Gaudapada is a giant in the history of Advaita, and he is often known as the great-grandfather of Advaita Vedanta. Here in this post I want to focus on the practical aspects of the principle text of Gaudapada, the Mandukya Karika, aimed at the seeker of liberation. What is Gaudapada urging the seeker of liberation to actually do? There are many other aspects of the karika too, such as the metaphysical and philosophical elucidations, but maybe I will save discussion of these for a future post.
Gaudapada (c. 6th century CE) was the great-guru of Shankara (788-820 CE), ie. he was Shankara’s guru’s guru. And for those of you who don’t know, Shankara is the person who made the word non-duality (Sanskrit: Advaita) famous. It was he who brought together various texts and propped them up with logic and scriptural arguments and essentially systematised and founded what is today known as Advaita Vedanta.
While we know very little about Gaudapada and his life, he is famous for writing a commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad called the Mandukya Karika or Gaudapada’s Karika. Whilst Gaudapada was not a Buddhist, it is clear that he drew heavily on Buddhist teachings in the karika, often using near exact copies of some Buddhist phrases in his writings, and much of what he writes will be very familiar to those who have studied Mahayana Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism.
In my view much of the methodology for spiritual practice as well as the conceptual framework within which Gaudapda forms his views is much more similar to Buddhist thought that any Vedanta scripture that we know of that comes before Gaudapada. Conversely, we have many Buddhist scriptures that in essence give the same practical method for enlightenment as Gaudapada, the only substantive difference with Gaudapada being their philosophical way of interpreting and writing about the nature of reality. Now whilst I have been studying both Vedanta and Buddhism for over twenty years, I still do not consider myself to be an expert on the scriptures, so I welcome any corrections or alternative views you want to put my way.
As an interesting aside, the only copies of the Mandukya Upanishad we have are those which are combined with Gaudapada’s commentary. As no earlier versions without the commentary have been found, this has led some to speculate that perhaps Gaudapada himself wrote the Mandukya Upanishad. Textually and stylistically this seems unlikely, but, like with many upanishadic texts, their precise origins and authorship remains shrouded in darkness.
I thought I’d start with verse 90 of Chapter 4 of Gaudapada’s Karika, as it gives an overview of his approach:
IV 90. One should be conversant, at the very outset, with four things. These are as follows: the things to be avoided, the goal to be realized, the disciplines to be cultivated and the tendencies to be rendered ineffective. Of these four, all except the goal to be realized i.e. the Supreme Reality exist only as products of the imagination.
Gaudapada lists four things we should know from the outset as a spiritual seeker: what we are looking for, what we should do, what we should not do and what habitual tendencies we should get rid of. The supreme reality he is speaking of is none-other than Brahman. This is the goal to be realised, and all else, he states, is illusory. Essentially Gaudapada is saying there appears to be a spiritual path with a seeker and a goal and things to do and things to not do, but actually all there is is reality. The spiritual path is an illusion.
He makes this clearer in this famous oft quoted verse from Chapter 2 verse 32:
II 32. There is neither dissolution nor creation, none in bondage and none practicing disciplines. There is none seeking Liberation and none liberated. This is the absolute truth.
As we are stuck in illusion, what is the (illusory) way out? What is the (illusory) path we should follow? Gaudapada has already stated that the goal of the search is Brahman. Much of the Karika is devoted to philosophical explanation and reasoning about the nature of Brahman, illusion, cause and effect, duality vs. non-duality, etc, but in the following verses Gaudapada gives us a method we can use, and in doing so he also gives us an experiential definition of Brahman. The following verses are from Chapter 3:
III 40. Yogis who are ignorant of non-duality depend on the control of the mind for attaining fearlessness, the destruction of misery, Self-Knowledge and imperishable peace.
First Gaudapada makes it clear that for one who is not already self-realised or liberated (‘ignorant of non-duality’), control of mind is the method. What are the fruits of this method? They are fearlessness, the end of suffering, knowledge of the supreme reality and unending peace. That control of mind is required was already stated in verse III.35 in which he writes ‘The controlled mind is verily the fearless Brahman’ – he is essentially saying that egoic vasanas (habitual tendencies) need to be removed – a point which he will reiterate later in verse III.46 below.
III 41. The mind is to be brought under control by undepressed effort; it is like emptying the ocean, drop by drop, with the help of a blade of kusa grass.
