Q. Can you briefly define Jnana Yoga vs Bhakti Yoga and how they relate to Advaita and Vedanta?
Tom: Jnana yoga usually refers to the use of (intellectual) knowledge in the mind used to remove ignorance, a thorn to remove a thorn, and then the thorn of ‘knowledge’ is itself allowed to fall away; Bhakti yoga is faith, love and devotion from the heart to Self/Guru/God. These 2 yogas seem different at first, but then they quickly merge together to remove ignorance and end suffering, which is what the word ‘yoga’ means of course. Both of the above are part and parcel of Advaita Vedanta as per the Upanishads, Gita, etc.
Q. What about Advaita vs. Jnana?
Tom: Advaita Vedanta, as a traditional teaching is the general term used to refer to the teachings of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Brahma Sutras and a few other traditional texts. Jnana yoga refers to one part of the teachings of Advaita Vedanta. Other aspects of Advaita Vedanta include Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga and several other teachings found in the above aforementioned texts.
Advaita, literally means not-two. Jnana means knowledge. Jnana can either mean relative knowledge in the mind, which is the means of jnana yoga, or it can refer to the Absolute, which is not really knowledge per se as it is beyond ideas/conceptualisation, but the word Jnana is sometimes used nonetheless. This ‘absolute Jnana’ is synonymous with Advaita and points to that which is beyond both Advaita and Jnana, ie. God or True Self! It is also known as Parabhakti (divine love), Aparokshanubhuti (direct experience), Moksha (freedom) and various other terms, none of which fully capture what is spoken of!
Sage Ashtavakra, the young boy with contorted limbs, teaches King Janaka, and the result is the Song of Ashtavakra, or Ashtavakra Gita. Here are some selected verses, enjoy:
2.1. Oh, I am spotless, tranquil, Pure Consciousness, and beyond Nature. All this time I have been mocked by illusion.
Tom – Now the triad of knower/knowing/known are said not to exist. Note that this triad essentially encompasses all arising or objective phenomena:
2.15. Knowledge, knower and the known –these three do not exist in reality. I am that stainless Self in which this triad appears through ignorance.
Tom – here the remedy is prescribed:
2.16. Oh, the root of misery is duality. There is no other remedy for it except the realisation of the unreality of all objects of experience and that I am One, Pure Consciousness, and Bliss.
2.18. I am neither bound nor free. My illusion has ended. The world, though appearing to exist in me, has in reality no existence.
2.19. My conviction is that the Universe and the body have no reality. The Self is Consciousness alone. How can the world be imagined in it?
2.20. I am the Self, and my nature is pure Consciousness. The body, heaven, hell, bondage, freedom, and fear are merely imagined, and I have no relationship with them.
3.13. Knowing the object of perception to be naught by nature, that steady-minded one neither accepts this nor rejects that.
5.3. Though the Universe is perceptible by the senses, it has no factual existence, like the snake in the rope. Therefore, enter into Laya, the state of dissolution.
Tom – Again the essential teaching is dispensed:
11.8. He who is convinced that this manifold and wonderful Universe has no real existence, becomes free from desire, is pure Consiousness, and finds peace in the Knowledge that nothing is real.
15.16. The world is the result of ignorance of your own nature. In reality, you alone exist. There is neither jiva (the individual person) nor Ishvara (God), nothing other than thyself.
15.17. He who has fully realised that the Universe is a pure illusion, becomes desireless and Consciousness Itself – such a one abides in peace.
16.11. Even though Shiva, Vishnu, or Brahma instruct you, unless you regard the world as unreal, and dismiss all sense of egotism, you will not become established in your own nature (the Self).
17.19. Devoid of the feeling of ‘This is mine’ and ‘This I am’ and knowing for certain that nothing objective exists in reality, the knower of Truth is at peace within himself, his desires have subsided. Though appearing to act, in fact he does not engage in action.
18.14. Where is delusion, where is the universe, where is renunciation, moreover where is liberation for the great-souled one who rests beyond the world of desires?
Tom – the implication in verse 18.14 above is that all the items listed – namely ignorance, the universe, renunciation and liberation – all of these are illusion.
