What you are is what you are. It can never be known by the mind. The thinking mind can never discover what you are. This is knowledge, supreme knowledge, supreme realisation as opposed to mundane or worldly knowledge. This knowledge is your Being. It is known by being what you are. So when this question is asked, ‘Who am I? What am I?’ The answer is not the words ‘I am’, the answer is what those words signify.
This video was recorded live during a Satsang meeting with Tom Das and put together by volunteers.
Note – you can find a summary of the essential points of the article at the end
It’s a funny strange world, and when we explore spirituality the mind boggles with all the different teachings that are out there, available for our consumption. One of the more popular teachers of Vedanta in recent years is Swami Sarvapriyananda, a monk from the Ramakrishna Order. This Order of monks was not set up by Ramakrishna, but was set up by Swami Vivekananda, a devotee and disciple of Ramakrishna, shortly after Ramakrishna’s death.
As a teenager I found a book of Swami Vivekananda’s on my parent’s bookshelf and started to read it. It was this book that propelled me into becoming a ‘spiritual seeker’ – the book was called Raja Yoga. After reading this book I started to read all I could on the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda.
It is worth noting that Ramakrishna learnt and was initiated into traditional Advaita Vedanta from the monk Tota Puri, who is purported to have been part of a teaching lineage dating back to at least Adi Shankara – ie. Sri Ramakrishna was taught and initiated into Advaita Vedanta in a traditional way – this will become more relevant as you read on. Anyway, through reading so much of their material as a teenager, I became very familiar with the respective teachings of both Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna.
More recently, having come across Swami Sarvapriyananda, who is currently the head of the outpost of the Ramakrishna Mission in New York, I was surprised to see that in some quite important ways what Swami Sarvapriyananda teaches departs from what Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna taught – I hope to demonstrate this below. I will also comment on how Swami Sarvapriyananda’s teaching differs to Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teaching, illustrating this with quotes.
As always, these articles are not written in order to put anyone down or criticise. Personally I have the utmost respect and appreciation for Swami Sarvapriyananda and what he is doing to share the teachings of Vedanta in such an accessible manner. I also understand that a range of teachings and teachers can be a part of one’s spiritual journey, and if you are finding a certain teacher or teaching to be helpful to you, who am I to say otherwise? In fact, I am happy for you! Ultimately it is all good, and if we are earnest and honest, we will find what we are looking for (ie. Liberation/Self-Realisation) – it is only a matter of time. Discussing the teachings of vedanta have always been part of the vedanta tradition and I only offer you my point of view in case it is of assistance to you.
Both Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna emphasised the need for samadhi for liberation. In fact the frequent mention of samadhi is one of the most notable parts of the teaching that comes through when you read either of them and their respective teachings. However with Swami Sarvapriyananda, he discourages this very practice that is emphasised by his Gurus, stating that samadhi is not necessary for liberation, and that this is essentially a false path that one should not undertake.
The traditional view: samadhi is requried for liberation
This is a common trend that we are seeing more and more – the notion that samadhi is not needed for liberation for most people. However, for at least the last 1400-1600 years, the dominant traditional view in Advaita Vedanta was that Samadhi is required for liberation for most people, and this is what has been handed down generation to generation, century after century, for over a millenium. We have very strong evidence for this as many Advaita texts written during this time clearly state the need for samadhi to attain liberation. Prior to this time, there is very little written textual evidence that we have available to us, unless we go back much further to the Upanishads, several of which also state the need for Samadhi or equivalent. eg.
By the Nirvikalpa Samadhi the truth of Brahman is clearly and definitely realised, but not otherwise, for then the mind, being unstable by nature, is apt to be mixed up with other perceptions. ~ Shankara, Vivechudamani verse 365
Note this above verse is one of a whole series of verses by Shankara in which he drums home the importance of nirvikalpa samadhi as being the only way to attain Self-Realisation, see this link to read the other verses in the series: Shankara on the the need for Samadhi. Here is another:
The mind severed from all connection with sensual objects, and prevented from functioning out, awakes into the light of the heart, and finds the highest condition. The mind should be prevented from functioning, until it dissolves itself in the heart. This is Jnana, this is Dhyana, the rest is all mere concoction of untruth. ~ Amritabindu Upanishad
The Self (Atman) is beyond all expression by words beyond all acts of mind; It is absolutely peaceful, it is eternal effulgence free from activity and fear and it is attainable by Samadhi ~ Gaudapada, Mandukya Upanishad Karika 3.37
When the five organs of perception become still, together with the mind, and the intellect ceases to be active: that is called the Supreme State [Brahma-Vidya or Self Knowledge] ~Katha Upanishad 2.3.10
In his commentary on Katha Upanishad verse 1.2.20 Sri Shankara writes:
‘…One whose intellect has been withdrawn from all objects, gross and subtle, when this takes place, this is known as ‘inactivity of the sense organs’. Though this ‘inactivity of the sense organs’ one sees that glory of the Self. ‘Sees’ means he directly realises the Self as ‘I am the Self’ as thereby becomes free from suffering’
Vidyaranya Swami (1296-1386), author of the wonderful Advaita Vedanta text Panchadasi and Shankaracharya (head monk in the Shankara-Vedanta tradition) of Sringeri Math, wrote another less well known text called Jivanmukti Viveka. In it he, in some considerable detail, outlines the path to Jivanmukti, or liberation in this life. He write the following:
The two main great sages of recent times, Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) and Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) both stressed the need for samadhi in order for liberation to be attained, thus continuing this traditional view.