Gaudapada then says that this (illusory) path takes much effort, ie. a spiritual practice is required, and he likens this to using a blade of grass to empty the ocean drop by drop. Whilst Brahman is already fully here and now, an (apparent) path is required to remove (apparent) ignorance. As I said before, this post will not dwell too much on the philosophical aspects, but focus on practical steps for the (apparent) seeker. So how do we proceed on this path?
III 42. The mind distracted by desires and enjoyments should be brought under control by proper means; so also the mind enjoying pleasure in inactivity (laya). For the state of inactivity is as harmful as the state of desires.
Here Gaudapada states we should not be distracted by desire for sensual pleasures and warns us that dwelling in the pleasure of inactivity (laya) is also not the way, for this is actually just another sensual pleasure that fuels the egoic process further.
Already here, for those of you versed in a variety of Buddhist thought, you will see the familiarity in the methodology, in which dwelling on any sense object is pointed out as nothing other than egoic desire. But why should be turn away from these desires? Isn’t desire for pleasure natural and human?
III 43. Turn back the mind from the enjoyment of desires, remembering that they beget only misery. Do not see the created objects, remembering that all this is the unborn Atman.
We see another classic Buddhist teaching here. It is pointed out that seeking pleasure, or ‘enjoyment of desires’, just leads to further suffering. This is akin to the Buddha’s teachings on Dukkha (Pali for suffering). In fact the Sanskrit word here used is ‘Dukkham’, almost paying homage to the Buddha’s teachings. All pleasures come and go, and though they may please us for a short time, eventually they leave us. And when they do, they leave us wanting more, feeling incomplete, addicted to our desire for more and more and more. And so the seeking-suffering, the wheel of samsara, continues
The remedy suggested here is to see all this as the ‘unborn Atman’, and not to see the objects themselves at all.
What problems may we encounter on this path, and how do we remedy them?
III 44. If the mind becomes inactive, arouse it from laya; if distracted, make it tranquil. Understand the nature of the mind when it contains the seed of attachment. When the mind has attained sameness, do not disturb it again.
This verse mimics the Buddhist scriptures we see detailing various Buddhist meditation methods, in which remedies for both inactivity and distraction are advised so that the meditator can find that still point of equanimity. Again, the idea is of neither slipping into the dull state of laya with all its bliss and laziness (tamas), nor being hyper-agitated and enamoured with thoughts and the world (rajas), and this attaining peace (sattva).
Are there any further stumbling blocks on this path?
III 45. The yogi must not taste the happiness arising from samadhi; he should detach himself from it by the exercise of discrimination. If his mind, after attaining steadiness, again seeks external objects, he should make it one with Atman through great effort.
The instructions Gaudapa give us are extremely concise, and each of these terse verses could be unpacked in much greater detail. Here the seeker is warned not to become attached to happiness, which is nothing other than another subtle object. Seeking objects in order to gain fulfillment is a sure way of perpetuating the ego-illusion together with its addiction to feeling good.
The second sentence also highlights another important aspect of the teaching, namely that even after steadiness of mind is attained, there can be a lapse back in to delusion/ignorance, where the ego and it’s object-centred desires raise their head. The remedy for this is continued practice. Avoid this step at your peril.
What about when the mind no longer falls back into egoic desire or laya?
III 46. When the mind does not lapse into inactivity and is not distracted by desires, that is to say, when it remains unshakable and does not give rise to appearances, it verily becomes Brahman.
Here we are given a pragmatic definition of self-realisation or Brahman – ie. when ignorance no longer remains, when the mind no longer deviates and follows egoic desires, where the grasping mind has essentially died.
To put this into vedanta-speak, Gaudapada is equating realisation of Brahman with removal of the egoic vasanas, something reiterated by Shankara when he famously wrote vasana kshaya moksham, which means ‘destruction of the vasanas is Moksha (liberation)’.
So I will end this post here. The actual instructions are few, and for those with faith they can easily be followed. Be patient – remember – slow and steady wins the race. Re-read the above verses a few times so they sink in, and best wishes.
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti
The Diamond Sutra is considered to be one of the most important and venerated of Buddhist scriptures. The text itself says that it can be considered to be the ‘diamond that cuts through illusion’ and that understanding it will lead to ‘the Highest Perfect Wisdom’.
In this post I have grouped excerpts from the Diamond Sutra into themes and so hopefully the essence of the teachings are readily conveyed. Please note that The Diamond Sutra itself is not actually very long, so if you are interested, I would readily encourage you to read the original in full.