18.28. That man of peace, beyond distraction and contemplation, is neither an aspirant for liberation, nor is he bound. Knowing the Universe to be an illusion, though perceiving it, he remains in the absolute state.
18.70. The pure one knows for certain that this universe is nothing but the product of illusion and that nothing exists. The Imperceptible Self is revealed to him, and he naturally enjoys peace.
Tom – As if the above verses were not enough, here, in the last chapter, chapter 20, the point is driven home again. Everything in the phenomenal world is negated as being mere dream-like illusion, a product of imagination, from the scriptures, to the seeker, from the teacher to the teaching. Even notions of liberation, bondage, knowledge, ignorance, time and space and lastly even duality and non-duality – all these are said to be mere illusion.
20.1. In my Perfect Self (Atman), neither the elements, nor the body, nor the sense-organs, nor the mind, nor the void, nor despair, exist.
20.2. Where are the scriptures, where is Self-Knowledge, where is the mind not attached to sense-objects, where is contentment, and where is desirelessness for me who am ever devoid of the sense of duality?
Tom – ie. scriptures, self-knowledge, the unattached mind, happiness and desirelessness are all illusory
20.3. Where is knowledge and where is ignorance; where is ‘I’, where is ‘this’, and where is ‘mine’; where is bondage and where is liberation? Where is an attribute to the nature of my self?
Tom – ie. knowledge, ignorance, bondage, liberation, subject and object are all illusory. And so the verses continue in the same fashion:
20.6. Where is the world and where is the seeker of liberation; where is the Yogi and where is the Jnani; where is bondage and where is liberation for me who am non-dual by nature?
20.7. Where are creation and destruction; where is the end and where the means; where is the seeker and success for me abiding in my non-dual nature?
20.8. Where is the knower, the means to knowledge, the object of knowledge or knowledge itself; where is anything, and where is nothing for me who am ever pure?
20.9. Where is distraction, where is concentration; where is knowledge, where is delusion; where is joy and where is sorrow for me who am ever actionless?
20.13. Where are instruction and scriptural injunction, where is the disciple and where is the guru; where, indeed, is the object of life for me who am absolute good and free from limitation?
20.14. Where is existence, where is non-existence; where is unity, where is duality? What need is there to say more? Nothing emanates from me.
In the text Kaivalya Navaneeta (The Cream of Liberation; a 16th century traditional advaita text that was often recommended by Sri Ramana Maharshi), four types of liberated sages are described starting at verse 94.
Understanding these descriptions can help explain and reconcile the different views of liberation one may come across, such as whether or not the body and world appear after liberation, what type of lifestyle a liberated sage would exhibit and whether or not they would experience any kind of afflictive or suffering-causing emotions at all. My comments are in italicised red:
94. The wise, remaining like ether and liberated even here, are of four classes, namely Brahmavid (i.e. a knower of Brahman), vara, varya, and varishta, in order of merit.
Tom: The four types of liberated sage are called Brahmavid, Vara, Varya and Varishta. First we will discuss the Brahmavid or or ‘knower or Brahman’ (Vidya is Sanskrit for knowledge). The phrase ‘remaining like ether’ refers to the previous verse 93 and means the wise sage abides as consciousness, fully liberated.
95. The Brahmavids who by steadfast practice have gained clear realization of Brahman, continue to perform even the hard duties of their caste and stage in life, exactly as prescribed by the shastras for the benefit of others, without themselves swerving from their supreme state.
96. Should passions rise up they disappear instantly and cannot taint the mind of the Brahmavids who live in society detached like water on a lotus leaf. They look ignorant, not showing forth their knowledge, and remain mute owing to intensity of inward Bliss.
Tom: the first type of liberated sage is called the Brahmavid. They continue to be fully engaged in society and the world whilst simultaneously being liberated. Occasionally afflictive emotions and passions arise but they are short lived and do not affect the Brahmavid. They may seem like an ordinary person with nothing particularly special about them, but they are often outwardly quiet.
97. Prarabdha, i.e., karma which is now bearing fruit, differs according to the actions in past incarnations. Therefore the present pursuits also differ among jnanis, who are all, however, liberated even here. They may perform holy tapas; or engage in trade and commerce; or rule a kingdom; or wander about as mendicants.
