Steady Wisdom: Day 15

Steady Wisdom: 108 Days of Changing My Thinking

Day 15

I am not the body, which is a combination of material elements, nor am I a collection of the senses.  I am the self, different from both of these.
Aparokshanubhuti V.13

I am the self, as different from the body and senses as light from darkness.  How so? The body is insentient matter—but I am consciousness itself.  The senses know objects—but the senses themselves are objects to me, the conscious subject.  The body and senses come, go and change—but I, the witness of the body and senses, remain unchanged.  When gold assumes the form of a ring, its nature as gold remains unaffected.  Similarly, when I assume the form of the body and senses my nature as consciousness-existence remains unaffected.  I am the limitless self. OM. 

Read Series Introduction

The Process of Inquiry

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


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


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.

You Just Never Know


B:  Can you get enlightened by Vedanta if the person teaching you is not enlightened?


V:  Vedanta’s standard response to this question is “Yes.”  To understand this answer we first have to know that Vedanta strictly defines enlightenment as knowledge, specifically the knowledge that your true nature is brahman.  Then we have to understand what is required for this knowledge to occur. 

Any kind of knowledge—both ordinary everyday knowledge and knowledge of brahman—requires the appropriate means.  First, let’s examine ordinary knowledge, sense perception.  If I want knowledge of the color of a rose, I need to have the appropriate means of knowing color, which is eyesight. If I can’t see, then there’s no way for me to determine the color of a rose by listening to it, tasting it, touching it or smelling it.  So in matters of color-knowledge, sight is the only means.  And because of that, in the presence of the appropriate conditions, the means of sight will always produce color knowledge, automatically.

So what are the appropriate conditions?  First, I—the one seeking knowledge of the rose’s color—have to be present.  Second, I have to be alert and paying attention.  If I’m sleepy, agitated or otherwise distracted, knowledge may not occur. Third, the object I want to know—the rose—must be present.  No rose, no knowledge of the rose’s color, no matter how present and the alert I may be.  Fourth, my means of knowledge must be working properly.  In other words, I need to actually be able to see.  If I’m present and alert and the rose is also present but my eyes closed, or worse, I’m blind, well, you get the picture…that I won’t get the picture. Soooo….assuming I’m present, alert and paying attention, the rose is present, and my eyeballs are working properly, knowledge of the rose’s color of the rose will happen automatically.  I know this all seems obvious but bear with me here, I promise this is going somewhere.

Now, what if I’m seeking enlightenment, the knowledge of brahman?  What is the appropriate means of knowledge?  If brahman were something like the aforementioned rose, then the answer to that question would be simple.  But—and this is very important—Vedanta explicitly states that brahman is not an object of the senses.  In other words, you can’t see it, smell it, taste it, touch it or hear it.  To make things more complicated, Vedanta says that brahman is not an object of the mind either, like a thought or mental state.  Since that completely eliminates all of my normal means of knowledge, does that mean brahman will remain unknown to me?  No, it just means that brahman will not be known to me as a particular sense object, thought or mental state.  But what means is available to know such a ‘thing,’ that is not actually a thing (but also not a no-thing)?  That means is the words of Vedanta itself.

“Now wait a minute Vishnu, you just said I can’t know brahman through the normal means of knowledge because it can’t be known by the mind or senses.  Now you’re saying that the words of Vedanta are the means of knowledge of brahman?  Words only describe things I can think of or perceive.  You’re contradicting yourself.  I think you need to check your means of knowledge.  I’m going to go watch Netflix….” 

Hold on, hold on, I can explain.  I didn’t say that Vedanta uses words to literally define brahman as one thing or another.  In fact, the main way Vedanta uses words is in a negative fashion, meaning it tells you what brahman IS NOT“Not this, not this” says Vedanta when ‘describing’ brahman.  So Vedanta uses words to show you what brahman isn’t, and by process of elimination, what brahman actually “is” (heavy quotations here) becomes apparent.  Now, it’s true that sometimes Vedanta uses words in a positive fashion to ‘describe’ brahman such as when it says brahman is “satyam jnanam anantam” which means “existence, consciousness, limitless.”  In a way this actually is a negative definition.  Why?  Because it clearly states that brahman is NOT something non-existent, NOT something unconscious, NOT something limited.

