Steady Wisdom: Day 107

Steady Wisdom: 108 Verses On Changing My Thinking

DAY 107

I am brahman.
-Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10
Meditation

I am that brahman which revealed itself to the rishis.  I am that brahman described by their words in the Upanishads.  I am that brahman expounded on by the venerable acharyas of the Vedanta lineage.  I am that brahman revered by the great saints and mystics. 

Impelled by the rishis, informed by the instruction of the acharyas, and inspired by the devotion of the saints and mystics, I previously sought to find brahman.  How odd!  I am brahman and I was brahman all along. OM.    

Read Series Introduction     

Are Language, Culture and Religion Essential to Vedanta?

THE QUESTION

I’ve dabbled in yoga over the years but lately I’ve really been drawn to Vedanta.  I’ve attended some local Vedanta classes and while everyone has been very nice and the teacher seems knowledgeable, as someone who hasn’t grown up in the Hindu tradition I feel really overwhelmed by the language, symbolism, religious practices and cultural references.  I have nothing against those things, it’s just that I either can’t relate to them or they confuse me.  But I still want to study Vedanta.  What do I do? 

THE ANSWER

As an American with a Christian upbringing, I had a somewhat similar experience when I first approached Vedanta despite already being a yogi, Krishna devotee and fledgling Hindu.  I’d been struggling with how mind-bogglingly vast and multi-faceted the religion was and how the culture, while alluring and intriguing, was so very different from my own.  When Vedanta showed up with yet another perspective and set of practices, I was exasperated.  I sensed that Vedanta was what I was really searching for but partly owing to my own misunderstanding and partly owing to the way the teaching was presented to me, I felt like I would have to fully comprehend and assimilate the language, religion and culture before I could even approach Vedanta.  I was totally prepared to try but wasn’t certain I would succeed.  In spite of my best efforts, I didn’t.  However, to my surprise this didn’t prevent me from studying and understanding Vedanta, which upon reflection made me ask myself: “Are language, symbolism, religion and culture essential components of Vedanta?”

On the outer level, yes, they are.  The native language of the Vedanta texts is Sanskrit.  Those texts often employ the symbolism of Hinduism and they’re usually taught by practitioners of Hinduism.  And of course, the language, symbolism and religion are all unique, fascinating and beautiful products of Indian culture.  In that way, Vedanta and the language, religion and culture it’s associated with are inextricable.  

However, on the inner level—and mind you, I say this as a Sanskrit enthusiast, a Hindu and someone who respects Indian culture—language, religion and culture are not essential to Vedanta despite the fact that Vedanta is undeniably the product of Indian language, culture and religion.  This is so because the sole purpose of Vedanta is to reveal something that transcends all languages, cultures and religions: the reality of your true nature.  The Taittiriya Upanishad itself says that this reality (you/brahman) is that from which words turn back, unable to reach it.  In fact, the Upanishads ultimately talk about your true nature in purely negative terms, denying that brahman has any name, form, quality or trait whatsoever in verses such as, “Not this, not this” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad II.iii.6).

The implication here is that reality can’t be described by any language, Sanskrit or otherwise.  And since the texts say that brahman is totally nameless, formless, limitless and free of all qualities—and thus has no location, lineage, ethnicity or origin—no particular religion or culture can be essential to its nature.  So while Indian langue, culture and religion are the oldest and most sophisticated pointers to the nature of reality, by necessity they can’t be the only pointers.

