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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Does light always illuminate?

 Having gotten up early in the morning, I was standing in my balcony and looking up at the beautiful sky. It was before sunrise and there was this partial moon, and I could see Venus and Jupiter also. A little later, as expected, these three celestial objects could not be seen. That got me to thinking about the contradiction in the commonly stated philosophy that light removes darkness and illuminates everything. That is why light is commonly compared to consciousness which makes us aware of ourselves and of everything else outside of us.

Light does remove darkness, illuminates, and makes things known. (tameva bhantam anubhati sarvam; tasya bhasa sarvamidam vibhati says Kathopanishad 2:2:15) But does it? My observation this morning, which everyone else also has experienced, points to something else. Light can also “hide” things. Or at least it can make us “blind” to things which exist in reality. After all, those planets are still “hanging” in the space even during the day!

In a way, darkness IS, because light is. They “inter-are”. Light can illuminate as well as hide. Knowledge can uncover as well as it can cover. Knowledge can be a hindrance to further knowledge if the mind is not curious and open. That is why we need the mind of a child, a beginner’s mind, an innocent mind to see things as they truly are. Is that not what Buddha said?

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Same Passages and Different Interpretations

 In his book on Srimad BhagavadGita Rahasya, Bal Gangadhar Tilak refers to Advaita, Visishtadvaita, Dvaita philosophies as cults! I looked up the meaning of the word “cult” and found that its dictionary meaning is: “a system of spiritual beliefs and ritual”. When I tried to define it further, I found that a cult has some specific components. They are core beliefs, a charismatic leader who often demands loyalty, and a group of followers who have undue respect for that figure. Using these criteria, I do not think it is fair to call Adi Shankara, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya as cult leaders.

Leaving that aside, the three of them wrote commentaries on Brahma Sutra, Bhagavad Gita and a few Upanishads. In these commentaries, each one of them interpreted a few passages from the same three sources in different ways. Variations in interpretation of a very small part of the foundational texts led to profound divisions within the Vedantic tradition.

There are several examples. Here are two:

The first is a concept in Bhagavad Gita which was interpreted differently by Adi Shankara, Sri Ramanaujacharya and Sri Madhvacharya. They are in Slokas 12 and 13 in Chapter 2. 

In 2:12, Lord Krishna says: “It is not indeed that I did not exist at any time, nor you, nor these kings….”. Sri Ramanujacharya took it to mean that “I” (the Lord) and “You” (Arjuna, the human) are separate. Sat and asat are separate. This interpretation led to duality and to Visishtadvaitam. In this system, you and the Lord are separate, but you are enjoying the bliss of His presence all the time. You do not wish to let go of that bliss. When you and the Lord are separate, the only way to experience Him is through devotion, Bhakthi.

If I understand correctly, the example used to describe the relation between a bhakta and the Lord in this system is that between a baby-monkey and its mother. The baby has to make some effort to cling to its mother, if it wants to be with its mother.

Sri Madhvacharya took this one step further by interpreting sloka 2:13 to mean that this separation between sat and asat is permanent. That is pure duality, Dvaitam. In this method, you just surrender. The example used in this situation is the relationship between a kitten and its mother. The kitten does not have to make any effort. The mother will pick it up by its neck, ever so gently and take her wherever she goes.

There are many other variations of dvaitam. There are also variations of advaitam, the most notable being Zen Buddhism.

One other example is from Bhagavat Gita. The words are: परमात्मा समाहितः. This can be parsed into परम् आत्मा समाहितः or आत्मा परम् समाहितः. The meaning changes depending on the way the words are sequenced. One says that the enlightened person merges with the paramatman. The other says that the atman joins something other than oneself.

Similar origins of sub-groups within every religion based on interpretations are well-known. The followers of different interpretations of the same texts fight based on what they were taught as children and their loyalty to the interpreter whom they and their families venerate. In my childhood days, I have witnessed such feud between followers of Shiva and of Vishnu played out on my street! It is so silly and childish.

This is one reason I believe that each one of us should go to the source and read for ourselves. And think on our own as part of our spiritual journey and more important expose our children to these nuances and variations.