“Yeah, fair enough Vishnu, but the statement is clearly and literally defining brahman as consciousness.  Looks like you’re contradicting yourself again.” 

Not so fast.  The word “consciousness” is qualified by the two other words, “existence” and “limitless.”  The three words are all equally describing the same brahman so if one word contradicts another, we have to abandon the literal meaning of the word in favor of an implied meaning.  This resolves the apparent paradox and also sidesteps the objection that Vedanta is trying to literally define brahman with words as a ‘something.’  For instance, the literal meaning of the word “consciousness” refers to perceiving, knowing or some state of the mind.  Right off the bat, I’ll admit this seems to contradict Vedanta’s assertion that brahman is not a thought or mental state.  However, the word “consciousness” is qualified by the word “limitless.”  Is perception, knowing or a mental state limitless?  No.  So the word “consciousness” in conjunction with the word “limitless” can’t be saying that brahman is literally consciousness, which is a limited ‘something.’  Instead, the word “consciousness” together with “limitless” is saying that brahman is NOT a perceiver, knower or mental state.  At the same time it is implying that brahman is that which reveals the perceiver, knower or mental state.  This may seem odd but if brahman wasn’t there revealing the perceiver, knower or mental state then how could we even say they were there?

It’s the same situation in the case of the word “existence.”  “Existence” literally refers to something we can think of or perceive, an object of the mind or senses.  But the word “limitless” rules out the literal meaning because absolutely nothing we see or think of is limitless.  So once again Vedanta is using words to imply meaning.  Brahman is not something that exists in the literal sense that we can see it or think of it as a particular thought.  Rather, brahman is the unseen essence, or rather the pure existence, that makes objects of the mind and senses even possible.

Much can be said about the statements I just made about brahman being the revealer and essence of the mind and sense objects.  But I won’t go into that now because the purpose of my current line of reasoning is to show that the words of Vedanta are the means to ‘know’ brahman.  And it’s time to wrap that up.  So….to know something we must have the appropriate means.  For things we perceive the appropriate means of knowledge is our five senses.  For thoughts, the appropriate means of knowledge is the mind.  But brahman is not a sense object or a thought.  It is not a ‘something’ at all (but not a no-thing!).  This means that none of our normal means of knowledge can help us ‘know’ brahman.  A different means of knowledge is required and that means is Vedanta.

How does this relate to the original question, “Can you get enlightened by Vedanta if the person teaching you is not enlightened?  To explain let me go back to the example of the rose.  For knowledge of the color of the rose, I have to be present, alert and paying attention.  The rose has to be there.  And lastly, the appropriate means to know the rose, a working set of eyes has to be there.  In those conditions, knowledge of the color of the rose happens not only automatically but inevitably (the rose is red in case you were wondering).

The sum this up, I’ll apply the rose-knowledge situation to knowledge of brahman:  I am present.  The appropriate means of knowledge for brahman, Vedanta, is present in the form of the words of the teacher (I am making the assumption that the teacher is actually competent in conveying these words).  My mind is clear and alert and I am paying attention to what the teacher is saying.  Brahman is present because as the essence of everything (including me) it is always present. When the words of the teaching clear away my misunderstanding and resolve my doubts, knowledge of brahman happens automatically and inevitably. This means that whether or not the teacher is enlightened is immaterial because an enlightened teacher is not the means of knowledge for brahman.  Only the words of Vedanta are, so assuming the teacher is good at wielding those words, they will work.

Now, that is Vedanta’s traditional answer to the question.  However, its motivation behind giving that answer is not really to prove that an unenlightened teacher can get you enlightened. It is to show that the words of Vedanta, the Upanisads, are the real means of knowledge for brahman and that nothing else is required.  The argument is sound and on that point I agree with Vedanta.  However, I do wonder if someone who hasn’t understood the meaning of Vedanta for themselves would actually be competent enough to teach it.  Shankara himself, Vedanta’s foremost teacher, in his text Upadesha Sahasri, says that a teacher must be a knower of brahman and established in the knowledge of brahman.  But how do we know if a teacher actually has that knowledge and is established in it?  Is it even possible?  On that note, I go to the Practical Answer.        


