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Friday, June 24, 2022

Following rituals blindly

 Those of you who have been following my blogs know that I do not like to follow rituals blindly or chant mantras without looking at the original source, the context in which they were written and understanding the “substance” behind them. I found a humorous anecdote on how rituals might have started, written by the famous Tamizh writer Pi. Sri. (பி.ஸ்ரீ.) in his book on Tamizh Festivals.

A Swamiji raises a cat to take care of mice in his hut. The cat insists on sitting on Swamiji’s lap whenever he sits to meditate. This becomes a nuisance and therefore the Swamiji ties the cat down every time he sits down to meditate. His disciples note this routine and start a routine of tying down a cat – any cat – before they sit down to meditate.  This becomes a ritual among his followers!

Friday, June 17, 2022

Thoughts arise (எண்ணங்கள் உதிக்கின்றன)

Friends, my apologies to those who cannot read Tamizh. This was a sudden inspiration and I had to do it only in Tamizh. 

எண்ணங்கள் உதிக்கின்றன. 

எண்ணங்கள் உள்ளே உதிக்கின்றன. அவை மொழியாக தோன்றுகின்றன. சில பொழுது தமிழில் தோன்றும். சில பொழுது ஆங்கிலத்தில் தோன்றும். இன்று தமிழில் தோன்றியது.

காலை நேரம். மெதுவான வெய்யில். குளிறான காற்று. இயற்கை அன்னையின் உள்ளே நிற்கிறேன். இயற்கையை அனுபவிக்கிறேன்.

இயற்கை எனக்கு வெளியிலா, தனிப்பட்டதா?

ஆனால் நான் அதை அனுபவிக்கிறேனே.  அப்படியானால் அது எனக்கு உள்ளேயா?

இரண்டும்தான். நானும் இயற்கையும் ஒன்று.

இயற்கை என்பது எது? அது எனக்கு உள்ளே தோன்றும் காட்சியா? அப்படி இருக்க முடியாது. அந்த காட்சியில் நான் என்ற தனிப்பகுதி சேர்ந்து விட்டது. இயற்கையின் உள்தன்மையை எப்படி காண்பது?

நானும் இயற்கையும் ஒன்று.

நீயும் இயற்கையும் ஒன்று.

நான் யார்?  அதுதான் ரமணரின் கேள்வி.

நான் என்பது இயற்கையின் ஒரு சிறு பகுதி.

அதற்கு உடல் உண்டு, உயிர் உண்டு,

உணர்வு உண்டு, உள்ளம் உண்டு,

உடலை காண, உயிரை காண,

உணர்வை காண, உள்ளத்தை காண,

உள்ளுணர்வு என்று ஒன்றும் உண்டு.

அது எனக்கும் உண்டு.

அது உனக்கும் உண்டு.

ஊமைக்கும் உண்டு.

மீனுக்கு உண்டு, மயிலுக்கு உண்டு, முயலுக்கு உண்டு.

அந்த உள்ளுணர்வுக்கு மூலம் எது?

மூச்சு அடைக்கிறது!


Friday, June 10, 2022

Consciousness and meditation - old concepts and modern views


Ancient texts from Vedas, Vedangas and Buddhist texts have elaborate descriptions of several levels of consciousness. They include consciousness during waking period, during dream state, during deep sleep state and the base on which these three levels of consciousness are experienced as one’s own. This is called atman. This is then connected to Universal Consciousness, the root of all kinds of consciousness, the base of all the atmans of this universe, called Brahman or Mahat or Buddhi.

In the Buddhist texts, there two levels of consciousness – Mind Consciousness (mano vignana) and Store Consciousness (alaya vignana). There is a state beyond both these levels which can only be experienced.

These are great visionary insights by the ancient rishis and particularly Buddha. Now modern neurosciences have started exploring the mind and its functions including consciousness. Many old observations have been confirmed. Weaknesses of these old concepts have also been exposed. Let me try and correlate some of the old ideas with current knowledge.

