Pappankulam – A Village of Brahmins and Four Vedas

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Pappankulam is a small village near Tirunelveli, Tamilnadu, India which has some beautiful temples and beautiful stories associated with them. It is my own native place and I had recently gone there. The main Shiva temple (Arulmigu Vadakalainayaki Sametha Thiruvenkadar Temple) was once damaged; but it was renovated in 2017 and now it looks beautiful.

The village also has many other temples like Ramaswamy temple (Lord Rama), Sadai Udayar sastha temple, Palani Andavar temple, Muppidathi amman temple, Chandika devi amman temple, a temple for Ganesh etc. The temple myths seem to convey messages that glorify the village. They seem to indicate that this village gave a lot of importance to arts and crafts, wisdom and Vedas.

Pappankulam Arulmigu Vadakalainayaki Sametha Thiruvenkadar Temple

I am going to go into the details of the myths and explain the possible reasons that such myths were created in the first place. Because, myths are not historical incidents. But they are created to make a point, convey a message, give a theological narrative or a supernatural explanation for a real incident, to glorify a person or a place etc. So they may carry hidden historical explanations even though a story in itself may not be a faithful narrative of a historical event.

There are a couple of stories about Pappankulam which are related to Hindu Varna system. But I will use those stories to remove certain misconceptions about Indian Varna system. In fact, It is not really as worse as it is portrayed by some political parties in India.

This post will also help you to know about an important village in Tamil Nadu which gave so much importance to arts, knowledge and Vedic education. This is very obvious by the stories associated with this place.

Pappankulam – A Land Donated to a Brahmin

Let us first see why this village was named Pappankulam. There is an anecdote which is not a myth but likely to be historical. 

Aditta Varma (or probably Aditya Varma) was a Pandiya king and was also a devotee of Shiva. He built many temples of Shiva and they were designed by a sculptor named Chaturvedi. Chaturvedi was probably his last name as it is a common last name among Brahmins which means ‘the knower of four Vedas’. It could also be just a nickname since his original name was forgotten.

Chaturvedi was an excellent sculptor with good mastery in his skills and a great sense of art. So the king Aditta Varma was very pleased by his work and donated some land. It was called Chaturvedi Mangalam (an old Sanskrit name for Pappankulam).

Chaturvedi later went through so many problems in his life. When consulting astrologers, it was found that Graha dosha was the reason. In Astrology, Graha Dosha is an instance of one celestial body afflicting another. Chaturvedi was advised to consecrate a Shiva Linga with Chandrakanta stone (moonstone or sodium potassium aluminium silicate) and build a huge temple with Navagrahas (nine grahas or celestial bodies in Indian Astrology). He was told that building such a temple will get rid of his problems.

Chaturvedi built a Shiva temple and also dug a pond near it. The temple is now beautifully renovated and known as Sri Vadakalainayaki Sametha Thiruvenkadar Temple, Pappankulam. The pond is called Kalkurichi pond. Once he built this temple, it is believed that his problems were solved.

The pond near Thiruvenkadar Temple

Another version of the story says that the temple already existed before the time of Aditta Varman but the king prayed here to have progeny. He didn’t have children for a long time. But once he prayed in this temple, he was blessed with a child. So the king Aditta Varman expanded the temple with the help of sculptor Chaturvedi and also donated him some land. This information is available in the temple inscriptions. 

The word ‘Pappan’ in Pappankulam is a distortion of the Tamil word ‘pArpAn’ (பார்ப்பான்) which means a Brahmin. ‘Kulam’ means pond. The village got this name possibly because all four Vedas were taught, recited in this village and because of the fact that Vedic culture flourished here.

Some people also give another explanation. The Tamil word ‘pApAngu’ means the young one of a bird. Since a lot of small birds constantly make noise in this pond, it was called by this name. But I really think that this explanation was forced. The first explanation about Pappankulam being the village of Brahmins and Vedas suits this village for many reasons.

Goddess Saraswati and the Curse of the sage Durvasa

In Hindu Myths, sage Durvasa is known for his short temper. But sage Durvasa was a real person, probably a self-realized jnani with a short temper.  

This may sound strange because many people believe that something like self-realization or spiritual enlightenment would certainly make a person get rid of anger. But even a self-realized person retains certain vasanas and many other older habits according to his own karma or nature, so that he is able to interact with the world and society. So each enlightened person carries at least 1-2% of imperfections from his past, which do not cause anymore bondage. For Durvasa, anger was a tool and it is often referred to as sAtvika krodha, the anger arises from balance and compassion. Durvasa has composed Sri Tripura Mahimna Stotra: https://www.kamakotimandali.com/srividya/mahimnah.html

There is another story associated with Thiruvenkadar temple. One day, Durvasa was reciting Vedas but committed a small mistake by using a wrong letter or sound. Hearing this, Saraswati, the Goddess of arts and wisdom, started laughing.This angered Durvasa. So he cursed that Goddess Saraswati should go to earth and live for 64 years and teach all the 64 arts to humans. Because of that curse, both Goddess Saraswati and Brahma (her consort) came to earth, worshipped Tiruvenkadar of Pappankulam and lived there for 64 years, teaching arts and wisdom to people. Thamirabarani Mahatmyam has many stories associated with places near Tirunelveli, including the curse of Durvasa on Saraswati.

Goddess Saraswati

This story was probably created to explain the existence and growth of various fine arts in this village 500 years before. It is a theological narrative to explain how many people in this village learnt arts those days. The temple was a small stone temple during Kulasekara Maravarman’s reign (1268–1308 CE).  The inscription in the temple says ‘ராஜசதுர்வேதி மங்கலத்தின் வடமேற்கே வேளார்குறிச்சியில் பகவதி விண்ணகர் ஆழ்வார்’ (Northwest to Raja Chaturvedi Mangalam, in Velarkurichi, Bhagavathi Vinnagar Azhwar.)

There is a small stage called Jeeva Kalaiarangam very close to the temple, where plays are conducted every year during the car festival. (When I was a school boy, I acted in a few of those plays myself, especially in comedy roles. Just in one play, I appeared in a court scene as a lawyer). A writer in our village writes these plays every year and they last for one hour. 

Vada Kalai Nayagi – The Goddess of arts

The Shiva in the main temple is called Thiruvenkadar and his consort Shakti in this temple is called  Vada Kalai Nayagi. Vada (vAdA) means ‘never fading’; ‘Kalai’ means ‘arts’; Nayaki means ‘Chief’. So the name Vada Kalai Nayagi literally means Goddess of arts. The temple is based on Karanagama.

Sri Vada Kalai Nayagi

Also, the Goddess is depicted to show 32 expressions (Samudrika Lakshana) in a single sculpture and that is considered to be very special, showing the unique skill of the sculptor. 

The Confluence of Ramanathi and Kadana nathi rivers – A Confluence of Tamil and Sanskrit

Pappankulam is the place where two small rivers, Ramanathi and Kadana nathi (Gadananadhi or Gatananadhi) meet and merge with each other. Both rivers have an interesting story. 

Ramanathi is said to have originated from a drop from the Kamandalu (an oblong water pot) of sage Agastya. Kadana nathi is said to have originated from the water that sage Atri obtained as a loan from river Ganges. 

Again, while thinking about the reasons for these myths, they seem to indicate something that is unique about Pappankulam. Sage Agastya is associated with Tamil language and it is believed that Agastya came up with the Tamil grammar for the very first time. (Agastya is also a Rig Vedic rishi). Atri is associated with Gangetic plain and Vedas. It is where Vedic civilization and Sanskrit education thrived. So this story was probably created to explain that just like Ramanathi and Kadana nathi meet here,  Tamil and Sanskrit also meet here.

This makes a lot of sense. Since the village got its name because of Bramins and Vedic recitations, it was certainly a place where Sanskrit met Tamil. Today we have both Brahmin priests who chant in Sanskrit and Tamil odhuvar priests who take care of certain temples; they recite Tamil hymns from Tevaram.

It is also important to note that there are  mountains with the name of both Agastya (Agastya hills) and Atri (Athri malai) just a few miles away from Pappankulam. Devotees can trek both these mountains after getting permission from the forest department. People believe that sage Atri had an ashram in  Athiri malai and created Kadana nathi for his disciple Shri Korakkanathar.

Threefold Classification: Thiruvenkadu (Uttarapuri), Madurai (Madhyapuri) and Pappankulam (Dakshinapuri)

People also say that the temple town Thiruvenkadu is considered as Uttarapuri or northern town, Madurai is considered as Madhya puri (the town in the middle) and Pappankulam is considered as Dakshina puri or the one in the south. The suffix ‘puri’ is usually used at the end of the names of many towns and villages.

I was wondering why there is such a classification and what is common between these three places. I am just writing what seems to be obvious. 

Thiruvenkadu is a village located near Sirkazhi, Nagapattinam. Thiruvenkadu means “white forest’. This village has a famous Shiva temple called Swetharanyeswarar Temple. The name of Shiva in Pappankulam is Thiruvenkadar, which is the literal Tamil meaning of  Swetharanyeswarar. So, it may be said that the temple in Pappankulam was based on the original temple in Thiruvenkadu. 

There are many stories which are associated with Thiruvenkadu and this is one of them (from Wiki): 

“Achyutha Kalappalar, a local chieftain was childless. His guru Sivacharya analyzed his horoscope and read out an ancient palm leaf manuscript. It had the verse of Sambandar, one of the major Saivite saints Nayanars. Chieftain was advised to pray at Venkadu to be blessed with a progeny. He prayed at the place along with his wife and was blessed with a boy. The boy later went on to write Sivagnana Bodham.”

Sivagnana Bodham is considered to be the best Tamil text in Saiva Siddhanta. The author of Sivagnana Bodham is Meykandar, who is shown as the blessed boy in the above story. This superior Tamil text of spiritual wisdom is associated with Thiruvenkadu. Just like that, Madurai is a place associated with three Tamil sangams and the huge body of Tamil literature associated with it. So, the only thing that is common for all the three places is their association with wisdom, literature and knowledge.

Based on that, it is likely that Pappankulam is listed as one of the three places because of its association with wisdom and knowledge.

Association of Pappankulam temple with Budha (Mercury)

Budha (Mercury) is one of the nine grahas in Indian astrology. The main temple of Budha in Tamil Nadu is actually Swetharanyeswarar Temple in Thiruvenkadu near Sirkazhi, Nagapattinam, where there is an image of Budha. But Budha is said to have also worshipped here in Pappankulam too.

Budha is said to be a graha related to wisdom and intellect. According to astrology, Budha dosha, a malefic effect of this graha is believed to cause nervous and mental issues and poor academic performance. Budha as a person is also considered as superior among jnanis or self-realized people.

Since Budha is associated with intellect and wisdom, it is reasonable to assume that association of Budha with Pappankulam temple is to show the association of wisdom with the village. 

Pazhani Andavar temple, Pappankulam

There is a temple called Palani Andavar (or Pazhani Andavar temple) very close to Thiruvenkadar temple. The word ‘Pazhani’ here refers to the hill temple for Murugan  in Palani, Tamilnadu. The temple for Skanda or Murugan in Pappankulam has the same name as the deity of temple in Palani hills.

I am quoting the temple legend of Palani murugan temple from Wiki:

According to Hindu mythology, “Sage Narada once visited the celestial court of Lord Shiva at Mount Kailash to present to Him a fruit, the gyana-pazham (literally, the fruit of wisom), that held in it the elixir of wisdom. Upon Lord Shiva expressing his intention of dividing the fruit between his two sons, Ganesha and Muruga, the sage counselled against cutting it. He decided to award it to whomever of his two sons first circled the world thrice. 

Accepting the challenge, Lord Murugan started his journey around the globe on his mount peacock. However, Ganesha, who surmised that the world was no more than his parents Shiva and Shakti combined, circumambulated them”.Pleased with their son’s discernment, Lord Shiva awarded the fruit to Lord Ganesha. When Murugan returned, he was furious to learn that his efforts had been in vain. He left Kailash and took up his abode in Palani hills in South India. It is believed that Murugan felt the need to get matured from boyhood and hence chose to remain as a hermit and discarded all his robes and ornaments. He went into meditation to know about himself”.

I am also quoting my interpretation of the same story, as I have written in my post ‘3-level meditation’:

First of all, Shiva and Shakthi represent two things: Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha is the pure witness; the consciousness without any attributes including actions or qualities. Prakriti is everything that is witnessed by Purusha. Prakrithi includes everything that is witnessed in your conscious experience: the external world and its internal representation consisting of thoughts, emotions, likes and dislikes, intellect, ego, memories etc. Essentially Purusha and Prakriti are inseparable, just like fire and heat are inseparable. So this union of Purusha and Prakriti constitutes absolute reality or what we call as God.

Realizing this absolute truth in one’s experience is Jnana or self-realization. Usually, self-realization is compared to a fruit, since it represents the fruit of spiritual sadhana. You will see the word ‘Phala’ used in many Buddhist texts as a synonym for enlightenment. There is even sutta in Buddhist canon called samannaphala sutta, which means the fruit of asceticism.

There are always two kinds of people in the world. People who realize that the truth is very close because it is inside them and people who search for the truth outside. The story of Ganesha and Skanda competing for Jnanapalam (fruit of wisdom) has a striking similarity to this concept. Ganesha realizes that the truth is within, so he immediately gets the fruit by reaching the Shivasakthi which is very close to him. On the other hand, Skanda goes around the world and realizes that he did not get jnana in spite of going around the world. (this is illustrated by the story that Skanda could not get the fruit). So finally he realizes his folly and takes Sannyas. He sits in one place and goes within to find the truth.”

The presence of a temple whose deity is associated with the fruit of wisdom again reinforces the fact that the village Pappankulam is associated with wisdom, especially, spiritual wisdom that is realized through self-realization.

The Beliefs and Uniqueness About Pappankulam Thiruvenkadar Temple

Linga made of Chandrakanta stone
  1. For rainfall, people do Dara homam. People say that the result is instantaneous. It is also said that an eagle makes rounds on the sky during the homa. 
  2. Legends say that Chola and Pandya kings worshipped Saneeswaran (Shani) and were able to win battles. It is a general belief that by worshipping Saneeswaran here, one can win his enemies.
  3. The linga is made with Chandrakanta stone (moonstone). People used to believe that this stone gets its coolness from the moon and also keeps the room cool. People believe that this stone is good for meditation and calmness. Chandrakanta stone is worn as a gem and popularly known as lover’s gem as people believe that it helps them to find true love. Moon is linked to the mind; so this gem stone is linked to both emotional balance and intellect. 
  4. Inside the temple, there is a shrine of a siddhar who attained moksha. The details about him are not available. Every full moon day, there is a special puja in this shrine. Some believe that it might be Thiruvenkadar who was popularly known as Pattinathar. (There have been three people by the same name).
  5. The statue of Skanda or Murugan with his consorts is made of a single stone.
  6. In the shrine of Guru bhagawan, a snake is sculpted under his feet. It is believed that people can get rid of Raghu Kethu dosha by worshipping Guru bhagawan here.
  7. The lingam appears bigger if seen from the flagpost (kodimaram) and smaller if viewed from the mandapam near sanctum sanctorum. This is something unique about the architecture of the temple.
  8. Since Budha was believed to have worshipped here and since he is thought of having the power to remove the malefic effects caused by other planets in astrology, people believe that by worshipping him one can get rid of all graha doshas.
  9. The abhishekam (bathing of the deity) water is believed to possess medicinal qualities. People attribute this to Chandrakanta stone.
  10. Sthala Vriksha (the monumental and holy tree) of this temple is night-flowering Jasmine.
  11. The theertham (holy water available in the pond nearby) is called Brahma theertham.
  12. There is a snake depicted separately at the feet of Dhakshinamoorthy. This is something unusual as the snake is usually just drawn in the other temples. The snake represents Kundalini.
  13. People who have problems in getting married visit this place during the Tamil months of Adi and Ani (roughly from the middle of June to middle of August), take bath in the place where the two rivers merge (called irandathu mukku or the corner of two rivers), and worship Thiruvenkadar with oil lamp. They believe that this gets rid of the problem.

Association of Lord Rama and killing Shambuka

Ramayana is an epic based on wisdom king model (Dharmaraja) whereas Mahabharata is based on a warrior king model (Chakravartin). In Ramayana, Rama is shown as a king who protects Dharma, the right way of life, during his reign. Here we need to remember one thing (which I will elaborate on later); the norms of those days were different. And the society was also a lot different.

In Pappankulam, there is a beautiful temple of Rama known as Ramaswamy temple. According to temple inscriptions, it was built before 12th century AD by Pandiya king Maravarman I. 

It is not surprising that Rama, an icon of wisdom, has a temple here. But the temple is also associated with one of the most controversial episodes of Ramayana, the killing of Shambuka by Rama.

In Uttarakanda (Final chapter or Ramayana), sargas 73-76 narrate the story of Shambuka. Shambuka was a Shudra (lower caste) ascetic who was slain by Rama for attempting to do a penance.  Rama considered this penance of Shambuka as the act in violation of dharma as he believed that the negative consequences or karma, resulting from this act, caused the death of a Brahmin’s son in his kingdom.

Uttarakhanda is not usually considered as written by Valmiki, the original author of Ramayana. It is usually seen as a later addition. But this episode is seen as controversial and often used to criticize Ramayana as a whole, as promoting caste based discrimination. There are some problems with such a conclusion. To understand, we need to see how the whole Varna system (the system of four varnas including Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras) evolved and how it was seen in Ancient India.

History of Varnas

There is already a hypothesis called Trifunctional hypothesis, according to which  three classes or castes—priests, warriors, and commoners (farmers or tradesmen) existed in prehistoric  Indo-European societies. This was something which naturally happened. 

Even in Ancient China, there were the shi (gentry scholars), the nong (peasant farmers), the gong (artisans and craftsmen), and the shang (merchants and traders) forming a fourfold classification. So, there has been a natural division of society based on what people did.

Vedic civilization also initially had these threefold divisions. Brahmins (priests, writers, poets, teachers and intellectual pillar of the society), Kshatriyas (king and the army), and Vaishyas (merchants and farmers). There was no fourth varna.

Among the three varnas, there was no strict birth based division. But it was natural for the son to follow the father’s occupation. A teacher was someone who initiated the people from all three classes to Vedic study, which not only included studying hymns and rituals, but also included studying etymology, prosody, astrology, phonetics and grammar. And certainly, it should have included basic education like basic Mathematics, Geometry, knowledge about various plants and their uses etc. Because, this was the only form of study until there was a university in Taxila. But that was a place for scholars and elites, not common people.

Now, who was a Shudra? One who was not initiated into Vedic study. So initially, the following were Shudras:

  1. All people, from the time they were born until they were initiated into Vedic study were Shudras. Since they are not initiated yet, they are Shudras.
  2. Tribes who were following a tradition different from Vedic religion. Since they are not initiated yet, they are Shudras.
  3. Tribes who deviated from Vedic traditions and hence the people born now are no longer initiated into Vedic studies. Since they are not initiated yet, they are Shudras.

When we are looking at the cultures in a huge landmass over a time period of more than 3500 years, we need to keep the following things in mind.

The meaning of the word changes many times throughout history. Customs and rules also change throughout history. We tend to think of a static homogeneous system when we think of Varna system. But that is not really the case. Even the meanings of the words like Brahmins and Shudras have had different meanings and connotations during different times of the history.

Until Kuru kingdom was formed, there were no strict rules in the society. From Michael Witzel, we know that initiation into Vedic studies was open to anyone. This was very true in the early Rig Vedic period. So anyone, regardless of what tribe they belonged to, what language they spoke at home, what food they ate were initiated into Vedic study. This was the time the whole Rig Vedic samhitas were not yet compiled into one collection.

At this point, basically, if a person makes a living through a means that is not natural to his Varna, he is doing something that he is not qualified for. The real intention behind formulation of various rules for various Varna was that a person should do the work which suits his personality, ability, other genetic traits, conditioning and nurture etc. This rule will apply even right now. If your friends say you look like a bodybuilder but you are looking for a high-paying job in a company for a post that you don’t qualify for, the confusion is obvious. But it is true that some of the rules that existed then were very cruel.

Once the Kuru Kingdom was established, things began to change gradually. Because of getting patronage and money, it was very easy for traditional priests to do a good job and prove their worth. So it was not usual for someone to change their varna. Slowly, Shudras became a fourth caste who should serve other three classes. And Varnas became birth based, even though it was not strictly and universally followed. You can find evidence for it in Vedas themselves:

yathemāṁ vācaṁ kalyāṇīṁ avadāni janebhyaḥ | brahma rājanyābhyāṁ śūdrāya caryāya ca svayāya caraṇāya ca ||

Just as I have revealed this salutary auspicious teachings to all humans, so should you. I have revealed the Vedic truth to brahmins, kshatriyas, sudras and Aryas, to personal servants and to the lowest of servants (araṇāya) also. (Sukla Yajur Veda 26:2)

It also looks like there was a discussion. Some say Shudras should not be initiated; and some say that they should. In this context, there are certainly talking about a strictly birth-based four-fold varna system. But the fact that there was a discussion indicates that the rules were relaxed, even though some took advantage of it to show their prejudice.

vidyate caturthasya varṇasya agnyādheyam ityeke

Some say that all four varnas are eligible to consecrate the 3 sacred fires (Bhāradvāja śrauta sutra 5:2.8.)

Markandeya Purana says that Shudras can perform Yajnas or fire sacrifice:

dānaṁ yajño’tha śuśrūṣā dvijātināṁ tridhā mayā |

vyākhyātaḥ śūdra dharmo’pi jīvikā kāru-karmajā |

tadvad dvijāti śuśrūṣā poṣaṇam kraya vikrayaiḥ |

The religious duties of a Shudra are works of charity and the performing of yajñas and serving others. They earn a living from being artisans, tradesmen, craftsmen etc. from service professions, from nurturing and from selling and buying. (Markaṇḍeya Purāṇa 25:7-8)

 Prejudice is natural in human beings, and to get rid of that one has to develop a certain clarity; to get read of it completely, one has to walk on the spiritual path and attain atma jnana or self-realization. But it can be kept in check and channeled properly. One can bring more awareness to it. 

Among any two groups, the problem of ‘we’ vs ‘you all’ is bound to occur at some point of time. When a person associates his self-image to the whole group he belongs to, the notion that the other ‘group’ is inferior can very easily arise. Today, we see the same prejudice and hatred taking place in the name of caste, religion, language, nationalities, races etc. 

At any point of time, a society has all kinds of people with different personalities, character, intentions, mental purity etc. So, it is very safe to assume that in any culture, some kind of prejudice would have resulted in oppression and hatred of the ‘other’ group. But how can anyone get an entire picture of the situation at any point of time in the ancient past? So, it would be a mistake to consider that Varna system was a rigid division that existed throughout the entire subcontinent, throughout the whole past. 