The practical answer to your question is that we will never know if an unenlightened teacher can use Vedanta to enlighten students because we can never know if someone is actually enlightened. 

What? Vishnu you’ve lost it!  We have to be able to tell if someone is enlightened!” 

Really?  How? Enlightenment is clearly defined as knowledge of brahman, specifically the knowledge that you ARE brahman.  It is something that is known, something that is understood.  How can we tell what someone knows or understands?”

“Easy!  By their behavior.” 

What kind of behavior indicates that you are enlightened?

“Well, being happy, peaceful and nice all of the time.”

Does that mean that every happy, peaceful and nice person understands that they are brahman?

“Um, when you put it that way, no.  But surely what someone knows should affect their behavior!”

“Should” is the key word here.  Knowledge of brahman should change the way we think for the better.  And in turn, our thinking should positively change what we do.  But that isn’t always the case.  Let me give you an example.  I used to smoke heavily.  Now, did I know, clearly and without any doubt, that smoking is a cause of emphysema, cancer and a whole host of other health problems?  Yes, absolutely.  Did this stop me from smoking?  No.  Did my behavior indicate my lack of knowledge?  No.  I clearly had the knowledge.  It just took time for me to really assimilate that knowledge before I actually quit smoking.  But did quitting smoking validate my knowledge? Once again, no.  I already had the knowledge but it hadn’t yet changed my behavior.

That means it’s quite possible for someone to be anything from a jerk to a bona fide asshole and still have knowledge of brahman.  It’s sort of depressing, I know, but it’s true. We just can’t tell what someone knows or doesn’t know from the outside.   This is really, really important to remember.  Never—and I mean never—take a teacher’s word (or anyone else’s for that matter) that they are enlightened.  And never assume a teacher is enlightened because they dress a certain way, look a certain way or act a certain way.  On the other hand, don’t go around judging people as unenlightened for the very same reasons.

“But does this mean that a so-called enlightened teacher can act however they want and it’s okay because they’re enlightened?  Because they know that they are the changeless, action-less brahman?”

Let me say this unequivocally:  AB-SO-LUTE-LEY NOT.  Vedanta never, and I mean NEVER, sanctions bad behavior.  It is completely explicit that we are to follow the rules of good behavior, dharma, impeccably, whether we have knowledge of brahman or not.  Even if we do, no amount of brahman knowledge ever makes it okay for someone to lie, cheat, steal, speak ill, or hurt others.  If a teacher tells you otherwise or does those kinds of things, they may truly understand that they are brahman, but they are truly not worthy of being your teacher.  Following dharma is the only thing that is important in this world, even more so than enlightenment.  Why?  Because even if I know that I am unchanging, action-less brahman, ever unaffected by the body, mind and world, that knowledge is only there to personally give me peace of mind amidst an ever changing world of suffering.  Otherwise it has no transactional value whatsoever on the level of the empirical world, the world I happen to always find myself in.  If I could just zap myself out of the empirical world into formless, action-less, changeless, limitless reality, then great.  But I can’t.  I can only understand that I actually am that formless, action-less, changeless, limitless reality.  Because that knowledge never changes my experience of the empirical world, it means that my actions always matter.  My enlightenment will always be meaningless to those around me while my actions and character will always mean everything.

That being said, I will close with Shankara’s thoughts on what a teacher’s behavior should be like.  This excerpt is also from Upadesha Sahasri, II-1-6 to be exact (it’s a great text, check it out) “A teacher is…endowed with understanding, memory, tranquility, self-control, compassion, favor and the like…he is well versed in the scripture…he leads a blameless life, free from faults such as deceit, pride, trickery, wickedness, fraud, jealously, falsehood, egotism, self-interest and so forth.  He makes use of the knowledge with only the purpose of helping others.”  As I said before, Shankara does say that the teacher also needs to be a knower of brahman¸ but since we can never really tell what someone knows, the above qualities are the important things to look for.  Whether or not a teacher is enlightened is not knowable, therefore it is irrelevant.