The idea taught in Indian texts about our awareness during waking hours, dream state and deep sleep is easy to reconcile. It is also easy to accept that there must be one common state of awareness which makes it possible for any individual to be aware of all three states of awareness and his/her ownership of these states. Further, all these four states of awareness are objects of our thoughts and part of our awareness. That is probably the meta-awareness of modern psychology.

Is there one Universal class – somewhat similar to the idea of Plato – of a prototype of all kinds of consciousness on the basis of which everything is known. Upanishads say that there is and asks: “How can you know That by which you know?”  “That Knower is Brahman” say the Upanishads.

Adepts in meditation tell us that in the final stages of meditation the observer and the observed are one. In this state the observed is as it is. The awareness of the observer is still, with no chains of thought generated by the object observed and does not include his/her own awareness. It is the blissful state they reach.

In Buddhist school, the mind consciousness is like the branches of a tree exposed to responding to all the elements such as sunlight, water and air. It receives input from all the senses. It needs to focus on one thing at a time and learn. It is slow to learn and cannot act in a reasonable way on its own. For that it depends on the store consciousness.

Store consciousness has all the natural tendencies, mental formations such as emotions and memory of experiences. It is the source of desire, fear, anxiety, anger, and ignorance. Since it is the base for survival it is active even when we are asleep. It can act on its own but may respond quickly, based on habits and tendencies.

As I understand, the training in meditation is for the mind consciousness to focus on our sensory inputs, feelings and emotions, reflect on them and transform the tendencies at the base, namely store consciousness.

When we think of our current understanding of how the mind works, the mind receives inputs from our sensory organs and also from our own body. They go through thalamus and are processed first at the base or lower part of the brain where survival reflexes are generated. This assumes that the inputs can be registered in the first place. That depends on the reticular formation where there are centers to maintain our awareness are located. (They are turned off when we are asleep, under anesthesia and when they are damaged by some disease leading to coma).


These basic input signals are then relayed to the inner portion (medial side of the halves of the brain) where the registered messages are recognized as one’s own (ownership area). This area communicates not only with centers which register signals, and which generate basic emotions, and survival responses but also with the so-called higher centers. These areas are considered to perform our Executive Functions. There is direct two-way communication between the ownership areas and the executive areas, but not between executive areas and the survival areas.

Therefore, emotional triggers generated at the survival areas have to be first recognized as one’s own, the ownership area has to send the signals to the executive area to process and evaluate. Of course, this area will be checking with the ownership area, areas for past memories, evaluate odds of risks vs benefits and decide what to do. This is the reflective decision-making process.

Now the executive part of the brain sends signals to the motor areas of the brain to initiate appropriate action. This is what we probably call “the will” to act. Most interestingly all these steps take place in milli-seconds.

There are even more steps involved because the brain adjusts its actions as they are taking place depending on immediate feedbacks. It also stores the process and outcome of each experience for future reference. It stores the information on the value of each action as helpful or not. If the process or outcome generates happiness, it may reinforce the “addiction circuit” so that it gets activated each time the stimulus appears. If the process or outcome generate pain and suffering, the information goes into the “aversion circuit.”

Both ancient knowledge of meditation and modern neuroscience suggest that even if our brain cells degenerate or lost, parts of the brain circuits can be retrained. That is neuroplasticity. Our reactions and behavior can be retrained using some of the ancient meditation methods. That is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.


Sunday, June 5, 2022

Tower of Babel

 Thinking about the way we humans use words to confuse each other, to mislead and bully others, sell unwanted goods, make lies into truths and truths into lies, “sculpture” words (also called “word-smithing”)  and create so much confusion even when speaking in our own languages, I decided to re-read the Tower of Babel in Genesis, Chapter 11.   Here it is as written in one version of the Bible (New International Version).   

The Tower of Babel

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.  As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.  The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language, they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth”.

The way we humans behave, it appears that the Lord did a pretty good job! Look how proficient we have become in misusing this special gift.

Scholars tell us that the word Babel means “confused” in old Hebrew language. (Is that the origin of our word “babbling”?) Babel may also be to indicate Babylon where the tower was supposedly built.


Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Genius of Adi Sankara


                By Adi Sankara I refer to the original saint-philosopher-poet-genius who lived more than 1,000 years back to differentiate that founder of the Advaitic-Vedanta schools of Hindu philosophy from the religious heads of the four major centers (Dwaraka – Kedarnath-Puri and Sringeri) he established – some would add Kanchi to this list – who are also called Sankaraharyas.

Reading a book with collection of Adi Sankara’s commentaries on Brahma Sutra and the Upanishad was the turning point in my spiritual journey. Adi Sankara’s words influenced me greatly in the way I started thinking about life in general and about reading sacred texts. Those words influenced me also in how I read scientific works and how I think on my own on any issue.  But I did not know how much those words had influenced me subconsciously until this week when I started re-reading that book after almost 60 years!

Re-reading that book (Sankara’s Teachings in His Own Words, Swami Atmananda. Bhavan’s Publication, 1958) made me admire Adi Sankara even more for his astute, visionary, and bold thinking. Fortunately, Swami Atmananda had collected Adi Sankara’s commentaries on the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra, arranged them by topic and given them with the original Sanskrit texts in Sankara’s own words and their translations in English. There are many passages on Brahman, Atman, Karma etc. But I wish to summarize Adi Sankara’s general statements on his approach to understanding the Vedas. These ideas are easily applicable to reading any text, including modern scientific studies.

After reading the following list of his ideas, I am sure you will agree that it is sad people know about Aristotle and Plato, but not about Adi Sankara.

1.       Facts cannot be challenged on the basis of improbability.

2.       Facts of perception cannot be nullified by inference.

3.       Inference is no authority against direct perception.

4.       The means of knowledge are powerful in their own respective spheres (ear for hearing, eye for vision etc.,)

5.       But one means of knowledge does not contradict another.

6.       The scope of one source of knowledge is what is not within the scope of other sources of knowledge. (He is trying to establish that in spiritual matters, one must rely on the Vedas and not on our perceptions and inference)

7.       The Vedas are independent sources of authority on knowledge in spiritual spheres and cosmic truth.

8.       The value of statements in the Vedas is based on their capacity to generate fruitful knowledge, not whether they state facts or prescribe some action. (This rule can be applied to any sacred text)

9.       Vedas delineate the nature of Reality (वस्तु प्रतिपादनं तत्परत्वम्).

10.   Scriptures only inform us of this reality. (They are informative) They are not commands. (ज्ञापकं हि शास्त्रं न तु कारकं)

11.   Since they are not considered commands, where is the question of disobeying them?

12.   The impulse for actions (performance of rituals etc.,) come from our own nature, looking for favorable results. Action is seen in all creatures.

13.   Self-realization (Brahma Vidya) does not create something new (Atman, Brahman). Nor does it alter what there is already. It just reveals.

14.   Vedas cannot become authority as against observation. “Even if hundred Vedic texts declare that fire is cold and devoid of light”, we need to realize that this sphere is not in the domain of the Vedas.

15.   Srutis (vedas) do not seek to alter the nature of things. They supply information about spheres unknown to us.

16.   Nor can a scripture impart power to a thing.

17.   Scriptures do not hinder or direct a person by force as if he were a servant.

18.   Scriptures remain neutral, like sunlight. They just illuminate.

19.   Perception of the true nature of reality is not just a product of man’s intellect (पुरुष तन्त्र). It depends on the nature of the object. (वस्तु तन्त्र)

20.   Mere recitation without understanding the meaning is considered by some to be a meritorious act. Adi Sankara disagrees. He says that Vedas do lead to a result that can be experienced in this life but only when recited with understanding of their meaning.

21.   Mere sound of the word does not constitute the object of reality. The word is different from the object it denotes.