It was composed perhaps as early as the 1st century BCE in Sanskrit, and forms part of the Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) sutras in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. It is also given particular importance in various Zen/Ch’an schools, which are often themselves considered to be part of the Mahayana tradition.
Interestingly, a Chinese version of the scripture is one of the oldest examples of a printed book, dated from 11th May 868, about 500 years before the Gutenburg. The original can be currently seen in the British Museum and is officially ‘the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book’.
This sutra takes the form of a conversation between Buddha and one of his disciples, Subhuti. I have used the translation from Alex Johnson, primarily because it is easy to read and is without technical terms.
This teaching leads to the ‘highest perfect wisdom’
The Buddha then replied:
“…If sons and daughters of good families want to develop the highest, most fulfilled and awakened mind, if they wish to attain the Highest Perfect Wisdom and quiet their drifting minds while subduing their craving thoughts, then they should follow what I am about to say to you. Those who follow what I am about to say here will be able to subdue their discriminative thoughts and craving desires. It is possible to attain perfect tranquillity and clarity of mind by absorbing and dwelling on the teachings I am about to give.” Then the Buddha addressed the assembly.
(from Chapter 2)
The basic teaching
“…all living beings will eventually be led by me to the final Nirvana, the final ending of the cycle of birth and death. And when this unfathomable, infinite number of living beings have all been liberated, in truth not even a single being has actually been liberated.
“Why Subhuti? Because if a disciple still clings to the arbitrary illusions of form or phenomena such as an ego, a personality, a self, a separate person, or a universal self existing eternally, then that person is not an authentic disciple.”
(from Chapter 3)
Is the Buddha his body?
“Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Buddha be recognized by means of his bodily form?”
“No, Most Honored One, the Buddha cannot be recognized by means of his bodily form. Why? Because when the Buddha speaks of bodily form, it is not a real form, but only an illusion.”
(from Chapter 5)
Illusion and reality
The Buddha then spoke to Subhuti: “All that has a form is illusive and unreal. When you see that all forms are illusive and unreal, then you will begin to perceive your true Buddha nature.”
(from Chapter 5)
Will people benefit from reading or hearing this sutra?
“Without a doubt, Subhuti. Even 500 years after the Enlightenment of this Buddha there will be some who are virtuous and wise; and while practicing compassion and charity, they will believe in the words and phrases of this Sutra and will awaken their minds purely. After they come to hear these teachings, they will be inspired with belief. This is because, when some people hear these words, they will have understood intuitively that these words are the truth.
(from Chapter 6)
Who will benefit from hearing this message?
“But you must also remember, Subhuti, that such persons have long ago planted the seeds of goodness and merit that lead to this realization. They have planted the seeds of good deeds and charity not simply before one Buddhist temple, or two temples, or five, but before hundreds of thousands of Buddhas and temples. So when a person who hears the words and phrases of this Sutra is ready for it to happen, a pure faith and clarity can awaken within their minds.”
“…this person must have discarded all arbitrary notions of the existence of a personal self, of other people, or of a universal self. Otherwise their minds would still grasp after such relative conceptions. Furthermore, these people must have already discarded all arbitrary notions of the non-existence of a personal self, other people, or a universal self. Otherwise, their minds would still be grasping at such notions.”
(from Chapter 6)
If I am seeking enlightenment, what view should I take of the teaching?
“Therefore anyone who seeks total Enlightenment should discard not only all conceptions of their own selfhood, of other selves, or of a universal self, but they should also discard all notions of the non-existence of such concepts.”
(from Chapter 6)
Are these teachings true?
“When the Buddha explains these things using such concepts and ideas, people should remember the unreality of all such concepts and ideas. They should recall that in teaching spiritual truths the Buddha always uses these concepts and ideas in the way that a raft is used to cross a river. Once the river has been crossed over, the raft is of no more use, and should be discarded. These arbitrary concepts and ideas about spiritual things need to be explained to us as we seek to attain Enlightenment. However, ultimately these arbitrary conceptions can be discarded.
(from Chapter 6)
The highest, most fulfilled, most awakened and enlightened mind
Then Buddha asked Subhuti, “What do you think, Subhuti, has the Buddha arrived at the highest, most fulfilled, most awakened and enlightened mind? Does the Buddha teach any teaching?”
Subhuti replied, “As far as I have understood the Buddha’s teachings, there is no independently existing object of mind called the highest, most fulfilled, awakened or enlightened mind.
Nor is there any independently existing teaching that the Buddha teaches.