Tom: Prarabdha essentially refers to the destiny of the particular body mind based on its previous actions, ie. its karma . This verse states that the actions of the (body of the) jnani or sage (jnani literally means ‘knower’, ie. ‘knower of truth’ or ‘knower of Self’) varies depending on what the activities the body did prior to realisation. So the sage may, for example, perform holy penance, or engage in the world, or be a ruler, or a wandering monk. Basically there is no fixed description of what a sage would do in daily life in terms of their ‘occupation’.
98. They would not think of the past or future; would partake of what comes unsolicited; would not wonder, even if the sun turned into the moon, or at any other marvel, whether the sky were to spread its shoots down like a banyan tree or a corpse were to be revived; nor would they distinguish good and bad, for they always remain as the unchanging Witness of all.
Tom: the last point on the Brahmavid is that they are unaffected by whatever appears to happen, no matter how marvelous, calamitous or ridiculous. Why? Because they are liberated, ‘fixed’ as the Self, remaining as the ever-unchanging ‘Witness of all’.
Now let us look at the other three classes of Jnani or Liberated Sage:
99. Among the other three classes, the vara and the varya remain settled in samadhi. The vara feels concern for the maintenance of the body; the varya is reminded of it by others; the varishta never becomes aware of the body, either by himself or through others.
Tom: Here the vara and varya are both aware of the body at times whilst the fourth type of Jnani, the varishta, is not even ever aware of the body at all, even though others may perceive him as a body. The vara has a desire to maintain the body, whilst the varya occasionally becomes aware of their body if someone else prompts them.
So which of these types of liberation is best? Let us see…
100. Although there are distinguishing characteristics in the lives of the different Sages, who are themselves very rare in the world, yet there is absolutely no difference in the experience of Liberation. What can be the use of the hard-won samadhi? The Brahmavid, who is outwardly active, seems sometimes to feel the misery of calamities, whereas the others remain in unbroken Bliss.
Tom: Here it is made clear: all of these four types of sage are rare, and all are the same in that they are all fully liberated. They all in theirselves have the same essential experience of Liberation, the differences being only superficial and present from the point of view of other non-liberated people.
However a point is raised that is dealt with in the next verse. The Brahmavid may appear to suffer and stress like the unliberated, whereas the other three categories of liberated sage are lost in eternal Peace and Bliss. How can this be? How can the Brahmavid be said to be truly liberated?
101. Now if the Brahmavids live like the ignorant, how are they free from the cycle of births, and how is their ignorance gone? The all-pervading ether remains untainted by anything; the other four elements are tainted by contact with objects. So it is with the Brahmavid and the ignorant.
Tom: The answer given is that, as Consciousness, the Brahmavid remains unaffected and untouched by whatever seems to happen in the world of objects that we ordinarily call life.
Tom’s summary: So we can see there are various types of liberated sage that are all fully and totally liberated, but appear different to each other only from the point of view of ignorance or the ‘unliberated’. Some jnanis are active in the world and appear to stress and suffer, some are immersed in constant experiential bliss, some are totally unaware of their body or only aware of it to some degree, and others seem to have a need to look after their body. Some appear to be holy sages, other just ordinary mundane people int he world. However, all of this does not matter from the point of view of Liberation – Liberation is only One. Know Thy Self!
This image is taken from a story in the Mahabharata and represents the situation we are in if we are ignorant.
Our past deeds (elephant) are chasing us, our future karma (snakes) and eventual death (snakes) awaits us, the present moment (the branch) is being eaten away by mice – our time is slowly running out as days (white mouse) and nights (black mouse) pass by.
Meanwhile Vishnu holds out his saving hand of Moksha (liberation) to us but we are too entranced by the honey (pleasure) dripping from Maya (honeycomb) that we endure the pains of life (bees stinging us) and we stay in this ridiculous and precarious situation rather than take Vishnu’s hand of Moksha.
Perfectionof Faith in God/Guru/Self is the same as Jnana (spiritual ‘knowledge’ or ‘enlightenment’).