22.   When literal meaning is inappropriate no authority enjoins that literal meaning alone should be accepted.

23.   When literal meaning does not fit, then alone the metaphorical meaning is to be adopted.

24.   It is unreasonable to give up the plain meaning of words used in Sruti and put new meaning in their place.

25.   There can be alternatives (differences) in rituals and actions – but not in Truth.

26.   Good and evil are not absolute; they depend on each one’s opinion.

27.   The stories (aakyayika, आख्यायिका) are used in the Vedas as means of easily imparting ideas with common example from life. They should not be taken as historical facts. They are made to make us understand astute points. (example referred to is that of Indra, Virochana and Prajapati explained in on May 7, 2022)

28.   Similarly dialogues with questions and answers are used to make us understand important points.

29.   The stories in the Puranas are not given as historical facts and should not be taken at face value.

30.   “We never see a formless thing active.” This last statement is from Adi Sankara’s commentary on Briharadanyaka Upanishad 4-3-15. In an elaboration of this statement, Swami Atmananda says that Adi Sankara did not accept the position of the Meemasaka philosophy that the priests performing the yagnas have to imagine a Devata when propitiating them with ahuti.

31.   Adi Sankara’s point is that devata’s (deities) obviously have a form and a name. But Vedas say and we know that anything that has a form has a beginning and an end. In other words: “Why worship an impermanent devata for a temporary residence in heaven, when we can experience bliss during this life by experiencing the Brahman within?”

Having summarized these points, I must also say that Adi Sankara was a synthesizer. He realized that different personalities need different approaches. He encouraged actions (karma marga) and rituals and worship (bhakti marga), but as steppingstones to prepare oneself for the meditative intellectual approach (gnana marga). He did not condemn them outright but incorporated them into the mainstream.

That is the genius of Adi Sankara.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Advaita and Zen Buddhism (3)

 Adi Sankara invoked the concept of maya to explain that unity in diversity, Brahman in Atman. But maya is not illusion, real or unreal. It is relative truth, ignorance – also called avidya. It is relative unreal – unreal in relation to absolute reality. But Buddhist texts deny the concept of atman.

Both the Buddhist word sunyata and Advaitic word maya (which also means ignorance) are, to my simple non-philosophical mind, used to indicate something beyond the phenomenal world, an undefinable, root cause of everything, something from which everything manifest.

To my mind, Buddha and Adi Sankara started with the Vedic teachings and the religious practices current in their time and reached similar conclusions. But they gave different explanations and took different paths.

 Buddha rejected the old methods and rituals and hierarchy, although he was driven by basic texts of the Vedas, particularly the Upanishads. He went on his own way, became a heterodox and established the “middle way” – not too ascetic, not too ensnared in samsara. A whole new religion started.

Adi Sankara also criticized the methods then existent in his time, particularly the Meemsa tradition with emphasis on Vedic Karma. But, instead of rejecting them, he interpreted them differently and incorporated them into the mainstream. He was a synthesizer and harmonizer. He started a new point of view (darshana, a philosophical school) and not a new religion. He re-established Hinduism as it is practiced today.

It is also important to note that they lived at different historic times. Buddha started with asceticism and difficult practices of Vedic times and left them.  Adi Sankara came almost 1,000 years late. The caste system was well-established, temple worship had started, Buddhism and Jainism were ascendent and even within the Vedic tradition there were many sects worshipping in many ways. In addition, the Tantric system had taken firm holding on the practices of both Hinduism and Buddhism.  Adi Sankara was a synthesizer. He accepted several other methods such as karma marga and bhakti marga, but only as steppingstones to gnana marga. However, he left no doubt in his writings about the superiority of  gnana marga to reach a state of bliss during this life.

It is also interesting to note that Buddha was included as one of the Avatars in Agni Purana, Bhagavata Purana, and Matsya Purana. Since they mention Buddha, they must have been written after Buddha’s time. But the authors write as if Buddha’s birth was predicted by the gods.

Even more interesting is that in Padma Purana (said to have been written only in the 1200’s), which has been quoted and discussed in many essays and books, Adi Sankara is referred to as “crypto-Buddhist”. In this Purana, there is an episode where Lord Shiva is talking to Parvati and says that he has decided to send a Brahmin boy to dispute “mayavada”. According to some scholars, “mayavada” is Buddha’s atheistic teachings. Some scholars assert that Lord Shiva was referring to Adi Sankara as the Brahmin who was come to “conquer” these Buddhist teachings.