Why? Because the teachings that the Buddha has realized and spoken of cannot be conceived of as separate, independent things and therefore cannot be described. The truth in them is uncontainable and inexpressible.
(from Chapter 7)
“…And yet, even as I speak, Subhuti, I must take back my words as soon as they are uttered, for there are no Buddhas and there are no teachings.”
(from Chapter 8)
“No, Most Honored One. According to what I understand from the teachings of the Buddha, there is no attaining of anything called the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind.”
The Buddha said: “You are correct, Subhuti. In fact, there does not exist any so-called highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind that the Buddha attains…Someone would be mistaken to say that the Buddha has attained the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind because there is no such thing as a highest, most fulfilled, or awakened mind to be attained.”
(from Chapter 17)
Does a Buddha consider themselves to be enlightened?
“Tell me, Subhuti. Does a Buddha say to himself, ‘I have obtained Perfect Enlightenment.’?”
“No, Blessed One. There is no such thing as Perfect Enlightenment to obtain. If a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha were to say to himself, ‘I am enlightened’ he would be admitting there is an individual person, a separate self and personality, and would therefore not be a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha.”
(from Chapter 9)
How to practice
“A disciple should develop a mind which is in no way dependent upon sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensory sensations or any mental conceptions. A disciple should develop a mind which does not rely on anything. Therefore, Subhuti, the minds of all disciples should be purified of all thoughts that relate to seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and discriminating. They should use their minds spontaneously and naturally, without being constrained by preconceived notions arising from the senses.”
(from Chapter 10)
“Therefore, Subhuti, disciples should leave behind all distinctions of phenomena and awaken the thought of the attainment of Supreme Enlightenment. A disciple should do this by not allowing their mind to depend upon ideas evoked by the world of the senses – by not allowing their mind to depend upon ideas stirred by sounds, odours, flavors, sensory touch, or any other qualities. The disciple’s mind should be kept independent of any thoughts that might arise within it. If the disciple’s mind depends upon anything in the sensory realm it will have no solid foundation in any reality.”
(from Chapter 14)
Is there a clear teaching to be taught?
“What do you think, Subhuti? Has the Buddha taught any definite teaching in this Sutra?” “No, the Buddha has not taught any definite teaching in this Sutra.”
(from Chapter 13)
Does a Buddha have characteristics?
“Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Buddha be perceived by means of his thirty-two physical characteristics?”
“No, Most Honored One. The Buddha cannot be perceived by his thirty-two physical characteristics. Why? Because the Buddha teaches that they are not real but are merely called the thirty-two physical characteristics.”
Subhuti’s response to the teachings
At that time, after listening to this Sutra, Subhuti had understood its profound meaning and was moved to tears.
He said, “What a rare and precious thing it is that you should deliver such a deeply profound teaching.”
(from Chapter 14)
The benefits of understanding this teaching
If there is a person who hears this Sutra, who receives and retains it with faith and understanding, then that person will be a rare one, a person of most remarkable achievement. Such a person will be able to awaken pure faith because they have ceased to cherish any arbitrary notions of their own selfhood, other selves, living beings, or a universal self.
Why? Because if they continue to hold onto arbitrary conceptions as to their own selfhood, they will be holding onto something that is non-existent. It is the same with all arbitrary conceptions of other selves, living beings, or a universal self. These are all expressions of non-existent things.
(from Chapter 14)
What is a Buddha?
“Buddhas are Buddhas because they have been able to discard all arbitrary conceptions of form and phenomena, they have transcended all perceptions, and have penetrated the illusion of all forms.”
(from Chapter 14)
Persons and form
“…Just as the Buddha declares that form is not form, so he also declares that all living beings are, in fact, not living beings.”
(from Chapter 14)
Understanding the teachings
“Subhuti, if a person is satisfied with lesser teachings than those I present here, if he or she is still caught up in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, or a universal self, then that person would not be able to listen to, receive, recite, or explain this Sutra to others.”
(from Chapter 15)
“Subhuti, you should know that the meaning of this Sutra is beyond conception and discussion. Likewise, the fruit resulting from receiving and practicing this Sutra is beyond conception and discussion.”
(from Chapter 16)
Helping others attain enlightenment
“Subhuti, a good son or daughter who wants to give rise to the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind must create this resolved attitude of mind: ‘I must help to lead all beings to the shore of awakening, but, after these beings have become liberated, in truth I know that not even a single being has been liberated.’ Why is this so? If a disciple cherishes the idea of a self, a person, a living being or a universal self, then that person is not an authentic disciple. Why? Because in fact there is no independently existing object of mind called the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind.”