You could say that one leads to another – faith and surrender leads to knowledge, or knowledge leads to surrender and faith – and these are both true on one level, but ultimately they are one and the same – where is the difference apart from on the conceptual level?
For me Faith in the Guru, my Beloved, Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, overcame me quite spontaneously, without my asking, and clinging to Him and Faith in his Word and dwelling in His Presence became the Way and the Law and my Self.
For me, whilst I like to learn a bit about Ramana’s life and I enjoy reading his teachings, gazing at His Image and feeling His Presence has often been more powerful than all the written teachings and all my efforts put together.
Someone recently approached me at the end of one of my Satsangs/meetings and asked me which book would I recommend as being the best one to understand Ramana’s teachings. I told him that Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi and Be As You Are are two wonderful books, but when you open the book, the most important page is the one which has a photograph of Ramana on it (most of Ramana’s books contain a photograph of him in the first few pages).
Instead of reading all the teachings and trying to figure it all out, just look at His Image, feel His Presence!
We can read and listen to the teachings as much as we like, but I have found there is power in something else, something intangible – the Guru’s grace, the eyes of the Guru, His Divine Grace…
So, cling to the Guru, cling to His Teachings. For me, that means Sri Ramana Maharshi. If it suits you, if you are drawn to Him, Ramana, take Him up as your Guru. Look at His Image, give yourself to Him, if it feels right for you. Of if you have another Guru/God you are drawn to, do the same with him/her. Or if you cannot relate to a Guru or God, try relating to Life or the Universe or Universal Energy or something similar. See what happens and feel free to let me know too!
Ramana said that life often brings us to have faith in God, then God brings us a Guru, and the Guru then directs us back to our Self and we realise all is One. Of course, we do not really realise, rather the ‘we’ or the ‘me’ that is seeking Union disappears or ‘merges into Him’. There was only ever Him/Self/Guru/God/Oneness…use any word that suits you.
Ramana also said that if we are lucky enough to be blessed with faith in something, that is a blessing to us and we should seize that faith and lean on it with loving devotion, and not to allow it to wither away.
So I encourage you to look at His Image, surrender to Him, and let me know how it goes!
‘Perfection of Faith in God/Guru/Self is the same as Jnana’
Tom: Is there even such a thing as Moksha? Even to speak of Moksha is more ignorance, as it implies some entity that can be liberated, or something to be liberated from.
However…In more conventional terms we could say there are no levels of Moksha (as there is only Moksha), but there are various levels of ignorance. So all apparent levels of realisation appear in maya/are illusory/are based in ignorance.
Gaudapada in his commentary of the Mandukya Upanishad hints at this: see the first 2 verses I quote from him here together with my commentary: Advaita Vedanta: Gaudapada’s Method
There are also different types of Moksha, apparently (meaning from the point of view of ignorance), such as jivanmukti and videhamukti and numerous other classifications in the scriptures. But in essence we don’t have to worry about these as this is just more book knowledge. The scriptures and sages (such as Ramana) remind us that this is really more ignorance for the mind. Instead, keep it simple and just keep on with your basic Sadhana:
1. Be still (raja yoga)
2. Know who you are (jnana yoga)
3. Adore your God-Guru-Self (bhakti yoga)
4. Give thanks for all that comes your way (karma yoga)
Note – all of the above leads to a peaceful open indestructible stillness (Mouna or Atman/Brahman)
5. Dissolve into Divine Love (Moksha/Advaita/Bhakti/Jnana)
Perhaps the most important single text that traditionally outlines the Jnana Marga (Path of Knowledge) is Shankara’s Vivekachudamani. This text has been used for centuries as a step by step manual to take one from (apparent) ignorance to Moksha (liberation) in which there is no suffering and it has been recommended by all the great Advaita sages including Sri Ramana Maharshi.
There are many gems littered throughout the text, and here is one of them which you may have missed:
160. The stupid man thinks he is the body, the book-learned man identifies himself with the mixture of body and soul, while the sage possessed of realisation due to discrimination looks upon the eternal Atman as his Self, and thinks, “I am Brahman”.
