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   


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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“I am infinite eternal consciousness” is a True Statement

L:  If my body speaks the words “I am infinite and eternal conscious awareness”…that is actually NOT true.

V:  Actually, it is true because at its essence, the body is nothing other than consciousness.  So if the body says, “I am consciousness” it’s right.  But if I may personify consciousness for a moment, what would be untrue is if consciousness said, “I am the body.” 

Let’s use water as a metaphor for consciousness and a wave as a metaphor for the body.  If a wave says, “I am water” it’s a true statement because the wave is nothing other than water.  But if the water says, “I am a wave” it’s an untrue statement because there’s really no such thing as a wave because “wave” is simply an insubstantial name given to an insubstantial appearance that has no existence whatsoever apart from water.  The wave is water but water is not a wave.  It’s always just water.         

Similarly, the body is consciousness but consciousness is not the body.  “Body” is just a name given to an insubstantial appearance of consciousness that is mistakenly thought to be a real, standalone entity when in fact it is nothing other than consciousness. 

L:  The mind that formulates those words, and the physical body, lungs and vocal cords and so on, that project out those words, are observable objects that, themselves, are not Atma. 

V:  Yes, but only conditionally.  I’m sorry if I’m stating what you already know about Vedanta but the fundamental premise is that reality is non-dual, meaning there is absolutely nothing other than atma.  This means there can’t actually be a “not-atma.”  “Not-atma” is only temporarily posited to break identification with the unreal appearance of the body and mind that we normally take to be real and identify ourselves with.   

So initially in the beginning of the teaching, an artificial duality is assumed:  atma (you) and ‘not-atma’ (not-you).  This draws attention to the transient nature of the body, mind and world and shows that they are unreal because they are impermanent.  Further, it shows that they can’t be you because what is known to you can’t be you. 

But in the end the conclusion is the same as the water/wave scenario from above.  Just like the wave to the water, ‘not-atma’ is merely an appearance that does not affect the fundamental nature of the atma but it is nonetheless only atma.  The artificial duality of atma/’not-atma’ is a necessary first step, but once it has done its job, it is discarded and the faux duality is healed.               

L:  This seems like an easy problem to resolve, but it extends insidiously to all of the study of Vedanta, and it is tripping me up. In this communication of ours, right now, there isn’t boundless conscious awareness communing perfectly with boundless conscious awareness, there are just two flesh creatures typing questions and answers into keyboards. 

V:  In a sense there is because as I’ve pointed out, the two flesh creatures are nothing but consciousness.  The only problem is if the two flesh creatures don’t know that and they move through their lives thinking they are actually flesh creatures.  But if the two unreal flesh creatures know that they are actually nothing but consciousness, then they can type and answer all they want and there is absolutely no problem.  They are consciousness either way.   

So there is only a cognitive shift, not a circumstantial one.  You can’t get rid of the world, only understand that it’s an unreal appearance of you, the one real consciousness.  When you know that, you can leave the world as it is.  So type away flesh creature! But understand that you are really just consciousness and all is well.     

L:  Similarly, in meditation, the knowledge that “I” am infinite and eternal consciousness awareness, pulls me away from simply *being* Atma, because the thought “I am infinite consciousness” comes from the mind, which is, itself, NOT infinite consciousness. 

Maybe a simpler way to say all of this is that thinking about this is sidetracking me from *being* it. This seems like a problem with Vedanta. Reading and thinking and discussing are all activities of the mind, but focusing in the mind further enmeshes the illusion that the mind is one’s true self. 

V:  I see that you’re using the word “being” conditionally, which is good because being consciousness is not something that requires effort or even thought.  It’s what you are regardless of what you think or do. 

Reading, thinking and meditating are a necessary first step because reading gives you the information and then thinking and meditating on what you read gets it clear in your mind.  That’s all we’re trying to do here.  You need to know that you are consciousness instead of the body and mind and further, that the body and mind are unreal appearances that never have and never will affect you.  Once that’s truly clear, no reading, thinking or meditating is required.  And no matter what you think or read, or how much you meditate, it never changes the fact that you are consciousness. 

For instance, let’s say you have amnesia and don’t know who you are.  Someone comes to you and says, “You are Lee.”  They proceed to produce other people who tell you about yourself, they show you some pictures, videos, your birth certificate etc.  After thinking about it, your doubt about your identity is removed and you know, “I AM Lee!”  At that point do you need to keep reminding yourself who you are?  No.  You just know. 

On the other hand, if you keep telling yourself, “I’m Lee” and thinking about it, would it enmesh you in your former ignorance and somehow make you someone other than Lee?  Not at all.  

So you need to study, think and meditate until it becomes clear what you truly are.  After that, no studying, thinking or meditating are required BUT you will know that if those things go on they do not affect your true nature in any way.    

All my best, Vishnudeva

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Are Language, Culture and Religion Essential to Vedanta?


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? 


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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