The episode of Rama and Shambukha

Let us come to Rama’s situation in the story of Ramayana. He hears that someone who is not initiated into how to do rituals and penance is doing a penance and it resulted in the cause of a Brahmin’s death. 

Rama approaches the Shudra ascetic, And here is what Valmiki Ramayana says:

On this that Prince approached the one who had given himself up to rigorous practices and said “Blessed art thou, O Ascetic, who art faithful to thy vows ! From what caste art thou sprung, O Thou who hast grown old in mortification and who art established in heroism. I am interested in this matter, I, Rama, the son of Dasaratha. What purpose hast thou in view? Is it heaven or some other object? What boon dost thou seek by means of this hard penance? I wish to know what thou desire in performing these austerities, oh Ascetic. May prosperity attend thee! Art thou a brahmin ? Art thou an invincible Kshatriya? Art thou a Vaishya, one of the third caste or art thou a Shudra? Answer me truthfully!” Then the ascetic, who was hanging head downwards, thus questioned by Rama, revealed his origin to that Prince born of Dasaratha, the foremost of kings, and the reason why he was practicing penance. Hearing the words of Rama of imperishable exploits, that ascetic, his head still hanging downwards, answered “O Rama, I was born of a Shudra alliance and I am performing this rigorous penance in order to acquire the status of a God in this body. I am not telling a lie, O Rama, I wish to attain the Celestial Region. Know that I am a Shudra and my name is Shambuka.” As he was yet speaking, Raghava, drawing his brilliant and stainless sword from its scabbard, cut off his head.”

— The Ramayana of Valmiki: Translated by Hari Prasad Shastri p1585

Rama is a person who doesn’t seem to be too sensitive about the divisions of Varna and certainly he doesn’t seem to exhibit any prejudice. We see that throughout Ramayana. We see his loving interaction with Shabari, an old Shudra woman. And here he is facing a situation. 

Everyone says that this Shudra ascetic needs to be slain; that seems to be the public consensus according to the norms of the day. He is not qualified, uninitiated but his penance was believed to be the cause of the death of a son of a Brahmin, the person who initiates many people. And here he says that he does this penance to attain the status of Gods. Those days, it should have sounded pretty much like, “I don’t have a driving license and I am drunk but I am on my way to participate in a car race now”. You hear this from a guy after you have heard from someone that he had been the cause of the death of someone’s son. 

Penance is done for the welfare of the society.  An unqualified and uninitiated person doing a penance for attaining the status of God while already being accused of having caused a Brahmin’’s death posed a threat to the society. And everyone asks to kill him. As a responsible king, Rama killed Shambuka. Looking at it from a modern lens, it may sound too cruel; but the past is past. Whoever wrote this story has just reflected the norms of the days when it was put into composition.

But personally, I don’t take epics as history, They might have been inspired by multiple stories and traditional lores; some of them may be true; some of them may be a mixture of two different stories. The fact that people had the liberty to compose different versions for stories like Ramayana indicates that they didn’t take the epics as faithful historical narratives as we do today.

Ramayana has a spiritual meaning though. It symbolizes our consciousness getting kidnapped by the three malas: anava, karma and maya. Or it could indicate our senses getting kidnapped by the root ignorance or avidya. An entire text called Adhyatma Ramayana was written to allegorically interpret the story of Hindu epic Ramayana in the Advaita Vedanta framework.

But the story of Shambuka does teach one thing, which became hidden because of time. One should follow his svadharma, or make a living that suits his personality traits, abilities, interests and experience. Shambuka’s story also teaches about the quick justice that happens to an offence in the state that was believed to have caused a serious consequence. But one shouldn’t interpret this as a careless justice given without proper investigation. At least, the author of this part of the story wants us to understand that it was an emergency, according to their norms and situation. 

In Pappankulam, the story of the temple goes like this. According to the temple myth, when Rama wanted to kill Shambuka, he was hiding somewhere nearby the Kadana nathi river. Rama stood on a rock here to locate him. It was the spot where the rivers Ramanathi and Kadana nathi meet. It is said that Shiva appeared as a light near Madavarvilagam and helped Rama to locate Shambuka. Rama is also said to have done Sandhya Vandhanam there. So the rock is called Sandhya rock or Sandhya parai. It has an inscription of a chakra and a footstep. It is believed to be the footstep of Rama, according to the temple myth. After killing Shambuka, Rama is believed to have taken shelter under a tamarind tree, which is the same as the location of Ramaswamy temple in Pappankulam. The killing of Shambuka is believed to have taken place in Sambankulam near Sivasailam.

Chandika Devi Amman temple in Pappankulam, Parashurama and Tripura Rahasya

On the way to Kadana nathi river, there is another temple for mother Goddess Shakti or Parvati. The temple is called Chandika Devi Amman and usually referred to as Sendika Devi Amman by locals. Many people name their daughters as Sendika (my father’s elder brother’s daughter is one of them). I couldn’t find anything much about the existence of Chandika devi amman temples in other parts of Tirunelveli district. But I am assuming they should exist as small temples, as there are stories associated with Chandika and Parashurama.

From Wiki:

“Parashurama (Sanskrit: परशुराम, IAST: Paraśurāma, lit. Rama with an axe) is the sixth avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism. Born as a Brahmin , Parashurama carried traits of a Kshatriya and is often regarded as a Brahma Warrior. He carried a number of traits, which included aggression, warfare and valor; also, serenity, prudence and patience. Like other incarnations of Vishnu, he was foretold to appear at a time when overwhelming evil prevailed on the earth.The Kshatriya class, with weapons and power, had begun to abuse their power, take what belonged to others by force and tyrannize people. Parashurama corrects the cosmic equilibrium by destroying these Kshatriya warriors. Bhumihars claim that their ancestors were Brahmins who were set up to take the place of the Kshatriyas slain by Parashurama. (Bhumihars are a Hindu caste mainly found in Bihar (including the Mithila region), the Purvanchal region of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, and Nepal.).”

There is a legend associated with Chandika worship. Whenever we talk about any myth or legend, we need to understand that it need not be historical. Parashurama is generally associated with Northern India and his birthplace is believed to be on top of the Janapav hills in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. He is also associated with many temple consecrations in south India, including the Sabarimala temple and Kanyakumari temple.

But was Parashurama really a historical person? He was probably a Brahmin who stood up against the oppression of kings and helped with consecration of many temples. Parushurama might have been a real name or just a nickname. But it is usual for people to attribute myths about the person they liked and admired. People also attribute the work of the descendants of an important person to the person himself. It is also usual for disciples to compose a work and name their own guru as the author. So, even with careful and critical analysis of various sources, confirming historicity of an incident is very challenging.

The myth associated with the worship of Chandika goes like this. Guru Dattatreya preached the essence of Advaita Vedanta to Parashurama in Gandhamadana Parvatha hills, Rameshwaram.  He went over the three states of consciousness which are waking, sleeping and dreaming and explained that the consciousness that witnesses these three states is more real than what is being witnessed. It can be understood well with the screen and movie metaphor popularized by Ramana Maharshi. This consciousness is personified as Chandika, who rules over all three states as if they are three cities or Tripuras. So she is also known as Tripura Sundari.

Later, Parashurama is said to have lived in Pothigai hills in Tirunelveli and did a spiritual practice on Chandika for 12 years. He imparted this truth to his disciple Haritayana. Haritayana compiled the teachings as Tripura Rahasya

There are no temple myths associated with Chandika Devi amman temple in Pappankulam. It is a very small temple. But the form of Chandika is used in a lot of myths and famous texts.

Chandika or Chandi appears in Markandeya Purana, in the section known as Chandi or The Devi Mahatmya. This is what she says about herself:

I resemble in form Brahman;

From me emanates the world

Which has the Spirit of Prakriti and Purusha;

I am empty and not empty;

I am delight and non-delight;

I am knowledge and ignorance;

I am Brahman and not Brahman!”

The basis for Chandi worship is found in Devi Bhagavatam and Devi Mahatmya. The Goddess is also understood as a combined force of Maha Saraswati, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Kali. The Chandi worship might have originated in West Bengal and might have been popularized by Parashurama (or one of his descendants) in the South. Parashurama is understood as someone who created or developed the iconography of Chandika in  south Tamil Nadu.

Chandika, Maheshwari and Skandamata are associated with the 5th day of navaratri. Chandika also refers to a 7 year old girl. Chandi is depicted as a very angry Goddess.

Sankara Narayanan and Gomathi Amman temple, Pappankulam

On the way to Kadana nathi, there is a small Shiva temple in the Agraharam street called Sankara Narayanan and Gomathi Amman temple. This temple is not in a good condition and needs renovation.

The original Sankara Narayanan Gomathi amman temple is in Sankarankovil, Tirunelveli district. The temple is associated with religious tolerance between Shaivism and Vaishnavism. The myth about Gomathi Amman is there to explain that Shiva and Vishnu are different names of one Supreme divinity. 

As Rig Veda says, the truth is one but called by various names by wise people (Ekam sat, viprah bahuda vadanti – Rig Veda 1.164.46). This also applies to names like Allah and Yahweh. Gomathi amman can be taken as an embodiment of religious tolerance, who preaches the truth about the essential oneness of various paths.

I ended up writing about Gomathi amman in the past which was a result of some amazing coincidences that I witnessed. I have written about such coincidences in the following posts:

Goddess Gomathi Amman, Adi Thabasu and Religious Tolerance

Some Amazing Coincidences Regarding Religious Tolerance

Sadaiudayar Sastha Temple, Pappankulam

Sadaiudayar Sastha is our family deity. Shasta means a teacher or a guru. Just like there are various forms of Shiva, there are various forms of Shasta too and one of them is Sadaiudayar.

 Again, I would like to remind the readers here that names like Shasta, Shiva, Vishnu etc are different names for one divinity and each of these names may highlight a particular aspect of divinity more than the others. 

Sastha is the personification of a divine teacher. When you consider Almighty or the Supreme reality as a divine teacher or if you are attracted to the image of a teacher more than anything else, then you can choose one of these forms for worship: Sastha, Skanda guru, Dakshinamurthy. 

The true form of worship involves surrender and love, as shown in Bhagavad Gita; but which form you are devoted to doesn’t matter at all, as long as you feel more emotionally connected with your chosen form. The devotion purifies the mind and prepares the ground for self-realization.

Just like there are eight forms of Lakshmi called Ashtalakshmi, there are eight forms of Sastha too. I have elaborated on the etymology of the word Lakshmi and the eight forms of Lakshmi here: 3-Level Meditation

Ashta Sasthas

Let us now see about Ashta Sasthas:

Adhi Maha Sastha – Similar to Adhilakshmi or Mahalakshmi, he represents the highest wealth of a human being which is self-realization or Atma jnana. Adhi Maha Sastha is depicted with two consorts: Poorna and Pushkala. Poorna means fullness; Pushkala means abundance or an absence of any sense of lack. This actually means that self-realization changes the way you experience your life in such a way that you feel full and complete and do not sense that anything lacks when it comes to your ultimate well being.  Adhi Maha Sastha is more popular in villages of South; Sadaiudayar Sastha is just one form of Adhi Maha Sastha.

Dharma sastha: Dharma sastha is someone who takes care of Dharma or cosmic order. Dharma dictates the way of life that contributes to the well being of oneself and the other. The concept of avatar is closely linked to Dharma. So an avatar of Sastha should be considered as a human representation of Dharma sastha. 

Manikandan, who is popularly worshipped as Ayyappan is considered as an avatar of Dharma sastha. This doesn’t mean that Almighty took the form of a person. Almighty is always Avyakta or impersonal; but it is that which manifests as everything. Manikandan was a human prince who practiced celibacy; but once his time is over, he has merged himself with the Almighty; it is explained by saying he merged with Dharma sastha. So the distinction between Manikandan and Sastha is the same as the distinction between Krishna and Vishnu.

This is the reason why I have written earlier that the banning of women’s entry to Ayyappa temple in SabariMala is not at all necessary. Read this post for details: Entry of Women to Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple -A Detailed Look at Sabarimala’s History and the Recent Supreme Court Verdict

Just like there is Bhagavad Gita for Krishna, there is Boothanatha Geeta (or Bhutanatha Gita) for Manikandan. It is a very rare text. You can read a short commentary on it here: Bhoothanatha Geetha – The Song of Ayyappa

Gnana Sastha: He is the lord of wisdom. He is depicted as sitting under a banyan tree just like Dhakshinamoorthy. He also holds a Manikka Veena instrument just like Saraswati, the Goddess of wisdom. Please note that the same icons have been reused for the iconography of Sastha.  He exclusively represents the part of a teacher or a guru. He can be compared to Vidya Lakshmi among Ashta Lakshmis.

Kalyana Varadha Sastha: He is a symbol of marriage and auspiciousness. Can be compared to Vijaya Lakshmi. He is also depicted with his two consorts.

Gajaarooda Sastha: He is the annihilator of enemies. Just like Gajalakshmi who  represents royal power.

Sammohana Sastha: Represents conjugal bliss and harmony and depicted with Poorna and Pushkala.

Santhana Prapthi Sastha:  Symbol of progeny, just like Santanalakshmi. He has a consort Prabhavati who holds Manikka Veena and also a child Satyagan. He is also called Brahma Sastha.

Veda Sastha: He represents Vedas and the knowledge they give. He is also called ‘Simharooda Sastha’ (the one who rides a lion). 

Veera Sastha: Similar to Dhairya Lakshmi, he represents courage and valour. This form of Sastha  is mentioned in ‘Adi Sankara Vicharitham’ which has Adi Sankara worshipping Veera Sastha in a place called Kudhiran.(Between Trichur and Palghat).

Building a  complete Ashta Sastha Temple at Veppampattu, Salem  was a dream of Guruswami Viswanatha Sarma, who was ordained by Paramacharya. But this project is not complete yet and  Villivakkam Sree Viswanatha Sharma Ashta Sastha Temple Trust is currently looking for financial assistance. 

I can see a similarity between this Ashta Sastha project of Guruswami Viswanatha Sarma and Skandasramam project which was completed by H. H. Swami Santhananda Saraswati Avadhoota Swamigal. Skandasramam is also about Skanda guru, the form of divine guru like Sastha (Gnana Sastha, in particular). Both are in Salem, Tamil Nadu. I have opened up regarding some amazing coincidences in a video regarding this, and this video is available on the page about 3-level meditation.

The Story and Details About Sadaiudayar Sastha Temple, Pappankulam

Now let us see the temple myth about Sadaiudayar Sastha, a form of Adhi Maha Sastha.

I am quoting the story from the official blog of Sadaiudayar Sastha temple:

The Temple of Sri Porchadaichi and Sri Sadaiudayar Sastha is situated amidst the paddy fields surrounded by hills on the old Koprathope Road that connects Kalakkadu,  Papanasam and Kizha Ambur villages skirting the Western Ghats. It is not a temple built according to the Agama sastras. There is no flag mast or prakarams. No utsavam is performed or festivals celebrated. And it has a moving tale behind its origin. 

A brahmin of Kizha Ambur for Kalakad was accompanying his pregnant daughter home for delivery.Dusk fell as they approached Pappankulam, it started drizzling and so did the girl’s labour pain. The father desperately prayed to Sastha and looked around for help. Finding a hut nearby, he approached it hoping to find a woman. there was none and he returned crestfallen. But to his delight and relief he found that his daughter had  delivered a boy and a dark skinned woman had played midwife. The girl did not known the woman’s identity.

      Sure that it was none other than Sastha who had appeared as a harijan woman to save his daughter’s life, the brahmin profusely thanked Him and offered whatever he had with him raw rice and coconut that the girl was taking home from her  husband’s place. He heard a voice that said that it was the deity, Sri Sadaiudayar of the temple located nearby, that had helped the girl and that she would give birth to eight sons all of whom would serve the lord of that temple. The oracle came true  and the tribe, known as ettu pillai kootathar and matrilineal offsprings became staunch devotees of the Lord. 

      Sri Sastha of the temple is seen as an endearing child, in a standing posture. The members of the family, spread across the country, visit the temple now and then to offer worship. In the olden days Sri Sastha, Sri Raja Rajeshwari and the other deities were housed in thatched sheds. Hence the temple, even after its be raw rice and coconut (kapparisi). Cooked food is not allowed. Only a learned priest from the family does the pooja once in a day and that too in the morning. Devotees do not visit  the temple after 5 p.m. During thai all the members of the family (adimai as they are referred to) gather and offer worship in the night on all Fridays. ( An interesting custom is being followed since long ladies at any age are not permitted to visit the temple at any time ) Before the festivities, the harijans in the neighbourhood are invited to Ambur and showered with gifts.“

The temple prohibits entry for women during Pujas, except for lower caste women.  (I don’t support such a ban. This custom must have started considering Manikandan, one of Sastha’s avatar was a Brahmachari. But as I have explained in the link given above, that is not relevant because Manikandan no longer exists as a personal entity or Vyakti. He has merged with Avyakta or Adhi Sastha himself.)

Here is what the temple blog says about the entry of women:

It’s a tradition that women folks of brahmin adimais are not permitted to visit, participate,in the Temple day or night poojas. Harijans dynasty are exclusively permitted as god himself  took the form of a harijan women and still that descendants of the particular clan of the community are reverently treated by Ettupillai Kootathar and Pen Vazhikkani brahmin devotees.

There is a traditional custom in vogue to compensate the women’s exclusion that is Paalum Pazham Pooja 

This pooja is being performed as individual prarthana at their houses. A pictured screen of the deities are taken by Poojari is and Komurthar. They go to the houses where prarthana’s are  to be fulfilled and kuthuvilakku are taken. Komurthar does sangalpam and all the needed kuthuvilakkus are placed for pooja and Swamy Sadaiudayar and Porchadaichi are being invoked in the vilakkus along with other deities like Bhairavas and Devas.

Devi Parayanam is part of the pooja. Women folk are invited and attend the poojas and also have the rare privilege of cooking Payasam as neivedyam in contrast at the temple whereonly the uncooked raw rice is the neivedyam. Here fruits, panagam etc, are placed as neivedyam. The pooja concludes with a Rahasya Pooja. The entire pooja is the replica of friday poojas at the temple.

So women folk eagerly participate in the functions on every panguni uthiram day at Kizha Ambur where Sadaiudayar’s own adobe is situated and precious thiru aparanam are kept.”

The best part about this temple is that it talks about a lower caste woman helping a Brahmin. This story promotes better understanding between people of different castes. So, the Sastha here is a symbol of intercaste tolerance. When you read this story along with the story of Rama and Shambukha, you see a balance and get a better understanding.

Contact Details for Sadaiudayar Sastha Temple

1) Mr.P.S.Easwaran, Temple Trustee, email : pseaswaran1935@gmail.com, Ph : 0462-2334803

2) Mr.Manthira Moorthi, Temple Communication Dept. Cell : 6381635486

About Trust Building Facility & All about Trust Details:

Mr.Sankarraman, Manager of the Trust, Cell : 9677644241.

Temple Archakar:

1) R.Ramachandran : 93606 16422

2) S.Kumar : 98940 35861, 04634 – 253844

The Village as a Temple – A Unique Feature of Pappankulam

There is a unique feature of the part of the land in Pappankulam where all the above mentioned temples are present. The whole piece of land somehow resembles a temple in itself in which Sastha is the mulavar or the primary deity.

Whenever you look at a Sankalpa mantra in the Puja Vidhi (rules of worship) for any deity, you will notice that the worship of  Ganesh and Durga Parameshwari comes first.

Here are two lines from Ayyappa Puja Vidhi (Harihara Putra Puja Vidhi):

शबरिगिरीशाभिन्न पूर्णा पुष्कलाम्बा समेत श्री हरिहरपुत्र पूजां करिष्ये ॥ (द्विः) आदौ महागणपति , श्री दुर्गा परमेश्वरी पूजनं च करिष्ये ॥

These two lines in Sanskrit say, “I am going to perform Puja for the one who lives in Sabari giri, or Harihara putra (Ayyappa) who is with Poorna and Pushkala. First, I will perform Puja for Maha Ganapathi and Durga Parameshwari.”

When you enter Pappankulam village through its western bus stop, you will soon be greeted by a Ganapathi temple under a banyan tree and a small Muppidathi temple on the two sides of the same street in the same location. (Just next to Ganapathi temple is the home of my father’s elder brother and I stayed there for one year when I was 15 years old.).

Mupidathi is the third  of eight forms of Kali. Pidari means head. It became pidaari and then pidaathi.  Temple myths in Tirunelveli district say that 8 Kalis after coming from Kailash went to Podhigai hills and started gracing devotees in various temples in place near Tirunelveli. These 8 Kalis are the forms of one divinity which is the same as Chandika, Tripura Sundari or Durga Parameshwari.

So, when you step inside Pappankulam to visit Sastha temple, you are greeted by Ganesh and Durga Parameshwari at the entrance of the long street that leads to Sastha temple and Kadana nathi.There is a pond nearby, just like there is a pond near all the temples.  After you walk for five to ten minutes, you reach the cross roads where you take left to visit Tiruvenkadar temple and Palani andavar temple (for Skanda); then take right to visit Ramaswamy temple. Then you proceed to visit both Chandika temple and Shankara Narayanan Gomathi temple. Finally, when you are about to reach the river, where you visit the mulavar which is Sastha. After having a darshan of Sastha, you reach the river bank of Kadana nathi, where you can proceed to visit the confluence of two rivers. This symbolizes the disappearance of duality and realization of oneness. 

My Own Experiences in Pappankulam

From June 1999 to April 2000, I spent my days in this village as I was studying in my 10th standard. This is the village where my father was born; my grandfather Shanmugam who is well known as Pappaiah Pillai in the whole village had passed away sometime during 1992. I was named after him. I had never spent much time here except coming for holidays and staying for four or five days. But during that one year, I lived here and enjoyed the beauty of rural life.

During those days, Thiruvenkadar temple was damaged. The place looked like a haunted place. The area around the temple was used as an open toilet by locals. The place was filled with thorny bushes, and pigs which were feeding on human excreta. I used to sit in the entrance of this Shiva temple for hours in loneliness, composing poems, thinking about stuff, meditating etc. 

During the annual holidays that year,  I wrote two Tamil poems in classical Tamil meters, one for Shiva and one for Goddess Saraswati. Here are the links:

Poem about Shiva: சிவசக்தி அகவல் – A Tamil Poem About Lord Shiva with English Translation

Poem about Saraswati: நாமகள் அந்தாதி

I also composed a short hymn, a Venpa (Tamil metra) on Thiruvenkadar and Vada Kalai Nayagi.

But those days I didn’t know anything about the temple myths; I didn’t know that Goddess Saraswati was associated with that very temple which was my ground of contemplative thought, creative writing etc. I only knew about the story regarding Durvasa’s curse on Saraswati last month, February 2020. I visited Pappankulam for the death of my father’s elder brother, who I personally see as my own father and that is when I became curious about this village. So, my composing a poem about Saraswati was a pure coincidence.