In verse 160 Shankara tells us that the one who is book-learned in Vedanta considers himself to be a mix of ‘body and soul’. In doing so, the one with mere book-learning still retains identification with the body, and so remains in ignorance and continues to suffer. In verse 162 Shankara, as is characteristic of the writing in Vivekachudamani, repeats his point and elaborates on it to make the meaning clear and beyond doubt:
162. As long as the book-learned man does not give up his mistaken identification with the body, organs, etc., which are unreal, there is no talk of emancipation for him, even if he be ever so erudite in the Vedanta philosophy.
There are many who know the scriptures, know the teachings, but still identify with the body in some way. These verses are a warning against this view. Shankara concludes this small section as follows, dispensing his sagely advice:
163. Just as thou dost not identify thyself with the shadow-body, the image-body, the dream-body, or the body thou hast in the imaginations of thy heart, cease thou to do likewise with the living body also.
164. Identifications with the body alone is the root that produces the misery of birth etc, of people who are attached to the unreal; therefore destroy thou this with the utmost care. When this identification caused by the mind is given up, there is no more chance for rebirth [ie. liberation is attained].
So don’t take yourself to be the body, just as you do not take your shadow to be yourself, do not take your body to be your-Self. Also, do not take yourself to be both the body and something else and in doing so retain a sense of limitation. You are That alone, you are the Self.
Here are some verse from Guru Vachaka Kovai, perhaps the most comprehensive and accurate record of Sri Ramana Maharshi’s spoken teachings. I have used this versionwhich contains comments from Sri Sadhu Om and Michael James. Much gratitude to them for making this wonderful text available. My comments are in italicised red:
71. Just as the goat’s beard wanders and wags for nothing, people roam about merrily but in vain, doing Karmas for the fulfillment of their worldly desires, while despising the disciplines [followed by aspirants] which lead to eternal Moksha in Self. Ah, what a pitiable spectacle is the condition of these worldly people!
Tom: Ramana states that people engaged in worldy actions (karmas; the work karma literally means ‘action’ in Sanskrit, often used to denote cause and effect, here just refers to action) are to be pitied, and notes the irony that those who are ignorant shun the very practice (ie. self enquiry) that leads to eternal Moksha (liberation)
72. Longing for a tiny grain of pleasure, people toil so hard using the mind to plough the field of the five senses, but they never wish for the flood of Bliss which is the fruit that comes by ploughing the Heart, the Source of the mind, with [simple] Self-attention. Ah, what a wonder!
Tom: Simple self-attention is all that is needed instead of chasing all these pleasures which not only takes so much effort, but also causes so much suffering.
73. The moon-like jiva [the mind], ever wedded to the sun-like Self, should always remain in her home, the Heart; to forsake the Bliss of Self and go astray for worldly pleasures, is like the madness of a wife who spoils her precious chastity.
Tom: note the seeker’s job here is to discern the teaching rather that be side-tracked by whether or not this verse is politically correct in today’s social landscape. Ramana equates seeking wordly pleasures with infidelity. Instead we are to remain faithful to ourselves and abide as the Self in the Heart.
74. Only when the world’s allurement is lost will true Liberation be possible [and its allurement cannot be lost unless it is found to be unreal]. Hence, to try to foist reality upon this world is to be just like an infatuated lover who tries to foist chastity upon a prostitute.
Sadhu Om: A lover foists chastity upon a prostitute only because of his infatuation with her, and similarly some schools of thought argue and try to insist upon the world’s reality, only because of their immense desire for the enjoyment of this world. Therefore Liberation, which is the fruit of desirelessness, is absolutely impossible for them.
75. Only for the mad folk who are deluded, mistaking this fictitious world as a fact, and not for the Jnani, is there anything to revel in except Brahman, which is Consciousness.
Tom: There is only Consciousness
76. Will those who are rooted in the Knowledge of Truth stray to worldly ways? Is it not the base and weak nature of animals that descends to the sensual pleasures of this unreal world?
77. If you ask, “What is the benefit of sacrificing the innumerable sensual pleasures and retaining mere Consciousness?”, [we reply that] the fruit of Jnana is the eternal and unbroken experience of the Bliss of Self.
Sadhu Om: Any experience of worldly pleasure is small and interrupted, whereas the Bliss of Self attained through Jnana is eternal and unbroken, and is therefore the greatest benefit.