However, more recently, mainly only in the twentieth century, a new line of thought has arisen which claims that the traditional view is incorrect, and that samadhi is not really a requisite for liberation for most people. The idea is that samadhi can be a helpful practice for some, but for most it is not needed. Moreover, they state that this view that samadhi is not required is the actual traditional view that was distorted and corrupted some c. 1400 years ago. ie. they state that the traditional view that has been ongoing for at least 1400 years, if not longer, is not the actual traditional view, and that their view is actually the traditional view that was corrupted c.1400 years ago.
It seems that is is this school of thought that Swami Sarvapriyananda loosely belongs to. The other prominent recent teacher who teaches that samadhi is not required is Swami Dayananda Swaraswati. Of note, Swami Dayananda’s guru, Swami Chinmayananda was of the view that Samadhi is required for liberation for most people, so Swami Dayananda has effectively broken away from the teaching tradition that he was initated into. This means that he is the first Guru in a new teaching ‘tradition’, and that this new teaching ‘tradition’ claims to be a traditional teaching tradition!
So here is a summary of various more recent teachers and their views on Samadhi with respect to liberation:
Teachers who state samadhi IS required for liberation
Teachers who state samadhi is NOT required for liberation
Swami Dayananda Swaraswati (disciple of Swami Chinmayananda, left)
Sri Ramana Maharshi
Swami Paramarthananda (disciple of Swami Dayananda, above)
Swami Sarvapriyananda (of the Ramakrishna Order, see left)
Swami Chinmayananda (disciple of Swami Sivananda, above)
Almost all the Sages and Gurus of Advaita Vedanta for the last 1400-1600 years (there is very little documenation of Advaita Vedanta before this time unless we go back to the Upanishads themselves)
We should see the irony that many of the gurus of those in the right column, are in the left column, so some of these teachers in the right column have actually left the teachings of their lineage and set up a new teaching in its place!
Just to be clear, all of the above teachers say that Meditation and Samadhi can be a useful part of one’s spiritual practice, but the teachers/sages in the left column stress the necessity of turning inwards away from objects which culminates in samadhi whereas the teachers on the right say turning inwards and samadhi are not essential to Self-Knowledge/Self-Realisation/Moksha/Liberation.
What is Samadhi according to Swami Vivekananda?
Well to confuse things further, there are various definitions as to what constitutes samadhi, but as this post is focussing on Swami Vivekananda and Swami Sarvapriyananda, we will see what Swami Vivekananda states about samadhi. Here are a few quotes from Swami Vivekananda which explain his view – all the following are from Swami Vivekananda:
‘The conclusion of the Vedanta is that when there is absolute samadhi and cessation of all modifications, there is no return from that state’
‘When the mind proceeds towards self-absorption in Brahman, it passes through all these stages one by one to reach the absolute (Nirvikalpa) state at last. In the process of entering into Samadhi, first the universe appears as one mass of ideas; then the whole thing loses itself in a profound “Om”. Then even that melts away, even that seems to be between being and non-being. That is the experience of the eternal Nada. And then the mind becomes lost in the Reality of Brahman, and then it is done! All is peace!‘
‘Concentration is Samādhi, and that is Yoga proper; that is the principal theme of this science, and it is the highest means. The preceding ones are only secondary, and we cannot attain to the highest through them. Samadhi is the means through which we can gain anything and everything, mental, moral, or spiritual.‘
[Tom: Here we can see in the following quote that Swami Vivekananda clearly is stating that in the path of Jnana (knowledge), not just in Yoga, the culmination is in Nirvikalpa Samadhi:]
‘While the aspirant in the path of Jnana, pursuing the process of Neti, Neti, “not this, not this”, such as “I am not the body, nor the mind, nor the intellect”, and so on, attains to the Nirvikalpa Samadhi when he is established in absolute consciousness.‘
[Tom: we can see in the next quote that Swami Vivekananda is stating how we have to turn away from objective phenomena and only be with the Pure Consciousness devoid of objects, and that state is Samadhi]
‘In order to reach the superconscious state in a scientific manner it is necessary to pass through the various steps of Raja-Yoga I have been teaching. After Pratyahara and Dharana, we come to Dhyana, meditation. When the mind has been trained to remain fixed on a certain internal or external location, there comes to it the power of flowing in an unbroken current, as it were, towards that point. This state is called Dhyana. When one has so intensified the power of Dhyana as to be able to reject the external part of perception and remain meditating only on the internal part, the meaning, that state is called Samadhi.’
‘…It is the highest and last stage of Yoga. Samadhi is perfect absorption of thought into the Supreme Spirit, when one realises, ‘I and my Father are one.”