I like the following quote whose author is not known to me but have seen attributed to Goethe: “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings”.



Friday, November 11, 2022

Do I know the meanings of the words I use?

 Just because I know the word “advaita” and use that word does not mean I really do know all about it. It is like a non-medical person talking about a “stroke” or “leukemia”.

My own approach to concepts outside of my field of study is to get the contexts in which the word is used and out of that infer its meaning or meanings. I do not have to know everything about that word or concept unless I wish to be a scholar in that field of knowledge.

I am not interested in becoming a scholar in advaitic philosophy. But I like the principles it expounds and wish to use those principles in my understanding of this cosmos, mystery of life and personal inward journey. To that extent I would like to understand the origins of the word “advaita” and its different meanings.

This word has been used in the Upanishads and therefore goes back at the least 2,500 years. In his conversation with King Janaka (the Vedic Janaka and not the puranic Janaka) Rishi Yagnavalkya uses this word (advaita) as part of Brahma Vidya as recorded in Brahadaranyaka Upanishad 4:3:32 (सलिल ऐको द्रष्टा अद्वैतो भवति).

On direct translation to English, this word means “a state of no-two” or non-duality. The word also stands for the name of a system of philosophy called Vedanta (the end of the Vedas). Vedanta is the first of the Uttara meemamsa school of philosophy. The others are visishtadvaitam and dvaitam. As pointed out by Kanchi Periyaval, everyone in the Vedic religion were followers of advaita known as smarta (meaning followers of advaita smritis) until Ramanujacharya arrived.

The other terms I have seen used in relation to advaita are: mayavada since the concept of maya is central to this system of thought; vivartavada because of a metaphor Adi Sankara used. That was the metaphor of rope (the real, in light) being mistaken for a snake (imagined, in darkness and ignorance of the real).

In the western literature, it was probably the German philosopher Earnst Haeckel who first used that word, according to Bal Gangadhar Tilak.  Haeckel is also said to have translated the word to mean: “Monism”. Monism is different from monotheism. Monotheism is about One God. Monism goes beyond God and is about the One IT (tat) out of which the gods came.

Advaita which means “no two” or non-duality is used to indicate “Non-duality of subject and object” which results in the subject grasping on to objects and also to indicate that the subject is part of the awareness of the duality.

It is also used to mean non-duality of atman and brahman.

The word also indicates that there is no other reality except Brahman and therefore what we experience as atman is Brahman. Brahman is the only eternal, immutable base of this cosmos.

Hope I got it correct and have explained to help future students start their studies of advaitic philosophy with a basic understanding.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Upasana, Vidya, Puja and Dhyana

 The word Upasana (aupasanam) came to my attention when reading Chandogya Upanishad. The straightforward translation from Sanskrit to English is “seated next to”. But I did not realize that Upasana is also referred to as Vidya in the Upanishads with such examples as Madhu Vidya and Pranava Vidya (Swami Sivananda lists 28 vidyas. See Brahma vidya is one of them. 

Brahmavidya is all about Brahman including knowledge about Brahman and methods to attain Brahmagnana. According to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, these include pravritti marga  which is a renunciatory path and nivritti marga which is a path of action. . 

Pravritti marga is also called Samkhya in Bhagavad Gita. This path leads to sannyasa or asceticism. One renounces everything in this world including the body and its needs.

Buddha tried this path before he went on his way. He thought that one needs the body and the mind to meditate, understand the universe and reach a state of bliss. He rejected torturing the body. He rejected indulgence of senses also. That is why his path is called the middle way. 

Bhagavad Gita suggests a similar path, a path of action but without attachment to worldly rewards. This is Nivritti marga. This path is like several roads going to the same destination. These include doing one’s assigned duty according to sruti also called srouta karma, which is performing yagnas and aupasana as recommended by the Mimamsa school;  performing one’s assigned duties (such as ashrama dharma, kula dharma etc) according to the smrithi, also called smartha karma; and pujas, rituals, japas and penances as explained in the Puranas, also called pauranika karma.

Coming back to the topic, the words Upasana, Vidya, yoga, and karma are inter-related. 