78. Truly there is not the least happiness in any single worldly objects, so how then is the foolish mind deluded into thinking that happiness comes from them?
79. Fools are now so proud and happy of the wealth and pleasure of this world, which may at any time abandon them in disappointment and distress.
80. Suffering from the heat of the three-fold desires, all living beings wander in the empty and arid desert of this dream-world, which is created by the whirl of past tendencies. The shade of the Bodhi-tree which can completely cool this heat is only Self, which shines as Turiya [the fourth state].
Michael James: The three-fold desires are for women, wealth and fame.
Tom: do not wander into the arid desert of the world, or ‘dream-world’ as is written above, instead be still, abide as the Self, That which you already are in your very Being.
Disciple: Is the aforesaid Self-experience possible, even in the state of empirical existence, for the mind which has to perform functions in accordance with its prarabdha (the past karma which has begun to fructify)?
Ramana Maharshi: A Brahmin may play various parts in a drama; yet the thought that he is a Brahmin does not leave his mind. Similarly, when one is engaged in various empirical acts there should be the firm conviction “I am the Self”, without allowing the false idea “I am the body, etc.” to rise.
If the mind should stray away from its state, then immediately one should enquire, “Oh! Oh! We are not the body etc.! Who are we?” and thus one should reinstate the mind in that (pure) state. The enquiry ‘Who am I?’ is the principal means to the removal of all misery and the attainment of the supreme bliss. When in this manner the mind becomes quiescent in its own state, Self-experience arises of its own accord, without any hindrance. Thereafter sensory pleasures and pains will not affect the mind. All (phenomena) will appear then, without attachment, like a dream. Never forgetting one’s plenary Self-experience is real bhakti (devotion), yoga (mind-control), jnana (knowledge) and all other austerities. Thus say the sages.
Disciple: When there is activity in regard to works, we are neither the agents of those works nor their enjoyers. The activity is of the three instruments (i.e., the mind, speech, and body). Could we remain (unattached) thinking thus?
Ramana Maharshi: After the mind has been made to stay in the Self which is its Deity, and has been rendered indifferent to empirical matters because it does not stray away from the Self, how can the mind think as mentioned above? Do not such thoughts constitute bondage? When such thoughts arise due to residual impressions (vasanas), one should restrain the mind from flowing that way, endeavour to retain it in the Self-state, and make it turn indifferent to empirical matters. One should not give room in the mind for such thoughts as: “Is this good? Or, is that good? Can this be done? Or, can that be done?” One should be vigilant even before such thoughts arise and make the mind stay in its native state. If any little room is given, such a (disturbed) mind will do harm to us while posing as our friend; like the foe appearing to be a friend, it will topple us down.
Is it not because one forgets one’s Self that such thoughts arise and cause more and more evil? While it is true that to think through discrimination, “I do not do anything; all actions are performed by the instruments”, is a means to prevent the mind from flowing along thought vasanas, does it not also follow that only if the mind flows along thought vasanas that it must be restrained through discrimination as stated before?
Can the mind that remains in the Self-state think as ‘I’ and as ‘I behave empirically thus and thus’? In all manner of ways possible one should endeavour gradually not to forget one’s (true) Self that is God. If that is accomplished, all will be accomplished.The mind should not be directed to any other matter. Even though one may perform, like a mad person, the actions that are the result of prarabdha-karma, one should retain the mind in the Self-state without letting the thought ‘I do’ arise. Have not countless bhaktas (devotees) performed their numerous empirical functions with an attitude of indifference?
Is there any way of adoring the Supreme which is all, except by abiding firmly as that!
We need a ‘double teaching’ as we suffer from a ‘double ignorance’. We could say the teaching has two wings to it, one for each aspect of ignorance. Let me explain: you could say ignorance has 2 steps:
Ignorance step (1) – Structural Ignorance: identifying as this or that. This creates a false notion of self, also known as ego or the jiva. This is also known as a limiting belief or identifying as being a limited entity. The most common form this identification takes is the thought-concept ‘I am the body-mind’. ie. we take the body-mind to be our primary identity. This limited identity is the ego or jiva.
