Clarifying Confusions in James Swartz’s Vedanta Teachings

This article aims at removing some of the confusions and correcting some of the wrong information found in the teachings of James Swartz’s Vedanta teachings. He deserves an applause though, just for his efforts to spread traditional Vedanta in the west.  However, as a person born and brought up in India, I can clearly see that he is misinformed on a lot of things. I am not going to argue whether he is enlightened or not; he may be or may not be. I have no way of knowing that.  But to be honest, I have doubted his enlightenment sometimes and wondered if he is on some kind of ego trip in thinking that he is one of the very few ‘qualified’ teachers of Vedanta. When he said that Ramana Maharshi was not a qualified teacher, my doubts became even strong.

A little about myself

Before I start, let me give a short introduction of my own spiritual journey. I had no physical guru, but I was a very sincere seeker. I had tried yoga and Vedanta when I was a boy, but couldn’t understand it much. 15 years ago, I learnt basics of vedanta, zen and mindfulness and I had a glimpse of my own nature that changed my life. I continued mindfulness and self-inquiry for the next 12 years. Mindfulness and self-inquiry was not like two different practices to me, because both have the same procedure of inquiring into each arising thought and experience.

Three years ago (in 2014), a complete shift occurred that completely removed the psychological boundaries between me and the world. Since  then, I never had a distinct feeling of a separate ‘me’ and an ‘other’. The seeker of enlightenment had died and there was no doer anymore. In the next three years, things got settled down . But I still have thoughts and vasanas, even though they don’t affect me. Now, according to James Swartz’s definition, I am already enlightened. Because, now I have an irreversible hard and fast knowledge that I am the non-dual, limitless awareness and not the contents of my consciousness. It is not just intellectual, but my actual reality every moment. But, I don’t want to claim any enlightenment yet. First, claiming enlightenment is not going to make any difference in me. Second, according to Ramana Maharshi, this is not enlightenment. There seems to be a need to wait until all the vasanas are removed (not merely rendering them unbinding) and the thoughts created by all vasanas are removed.

If you ask James, he would say that one doesn’t have to remove the vasanas but just have to render them unbinding by liberation. Again, I am not going to argue whether Ramana’s definition was correct or James’s definition was correct. But Ramana’s life and his words themselves  indicate  that he might have actually removed all the vasanas and involuntary thought movements. He himself said that he usually didn’t have thoughts running in his mind; also, the way he lived his life shows that he probably was completely vasana free. So, that gives me every reason to believe that Ramana was right. But I am no longer a believer of things. I choose to remain open minded on this and say ‘I don’t know yet’ at this point.

Having said that, I am completely sure about some of the wrong information that James is preaching. I know they are wrong. So, I am just going to make some corrections here. This is not intended to offend James or his students. I just feel that wrong information should be corrected. So, let us get started.

Was Ramana a qualified teacher?

If James Swartz reads what I have said above, the first thing he is going to say is ‘Ramana was not a qualified teacher’. According to James, a qualified teacher is someone who systematically unfolds the teachings of traditional vedanta. By this definition, Buddha, Bodhidharma , many enlightened Zen masters and Tao masters are not qualified teachers. When someone even utters the name of Ramana Maharshi, James Swartz’s first response is always ‘Ramana Maharshi was not a qualified teacher’.


First of all, what we call as traditional Vedanta is solely based on Shankara’s works and his commentaries on Brahma Sutras, Gita and Upanishads. There is a claim that Vedanta assumes Gita, Brahma Sutras and Upanishads as authority, but the actual truth is, the school (Advaita) was developed by basing Shankara as the authority. We need to remember here that Shankara was just one human being who had a certain teaching and certain way of life. It is not necessary that every enlightened person in the world should completely teach according to Shankara’s teaching model. Long before Shankara, words like Vedanta, Yoga and Samkhya were just words to represent different aspects of one essential teaching. For example, In Bhagavad Gita, chapter 3, verse 3, Krishna says that Samkhya is called as Jnana Yoga; And we all know that Jnana Yoga is another term for Vedanta. So, Shankara just revived the ancient teachings and presented according to the time he was living. (James Swartz himself has written commentaries of Bhagavad Gita, but the words Samkhya and Jnana Yoga is in the original Sanskrit verse which is translated to path of knowledge in English).