Adi Sankara defines Upasana as: “ consisting in making a current of similar ideas to flow continuously”. The similarity of this definition to Patanjali’s definition of Dharana which is translated to mean “unbroken stream of concentration” is striking. This is concentration and complete exclusion of all other ideas, as defined in the Buddhist teachings on mindful meditation. 

At this stage of concentration (dharana), duality is still there. It is still knowledge about a thing and not an experience. One example given is that of looking at crystals of sugar. The eye sees the crystals and thinks it is sugar. It may indeed be sugar. But it is the taste that tells you for certainty that it is sugar. It is by using the appropriate sense one can experience the truth. 

It is the same with understanding and becoming one with Brahman. You can learn, meditate and be still at the state of duality and knowledge. That is the state of Upasana. Only by going beyond that state of duality (of upasana, puja and japa) can one reach gnana, the ultimate truth which is Brahman. 

Historically, Upasana transformed into nama smarana after the Vedic period. Meditation on OM and Gayatri Japam, both to be performed with full understanding of the meaning came later. Initially meditation was about Brahman without form and attributes – Nirguna Brahman. Then came the concept of Ishvara, Brahman with a form or Saguna Brahman.  Saguna Brahman may be Shiva or Vishnu or Rama or Krishna or any one of the Ishta devatas (chosen deity). Meditation can be and often is on one’s chosen deity with a form. Nama smarana became a dominant mode with the arrival of the puranas and the emphasis on Bhakti marga. 

Although the path of devotion (bhakti) was always there, this path became prominent particularly after the writing of Puranas. Puranas together with the advent of Tantric ideas which emphasized mantra, yantra, tantra and mudhras formed the basis for puja and japa with mantra towards one’s favorite deity - variation of Saguna Brahaman (Brahman with a form). They are meant to purify one’s mind and to help merge with the object of worship. This is a state of siddhi or reaching or getting close to the Divine. But the subject still stands apart from the object of worship. The heaven reached is impermanent whether it is Kailasam for those who worship Shiva or Vaikuntam for those who worship Vishnu. 

But Bliss is when Nirguna Brahman (Brahman without form) is experienced- state of Sat Chit Ananda. That is Samadhi. 

One path (deep devotion) leads to siddhi (reach the object  of focus) and the other (deep meditation) to samadhi (absorption into the object of focus). 

One other point to make about meditation. If the goal of meditation is to control the mind from its running after impressions and thoughts generated by the functions of our sense organs, the first four steps of Patanjali’s Yoga Sastra will be helpful. In Buddhism, it is Mindful meditation with focused attention on the breath and body. 

If meditation is about inward journey, the second four steps Patanjali’s Yoga Sastra point the way. This is “deep looking” or Vipassana in Buddhism. 

The problem for a beginner is that he or she often gets stuck with the first four steps or stops after controlling the mind. 

If Upasana is “making a current of similar ideas to flow continuously”, puja is an eminently suitable method. Performed with full understanding, puja can help the mental current to flow continuously towards a form, our chosen deity, the object of the puja. Similarly, during japa the mental current flows continuously towards a sound. 

In puja and japa, the focus is on Saguna Brahman with a form but as an object of realization. It is to obtain siddhi  or obtaining what one desires. 

In meditation or dhyana which is also mental activity, Brahman is not an object to be known, but the essence to be realized and experienced as one’s own. It is brahma gnana which in Advaita is the same as atma gnana. The end stage is eternal bliss, samadhi. 

Upasana and puja are easier to practice since they use props to focus on. In Adi Sankara’s words: आलम्बनविषयित्वात् सुखसाध्यानि. Meditation on a formless, quality-less abstract called Brahman, which requires control of the mind, focused attention, and avoidance of distractions, is much harder. That is why Lord Krishna says in Bhagavat Gita (12:5) that “it is very difficult for embodied beings to reach (to think of, to meditate on) the unmanifest”.

It is easy to write a thesis or give a discourse and sound erudite. But am I qualified to express these thoughts? What is my current state – siddhi or samadhi? Or, nowhere near both of those states? 

Yet, cannot help sharing useful, helpful insights and in the process guide my own inward journey. 

Thank you for listening.