Ignorance step (2) – Functional Ignorance: that ego/jiva, sensing it is limited, vulnerable and incomplete, then seeks pleasure and security in the world of objects. This seeking tendency eventually becomes ingrained and habitual and these habitual egoic tendencies are known as vasanas in Sanskrit.
In Step (1) we create the structure or form of the ego, namely ‘I am the body-mind’. Step (2) represents the movement or function of the ego in which the body-mind entity then goes on to seek security, pleasure, as so on, and is also afraid of death, misfortune, ill health, etc, and so suffers.
So we have described the ego’s form (1) and function (2), or its structure (1) and movement (2).
A ‘Double Teaching’
Each of these aspects of ignorance usually have to be tackled and resolved, so there are two aspects or ‘wings’ of the teaching. Most teachings that one comes across usually focuses only on one of these two wings. This is because on a practical level it is more difficult to teach both together, and many are unaware of how these two aspects of the teaching fit together. But when we do bring both together, the teachings tends to be much more potent in actually pointing the way directly to Moksha/liberation.
So, what are the two aspects of the teaching? Structural ignorance (1) is rectified by insight or knowledge teachings, and functional ignorance (2) is resolved by purification teachings.
Insight teachings basically point out the belief ‘I am a body-mind’ is a false limiting belief. When seen, the illusion of separation and doership naturally fall away. Insight is also known as knowledge, gnosis or realisation
So why do we need the purification teachings then? Well, for most, due to the strong habitual tendencies to identify as a body-mind, the ‘I am the body-mind’ concept keeps on arising and egotism is continued. Without a spiritual practice to remove this habitual ignorance the egotism usually quickly returns and with it suffering also returns.
Examples of Insight Teachings
Insight teachings include negating teachings such as ‘You are not the body-mind’ and ‘You are not the doer’. Sometimes they take on affirming forms such as ‘You are That’ or ‘You are Brahman’ or ‘You are Pure Consciousness’, etc.
In order for insight teachings to work, usually the mind needs to be relatively calm so that there is enough mental space for the insight to arise through an in-seeing into the nature of every-day experience. Therefore it can be useful to practice calming or purification practices prior to insight.
Limitations of Insight Teachings
Insight teachings by themselves, which tend to be spoken or written teachings or ‘pointers’, can be very freeing but usually do not lead to full realisation/liberation unless the egoic vasanas/tendencies are already very much diminished. Usually, whilst insight is present all is apparently well, but then though daily life the egoic vasanas rear their head and wreak havoc. This leads to flip-flopping in which one alternately seems to ‘get it’ then ‘lose it’. For most, without purification, the insight remains fairly superficial on the level of the mind. I regularly come across many seekers in this predicament, where suffering continues and the approach is predominantly intellectual. What is required is purification, usually devotion, surrender, mantra and prayer – all the things that the stereotypical ‘western rational mind’ is often repelled by.
Examples of Purification Teachings
I have spoken and written about this more extensively elsewhere (eg. here and here) but these are essentially practices that calm the mind and reduce seeking, agitation, addiction and other egoic tendencies. From a more traditional perspective the cardinal purification teachings are devotion, prayer, gratitude, mantra recitation, meditation, hatha yoga and other things such as mindfulness practice and adopting a health diet and lifestyle. Simpler forms of purification are simply to relax, be still, accept whatever happens, surrender practices, etc, etc.
Purification teachings enhance the ability of insight and also allow insight to deepen and be more stable. Therefore traditionally devotion, mantra recitation, yoga and meditation are all considered to be essential foundational practices to purify the mind and enhance the ability of Self-Realisation to occur. Similarly, purification is usually limited without insight. ie. unless the belief ‘I am the body-mind’ is removed, purification will not be as effective. This is because it is this limiting ‘I and the body-mind’ belief that gives rise to the sense of incompleteness and vulnerability that fuels these egoic tendencies.
Limitations of Purification
Like insight-only teachings, purification-only teachings, which tend to be practices, can be very freeing of themselves. Unless the sense of being a limited entity (ie. structural ignorance) is already very weak, purification alone tends not to lead to liberation. This is because the limiting notion ‘I am the body’ goes unchecked and perpetuates itself.