(from Chapter 17)
“Subhuti, do not say that the Buddha has the idea, ‘I will lead all sentient beings to Nirvana.’ Do not think that way, Subhuti. Why? In truth there is not one single being for the Buddha to lead to Enlightenment. If the Buddha were to think there was, he would be caught in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, or a universal self. Subhuti, what the Buddha calls a self essentially has no self in the way that ordinary persons think there is a self. Subhuti, the Buddha does not regard anyone as an ordinary person. That is why he can speak of them as ordinary persons.”
(from Chapter 25)
Who becomes enlightened?
“Subhuti, my teachings reveal that even such a thing as is called a ‘disciple’ is non-existent. Furthermore, there is really nothing for a disciple to liberate.”
(from Chapter 17)
Who is a true disciple?
“A true disciple knows that there is no such thing as a self, a person, a living being, or a universal self. A true disciple knows that all things are devoid of selfhood, devoid of any separate individuality.”
(from Chapter 17)
What does it feel like to be enlightened?
Subhuti again asked, “Blessed One, when you attained complete Enlightenment, did you feel in your mind that nothing had been acquired?”
The Buddha replied: “That is it exactly, Subhuti. When I attained total Enlightenment, I did not feel, as the mind feels, any arbitrary conception of spiritual truth, not even the slightest. Even the words ‘total Enlightenment’ are merely words, they are used merely as a figure of speech.”
(from Chapter 22)
“Furthermore Subhuti, what I have attained in total Enlightenment is the same as what all others have attained. It is undifferentiated, regarded neither as a high state, nor a low state. It is wholly independent of any definite or arbitrary conceptions of an individual self, other selves, living beings, or a universal self.”
(from Chapter 22)
The importance of ethical behaviour
“Subhuti, when someone is selflessly charitable, they should also practice being ethical by remembering that there is no distinction between one’s self and the selfhood of others. Thus one practices charity by giving not only gifts, but through kindness and sympathy. Practice kindness and charity without attachment and you can become fully enlightened.”
“Subhuti, what I just said about kindness does not mean that when someone is being charitable they should hold onto arbitrary conceptions about kindness, for kindness is, after all, only a word and charity needs to be spontaneous and selfless, done without regard for appearances.”
(from Chapter 22)
Knowing and worshipping the Buddha
“Should anyone, looking at an image or likeness of the Buddha, claim to know the Buddha and worship him, that person would be mistaken, not knowing the true Buddha.”
(from Chapter 26)
Is everything illusory and unreal?
“Do not think that when one gives rise to the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind, one needs to see all objects of mind as nonexistent, cut off from life. Please do not think in that way. One who gives rise to the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind does not contend that all objects of mind are nonexistent and cut off from life. That is not what I say.”
(from Chapter 27)
The verbal teachings
“If any person were to say that the Buddha, in his teachings, has constantly referred to himself, to other selves, to living beings, or to a universal self, what do you think, would that person have understood my meaning?”
Subhuti replied, “No, blessed One. That person would not have understood the meaning of your teachings. For when you refer to those things, you are not referring to their actual existence; you only use the words as figures of speech, as symbols. Only in that sense can words be used, for (1) conceptions, (2) ideas, (3) limited truths, and (4) spiritual truths have no more reality than have matter or phenomena.”
Then the Buddha made his meaning even more emphatic by saying:
“Subhuti, when people begin their practice of seeking to attaining total Enlightenment, they ought to see, to perceive, to know, to understand, and to realize that all things and all spiritual truths are no-things; and, therefore, they ought not to conceive within their minds any arbitrary conceptions whatsoever.”
(from Chapter 31)
How to understand these teachings and explain them to others
“Subhuti, how can one explain this Sutra to others without holding in mind any arbitrary conception of forms or phenomena or spiritual truths? It can only be done, Subhuti, by keeping the mind in perfect tranquillity and free from any attachment to appearances.”
(from Chapter 32)
“So I say to you—This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew,
or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp,
or a dream.
So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”
THUS SPOKE BUDDHA
Click on the album title to view the images:
There is a notion going around some spiritual circles that ‘real gurus’ don’t advertise: they don’t have websites; they don’t go on Facebook or Twitter; and they definitely don’t have a blog. Of course, many genuinely awakened people don’t do any of these things – but the same could be said the the un-awakened too. ‘Real gurus’, apparently, sit around all day wearing nothing but a loin cloth, always speak in profound dolcit tones, and have a nice long wispy beard. Gotta have the beard.