‘Samadhi is the means through which we can gain anything and everything, mental, moral, or spiritual.’
Samadhi in traditional scriptures
To see what traditional scriptures state about the need for samadhi to attain realisation, see these links:
Swami Saravpriyananda on Samadhi/Turiya – ‘a fatal error’
Whilst we can see how Swami Vivekananda emphasises the need for meditation in which we turn away from the world/objective phenomena, and that this culminates in Samadhi, which in turn leads to liberation, we see something different from Swami Sarvapriyananda.
I specifically wanted to see what Swami Sarvapriyananda states about verse 7 of the Mandukya Upanishad as this is often cited by some as being as the most important verse in the most important Upanishad in all of Advaita Vedanta. Here is verse 7:
‘Turiya [the forth] is not that which is conscious of the inner (subjective) world, nor that which is conscious of the outer (objective) world, nor that which is conscious of both, nor that which is a mass of consciousness. It is not simple consciousness nor is It unconsciousness. It is unperceived, unrelated, incomprehensible, uninferable, unthinkable and indescribable. The essence of the Consciousness manifesting as the self in the three states, It is the cessation of all phenomena; It is all peace, all bliss and non—dual. This is what is known as the Fourth (Turiya). This is Atman and this has to be realized.’
Most vedantins, historically and at present, interpret this verse as showing the need to turn within, away from gross and subtle objects, to discover and realise the Self within, in which all phenomena have ceased to appear. This turning within away from objects towards the Self goes by many names such as ‘Self-Enquiry’, ‘abiding as the Self’, ‘Turiya’, ‘Samadhi’, ‘Nididhyasana’, ‘Diving inwards’,etc. Here is Ramana Maharshi talking about this in Letters From Sri Ramanashramam, 8th September 1947, letter 138:
Questioner: It is stated in the Mandukya Upanishad that, unless Samadhi ,i.e., the 8th and last stage of Yoga, is also experienced, there can be no Liberation (Moksha) however much meditation (dhyana) or austerities (tapas) are performed. Is that so?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Rightly understood, they are the same. It makes no difference whether you call it meditation or austerities or absorption, or anything else. That which is steady, continuous like the flow of oil, is austerity, meditation and absorption. To be one’s own SELF is Samadhi.
Questioner: But, it is said in the Mandukya Upanisahd that Samadhi must necessarily be experienced before attaining Liberation (Moksha).
Sri Ramana Maharshi: And who says that it is not so ? It is stated not only in the Mandukya Upanishad, but in all the ancient books.
So I would expect that when commenting upon this verse, the teaching given would be to turn within away from objects, as per the verse which states Turiya, which is ‘the cessation of all phenomena’, is to be realised. However Swami Sarvapriyananda has a different interpretation. Here is a video of his in which he discourages this type of meditation or turning inwards (please go to timestamps 24:58 and 33:49) and states that this is a ‘fatal error’, or see the transcript I have written out below:
Here is what Swami Sarvapriyananda states:
[timestamp 24:58] ‘I would like to correct possibly what might be called a fatal error – a lot of people make it – a deep misconception which even people who should know better in Vedanta, who have been studying, they make it…you see the nature of the error is this – I am warning you in advance so that we don’t fall into that….‘
[timestamp 33:49; Swami Sarvapriyananda now describing what he sees as being the ‘fatal error’] ‘Now you have got this idea you have to go into the fourth state [ie. Turiya or Nirvikalpa Samadhi] which is a separate state and find the real self, the Turiya, and then they will go further to link it to that state is the nirvikalpa samadhi.
It will not help to sit in class in the Vedanta society with your books open, eyes open – no, you have to close your eyes, not fall asleep, not to dream, but go into a deep meditative state called the fourth state [Tom: note this is what Swami Sarvapriyananda is saying we should NOT do!].
Some people are nodding, no! Don’t nod! This is this is wrong! What I’m saying [ie. about the need for Nirvikalpa Samadhi above] is wrong. It’s a nice selling point, it’s [ie. liberation is] available at the fourth state that you will attain through esoteric meditation practices and then you will be realized – no no no! You have forever shut the doors to enlightenment...!’
You can see that Swami Sarvapriyananda is stating that one should not turn within, or rather, that this ‘turning within’ to enter into Nirvikalpa Samadhi/Turiya is not required for liberation.
More than that, he is stating that if you take on this view, you will have ‘forever shut the doors to enlightenment’. He does not even acknolwedge that this turning inwards and attaining samadhi is another path to liberation, but categorically states this path is a false path and does not lead to liberation. This is in direct constrast with the quotes from Swami Vivekananda above which advocate the attainment of Samadhi as a valid means to liberation.