Second, Ramana taught mostly in Tamil. What a westerner would read is an English version of talks which was translated by a translator guy in Ramana’s ashram.  So, when the translator interprets Ramana’s Tamil words and translates to English, a part of the original teaching is lost; when that is further interpreted by the Western guy who wrote them down, another part of the teaching is most likely lost. And, the teachings given to westerners was only a very small percentage of what Ramana taught in his entire life. Because, he was talking to thousands of Tamil seekers all his life and taught them in Tamil. Ramana also wrote a lot of poems in Tamil which have his essential teaching. There are hundreds of books written in Tamil by people who were taught by Ramana and who lived with him in the ashram.

Third, most of the seekers who met Ramana were very advanced. We can see that in the conversations themselves. There was no need to teach them about three gunas, five koshas, creation theories or qualifications needed for spiritual practice. In India, especially in Ramana’s time, knowledge on these subjects was abundant. With long term residents of Ashram like Annamalai Swami and others , Ramana talked about everything, probably more than what James has taught to his students. He also met visitors who just stayed in the ashram for a day or two and to them, he just answered their questions according to the level of their seeking.

I also heard another reason from James for calling him not a perfect teacher. James says that Ramana’s devotees are confused by experiences and knowledge of Atman because Ramana didn’t make a clear distinction. He is completely wrong. Ramana is very clear in the essential teaching about self-realization.  If Ramana’s devotees are confused with anything at all, it is  just because Ramana is no longer alive to clarify their doubts.

Ramana was a perfect teacher in every way. He talked and walked the talk. Being a simple guy in an Ashram, he attracted attention from people all over the world. Vedanta would be half dead by now without Ramana.

Is path of Yoga all about chasing blissful experiences?

I read James Swartz opinion about Yoga in many of his articles and talks. He says that Yoga is just about getting some blissful experiences and not a complete path to realization. He says that Yoga is only helpful in preparing the mind and will not help in liberation at all.

That is completely wrong. The goal of Yoga is Nirvikalpa Samadhi, which is not a dualistic experience. In Nirvikalpa samadhi, experiencer and experience merge into one. However, Ramana used to say that Nirvikalpa samadhi should become Sahaja samadhi so that the yogi can lead a normal life and guide others. Also, Ramana always insisted that self-inquiry is the best path of all but he never said that Yoga doesn’t lead to enlightenment. He only said that all the other paths are indirect ways.

Yoga may be a long and difficult path, but perfect for people who can’t surrender the ego;  but saying that Yoga only leads to experiences and not to realization is completely wrong.James might have probably met some wrong yogis or wrong teachers of Yoga and came to this wrong conclusion.

Is enlightenment experience or knowledge?

This is a very complicated question.

First of all, let me make a distinction between truth and enlightenment.

Truth is Brahman, which is the absolute witness of everything that is observed. Truth cannot be an experience because experience can be witnessed. Also, experience generally implies a dualistic experience, which constitutes an experiencer and experience; But in truth, there is no duality. This also applies for knowledge, because in truth the knower and knowledge merge together.

Enlightenment on the other hand, refers to the event of realizing the truth. We have heard that for some people it is gradual and for some people it is a sudden event. Any event is always accompanied by some kind of experience; it may be dual or non dual but the aspect of the experience still exists when the experience and experiencer merge together. In that sense, there is nothing wrong in calling a sudden enlightenment as an experience as long as it is clarified with a proper context.  Because, not talking about the experiential aspect of it may mislead people to believe that just intellectual understanding is enough to call it as enlightenment.

But both experience and knowledge are poor word choices, we unfortunately have no other words in English. The English word experience can be misleading because a person may believe that truth is some kind of special experience that he is going to experience for the rest of his life. The word knowledge can be equally misleading because a person may believe that enlightenment just involves committing some information to memory after understanding it intellectually.

In Sanskrit, we have different words.  Experience, which just represents an affective state is called Vedana. Vedana can be positive, negative or neutral. (This word is rarely used, but found in many buddhist texts). The experiential aspect of enlightenment is known as either anubhava or anubhuti, which is actually a pramana (means of knowledge); The word actually means experiential knowledge. The word Anubhava in Tamil (my first language) is exactly that but just with one additional letter: ‘anubhavam’.

Also, we have two words for knowledge as well. Knowledge that refers to mere information is called Vidya or veda. The knowledge gained by enlightenment is called Jnana.