I now see all this as a miracle. 

Conclusion – What do Vedas teach and who is a Brahmin?

Whenever you study a scriptural canon or a spiritual/religious movement, it is important to try and understand the original intentions for such a tradition to come into existence. We should also pay attention to how ideas evolved. We should learn to see things from multiple perspectives. The story of blind men and the elephant comes to mind. You can read this post for more clarity on this: Logic And Spiritual Enlightenment – An Overview of Anekantavada, Saptabhangivada (Seven Valued Logic) and Syadvada of Jainism

The word ‘Veda’ literally means knowledge. There are two kinds of knowledge: 

  1. Knowledge that deals with practical things (this includes all kinds of practical knowledge: knowing which is the closest restaurant from your home to knowing the technical details of building an aircraft).
  2. Self-knowledge or knowing yourself, which is completely realized at self-realization or Atma Jnana. Upanishads deal with this subject.

Now the scope of Vedas includes both kinds of knowledge. No, I am not saying that knowledge about quantum mechanics or general relativity is found in the four Vedas which are in Sanskrit. But I am saying that the modern scientific knowledge which deals with such topics are also essentially a part of Vedas (or simply put, the body of knowledge we have so far as humanity). So that is what Vedas actually mean.

The four Vedas of Sanskrit deal with a lot of subjects. At the first glance, it may seem like Vedas are mostly talking about some complicated rituals which are no longer practiced. But why did they do those rituals in the first place? They tried to find explanations for what was happening in nature and human life, and they tried to manipulate it according to whatever they knew and understand. We are still doing it! Scientific community does exactly that!

Now, if we take this approach and ask ‘why’ questions instead of ‘what’ questions, you can understand many things. 

First we need to understand that early Vedic religion did not have concepts like Atma jnana, Mokha, Samsara or Karma. These concepts were influenced by Sramana traditions . It is not that Vedic and Sramana traditions were two different traditions which did not overlap. While Vedic tradition is a tradition that was collectively followed by a social group, Sramanas were independent ascetics who had certain teachings and followings. So, a Sramana could be a Vedic rishi who gave up the rituals and became an ascetic, after being taught by someone else, who is also an ascetic.

Ritualistic Vedic Tradition and Sramana Tradition

Let me quote from a part of a post I wrote which is ‘Hinduism and Dharma’. It differentiates the concepts of early Vedic tradition from Sramana tradition:

  1. “In Vedic religion, sacrifice is God, and it is more powerful than devas and humans. In fact, sacrifice or yajna created this world. So sacrifice is applied as a metaphor for many others things: birth, sex, burning a body in funeral pyre are all sacrifices.
  2. Devas attained immortality and went to heaven because of sacrifice. There is a story that says that when devas went to heaven, they destroyed all knowledge about sacrifice so that humans do not have access to them. But Rishis received that knowledge as revelation and gave it to mankind.
  3. Devas are not omnipotent. They depend on humans because they are pleased with oblations that we offer on fire. We also depend on them for rainfall, health, cattle, longevity, heaven etc. It is a mutual dependency. It is sacrifice which is omnipotent and that includes the hymns, melodies and the actual ritual.
  4. Each man is indebted when he was born. He owes to devas, Rishis and ancestors who are already living in heaven. So he has three debts. To clear the debt, he has to do these: a) To clear the debt to Rishis, he has to be initiated to study under a teacher and go through Vedic study. b) To clear the debts of Devas, he has to offer oblations five times a day and also offer seasonal rites. c) He has to give birth to a son to clear the debts that he owes to his ancestors. Progeny increases the glory of his ancestors in heaven. Also, a man is reborn as his son and thus attains immortality through son in the earth. At the same time, he also attains immortality in heaven after death.
  5. The wife and the son are two important people in Vedic religion. You are not qualified to offer oblations unless you are married, because you have to do them with wife. It is said that a wife completes a man by giving him the qualifications to do the rites.

So, you have to live a life as a house holder if you want to live according to Vedic injunction, as per Brahmanism. But when cities developed in North Eastern India, new ideas arose: the doctrine of samsara, karma, rebirth and moksha. People who were talking about these new concepts were wandering ascetics called sramanas. Many liberal Brahmins in the cities accepted these new ideas and tried to interpret them within Brahmanic religion which later led to asrama system. But Brahmins in villages were too orthodox and couldn’t accept these concepts because these parivrajakas or sramanas were not allowed to get married.

But slowly these ideas got absorbed in Brahmanism giving rise to Upanishads and the doctrine of Vedanta. Slowly, various folk religions, Shiva, Krishna, Vasudeva, Narayana cults got absorbed into Vedic religion and temple worship also became popular. Vedic popularity was replaced by agamas and puranas. It developed dharma as we know today.

But the heart of Dharma lies in purusharthas: Dharma, artha, Kama, and moksha. It places Moksha as the final goal whereas Vedic religion considered heaven as the final goal.

If you think about it, Brahmanism is life positive. Even though Sramana traditions were life negative, they actually offered a way out of psychological suffering while living. By taking the medititative aspects of Sramana traditions and combining it with life positive aspects of a house holder’s life, Bhagavad Gita came up with a complete path to moksha.”

The Essential message of Vedas

Based on what he have seen above, here is the gist of the message in Vedas:

When you look at the sun, the moon and stars, the changing seasons etc, everything seems to follow a Law. They also seem to contribute something to us humans. When Vedic people applied the same logic to human life, they concluded that humans should also follow a Law and give something back to the society and nature. We receive help from many sources; so we are obligated and indebted to all such sources and we have to fulfill that obligation.

So what is the Law that humans should adhere to? This basically asks the question, “How should you live your life so everyone including yourself can live a happy and peaceful life?”

According to the consensus that we have so far, a human being should strive for righteousness (Dharma), wealth and education (Artha), pleasures needed to meet one’s psychological and emotional needs (Kama) and the ultimate liberation that one attains through self-realization (Moksha). There are various means to attain the first three and in the modern days we don’t have much to take from religious and spiritual texts regarding the first three goals of human life..

But there is an enormous wisdom in the world literature that discusses the fourth goal which is liberation from all the psychological bondage and suffering, while living. The knowledge about it is obscured and distorted because of various issues: changing meanings of words, meanings lost because of translation, meanings misunderstood because of poor articulation or usage of confusing words, lack of people who are capable enough to impart this knowledge to others etc. A part of my work is to make sure that all that wisdom is made available in my blogs and books.

Who is a Brahmin?

So, who is a Brahmin? In practical life, a Brahmin is none other than anyone who excels in intelligence, knowledge and virtue than others (and not just anyone who is from a particular caste).. If a person is intelligent, ethical and knows enough about essential stuff, he is a Brahmin. He should be given  preference in roles like teaching, writing, scientific research, spiritual research etc. When a person who is not competent enough takes the role of a Brahmin (by becoming a teacher, a law maker etc), that will create a huge problem in the society. In fact, the intellectual gap between a stupid teacher and a brilliant student can mess up a lot of things. I will write a different article explaining in detail about how  huge ‘intellectual gap or difference’ can lead to a major social issue.

 I will give you a clue. Try convincing a typical right wing online troll about anything; try talking to him with logic. He would reply with either ad hominem or whataboutery. There are people who have a hard time understanding simple things but are completely convinced that they are intellectually better than others. When these people take up important positions in the society, it will lead to social disorder, poverty, unemployment, riots, chaos etc. It is exactly what is happening in India today.

This is exactly what Gita says as ‘Varna Samkara’ or the mixture of Varnas (Gita 1.43). In the earlier days, a quick shortcut to prevent Varna Samkara was to follow a birth based Varna system. But today’s society is very complicated. Varna Samkara in the modern context can be interpreted as a confusion in determining the roles and qualifications of people. To resolve that confusion, everyone should work on finding their own uniqueness and choose a way of living that suits one’s personality, abilities, interests etc. In other words, everyone should follow their own svadharma. 

There is also a deeper meaning for the word Brahmin. A knower of Brahman or a self-realized person is the one who is truly a Brahmin. He is Brahmavid, one who knows what Brahman is, in his experience. 

People who are caught up in the modern concept of religions, religious divisions etfc may have a hard time in being open to many things written here. If you do, then go through these posts:

A Brief History of Major Religions of the Major World Religions

12 Shocking Truths About Religions

What is Advaita Vedanta? – Advaita For Dummies

You may have already heard that advaita talks about oneness, the oneness of the existence that exists without a second; it says that this oneness is your true nature! But this is not a theory and not something that is meant to be just intellectually understood. This oneness is realized in one’s living experience which not only transforms you but also liberates you from all psychological bondages.

I will give you a short introduction on Advaita Vedanta but will also let you know about some pitfalls that one can encounter if certain things are not understood. Before Advaita Vedanta is taught, the disciple is expected to develop four-fold qualifications called sadhana chatushtaya. I will also quickly go over them in this post.

Adhi Shankara

First, advaita (non-duality) doesn’t really have a contradiction with dvaita (duality). And there was a reason why various dvaita (dual)) schools emerged after Shankara’s time. What is usually described as advaita philosophy or the non-dual oneness is the fruit of the spiritual path. What is described as dvaita philosophy (the duality of God and devotee) is actually a path. In the beginning of bhakti, there is duality; but it always ends with non-dual oneness.

In Advaita Vedanta, bhakti or devotion is considered as one of the means to purify oneself and develop sadhana chatushtaya or four-fold qualifications. But the problem with Advaita Vedanta is usually this: people directly go for the theory or the higher teachings in Vedanta without developing these four-fold qualifications. It is developing the four-fold qualifications that takes the most part of a person’s journey.

This mere intellectual understanding sometimes results in pure arrogance with absolutely no transformation. When you tell someone that sounds like “You are God”, it is very likely that it will be misunderstood; the person may also forget his duties and become very careless; because from the perspective of Advaita, nothing really matters. But in practical life; everything matters. Even after realizing the truth in your experience, you still have to play the role in the real world. You would certainly live like a water drop on a lotus leaf, but the world still sees you as an individual bound to the obligations of the society.

Advaita and Dvaita

People like Ramanuja and Madhva who came after Shankara addressed the above mentioned problem. If you see the traditions in the world which see God and devotee as separate, you will notice that they all promise a place after death where they can live in God’s presence. We often hear vivid descriptions of vaikunta, paradise or heaven. This was just used as a trick or a social tool. To the general public, it was this teaching which was appropriate: develop loving devotion to God and surrender to him; after death, you can live with him forever. This was like tricking a child. By saying this, they can lure them into showing devotion. This in turns purifies the mind. According to the tradition, even if liberation is not possible for a person in this life, the spiritual development that he went through is carried forward to the next birth.

There have been many places in the world where people were quite primitive and completely lacked any moral sense or obligation towards society. Just imagine a vast peninsula which has no empire, no state, no kings and no public laws. 5th century Saudi Arabia is one of them. Many people, as a reaction to how things have turned out in the name of Islam and how Muhammad’s life was described in Hadiths written down many decades after his death, have come to a conclusion that Muhammad was a power hungry warlord, who was just after power, women and sex. But that will contradict many things in Islam itself.

Even the critics of Muhammad agree that Muhammad was a genius. Also, historians suggest that he was not illiterate as it is believed by Muslims. Muhammad also played tricks; he made compromises too. The idea of eternal hell was actually a social tool developed by Plato, a disciple of Socrates; it is not there in old Testament of Bible. Muhammad used this concept to discipline the people of Arabia. He was against female infanticide and many other social problems. Most importantly, Muhammad asserted that surrender or submission to one supreme God is the true form of worship. There was no concept of religion those days, even though people had various beliefs. People only had a concept called ‘deen’ which meant ‘the way of life”. Muhammad asserted that Islam or surrender to God is the right way of life or deen.

Islam stands on five pillars which basically is: oneness of God and submission to God; 5 prayers a day which has different postures just like yoga, a way to convey submission and also to focus one’s attention; fasting for a whole month with an attitude of devotion and love; going on a sacred pilgrimage where various devotees from different races and places gather as a symbol of equality and charity to the poor. But Muslims later became too sensitive towards their faith; even though Muhammad improved the status quo of Arabia as per historians, he couldn’t improve it completely in his lifetime. So, only Sufi tradition preserved the original teachings more clearly, which the mainstream Islam rejects as heresy.

Jesus also insisted that love towards God and love towards human beings are his two commandments.

So the bottomline is devotion is one of the ways to purify oneself. And a personal God or a personification is required for it; this divine has to be one and not many, so that one can surrender to it. It is the same as prapanna as described in Gita.

Apart from devotion, karma yoga, or doing one’s duties without attachment to the fruits of actions, also purifies the mind and develops the four-fold qualifications. Karma yoga is about focusing on the action rather than the result, on the present rather than the future; it teaches to develop love towards one’s actions and do the actions with focus and involvement, not with a mind that is daydreaming about the results. Pure Karma yoga produces states of flow quite effortlessly. Other sitting meditations and kundalini yoga also comes under karma yoga.

Four-Fold Qualifications – Sadhana Chatushtaya

So now you may ask; what are the fourfold qualifications that one should develop?

  1. Shad-Sampat

Out of those four, let us just see one for now, which is Shad-Sampat or six virtues. So this one among the fourfold qualifications is further divided into six:

Sama: calmness of the mind;

Dama: gaining control over the mind and senses.

Uparati: The tendency to naturally drop certain conditioned behaviors and habits; for example, you may lose interest in certain habits.

Titiksha – forbearance. Not getting too excited in pleasure and ability to withstand suffering.

Sraddha – trust; This is a trust in spiritual path and see it as a working method; this trust naturally develops once you start feeling some changes in your mind and experience.

Samadhana: Resolving all the internal conflicts so that you gain the ability to focus.

The most practical way to go for is to first slowly develop these six virtues; don’t give any deadline. The practice has to be taken slowly and gradually so that you also live your social life in the meantime. For example, a person who starts with can first work on forbearance or titiksha. This means that whenever you go through suffering, you should go through it willingly since there is no choice and try to bear the suffering without getting too distressed about it. You can also develop shraddha, or a faith that you would be able to grow spiritually as the time goes by.

Focused attention meditation that involves focusing on an object (like dhyana or shamata) can bring calmness to the mind and develop sama. It will also slowly develop dama or self-control. That is essentially about bringing the wandering mind under control without letting the mind distracted by sense objects. Uparati is something that would happen naturally when other virtues are developed. Samadhana is something you develop last.

2) Vairagya – Non-attachment

The next thing in four-fold qualifications that I am going to explain is vairagya or non-attachment. Many people mistake that non-attachment is renouncing one’s possessions. But one can lead a normal worldly life and still develop non-attachment,. This is usually symbolized as a metaphor: one lives like the lotus leaf in water; even though the leaf resides in water, it doesn’t get wet or the water doesn’t stick to it. Vairagya also refers to a certain state of mind; To understand that we have to learn about a concept called ‘hedonic treadmill”.

Hedonic treadmill theory is a psychological theory that states that regardless of the objective outcomes of lives such as success and failure, the experience of life always returns to a base-level happiness. Happiness never increases as time goes by; the base level happiness always remains the same but it keeps us in the hedonic treadmill, chasing for objective outcomes without actually reaching anywhere. This base-level happiness is a limited happiness and one is not satisfied with it. It is only self-realization or the realization of the truth about one’s own nature which can make the limited level of happiness to blossom fully, giving an individual the absolute sense of fulfillment and liberation. When one realizes that running on this hedonic treadmill is fruitless and is not interested in the objective outcomes, he has developed vairagya.

Now one may ask, if one chooses to not to be interested in the objective outcomes, won’t he stop working or performing? No; this will increase the performance. Because it will actually make the karma yoga to mature. Since you are not interested in objective outcomes, you can be fully devoted to action, while doing your obligatory duties. As I said, flow states are very normal when one is in karma yoga; so actions actually give a sense of enjoyment at this point.

3. MumuksutvaDesire for liberation

Now you know that self-realization and the liberation that happens because of it while living is the only thing which will give you the absolute fulfilment. So, your concern shifts automatically from worldly desire to the desire for liberation. Your calm mind, non-attachment and the desire for liberation will make you more focused on the practice and also make you qualified to understand what Viveka is. It might have taken a few decades to reach up to this point. But there are exceptions, like people who get vairagya and mumuksutva in a very early age in life.

4. Viveka – Discrimination of the observer and observed.

One need to realize something that is self-evident. You know the existence of anything because you are conscious of it. You know that a tree you see exists because it is a perception perceived by the consciousness. Consciousness is what that knows everything; that knows that this world exists. So, existence of anything is only known by the existence of consciousness. You are also aware of your own thoughts, emotions, subtle mental movements and mood changes as they float as the contents of your consciousness. When you see everything from a totally subjective perspective, you will see that this world itself appears as a perception in your consciousness; it is as if everything is happening within consciousness.

It takes a great deal of objectivity to understand and develop viveka. Usually a human being is too attached to the concept of ‘me’ or ‘self, which gives him a sense of separation from the world. But when you develop non-attachment, it will be very easy to see this concept of little ‘me’ as an object of consciousness, which only appears to exist because the thoughts flow in the mind in a high speed. Just like a fan which is running in a high speed creates an illusion that there is a circle, the thoughts when moving fast gives a continuity and creates the illusion of self.

But if you take a step back from your thoughts and just observe what they do, sometimes they may slow down and you may be able to silence your mind for a few seconds. In that few seconds, you would just exist as consciousness simply perceiving sense perceptions. You can now see that you are actually consciousness itself, and that the thoughts, emotions, body and everything you perceive in consciousness is not you; But consciousness, which is the true Self, is now identified with the body, mind and many other concepts like one’s beliefs, one’s nationality, one’s religion etc. It mistakes a selective part of what is observed as self. This idea of mistaking the body and mind as one’s self is avidya or root ignorance, which is considered as the root cause of all suffering.

Since it is because of consciousness that the world is perceived, consciousness is seen more real than what appears on the consciousness. This consciousness or the pure awareness has no attributes and gives space for the life experience to occur and the perceptions to exist. Whether you are sleeping, dreaming or in a waking state, it is consciousness which pervades all these three!

With this understanding you can inquire everything that happens in your consciousness and see that it is not you; because you as the pure awareness that observes a thought or emotion should be separate from what is observed.

Since you can observe the thought, the thought is not you. This discrimination or clear identification of the observer or the pure awareness (the real you) and the objects of observation (thoughts, emotions, perceptions etc) is viveka.

Now this may raise a question. Doesn’t Vedanta say that everything is one and there is no two? Doesn’t the discrimination of observer vs observed promote duality? No.. Actually, this discrimination is necessary to remove the attachments and the selective identification of consciousness with body, mind and certain mental concepts related to the egoic self (my beliefs, my religion, my country etc).

The concept of oneness doesn’t have to be promoted as a teaching, belief or a philosophy. This is the reason some traditions do not talk about oneness or the absolute Brahman that exists without a second. It may actually confuse people at the earlier stages. Brahman is the same as your real self. Upanishads say prajnanam Brahman, which means consciousness is Brahman.

You can imagine your consciousness as a screen and everything that is observed in consciousness as moving pictures on the screen, In a sense, the screen and the pictures are different; but the pictures do not have any independent existence on their own, So the picture part is called as maya and the screen part is brahman. But you need to understand that the screen can exist without picture. The pictures are just modifications of the same reality. You may see thousand men marching in a screen but the screen is one. But until or unless this oneness of Brahman becomes living experience, theoretical understanding of what is Brahman is of no use. When the final realization dawns, both observer and the observed is realized as one and the same; this is Advaita. If you want to really understand oneness, it has to start with developing sadhana chatushtaya first.

The final stage of Vedantic path involves to be completely established as a witness or awareness; It is called as shakshibhava or nididhyasana. This is the same as mindfulness in Buddhism. It requires just being a witness and passive observer of everything that passes by in consciousness. You just let the mind happens by itself; you neither give force to the thoughts, emotions and subtle movements of mind nor suppress them. You simply let anything arise and pass away in your conscious experience. Your focus is more on silent gaps between thoughts and mental movements. these gaps keep increasing until the observer and observed converges and all the distinctions disappear,

There are many other things taught in Advaita like karma and creation of the universe. But they are not really much important, Understanding karma helps, but many things can be learnt in the later stage. The only thing one can focus on as a starting point is to work on purifying one’s mind.

I have explained more about Sadhana chatushtaya here:

An article that you may be interested in: Pappankulam – A Village of Brahmins and Four Vedas

You can read my book “The Truth About Spiritual Enlightenment: Bridging Science, Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta” to learn more.

Also read: Buddhism and Vedanta are the Same – A Detailed Comparison

Shanmugam P’s answer to What’s the essence of non-duality?

Hinduism and Dharma: The Distinction between a Religion and a Way of Life.

(I am republishing the answers that I wrote in Quora about Hinduism. This is a complete guide to Hinduism. It is a collection of multiple answers posted in a single page. So it is very long. You can bookmark this page so that you can take your time in reading it.)

1.Is Hinduism monotheism or polytheism or considered both?

In my recent answers, I have been writing about Hinduism a lot but I noticed that the answers get a low visibility and agreement. I also kind of discovered the reason. I have been using the word Hinduism to mean something called ‘dharma’.

But people use the word Hinduism to mean a colonial version of system based on the modern concept of religion, which did not exist 300 years before. Yes, there is a difference between religion in general and the modern concept of religion.

So based on this, let me make a clear distinction between Hinduism and dharma. Hinduism is about 300 years old, the youngest religion in the planet, but the dharma that I am talking about has existed since time immemorial. Some use the term sanatana dharma; but I don’t like to use it because dharma includes both eternal laws and the rules and moral codes which keep changing.

Also, this dharma that I am talking about is universal, even though most of it developed in Indian subcontinent.

TLDR: Hinduism is polytheistic; the elements of this polytheistic religion is very old, even though Hinduism itself is a concept that is just 300 years old. But the dharma I am talking about is not polytheistic; but it has absorbed various polytheistic elements as a part of its iconography, seeing everything as the extensions or rays of one supreme reality.

Moreover, Hinduism is based on identity. The more Hindu you are, the more intolerant you will be towards Muslims and Christians. Politics can feed this fanaticism and can tempt you to be too defensive and sensitive towards this identity. You need a constant ego gratification that sees how barbaric other religions are, so that your own identity as Hindu seems better. So you will try to copy the concepts from other religions like conversion, blasphemy, seeing nudity as a taboo etc. There will be a constant temptation to keep the Hindu superiority alive and you can easily do that by constantly pointing out how worse other religions are.

In fact, to be a Hindu, all you need to do is to be born as a Hindu parent. You can prove yourself as a devout Hindu by constantly bragging about this identity. But to follow the dharma I am talking about, you need to apply it in thoughts, speech and action.