Now contrast what Swami Sarvapriyananda has said with the quotes I have given above, both in the links and from this article, or with the following from Sri Ramana Maharshi:
Ramana Maharshi: Conscious Immortality – here Sri Ramana emphasises the need for repeated meditation, entering into samadhi and the need to turn away from objective phenomena (what he calls here ‘nama-rupa’ or ‘name and form’). Here is an excerpt from the above article, the following is a quote from Sri Ramana Maharshi:
‘It is necessary to practise meditation frequently and regularly until the condition induced becomes habitual and permanent throughout the day. Therefore meditate…It is not by a single realisation that “I am not the body but the Atman” that the goal is reached. Do we become high in position by once seeing a king? One must constantly enter into samadhi and realise one’s Self, and completely blot out the old vasanas and the mind, before it becomes the Self’
‘Just as butter is made by churning the curds and fire by friction, so the natural and changeless state of Nirvikalpa samadhi is produced by unswerving vigilant concentration on the Self, ceaseless like the unbroken flow of oil. This readily and spontaneously yields that direct, immediate, unobstructed, and Universal perception of Brahman, which is at once knowledge and experience and which transcends time and space.‘
To further cement this point, here is a quote from Swami Chinmayananda from this link, who says the complete opposite of Swami Sarvapriyananda. Swami Chinmayananda states that Nirvikalpa Samadhi is the only way:
‘In the condition of nirvikalpa samadhi alone can this great Reality be apprehended with certainty. With cent per cent certainty you apprehend the Truth when all the waves and ripples in your mind have ended. Sankara is positive and declares, ‘Never by any other method’; bringing the mind to quietude is the only method‘.
Swami Sarvapriyananda advises against Sri Ramana’s teaching of Wakeful Sleep (Jagrat Sushupti)/Turiya
Note that when Swami Sarvapriyananda states in the video/transcript above ‘you have to close your eyes, not fall asleep, not to dream, but go into a deep meditative state called the fourth state.’ – Swami Sarvapriyananda here is describing what he sees as the error – ie. he is advising that this is not the way. This teaching he is denouncing here as being false is the teaching of wakeful sleep (Jagrat Sushupti) that Sri Ramana Maharshi often used to teach.
The idea of this teaching is that one should not fall asleep or go into dream, but one should stay conscious and awake but without any thoughts. This teaching is explained in more detail by Sri Ramana Maharshi here. It shows that Swami Sarvapriyananda is fully aware of this teaching but is advising against it, in direct contrast to Sri Ramana!
The text Guru Vachaka Kovai (Garland of Guru’s Sayings) is, according to Sri Ramana Ashram, ‘the most precise, systematic and authoritative exposition’ of Sri Ramana’s teachings. Here is verse 17 of Guru Vachaka Kovai where Sri Ramana equates wakeful sleep with Turiya, and refers to Tuirya as being a state to attain:
17. To those who look within, the highest good gained by the Master’s grace is wakeful sleep, the turiya state, the undying flame, the sweet, uncloying fruit forever fresh.
Here are some more verses on Turiya from Guru Vachaka Kovai which speak of Turiya as a state to be attained:
196. The unlimited Space of Turiyatita which shines suddenly, in all its fullness, within the Heart of a highly mature aspirant during the state of complete absorption of mind, as if a fresh and previously unknown experience, is the rarely attained and true Shiva-Loka [i.e., Kingdom of God], which shines by the Light of Self.
Here Sri Ramana states Turiya is to be attained when the mind and senses are brought under control ‘day and night’:
685. If the inner instruments of knowledge [ie. mind, intellect, chittam and ego] and the outer instruments of knowledge [ie. the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin] have been brought under control day and night [i.e. always], the supreme Reality which shines in the inexpressible state of turiya will dawn.
Here again Sri Ramana equates Turiya with waking sleep and also with Jnana:
940. Whether it is called a grand sleep devoid of waking, or a single waking untouched by in-slipping sleep, it will aptly fit the venerable Jnana-turiya.
You can see that the teachings are in direct contrast. Sri Ramana, in the verses above and in many other places, speaks of Turiya as a state to be attained through turning inwards and not attending to sense-objects. This indeed is the traditional view found in Advaita Vedanta texts for many centuries. Whereas Swami Sarvapriyananda is stating that this is a false teaching and that people who teach this ‘should know better’.
Ok, one more quote from Sri Ramana Maharshi, from a text he himself wrote called Vichara Sangraham (Self-Enquiry), in which prolonged meditation is advocated in order to attain Turiya:
‘The experience of Self is possible only for the mind that has become subtle and unmoving as a result of prolonged meditation. He who is thus endowed with a mind that has become subtle, and who has the experience of the Self is called a jivan-mukta. It is the state of jivan-mukti that is referred to as the attributeless Brahman and as the Turiya.‘
Swami Sarvapriyananda on Self-Enquiry
You will find similar differences in the teachings given by Swami Sarvapriyananda on other areas too – eg. you can find for yourself a video where Swami Sarvapriyananda explains how to do Self-Enquiry. Then you can compare this with what Sri Ramana wrote in the text ‘Who am I?’, which is a text in which Sri Ramana instructs us on the method of Self-Enquiry, and you will see the teachings are actually very different.
For some reason I have found that many seekers I come across are often not able to discern these differences in the teachings, especially in the text ‘Who Am I?’ or think that they are pointing at the same thing in different ways, but if you listen carefully, you will see the differences. And these differences can make all the difference!