What does this mean for you?  First, you don’t have to be an expert in Sanskrit to study Vedanta.  There are numerous reliable translations of the Vedantic scriptures in English and many of the finest Vedanta teachers in the world, such as Swami Paramarthananda, teach primarily in English.  Furthermore, you don’t have to be a Hindu.  Perhaps some people would disagree with that but I think I have a valid point and here is why.  The aims of Hinduism are twofold.  The first is to gain a good afterlife and subsequent rebirth.  The second—at least from a Vedantic perspective—is to prepare the mind for studying Vedanta.  But when you do come to the study of Vedanta, one of the goals—assuming you believe in reincarnation—is to avoid rebirth entirely.  Also, you completely give up the pursuit of an afterlife.  So the first aim of Hinduism is negated, which in that regard nullifies its practice.  That only leaves the second aim, preparation of the mind for Vedantic study, which is the cultivation of a mind that is adequately peaceful and focused.  This is an absolutely necessary prerequisite, so how can Hinduism be optional?  Because, despite the fact that the Hindu religion and the lifestyle it espouses are excellent tools for training the mind, they aren’t the only tools. 

For example, I was raised Christian.  Notwithstanding the negative things I was taught, I learned ethics and how to lead a decent life, which are a key part of developing a balanced mind.  Later I came to the practice of meditation, which can be practiced independent of religion entirely.  There’s other things too, such as psychology or just plain being a good person and learning from life.  Life is the greatest teacher and the proof is that I know some realized Vedantins that had no religious upbringing whatsoever.  Granted, I’ll admit that the idea that Vedanta can be independent of Hinduism could be considered highly unorthodox.  However, since the days of Swami Vivekananda, and thanks to the influence of later teachers like Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda, Vedanta has spread beyond its native context.  And because at its core Vedanta is proclaiming a universal truth, one that transcends all languages, cultures and creeds, it has successfully been adapted and utilized by people of many different backgrounds.    

On a practical level, if you study Vedanta in earnest, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to avoid Sanskrit or Hinduism entirely (not that that’s what you’re saying you want to do).  But I want to make the point that in spite of needing to learn a few Sanskrit vocabulary words, it’s okay if you don’t know the language in depth.  In fact, many Hindus don’t know Sanskrit at all.  And it’s okay to not be a Hindu.  I’d encourage you to be open minded and try to appreciate Hinduism as much as possible but it’s understandable if it doesn’t appeal to you or you find it confusing.  It’s okay to respect your own background and culture.  Just understand that the vivid symbolism of Hinduism and the rituals it employs are not arbitrary.  They are all sophisticated means of pointing to your true nature.  It’s easier to understand when viewed in that light. 

However, it bears mentioning that since Vedanta is simply a method for removing false notions you have about yourself, all of the cultural and religious aspects can be stripped away, and although the result is much less colorful and interesting, the methodology remains completely intact.  I’ve found this approach to be helpful, both to Hindus and Non-Hindus alike, because mind you, not all Hindus understand (or even like!) their own religion.  It’s also practical, because it takes Vedanta and makes it more universal and accessible.  At this time, not many teachers actually teach like that, although I truly believe that as Vedanta comes into its own in places like America, more will.  The difficulty posed by that approach is that you never want to entirely abandon the traditional teaching tool of scripture, full of cultural and religious references as it is, because the scripture is the source and foundation of the teaching.  But I’m sure over time, the proper balance between the two approaches will be found.   

So keep studying, you’ll be just fine.  It’s not necessarily meant to be easy or comfortable and you’ll need to stretch yourself and put in the work if you really want to find the truth.  If you’re really having a tough time I have a video series that I think you’ll find accessible and I’m in the process of working on some new material that will be even more universal and easy to understand.  I can also suggest reading Self-Knowledge by Ted Schmidt.  He takes the traditional approach but puts it in the modern vernacular.  Good luck to you!

All my best – Vishnudeva     

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The Process of Inquiry

If you have questions about this satsang, contact me HERE. 

THE QUESTION

Can you please explain the process of self-inquiry?  I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. 