First, let us establish that this modern concept of religion is a recent invention:

Here is the excerpt from Wikipedia:

The modern concept of religion, as an abstraction that entails distinct sets of beliefs or doctrines, is a recent invention in the English language. Such usage began with texts from the 17th century due to events such the splitting of Christendom during the Protestant Reformation and globalization in the age of exploration, which involved contact with numerous foreign cultures with non-European languages.[22][23][27] Some argue that regardless of its definition, it is not appropriate to apply the term religion to non-Western cultures.[28][29] Others argue that using religion on non-Western cultures distorts what people do and believe.[30]

The concept of religion was formed in the 16th and 17th centuries,[31][32] despite the fact that ancient sacred texts like the Bible, the Quran, and others did not have a word or even a concept of religion in the original languages and neither did the people or the cultures in which these sacred texts were written.[33][34]

For example, there is no precise equivalent of religion in Hebrew, and Judaism does not distinguish clearly between religious, national, racial, or ethnic identities.[35] One of its central concepts is halakha, meaning the walk or path sometimes translated as law, which guides religious practice and belief and many aspects of daily life.[36] Even though the beliefs and traditions of Judaism are found in the ancient world, ancient Jews saw Jewish identity as being about an ethnic or national identity and did not entail a compulsory belief system or regulated rituals.[37] Even in the 1st century CE, Josephus had used the Greek term ioudaismos, which some translate as Judaism today, even though he used it as an ethnic term, not one linked to modern abstract concepts of religion as a set of beliefs.[2] It was in the 19th century that Jews began to see their ancestral culture as a religion analogous to Christianity.[37] The Greek word threskeia, which was used by Greek writers such as Herodotus and Josephus, is found in the New Testament. Threskeia is sometimes translated as religion in today’s translations, however, the term was understood as worship well into the medieval period.[2] In the Quran, the Arabic word din is often translated as religion in modern translations, but up to the mid-1600s translators expressed din as law.[2]

The Sanskrit word dharma, sometimes translated as religion, also means law. Throughout classical South Asia, the study of law consisted of concepts such as penance through piety and ceremonial as well as practical traditions. Medieval Japan at first had a similar union between imperial law and universal or Buddha law, but these later became independent sources of power.[38][39]

Throughout the Americas, Native Americans never had a concept of “religion” and any suggestion otherwise is a colonial imposition by Christians.[40]

Though traditions, sacred texts, and practices have existed throughout time, most cultures did not align with Western conceptions of religion since they did not separate everyday life from the sacred. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the terms Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, and world religions first entered the English language.[41][42][43] No one self-identified as a Hindu or Buddhist or other similar terms before the 1800s.[44] “Hindu” has historically been used as a geographical, cultural, and later religious identifier for people indigenous to the Indian subcontinent.[45][46] Throughout its long history, Japan had no concept of religion since there was no corresponding Japanese word, nor anything close to its meaning, but when American warships appeared off the coast of Japan in 1853 and forced the Japanese government to sign treaties demanding, among other things, freedom of religion, the country had to contend with this Western idea.[47][48]

According to the philologist Max Müller in the 19th century, the root of the English word religion, the Latin religio, was originally used to mean only reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things, piety (which Cicero further derived to mean diligence).[49][50] Max Müller characterized many other cultures around the world, including Egypt, Persia, and India, as having a similar power structure at this point in history. What is called ancient religion today, they would have only called law.[51][1].

The reason why a modern concept of religion developed:

The modern concept of religion developed to help European kings distinguish their power from that of church authorities. It was created to limit the power of the church. So life was segregated into religious and secular spheres. This segregation was not found in many other parts of the world.[1]

It is true that Hinduism doesn’t have a founder; it has founders; And most of them were British.

Before 300 years, no one identified oneself as a Hindu. There have been little intolerance between various schools of thought in India but that was not based on any identity. Most importantly, there was no ‘Hindu’ identity.

But Hinduism is actually an identity. Since this idea of Hindu identity is being constantly enforced by the society, politics and media, we are stuck in the world of comparison. Now it is natural that people feel an illogical responsibility to save their identity or Hinduism.

What is Dharma then?

Dharma is a way of living. It is not only about living ethically but to attain ultimate fulfilment and bliss in life through self-realization or God realization. Everything including Upanishads, epics, agamas, puranas serve as a means to direct you towards Moksha or ultimate liberation. The significance of moksha is Jivanmukti, or being able to live completely free from psychological suffering and psychological bondage; this can happen while living!

There are four goals in dharma:

  1. Dharma itself is a goal. It includes both the natural laws that govern the universe and ethical laws that govern people. More importantly, dharma includes instructions for attaining moksha or liberation.
  2. Artha – You don’t have to renounce the world for liberation. You are free to enjoy sufficient wealth.
  3. Kama – Pleasures are also not denied.
  4. Moksha – Dharma and moksha are mandatory in the path of dharma; acquiring wealth and pleasure is optional. It is typical for some people to have no attachment from both of these from the beginning and they tend to take sannyas earlier or just live as a bachelor.

In order to walk towards attaining God or liberation, dharma gives you three methods which can be combined in one’s life:

  1. Karma: Doing one’s duties while working on developing non-attachment to the fruits of action is karma yoga. Karma yoga involves choosing a way of living that suits your abilities and personality or svadharma. You as a person have certain obligations like make a good living and taking care of your family. But trying to do it with a sense of surrender and non-attachment prepares a person for self-realization and Moksha.
  2. Bhakti: Unconditional love towards one supreme God. Love and surrender cannot happen in a polytheistic religion. You cannot surrender to two different things. Dharma is a form of monism which considers Brahman as the ultimate reality and the essence of everything. But this Nirguna Brahman that is without attributes can be personified as Saguna Brahman or a God with a form. But unless it is monotheistic devotion, bhakti won’t make any sense. You are free to choose a specific form for bhakti. Bhakti also purifies one’s mind and prepares a person for self-realization and Moksha.
  3. Jnana: This involves inquiry into the nature of self and called as jnana yoga. It involves closely inspecting the contents of your consciousness, inquiring deeply into the nature of self and engaging in meditations like nididhyasana or mindfulness. Jnana not only includes this practice but also includes the actual self-realization itself, when you realize God in your experience. This can happen while living and give you the ultimate fulfillment and bliss that everyone is unconsciously searching for. The path of jnana involves getting insight about your own mind and its unconscious layers and untying many mental knots on the process.

Among all these three, bhakti is very common. It is found in dharma, Islam and the teachings of Jesus. Islam itself means submission to God. Bhakti is something that even a layman can understand. But according to dharma, we should work on developing bhakti as a pure unconditional devotion, instead of seeing it as a means to get what we desire. Only that pure devotion can purify your mind and make you ready for Jnana.

So dharma doesn’t have any conflict with the teachings of Jesus or Muhammad as far as the pure bhakti is concerned. Because no matter what one believes in (whether hell and heaven or Moksha), the devotion itself has the ability to lead one towards liberation. It is an effect that comes with a practice of devotion itself, regardless of what beliefs that devotion is based on.

There is something very important to notice here. Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad has only the bhakti part. They don’t cover jnana. Even though certain code of conduct is given and there is also a concept of surrender, the complete system of Karma Yoga as defined in Bhagavad Gita is not found in the Bible or Quran. Similarly, Buddha’s teachings concentrates deeply on jnana but ignore karma and bhakti. Dharma is the only one which has karma yoga, bhakti and jnana. In other words, dharma is not contradictory to the central teachings of both Jesus and Muhammad, but very complimentary. Dharma provides what other schools do not provide!

The reason why Bhagavad Gita is so central to dharma is because it defines dharma, elaborating on all the three methods that one can put together to reach the highest goal of dharma, which is moksha.

Dharma is a system of inquiry rather than a belief system. All rituals, stories and iconography can be interpreted in the context of dharma. This is the main difference between dharma and various polytheistic traditions.

While many Hindus talk about saving Hinduism, dharma doesn’t depend on any such community to save itself. There is a promise in Bhagavad Gita 4.7:

yadā yadā hi dharmasya glānir bhavati bhārata
abhyutthānam adharmasya tadātmānaṁ sṛijāmyaham

Meaning: Whenever there is a decline in dharma and an increase in adharma, O Arjun, at that time I manifest myself on earth.

Adharma doesn’t just mean something that is unethical, but it means violating the overall dharma.

2. What is, in detail, the Hindu religion?

Hinduism is a word that points to a geographical location. But it is not used as a geographical identity. It is understood as an umbrella term that connects various religious traditions. But the concepts that are common in all traditions of our subcontinent are the following:

  1. Atma Jnana or self realization
  2. Moksha or liberation.

This central nerve is forgotten and ignored by most of the Hindus today. But if you understand each concept in Hinduism by looking at its relationship with moksha, you will get a new understanding and extreme clarity on what this religion is all about.

There are four central goals in life, according to Hinduism: dharma (righteousness, social order and code of conduct), artha (wealth and education), kama (pleasure) and moksha (liberation). Moksha is the final and ultimate goal.

First, to distinguish Hinduism from Brahmanism, or the Vedic religion, let me quote from my recent answer:

What’s the difference between Hinduism and the Vedic religion?

Both are entirely different. Vedic religion is no longer followed.

When I say Vedic religion, I am talking about Brahmanism, a unique religion on it’s own which was very popular before the time of Upanishads and after the early Rig Vedic period.

Here are the aspects of Vedic religion.

  1. In Vedic religion, sacrifice is God, and it is more powerful than devas and humans. In fact, sacrifice or yajna created this world. So sacrifice is applied as a metaphor for many others things: birth, sex, burning a body in funeral pyre are all sacrifices.
  2. Devas attained immortality and went to heaven because of sacrifice. There is a story that says that when devas went to heaven, they destroyed all knowledge about sacrifice so that humans do not have access to them. But Rishis received that knowledge as revelation and gave it to mankind.
  3. Devas are not omnipotent. They depend on humans because they are pleased with oblations that we offer on fire. We also depend on them for rainfall, health, cattle, longevity, heaven etc. It is a mutual dependency. It is sacrifice which is omnipotent and that includes the hymns, melodies and the actual ritual.
  4. Each man is indebted when he was born. He owes to devas, Rishis and ancestors who are already living in heaven. So he has three debts. To clear the debt, he has to do these: a) To clear the debt to Rishis, he has to be initiated to study under a teacher and go through Vedic study. b) To clear the debts of Devas, he has to offer oblations five times a day and also offer seasonal rites. c) He has to give birth to a son to clear the debts that he owes to his ancestors. Progeny increases the glory of his ancestors in heaven. Also, a man is reborn as his son and thus attains immortality through son in the earth. At the same time, he also attains immortality in heaven after death.
  5. The wife and the son are two important people in Vedic religion. You are not qualified to offer oblations unless you are married, because you have to do them with wife. It is said that a wife completes a man by giving him the qualifications to do the rites.

So, you have to live a life as a house holder if you want to live according to Vedic injunction, as per Brahmanism. But when cities developed in North Eastern India, new ideas arose: the doctrine of samsara, karma, rebirth and moksha. People who were talking about these new concepts were wandering ascetics called sramanas. Many liberal Brahmins in the cities accepted these new ideas and tried to interpret them within Brahmanic religion which later led to asrama system. But Brahmins in villages were too orthodox and couldn’t accept these concepts because these parivrajakas or sramanas were not allowed to get married.

But slowly these ideas got absorbed in Brahmanism giving rise to Upanishads and the doctrine of Vedanta. Slowly, various folk religions, Shiva, Krishna, Vasudeva, Narayana cults got absorbed into Vedic religion and temple worship also became popular. Vedic popularity was replaced by agamas and puranas. It developed Hinduism as we know today.

But the heart of Hinduism lies in purusharthas: Dharma, artha, Kama, and moksha. It places Moksha as the final goal where as Vedic religion considered heaven as the final goal.

If you think about it, Brahmanism is life positive. Even though Sramana traditions were life negative, they actually offered a way out of psychological suffering while living. By taking the medititative aspects of Sramana traditions and combining it with life positive aspects of a house holder’s life, Bhagavad Gita came up with a complete path to moksha.[1]

Hinduism defines God in three levels:

  1. First you see God as saguna Brahman, a person with a name and a particular form. This is a very limited view of God because it puts him within time and space as a limited identity. Devotion can start at this level but this level has to be transcended. There are numerous forms to choose from.
  2. The second is Ishvara, which doesn’t represent a form but a formless personal God. This is similar to the concept of God in Abrahamic religions. But sometimes the boundaries between the concept of Ishvara and Brahman is blurred.
  3. The third is Brahman, when God is seen beyond the idea of a person. Now God is everywhere and everything. There is no distinction between God and you.

Here is something from another answer that I wrote:

Is Hinduism a polytheistic belief or is it a belief that accepts the many aspects of Brahman as gods or is it something else?

Strictly speaking, it is neither, because both polytheism and monotheism imply multiplicity: the illusion that there are multiple entities; the illusion that something other than Brahman exists….

This is a complex topic by appearance but simple when understood in experience. It is not possible to convey what Brahman is, in language. But we can kind of point to it.

Where does one entity end and another entity begin? Do you think your body is one entity? No. There are millions of microbes living in the body; and for them, you are a forest!

Where does the air inside your body end and the air outside your body begin? Where does the water inside your body end and the water outside your body begin? Apply this to space, heat and atoms of the body too.

‘Entities’ are creations of the human mind. For our own convenience, we have mapped various entities and named them: a car, a man, a cow, a grain of sand.

But in fact, about fourteen billion years ago, all that existed was primordial singularity: there was no space and no time! Don’t try to imagine that, you can’t! It expanded, cooled down and became everything! There was a time when there was no distinction between matter and energy.

Upanishads say that just like different ornaments of Gold are essentially Gold, everything is essentially Brahman. The multiplicity is illusion or Maya and it is also a part of Brahman. Only the mind creates it for practical purposes. If Brahman is like a screen, Maya is like the moving pictures in the screen. In screen, you may see thousand men marching together. But it is just one screen which is manifest as thousand men!

If ‘entities’ are illusions, then ‘me’ as an entity is also illusion. You are Brahman itself in reality. But this has got nothing to do with the egoic self of ‘me’ that you identify with. That ‘entity’ is an illusion.

That is why in Upanishads, you find statements like ‘Tat tvam asi’ : You are That!

So why do we have idols? Actually, they are not idols, they are icons or murtis. If Brahman Is everything, that Murti is also Brahman. We don’t bow down to it, we do namaskar; there is a difference. We do Namaskar to human beings as well. It is done with folded hands. It implies ‘I am saluting the essence inside you’! What is the essence of a Murti? Brahman! What is the essence of a human being? Brahman!

There are multiple forms for that Brahman to focus the mind and to interact with devotionally. A person can pick a form or Ishta Devata to suit his personality. Then all other Devatas are seen as the extensions of the Ishta Devata.

If you look at the history, it will be very obvious.Tulsidas was only devoted to Rama. Chaitanya was only devoted to the form of Krishna. So was Thirugnana Sambandar to Shiva, Arunagiri nathar to Muruga or Skanda, Avvaiyar to Ganesh and Ramakrishna Paramahansa to Kali. This duality of devotee vs God ends with a singularity, with the experience of oneness of Brahman. You can read more about it in my book ‘Discovering God – Bridging Christianity, Hinduism and Islam’.[2]

Does Hinduism have rules and commandments?

Many people say that Hinduism is not a religion of laws and commandments. It is true. Because multiple traditions from the past have combined together to form Hinduism as we know today.

But if we rewind and go back to a period before 2300–2500 years, the religious traditions were a lot different. In fact, there were three types of religions in the Vedic period, before Upanishads were added to Vedic canon:

  1. Brahmanism which was full of rituals and law codes. Their goals in life were wealth, health, cattle, long life and heaven. This early Vedic religion had way more law codes than any religions that we know today. They did not accept the concepts of rebirth, moksha, karma and asceticism. And they had law code for each and everything.
  2. Sramana traditions which were all about asceticism, moksha, rebirth and ending human suffering. This wisdom was unknown to early Brahmanas. In fact Chandogya Upanishad specifically states that this wisdom was never conveyed to Brahmins before. In the late Vedic period, Brahmanism absorbed many concepts of Sramanic traditions. ( Read ‘Greater Magadha: Studies in the culture of Early India’ for extensive details on these two traditions.)
  3. Various folk religions all over sub continent that included polytheistic and animistic elements.

Brahmanism absorbed the concept of moksha from Sramana traditions and derived most of it’s iconography from folk religions. It is only after that agamas, and puranas were created and Hinduism as we know today took shape. But the entire Hinduism is unified by the four purusharthas: dharma, artha, kama and moksha.

So, the detailed law code was indeed present in Brahmanism. All Dharma sutras list forbidden food.But these rules are no longer followed today though.

For example, Apastamba dharma sutras 1.17.14-39 lists forbidden food for students:

14. He should not eat food obtained from the market,

15 even seasonings, with the exception of raw meat, honey, and salt;

16. oil and ghee, on the other hand, may be used after sprinkling them with water.

17. He should not eat, drink, or consume cooked food that has been left overnight

18. or turned sour,

19. with the exception of sugar-cane juice, rolled rice, gruel, roasted barley, barley meal,
vegetables, meat, flour, milk, milk products, and roots and fruits of plants and trees.

20. He should not consume anything that has turned sour without mixing it with some other food.

21. It is forbidden to drink any type of liquor;

22. as also the milk of sheep,

23. camels, and deer; the milk of animals in heat or bearing twins;

24 and the milk of a cow during the first ten days after giving birth.

25. Herbs used in the manufacture of liquor are likewise forbidden;

26. as also Karañja garlic, onion, leeks,

27. and any other food that is forbidden.

28. For a Brahmana states: ‘Mushrooms should not be eaten.’

29. The meat of one-hoofed animals, camels, Gayal oxen, village pigs, and Sarabha cattle are forbidden.

30 It is permitted to eat the meat of milch cows and oxen.

31. A text of the Vajasaneyins states: ‘The meat of oxen is fit for sacrifice.’

32. Among birds that feed by scratching with their feet, the cock is forbidden,

33. and among birds that feed by thrusting their beaks, the Plava heron.

34. Carnivorous birds are forbidden;

35. as also the Hamsa goose, the Bhasa vulture, the Cakra bird, and the Suparna falcon.

36. The Kruñca curlew and the Krauñca crane are forbidden, with the exception of the Vardhranasa cranes and Laksmana cranes.

37. Animals with five claws* are forbidden, with the exception of the Godha ̄ monitor lizard, tortoise, porcupine, hedgehog, rhinoceros, hare, and Putikhasa.

38. Among fish, the Ceta is forbidden,

39 as also the snakehead fish, the Mrdura crocodile, carnivorous fish, and others that are grotesque, such as the mermen.

( The four ashrama system in Hinduism was not really four stages of life in the beginning but four ways of life. After initial Vedic study, one can take up either of the four ways. Dharmasutras list law codes for all four ways of life, but they never fail to mention that grihastha life is the only way of life that is accepted in Vedic texts and that which guarantees heaven when followed according to the code of conduct.

Also, Apastamba dharma sutras also has contradictory views, hence it talks about rebirth and even the knowledge of self in some verses. That indicates that some portions of it were added probably much later.

But Gautama Dharmasutras lists four ways of life as the view of the opponent and refutes the view with statements from Vedas, insisting that the way of house holder is the only accepted way as per Vedas.).[3]

Is Hinduism a religion of beliefs?

Mahabharata talks about how various people had various beliefs and attitudes during its days. All those comes under the umbrella of Hinduism.

It is a set of schools which encourages logical inquiry, debates, mystical poetry, mystical fiction, healthy criticism, critical thinking, hermeneutics and also allow various folk religious beliefs to co-exist, influence and interact.

Most importantly, it has ways to end psychological suffering in life and feel complete, eternal, infinite, expansive, blissful and content. If understood properly, it can take you on a journey.

The four main goals of Hinduism are dharma (righteousness, social order), artha (weath, education), kama (pleasure) and moksha (liberation). Ultimately it is about self-realization and liberation, which gives you true and endless happiness.

Here are those verses from Mahabharata. Various seers ask Brahma about true dharma (religion):

To which, indeed, of the dharmas should a person here most closely adhere? What do they have to say about this? Tell us, for the course of dharma appears to us to be diverse and contradictory.

Some claim that there is life after death, while others maintain that there is not. Some express doubt about everything, while others claim certainty. Things are impermanent according to some and permanent according to others, unreal according to some and real according to others. Some believe that the one reality appears as dual, while others think that it is mixed;'” some teach unity, others separateness, and yet others multiplicity.

Thus do Brahmins who are wise and perceive the truth argue. Some wear matted hair and deer skin, others shave their heads, and still others go naked. Some say that one should not bathe, while others insist on bathing. Some favor eating, while others are given to fasting.

Some praise rites and others the cessation from them. Some assert the influence of both place and time, while others deny it. ‘ Some extol liberation and others diverse pleasures.

Some desire wealth, while others strive after poverty. Some maintain the efficacy of worship, while others deny it. Some are devoted to non-injury (ahimsa) and others to injury.”

Some claim that one attains glory through good deeds, while others deny it. Some delight in certainty as to the truth, while others adhere to skepticism. Suffering is the motive for some and pleasure for others.

Some assert the primacy of meditation, other wise men that of sacrifice, and still others that of giving gifts. Some assert the existence of everything, while others deny that anything exists.

Some praise austerity, while other people extol vedic study. Some assert that knowledge comes from renunciation, while nature philosophers claim that it comes from nature.

With so much disagreement regarding dharma leading in so many directions, we become bewildered, O god supreme, unable to reach any certainty. “This is ultimate bliss,” “No, that is ultimate bliss”: so thinking, people charge on, for one always praises the dharma that one loves. In this regard our judgment is confounded and our minds bewildered. This we want you to tell us, O lord: what is ultimate bliss?

  • (MBh 14.48.14-27)

But majority of today’s Hindus are being misled by political ideologies, suffering from groupthink, taking Hinduism as an identity instead of seeing it as a path, getting offended a lot, being hyper-sensitive and slowly forgetting the true essence of Hinduism.[4]

What is the relationship in Hinduism between Brahman, Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) and the rest of the deities?

bsolute reality is one without a second. But we can still divide it into two aspects: Purusha and Prakriti.

Purusha has three dimensions to it: sat or Truth, cit or consciousness and Ananda or bliss.

Brahma represents sat or the truth. Since Vedas convey the Truth, Brahma is shown to have four heads, representing four Vedas.

Vishnu represents cit or consciousness. Vishnu is a solar deity in Vedas and physically he represents sun which takes three strides in the sky everyday. Vishnu means all pervading. Spiritually, Vishnu represents the inner sun or consciousness, who strides and pervades the three states of consciousness which is waking, dreaming and sleeping.

