.  If we are talking about the relative you (the body/mind) then absolutely.  Those are natural parts of life.  However, knowing you are the self can, and does, alleviate those feelings over time.  It’s not an instant fix because the mind is an unpredictable and fickle creature of habit.  But as I’ve pointed out, self-knowledge always puts things in perspective by showing you that, without a doubt, regardless of the condition of your mind, you are completely fine. 

T:  Maybe it is complete freedom to just accept those things as being a part of life?

Does this make any sense?

Sincerely, T

V:  Yes!  Now you’ve got it!  The body/mind/world can be accepted exactly how it is because it’s not real, the same way a dream is not a problem when you realize it’s just a dream.  The good news?  You ARE real, and you can never be limited or changed. 

All my best, Vishnudeva    


Who Knows?

F:  I was reading a book on Vedanta and there is a passage that has me a bit confused:

“The self is not only consciousness but is also existence. For anything to exist, it has to be known to exist by some person or the other at some time or the other. Thus, everything is existent because it is evident. Otherwise, it cannot be stated to exist. So, existence .presupposes knowability. Knowability presupposes awareness or consciousness since it is through consciousness that everything, whether it be an object in the external world, or our body or our internal mental state is known. Thus, while existence is knowability, knowability is consciousness. When we say, “Swamiji exists”, it also means that Swamiji-consciousness is. So, “is” in “Swamiji is”, denotes not only the existence with reference to Swamiji but also the consciousness with reference to Swamiji. Existence is called sat. Consciousness is called cit. What is cit has to be sat and what is sat has to be cit. So, sat will bring in cit and cit will bring in sat. Consciousness is existence and existence is consciousness.”

“Consciousness or the self is self-illuminating.  It is self-luminous in the sense that, while it reveals everything else, it itself is not revealed by anything. It is self-evident. As evidence and existence go together, what is self-evident is self-existing.”

 This concept comes up quite a bit in the literature as you know.  What is perfectly clear is that Atma/Brahman is of the nature of existence/Consciousness/limitlessness.  That is me.   So at the paramarthika level existence and consciousness are obviously the same.  The one non-dual self existent reality is Consciousness.   Fine. What I don’t get is why there are passages like this that push the point from the perspective of of the jiva having an experience.  

Further, the passage implies that a rock in the ground didn’t exist until someone saw it or at least some geologist hypothesized its existence.  Another teacher repeatedly makes this claim in his books: “to exist is to be evident”.  

V:  If I may indulge in a bit of criticism, I feel like the passage is somewhat confusing because the presentation of the point is just a liiiiiitle bit convoluted. That being said, I don’t like to assume that I know for certain what another teacher/writer is trying to say or why they are saying it. That’s my disclaimer before I make any more comments.   

But here goes…

Looking at the passage above from the perspective of how Vedanta is usually taught, I think the author is conditionally assuming a ‘lower’ level of teaching—the empirical /vyavaharika / jiva level—to try to explain how brahman is both existence and consciousness.  He’s trying to convey this idea to the reader at the level of everyday experience because that’s most likely the way it will make the most sense.  From the level of everyday experience, something is said to exist when it is known or when it is the knower itself.  And for something to be known or to be a knower, there has to be consciousness.  Using this commonly known fact from everyday life, the author is trying to establish the unity of an existent known object, the existent knower and consciousness. 

However, this is just an intermediate stepping stone because from the ‘highest’ / ‘absolute’/ paramarthika standpoint, brahman is neither a knower or a known object.  How so?  In a non-dual reality, there are no objects apart from brahman.  If there are no objects apart from brahman, there is nothing other than brahman to be known.  Even if there were, since brahman is action-less it can’t be involved in any act of knowing.  Additionally, brahman is neither evident nor self-evident because if there is nothing other than brahman, then to whom or to what would something be evident or self-evident?

As Yajnavalkya says in the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad (2:4:14):  “When there is duality, then one smells something, one sees something, one hears something, one speaks something, one thinks something, one knows something.  But when to the knower of brahman everything has become the self, then what should one smell and through what, what should one see and through what, what should one hear and through what, what should one know and through what?” (To be clear he is speaking from the standpoint of knowledge.  He isn’t saying that a knower of brahman has no experience of the world).

So to say that something exists because it is known doesn’t exactly work from the level of the ‘highest’ truth.  Actually, it doesn’t work from the level of everyday experience either but I’ll explain that below.  