THE ANSWER

The process of self-inquiry was first enumerated by Yajnavalkya to his wife Maitreyi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad:

The self, my dear Maitreyi should be realized—should be heard of, reflected on and meditated upon.  By the realization of the self, my dear, through hearing, reflection and meditation, all this is known.     BU II.iv.5 

 Later in the text, he repeats himself in a nearly identical verse:

The self, my dear Maitreyi should be realized—should be heard of, reflected on and meditated upon.  When the self, my dear, is realized by being heard of, reflected on and meditated upon, all this is known.     BU IV.v.6

 While Yajnavalkya makes it clear that steps of self-inquiry are hearing, reflecting and meditating, he doesn’t explain them.  For further details, let’s look at Shankara’s commentary on the previous verse, BU IV.v.6:

How is the self realized?  By being first heard of from the teacher and the scriptures, then reflected on, discussed through argument or reasoning—the hearing is from the scriptures (and the teachers) alone, the reflection through reasoning—and lastly meditated upon (lit. known), ascertained to be such and such and not otherwise.  What happens then?  All this (the mind, body and universe) is known to be nothing other than the self. 

Step One:  Listen to the scriptures being taught by a capable teacher.  The teacher is a must because there’s an underlying methodology to the scriptures that’s not obvious unless it’s pointed out to you.  Without understanding the methodology, the scriptures appear to be contradictory or even nonsensical.  If you don’t believe me, just pick up a copy of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and start reading. 

However, once you’ve been taught by a good teacher how to interpret the scriptures, you can then study them yourself.  The cool thing is that if your mind is properly prepared to understand what’s being taught, having the scriptures explained to you by a teacher is completely sufficient for removing ignorance regarding the true nature of your self.  If that happens, no independent study of the scriptures is required.  Granted, that’s the best case scenario, which is why the second step, reflecting on the teaching through reasoning, is often necessary.  But before moving on to the topic of reflection, let’s talk about the different ways to listen to the teaching.  It is, after all, the primary step.

The most obvious way to listen is to attend a class.  This option can be inspiring owing to the example of the teacher—assuming they live according to the teaching—and the company of other dedicated inquirers.  But to be clear, actually seeing the teacher or having fellowship with other students is by no means a mandatory prerequisite for self-knowledge, which is good because the live teaching of Vedanta isn’t widely available (at least outside of India).  Luckily, many teachers record their lectures and make them available to the public.  These lectures are easy to find online and the recordings are just as effective as being taught in person (having studied Vedanta both ways, I can attest to that).  Most of the time I actually prefer listening to a recording because I can rewind the parts I want to hear again and take notes.  Also, I’m able to more effectively control my surrounding environment, thereby reducing potential distractions.  However, if you’d still like to hear Vedanta live but you either can’t, or don’t want to physically attend the class, teachers such as Swamini Svatmavidyananda broadcast their teachings live on the internet.  As an added bonus, video recordings of the lectures are then made available afterwards for you to review.  It’s the best of both worlds (a link to Swamini Svatmavidyananda’s site is on the Links page).  

Despite the fact that the traditional way of listening to Vedanta is to literally hear a teacher giving a discourse, you can also expose yourself to the teaching through reading.  As I said, don’t simply go out and start reading the scriptures.  This won’t work.  Instead, find a book that is either an overview of Vedanta based on scripture, or find a translation of a scripture that includes a teacher’s commentary.  Good examples of Vedanta overviews based on scripture are Swami Dayananda’s Introduction to Vedanta or Ted Schmidt’s Self-Knowledge.  If you want a text that is both a scripture and a summary of Vedanta, Swami Dayananda’s Tattva Bodha is an excellent choice.  Here would be a great place to recommend my own Tattva Bodha commentary, but I’m currently in the process of revising it. 

Step Two:  Reflect on what you learned from the teacher and resolve your doubts through reasoning.  As I said above, the ideal situation is that you hear the teaching, understand it, and no further work is needed.  But usually doubts remain and reflection and reasoning are required to resolve them.  This can be done independently or if you need help, by asking the teacher or even one of your fellow inquirers.  Or doubts may simply be removed through further listening.    