Shiva is always associated with bliss. He is known as the Lord of sleep because He is the bliss that one experiences in deep sleep. So Shiva represents Ananda or bliss.

Just like Purusha, Prakriti also has three aspects or gunas. Prakriti is the one which animates the world and all actions happen because of three gunas of Prakriti. Saraswathi represents sattva or balance and also represents Jnana Shakti, the power to know. Lakshmi represents Rajas or activity and also the Kriya Shakti, the power to do. Kali represents Tamas or resistance and also Iccha Shakti, the power of will.

Purusha is like a screen where the movie of the existence is played. Purusha does nothing; everything is done by Prakriti. Prakriti is the moving pictures of the screen as well as the energy that animates the movie.

Brahma and Saraswathi together represent creation; Vishnu and Lakshmi together represent maintenance; and Shiva and Kali together represent destruction.

In addition to it, any one of the male deities of Trimurti and his consort can be used to represent Purusha and Prakriti. So, If you are a devotee of Shiva, you can see Shiva as Purusha and Shakti as Prakriti.

But always remember that the Truth is one, even though many names are used.

To understand more about Prakriti and it’s three gunas, visit this page: A Shamatha Meditation Based on Symbolism, Visualization, Mnemonics and Classical Conditioning[5]

3. Almost all early human civilizations practiced polytheism (idol worshiping and worshiping nature). Why is Hinduism the only ancient polytheistic religion that survived?

I strongly disagree with Rami Sivan here. Hinduism has survived simply because it is not polytheistic. In fact, it has a better version of monotheism. If Hinduism was really a polytheistic religion, It would have faced the fate of all polytheistic religions in the world that have disappeared.

It is true that there are many forms of God in Hinduism, but not many Gods. Either it is one and only Brahman or the division of a supreme God and a devotee.

But it is true that Abrahamic religions ban idol worship where as Hindus use murtis as a part of their iconography. But unlike other cults of idol worship, Hinduism do not consider a murti as God itself which will mean that everything else apart from the murti is not God. Murti is a representation of God.

So,

शिवमात्मनि पश्यन्ति प्रतिमासु न योगिनः |
अज्ञानं भावनार्थाय प्रतिमाः परिकल्पिताः || ५९ ||
– जाबालदर्शनोपनिषत्

A yogin perceives god (Siva) within himself,
images are for those who have not reached this knowledge. (Verse 59)

  • Jabaladarsana Upanishad

The raise of seeing God as a supreme ruler or Ishvara has a strong correlation with the raise of empires. A strict monotheism developed only during Persian rule in Judaism. Before that, it was monolatory. When people were living as tribes under many tribal chieftains, it was natural to have many Gods, which are independent of each other. But for a king of an empire, God is the divine patron while the king being his reflection. You can see this happening in the history, when a well developed cult of Shiva, Bhagavata deities and Skanda arose before 2000 years.

But we have the example of the divine ruler in Rig Veda itself. It is Indra. Even though Vedic hymns seem to talk about different powerful entities, two lines from Dirghatamas in Rig Veda, solves that problem:

Rg Veda 1.164.46

इन्द्रं॑ मि॒त्रं वरु॑णम॒ग्निमा॑हु॒रथो॑ दि॒व्यः स सु॑प॒र्णो ग॒रुत्मा॑न् ।
एकं॒ सद्विप्रा॑ बहु॒धा व॑दन्त्य॒ग्निं य॒मं मा॑त॒रिश्वा॑नमाहुः ॥४६॥

Translation:

They called him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni; and he is heavenly Garuda, who has beautiful wings. The truth is one, but the sages (or learned ones) call it by many names or describe him in many ways; they called him Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan.

When we move to Brahmanas suddenly there is Prajapati. But he survived only for a short time and evolved into Brahma.

And Upanishads proclaim Brahman is the only reality. I am Brahman; You are Brahman. This is what I call as a much better version of monotheism, an evolved monotheism where the division between the God and his creation disappears.

You can see the same theme in a poem of Rumi, a Sufi mystic:

When we move on to epics, we have the most important text of Hinduism (even though it is a smriti) which is Bhagavad Gita. And in Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is the supreme God. He also says that worshipping any God or deity actually goes to him.

The core concept of bhakti in Hinduism is surrender. You can either surrender to God or surrender to the existence. But you cannot submit yourself to two entities at the same time. If Hinduism is polytheistic, then surrender will have no place.

In Rig Vedic verse, we saw that Soma, Agni and Indra are one. In other words, the object of the sacrifice (soma), the carrier of the sacrifice (agni) and the enjoyer of the sacrifice (Indra) are all now one.

Bhagavad Gita literally says that: (Chapter 4, Verse 24)

ब्रह्मार्पणं ब्रह्म हविर्ब्रह्माग्नौ ब्रह्मणा हुतम् |
ब्रह्मैव तेन गन्तव्यं ब्रह्मकर्मसमाधिना ||

brahmārpaṇaṁ brahma havir brahmāgnau brahmaṇā hutam
brahmaiva tena gantavyaṁ brahma-karma-samādhinā

Translation:

For those who are completely absorbed in God-consciousness, the oblation is Brahman, the ladle with which it is offered is Brahman, the act of offering is Brahman, and the sacrificial fire is also Brahman. Such persons, who view everything as God, easily attain him.

We have Upanishads for Ganesha, Shiva, Narayana etc, and each will assert a specific form as a supreme God. Rami Sivan knows better.

Boothanatha Gita, the only spiritual text assigned to Ayyappa also says (Verse 1.8):

AdimadhyAntarahitam svayam jotih parAtparam

avyayam nirgunam rAjan kAladezAdi varjjitam

citganam nityamAnandam tatbhinnam nAsti vastu bho

asitatvamaham taccetyAmnAyah parikIrtitah

Meaning:

Oh king! Brahman has no beginning, no middle and no end. It shines on its own and is the greatest of the greatest. It is imperishable, attributeless and beyond space & time.

It has been described in the scriptures that it is conscious and always in bliss. Nothing other than that exists! It is you and it is also me.

What about puranas?

Puranas may seem to portray a picture of God having multiple subordinates. This is actually little similar to Gods having various angels as subordinates in Abrahamic religions. But the essence of the puranas seem to show the better version of monotheism, portraying the form of God as the supreme consciousness or Brahman itself.

If you see what the famous devotees of Hinduism worshipped, you will see that they were all devoted to one form of God.

  1. For Tulsidas, the entire world is Rama.
  2. For Chaitanya, everything is Krishna.
  3. Arunagirinathar worshipped Murugan and Murugan alone.
  4. All Shaivite nayanmars worshipped Shiva as the only God.
  5. All Tamil azhwars saw Tirumal as the supreme deity.

In the entire Patanjali sutras, there is only one reference to God. Patanjali mentions Ishvara as special purusha.

So where is polytheism in Hinduism? Which scripture in Hinduism says that there is more than one supreme ruler for this universe? You will either find non-duality, duality or some special kind of duality.

Among today’s Hindus, there is a very large gap between what they believe in and the essential truth conveyed in scriptures. Saying Hinduism as polytheistic will only increase the gap further. It promotes a wrong notion.

It is true that there are still polytheistic forms exist in villages and among tribes. But even though they are classified under Hinduism, their cults are not completely absorbed into Hinduism. But both Vedic religion and Buddhism has absorbed such polytheistic cults in the past. Buddhism absorbed deities like Manibhadra, Vajrapani etc. Syncretism has happened in all cultures.

In another answer, I read Rami Sivan saying that polytheistic is natural because all cultures were originally polytheistic. Well, all humans were originally homo erectus. But we evolved. The religions also evolved in the same way, The only thing is, Abrahamic religions have still not evolved into this better version of monotheism which Hinduism offers (with exception to Sufism and Christian and Jewish mysticism). It will happen as time goes because history repeats itself.

Adi Shankaracharya united various traditions under Advaita. He connected them all with a central philosophical core. And this philosophical core of Hinduism has been maintained by various people like Adhi Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Kabir, Tulsidas, Chaitanya, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Ramana Maharshi and more. It is only because of them Hinduism survived. So more than rituals and myths, Hinduism had a logical appeal to people. It has a strong scriptural basis as a foundation, which you cannot find in any polytheistic religion.

If only the first verse in the Ishopanishad were left intact in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism would live forever

  • Mahatma Gandhi

(The first verse is ‘isavasyam idam sarvam’ which means ‘God is everywhere).

4. How would you compare the top 3 religions: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism?

This is going to be a long answer. Because it is not only intended to answer this particular question but will answer many other questions too. Because, I see a threat India; and based on the fact that this question is related to three major religions in India, I am going to answer this question to make many Indians understand what they misunderstand.

Religion is actually a recent Western colonial concept which has been wrapped around some major spiritual paths in the world. The divisions like Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam have been created based on certain theological and cultural similarities. Most importantly, it was created to differentiate Christian theology vs the faiths of other cultures, when colonialism was alive.

But this division based on the concept of religions conveniently ignored the esoteric part of religions. They enforced and reinforced the idea that religions are all about a set of beliefs, myths and rituals. Result? 98% of Hindus have no clue about what Bhagavad Gita is, what Upanishads are all about and what are considered as four main goals of a person’s life in the culture that evolved in Indian subcontinent.

Because of this, religion has now become an identity rather than a path. People discuss how proud they are because of being in a particular religion and try to prove that their religion is better than another one. These people are completely misled and end up poisoning the minds of others rather than really understand the depth of their own religion and walk in the path shown by it. Religion is not a matter of pride!

If you think carefully, this concept of religions in its proto-form was only created as a political tool right from the beginning. For example, Vedas were not compiled until the formation of Kuru kingdom, the earliest kingdom in India. Before that, the verses existed with individual families. It was the rulers of Kuru kingdom who compiled them. This resulted in both negative and positive consequences. The positive aspect is that some valuable verses of ancient wisdom were preserved; but it also led to prejudice among classes or varnas for the first time. Winning in a war meant a lot to the king and he depended on the priestly class to provide him with suitable rituals and spells. So, creation of verses that was once meant for inner seeking and divine revelation had then become a commercial thing; varnas or the four classes in ancient India which were strictly based on occupation turned into a birth based system for the first time.. But this was then just a Vedic way of life and Hinduism in its present form didn’t exist.

Hebrew Bible was not compiled until Israelites returned from Babylonian exile during Persian rule. Judaism as a religious concept was created as a political tool. It was created to unify the people of Israel under one temple and one God, purely for political convenience. Before that, various schools of thoughts existed and various tales from folklore existed along with it, with complete freedom of religion. Neither Abraham nor Moses created Judaism, but preached a path, a path of submission to the one and only God.

Christianity was created by Roman Emperor Constantine as a political convenience. Jesus never found a religion but preached a path, a path of submission to the one and only God. That is the reason why the current images of Jesus look like a Roman pagan God and why December 25 is never mentioned as the birthday of Jesus anywhere in the Bible. The whole model of Christianity as exists today was primarily created by Constantine.

The same is with Islam. It is a way of life. All Prophet Muhammad did was preach the path of submission to the one and only God and also restate that Abraham, Moses and Jesus said the same thing. In addition to that, he brought cultural, social, religious, and political changes and reformation. It was Abu Bakr, a father-in-law of the Islamic prophet who had Quran to be compiled in current form in the current order, which led to a theological narrative based on that order, creating Islam as it exists now. Hadith and Sharia were compiled much later mainly as a political device. Contrary to the popular belief, Mughal rulers who ruled Delhi Sultanate were not really interested in converting people to Islam, because that would mean a loss to national revenue. By declaring non – Islamic population in Indian subcontinent as “The people of the books”, they could get them pay a tax.

Hinduism is a creation of British. Before that, there was a philosophical system that united many major traditions of faith. This system has Brahman, the only one without a second as the supreme reality. But it also had a system of iconography, with different forms of the same supreme reality that one can choose from. So, iconography, not idol worship, is the right word to describe the Indian system of submission to God. Adhi Shankara, unified various traditions into six different paths , Shanmata, which is based on six different forms of the same Brahman. This is very evident when you see how devotees in Tamil nadu approached devotion. A devotee of Shiva like Thiru Jnana Sambandhar would only praise the form Shiva and be devoted to Him alone. A devotee of Ganesha like Poet Avvaiyar would only sing the praise of form Ganesh. The same with Arunagiri Nathar to Muruga and Periyazhwar to Vishnu. These are not different Gods and the system is not polytheistic, but they are all forms or icons of the same Supreme reality. This is the essence of all Indian scriptures.

But just after 1st century BCE, a lot of puranas or myths were written, depicting a polytheistic picture. These were just stories intended to convey some philosophical truths then and there. For example, a long treatise on Advaita Vedanta is a part of Skanda Purana. But this led to many negative consequences. The concept of Hinduism during British rule was born with Puranas getting a higher importance. Because of this, Hinduism as now become mostly polytheistic as only a very few actually try to read and understand the scriptures, while majority is concerned with drinking cow urine, building Ram mandir, trying to prove that Internet existed during 50th century BCE in India and pretending to save Hinduism from Christians and Muslims of India. The people who claim to save Hinduism should feel ashamed because they think that a culture that has thousands of scriptures can get destroyed by two books, the Bible and the Quran. So whenever you see anyone who says Hinduism needs to be saved, you can be pretty sure that he understands nothing about Indian culture, its scriptures, traditions and schools of thought. You can also be sure that anyone who is trying to prove Hinduism is better than any other religion is not only wasting his/her time but is also kindling unnecessary prejudice in the society. What is the need to prove which religion is better?

Just like galaxies are moving far away from each other, we are moving far away from each other by appreciating and encouraging religious differences.

Do you know the consequences of this recent concept of religions? It has led people to pick up the most extreme view of any religion, and consider that it represents the beliefs of the whole population that follows that religion. For example, there are some verses called sword verses in Quran, which seem to suggest to kill any non-believer, but it actually refers to a specific historical context, to a specific tribe who were prosecuting the early Muslims in a cruel manner. Similarly, there is a concept called Jihad which simply means struggle, including any kind of positive struggle that one goes through in life, struggling to be a good human being, struggling to build a career and most importantly, struggling to purify oneself to reach the final goal. Jihad applied to war only in certain situations when Muhammad was alive. But certain terrorist organizations who hold extreme views on Islam and who interpret these verses according to their advantage do not represent what the majority of Muslims believe in. (But I am completely against inhuman blasphemy laws that exist in certain Islamic countries. They have also been misled.)

But people who want to prove that their religion is better than Islam would hold on to such extreme views about Islam and never even listen to counter arguments. I have explained a few things about Islam in the following two answers and I suggest reading them too:

Why do you think Prophet Muhammad was a good person or a bad person? Please provide unbiased facts based on his biography wherever possible.

Shanmugam P’s answer to How cruel was the prophet Muhammad?

Shanmugam P’s answer to Was Prophet Muhammad a virtuous man or a man of good character? In some hadiths, he is portrayed as a slave-trading, sex-obsessed man. If these hadiths are true, why do Muslims follow him? And if these hadiths aren’t authentic, which ones are?

But I insist and request again, do not see this answer as a discussion of whether your religion is better than another religion!

Also, if we start pulling out verses by the extreme interpretation of each religion and claim that this extreme view represents the religion in entirety (like we are doing to Islam), then Christianity and Hinduism will start sounding worse.

  1. There are verses in the Old Testament of the Bible which portrays God as someone who is instructing to stone infidels to death, including young children. Honestly, they sound more cruel than the verses from Quran taken out of context. Can we insist that this represents Christianity as a whole?
  2. There are a few Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras in Indian religious literature which say that molten lead should be poured into the ears of Shudra, the person of the lowest class, if he listens to the recitation of Vedas. There are verses in later literature which promote Sati, burning the widow alive in the funeral pyre of her husband. At least Islam and Christianity gives you a choice: you won’t be killed if you accept the truth that is being said (according to the extremist interpretation). But Hinduism leaves no choice. If you are a Shudra or a widow, you have no choice of saving yourself by accepting a faith! Can we take this extreme view and say that this represents Hinduism in entirety?

No!

Now, please don’t take whatever I said as an insult to Hinduism, because Hinduism, just like Christianity and Islam is just a concept; not an entity that can be insulted. But if you feel offended, that is because you have taken religion as an identity, instead of taking it as a path! It is connected to your self-image, rather than being connected to devotion.

Do you know Ramakrishna Paramahamsa? He was the guru of Swami Vivekananda. He practiced the spiritual paths of Islam and Christianity separately, reached the same experience of Samadhi and declared that all paths lead to one truth.

But I know that many so called Hindu saviours of today won’t agree with this, Their gurus are their politicians and political parties. That will make them think even Mahatma Gandhi as an enemy of India and call Godse as a true patriot. I have written a detailed book showing that the basic essence of all these three religions are the same. It is not a topic that I can cover in this answer. Go to this link for the details about the book: Discovering God: Bridging Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.

Also, I want to discuss Christian Evangelism. It is true that Jesus asked his disciples to spread the good news; but it was 2000 years before. Now, the good news has been spread and easily available on the internet. So, why is there a need for a missionary? This missionary business has become dirty, because a lot of these preachers are indulging in calling Hindu temples as Satanic. They misunderstand Hindu iconography; it is not the same as the polytheistic worship of ancient Israelite tribes or pagan Arabs. They didn’t have any philosophy and they didn’t know about the oneness of the Supreme reality that we call as Brahman in Indian culture.

Hindu temples are created based on Agamas which are based on human psychology. The system of worship by the way of Agamas includes stimuli of five senses : decoration of the deity and lamps; the smell of the incense, flowers and food (prasad); taste of the food; touch of sandal, tumeric and sacred ash on the skin; the sound of the bell and hymns etc. These stimuli are paired with the experience of devotion, so that every time you are exposed to one of these stimuli, you automatically get feeling of devotion. This is actually called classical conditioning in psychology. This is an useful tool in devotion and that is what the whole iconography is based on.

Anyway, this is not a time to prove which religion is better than the other, but this is a time to think about living in harmony with the brothers and sisters who belong to other religions. That is the beauty of India and that is what the Republic of India is meant for, Everyone of us living in harmony is the dream of Mahatma Gandhi (Gandhi haters stay away from comments; you will be reported and blocked).

Consider Shirdi Sai Baba; Consider Kabir; consider Ramakrishna; consider Abdul Kalam; consider Gandhi; these are the people who were familiar with the truths of more than one religion, and they proclaimed that all these religions lead to the same goal. I know they look different, but you haven’t gone deep. The difference is only in the periphery and the majority do not understand. I have explained in length in my book and it should be convincing enough for people who are already familiar with the path to self-realization or God-realization. There is an esoteric side to all these three religions and they are the same!

5. Why does Hinduism have many gods?

This question arises based on a false premise, because of not understanding the meanings of these words: Brahman, Ishvara, devata and murti.

Do you think there are equivalent English words? No. But since we mostly talk about Hinduism in English, we tend to misunderstand many things. You will be surprised to see how a lot of Sanskrit words lose their original meaning when they are conveyed using their English alternatives.

In Hinduism, God is referred to as avyakta[1]. vyakti means person. Avyakta means something that is not a person or that is not confined to clear limits. In other words, avyakta doesn’t have any boundaries. A more popular word for this is Brahman. Upanishads say that just like the ornaments of gold is essentially made of gold in spite of their difference in forms, everything is a modification of Brahman.

But it is not possible to conceive this all-pervading, infinite Brahman that is beyond time and space with our limited intellect. It can be only understood by experience, by a direct spiritual transformation.

So, Hinduism steps down a bit and provides the concept of Ishvara.

Ishvara has a personal touch. But it still doesn’t mean God as a person in the sky. The personification is quite fuzzy.

Ishvara comes from the root ‘Ish’ which means ‘to possess or own’. He owns everything, including your body and mind. Ishvara means supreme being.

Yoga sutras recognize just one God, Ishvara as the supreme being. This is more convenient for devotion and surrender. But this word, evolved. It was not used in the same meaning in Vedas.

If we step down a bit, we have Devatas or various forms of God. A devata has a form, personality and stories associated with it. It comes from the root ‘div’ which means ‘to shine’. So a devata is something so obvious like a lamp. It shines with certain attributes. But it is one of the a representations of Brahman.

Brahman is said to have no attributes in itself. But we associate these attributes to a devata to make devotion easier. One can choose an Ishta Devata and consider it as a supreme reality and see other devatas as extensions or emanations of it. So, your Ishta devata can be Shiva, Vishnu, Shakthi or any form you choose.

The final step down is murti. Murti essentially means something that has limits. You need to notice that it is the total opposite of avyakta. Murti also means manifest, because anything that is manifest has boundaries in the coordinates of space and time.

A murti is a physical representation of God. The murti and the temple appeals to your five senses and create strong psychological association with devotion or any spiritual experiences.

So there can be many murtis and devatas. But Ishvara is one. And saying Brahman is one in itself betrays the oneness of Brahman, because the mention of ‘one’ assumes the existence of an other or others. That is why it is said that Brahman is beyond words.


But

शिवमात्मनि पश्यन्ति प्रतिमासु न योगिनः |
अज्ञानं भावनार्थाय प्रतिमाः परिकल्पिताः || ५९ ||
– जाबालदर्शनोपनिषत्

A yogin perceives god (Siva) within himself,
images are for those who have not reached this knowledge. (Verse 59)

  • Jabaladarsana Upanishad

By the way,

Atman is not synonymous to the word ‘soul’; Atman means the true self.

Ahamkara is not synonymous to ‘ego’; Ahamkara means, the presence of the sense that one is the doer of his actions. (When ahamkara disappears, you realize yourself or attain atma jnana and be liberated from all mental bondage and mental pain while living. That is moksha.)

The most shocking thing would be, dharma is not synonymous with Hinduism. Because, Hinduism is a totally different colonial version of belief system which seems to have a lot of disconnected concepts. Religion itself is a recent Western concept, which tries to accommodate various theistic systems, rituals and beliefs into certain abstract categories. (go through linked answers at the bottom of the page for more details).

But if you go by the scriptures, you will see that this scriptural canon of Hinduism calls itself as ‘dharma’. Dharma means many meanings. These meanings bind the seemingly disconnected concepts of Hinduism together into dharma.

Dharma comes from the root ‘dhr’ which means uphold. During Vedic times, Varuna was associated with the upholder of divine order. He is responsible for the movement of the planets, the rain, the changing of seasons and all other natural laws. During the royal consecrations, the rajasuya yajna was conducted and the king was referred to as Varuna, because he upholds the dharma of people. He gives judgements and he makes sure that everything is functioning in the order. So he is called as dharmaraja.

Dharma also means the way of life. Dharma defines how to conduct your life that is not only righteous, smooth, and joyful but also leads to moksha, or the final liberation. And it gives four goals or purusharthas to people: dharma (personal order and righteousness), artha (wealth and education), kama (pleasure) and moksha (liberation).