Instead of providing such a detailed clarification, James seems to be obsessed with giving a lecture stating ‘enlightenment is not experience’ whenever he hears someone talking about some experience. He gives detailed reasons for why enlightenment is not an experience which is not at all necessary. Because, people who may have already read English translations of Indian texts may often use the word ‘experience’ to mean the valid experiential knowledge, Anubhuti. If James reacts the same way to these people, it is actually like giving them wrong information because of some linguistic confusion. Also, arguing why enlightenment is not an experience by providing arguments for why truth is not an experience is a huge fallacy.

To wrap up, a sudden enlightenment similar to what happened to Buddha can be actually an experience (vedana, the affective state). The enlightenment itself is anubhuti (experiential knowledge) which is translated to English as ‘experience’.

Is Self-realization and Enlightenment different?

James Swartz adds another big confusion. He uses the word ‘Self-realization’ for a glimpse of truth, an awakening experience and he uses the word ‘enlightenment’ for Moksha, the liberation. But this will mislead a lot of people. Because self-realization and enlightenment are generally understood as synonymous. In Ramana Maharshi’s translated talks, you will only find the word ‘self-realization’ for final enlightenment. Why change the meaning of a word instead of using it in the conventional way? Why not just call the glimpse of truth as awakening, as it is usually called?

This is not a big problem in itself, but big enough to cause a lot of confusion.

Is criticism a part of Vedanta?

James criticizes a lot of teachers. He would name each and every teacher he thinks as not qualified and just thrash them like anything. I agree with some of the criticism, especially on neo-vedanta. Although I agree that neo-advaita  seems to be lacking a practical method for enlightenment, obsessively criticising the teachers and naming them is unnecessary. (Here is the weird part. James claims he knows a lot of enlightened people.. If you ask him to name them, he would say ‘No, I won’t name people’… When he names all the imperfect teachers, why not name the enlightened ones? ).

Anyway, that’s not the point. To justify all this, James often says that criticism is a main aspect of Vedanta. That is not true. He probably got this idea from Sankara’s debates with Buddhists. But those are debates! He met people face to face and debated with them. Debate is not same as criticism.Even if  Shankara  criticized people, it would not be right to say that criticism is a main aspect of vedanta itself. This is like saying smoking  is an essential part of psychology, just because Sigmund Freud smoked a lot.

Does Buddhism have an issue in understanding the reality?

I came across a Satsang article in James’s website. There was a discussion regarding Buddhism between a seeker and James Swartz. Here is what James says:

“I am not surprised that they don’t know the self. That is our issue with Buddhism since time immemorial. I have yet to meet a Buddhist that understands it. There is a video on my website of a Buddhist – the only one I ever came across who seems to know what it is and that he is it – that seems to indicate that self-knowledge is alive somewhere in the Buddhist world, but it is very rare. They are doer-oriented, experience-oriented, particularly the jhana guys.”

Really? First of all, any Buddhist you meet will tell you there is no self. But it is not contradictory to Vedanta. Buddha used different terminology. He didn’t define reality in  positive terminology so that nobody will form a concept about truth in their mind. So, he simply called it as sunyata (similar to nirguna Brahman) which literally means ‘emptiness’. So, no matter how many enlightened Buddhists you meet, you are never going to find someone who says ‘I am the self, the limitless non-dual awareness’.

Also, Buddhism is not just about Jhanas. Jhanas are just concentration practices. The stress is actually on Vipassana, getting insight into the true nature of things. It is similar but more powerful than self-inquiry in my experience. In fact, understanding the theory and practicing mindfulness helps to do self-inquiry better.

James Swartz seems to be obsessed with words. He would only agree with Advaita terminology. He fails to understand that the path of truth can be expressed with different words, which is exactly why we have so many traditions.But such an obsession with words and concepts would only make people suspect if his enlightenment was purely intellectual.

If someone claims that He, his wife, his students who were authorized to teach, his guru and some swamis he knows are the only qualified teachers on the planet, there is every reason to doubt that something is wrong.





Author: Shanmugam

I am a blogger and a spiritual seeker. I had a tremendous awakening experience in July 12, 2014 on a Gurupurnima day in the presence of Sadhguru but I wouldn’t call that as spiritual enlightenment. But it did free me from many things and changed many things.

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