Step Three:  The first two steps, listening and reflection, together form the means to gain self-knowledge—or more accurately, remove self-ignorance—and nothing else is required.  This begs the question that, if listening and reflection accomplish the primary goal of self-knowledge, what’s the purpose of the third step, meditation?

Here, it’s important to know that the word commonly translated as meditation in this text is nididhyasana in the original Sanskrit and nididhyasana is not necessarily a synonym to the meditation described in the Yoga Sutras (dhyana) or the meditation on the deities from other portions of the Vedic scriptures (upasana).  Similar to dhyana and upasana, nididhyasana is a form of concentration and contemplation.  However, unlike dhyana and upasana, whose respective aims are to stop the mind and contemplate deities, the goal of nididhyasana is to counteract emotionally disturbing thought patterns by assimilating the self-knowledge previously gained from listening to, and reflecting on, the scriptures.  This process of assimilation continues until it fully transforms the way you think about yourself, meaning until your thinking becomes completely harmonized with the implications of self-knowledge.    

Why is assimilation required to change your thinking if you already have self-knowledge?  Shouldn’t your thinking change automatically? No, because the mind is a creature of habit.  After a lifetime of thinking erroneous self-limiting thoughts, it takes a while for the mind to change its ways, even when it clearly understands that it is none other than the limitless self.  Here’s an illustration.  There is a homely adolescent girl, overweight, who wears awkward, thick glasses.  She is constantly teased and develops a negative, emotionally disturbing self-image, thinking herself to be inferior and unworthy.  However, as she grows up, she loses the weight and glasses and develops into a beautiful woman.  Despite the obvious fact that she is physically attractive and in the face of advances from potential suitors, owing to mental habits developed from childhood, she continues to view herself as undesirable and suffers needlessly. In other words, the knowledge of who she is—even though it is clear to see—and how she thinks about herself are not yet in alignment.  Only over time, through combatting negative untrue thoughts with positive true thoughts about who she really is, does she develop a healthy self-image.  (I’m not trying to say that being physically attractive is necessary for good self-esteem or that it determines someone’s worth.  This is just a metaphor). Similarly, once it is totally clear that you are the self and that by extension, you are full, complete and always okay, it takes time and continued application of self-knowledge for the mind to accept that this is true and to develop new and healthy thought patterns in alignment with this truth.  

The scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita say that a healthy and balanced mental state is the mark of a truly enlightened person.  However, is mental stability the actual goal of Vedanta?  No, self-knowledge is the goal, and self-knowledge clearly shows that you are not your mind and that the mind never affects you.  This is true liberation because the mind can never be perfectly and perpetually balanced.  Regardless of that fact, self-knowledge only applies in the realm of our everyday transactional world.  So even if you know you aren’t the mind, the mind continues to exist.  Therefore, if self-knowledge merely shows you that you are not your mind, but your mind continues to be plagued by fear, anger, sadness and attachment, self-knowledge has little value.  What good is self-knowledge if you—at least the apparent you—continue being miserable? If could be argued that it doesn’t matter because you aren’t the apparent you, but as I said, self-knowledge only applies to the apparent you so it might as well help the apparent you be happier.  Otherwise, what is the point?     

SUMMARY:  The two steps required for self-knowledge are listening (in whatever form you choose) to a teacher explain the scriptures and then reflecting on what you’ve heard until it’s absolutely clear and doubt-free.  Then, to change the way you think about yourself and to get rid of negative emotions caused by your previous self-ignorance, you meditate on the self-knowledge you’ve gained from listening and reflection until it is fully assimilated into your everyday thought-process.  Technically, since the first two steps give you self-knowledge, and self-knowledge shows you that you aren’t your mind, the third step of assimilation is optional, assuming you like how it feels when your mind is angry, fearful etc. 

That’s the process of self-inquiry.  Now hop to it!  And let me know if you need any further assistance.       

All my best – Vishnudeva

QUESTIONS? Contact me.