Dharma is also synonymous with truth. It is an inquiry to the truth which finally leads to atma-jnana (self realization) and moksha.

In Mahabharata. Various seers ask Brahma about true dharma (religion):

To which, indeed, of the dharmas should a person here most closely adhere? What do they have to say about this? Tell us, for the course of dharma appears to us to be diverse and contradictory.

Some claim that there is life after death, while others maintain that there is not. Some express doubt about everything, while others claim certainty. Things are impermanent according to some and permanent according to others, unreal according to some and real according to others. Some believe that the one reality appears as dual, while others think that it is mixed;'” some teach unity, others separateness, and yet others multiplicity.

Thus do Brahmins who are wise and perceive the truth argue. Some wear matted hair and deer skin, others shave their heads, and still others go naked. Some say that one should not bathe, while others insist on bathing. Some favor eating, while others are given to fasting.

Some praise rites and others the cessation from them. Some assert the influence of both place and time, while others deny it. ‘ Some extol liberation and others diverse pleasures.

Some desire wealth, while others strive after poverty. Some maintain the efficacy of worship, while others deny it. Some are devoted to non-injury (ahimsa) and others to injury.”

Some claim that one attains glory through good deeds, while others deny it. Some delight in certainty as to the truth, while others adhere to skepticism. Suffering is the motive for some and pleasure for others.

Some assert the primacy of meditation, other wise men that of sacrifice, and still others that of giving gifts. Some assert the existence of everything, while others deny that anything exists.

Some praise austerity, while other people extol vedic study. Some assert that knowledge comes from renunciation, while nature philosophers claim that it comes from nature.

With so much disagreement regarding dharma leading in so many directions, we become bewildered, O god supreme, unable to reach any certainty. “This is ultimate bliss,” “No, that is ultimate bliss”: so thinking, people charge on, for one always praises the dharma that one loves. In this regard our judgment is confounded and our minds bewildered. This we want you to tell us, O lord: what is ultimate bliss?

  • (MBh 14.48.14-27)

So dharma is actually an inquiry into the truth rather than a collection of beliefs. Certain aspects of dharma keeps changing. For example, scriptures that provided social legal code for Brahmanism like Gautama dharmasutras, Baudhayana dharmasutras, Apastamba dharmasutras etc are no longer followed.

But Bhagavad Gita can apply for all time, because it provides an essence of the path to moksha without much of religious dogma. The essence is the same. But it can be adapted and applied to different times, different cultures and different societies by understanding the core concepts of this eternal dharma that Bhagavad Gita provides: Karma, Bhakti and Jnana.

This is the essence of dharma: live ethically and orderly with sufficient wealth, education and pleasure. To naturally attain liberation and eternal bliss, 1) Do your duties while being not-attached to the fruits of actions 2) Be devoted unconditionally to Ishvara 3) At other times, inquire into the nature of your existence, consciousness and mind and also engage yourself in meditation. Choose a way of living that suits your personality, abilities and interests (svadharma).

So, In my recent answers, I am trying to redefine Hinduism from the perspective of dharma


The Meaning of Truth, Consciousness and Bliss – Satchitananda

Conscious first-person experience is the absolute truth.

The objective world you see outside and the internal world that you see inside happens in your conscious first-person experience. Without a consciousness that knows the existence of an object in the objective world or in the internal conscious field, there is no one else to confirm the existence of such object.

This first-person conscious experience is like a pure screen of awareness where the movie of your life is being played. The scenes in the movie keep changing; there is no permanence found in the contents of the screen. The screen is experiencing itself and is also consciously aware of its contents.

The contents of the screen include the following:

  • The information you gather from the five senses.
  • The information after it is processed in your internal monologue of thoughts, concepts, and words.
  • The likes and dislikes that arise from the association of such objects.
  • Your conceptual past and agenda filled conceptual future.
  • The sense of separation from the world.
  • All the conceptual, episodic and semantic information that you have gathered in the memory
  • The intellect which helps to discriminate things between the contents, decisions and intends to do action.

Because of the sense of separation in the world, a separate illusory self arises which identifies with the contents of the screen, clings to them and feels in its bones that it is the doer of the actions, knower of the knowledge and the experiencer of the experiences.

This illusory self is an illusion created by thoughts. During the moments when the thoughts are absent and during deep sleep, this illusory thinker of thoughts is not there. All that exists then is a conscious experience of life or being.

But when the illusory self arises, there arises a craving for pleasure, becoming and non- becoming. The craving arises from a sense of lack; the separate illusory self needs protection and enhancement. This lack motivates a seeking towards the unknown, a longing from the bottom of the heart to unite with the truth.

But, without this separate illusory self, there is really no separation in the existence; Then what is left is your true Self, the Absolute, the Truth, the inner guru or satguru, the Tao, Dhammakaya or the Kingdom of God. This union of everything is Yoga, the mystical union with God or Fitra.

Sat- Chit - Ananda - Truth, Consciousness and Bliss

But in order to realize the truth in the experience, the illusory separate self has to be recognized as non-existent. Once a disciple with the prepared and purified mind recognizes the illusion as illusion,  there is freedom and there is the extinction of the fire of craving.

Once the illusory separate self- is realized as non-existent, the illusory walls between the following are also realized as non-existent:

  • The knower, the known and the knowledge.
  • The experiencer, experiencing and  the experience.
  • The doer, the doing and the action.

Then there is no distinction between action, knowledge or experience either.

It is like an extremely self-conscious wave realizing that it is indeed the infinite ocean of consciousness itself and that there was never a separation!

So, the fact that ‘Conscious first-person experience is the absolute truth’ is recognized in the experience of reality only when this ‘first person’ is dropped. When this first person, the illusory sense of self is clearly recognized as non-existent, all that is left is the conscious experience which is the absolute truth.

The Absolute truth is the conscious experience of being. This conscious experience without the illusion of the ‘first person’ is bliss. This is your true nature.

So, Your true nature is the Absolute truth which is conscious and blissful. It is all that exists.

This is what we call as the Truth – Consciousness – Bliss or Satchitananda! You are that!

 

What Is Spiritual Enlightenment?

(I am republishing an answer that I wrote in Quora)

The word ‘Enlightenment’ can be defined in many different ways. We have so many words in different traditions which are synonymous with the word ‘enlightenment’.

The list of words are endless and the definitions are endless too. Some people exaggerate it, some people understate it, some people say that there is no such thing called enlightenment while the majority of the world’s population haven’t even heard of it.

First, let me describe enlightenment in terms of what disappears. Deep down in people’s minds, there is an underlying dissatisfaction with the way things are. People want many things to be different from the way they actually are. There is a craving for becoming something that one is not and there is a resistance to the way things are. Everyone is moving towards a goal, a destination that is in the future. The hopes of arriving at that destination seem to give some solace and if those hopes and dreams are threatened, we tend to suffer. This burning uneasiness and dissatisfaction can be likened to a fire that is burning. The extinction of this fire is enlightenment. The word ‘Nirvana’ means extinction.

There are also two other words ‘moksha’ and ‘mukthi’, which literally mean ‘liberation’. These words refer to how enlightenment feels like.

A typical human being is bound by various things. He is bound by his own past intentions. He is bound by his beliefs. He is bound by the opinions of other people.

But deep inside the heart of every human being, there is a longing to become boundless and expansive. We try to accomplish this by accumulation; we accumulate knowledge, possession, and experiences hoping that these accumulations will make us boundless.

But these very accumulations cause further bondage. Now you have to protect them because losing them will essentially mean losing yourself; because you derive a sense of identity from these accumulations. A typical human being is actually in a self-made prison. But the saddest part is that majority of the population don’t realize that they are in such a prison.

1

I have heard a quote by some anonymous person which goes like this:

“One of the greatest mental freedoms is truly not caring what anyone else thinks of you”..

Imagine the kind of freedom you will get when you no longer worry about what other people think about you. And, also imagine the kind of freedom you will get when you are no longer afraid of losing anything. Imagine the kind of freedom you will get when you no longer worry about future and past! What is usually called as enlightenment is the greatest freedom ever. It is not only a combination of all kinds of freedoms that I just talked about but it is also a freedom from the sense of a separate self. It is a permanent freedom from the story you have about you. Once a person is enlightened, he feels like a huge load has been taken off of his shoulders. There is a sense of an immense freedom which is priceless. It literally feels like escaping from a prison.

Once J. Krishnamurti asked his audience if they wanted to know what his secret was. Then he revealed his secret in just one sentence. He said, “I don’t care what happens”…

2.jpg

Simply put, this is enlightenment. Nothing ultimately matters and the whole life becomes a play or a game.

When we play a game with our friends, we play it without any seriousness. Even though we make sure that the rules of the games are followed and that we do what we are supposed to do in the game, we don’t lose our sleep over it (unless we are playing in a tournament). Playing your role in life as if you are just playing a game is the greatest sense of freedom. Enlightenment naturally makes you to not to care about the end result of whatever you are doing. At the end of the day, nothing ever matters. That doesn’t mean you will be irresponsible. You will just enjoy what you are doing rather than being focused on results. Your actions will be driven by intrinsic motivation.

Whatever I have said so far, sounds quite logical. But I haven’t touched the core yet. The core and the essence of enlightenment is realizing that you as a separate person or entity is an illusion. You create a solid sense of self inside your mind and you define the boundaries of that self physically by your body and mentally by your story.

3

But science and spirituality tell us that there is no such solid, consistent self. This doesn’t mean that your body and your mind doesn’t exist. But a sense of self that you derive from your body and mind is just a deep-rooted belief. Since you have this belief for such a long time, you don’t even recognize that it is a belief. This may even sound absurd or unacceptable to you simply because you have lived with this belief so long. We have built layer upon layer on this belief which makes us very difficult to see through this belief.

Someone asked a question in Quora before. The question was “Can an atheist believe in spiritual enlightenment? “. The word ‘believe’ here is a bit odd.But this question comes from an assumption that spiritual enlightenment is somehow related or tied to religious beliefs. But in reality, an enlightened person is an upgraded atheist.

Let me elaborate. The only thing that an atheist doesn’t believe in is the existence of a personal deity, a creator God who answers your prayers. But an atheist may still believe that his next door neighbor is a jerk and his boss is an a**h**e.

An enlightened person, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in anything. He doesn’t even believe that he is separate from the existence. Once the sense of a separate-self dissolves, you realize that you are existence itself. All the boundaries between you and the world simply disappear. You cease to exist as a person but you continue to exist as the existence.Realizing that you are not an entity separate from existence is enlightenment. It is not just realizing this as a fact but realizing it in your actual moment to moment experience.

This is not to say that enlightenment is a special experience or an altered state of consciousness. When you are living a life as a liberated person, you simply experience the reality without any duality. The reality is felt in its purity without any distortions. Your life then becomes free-flowing, conflict-less, guilt-free, fearless, peaceful and fulfilled. Nothing is lacking anymore at the absolute level. There is a sense of innocence and genuineness in your moment to moment experience. It is quite ordinary then how enlightenment is described or thought of.

So, what causes this illusion of separate self or duality? Left-brain interpreter is the culprit.

The left brain interpreter refers to the construction of explanations by the left brain in order to make sense of the world by reconciling new information with what was known before. The left brain interpreter attempts to rationalize, reason and generalize new information it receives in order to relate the past to the present. The concept was first introduced by Michael Gazzaniga while he performed research on split-brain patients during the early 1970s with Roger Sperry at the California Institute of Technology.] Sperry eventually received the 1981 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his contributions to split-brain research

4.png

If you just look at the above picture, one thing is clear. You left brain engages in things which require categorization. Your right brain specializes in helping you to see everything as a whole.

Dr. Chris Niebauer, a neuroscientist writes in his book ‘The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment: How the Left-brain Plays Unending Games of Self-improvement’ about the left brain interpreter.

Let me quote a few lines from his book:

“The left-brain interpreter is categorical, it creates division outwardly and inwardly, so let it do its job, let it do its thing. “

“Again, there is the interpreter created category of “me as I am” vs. “me as I want to be” which are both just thoughts bouncing around in the skull. So, ironically, if you are trying to improve yourself, you can’t. The notion that your self needs improving is an interpretation and we are going around interpretations. There is an irony in most bookstores called the “self help” section. I might suggest renaming this as “Books that reinforce the illusion that the left-brain interpreter can be what it isn’t free of itself.”

“The interpreter also creates and sustains our collection of categorical thoughts called our beliefs.”

It is this left brain interpreter which also creates the duality. It categories your body and your story as a ‘me’ that is separate from the existence.

You can read more about it here: Shanmugam P’s answer to Is spiritual awakening a myth?

Spiritual enlightenment is going beyond all the dualities. It leads one to resolve all the internal conflicts and to feel one with everything. It removes the idea that there is a separate entity inside which has to enhance itself for fulfillment. The left brain may still continue to categorize things, but they are not solidified in our consciousness and we are not urged to protect those solidified entities.

Which Philosophy Personally Appeals More to You, Buddhism or Advaita Vedanta?

(This is a repost of the answer that I wrote in Quora for the same question)

Both point to the same truth!

I have noticed that many people don’t agree when it is said both are the same, because they are only looking at both of them in philosophical level. When it comes to ultimate reality, no matter what words we use, they can be always misleading.

I am talking from my own experience. Oneness with the rest of the existence is a living reality for me. But I will back up my statements by quoting both Vedantic and Buddhist scriptures.

The main source of suffering in our lives is caused by identification. We get identified with our mind, our body, our thoughts, our emotions etc. This identification of mistaking something that is not Self as Self is termed as Avidya or ignorance. Ignorance causes us to think that there is a separate individual self which needs to be protected and enhanced.

In other words, we feel experientially that we are separate from the rest of the world. This separation causes us to crave for fulfillment. That is why Buddha said craving is the root cause of suffering. It is Avidya, the ignorance which causes craving. Buddha is talking about the immediate cause and Vedanta is talking about the original cause.

Some people will object to this by saying that Buddhism doesn’t say that there is something eternal. First of all, when you realize that time itself is an illusion, you will also realize that eternity is only an idea. Buddha was more specific and straight forward, while Vedanta is little compassionate and gives you something that your mind can grasp.

When anyone asked Buddha any metaphysical questions such as ‘Is there anything eternal’, Buddha was silent. It is called Noble Silence .He talked about the impermanence of aggregates, but what we call in Vedanta as absolute reality is not one of the aggregates. It is not anything that is objective. It cannot be put into words. But both Vedanta and Buddhism has actually hinted about this absolute reality with striking similarity.

See the below examples:

Vedanta:

“It is this Akshara (the Imperishable), O Gargi, so the knowers of Brahman say. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, not red, not viscid, not shadowy, not dark, not the air, not the ether, not adhesive, tasteless, odourless, without the sense of sight, without the sense of hearing, without the vital principle, mouthless, without measure, neither interior nor exterior,. It eats nothing, nobody eats it.”

– Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3-8-8.

Buddhism:

“There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress.”

– Buddha (in Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (1))

Buddha directly talks about something that is eternal too, but he uses the word ‘unborn’:

There is, monks, an unborn— unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned

– Buddha (in Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (3))

So, why did Buddha reject Vedas when Vedanta says that Vedas are the only authority?

We need to take Buddha’s time into account. Buddha lived sometime around 800 BC- 600 BC. It was during those times when many rishis were able to realize that there is something beyond the benefits that was got from mere rituals..Vedic rituals only focused on materialistic benefits that people could enjoy in three worlds. They were never about ultimate reality. That is when two great upanishads, Brihadaranyaka upanishad and Chandgoya upanishads were compiled. It must have taken a century or two; Buddha started talking to people at the same time period. So, we can safely conclude that when Buddha was alive, upanishads were not a part of Vedas.

This will raise many objections. Because, many people believe that Vedas are eternal and infallible. Even Shankara believed so. But, consider the following verses from Brihadaranyaka upanishad and the commentary from Shankara:

From chapter 6, section 4:

Verse 6: If man sees his reflection in water, he
should recite the following Mantra : ‘ (May the
gods grant) me lustre, manhood, reputation,
wealth and merits.’ She (his wife) is indeed the
goddess of beauty among women. Therefore he
should approach this handsome woman and
speak to her.

Shankara’s commentary:

If perchance he sees his reflection in water, he
should recite the following Mantra : ‘(May the gods
grant) me lustre,’ etc. She is indeed the goddess of
beauty among women. Therefore he should approach
this handsome woman and speak to her, when she has
taken a bath after three ‘nights.

Verse 7 : If she is not willing, he should buy her
over; and if she is still unyielding, he should
strike her with a stick or with the hand and
proceed, uttering the following Mantra, ‘I take
away your reputation,’ etc. She is then actually
discredited.

Shankara’s commentary:

If she is not willing, he should buy her over,
press his wishes through ornaments etc.; and if she is
still unyielding, he should strike her with a stick or
with the hand
, and announcing that he was going to
curse her and make her unfortunate, he should ·proceed,
uttering the following Mantra : ‘I take away your
reputation: etc. As a result of that curse, she comes
to be known as barren and unfortunate, and is then
actually discredited.

The above verses show how totally male dominative the society was those days.. Even though this doesn’t have anything to do with enlightenment, this example shows how one should not take everything just because it comes from a scripture or a person who is regarded as an authority.

And I don’t think that such infallible and eternal upanishads can advice someone to beat his wife if she doesn’t agree for sex.

You may say that these were later interpolations. But if that is the case, how could we trust Vedas in the first place?

But I know that Vedic verses such as Nasadiya Suktha and almost all upanishads have immense wisdom. We have to see them as collection of various poems composed by different people, instead of seeing them as infallible and eternal scriptures. I know that it is very difficult for many Indians to accept, because we are deeply blinded by pride and confirmation bias.

So, Why did Vedanta say that Vedas are only pramana (means of knowledge)?

Let us talk about three different methods of acquiring knowledge in general. (Vedanta uses six, but let us talk about three important ones here)

  1. Direct experience
  2. Inference
  3. Testimony from an authority.

In our daily life, we can get to know about many things through direct experience and inference. But we would never know the path to end the suffering unless someone tells us, simple!

So our ancient Indians selected the Upanishads as the only reliable authority to teach us the path towards liberation. It is just a standardization made by humans to avoid any conflict. And according to the social structure that prevailed those days, instead of relying any random person’s words as authority, it was reasonable to accept Upanishads as authority.

But we live in 21st century now. We are aware of things like confirmation bias and we are more keen towards human rights. While we do appreciate and show immense reverence to our ancient scriptures, it is nothing wrong in changing certain things to suit our modern society.

Also, Vedanta uses a certain teaching method called Adyaropa Apavada while Buddhism teaches directly and precisely. Vedanta is poetic where as Buddhism is empirical. Buddhism gives you the raw truth but Vedanta offers to you with added sweets and flavors. The only problem in Vedanta is that people may get stuck with the words and concepts.

You can find more details in my post here where I have included some additional points: Buddhism and Vedanta are the Same – A Detailed Comparison

If you are looking for a great spiritual authority to confirm the validity of Buddha’s message, then I will quote some of the words from Bhagwan Ramana Maharishi:

Disciple: Research on God has been going on from time immemorial. Has the final word been said?

Maharshi: (Keeps silence for some time.)

Disciple: (Puzzled) Should I consider Sri Bhagavan’s silence as the reply to my question?

Maharshi: Yes. Mouna is Isvara-svarupa.Hence the text: “The Truth of Supreme Brahman proclaimed through Silent Eloquence.”

Disciple: Buddha is said to have ignored such inquiries about God.

Maharshi: And for this reason was called a sunyavadin (nihilist). In fact Buddha concerned himself more with directing the seeker to realize Bliss here and now that with academic discussion about God, etc.

Buddhism and Vedanta are the Same – A Detailed Comparison

Buddhism and Vedanta are two big schools which have dominated the spiritual world till date.  Among many schools which have existed in the past, only these two have made a great influence all over the world and still continue to exist. But they seem to be contradictory to each other in many ways.

But based on my own experience and based on what I have read, these two schools only seem to differ because they use different conceptual languages. They also have different teaching methods. But the essence is the same.

When it comes to Vedanta, Prasthanathrayi, consisting of main Upanishads, Brahmasutras and Bhagwad gita is  the authority. In Buddhism, Tripitaka, consisting of Vinaya Pitaka, Sutra Pitaka and Abidharama Pitaka, is the source of all conceptual details. When you go through the scriptures with an open mind and with the support of your own spiritual realization, you will see that both are essentially the same.

Both schools talk about the cessation of suffering. The process of the cessation of suffering is called Moksha in Vedanta and Nirvana in Buddhism. Now let us see how these two schools define the nature of this liberation and the ultimate truth:

Vedanta

“It is this Akshara (the Imperishable), O Gargi, so the knowers of Brahman say. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, not red, not viscid, not shadowy, not dark, not the air, not the ether, not adhesive, tasteless, odourless, without the sense of sight, without the sense of hearing, without the vital principle, mouthless, without measure, neither interior nor exterior,. It eats nothing, nobody eats it.”

– Brihadaranyaka Upanishad  3-8-8.

Buddhism

“There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress.”

– Buddha (in Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (1))
Do they sound similar? Yes, Because they talk about the same thing.

Now consider the following quotes:

There is, monks, an unborn— unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned

– Buddha (in Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (3))

………………………………………………..

Verily, that great unborn soul, undecaying, undying, immortal, fearless is Brahman

–        Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.25

 

This Sunyata or the ultimate truth doesn’t have any attributes. It is the conscious space in which everything takes place. It is the substratum of everything that is in the reality, like a movie screen that acts as a substratum to show the moving pictures on it.

This substratum itself is empty of anything that we can call as a ‘thing’, including abstract things. A ‘thought’ is a thing; a feeling is a thing’ a sense perception is a thing; and an experience is a thing too. All these are witnessed as the existing things or stuff that occupy the space of consciousness itself. This underlying consciousness is called shakshin ( witness), satchitananda (truth -consciousness -bliss), nurguna brahman, sunyata and so on.

 

Buddhism and Vedanta
Buddhism and Vedanta are the same!

Adyaropa Apavada – The Teaching method of Vedanta

 

So, when Buddhism calls it as sunyata, why does Vedanta defines the reality in positive terminology?  Because, Vedantins  use a different teaching method called ‘Adhyaropa apavada’. The teaching method intentionally superimposes some attributes to the ultimate reality first to distinguish it from everything that it is not. So, even though no concept can define something that lacks any kind of thing that is conceived by a concept, these intentional attributes are made in order to help the mind to grasp it  as a concept at the initial stage.

Then Vedantins negate everything that it is not. They reject the body as not it because body can be witnessed as a thing. They reject the mind as not it because mind can be witnessed as a thing too. You first understand that you are Brahman and then you negate everything that is not ‘You’ by closely monitoring the mental processes every moment, with the detached witness attitude.

