Doubt About Advaita

S: Dear sir, greetings from India. I am a student of Advaita Vedanta and I’ve attended a few classes of Swami Paramarthananda in Chennai.

Vishnudeva:  Greetings from America.

S: I have a doubt regarding the Sankhya philosophy.  My basic question is this: What are drawbacks of moksha of Sankhya?  I feel the dualism / non-dualism difference is only nominal. What does it matter, if I get absolute peace following either “system”?

Vishnudeva:  If you get absolute peace it doesn’t matter what “system” you follow, whether it be dualism or non-dualism.  There’s no drawbacks to the moksha of Sankhya if you attain it and it truly makes you feel free.

S: My understanding is that the separation of purusha and prakriti in Sankhya is similar to the separation of the atma (self) from the anatma (not-self) in Vedanta.

Vishnudeva:  Yes, it’s similar.  But Vedanta never says that anatma (not-self) is an independent, material entity like the prakriti of Sankhya. 

S: It would be much easier to stop there (at the separation of purusha from prakriti). We would be free from the mortality and suffering of the body.  What is the need to prove the illusory nature of the world?

Vishnudeva:  The only way to find out is to try it for yourself.  If you feel drawn to Sankhya, apply yourself to it fully and use its teachings to separate purusha from prakriti.  See for yourself if it gives you the freedom from suffering that you’re seeking.  If it does, then you can stop there without proving the illusory nature of the world.

If it doesn’t, you can move on to Advaita Vedanta if you choose.

S: What are the benefits of accepting only one brahman as opposed to an infinite number of purushas?

Vishnudeva:  There’s only a benefit if there’s a benefit to you.  If realizing that you’re one of an infinite number of purushas gives you peace, then you won’t need to accept one brahman.  Although I would add that Vedanta isn’t about accepting brahman as one.  It’s about investigating the nature of brahman (which is just your true nature) and seeing what it is for yourself.  No acceptance is required when you see something firsthand, just like no acceptance is required when you walk outside and see the sun with your own two eyes.  In that case, it just is what it is and no acceptance or denial is possible.

If you wish, I can give you all of the technical, philosophical answers for why I think that Advaita is a more tenable position than the dualism of Sankhya.  But establishing that a particular position is logically tenable doesn’t always equate with peace of mind (which is the real point of the spiritual journey). 

Besides, Advaita isn’t looking for converts so there’s no reason to try to convince anyone of anything.  So you should follow the path that appeals to you most, the one that seems the most reasonable.  Otherwise, you won’t be able to properly commit to it.

If you happen to decide that the path for you is Advaita Vedanta, then I am here to help you in whatever way I can.

S: Thank you so much for your detailed reply. It helped clear many of my doubts. I really didn’t expect a thorough reply in a short time. Your mail was much appreciated.

Advaita Vedanta is the path I have chosen to follow. The doubts in Sankhya arose because of its seeming similarity to Vedanta. Now they are put to rest. (I am particularly reassured when you say we can “see” the truth for ourselves and don’t have to accept anyone else’s idea.)

Vishnudeva:  Yes.  This is a big advantage of Advaita Vedanta.  It makes claims about your true nature but then it gives you the tools to understand your true nature for yourself.

S: I am guessing the many questions I have will get sorted as I walk along the path. I shall surely approach you if I am stuck with any doubt. Meanwhile, what advice do you have for someone starting on the path?

Vishnudeva:  Yes, your questions will be sorted if you stay fully dedicated to the path.

In general, the most important thing is to make sure that your mind is calm and focused.  Otherwise, you won’t be able to properly listen to the teaching, contemplate its meaning or meditate.

There are many, many practices to promote a calm, focused mind.  So many in fact that it will be impossible to discuss them all here.  But two key practices are karma yoga and meditation.

Karma Yoga

Many people make karma yoga sound very complicated but it isn’t.  It’s simply a positive attitude you take towards action that prevents you from being overly concerned with the results of action.

Karma yoga is very much like performing a regular action.  You decide what you’re going to do, you plan out how you’re going to do it, and then you do it.  Afterwards, you wait and see what the result of the action will be.

The difference is that with karma yoga, you choose to not worry about whether or not you’ll get the result that you desired in the first place.  Why?  Because once you perform the action, you understand that you’ve done what you can and that the result is out of your hands.  At that point, there’s absolutely no logical reason to worry because there’s nothing else for you to do.  Worry disturbs the mind and directs it outward to the world so it’s useless, especially when trying to go “inward” to investigate your true nature. 

So say I want a new job.  I find the job I want, brush up my CV and turn it in to management.  Because I’m practicing karma yoga, I don’t worry whether I’ll get called for an interview or not.  I did my part in the process so I am at peace.  I wait patiently for the result.

Management calls me for an interview.  Because I’m practicing karma yoga, I do my best to prepare for the interview.  Once I’ve done that appropriately, I know that worrying won’t help anything.  I am at peace and I patiently await the interview. 

I do very well at the interview.  Management tells me that they’ll call to tell me their decision.  Because I’m practicing karma yoga, I know that I did what I could at the interview and that worry will not change the results in any way whatsoever.  I am at peace and I wait patiently.

Management calls and tells me I didn’t get the job.  Because I am practicing karma yoga, I don’t feel angry or sad.  I know that I did what I could and I am at peace about that.  I take the attitude that what was supposed to happen happened. I learn what I need to from the situation, view it as a chance for personal growth, and move on.

If I am religiously inclined, I view all of my actions as an offering to Isvara (the entire universe and all of its inhabitants) and the results of my actions as a gift from Isvara, a gift that is exactly what I need at the time, whether I know it or not.  And because of that I am thankful.

The result of taking this approach to action is peace of mind, which is essential to self-inquiry (Vedanta).

Meditation

This topic is too big to even summarize.

But in general, establish a regular meditation routine.  It’s best to do it at the same time and same place each day.  When the mind is stilled in meditation, it is the perfect platform for doing Vedantic self-inquiry. 

Also, meditation is where you take what you’re told from the teaching and experience it directly.  For instance, if Vedanta says, “You’re not the body” or “You’re not your thoughts” you can see that for yourself while meditating.  Then you take that understanding with you from the meditation seat to your regular everyday life.

Listening and contemplating

Listen to Vedanta teachings daily.  Of course I’ll recommend Swami Paramarthanada but you should choose the teacher that appeals to you the most.  Listen with an open mind and be willing to set your current beliefs and opinions about yourself aside.

After listening to a teaching, contemplate it’s meaning during your day.  This contemplation is to be done during regular activities as well as during meditation.

I hope this serves as an overview and helps get you started.  Let me know if you have further questions.

All my best – Vishnudeva

Purusha & Prakriti according to Vedanta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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