Unfortunately, this is how mythology gets converted into history.   (Concluded)

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Advaita and Zen Buddhism (2)

 Going deeply into a few more details, there is a concept called Apranahita in Buddhism. In English, it is translated as “aimlessness” by some authors. I do not understand what it means. However, the context in which this word is used suggests that this is a state of our consciousness at which all edges gave merged and therefore no separateness of form and therefore no separate identification marks (animitta).   All dualities have ceased, and one is in touch with reality as it is, at the very foundation of everything. This concept is based on the interconnectedness of things.

In the Advaitic philosophy, this state is called turya. However, this concept is described in relation to states of consciousness in some texts and in relation to the individual body with life, mind, and consciousness in other texts. In relation to consciousness, it is called the Turya state. This is the state on the basis of which one is aware of one’s wakeful, dream and deep sleep states.

In relations to the body, it is related to several “sheaths” or kosha. It is the “inner-most” absolute existence called anandamaya Kosha. Its outer coverings include the following sheaths from outside in – annamaya kosha as the body, pranamaya kosha as life, manomaya kosha as the mind and vignana maya kosha or consciousness.

Since this state is beyond any description, beyond form and a name, one has to refer to it only in a negative way (via negativa). Vedic texts used the words: “neti, neti”(meaning, this is not, this is not). Buddhism said this is animitta, without signs or apranahita, aimless.  This state indicates a stage at which edges of multiplicity of forms merge. One sees the universal in the individual.

Buddhist teaching has another concept called sunyata. In precise translation this word means “absence of anything”. “Thay” translates sunyatta to mean “empty of ”.  He asks: “empty of what?” and goes to explain that “everything we see is empty of itself”, because everything we see is made of other elements. For example, a flower we see is made of substance from the earth, water from the rain, the sunshine etc., If you trace backwards, you will see that everything is made of something else until you see its true nature, which is called “suchness” in English and thathata in Pali. In other words, everything in the phenomenal world is empty of intrinsic existence.

I have read that some schools of Buddhism have translated the word “sunyata” to mean “nothing”. Extending this further they say everything is a mental construct out of moment-to-moment awareness, nothing is permanent, and  that the entire world is an illusion etc., That is nihilism. That was what Adi Sankara disagreed with in his Advaitic philosophy.

He said that something could not have come out of nothing.  That One is Brahman. Brahman pervades everything in this universe. He/It/That is without qualities, nirguna. In individuals, it is seen as Atman. That One appears to be many because of maya (to be explained later). 

Sankara argues that atman (Self) is different from the mind because this Self (atman) understands several states of mind such as “I am sad, I am happy” etc., It is the basis of our awareness and continuity through the wakeful dream and sleep states. It is also common experience for all of us to feel “I know this” and “I do not know this”. Therefore, knowledge and absence of knowledge themselves are objects of knowledge of a “knower”. The Self of man (Atman) is that knower. Thinking cannot reveal Atman because the process of knowledge depends on a knower (Atman). Atman must be posited before knowledge. Atman is the “witness” and the light of the witness.

He went on to refute the Buddhist idea that there is no atman as follows: “ When one accepts the position that both Brahman and Atman are illusions, not real…….all that remains are a group of impermanent things; permanent happiness and someone who can realize that permanent happiness cease to exist”. He further said: “Emptiness (sunyata) and absence of self (anatman) of Buddhism are dark and bleak concepts. If you can see Brahman in everything it is blissful and full of light”.

In my own thinking, sunyata can be aligned with the nirguna concept of Brahman in Advaita. Brahman is Atman according to Advaita. The name Advaita or “no-two” things or non-duality itself means that concept of oneness of Brahman and Atman.

To explain how that one Brahman became many, Adi Sankara came up with the concept of maya. He said that the world we see is “not real but appears to be real” due to maya. It is not to say that the world is an illusion. But to say that there is a truth in the phenomenal world (vyavaharika satyam, also called Reflected Truth or pratibhasika satyam)  and there is the cosmic, eternal truth, Truth as is, which is called Paramartika satyam. This cosmic eternal truth is probably the “suchness” of things in Buddhism referred to earlier.

In the Buddhist literature, the corresponding words are samvritti satyam for relative truth and paramarta satyam for the cosmic truth. (to be continued)