Finally, even the intentional attributes are also rejected. This helps to drop the initial concepts that were formed to understand Brahman. Once you let go of all the concepts of reality and narrow down to the bare reality of yourself, people say that you have realized the truth.

Let us see some excerpts from Vedantic scriptures which support this:

“Who so knows the Self, thus described, as the fearless Absolute (brahman), himself becomes the Absolute, beyond fear. This is a brief statement of the meaning of the entire Upanishad.  And in order to convey this meaning rightly, the fanciful alternatives of production, maintenance and withdrawal, and the false notion of action, its factors and results, are deliberately attributed to the Self as a first step. And then later the final metaphysical truth is inculcated by negating these characteristics through a comprehensive denial of all particular superimpositions on the Absolute, expressed in the phrase ‘neither this nor that’. Just as a man, wishing to explain numbers from one to a hundred thousand billion (points to figures that he has drawn and) says, ‘This figure is one, this figure is ten, this figure is a hundred, this figure is a thousand’ , and all the time his only purpose is to explain numbers, and not to affirm that the figures are numbers; or just as one wishing to explain the sounds of speech as repre sented by the written letters of the alphabet resorts to a device in the form of a palm-leaf on which he makes incisions which he later fills with ink to form letters, and all the while, (even though he point to a letter and say “This is the sound “so and so”‘) his only purpose is to explain the nature of the sounds referred to by each letter, and not to affirm that the leaf, incisions and ink are sounds; in just the same way, the one real metaphysical principle, the Absolute, is taught by resort to many devices, such as attributing to it production (of the world) and other powers. And then after wards the nature of the Absolute is restated, through the concluding formula ‘neither this nor that’, so as to purify it of all particular notions accruing to it from the various devices used to explain its nature in the first place’.

– Brhadaranyaka  Bhasya IV.iv.25  – by Shankara

……………………………………………………………………………………….

“Nor can the Absolute be properly referred to by any such terms as Being or non-being. For all words are used to convey a meaning, and when heard by their hearers convey the meaning the speaker had in mind. But communicable meaning is restricted without exception to universal, action, attribute and relation….

The Absolute, however, does not belong to any universal (genus), so it cannot be expressed by a noun such as ‘Being’ or ‘non-being’. Being without attributes, it cannot be described by any adjective denoting an attribute. And being actionless, it cannot be expressed by any verb denoting activity.

For the Upanishad speaks of it as ‘Without parts, without activity, at rest’ (Svet .VI.19) . Nor has it any relation with anything. For it is ‘One’, ‘without a second’, ‘not an object’ and ‘the Self. Hence it cannot be expressed by any word. And the upanishadic texts themselves confirm this when they say ‘That from which words fall back’ (Taitt .ll.9) , and in other passages.”

– (Bhagwad Gita Bhasya XIII.12) – Shankara

……………………………………………………………………………………

And because the Absolute has no particular characteristics, the Veda indicates its nature by denying of it the forms of all other things, as is shown, for instance, in the following pa sages: ‘And so, therefore, the teaching is “neither this nor that”‘ (Brhad.II.iii.6) , ‘It is other than what is known, and above the unknown’ (Kena I.U), ‘That from which words fall back without obtaining access, together with the mind’ (Taitt .II.9)

And the Vedic texts also relate how when Badhva was questioned by Baskalin he gave his answer merely by not speaking. ‘Sir, teach me in words’, Ba§kalin said. But the Teacher remained silent. Finally, at the second or third time of asking, Badhva replied, ‘I am telling you, but you do not understand. This Self is utter silence’

– (Bramasutra Bhasya III.ii.17) – Shankara

………………………………………………..

(a) In order to disclose the nature of the self as Brahman in itself Srutis like the following negate all specific features superimposed on it by the unenlightened common mind :-

“It is this Akshara (the Imperishable), 0 Gargi, so the knowers of    Brahman say. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, not     red, not viscid, not shadowy, not dark, not the air, not the ether, not    adhesive, tasteless, odourless, without the sense of sight, without the    sense of hearing, without the vital principle, mouthless, without measure,   neither interior nor exterior,. It eats nothing, nobody eats it.”    – Br.3-8-8.

(b) Lest, by this strict denial of all properties it may be taken to be absolute nothing (s’unya), it is taught by means of illusory attributes seemingly pertaining to it owing to Upadhis (apparently conditioning factors).

(c) At the close of the teaching the rescission of even the imputed attributes used as a device for purposes of teaching, lest it should be regarded as actually belonging to it.
Hence that Brahman cannot be denoted by the epithet ‘jnanam’ (knowledge) either. Nevertheless, it is indicated though not expressed, by the word ”jnanam’  denoting the semblance of consciousness which is really a modification of the mind. It is not directly denoted by that term because Brahman is devoid of genus and other specific features which alone are the occasion for the application of words to a thing. So is it with regard to the term ‘Satyam’ (truth). For Brahman is by its very nature devoid of all specific features. The term Satyam really refers to the genus ‘being’ inhering in external objects, and when Brahman is described as ‘Sat yam’ (Real), it is only indicated by that term. But Brahman is not actually expressed by the term ‘Satyam’.

Tai. Bh. 2-1, p. 285 – Shankara

 

Atman and Anatman – The difference

 

Whatever you  observe in our conscious field is not You.. Therefore they are not the Self (or Bhrahman).. That is what the word ‘Anatta’ (Anatman) means..  Atman is Self. Anatman is that which is not Self.

This Atman or Brahman or Self cannot be put into words. Any name that is given to it is actually misleading to some extent. Thats why Buddha only talked about Anatta- that which is not the Atman.

Read this excerpt, it will make sense:

“Objection : “Is not even Atman denoted by the word ‘Atman’ ?

Reply: No. for there are Srutis like ‘From which words fall back’, ‘That in which one sees nothing else’.

Question: How then do texts like ‘Atman alone is below … .’ and ‘It is Atman’ reveal Atman ?

Reply:  This is no fault. For, the word (Atman), primarily used in the world of differences to denote individual soul as distinct from the body it possesses, is extended to indicate the entity which remains after the rejection of body and other not-selfs as not deserving that appellation, and is used to reveal what is really inexpressible by words”.

– Shankara – Ch. Bh. 7-1-3, p. 542.

Neti -Neti in Buddhism

 

Now, let us read Atmashatkam, a vedantic short poetry attributed to Shankara and Anattalakhana sutta, a Buddhist Sutta that discusses the Buddhist teachings on Anatta – no self.  Once you read it carefully, you will realize that both say exactly the same.

AtmaShatkam

1) I am not mind, nor intellect, nor ego, nor the reflections of inner self (citta). I am not the five senses. I am beyond that. I am not the ether, nor the earth, nor the fire, nor the wind (the five elements). I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

2) Neither can I be termed as energy (prāṇa), nor five types of breath (vāyus), nor the seven material essences, nor the five sheaths(pañca-kośa). Neither am I the organ of Speech, nor the organs for Holding ( Hand ), Movement ( Feet ) or Excretion. I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

3) I have no hatred or dislike, nor affiliation or liking, nor greed, nor delusion, nor pride or haughtiness, nor feelings of envy or jealousy. I have no duty (dharma), nor any money, nor any desire (kāma), nor even liberation (mokṣa). I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

4) I have neither merit (virtue), nor demerit (vice). I do not commit sins or good deeds, nor have happiness or sorrow, pain or pleasure. I do not need mantras, holy places, scriptures (Vedas), rituals or sacrifices (yajñas). I am none of the triad of the observer or one who experiences, the process of observing or experiencing, or any object being observed or experienced. I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

5)  I do not have fear of death, as I do not have death. I have no separation from my true self, no doubt about my existence, nor have I discrimination on the basis of birth. I have no father or mother, nor did I have a birth. I am not the relative, nor the friend, nor the guru, nor the disciple. I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

6) I am all pervasive. I am without any attributes, and without any form. I have neither attachment to the world, nor to liberation (mukti). I have no wishes for anything because I am everything, everywhere, every time, always in equilibrium. I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta

“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’

“Any kind of feeling whatever…

“Any kind of perception whatever…

“Any kind of determination whatever…

“Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.'”

……………………………………………………………………………..

It is obvious.. Both say the samething. This is called Neti Neti method in Vedanta – rejecting whatever that is observed as not-self. Here, it is important to see the thoughts, emotions and feelings etc are different from you, as they arise and pass away. As you witness these thoughts, you see yourself as a witness instead of identifying with thoughts and mental processes.

 

Nididhyasana  and Mindfulness  are the same

 

I understood that  Nididhyasana which is prescribed in Vedanta and Mindfulness that is prescribed in Buddhism are exactly the same, when I read Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati’s interpretation of Nididhyasana.

 

You can read the book ‘Adyatma Yoga’ of Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati to know how he explains it. He was a Sanskrit scholar and vedantic monk. He dedicated his whole life in bringing out the kind of teaching method that was actually adopted by Shankara. He lived up to the age 94 and has written over 200 books. He has worked hard enough to bring out the true teachings of Shankara.

 

Conclusion

 

We can compare Buddhism and Vedanta to two languages that evolved from a parent prolanguage. They split into two when Buddha refused to accept the authority of Vedas.

As centuries passed and different things evolved in each school, they became like two mutually unintelligible languages which belong to the same parent.

 

Oldest Teaching Of Advaita – Excerpt from Chandogya Upanishad

Upanishads are the basis for Indian schools of thought.  Of this, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Chandogya upanishad are the oldest. These are the earliest available literature in India which teach non-duality. I have been reading these texts for the past few days and I came across this wonderful section, which is the 6th prapathaka of Chandogya Upanishad. I found it very impressive and it brought tears in my eyes as I read it. So, I am sure you will enjoy this as well.

It narrates the story, which is a conversation between sage Aruni and his son Svetaketu. It contains the famous mahavakya ‘Tat tvam asi’. It has some great pointers which are useful for the spiritual seekers. I am posting the entire 6th prapathaka here… (Translated by Swami Nikhilananda). You can find the entire text here: http://www.swamij.com/upanishad-chandogya.htm

Khanda I — The Non—Duality of the Self

  1. Om. There once lived Svetaketu the grandson of Aruna. To him his father said: “Svetaketu, lead the life of a brahmacharin; for there is none belonging to our family, my dear, who, not having studied the Vedas, is a brahmin only by birth.”

2—3. Svetaketu went to his teacher’s house when he was twelve years old and studied the Vedas till he was twenty—four. Then he returned to his father, serious, considering himself well read and arrogant. His father said to him: “Svetaketu, since you are now so serious, think yourself well read and are so arrogant, have you, my dear, ever asked for that instruction by which one hears what cannot be heard, by which one perceives what cannot be perceived, by which one knows what cannot be known?” Svetaketu asked: “What is that instruction, venerable Sir?”

4—6. “Just as, my dear, by one clod of clay all that is made of clay is known, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the truth is that all is clay; “Just as, my dear, by one nugget of gold all that is made of gold is known, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the truth is that all is gold; “And just as, my dear, by one pair of nail—scissors all that is made of iron is known, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the truth is that all is iron—even so, my dear, is that instruction.”

  1. “Surely those venerable men did not know that. For if they had known it, why should they not have told it to me? Therefore do you, venerable Sir, tell me about it.” “So be it, my dear,” said the father.

 

Khanda II — Brahman: the Cause of the Universe

 

  1. “In the beginning, my dear, this universe was Being (Sat) alone, one only without a second. Some say that in the beginning this was non—being (asat) alone, one only without a second; and from that non—being, being was born.”
  2. Aruni said: “But how, indeed, could it be thus, my dear? How could Being be born from non—being? No, my dear, it was Being alone that existed in the beginning, one only without a second.
  3. “It (Being, or Brahman) thought: ‘May I be many; may I grow forth.’ It created fire. That fire thought: ‘May I be many; may I grow forth.’ It created water. That is why, whenever a person is hot and perspires, water is produced from fire (heat) alone.
  4. “That water thought: ‘May I be many; may I grow forth.’ It created food (i.e. earth). That is why, whenever it rains anywhere, abundant food is produced. From water alone is edible food produced.

 

Khanda III — The Threefold Development

 

  1. “Of all these living beings, there are only three origins: those born from an egg, those born from a living being and those born from a sprout.
  2. “That Deity thought: ‘Let Me now enter into those three deities by means of this living self and let Me then develop names and forms.’
  3. “That Deity, having thought: ‘Let Me make each of these three tripartite,’ entered into these three deities by means of the living self and developed names and forms.
  4. “It made each of these tripartite; and how these three deities became, each of them, tripartite, that learn from me now, my dear.

 

Khanda IV — The Threefold Development further explained

 

  1. “The red colour of gross fire is the colour of the original fire; the white colour of gross fire is the colour of the original water; the black colour of gross fire is the colour of the original earth. Thus vanishes from fire what is commonly called fire, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the three colours (forms) alone are true.
  2. “The red colour of the sun is the colour of fire, the white the colour of water, the black the colour of earth. Thus vanishes from the sun what is commonly called the sun, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the three colours alone are true.
  3. “The red colour of the moon is the colour of fire, the white the colour of water, the black the colour of earth. Thus vanishes from the moon what is commonly called the moon, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the three colours alone are true.
  4. “The red colour of lightning is the colour of fire, the white the colour of water, the black the colour of earth. Thus vanishes from lightning what is commonly called lighting, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the three colours alone are true.
  5. “It was just through this knowledge that the great householders and great Vedic scholars of olden times declared: ‘No one can now mention to us anything which we have not heard, thought of, or known.’ They knew all from these three forms.

6—7. “Whatever, appeared red they knew to be the colour of fire; whatever appeared white they knew to be the colour of water; whatever appeared black they knew to be the colour of earth. “Whatever appeared to be unknown they knew to be the combination of these three deities (i.e. colours). Now learn from me, my dear, how these three deities, when they reach man, become each of them tripartite.

 

Khanda V — The Threefold Nature of Food

 

  1. “Food when eaten becomes threefold. What is coarsest in it becomes faeces, what is medium becomes flesh and what is subtlest becomes mind.
  2. “Water when drunk becomes threefold. What is coarsest in it becomes urine, what is medium becomes blood and what is subtlest becomes prana.
  3. “Fire when eaten becomes threefold. What is coarsest in it becomes bone, what is medium becomes marrow and what is subtlest becomes speech.
  4. “The mind, my dear, consists of food, the prana of water and speech of heat.” “Please, venerable Sir, instruct me further.” “So be it, my dear.”

 

Khanda VI — The Physical Nature of the Mind, the Prana and Speech

 

  1. “That, my dear, which is the subtlest part of curds rises, when they are churned and becomes butter.
  2. “In the same manner, my dear, that which is the subtlest part of the food that is eaten rises and becomes mind.
  3. “The subtlest part of the water that is drunk rises and becomes prana.
  4. “The subtlest part of the fire that is eaten rises and becomes speech.
  5. “Thus, my dear, the mind consists of food, the prana consists of water and speech consists of fire.” “Please, venerable Sir, instruct me further.” “So be it, my dear.”

 

Khanda VII — How the Mind consists of Food

 

  1. “A person, my dear, consists of sixteen parts. Do not eat any food for fifteen days, but drink as much water as you like. Since the prana consists of water, it will not be cut off if you drink water.”
  2. Svetaketu did not eat any food for fifteen days. Then he came to his father and said: “What, Sir, shall I recite?” His father said: “The Rik, Yagus and Saman verses.” He replied: “They do not occur to me, Sir.”
  3. His father said to him: “Just as, my dear, of a great blazing fire a single coal, the size of a firefly, may be left, which would not burn much more than that, even so, my dear, of your sixteen parts only one part is left; and therefore with that one part you do not remember the Vedas. Now go and eat and you will understand me.”
  4. Svetaketu ate and approached his father. Then whatever his father asked him, he showed that he knew it.

5—6. Then his father said to him: “Just as, my dear, of a great lighted fire a single coal the size of a firefly, if left, may be made to blaze up again by adding grass to it and will thus burn much more, “Even so, my dear; of your sixteen parts only one part was left and that, when strengthened by food, blazed up. With it you now remember the Vedas. Therefore, my dear, the mind consists of food, the prana consists of water and speech consists of fire.” After that he understood what his father said, yea, he understood it.

 

Khanda VIII — Concerning Sleep, Hunger, Thirst and Death

 

  1. Uddalaka the son of Aruna said to his son Svetaketu: “Learn from me, my dear, the true nature of sleep. When a person has entered into deep sleep, as it is called, then, my dear, he becomes united with Pure Being (Sat), he has gone to his own Self. That is why they say he is in deep sleep (svapiti); it is because he has gone (apita) to his own (svam).
  2. “Just as a bird tied by a string to the hand of the bird—catcher first flies in every direction and then finding no rest anywhere, settles down at the place where it is bound, so also the mind (i.e. the individual soul reflected in the mind), my dear, after flying in every direction and finding no rest anywhere, settles down in the Prana (i.e. Pure Being); for the mind (the individual soul) is fastened to the Prana (Pure Being).
  3. “Learn from me, my dear, what hunger and thirst are. When a man is hungry, as they say, it is water that has led (i.e. carried away) what was eaten. Therefore, just as they speak of a leader of cows, a leader of horses, a leader of men, so do they speak of water as the leader of food. So, my dear, know this offshoot (i.e. the body) to have sprung forth from a cause, for it cannot be without a root.
  4. “And where could its root be except in food (earth)? And in the same way, my dear, as food too is an offshoot, seek for water as its root. And as water too, my dear, is an offshoot, seek for fire as its root. And as fire too, my dear, is an offshoot, seek for Being (Sat) as its root. Yes, all these creatures, my dear, have their root in Being, they dwell in Being, they finally rest in Being.
  5. “When a man is said to be thirsty, it is fire that has led (i.e. carried away) what was drunk by him. Therefore as they speak of a leader of cows, a leader of horses, a leader of men, so do they speak of fire as the leader of water. So, my dear, know this offshoot (the body) to have sprung forth from a cause, for it cannot be without a root.
  6. “And where could its root be except in water? And in the same way, my dear, as water is an offshoot, seek for fire as its root. And as fire too, my dear, is an offshoot, seek for Being as its root. Yes, my dear, all these creatures have their root in Being, they dwell in Being, they finally rest in Being. “And how these three deities (fire, water and earth), on reaching a human being, become each of them tripartite has already been said. When a person departs hence, his speech merges in his mind, his mind in his prana, his prana in heat (fire) and the heat in the Highest Being.
  7. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda IX — The Absence of Individuality in Deep Sleep

 

1—2. “As bees, my dear, make honey by collecting the juices of trees located at different places and reduce them to one form, “And as these juices have no discrimination so as to be able to say: ‘I am the juice of this tree,’ or ‘I am the juice of that tree’—even so, indeed, my dear, all these creatures, though they reach Pure Being, do not know that they have reached Pure Being.

  1. “Whatever these creatures are, here in this world—a tiger, a lion, a wolf, a boar, a worm, a fly, a gnat, or a mosquito—that they become again.
  2. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda X — The Absence of Particularized Consciousness in Deep Sleep

 

1—2. “These rivers, my dear, flow—the eastern toward the east and the western toward the west. They arise from the sea and flow into the sea. Just as these rivers, while they are in the sea, do not know: ‘I am this river’ or ‘I am that river,’ “Even so, my dear, all these creatures, even though they have come from Pure Being, do not know that they have come from Pure Being. Whatever these creatures are, here in this world—a tiger, a lion, a wolf a boar, a worm, a fly, a gnat, or a mosquito, that they become again.

  1. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda XI — The Indestructibility of the Jiva

 

  1. “If, my dear, someone were to strike at the root of this large tree here, it would bleed but live. If he were to strike at the middle, it would bleed but live. If he were to strike at the top, it would bleed but live. Pervaded by the living self, that tree stands firm, drinking in again and again its nourishment and rejoicing.
  2. “But if the life (i.e. living self) leaves one of its branches, that branch withers; if it leaves a second, that branch withers; if it leaves a third, that branch withers. If it leaves the whole tree, the whole three withers.
  3. “In exactly the same manner, my dear,” said he, “know this: This body dies, bereft of the living self; but the living self dies not. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda XII — The Birth of the Gross from the Subtle

 

  1. “Bring me a fruit of that nyagrodha (banyan) tree.” “Here it is’ venerable Sir.” “Break it.” “It is broken, venerable Sir.” “What do you see there?” “These seeds, exceedingly small, “Break one of these, my son.” “It is broken, venerable Sir.” “What do you see there?” “Nothing at all, venerable Sir.”
  2. The father said: “That subtle essence, my dear, which you do not perceive there—from that very essence this great nyagrodha arises. Believe me, my dear.
  3. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda XIII — The Invisibility of an Existent Object

 

  1. “Place this salt in water and then come to me in the morning.” The son did as he was told. The father said to him: “My son, bring me the salt which you placed in the water last night.” Looking for it, the son did not find it, for it was completely dissolved.
  2. The father said: “My son, take a sip of water from the surface. How is it?” “It is salt.” “Take a sip from the middle. How is it?” “It is salt.” “Take a sip from the bottom. How is it?” “It is salt.” “Throw it away and come to me.” The son did as he was told, saying: “The salt was there all the time.” Then the father said: “Here also, my dear, in this body you do not perceive Sat (Being); but It is indeed there.”
  3. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda XIV — The Means of Self—Knowledge

 

  1. “Just as someone, my dear, might lead a person, with his eyes covered, away from the country of the Gandharas and leave him in a place where there were no human beings; and just as that person would turn toward the east, or the north, or the south, or the west, shouting: ‘I have been brought here with my eyes covered, I have been left here with my eyes covered!’
  2. “And as thereupon someone might loosen the covering and say to him: ‘Gandhara is in that direction; go that way’; and as thereupon, having been informed and being capable of judgement, he would, by asking his way from one village to another, arrive at last at Gandhara—in exactly the same manner does a man who has found a teacher to instruct him obtain the true knowledge. For him there is delay only so long as he is not liberated from the body; then he reaches perfection.
  3. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda XV — Ultimate Liberation

 

  1. “Around a dying person afflicted with illness, my dear, his relatives gather and ask: ‘Do you know me? Do you know me?’ He knows them as long as his speech is not merged in his mind, his mind in his prana (breath), his prana in heat (fire) and the heat in the Highest Deity.
  2. “But when his speech is merged in his mind, his mind in his prana, his prana in heat and the heat in the Highest Deity, then he does not know them.
  3. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son “So be it, my dear;” the father replied.