Let me ask you, is life so limited? Is it really such a transgression to want to share something you’ve found? Listening to some people it does seem that way. I make no qualms about the fact that I do advertise, that there is a desire to reach out to others to share this wonderful discovery that I call Freedom. It’s not as if I try to hide it! And many people who have found ‘my teachings’ have benefitted from my sharing – not that I take any personal credit for any of this.
There is a natural desire to want to share what I have found. I don’t think this has to be the way it is for everyone, but it does seem to be the way it is over here in this body-mind called Tom. It doesn’t mean I’m not sharing something genuine. It doesn’t mean my realisation is only half-baked. It certainly doesn’t mean that I’m only in it for the money. If one day the desire to share this teaching stopped, and who knows, it might one day, then that would be fine too. For now, I’ll just keep on going. Why? Because that’s what’s happening.
Let’s look at a good example where the myth of not advertising comes from – the example of Ramana Maharshi. Now, many of you know that I have a deep resonance with his teachings and that a sense of devotion towards him spontaneously arose in me quite unexpectedly towards the end of my seeking journey. So I mean no offense at all when I use him as an example. Ramana Maharshi primarily taught in silence and wasn’t obviously/outwardly trying to share any teaching to the masses in an evangelical kind of way. Ramana didn’t travel around the world or even around India – he never really left the mountain of Arunachala once he got there as a teenager, and when he wasn’t being silent, he sometimes talked about the power of silence. Here is an example:
‘Silence of a realised being is most powerful. He sends out waves of spiritual influence which draw many people towards him. Yet he may sit in a cave and maintain complete silence. He never needs to go out among the public. If necessary he can use others as his instrument.’
Here is another example, again from Ramana Maharshi:
‘Contact with an enlightened sage is good. They will work through silence. By speaking their power is reduced. Silence is most powerful. Speech is always less powerful than silence…’
So there we have it. One of the most revered enlightened sages of modern times has said it clear as day. We can therefore deduce that if you’re on Facebook, you’re definitely not realised…right? Well not quite. Let’s take a look.
If we take the example of Shankara, a giant of Vedic spirituality and considered to be the founder of Advaita Vedanta, we have a very different character outwardly. Shankara fervently travelled the length and breadth of 8th century India preaching and debating those who disagreed with him, setting up schools all across the subcontinent and advertising how his teachings were better and superior to those around him.
Interestingly Ramana Maharshi clearly considered Shankara to be somebody who was fully awakened or self-realised, and yet Shankara clearly went out ‘among the public’. Ramana translated several of Shankara’s works from Sanskrit into Tamil for the benefit of his devotees who were unable to read Sanskrit and described how Shankara’s teachings could lead to liberation. In Ramana’s translation of Shankara’s vivekachudamai, Ramana says of Shankara ‘Sri Sankara, guru of the world (jagathguru), shines as the form of Lord Shiva‘. A worthy complement indeed.
And yet this was a person who certainly did not just stay quiet or stay silent, and he definitely did go out into the public, contrary to the quotes from Ramana Maharshi above. What can we make of this apparent contradiction?
Nisargadatta Maharaj and his lineage
Lets take another example – that of Nisargadatta Maharaj, another revered sage from the 20th centuty. Whilst he did travel widely prior to his awakening, and a small amount afterwards too, he taught mainly from a room in a noisy street in Bombay. As far as I’m aware he didn’t really advertise much himself, but like Ramana, he permitted books about his teachings to be written and sold. So in this way, Nisargadatta would fit the model of a guru who did not solicit disciples and did not, overtly at least, go out to spread the word in public.
However, interestingly, Nisargadatta’s guru, Siddharameshwar Maharaj, travelled extensively around the state of Maharastra teaching those who came to him, sharing his teachings ‘out in the world’. He actively travelled around this part of India sharing his teahings with anyone who resonated with or who would listen to what he was saying.
In Nisargadatta’s lineage, they also teach using texts from Shankara. In verse 38 of Shankara’s Vivekachudamani it is written:
It is the very nature of the great souls to move of their own accord towards removing other’s troubles’
And in verse 37:
They themselves have crossed the dreadful ocean of the world. Without any selfish motive they help others to cross.