Please note that I am not trying to denigrate anyone, rather I am just attempting to make clear the path to liberation, in my view, as taught in the vedanta scriptures and by Sri Ramana Maharshi. I am simply presenting this information to you and you can make your own descision on this topic thereafter for yourself.
As many seekers do not see these differences upon reading ‘Who Am I?’, which is a very concise text with the teachings densely packed in, I recommend you read The Path of Sri Ramana – Part 1 which makes the teachings much clearer and gives much fuller explanations of the method of Self-Enquiry and how Sri Ramana maintained that it is the only way to liberation (ie. there are many ways to liberation, many paths, but they all eventually lead to Self-Enquiry). This book also makes it clear what the teachings are not, which is just as important in today’s world where lots of conflicting teachings are available for us to consume.
Here are also a couple of videos I have created to explain the teaching. The first one is a teaching from me given spontaneously during satsang. The second video contains quotes read out loud that explain the practice of Self-Enquiry clearly and concisely.
Swami Sarvapriyananda on the Four Qualifications
Similarly you will see how Swami Sarvapriyananda has to change the definitions, as found in scripture, of the four qualifiations, as the definitions found in scripture support the view that one needs to turn away from objects towards the Self and this then culminates in Nirvikalpa Samadhi/Turiya.
This is also true of all the Vedanta teachers in the right hand column of the table above – they all have to change the definitions given in the scriptures of various terms in order for their versions of the teaching to make sense. I’m sure you can find videos online of how these teachers describe the four qualifications and compare their definitions to the scriptural ones (see link above) and see how they are different. Let me know in the comments if you agree!
My own personal view is that I have found Sri Ramana’s teachings to be entirely liberating and to be completely in line with the Upanishads and Advaita scriptures, but other teachings that teach something different almost invariably lead one to stay entrapped in maya.
The teaching can be very subtle, and for some reason (ok…the reason is the ego or maya!) many seekers are not able to discern a true teaching even when it is clearly taught to them. The teaching is also easily distorted by third parties, even if this isn’t their intention, as the presence of ego (ie. ignornace) is a distorting factor.
Many want liberation without having to engage with practice/sadhana/meditation. Many want liberation without having to dissolve their ego-mind in samadhi/turiya/self-abidance. And so they advocate teachings that state that you do not need to do these things. Note how these teachings remain predominantly on the level of the mind-intellect (ie. ego).
How to know if this is what you are doing? Answer: the suffering keeps on coming back. Until the true teaching is discerned, and then followed, the suffering will keep on returning and the illusion of duality/multiplicity will persist.
For some of you this may seem to be an exageration, but I try to explain in more detail why this is the case in this video here – this video explains the fundamental difference between teachings that lead to libertion and teachings that do not – let me know what you think!
I have also written an article here that also attempts to explain the difference between liberating and non-liberating teachings:
Traditionally for over 1500 years and in the present day most Vedantins state that Samadhi is required for liberation for most people. However it seems that Swami Sarvapriyananda has departed from this view from what I can see – he states that Samadhi may be helpful in some ways but is not essential for liberation.
eg. Swami Chinmayananda states that Nirvikalpa Samadhi is the only way:
‘In the condition of nirvikalpa samadhi alone can this great Reality be apprehended with certainty. With cent per cent certainty you apprehend the Truth when all the waves and ripples in your mind have ended. Sankara is positive and declares, ‘Never by any other method’; bringing the mind to quietude is the only method‘.
The traditional teaching is that without Samadhi, the limitless nature and blissful aspect of the Self will not be apprehended, and the teachings will remain at the mental level; suffering and duality will continue, even if genuine insights have been made.
I give quotes from the Upanishads, other prominent teachers of Vedanta and Sri Ramana Maharshi to make my points. Please note that this article is not intended to criticise anyone – personally I have the utmost respect for Swami Sarvapriyananda and the way he is sharing the vedanta teachings. However discussing teachings in this way has also been a long time part of the vedanta tradition. This article aims to clarify the teachings being presented and offer my view on this in the hope that it may be helpful for some of you.
Still not convinced?
I recommend you read The Path of Sri Ramana which can be downloaded for free on this link below. Not only is this a great book on Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teachings, it is also one of the best primers I have come across to understand the true Vedanta teachings. It is the book I most often recommend, and having read this you should at least be able to see the differences between the two main types of Vedanta being prescribed, as per the table above. You can then, having seen for yourself the difference in the teachings, decide which one is for you:
Please remember, these articles are not written in order to put anyone down or criticise. Personally I have the utmost respect and appreciation for Swami Sarvapriyananda and what he is doing to share the teachings of Vedanta. However discussing teachings in this way has been a long time tradition in Vedanta. I also understand that a range of teachings and teachers can be a part of one’s spiritual journey, and if you are finding a certain teacher or teaching to be helpful to you, who am I to say otherwise? In fact, I am happy for you! Ultimately it is all good, and if we are earnest and honest, we will find what we are looking for (ie. Liberation/Self-Realisation) – it is only a matter of time.
In the meantime I only offer you my point of view in the hope that it is helpful to at least some of you.