In Vedanta, these two aspects of ignorance are known as the two Shaktis (energies or powers) of Maya:
1. Avarana Shakti – also known as Avriti Shakti, this is the veiling energy of Maya which prevents us from knowing ourselves as limitless Brahman. We therefore adopt a limited notion, namely ‘I am the body-mind’. Avarana Shakti keeps us from discovering our true nature and shedding this wrong knowledge or ignorance. It is related to Tamoguna. You can see that this is another way of talking about what I call Structural Ignorance above, but in a slightly different way.
2. Vikshepa Shakti – this is the projecting power of Maya. Once Avarana Shakti has veiled our true identity as Limitless Brahman and we (seemingly) take on the limited identity of the body-mind, the Vikshepa Shakti projects forth a body, mind and world in which the limited body-mind (ie. ego or jiva) can roam, seek, fear and suffer. It is related to Rajoguna. I hope you can see how this notion is related to what I call Functional Ignorance above.
In Shankara’s Vivekachudamani (see here for a summary by Ramana Maharshi), a full teaching is given that explains the above shakti’s: in the first portion of the text the knowledge teachings are explained and in the latter portion the focus is on meditation or nididhyasana. I also talk about this more here: False Enlightenment.
Is there really a double ignorance?
If you look closely, these two aspects of ignorance are deeply related and are not separate at all. Most seekers will tend towards either knowledge or purification in the first instance, and only when some headway is gained on that particular aspect of the teaching will they intuitively be drawn to the other less-explored aspect of the teaching
So, in practical terms what should I do?
Essentially, follow your heart – it will guide you. You will know, if you listen to that ‘voiceless voice’ within what teaching is right for you right now. Perhaps you need to listen to a teacher or read more. Perhaps you need to practice devotion or surrender. Perhaps both. If you remain truly open in both heart and mind and do not overly cling to fixed conceptual views, your Heart will lead you home and attract/bring into your experience exactly what you need.
That said, as a general rule, I encourage regular attendance to Satsang or a similar meeting in which these teachings are repeatedly given. The mind is resistant and egotism/ignorance is deeply ingrained in most, and so regular contact with a teacher you resonate with is usually very important. This alone can save many months or years of erroneously seeking in the wrong direction. In just a few conversations with seekers I have often been able to quickly point them in the right direction in a matter of minutes after having had a real-time interaction with them, although obviously this is not always the case. Please see my meetings page if you are interested in attended an Online Meeting or In-Person meeting with myself.
Devotional practices and mantra recitation can both be extremely powerful. I often call them spiritual bulldozers as they are able to plough their way through years and years of egoic vasanas with relative ease compared to insight style teachings in many cases. My experience is that many with a Western scientific mindset (which in many ways is my own background) do not readily resonate with these practices, especially if they have had negative experiences of organised religion. However, there are ways these practices can be explained to allow even fairly atheist seekers benefit from these teachings.
Lastly meditation and stillness are also usually essential for the teachings to penetrate the deeper layers of the body-mind and root out egotism/ignorance at a deep energetic non-verbal level.
Summary and Ego Tricks
One trick I have noticed the ego-mind does is that is tries to avoid the above by use of clever reasoning. Whilst sometimes this logic is reasonable and sound, in most cases it is the ego trying to perpetuate itself and claim knowledge and experience for itself.
Sometimes the mind will say ‘I do not need to attend Satsang as I know everything that will be said’. I met someone for a 1 to 1 just recently who had heard and read all the teachings multiple times and was growing weary of it all. They felt there was no point to asking further questions, but on some level knew that there was something missing. Through a direct interaction we were quickly able to see where the sticking points were. This was only possible as the seeker in question was open to this possibility and maintained contact and dialogue with me even though their mind was saying ‘I know all this already’. The seeker was also open to their heart which guided them, in their case, to arrange a 1 to 1 with me.
In summary, listen to your heart with an open mind. The True Guru is Within. For most, having a teacher is essential. Consider listening to knowledge teachings (eg. attending satsang), and undertaking devotional practices, mantra recitation and silence/ meditation.