One of Ramana Maharshi’s favourite books is a Tamil Advaita classic called Kaivalya Navaneeta, or the Cream of Liberation. In verses 34 and 35 this is written:
I have already told you that the sages, liberated while alive, appear to be active in many ways according to their parabdha*. My good boy, hear me further, the activities of the sage are solely for the uplift of the world. He does not stand to lose or gain anything.
*Parabdha, refers to parabdha karma, which means the results of past actions that have not yet manifested. ie. the playing out of conditioning, or, if you want, destiny.
Sri Samarth Ramdas is one of the leading figures in Nisargadatta’s lineage from the 17th century. His written text Dasbodh became one of the main texts, perhaps the main text in Nisargadatta’s lineage. There is a story of Samarth Ramdas meeting Guru Hargobind, the sixth of the ten Sikh gurus. It goes like this:
Samarth Ramdas questions Guru Hargobind about his expensive attire, comparing him to the more austere Guru Nanak: “Guru Nanak was a Tyagi sadhu – a saint who had renounced the world. You are wearing arms and keeping an army and horses. You allow yourself to be addressed as Sacha Patshah, the True King. What sort of a sadhu are you?”
Guru Hargobind replied, “Internally a hermit, and externally a prince. Arms mean protection to the poor and destruction of the tyrant. Baba Nanak had not renounced the world but had renounced Maya, i.e. ego”
Ramdas responded by stating: “This appeals to my mind”.
Guru Hargobind here was teaching Ramdas that what is important is not the outward appearance, but the inward state of mind. Some saints are renunciates, like Guru Nanak, others are more ‘worldly’, at least in outward appearance. This is just the way it is. There is no choice in the matter.
Ramdas subsequently went on to do many things out in the world, contrary to what Ramana says in his statement above. Ramdas started to go out and gather many people around him in order to counter the recent Islamic teachings that had spread into India and convince people of the superiority of the Vedic traditions. He built temples, schools and even statues to promote his cause. In fact much of Ramdas’s magnum opus, Dasbodh, is about living in and dealing with the real world. Ramdas was also quite political, actively opposing the caste system, promoting women’s rights in both spiritual and non-spiritual arenas, recruiting female disciples and also backing a Hindu king to overthrow a Muslim one.
In start contrast to Ramana’s silent power, Ramdas said that sages who sat in one place were lesser saints than the ones who engaged in the world. Also in stark contrast to Ramana, Ramdas said that when he died it would be his books, ie. his words, that would carry the teachings forwards and these words should be cherished.
What a contrast! Here we have a silent sage promoting silence, and an active politically-inclined one promoting activity! What can we make of this?
Other examples in brief
I could go on: King Janaka is often given as an example of an enlightened sage who is wealthy and of the world. Vidyaranya, who wrote Pancadasi, a staple text in the Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta tradition, was very active politically and was political advisor to several kings of the day. More recently Swami Vivekananda and Swami Chinmayananda both set up ‘missions’ to spread the word and both travelled and advertised widely in order to do this.
I hope to any discerning reader, even without citing all these examples, it should be obvious that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with advertising, having a website or even, god-forbid, ‘tweeting’. These activities don’t automatically mean you are an ‘unenlightened’ waste of space. What is important is the purity of motivation and genuineness of insight-realisation. We don’t have to just believe what Ramana or Ramdas said, but we can think and see the reality of it all for ourselves.
As Guru Hargobind said, it is not about renouncing the world, but renouncing the ego. By this I mean seeing through the illusion of believing yourself to be a separate doer entity that authors its thoughts and actions (ie. insight), and the removal of the compulsive habitual tendencies (vasanas) that stem from that false belief (ie. purification).
I’ll leave you with a traditional description of an enlightened sage. It describes how a sage may be silent, but also may be active ‘like a python attacking its prey’! The point is that the unique conditioning of the purified body-mind of a ‘sage’ plays itself out in unique and often varied ways. Again we are quoting from Shankara’s Vivekachudamani, starting at verse 536 (apologies for the male chauvinist language assuming the sage is a ‘he’):
The enlightened sage (the knower of Brahman)…if people provide him with comforts and luxuries, he enjoys them and plays with them like a child. He bears no outward mark of a holy man…He may wear costly clothing or none…He may seem like a madman or like a child, or sometimes like an unclean spirit…Sometimes he appears to be a fool, sometimes a wiseman…Sometimes he is calm and silent. Sometimes he draws people to him, as a python attacks its prey. Sometimes people honor him greatly, sometimes they insult him. Sometimes they ignore him…He acts, yet is not bound by his action. He reaps the fruit of past actions, yet is unaffected by them.