Some say that Shraddha, the Sankrit word for faith, does not refer to blind faith or mere belief, but to a ‘faith pending results’, similar to the ‘faith’ required for a science student to follow a scientific experiment in order to discover the truth it yields.
Whilst there is some truth in this, it is not the whole truth, and also note that the scriptures do not define faith in this way (see the quotes section below). It is true that faith, as spoken of in the Advaita scriptures, is not the end goal in itself, meaning one doesn’t simply believe in God or in a dogma or creed of some kind and leave it at that, which would be rather superficial and on the level of the intellect predominantly. Rather faith is a ferry to take us to the shore of liberation, and this liberation is the goal, and this goal of liberation or God must be ‘experienced’ or ‘realised’ or ‘known’ for oneself, for want of a better phrase.
However, the faith spoken of in the Vedanta scriptures is much deeper than what has been described above. It is not just a mere willingness to try something until you see the results, like a scientist, or even a simple trust that the teachings will show you the way, but something that throbs in our very core, a deep conviction, in our very heart, in our Being. It is a deep resonance, a magnetic pull, intertwined with an intuitive knowing.
This faith cannot be taught, but is something that at some point in our journey springs into our very Being and takes us Home to Liberation. Perhaps it comes to us having listened to and studied the Advaita (or similar) teachings for some time, or perhaps faith dawns after having experienced the various ups and downs of life, or perhaps it comes to us unasked for, as Divine a Gift from God, a Gift of His Grace.
This true faith is inextricably linked with Bhakti, or devotional love of the Divine, which culminates in love to be with Self as Self, otherwise known as Self-Enquiry or Dhyana (meditation).
For me this Faith arose through the Presence and Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, and for that I am forever grateful. His Presence and His Teachings unfailingly guide Homeward those who have come under His Spell and Grace. He is the Lord, He is the very Self, he resides within your very Heart – turn inwards and dis-cover (ie. uncover and reveal) your identity with Him.
QUOTES FROM THE VEDANTA SCRIPTURES
Let us see what kind of person, according to Vedanta, attains Jnana, or ‘divine knowledge’, otherwise known as liberation:
Bhagavan Lord Krishna states in the Gita Chapter 4, verse 39: ‘Those whose faith is deep and who have practiced controlling their mind and senses attain divine knowledge.’
Shankara defines faith and states it is necessary for realisation in Vivekachudamani: ‘Acceptance by firm judgment as true of what the Scriptures and the Guru instruct, is called by sages Shraddha or faith, by means of which the Reality is perceived‘
Shankara also writes in Aparokshanubhuti that Shraddha is required for liberation and defines Shraddha as follows: ‘Implicit faith in the words of the Vedas and the teachers (who interpret them) is known as Shraddha‘
It is said that the suffering can only end when the Self is realised, and that the Self can only be realised through Jnana, which means ‘knowledge’. This ‘knowledge’ is tantamount to and synonymous with liberation itself. So, what is this Jnana? Often the word is not clearly defined in vedanta scriptures so the exact meaning of the word is lost. Many people think that jnana refers to knowledge in the intellect or mind, but this is an incorrect understanding.
For those of you who are familiar with the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, you will know that Sri Ramana makes the meaning clear for us: Jnana is just another word for the Self. The Self ‘knows’ itself by Its-Self. Jnana just means being the Self, devoid of objects or any arising phenomena.
However, what do the traditional scriptures say? Well, as usual, they same the same as Sri Ramana. Jnana just means Being Self, devoid of all arising phenomenal objects. In Gaudapada’s masterpiece, his commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad also known as Mandukya Karika or Gaudapada Karika, the entirely of Vedanta is unfolded and explained. We also have Shankara’s commentary on Gaudapada’s writing to guide us further.
Gaudapada’s Karika and Shankara’s commentary on Gaudapada
One other advantage about using Shankara’s commentary on Gaudapada’ Karika is that whilst the same teachings are often given in shorter simpler texts written by Shankara (ie. the prakarana granthas or ‘instruction manuals’), some people (usually those who disagree with the teachings of these shorter texts!) debate whether or not Shankara actually wrote the shorter texts. Whilst most scholars still think that it is highly likley that Shankara did write these prakarana granthas, there is enough of a minority who disagree.
However this is not the case with Shankara’s commentary on Gaudapada Karika – there is almost universal agreement that this is clearly an authentic work of Shankara’s. In the quotes below I have used the translation from Swami Gambhirananda taken from the book ‘Eight Upanishads with the commentary of Sankaracarya’, which is one of the more literal translations available. This does make it slightly harder to read at times, but it means the meaning, once deciphered, is generally clearer.
Gaudapada’s Karika is composed of four chapters. In the first two chapters Gaudapada relentlessly drives home the point that all phenomenal arisings in the waking state are utterly illusory, just like in a dream all objects in the waking state are projected imaginings, and are a product of Maya. This includes all subtle objects such as knowledge in the intellect, which is said to be more Maya. ie. knowledge in the intellect and ignorance are both ignorance and illusion. In Shankara’s commentary he agrees with this and further supplements Gaudapada’s reasoning (see chapter 2 verses 1-19 and verses 31-36 of Gaudapada’s Karika and Shankara’s commentary for this).