Besides, we’re getting hung on the word ‘exist’ and taking it too literally.  Because to initially say that brahman exists is not to attribute some positive quality of existence to brahman (which is free of all qualities).  Instead it is to deny the opposite idea held by materialists, that there is no such thing as brahman (the self), that it is some kind of non-existent void.  But eventually, both the ideas of existence and non-existence are to be given up because they are just that:  concepts that really only apply to the presence or absence of objects.  In truth, brahman transcends both.  As Shankara says in his Bhagavad Gita commentary 13:12, “…brahman cannot be expressed by such words as being, non-being etc.”  Further, in his Brihadaranyaka commentary (2:3:6) he says (this is a paraphrase), “Hence, brahman cannot be described as, “It is such and such”…when we try to describe its true nature, free from all differences and limiting adjuncts, it is an utter impossibility.  The only way to describe it is as “Not this, not this,” by eliminating all possible specifications of it that have to be known.” 

So my opinion is that the author is simply presenting one of the initial levels of the teaching, one that uses our everyday experience and our current level of understanding to lead on to a higher truth.  Since the ideas of both existence and non-existence are to eventually be given up, if his presentation is confusing to you, then disregard it.  It is not meant to be taken as the literal truth.              

F:  My question is:  In the bowels of Vedantic/Indian philosophy is there really a strong logically supported argument for the claim “to exist is to be evident?”  If so, what is the basis of this claim and the response of Vedanta/Indian philosophy to the obvious question about whether things exists that haven’t been seen yet?  

V:  I’ve read that certain schools of Buddhism believe that the only thing that exists is what is known to you (Indian Philosophy: A Critical Survey by Chandradhar Sharma).  In philosophy this is called subjective idealism.  Orthodox Vedantins deny this theory although a handy quote is evading me at the moment.  But basically they maintain that the world of objects doesn’t make itself.  It is put together and controlled by Isvara; thus its existence is not dependent on whether an individual person knows it’s there or not.  It’s there because Isvara put it there. 

I’ll say two things about this issue, take them or leave them.  First, whether objects exist or don’t exist when I don’t know them has absolutely no bearing on whether or not I exist (I’m using the word ‘exist’ loosely) and MY ‘existence’ is the central issue of Vedanta, not the existence or non-existence of objects.  Second, the issue is entirely unsolvable.  To know if objects exist when I don’t know them, I’d have to step outside of consciousness to see if objects were still there, which is impossible. 

This means there is absolutely no empirical or logical means of knowledge to answer the question.  Vedantins don’t usually appeal to logic in this matter but simply refer to the claims of the scripture, which is supposed to be an infallible means of knowledge on matters that can’t be known by mankind.  So if you want to believe what the scripture says, that objects are there when you don’t know them, then that’s fine.  If not, then don’t.  That’s also fine.  But without accepting the scripture, the question is unanswerable and hence, pointless.  I’m not saying that to undermine the validity of your question.  The passage above certainly leads to it.  But I want you to know that it’s okay to not have an answer because the issue doesn’t have any bearing on the ‘ultimate’ truth, meaning the truth about your true nature.           

F:  My guess is that there really is this strong claim.  And the rationale is that every object has form.  Forms by definition are intelligent designs placed upon the fabric of reality (i.e., Brahman).   Isvara as the omniscient creator of the universe of forms and is the knower of all forms.  Therefore, the whole creation is known, even the rock in the ground that I don’t know about.  So to exist is to be known. What do you think?   On the right track here?

V:  (Note:  When I initially responded to this email I wrote a different answer.  Upon re-reading it, I decided to change it to the one that follows – V)  I admire your effort but unfortunately you are trying to logically justify an idea that doesn’t have a logical, provable basis (which is what you’re looking for).  The existence of Isvara–both what it is and does–falls purely into the realm of scriptural speculation, not empirical or logical evidence.  Isvara as the omniscient creator and ruler of the universe isn’t a matter of your personal experience, nor are the particulars of its existence (or non-existence) proven by implication or inference, not even the argument of design.  It is simply a matter of believing the scripture.  If you believe in the scripture then the reasoning you’ve given potentially makes some sense. If not, then who knows?  

But really, it doesn’t matter one way or the other because as I said the whole idea of “to exist is to be known” is an initial level of teaching not to be taken literally in the end.  Also, and more importantly, the existence or non-existence of objects (or Isvara) doesn’t change the fact that you are brahman.  Knowing that is the point of Vedanta, not speculation about Isvara or objects.   

What I’m saying is don’t get hung up on the details of the empirical world.  It isn’t real nor can we come to definite conclusions about its nature or how it works.  So instead I encourage you to focus on what is real: yourself. 

All my best, Vishnudeva

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