 

Khanda XVI — Liberation for the Knower of Brahman

 

  1. “My dear, they (i.e. the police) bring a man whom they have seized by the hand and say: ‘He has taken something, he has committed a theft.’ When he denies it, they say: ‘Heat the axe for him.’ If he has committed the theft but denies it, then he makes himself a liar. Being false—minded, he covers himself with falsehood, grasps the heated axe and is burnt. Then he is killed.
  2. “But if he did not commit the theft, then he makes himself what he really is. Being true—minded, he covers himself with truth, grasps the heated axe and is not burnt. He is released.
  3. “As that truthful man is not burnt so also one who has known Sat is not born again. Thus in That (Sat) all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.”

 

An Invitation to Debate: Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati vs Modern Vedanta teachers

Update: 16/12/2017

I want to give a context for this debate and explain why I started it. First of all, I don’t believe that any scripture or any person is the eternal or infallible authority. A scripture may say a certain thing that was perfectly valid at the time it was written. But it may not be valid when someone reads the same book 2000 years later. Please read this post for more details: Shanmugam’s Personal Blog Buddhism and Vedanta are the Same – A Detailed Comparison/

But it doesn’t mean that they don’t have any value at all. They indeed have a lot of value. There are also certain things which never change. The absolute reality that Vedanta talks about doesn’t change. But since the world keeps changing, since people always face new challenges in every new century, they may develop new barriers to spiritual enlightenment, which the ancient people never had. The way that people lived 2000 years ago was very natural and completely different from the way people live today. A modern man has myriads of distractions and thousands of problems than the ancient man.

But traditional Vedanta teachers insist that there can be nothing added to or modified in traditional teachings. They also claim that they are teaching according to traditional methods only, without even deviating a single bit from them. But I have observed that it is certainly not possible for these Vedanta teachers to be completely in accordance with the scriptures. (There are reasons for it, which I have elaborated in my book). I just wanted to challenge what they are claiming to do. But I don’t mean any disrespect to the tradition. I just believe that there is always room for improvement in many ways. You can read my book for more details on that: The Truth About Spiritual Enlightenment: Bridging Science, Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta.

But relying only on scriptural authority has made people to interpret scriptures in several ways and in a way that fits into or agrees with their own opinions. There have been thousands of commentaries and sub-commentaries and even the original meanings of many verses have been misinterpreted in the long run.

Having said all that, you can continue to read this original post that I wrote many months before…


This article is an invitation for a healthy debate with modern Vedanta teachers like James Swartz who claim that their teachings are in line with traditional Vedanta. I think James Swartz, in particular, wouldn’t mind in clarifying some of the concerns raised in this article, as he himself considers that criticism is a healthy aspect of Vedanta. Also, since he has said in a Dharma combat that he enjoys such debates, I hope he doesn’t consider this as something unimportant or offensive.

First of all, I am not in any way stating my own opinions here and I am well aware that with my age and qualifications, I am not the right candidate to present such arguments. However, whatever I write here is only from scriptures including mukya Upanishads cited by Shankaracharya, Brahmasutras, Gita and the commentaries of Shankara on these texts. Since independent works such as Vivekachudamani are not considered as authentic works of Shankara by many, those texts are not quoted.

Swami_Satchidanandendra_Saraswati

Also, these concepts are directly from the book ‘Method of Vedanta’ written by Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati, who was a Sanskrit scholar and vedantic monk. He dedicated his whole life in bringing out the kind of teaching method that was actually adopted by Shankara. He lived up to the age 94 and has written over 200 books. He has worked hard enough to bring out the true teachings of Shankara. And, the whole Vedanta community is indebted for his extraordinary work. So, this debate is indeed between Satchidanandendra Saraswati and any other Vedanta teachers who would like to participate. I hope this debate will help to clarify much confusion that give raise to innumerous arguments among many sincere disciples of Vedanta.

A Brief Summary of the points discussed

 

  • Experience and Moksha

According to James Swartz, the teaching method in Vedanta that is taught to qualified students results in ‘self-realization’, which is an experience of self. But the knowledge has to be assimilated for years to attain Moksha, translated by him as ‘enlightenment’. Also, according to the highly revered Swami Dayananda Saraswati, there is no such thing as experience at all, which happens as the result of the teaching.

But according to Shankara, teachings lead to direct experience of self, which is same as Jnana or enlightenment. This knowledge gained through direct experience of self doesn’t have to be strengthened by any further practice. He doesn’t seem to make such a distinction between self-realization and enlightenment at all. The objection that is raised against this is usually called as Prashankyana vada.

In Brahma Sutra Bhasya, Shankara gives a lot of details on this on his commentary for the verse 1.4.7. Since his discussion on this is quite long, I wouldn’t be able to provide the entire section here. However, in the citations that I have included below, you can see some of the verses cited by Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswathi, to show how teaching results in the direct experience of self.

  • Nididhyasana

This has been defined in many ways by modern teachers.

For example, Ted Schmidt, a student of James Swartz defines it as following in his site:

Nididhyasana is the practice of continuously meditating upon the teachings of Vedanta. This type of meditation is not to be confused with formal seated meditation.”

James Swartz defines it a little differently in his site, which doesn’t sound like the practice but the result of the practice itself:

“It is the complete assimilation of the knowledge that destroys the network of ignorance-based desires and one’s sense of doership. It has a dramatic experiential impact in so far as one’s life becomes free and peaceful and completely fulfilled.”

He also says ‘nididhyasana never ends for the jiva’ in his Facebook page.

However, Satchidanandendra Saraswathi defines it as a sustained meditation on self. Please refer his explanations and citations given by him below, in the citations section.

I think it is really important for students to know what Nididhyasana exactly is. So, I hope this debate will clarify the confusion on this.

  • The Teaching model of Vedanta – Adhyaropa apavada

This is regarding a significant contribution by Satchidanandendra Saraswati, who revived the true structure of the ancient teaching taught by Upanishads and Shankara. I didn’t find any modern teachers writing or talking about the third step, which also negates the intentionally superimposed attributes on Self, which were superimposed on it solely as teaching devices in the first place. (Please refer the citations section for details).

  • Enlightenment, bliss and cessation of desires

This is something that I myself noticed in Shankara’s bhasya on Brihadaranyaka Upanishad on verse 4.3.33, which talks about cessation of desires and bliss of self..

However, James Swartz says that enlightenment doesn’t result in eternal bliss. So, was the verse just an exaggeration and did Shankara fail to mention it so? I have noticed Shankara’s commentaries and how precise they are in explaining everything; so I doubt if the latter was true.

Also, James Swartz says “This idea is another negative formulation of enlightenment. Nirvana is a desireless state of mind. This view is based on the idea that desire is suffering, which it is. To say that you want something means that you are not happy with what you have. This teaching is unworkable because a desireless mind is a contradiction in terms. When, except during sleep, do you not want something?”

Both of the above views of James are explained here in his page. And, needless to say, many teachers of Vedanta in this century share his view as well.

But doesn’t this contradict with the scriptures and Shankara? Please explain how to resolve this contradiction.

The following passages are the citations for the four points that I have mentioned.

Experience and Moksha

Known technically as ‘the Absolute’ (brahman), it is of the nature of immediate experience, void of all the attributes of transmigratory life. This is the meaning of the word ‘that’ (in the phrase ‘That thou art’), familiar to the experts in the Upanishads.

– Shankara (B.S.Bh.IV.i .2)

In the case of enquiry into the Vedic ritual, the Vedic and other traditional texts alone are the criterion. But this is not so in the case of the enquiry into the Absolute. Here it is the same texts that are the authority, but with immediate experience (and firm remembrance, etc.) added in the case of the purely metaphysical texts . For knowledge of the Absolute requires to culminate in immediate experience (anubhava), and (unlike the part of the Veda dealing with commands and prohibitions) has an already-existent reality for its object.

– Shankara (B.S. Bh.I.i.2)

Repeated resort to the appropriate means of knowledge is indeed useless in the case of the person who can attain immediate experience of the fact that his true Self is the Absolute merely from hearing the text ‘That thou art’ spoken once. But for him who is not able to do so, repetition is the proper means.

– Shankara in (B.S.Bh.IV.i .2)

True, it has been said that the Veda itself proclaims that reason must be respected, as it enjoins pondering as well as hearing. But this should not be used as a pretext for allowing empty hypothetical reasoning to gain entry. For in the present context only those arguments that are sanctioned by the Veda may be resorted to, and that only as an auxiliary to the attainment of direct experience.

– Shankara in  (B.S.Bh. II. i. 6)

 

Nididhyasana

 

Swami Satchidanandendra saraswathi explains what is nididhyasana and also quotes verses from Shankara, Gaudapa Karika and Gita which give instructions on how to practice nididhyasana.. And this differs from what is being taught by other teachers. By Nididhyasana, he means actual meditation.

Here is Swami’s explanation:

“The aim of the one practicing sustained meditation (nididhyasana) is different. He tries to attain direct vision of reality (here in this very world) by turning his mind away from all else. And there is the difference — as against upasana — that after the rise of knowledge nothing further remains to be done.

It is this sustained meditation that is referred to at Katha Upanishad I.ii.13 by the name ‘Adhyatma Yoga‘. In the Gita it is sometimes called ‘Dhyana Yoga‘ (e.g. XVIII. 52). In the Mandukya Karikas it is called ‘restraint of the mind’ (G.K.III.41, etc.). Its nature is described there in that latter work.

Everywhere its result is described in the same way as right metaphysical knowledge, and from this comes immediate liberation.

And here are the citations provided

  1. The wise man comes to know God through mastering Adhyatma Yoga, and gives up joy and sorrow. (Katha I.ii.12)

Sankara’s Commentary:

Mastering Adhyatma Yoga: Adhyatma Yoga means withdrawing the mind from objects and concentrating it on the Self. Having meditated on the deity, the Self, through attainment of Adhyatma Yoga, the wise man gives up joy and sorrow because there are no gradations of value in the Self.

  1.  ‘He is seen by those of subtle vision through their subtle minds’ says the Veda (Katha I.iii.12), pointing out that the highest state of Vi§nu is difficult to attain. Then the same text goes on to teach yoga as the means to attain it, in the words ‘The wise man should dissolve the senses into the mind and should dissolve the mind into the intellect. He should dissolve the soul into the great self and he should dissolve that into the Self that is pure peace’ (Katha I.iii. 13).

That is, he should first give up the use of speech and the other organs of action and perception and should remain identified with the lower aspect of the mind alone. He should then note that the lower aspect of the mind, too, has defects such as an inclination towards the sense objects and unsteadiness in its decisions, and he should dissolve it into that higher aspect of mind (buddhi) which has fixed determination for its nature and is sometimes known by the technical term ‘intellect’ (vijnana). He should refine the intellect and resolve it into ‘the great self, the experiencer or apex of the intellect. The ‘great self, however, must be dissolved in the ‘Self that is pure peace’, the supreme Spirit that is the subject of the section, the summit of human experience.

– Shankara (Brahma Sutra Bhasya I.iv.l  (the whole second point above is Shankara’s commentary on Brahma sutras)

  1. Resorting to dispassion, always intent on the Yoga of Meditation (Dhyana Yoga). (Bh.G. XVIII. 52)

Sankara’s Commentary:

Meditation means dwelling on the true nature of the Self. Yoga means one-pointed concentration on the Self. He who is intent on ‘Dhyana’ and ‘Yoga’ thus defined is the one ‘intent on the Yoga of Meditation’. The use of the word ‘always’ is to show that he has no other duties, such as daily repetition of the Vedic verses.

  1. That yoga should certainly be practiced with resolute mind. Giving up without exception all desires that come from individual will, restraining the sense-organs on every side through the mind, one should gradually withdraw from all activity, with will and intellect firmly controlled; keeping the mind fixed on the Self, one should not think of anything.

Wherever the fickle mind wanders , one should bring it back and fix it on the Self alone, under firm control. Supreme joy comes to such a yogi, whose mind is at perfect peace, whose lusts have subsided, who is sinless and who has become the Ab solute. Such a yogi, free from all sin, always controlling his mind in this way, easily attains the supreme joy of con tact with the Absolute. With his mind controlled through yoga, he sees himself in all beings and all beings in his own Self, seeing the same everywhere.  (Bh.G. VI. 23-9)

Sankara’ s Commentary: ‘

Seeing the same everywhere’ is said of one who has the same undifferentiated vision or knowledge of unity and identity with the Absolute and the Self in regard to all things of different grades, from Brahma to the beings of the vegetable and mineral realms. (Bh.G.Bh.VI.29)

  1. The mind must be restrained tirelessly, as if one were emptying the sea with the tip of a blade of grass. One must resort to special means to restrain the mind when it is dispersed amid desires and enjoyments. The mind must also be awakened and held in restraint even when it is perfectly calm in the dissolution of dreamless sleep. Mere dissolution in dreamless sleep is no better than desire (since it is also the seed of future worldly experience).

One restrains the mind from desires and enjoyments by remembering ‘All is pain’. When one remembers ‘All is the Unborn (the Absolute)’, one does not even see what is born. When the mind is drowsy in its practice of yoga one should arouse it, and when it is distracted one should again calm it down. One should know that the mind is soiled with latent impressions, and should not allow it to move when it has attained the state of equilibrium, free from the tendency either to dissolution or distraction.

Even there, one should not savour the joy. One should acquire non-attachment through the discriminative wisdom that sees all joy as born of Ignorance. When the mind, although at first motionless, moves out once more, one should again carefully bring it back to unity. When the mind no longer either undergoes dissolution in dreamless sleep or distraction amidst desires and enjoyments, and it is motionless and without manifestation, then it has reached its state of perfection. It (has reached the state of ‘no-mind’, G.K.III. 32, and) is the Absolute. (G.K.III. 1-6)

Adyaropa Apavada – The Teaching Method in Vedanta

 

This teaching method ‘Adhyaropa apavada‘ is not properly followed by many modern teachers who teach Vedanta today. That is why I think people get stuck in all kinds of concepts..

 Here is how he describes in short, in one of his books:

(a) In order to disclose the nature of the self as Brahman in itself Srutis like the following negate all specific features superimposed on it by the unenlightened common mind :-

“It is this Akshara (the Imperishable), 0 Gargi, so the knowers of
Brahman say. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, not
red, not viscid, not shadowy, not dark, not the air, not the ether, not
adhesive, tasteless, odourless, without the sense of sight, without the
sense of hearing, without the vital principle, mouthless, without measure,
neither interior nor exterior,. It eats nothing, nobody eats it.”
– Br.3-8-8.

(b) Lest, by this strict denial of all properties it may be taken to be absolute nothing (s’unya), it is taught by means of illusory attributes seemingly pertaining to it owing to Upadhis (apparently conditioning factors).

(c) At the close of the teaching the rescission of even the imputed attributes used as a device for purposes of teaching, lest it should be regarded as actually belonging to it.

(Many modern teachers stop with (a) and (b) )

Citations provided by Swami:

1.”The Absolute is that in which there is no particularity. There is no name, no form, no action, no distinction, no universal, no attribute. It is through these determinations alone that speech proceeds, and not one of them belongs to the Absolute. So the latter cannot be taught by sentences of the pattern ‘This is so-and-so’.

In such upanishadic phrases and words as “The Absolute is Consciousness-Bliss’ (Brhad.III.ix.28.7) . ‘A mere mass of Consciousness’ (Brhad.II.iv.12) , ‘Brahman’, ‘Atman’, the Absolute is artificially referred to with the help of superimposed name, form and action, and spoken of exactly in the way we refer to objects of perception, as when we say ‘That white cow with horns is twitching’.

But if the desire is to express the true nature of the Absolute, void of all conditioning adjuncts and particularity, then it cannot be described by any positive means whatever. The only ‘ possible method then is to refer to it through a comprehensive denial of whatever positive characteristics have been attributed to it in previous teachings, and to say ‘neither this nor that’.

– (Brhad.Bh.II.iii.6) – Shankara

  1. “Nor can the Absolute be properly referred to by any such terms as Being or non-being. For all words are used to convey a meaning, and when heard by their hearers convey the meaning the speaker had in mind. But communicable meaning is restricted without exception to universal, action, attribute and relation….

The Absolute, however, does not belong to any universal (genus), so it cannot be expressed by a noun such as ‘Being’ or ‘non-being’. Being without attributes, it cannot be described by any adjective denoting an attribute. And being actionless, it cannot be expressed by any verb denoting activity.

For the Upanishad speaks of it as ‘Without parts, without activity, at rest’ (Svet .VI.19) . Nor has it any relation with anything. For it is ‘One’, ‘without a second’, ‘not an object’ and ‘the Self. Hence it cannot be expressed by any word. And the upanishadic texts themselves confirm this when they say ‘That from which words fall back’ (Taitt .ll.9) , and in other passages.”

– (Bh.G.Bh.XIII.12) – Shankara

  1. And because the Absolute has no particular characteristics, the Veda indicates its nature by denying of it the forms of all other things, as is shown, for instance, in the following pa sages: ‘And so, therefore, the teaching is “neither this nor that”‘ (Brhad.II.iii.6) , ‘It is other than what is known, and above the unknown’ (Kena I.U), ‘That from which words fall back without obtaining access, together with the mind’ (Taitt .II.9) .

And the Vedic texts also relate how when Badhva was questioned by Baskalin he gave his answer merely by not speaking. ‘Sir, teach me in words’, Ba§kalin said. But the Teacher remained silent. Finally, at the second or third time of asking, Badhva replied, ‘I am telling you, but you do not understand. This Self is utter silence’

– (B.S.Bh.III.ii.17) – Shankara

  1. “Who so knows the Self, thus described, as the fearless Absolute (brahman), himself becomes the Absolute, beyond fear. This is a brief statement of the meaning of the entire Upanishad.  And in order to convey this meaning rightly, the fanciful alternatives of production, maintenance and withdrawal, and the false notion of action, its factors and results, are deliberately attributed to the Self as a first step. And then later the final metaphysical truth is inculcated by negating these characteristics through a comprehensive denial of all particular superimpositions on the Absolute, expressed in the phrase ‘neither this nor that’.

Just as a man, wishing to explain numbers from one to a hundred thousand billion (points to figures that he has drawn and) says, ‘This figure is one, this figure is ten, this figure is a hundred, this figure is a thousand’ , and all the time his only purpose is to explain numbers, and not to affirm that the figures are numbers; or just as one wishing to explain the sounds of speech as represented by the written letters of the alphabet resorts to a device in the form of a palm-leaf on which he makes incisions which he later fills with ink to form letters, and all the while, (even though he point to a letter and say “This is the sound “so and so”‘) his only purpose is to explain the nature of the sounds referred to by each letter, and not to affirm that the leaf, incisions and ink are sounds;

In just the same way, the one real metaphysical principle, the Absolute, is taught by resort to many devices, such as attributing to it production (of the world) and other powers. And then after wards the nature of the Absolute is restated, through the concluding formula ‘neither this nor that’, so as to purify it of all particular notions accruing to it from the various devices used to explain its nature in the first place’.

– Brhad. Bh.IV.iv.25 by Shankara

  1. Hence that Brahman cannot be denoted by the epithet ‘jnanam’ (knowledge) either. Nevertheless, it is indicated though not expressed, by the word ‘‘jnanam’ denoting the semblance of consciousness which is really a modification of the mind. It is not directly denoted by that term because Brahman is devoid of genus and other specific features which alone are the occasion for the application of words to a thing. So is it with regard to the term ‘Satyam’ (truth). For Brahman is by its very nature devoid of all specific features. The term Satyam really refers to the genus ‘being’ inhering in external objects, and when Brahman is described as ‘Sat yam’ (Real), it is only indicated by that term. But Brahman is not actually expressed by the term ‘Satyam’.

–  Shankara – Tai. Bh. 2-1, p. 285.

  1. “Objection : “Is not even Atmandenoted by the word
    ‘Atman’ ?

Reply: No. for there are Srutis like ‘From which words fall back’,
‘That in which one sees nothing else’.
Question: How then do texts like ‘Atman alone is below ….’ and ‘It is Atman’ reveal Atman ?
Reply: This is no fault. For, the word (Atman), primarily used in the world of differences to denote individual soul as distinct from the body it possesses, is extended to indicate the entity which remains after the rejection of body and other not-selfs as not deserving that appellation, and is used to reveal what is really inexpressible by words”.

– Shankara – Ch. Bh. 7-1-3, p. 542.

Moksha, Bliss and Cessation of desires

 

Many teachers of Vedanta these days say that an enlightened person still goes through suffering and enlightenment is not a state of constant bliss. They also claim that enlightenment is not cessation of desires. (For e.g James Swartz in Shiningworld.com lists cessation of desires as one of the myths of enlightenment, in his 1 year course published in the website.)

I also found the following from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Chapter 4, Section 3, verse 33 which contradicts this modern view.

“4.3.33   He who is perfect of body and prosperous among men. the ruler of others, and most lavishly supplied with all human enjoyments, represents the greatest joy among men. This human joy multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of joy for the Manes who have won that world of theirs. The joy of these Manes who have won that world multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of joy in the world of the celestial minstrels. This joy in the world of the celestial minstrels multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of joy for the gods by action those who attain their godhead by their actions. This joy of the gods by action multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of joy for the gods by birth, as well as of one who is versed in the Vedas, sinless and free from desire. This joy of the gods by birth multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of joy in the world of Prajapati (Viraj), as well as of one who is versed in the Vedas, sinless and free from desire. This joy in the world of Prajapati multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of joy in the world of Brahman (Hiranyagarbha), as well as of one who is versed in the Vedas, sinless and free from desire. This indeed is the supreme bliss. This is the state of Brahman, O Emperor, said ‘Yajnavalkya. I give you a thousand (cows), sir. Please instruct me further about liberation itself.’ At this Yajnavalkya was afraid that the intelligent Emperor was constraining him to finish with all his conclusions.”

Shankara also acknowledges this verse in his commentary on this Upanishad and further cites a verse from Mahabharata in his commentary:

“Vedavyasa also says, ‘The sense pleasures of this world and the great joys of heaven are not worth one-sixteenth part of the bliss that comes of the cessation of desire’ (Mbh. XII. clxxiii. 47).”

But many modern day Vedanta teachers today teach that bliss is not an attribute of truth at all. They even say that ‘Ananda’ from ‘Sat-chit-Ananda’ doesn’t translate to bliss (which is weird because the same word ananda is used in Tamil also, the language I speak, which means happiness)

Conclusion

I would like to thank you for your precious time spent reading this entire article. I would appreciate your thoughts on this so that it will clarify many questions raised by people who are sincere students of Vedanta.

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’.

Sri_Ramana_Maharshi_-_Portrait_-_G._G_Welling_-_1948

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.

(Update – 26th July 2017 : However, I understand that there is a disagreement in Vedantic community itself regarding this. I recently read some of the Shankara’s commentaries where  he himself says that yoga is not a means of liberation. But then we have to dismiss all those yogis who prescribe yoga as a means to liberation as unenlightened. These things cannot be really known for sure without empirical research. That is why I have stressed the importance of bridging science and spirituality in my previous posts)

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.