In fact in verse 2.5 Gaudapada encourages the seeker to consider the waking and dream states to be a single dream state rather that two distinct states called waking and dream, with Shankara again agreeing in his commentary on this verse. This is why the Self is said to be beyond both knowledge and ignorance.
Knowledge vs experience
Note that some people contrast intellectual knowledge with experience, stating that intellectual knowledge is what is needed rather than experiences, which come and go. However, note that according to Gaudapada’s framework, intellectual knowledge is just a subtype or class of experience, as it too comes and goes and is subject to change, hence all intellectual knowledge ultimately is just maya or dream-like illusion. It should be obvious to us if we discern – what is ordinarily called knowledge, ie. knowledge in the mind or intellect, is actually just a form or type of experience!
So back to Jnana. How does Gaudapada define this? How does Shankara define this? We see a definition in Chapter 3 verse 33, as follows:
33. They say that the non-conceptual knowledge (Jnanam), which is birthless, is non-different from the knowable (Brahman). The knowledge that has Brahman for its content is birthless and everlasting. The Birthless is known by the Birthless.
Shankara starts his commentary on this verse as follows:
The knowers of Brahman say that absolute Jnanam, knowledge, which is akalpakam, devoid of all imagination (non-conceptual), and is therefore ajam, birthless…
We can see that here both Gaudapada and Shankara are stating that the nature of Jnana is basically the same as the Self, as follows:
-It is non-conceptual, ie. not of the intellect or mind. The work Gaudapada uses is akalpakam, which means without kalpas or without thought/concepts/imaginings. Earlier in Gaudapada Karika Gaudapada has in several successive verses driven home the point that the entire waking state is born of imagination (kalpa), so to state that Jnana is akalpalkam means that is it without any dream or waking state objects whatsoever. Shankara in his commentary has taken this meaning of the word kalpa to mean ‘imaginings’ in this sense.
-It is birthless and everlasting; and what is birthless and everlasting apart from the Self?
-It is known by itself (the birthless is known by the birthless), ie. it is the Self that ‘knows’ the Self by Its-Self. Here I have put the word ‘know’ in quotes as it is not knowledge in the normal sense, as knowledge in the mind is necessarily conceptual, but here we are speaking of or pointing to a non-conceptual ‘knowledge’, the word ‘knowledge’ being used for want of a better word to describe something that is essentially beyond description.
Later in his commentary on the same verse Shankara writes:
By that unborn knowledge, which is the very nature of the Self, is known – It knows by Itself – the birthless reality, which is the Self. The idea being conveyed is that the Self being ever a homogenous mass of Consciousness, like the sun that is by nature a constant light, does not depend on any other knowledge (for Its revelation).
Again, we can see that idea is that the nature of Self is Knowledge/Jnana, in the same way the nature of the sun is to shine.
The word ‘homogenous’ means without any variation whatsoever, ie. without any subtle or gross objects arising in the consciousness.
No phenomenal arisings in the Self/in Jnana
Shankara continues his commentary on Gaudapada’s Karika verse 3.33, commenting that with Self-realisation all ideation has been driven out of the mind, and that there are no external objects of perception present either. The mind becomes still, and the still mind is no-mind – it is verily the Self, Jnana:
It has been said that when the mind is divested of ideation by virtue of the realisation of Truth that is Brahman, and when there is an absence of external objects (of perception), it becomes tranquil, controlled, and withdrawn, like fire that has no fuel. And it has further been said that when the mind thus ceases to be mind, duality also disappears.
Gaudapada and Shankara have already stated that Jnana is akalpakam. Shankara explains in his commentary that this word akalpakam means that it is devoid of all imagination. It should be noted that in Chapter 2 Gaudapada has said that everything that arises in both the waking and dream states is due to imagination (kalpa), eg. in verses 2.10-2.12, so it should be clear that by stating Jnana is akalpakam it means it is without any objects.
In his commentary on verse 3.33 above, Shankara is stating that realisation occurs when the phenomenal arisings, gross and subtle, have all ceased to arise, duality disappears, ie. Jnana is attained, or the Self has been realised. He is building on the previous two verses from Gaudapada, 3.31 and 3.32 which have already established this:
3.31 All this that there is – together with all that move or does not move – is perceived by the mind (and therefore all is is but the mind); for when the mind ceases to be the mind, duality is no longer perceived.
3.32 When the Truth of Atman has been realised, the mind ceases to think; then the mind attains the state of not being the mind. In the absence of things to be perceived, it becomes a non-perceiver.
You will also see that Jnana is being equated with a still mind – a mind that is no longer active – and a still mind that never moves again is no longer the mind – it is the Self. Again, for those of you who are familiar with Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teaching, he has already made all of this clear to us. For those of you who are not convinced, we have Shankara’s commentary on these verses to make it all the clearer for us:
Shankara’s commentary on verse 3.31:
This duality as a whole, that is mano-drsyam, perceived by the mind; is nothing but the mind, which is itself imagined – this is the proposition [Tom: ie. meaning of the verse]. For duality endures so long as the mind does, and disappears with the disappearance of the mind.