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Atma Bodha is a short text attributed to Shakara and was written approximately 1400 years ago. It literally means ‘Self Knowledge’ (atma = self, bodha = understanding or knowledge) and it outlines a methodology to lead a seeker from suffering to liberation. Incidentally, bodha is the same root word that forms the word Buddha, which means ‘the one who knows or understands’.
It comprises a class of scriptures called prakarana granthas. Prakarana means ‘procedure’ or ‘task’ and grantha means ‘text’. Taken together prakarana grantha means ‘instruction manual’. These instruction manuals were written for those who do not have the capacity or time to read the voluminous traditional texts such as the vedas and upanishads or for those who were looking for a synopsis of their vedantic studies, and so give us a summary teaching which we can practically apply to our lives.
Ramana Maharshi thought this text important enough to translate it from Sanskrit to Tamil so that Tamil-speaking locals who could not understand Sanskrit could still benefit from its teachings. In his introduction to his translation, Ramana describes Shankara as the one who brings forth enlightenment. Similarly in the Inchegarei Sampradaya, the lineage to which Nisargadatta Maharaj belonged, Shankara is considered an enlightened sage and his writings are studied as a matter of course.
Below are some selected quotes from Shankara’s Atma Bodha. We will see how in these quotes the basic methodology (after the entry criteria for this teaching are briefly alluded to) is:
1) Firstly viveka, or distinguishing between what is Brahman and what is not. Brahman is identified as the unchanging subject and the world of objects (ie. the body, mind and world) is said to be not-Brahman. This is an artificial duality that is temporarily set up in order to counter and remove the deeply ingrained belief in the doer-entity or ego (ahamkara). We will see how this duality is later resolved into non-duality and furthermore into non-conceptuality.
2) Once the subject-object distinction (viveka) has been properly made then this knowledge or understanding is to be practised. This is done by the practise of identification with the subject, Brahman, and turning away from the phenomena that arise in our awareness.
3) Eventually, after long practice of this, the doer-entity that we once took ourselves to be is seen to be an illusion. This ignorance is removed.
4) Once the doer-entity is seen to be unreal, then the interpretive notions of subject and object can also be done away with. Having completed their purpose, the concepts of subject and object are also seen to be false beliefs and are allowed to fall away.
5) Everything is ‘resolved into Brahman’, not literally, but in the way we label reality. Before, at the first step of viveka, the unchanging subject was considered Brahman/Atman and the changing world of objects (the mind, body and world) were said to be not-Brahman/Atman. Now ignorance is removed, everything is seen to be Brahman and the duality set up by viveka is removed.
6) Eventually we stop needing to label reality at all. What we are left with is just this, this present experience, devoid of concepts of self or reality or even Brahman. So simple, so direct, how can it be put into words?
Verse 5. The knowledge [I am Brahman], when unceasingly practiced, drives out all ignorance, then itself disappears.
37. The mental impression ‘I am Brahman’, created by ceaseless practice, destroys ignorance and the resultant suffering, just as medicine destroys disease.
41. There are no distinctions such as ‘Knower’, the ‘Knowledge’ and the ‘Object of Knowledge’ in the Supreme Self
64. All that is perceived, or heard, is Brahman and nothing else
“Whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees from the hidden place will reward you.”
(International Standard Version)
Here is the context of the quote:
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets so that they might be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their recompense.
But you when you pray, enter into your inner room, and having shut your door, pray to your Father, the One in secret. And your Father, the One seeing in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not babble on like pagans, for they think that by their many words they will be heard.
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
Lord Krishna states this is his most secret teaching: to love Him, to devote ourselves to Him, to be with Him knowingly.
He is already in each of our hearts, He is already everywhere and everything, everything is already done by Him.
Here knowledge, scripture and philosophy all crumble as, through our devotion, the heart opens. All are consumed by Him, and all we are left with is Him in all His glory.
We never were. All there ever was was Him.
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As Jesus said when asked:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
And he [Jesus] said to him,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.This is the greatest and first commandment.”
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Also, as Shankara sung in his Bhaja Govindam:
“Worship Govinda, worship Govinda, worship Govinda,
Oh fool! Other than chanting the Lord’s names, there is no other way to cross the life’s ocean.”
(Govinda is another name for Krishna. Literally it means ‘protector of cows’ referring to Krishna’s youth as a cow herd.)
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So, all that’s left for me do to is bow down and praise Him
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Om Namah Shivaya!
May all beings be happy and well!
Praise be to God!
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