For when the mind ceases to be mind when, like the illusory snake disappearing in the rope, the mind’s activity stops through the practice of discriminating insight and detachment, or when the mind gets absorbed in the state of sleep, duality is not perceived. From this non-existence is proved the unreality of duality. This is the purport. How does the mind cease to be the mind? This is being answered [in the next verse and commentary]:
We can see that Shankara is equating the mind with Maya and with ignorance , something that is commonly done in vedanta texts – eg. in Shankara’s Vivekachudamani. Shankara states that it is the mind that projects all of duality (as per Chapter’s 1 and 2 of Gaudapada’s Karika which states the same), and that duality ceases when the mind ceases. Shankara states that through discrimination (viveka) and detachment (vairagya) the mind’s activity stops, and so it is the still or unmoving mind that is the result of viveka and vairagya, which is exactly the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi. When the mind is no longer active, duality is not perceived, Shankara’s states, like in deep sleep.
Shankara’s commentary on verse 3.32:
The Truth that is Self…The Truth of the Self which follows from the instruction of the scriptures and teacher, when as a consequence of that, there remains nothing to be thought of, and the mind does not think – as fire does not burn in the absence of combustible things. At that time it attains the state of ceasing to be the mind. In the absence of things to be perceived, that mind becomes free from all illusion of perceptions. This is the idea.
Again, we see that Shankara is stating that the practice of viveka and vairagya (discrimination and renunciation) leads to the mind becoming still and this gives rise to realisation of Truth that is Self. Thereafter the mind stops thinking ‘as fire does not burn in the absence of combustible things’.
He, like Ramana, states that the mind feeds on sense objects or ‘things perceived’. In the ‘absence of things to be perceived‘, the mind no longer has any food or fuel and so burns out. This gives us the imagery of the flame of mind/egotism being extinguished, ie. nirvana, which literally means extinguishment (of a flame or fire).
Deep Sleep vs Stillness of Mind (Samadhi)
We have already covered 3.33 above. The next two verses, verse 3.34 and 3.35 explain the difference between the still or controlled mind and Deep Sleep – it is important note this only has to be done as Gaudapada has explained (and Shankara has agreed) that there are no gross or subtle objects present when the mind is stilled/controlled.
The natural question is therefore what is the difference between the Still Mind and Deep Sleep? If there were objects present when the mind is still, why the need to point out the difference between the Still Mind and Deep Sleep? Or surely the response would simply be that when the mind is controlled, objects are still or can still be present. However this is not the explaination given by Gaudapada, and Shankara is even stronger in his commentary.
I will not go into these verses here, as we are straying from the essence of this post, but you are welcome to look them up yourself. Sri Ramana Maharshi has given his own explanation of the difference between the still mind and deep sleep which you can read hereif you wish, and you will find that it is essentially the same explanation given by both Gaudapada and Shankara.
A Practical Method for Self-Realisation
Thereafter next few verses carry on along similar lines reiterating similar points – you can find some of them here.
Finally Gaudapada ends chapter three in a marvellous crescendo by describing a practical method to attain liberation for those who remain stuck in Maya (Shankara in his commentary states that the method is for those who remain unliberated and fearful), which you can read on this link below.
You will see that Gaudapada is stating that the means to liberation is to control, or make still, the mind. We can infer that this is also the way to Jnana. He then outlines a method on how to still the mind, pointing out what the still mind is and what it isn’t:
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, verse 4.4.20, states the following:
20. It [Brahman] should be realised in one form only, (for) It is unknowable and eternal. The Self is taintless, beyond the (subtle) ether, birthless, infinite and constant.
Here we can see that the Upanishad is stating that Brahman is unknowable. So what of Self-Knowledge or knowledge of Brahman that is so often spoken about? Shankara explains this contradiction in him commentary on this verse:
The knowledge of Brahman too means only the cessation of the identification with extraneous things (such as the body). The relation of identity with It [Brahman] has not to be directly established, for it is already there. Everybody always has that identity with It, but it appears to be related to something else. Therefore the scriptures do not enjoin that identity with Brahman should be established, but that the false identification with things other than That should stop. When the identification with other things is gone, that identity with one’s own Self which is natural, becomes isolated; this is expressed by the statement that the Self is known. In Itself It is unknowable – not comprehended through any means. Hence both statements are consistent.
We can see that Shankara is stating that Brahman is indeed unknowable, and that Jnana, or knowledge, only signifies the cessation of identification with extraneous things, ie. loss of identification with objects, specifically the body-mind. We do not need to affirm our identity as Brahman, as we already are and always have been and always will be Brahman. Any affirmation of Brahman would simply be on the level of thought or concepts, and so it would be Maya, or more ignorance. But once the false identification has been removed, then the Self naturally shines as itself, and this lack of wrong-knowledge, or lack of wrongly identifying as the body-mind, is what is called ‘Jnana’ or ‘knowledge’.